Monthly Archives: August 2012

Those Critical First Days of School

Fall semester starts tomorrow and with it my official foray into college teaching. I loved my work as an education administrator and professional developer, but I haven’t been this excited for the start of the school year since I last taught secondary school science classes. As with most educators, I love to teach. And, I love to create lessons. I am no fan of scripted curricula, and my own course syllabi were reworked yearly to keep them current and fresh. The lens I used to create and evaluate my lessons are the three Rs: Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships, and so it will be for my three classes this semester. Of all the lessons that I taught, the first lesson of the year mattered most.

Good teaching takes time, as effective teachers know too well. However, the time for lesson preparation, teaching, and feedback moves quickly because the work done is so darn meaningful to the teacher and to the students (usually). Such is the nature of the teaching profession. As Chris Rock says in his hilarious Time at Work clip (profanity alert), “If you’ve got a career, there ain’t enough time in a day…..When you got a job, there’s too much time.” Isn’t that the truth! It took a great deal of time organizing my course syllabi (Thank you Dr. Grant for easing the burden) and prioritizing concepts and content. However, the past few days I’ve worked hard on that critically important first day of school using Harry and Rosemary Wong’s First Days of School-a classic must-read book for all educators, new and seasoned veterans alike.

I saw Harry Wong at a National Science Teachers Association annual conference years ago, and he was simply amazing. His presentation was one of the finest I ever saw, and I ended up buying his book and getting his autograph after his speech. There are many, many important pointers and suggestions that define good teaching, but my favorite chapter is Section A: Basic Understandings which describes the critically important first few days of school. The Wongs correctly emphasize that the routines and first impressions a teacher sets at the start of the year will define the tone for the entire year. It’s sort of that old cliché, “First impressions are lasting impressions.”

Two important rules I immediately made part of my routine were to 1) greet students at the door when they enter the classroom EVERY DAY throughout the year, and 2) have a task for students to complete EVERY DAY when they get to their seats (whether the bell has rung or not). Those two simple changes in my routine paid immediate and long-term dividends, particularly rule 2. Rule 1 was something I followed periodically because I genuinely liked welcoming my students each day. However, there were days I was scrambling to set up a lab or organize papers and didn’t have time to welcome them at the door. I wonder what the students thought consciously or sub-consciously when I was too busy to greet them personally. Rule 2 was the game changer for me. By having a daily task on the board for students when they arrived, there was no loss of time. In fact, I gained extra time since they began working the minute they sat down at their desk. Wow! No more, “Settle down. Settle down” when the bell rang. Instead, “You have two more minutes to enter your response in your journal.”

So tomorrow I will teach my first Practitioner Research in Education 1: Planning Research. Tuesday is School Culture, Settings, and Systems in the 21st Century, and Wednesday is Adolescent Development for Education Professionals. In all three classes, I will be mindful of making the first session a memorable one. There will be a task at each student’s desk, and I will be greeting every student at the door. My goal as a professional developer has always been to walk the talk, and so it will be in my college classes. I hope to impress upon these future teachers some best practice strategies they can use in their classrooms someday. Tomorrow’s strategy: First Days of School. I can’t wait!

Redefining the Timeless Tradition of School Leadership

For 48 consecutive years my cousins have descended on Loon Lake for a week-long vacation.  Nestled in New York’s Adirondack Mountains, Loon Lake beckons them each summer to relive the memories of yesteryear while creating new ones for future years. What began as a family trip for my Uncle Rudy and Aunt Barbara and their first two of five children in 1964 has evolved to a full-fledged family reunion of nearly 20 today. Since my family lives but 15 minutes from Loon Lake, we have had the privilege of visiting them each year for an early evening swim and dinner. My daughter usually is invited by her younger relatives for a ski or tube experience while my wife and I visit with cousins and my Aunt and Uncle. Sometimes my mom and stepdad join in as well. It’s a wonderful, healthful, spiritual experience spending time with them. Their annual Look Lake reunion nourishes the mind, body, and spirit. Such are the power of traditions and family.

Education has its traditions as well, and how we teach children and run schools in this country has been as seemingly timeless as the On Golden Pond experiences of family vacations. Principals, formerly known as Principal Teachers or Headmasters, steward staff and students through the education process by managing systems, communicating with various stakeholders, analyzing data, putting out fires, attending meetings, planning curricula, observing teachers,… In most cases, the principal attempts to lead while all others follow (begrudgingly or not). I say “attempt” because if one is seeking instructional leadership, leading a school today is too complex and demanding for any one person to do well by themselves.

Principals are not supermen and superwoman, yet we trust them to accomplish superhuman tasks. Take teacher observation as an example. It takes three hours for a competent principal to perform a valid, non-biased, evidence-based teacher observation which includes pre and post conferences. With a staff of 75-100 teachers, one principal would conduct 150-200 observations under RttT each year for a total 450-600 hours of teacher observations. That’s 9-12 weeks of ten-hour days for teacher observations alone. Add on Data Driven Instruction protocols, Common Core Learning Standards, and the time requirements for Student Learning Objectives meetings, bus monitoring, lunch monitoring, teacher meetings, faculty meetings, cabinet meetings, state form completion (BEDS, VADIR, Budget….), cyber bullying issues, parent meetings, student discipline, hall monitoring, assessment scheduling and implementation, curriculum mapping, correspondence, emails, etc, and you have an overwhelmed, overworked, overstressed individual trying to fit a round object into a square hole.

Fortunately, the traditional school leadership model is about to change dramatically thanks to a number of factors, particularly Race to the Top and Teacher Leader Model Standards (TLMS). TLMS began in 2008 by a consortium of bright, well-respected experts and educational stakeholders interested in studying how teacher leadership impacted student and school success. As described on the TLMS website:

Unsurprisingly similar to the ISLLC Standards,  the TLMS describe what teacher leaders can and must do to raise student achievement in our schools. Schools of today are a far cry from those of yesteryear, and the traditions of school leadership we hold dear do not fit today’s model of leadership. What’s necessary is a redistribution of leadership to capable, competent, self-directed, passionate teachers interested in doing what’s best for their students, school and community. We can begin by inviting our finest and brightest educators to a discussion about leadership, and through partnerships with higher education, we can help develop their leadership knowledge and skills. It’s time to start a new tradition and redefine how schools are led.

The Power of Teamwork and Teacher Leadership

Yesterday morning two friends and I competed in the 6th Annual Fronhofer Tool Triathlon in Upstate New York (okay, competed is probably too strong a word). We did the Olympic Triathlon event which featured a 1.5 K swim, 40K bike, and 10K run. It was hot, it was humid, and it was hazy. I was so thankful for my team mates sharing the load (I was also relieved my responsibility was the swim). Each of us could have done the event solo, but I was recovering from a pulled hamstring, our bike man was in his first “official” triathlon, and our runner was also signed up for the Sprint Tri that followed the Olympic distance event. Yes, sharing the load made the morning event downright enjoyable. Had we gone solo, our results and sense of accomplishment may have paled in comparison. Can the same rule be applied to principal as instructional leader? Would sharing the load make the whole process of instructional leadership more manageable, enjoyable, and successful for principals and teachers? Would there be a greater sense of accomplishment in a school where leadership is distributed? With school reform pressing forward, I think Yes.

In one of my earlier blog entries, I wrote about Teacher Leadership and School Reform (Pasted below) which speaks directly to the concept of sharing the load. With New York State schools now readying for a new year of Race to the Top initiatives, the time is ripe for districts to distribute the responsibility for instructional leadership to teacher leaders. Under fiscal duress, many schools lack the resources of time and administrative personnel for the good work of evidence-based observation, student learning objectives, data-driven decision-making, and common core learning standards. For a number of reasons, principals can not do this work alone and are going to need assistance from others. To successfully implement school reform and see student achievement increase, we must share the load. Schools have the intellectual capacity to do Race to the Top well, it’s just a matter of distributing the leadership to capable, committed, and well-respected teacher leaders.

Without simplifying the process of distributing leadership, it is indeed possible to cultivate the knowledge, skills, and self-efficacy of teachers interested in assuming leadership roles in their districts. It all starts by seeking out those teachers who have no plans to leave the classroom, but have the interest and capacity to lead their colleagues in curriculum development, pedagogy, assessment, and data-informed decision-making. Once identified, schools in partnership with BOCES and institutes of higher education can prepare teachers to conduct valid and reliable teacher observations, monitor progress of Student Learning Objectives, implement data-driven decision-making protocols (assess, analyze, action), embed common core curricula into lesson plans, and participate in the creation of a viable and healthy school culture. What exists now is a leveraged moment of opportunity to reform leadership in schools.

Teacher Leadership and School Reform

This past Thursday and Friday I was working with my Professional Standards and Practices Board for Teaching colleagues on the topic of career teacher ladders to help inform the Board of Regents’ actions on the Career Development Continuum later this year. New York State’s Race to the Top application speaks about the Career Development Continuum on pages 188 and 189, and adding teacher leader certification or annotation areas to a teacher’s credentials lends credence to a long over-due structure. Namely, greater assumption of instructional leadership responsibility for teachers. Teacher leaders are an untapped resource in our schools, and we know that principals are most effective when they share leadership with others. From the 2010 Learning from Leadership Wallace Foundation Report: “When principals and teachers share leadership, teachers’ working relationships are stronger and student achievement is higher.”

Studies on principals’ use of time paint a picture of overworked individuals and fragmented days, prohibitive for being the instructional leaders principals seek to be. Assigning administrative managers  may free up some time, but distributing leadership among teachers seems the best avenue for improving student achievement. This is especially urgent with today’s RTTT reform agenda. Teacher leaders augment and expand administrator expertise, energize the profession through multiple teacher pathways, provide principals with needed support, and help with the change process. Teacher leadership opportunities may also prompt our finest teachers to remain in the classroom while also stretching themselves and others.

New York State will proceed in its work to create the Career Development Continuum, and how the state ultimately defines and evaluates criteria for teacher leadership will be relevant to all educators. Each district has its own set of issues and challenges, but there are questions requiring resolution. Can a master teacher be a great teacher leader? What course work and preparation would be required? For reliability and validity, what assessment would best identify knowledgeable and skilled teacher leaders? What role does nomination play, and would colleagues, administrators, and/or community members be part of the process?

A Teacher Leadership Exploratory Consortium is in place, and teacher leader standards have been identified. It’s now a matter of establishing a Career Development Continuum to grow the teaching profession, improve student achievement, and help all schools manage the complex changes that lie ahead.