Monthly Archives: October 2012

The Powerful Message of Teacher Leadership: “Help Me, Help You”

I love the line in Jerry Maguire where Jerry (sports agent) and Rod Tidwell (football star) are in the locker room and Jerry’s imploring Rod to work with him. Jerry pleads during the emotional exchange, “Help me… help you. Help me, help you.”, and in another exchange, “I am out here for you. You don’t know what it’s like to be ME out here for YOU. It is an up-at-dawn, pride-swallowing siege that I will never fully tell you about, ok?” Great movie.  Great energy. Great lessons. Great segway into the challenges of teacher leadership.

Education is an interesting business. It’s costly and doesn’t directly generate revenues. However, it indirectly dictates the trajectory of our nation’s Gross Domestic Product, unemployment rates, price of commodities, happiness, infant mortality rates, and the list goes on. Education matters. Period. Given the deep and broad impact education has on society, it’s amazing how we respond to leadership within our ranks. Outside the hierarchical leadership structure of school and central office, leadership among teachers is often silently absent and primarily informal.

We know the master teachers and quiet leaders who people seek out in times of stress. They are the folks who offer sage advice on everything from classroom management strategies and designing new curricula, to accessing resources and using data to make good decisions. However, they do their leadership work without fanfare. Lest they upset the apple cart and draw the ire of less able, less confident instructors, these quiet leaders do their work primarily in isolation.But what happens when a school decides to target teacher leaders and stipend them to do the important work of instructional leadership? Can the system accept these newly “badged” teacher leaders complete with job descriptions and title?

How do the new teacher leaders stay within the ranks of teachers while also breaking ranks to push the system forward? How do these risk-takers garner the respect and willing participation of their colleagues? Stepping out and taking on instructional leadership is not easy. Ultimately, teacher leadership success hinges on how well they get Jerry Maguire’s message out to staff. Namely, “Help me, help you.” With the urgency of Race to the Top on every educator and principal’s mind, newly minted teacher leaders have a leveraged moment to demonstrate the service they can provide colleagues. Whether wading through Student Learning Objectives, Teacher Evaluation Rubrics, or Common Core Learning Standards Instructional Shifts, teachers desperately need the leadership support of their colleagues.

Teacher leadership can and will work when school systems recognize the value in helping teacher leaders help others. By surveying teacher needs, differentiating professional development based on data, and providing time for the important work of teacher leadership, schools can indeed cultivate an environment where teacher leadership thrives. We’re not talking about making photocopies or filling out purchase orders, but about systemic changes in instruction, curriculum, assessment, and most importantly, views on instructional leadership. It’s time to redefine leadership in schools and fully utilize our greatest resources: intellectual and social capital.


Student Asks, “Where’s the Research on The Retention-Time Curve?”

Last month I presented to my School Culture class a Retention-Time curve chart from David Sousa’s How the Brain Learns. The chart indicates student retention in a classic learning episode peaks at the start and after maintaining peak retention for 10-20 minutes, falls to a low-level before rising to a second, though lesser peak to close out the time period. I explained to the students how they could use such information to structure their lessons, particularly for presenting new material via direct instruction while retention levels are high. When retention levels drop, they could shift to an activity, break, or some other event that would “recharge” students’ working memories. The lesson could end with additional direct instruction followed by closure. One student thoughtfully asked, “How do we know that’s really true? Is there research on the topic?” What a great question! I love it when students question the material, asking for evidence (sounds like Evidence Based Answers via Common Core Literacy Standards Instructional Shifts).

I promised to find specific research to support the retention-time curve for next class, and through Feinberg Library‘s search engines came across a good number of articles supporting Sousa’s Retention-Time curve. My favorite was a study by Young, Robinson and Alberts on the vigilance decrement in which the authors explored whether the same decrease in attentiveness over time exhibited in the field of ergonomics occurred in traditional college classroom lectures. In other words, would passive learning episodes find students losing focus (vigilance) in their task for learning over time? From their conclusion:

“The results of this study suggest that student concentration decays in the same way during a passive lecture as does that of a human operator monitoring automated equipment, with serious implications for learning and performance. The recommendations in terms of maintaining attention and concentration are also analogous – instead of interspersing periods of manual control (Parasuraman et al., 1996), short breaks or novel activities may temporarily restore attention to normal levels.”  (p. 52)

We discussed the work of Young, Robinson, and Alberts the following class, and I reiterated the value of questioning strategies, statements, etc. We live in a fast-paced, information overloaded world, and it’s too easy in our schools to comply with decisions and simply adopt what others are doing without much thought. I remember one school’s math program that was so heavily scripted the teachers said you could teach the series with your eyes closed. Well, that in my mind is a serious issue. How can you ensure instructional shifts are being implemented, or that content best reflects the needs of students when following a script created by someone who doesn’t know you, your students, your school, or your community? When we stop questioning what we’re doing and simply follow procedure, we’ve taken away our creativity, intelligence, and ability to teach for rigor, relevance, and relationships.

Back to my research, I was pleased to find good support for the time-retention curve I have been touting in my classes and work since I first came across the concept in David Sousa’s book ten years ago. For my students, I hope they found value in questioning others, particularly when it comes to the important work of student learning. After all, if we are going to grow the instructional leadership within our schools, we must be willing to ask hard questions and assess, analyze, and act. We can’t afford to do anything less for our students.
Young, M.S., Robinson, S., and Alberts, P. (2009). Students pay attention!:    Combating the vigilance decrement to improve learning during lectures. Active Learning in Higher Education, Volume 10 (1), pp. 41-55.


Setting Anchor in a Sea of Change

It’s been an intellectually busy two weeks that included a trip to D.C. with members of our New York State Education Department for a Community of Practice Convening on Building Leadership for Rigorous Institution, and a two-day Race to the Top Network Team Institute on Principal Evaluation. The content and discussions were exhilarating, and the churn of change striking. Sandwiched between the two events was a fishing trip that gave me an unexpected perspective on school reform.

My brother had invited me and my friend for a sea bass fishing trip off Point Pleasant, New Jersey. Peter co-owns a nice 34′ Bertrand, and it’s a good boat that handles the seas well when plowing forward (it rocks like crazy at zero knots, however).  We fished on an artificial reef comprised of concrete objects, sculptures, old train cars, ships and barges. Sea bass and other ocean life inhabit the reef and add diversity to an otherwise barren portion of ocean bottom. Dangling fishing lines with weights upon a reef is a challenge, but setting and later retrieving anchor is downright impossible.

If one considers a reef and its oceanic inhabitants as a system undergoing change (ie. school districts, building, classrooms) and the anchor as reform elements (ie. Common Core Instructional Shifts, Instructional Leadership, and Assessments), then how should one best set anchor without destroying both the system and reform elements? In other words, how can we preserve the sanctity of the reef and its inhabitants (the system) while holding anchor (integrity of the reform elements)? Is such a scenario even possible during serious reform? Hmmmm. Those were the thoughts rushing through my mind as I straddled the bow rail readying to drop anchor in angry seas.

My brother is becoming a seasoned captain, and he’s learned a good number of lessons over the years. Instead of anchoring on the reef, Peter took us 100′ ahead of the reef before directing me to drop anchor. The anchor fell quickly when released, and within a minute hit bottom. Rather than tie up, we let line out which allowed the wind to push the boat over the reef. Once on the reef, the line was secured and the anchor held. In effect, we secured the anchor away from structure and eased our way onto the reef. We didn’t annihilate the system undergoing change (reef and inhabitants), and we held steadfast the elements of reform (the anchor).

Do we ease into serious reform in public education, or do we plumb the depths of systems with aplomb? Change is so complicated! Change stokes fears and worries in those it falls upon. Is there a way to bring about change with sanctity and integrity? Is there a way to ease into change and still bring about the reforms sought? I like to think so. Ultimately, it comes to the knowledgeable and skilled actions of the captain and his or her crew.

Teacher Performance, Instructional Leadership, and Data Stories

This morning I read in the USA Today that doctor visits are down in the country and 66% of Americans say their health is “excellent” or “very good.” Add the additional 24% who report their health is “good” and you have 90% of the population feeling pretty satisfied about their health. Two pages later in the same paper an article on extreme obesity states the number of adults 100 pounds or more overweight has nearly doubled since 2000, and that two-thirds of Americans are either overweight or obese. What??? The data just don’t make sense. Something is askew. We live in a sea of data, and so much of it misconstrue the truth. Take instruction and student achievement. In a 2009 report from the New Teacher Project, 99% of teachers were deemed proficient or higher by school administrators (This will/should change dramatically through teacher and principal evaluation measures under Race to the Top), yet the 2009 Averaged Freshman Graduate Rate was 76%. If virtually all our teachers are proficient, shouldn’t the same hold for our students?

Data tell stories, and oftentimes, those stories are fictional. In terms of instructional quality, we have a talented teacher workforce misunderstood by the public. Fiscal challenges, school reform, and public vilification of educators are burdens the profession carries. Confounding all this is a dearth of instructional leadership, particularly at the high school level (hence the disconnect between teacher performance and student achievement). To be fair, we are asking principals to do the impossible. Besides conducting evidence-based teacher observations, implementing common core state standards, and managing school reform, we expect principals to manage bus schedules, monitor cafeterias, meet with parents and district office personnel, handle discipline issues, respond to community crises, manage state and local testing schedules, address cyberbullying, implement response to intervention, conduct annual professional performance reviews, and the list goes on. We’re placing superhuman expectations on our school leaders, and it’s time to rethink how we define, develop, and distribute instructional leadership.

At the risk of oversimplifying things, we need to reevaluate our instructional leadership definition.  Partnerships, leader licensure, leadership preparation programs, and educator roles and responsibilities need rethinking if we hope to improve the instructional leadership within our nation’s schools. In terms of partnerships, state education departments, institutes of higher education, and school districts need to work together on increasing support for existing principals, raising the rigor and authenticity of principal preparation programs, and cultivating teacher leadership pathways. At the local, state and national levels, we must change our lens on teachers and their role as instructional leaders. We’re presently implementing major reform in the areas of curriculum, assessments, and professional evaluations, but we’ve yet to adequately transform the manner in which instructional leadership occurs.

We’re still holding on to the “Captain of the ship” model of leadership, which in this era of school reform is like trying to put a square peg in a round hole. We need teacher leadership to help implement and sustain the important reforms of Race to the Top. Unfortunately, few states have gone down the teacher leadership path at the policy or licensure level.  Exceptions include Tennessee’s Teacher Leader Endorsement Codes (441, 442, 443) and Ohio’s Teacher Leader Certificate/Endorsement that offer career pathways for teachers to become instructional leaders. For those individuals seeking building leader certification, licensure tests must be more rigorous and performance-based. In New York, new school building leader assessments scheduled for release in 2014 will require principal candidates to demonstrate skills in school improvement (ie. leading data inquiry teams), have clinical leadership experiences, and participate in school improvement teams tied to raising student achievement.

We have a leveraged opportunity to transform the system, and the data suggests anything is possible. If we truly value and want instructional leadership in our schools, then the system must change. Otherwise, the data stories of our schools will remain status quo.