Monday, November 16, 2009
• What strengths and/or improvement areas did you notice about the environment and tone of the post-observation?
I met Miss Mills, a third year middle school Language Arts teacher, in her classroom for the post-observation conference; we sat across from each other at one of the student tables. This arrangement seemed to be appropriate for our work. She was in her comfort zone, i.e., her classroom, where she spends a good part of her day. It also made it possible for both of us to motion toward different areas of the room when taking about particular things that happened or pointing out specifics about particular students whose names I didn’t know.
The tone of the post-observation was mostly positive. Miss Mills seemed a bit nervous, but this may have been due in part to the fact that I was videotaping the exchange. I also knew going in that Miss Mills was somewhat embarrassed about her performance as a teacher with this particular class, with whom she struggles with behavior and discipline on a regular basis. However, she was very open and honest about this in the pre-conference, and this made it possible for us to focus my observation on an area that she named as her weakness and one where she needed “another pair of eyes.” She was very open and receptive to my feedback and determined to apply new strategies to positively impact her students’ learning.
One thing I fumbled with was the papers that I brought to the conference. I had the notes I had taken during the observation, plus two versions of a feedback form, as well as another tool that I was going to share with Miss Mills. In spite of preparing beforehand, when it came time to share documents, I was not on top of my game. Perhaps applying sticky notes to the various documents would make things more clear for on-the-spot delivery purposes. While I felt a bit disorganized at that moment, Miss Mills remained calm and patient, and very eager to receive the documentation that I brought to the table.
• What strengths and/or improvement areas did you notice in the conference about strategies to improve instruction?
The success of the observation and post-observation was due in large part to the data collection tool that I employed. Miss Mills requested that I focus my observation on student behavior, or more aptly, misbehavior. We were both convinced that she was very comfortable and competent in her delivery of course content. When I presented this scenario to my instructor, she recommended an “ABC Chart,” i.e. Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence Chart. This made it very easy for me during the class period to focus on what prompted specific behaviors and how the teacher did or did not respond.
In reviewing a series of these ABCs after one class observation, the teacher and I were able to identify definite trends and behavior patterns that were supporting the misbehaviors. For example, one of the behaviors that were troublesome was that some students were calling out the answers. But the observation showed that Miss Mills often accepted answers that students shouted out. She even affirmed their correctness! When she saw this on paper time after time, she realized that what she did not want them to do, she was in fact supporting by her own behavior. An easy fix! This data was far easier to share in this format than it would have been had I completed a narrative observation form in which I documented everything that was said and done in that classroom.
One of the things I was most proud of in the outcome of the observation was that in looking at her performance in the classroom and reflecting on it together, Miss Mills was able to answer the very questions that she presented to me in the pre-conference. This was significant because Miss Mills realized that she had it within herself to address her issues; the solutions were not things imposed from an outsider.
• In the conference, which behavior did you seem to predominantly use? Do you think this was an appropriate approach given the developmental level of the teacher? Briefly explain.
In looking back at my post-observation conference with Miss Mills, I predominantly used a reflection approach. By sharing the data that I had collected, I reflected back to Miss Mills exactly what I had seen and heard in her classroom. Removed from the actual teaching scenario, she could look at the exchanges between herself and her students with a more critical eye and see patterns of behavior that could be worked on and changed to bring about the desired result. I also felt like I was in the posture of a coach. I didn’t tell Miss Mills what to do to correct the behavior problems in her classroom. I simply shared the data, pure and simple, and in seeing it and talking through it, Miss Mills came up with strategies for how she would go about addressing the problems she presented when we commenced with this observation cycle. It was a relief to know that I was not responsible for providing all the answers or solutions!
Monday, October 5, 2009
Sadly, in observing room arrangements on my current middle school campus, I see so much of the same construct, perhaps 85%, with a few exceptions. And sadder yet is the posture taken by most students when they are forced to sit in this manner. It’s almost as if they are trapped or cramped, and forced to focus in one direction and to all do the same thing. How did we get here? And is it really the best arrangement for students to learn and teachers to teach? Do teachers know the freedom they have to experiment with various room arrangements? Imagine the possibilities if teachers could seamlessly shift from one arrangement to the other to accommodate the learning activity and posture the students in such a way that they could focus on the necessary elements, whether it was the teacher presenting, a multimedia presentation playing, an experiment unfolding, a discussion ensuing. The activity dictates the arrangement, not the other way around. The straight and narrow rows dictate straight and narrow lessons. They limit the instruction such that it’s completely teacher-centered and teacher-delivered and students are merely receptacles. On the other hand, tables and circles call for face-to-face interaction and discussion, learning stations or centers call for independent work and discovery. I’m all for structure and consistency, but given the attention spans and the need for movement of most middle schoolers, it would behoove teachers to allow for more movement and variety in the layout of student desks.
Imagine my surprise when I happened upon a science classroom where there were no desks! The lab tables had been moved to the perimeter of the room and were used for center work. When the teacher was presenting information to the class, they gathered before him and had the choice to sit on rugs, beanbag chairs, or student chairs, or to stand. It reminded me of theater-in-the-round or the CNN discussion arena. There was a real sense of “we’re all in this together,” versus the confining sense of me in my desk in my row all alone. This teacher is on to something. He understands middle school kids. He knows they need to move. He knows they need choice. He knows he has to vary the activities to keep them interested so he has about three or four activities going on simultaneously around the room. It takes a lot of work to plan it all out and have all the necessary materials, but the payoff if great. Kids are engaged and learning and happy. Imagine the day when arrangements like this are the norm and the sacred rows are a thing of the past!
Monday, September 7, 2009
Reflections on Effective Leadership: The Challenge of Collaboration and Confronting High Stakes Tests
During my teaching career, I have held the positions of department chairperson and team leader and served on leadership teams. I tend to be very organized and pay attention to details, and these traits have served me well in these leadership experiences. The Communication Styles Inventory that I completed supports this self-description; my result was “thinker.” When given a task, I launch into resource and data-gathering mode so that I have everything I need to accomplish the task. I then set out to bring it to completion, sometimes alone and other times with the help of colleagues who are as driven and focused as I am. I get the job done, like Mr. Y described above. As a result, colleagues have often suggested that I would be good at being a principal.
As I reflect on the traditional leadership style of Mr. Y and the leadership traits and communication style of myself, I do not see much of the collaboration and teamwork that have come to characterize effective leadership today. In almost every article we have read in Effective Leadership during this course, we have encountered the notion of how important it is for today’s school leaders to engage in conversations and decision-making with full regard and respect for the input of all stakeholders, including staff, students, parents, caregivers, and community supporters. Without such inclusive collaboration, there is unlikely to be support and buy-in from all who are involved in the community we call our school. I may be a good manager. I might have my building in tip-top shape, publish an impeccable staff and student handbook, and craft a master schedule that runs like clockwork. But without securing the support of my staff and community, without conveying to them that I value their beliefs and expertise, without striving for all of us to be on the same page, I am nothing, our vision is just a collection of words on a page, and our culture is likely to veer off in many different directions.
I believe that this will be my biggest challenge as a principal. I do not think that I have all the answers nor do I possess a cavalier attitude about what others have to say. I firmly believe that I have a lot to gain by listening to the school’s “story tellers,” (Peterson, 14). This includes staff within the building as well as community supporters outside. I know there is value in Fullan’s advice to “respect those you want to silence.” I want to hear all sides; all deserve to be heard. But my proclivity as a “thinker,” one who needs time to ponder, analyze, organize my thoughts, and structure my response may pose a handicap in the midst of so many meetings and discussions. My desire to get the job done and move on to the next project may make it difficult for me to really take the time to listen and try to understand where people are coming from. Patience will be key. Using some degree of Web 2.0 tools like blogs and discussion boards will widen the audience. Embracing that this is “our” school will be essential, for without this espousal, I will run the risk of losing the commitment and contributions of a staff who ultimately wants to help our students to be successful in school and in life just as much as I do.
One of the issues that piqued my interest most during this course was the topic of standards and testing, especially Popham and Kohn’s take on it. Never before have I read authors who take such a strong albeit controversial stand on these issues. Education is being redefined, students are being cheated of solid teaching and knowledge, and teachers’ hands are tied, or are they? What I find most worrisome about the testing conundrum is what students are failing to experience because of the obsession with test preparation. This is particularly true in an era when we are challenged with integrating 21st century skills in our classrooms, like those put forth in Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow - Today. We are supposed to be preparing our students to think globally, to problem solve, to integrate technology, to collaborate and to create. How is this possible if we define precisely what will be taught by what will be tested and push technology to the side simply because proficiency in it is not currently tested?
The issue came up again and again during my years as a math teacher and department chair. The list of objectives to cover per year was a mile long and an inch deep, and it was expected that every student would make the benchmark, in spite of any special needs or language issues. Teachers felt that they could barely “cover” all of the material, let alone assure that their students had “mastered” each and every concept. I would rather have kids know four or five concepts inside out, upside down, and be able to apply them to many problem-solving situations by the end of a school year, than scratch the surface of twenty-five or more objectives without really knowing what any of them mean or how to apply them. But narrowing down the objective list was never an option.
I think what Hawaii has done and what Wisconsin is doing in response to this may be the way to go. Research on math education in Japan shows similar approaches and success with narrowing and focusing how much is taught in one year. Their efforts to reform content standards by reducing the number and clarifying the meaning emphasizes quality over quantity. It is definitely an issue that I wish to study further. When the time comes, I will put it on the table for all stakeholders in my school to discuss and debate. How much power we will have to take a stand against our state and division on this one remains to be seen.
Monday, August 24, 2009
A school’s culture can make or break school reform. In a school where the culture is such that teachers are consistently focused on student learning and achievement, the introduction of a reform effort will more than likely be embraced by staff with open arms. These positive teachers will not interpret the initiative as a judgment on their performance as teachers or on their progress as a school, but rather, they will eagerly rise to the occasion and enthusiastically jump on board to do their part in making the necessary adjustments for the sake of the students they serve. Conversely, in a school that is infected with a negative school culture, the journey to reform will most likely be an uphill battle. The teachers’ skepticism and distrust of the administration will block staff buy-in and allow for very little acceptance of or immersion in the implementation of the reform. In this case, the school leader would be better off focusing energy and resources at changing the school culture as a prerequisite to adopting a reform model.
How can an effective leader turn the tide on a negative school culture? First and foremost, the leader must be positive himself. He has to be committed to the school’s vision and firmly believe that change is possible. He has to take the time to listen to his staff members, ALL of them, in order to diagnose the root of the unrest and unhappiness. He has to find a way to put the progress of students above all else, and to get the staff members to look outside of themselves and to embrace what education is all about. He would do well to find the strong, positive change agents among his staff who could commit to the task of overturning the negativity; one example might be the formation of a Good Cheer Committee. It might be worthwhile to host a retreat or an off-campus event where teachers could leave their “discomfort zone” of school and see each other and their administrator in a new light. Perhaps in the listening, whether one-on-one or informally at an off-campus, after-hours event, he will be able to determine what issues are affecting morale and performance and to devise a strategy for extracting the negative element or resolving the issue at hand. The fact that he takes the time to listen and doesn’t back down from the discomfort may provide a turning point for the negative parties to realize that here is a leader who is genuinely interested in them and the work that they do and that they can begin to make the attitude adjustments necessary to be about the work of teaching kids and helping them to achieve and excel.
One of the things that I have learned so far in the JHUISTE course on “Effective Leadership” is that change will be a constant. From year to year, and sometimes even in smaller increments throughout a school year, as a leader I will have to be willing to take the time and to do the collaborative work necessary to craft a vision and a mission. I will have to maintain the pulse of my school’s progress to know if and when a reform or innovation is necessary to ensure we are meeting our desired outcomes. When that time comes, I will have to be sensitive to the readiness of my staff to implement the change so that it is most effective. It won’t be enough to work really hard to get it all right one year, and then to sit back and glide through the next year or two. Every year is different. Staffs change, student populations change, district policies change, school culture can change. With all this potential change, I will need to remain vigilant and alert and ready to step in or step up, all the while being open to the input, feedback and ideas of all stakeholders. It’s a job that’s never really finished.
Monday, August 3, 2009
I had a good rapport with the majority of the people I worked with and for the most part everyone did what they were supposed to. I think my organizational skills and attention to details served me well as department chair and team leader. I knew from year to year inside and out what my team and department and I were expected to carry out and accomplish. I was good at it. As I look back now, it’s clear to me that there was very little collaboration or engagement with all constituents. The principal, who was primarily driven by test scores and school accreditation, ran a tight ship. He was in charge. No one dared to rock the boat. It was his way or the high way. He told me what needed to be done and I did it. I told my team and department what needed to be done and they did it. It was rarely up for discussion. It was very top-down leadership, like the pyramid model.
Clearly the leadership landscape has changed, (how did I miss it?), and my narrow vision based on my very limited experience of an allegedly good leader has been blown out of the water! After so much reading, reflecting, discussing, and deliberating the contemporary leadership theories and models during the past three weeks, I see now the lamb taking precedence over the lion, unheroes eclipsing heroes, and PEOPLE ranking higher than policies, procedures, processes, and physical plants. Nowadays, when you lead a school, organization and detail management will only get you so far. It’s more about serving and transforming leadership, gathering at tables and guiding from the side, swimming upstream and respecting those you wish to silence. No one is on the mountaintop calling all the shots. The mountaintop is where we’re going, propelled by vision and passion, collaboration and shared leadership, synergy and the pursuit of excellence. That is where we’re going to experience and celebrate the success of all students! To get there, we need leaders who are effective:
E - Egos left at the door; servant model
F - Focus on the prize, i.e., promoting the success of every student.
F - Form alliances with all stakeholders.
E - Emotional management: take care of self
C - Collaborate and problem solve
T - Trust and integrity; talk the talk AND walk the walk
I – Improvement of student learning is the foremost idea
V - Vitality and Passion; inspire them to follow you
E – Envision success and demand excellence
If I had to write a definition of an effective leader before I started this course, I probably would have emphasized the organizational and managerial aspects of leading with a hierarchical bent. "Old school" leadership, that is what I knew; that’s what I had experienced for most of my teaching career. And the gentleman who was leading that way was held in high regard, touted as “one of our best.” That may have worked then, but it will not work now. In summary, I believe that a successful principal today must (1) be willing to serve students, staff, and the community, (2) be willing to stop, listen, and rethink, (3) be open to change and new ideas, and (4) believe passionately that students can succeed and that teachers can help make that happen.
Sunday, August 2, 2009
Because we had shared the experience of some staff members who were reluctant to use technology in the classroom at Tucker, I asked Kennard how he would inspire his new teachers to go beyond minimum requirements of technology proficiency and usage. He was very honest about his own need to first brush up on strategies in technology integration given his absence as a classroom teacher for the past five years and the quickly changing landscape of technology. He intends to accomplish this early in the school year by becoming aware of the tools being used broadly in classrooms. He will also get to know and observe the tech savvy teachers in his new school using the tools, as well as work closely with the team of technology coaches assigned to his school to learn and promote best practices. Once he ramps up his own aptitude with the technology, he plans to use it regularly in his interactions with staff, students, and parents, for example, using presentation tools at staff meetings and communicating through blogs, wikis, and discussion boards versus the traditional bi-weekly newsletter.
Kennard knows that he cannot expect teachers to upgrade their usage if he does not do it himself. By setting the example himself, he will show integrity, which Robert Evans defines as “having a significant commitment and exemplifying this commitment in your behavior,” in his chapter on “The Authentic Leader,” (Fullan, p. 137). He also knows that by recruiting the tech coaches and the teacher leaders in his building and depending on them to show the way and get others on board, he is more likely to get a positive response from the resistors. Jerome T. Murphy asserts, “By relying on staff members, administrators give them a greater sense of efficacy, responsibility, and control. That leads, in turn, to organizational progress,” (Fullan, p. 59).
Kennard is no stranger to the “unheroic” side of leadership. One of the unpleasant experiences he shared with me was working with an underperforming teacher who came to the school with satisfactory ratings and recommendations. Through the observation cycle, he realized that this was not the case. He described her as one whose instruction was well below par and who was not meeting the needs of her students. Because he was seriously concerned about the effect her performance was having on the students, he initiated an improvement plan that included regular observation, professional development and the guidance of outside mentors and specialists from the district. It was also clear that he did not want to take the easy way out and fire the teacher. He stated, “My goal is always… I don’t want to fire you…my goal is always to make you a better teacher. It’s much easier, it’s much quicker, and it’s much more fulfilling to me to have a teacher who needs help and to get that help than it is to get you out of the building and find a new one,” (S. Kennard, personal communication, July 23, 2009). My impression from this scenario is that he is not one to flinch from adversity or the uncomfortable situations that arise in school leadership. Instead, in the words of Fullan, he will “respect those he wishes to silence,” (or fire), by not taking the easy way out, but by doing all that he can to bring out the best in staff members and always keeping the students’ learning as his guiding principle.
During our interview and in the playback of the recording, it struck me that Kennard used the word “dynamic” several times. I wondered if this was related to his leadership philosophy and vision in general, or if it was the result of the situation he is inheriting. He is replacing a principal who served for a dozen years as the principal at this school and for two dozen years before that as a teacher in this system. My guess is that Barrett may be a school somewhat set in its ways, and that one of the roles he will need to adopt is that of change agent. I sensed it when I heard Kennard express the need for his teachers to become future oriented, to keep up with the times, and to do things differently. One of the areas where he hopes to make a difference is in testing. He can’t believe in an era where we can check ourselves in at airport kiosks that students are still bubbling in answer sheets! His hands may be tied at the district level, where such decisions about state testing are made, but in school-based assessments he could possibly blaze the trail toward online testing and interactive assessments.
My concern here is that in pushing for online testing, he’s not pushing the agenda far enough, seeming only to replace a pencil with a mouse click. Too often in technology integration, we get caught up in the stuff, or the “doodads,” as Bernajean Porter referred to them in her NECC session, “All Technology Uses Are Not Equal: Seeking Higher Ground,” (B. Porter, personal communication, June 29, 2009). So many technology tools replace things we use to teach but have no significant effect on the depth of what students know or how they learn it. To use one of Porter’s examples, creating a podcast on “Does the extinction of wolves matter?” is far richer and requires a lot more exploration than one that tells all there is to know about wolves. I hope that Kennard can stretch his goal of implementing online testing to move forward with technology to include the 21st Century Skills and not just the 21st Century doodads. If we follow Burrello’s line of thinking, such an endeavor could also lead toward a deeper shift in the school and district’s emphasis from standards-based learning to learner-centered learning, where standards do not only measure competency, but also “can be used to motivate students and stimulate their interest in learning,” (p. 39). What an accomplishment this would be for the new school leader!
The time is ripe to set a new course for Barrett Elementary. I have no doubt that Seth Kennard is up to the task. He has met the PTA and all of his staff members. He has studied the school’s data and is making decisions about where to focus energy, resources, and dollars. He is aware of the wealth of community resources available due to the school’s proximity to our nation’s capital and he intends to tap those resources as soon as possible. His global and forward vision, his focus on teaching and learning, and his commitment to students will surely benefit this school and reap great rewards for this learning community in the year(s) to come!
Monday, July 27, 2009
It’s not uncommon these days during a quick channel surf, (which I’m really good at), to encounter shows like “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” “Nip/Tuck,” and “What Not to Wear.” These programs, with their promises of rapidly transforming one’s home, body, and wardrobe, indicate that the mood is ripe for changing where we live, how we look, and what we wear, especially when these things are lacking or insufficient for survival and satisfaction. Is it surprising then that a new style of leadership is being prescribed for school leaders in the 21st Century, i.e., “transformational” leadership to replace “transactional” leadership? I think not! Maybe that need to change and adapt was always part of our psyche and culture, and is only now making it to the pop charts. But when it comes to school leadership, it just makes sense that if the tried-and-true ways of doing things aren’t working, then it’s time for us to change, and I mean radically change, to transform, to make something new out of the old, even to the point where the original is indiscernible, as long as the results are better and constantly improving.
Let’s consider a new show, a spin-off, and call it “Extreme Makeover: School Leadership Edition.” Instead of architects and carpenters, we have principals and teachers. Just as the design team is completely comfortable allowing the demolition of the old structure to make way for the new, our school team is okay with letting go of the old ways of doing things as leaders. Instead of power relationships, unidirectional interactions, and linear thinking, they welcome a democratic approach among teachers and students, lots of relationships and interdependence, and “thinking outside the box.” The task is laid out: we need a new way of doing school to improve student learning. What can you give me? The outcome is uncertain, but the leaders trust that their players will support and enhance the vision because they have been given a role in developing it. There’s more to be gained when they buy in and celebrate what they bring to the table rather than backing down and complying to policies and procedures from on high just to get by. Where are the innovation, creativity, and transformation in that? Give them a voice and a chance and watch what happens!
I think this transformational leadership has great potential in the area of technology integration in schools. However, it will take a very daring leader to make it happen, one who appreciates standards but doesn’t enforce them in a lockstep fashion. One size doesn’t fit all! Schools are not assembly lines. Giving students the same textbooks, lining them up in the same rows, and following the same course schedules year after year hasn’t quite worked. The results have not been spectacular or radical. Do we repeat this mistake by doing the same with our technology tools? Do we give every student and every teacher the same set of tools and software and show them exactly how to use them to get exactly the same results? How boring and unimaginative! I think the time has come that we give up our control and give over the power. Stop wasting time obsessing over the training manuals, user guides, and policies, and making sure everything is in working order. Try everything! Don’t rule out the latest gadgets because “we’ve never done it that way before.” Imagine the possibilities if we gave teachers and students the tools and just let THEM figure it out, let them discover how it applies. Is this extreme? I don’t think so. It's what our current situation demands! Who’s ready to take a chance?
Monday, June 15, 2009
Now that you have a good sense of the types of online activities and the rhythms of an active participant, what steps will you take to be successful in this program?
I will schedule my time to allow for reading the materials and browsing information online early each week so that I can post in a timely manner and allow time for reflection and further discussion.
I will check in to the Discussion Board regularly to post my comments and to respond to those posted by colleagues. I will advance the discussion when possible and probe for deeper understanding. I will expect my colleagues to push me to deeper and richer meaning in my posts.
If I am struggling with something, I will check in with the facilitators and/or classmates to get help so as not to fall behind. In online learning, I think it’s even more important to keep up with the pace.
How will you be a contributing member of your team? How will team activities impact your time management?
I intend to be a regular contributor to my team’s discussions, tasks, and activities. I will organize my weekly schedule in such a way that I can post and check in on discussions on a regular basis. If we are to get the most out of our experience together, it’s important that we each carry our weight and contribute our thoughts so that together we create products, generate ideas, and create knowledge that is richer because of the group’s commitment and ongoing participation. I expect all my teammates to be as committed and participatory, as I’m sure they’ll expect it of me. In fairness and in the hope of getting the most possible out of this experience, I will do my part.
What have you learned about your communication style? How will this impact you as an online learner?
The assessment designated me as a “thinker,” but that was no surprise. I tend to be very organized, logical, and detail-oriented. My mission when given a task is to accomplish it, straight and simple. (Some attribute this to me being a Virgo.) However, cohorts are not made up of all thinkers or intuitive types and therefore I will have to be sensitive and open to the other communication styles. I think we can provide good balance to each other, as long as some of each style is assigned to each team. Thus, we will not only be learning content, but also how to coexist and collaborate with colleagues whose style is different than our own, which will serve us well in administrative positions in the future when we will surely have a mix of all styles.
Where do you still need additional support?
I may still need additional support with the Google tools, like Google docs and Google calendar. I am new to the Google world, having used it up until now only as a search engine. But in this short time, I am already seeing the great potential of integrating it in the learning environment and thinking about ways to use it with students in the coming school year. I also know that I will have to discipline myself to make the time necessary each day to complete the component activities, reading, and discussions. Other than that, I'm ready to rock and roll!
Monday, June 8, 2009
My biggest concern with online learning right now, as it has been in the past, is time management. Here it is, Week One of Orientation, and I'm already swamped on the last day of the first week trying to make deadline. I don't want to make this a habit. I won't survive. It's just a crazy time with all the end-of-year closeout business to take care of at school on top of preparing to transition to a new position and school and teaching a brand new online course. Meanwhile, summer's kicking in for a lot of folks, and the pools, patios, and porticoes are calling my name.
I have taken one or two courses online per year for the past five years. Now it's time to kick it into high gear and integrate this coursework into my lifestyle for the next year. I looked at the course calendar on the ELC site and December never looked better! Okay, enough with the griping. This program and opportunity seem awesome, the others involved seem very talented and excited, I've made it this far, it's going to be an awesome ride!