Monthly Archives: June 2013

The Two Best Things About Teaching: July and August?

Once upon a time, our national public schools closed shop for the summer, sending children and teachers home for a nice, long vacation. After ten challenging months of teaching and learning, a much-deserved break afforded teachers and students alike time to recharge through rest and recreation. Ah, what bliss! No lessons to plan. No papers to grade. No quizzes and tests to develop. No student debates, field trips, calls home…. No, “I forgot my homework,” “I forgot my pencil,” “I forgot my books,”….  Just a long, extended period of bliss.

When I first considered leaving my job at the U.S. Naval Oceanographic Office to become a high school science teacher, I got mostly “What, are you crazy?” responses from my colleagues. “You’ll make less money.”, “Those kids will eat you alive.”, and “Do you know how hard it is to teach???”.  I laughed all the comments off. I had been touched by the teaching bug while doing a guest lecture at Bay St. Louis Middle School along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, and it left me with a burning passion to work with children as soon as possible. “Besides,” I reminded myself, “I’ll get July, and August off!!!” Immensely satisfying work AND a summer vacation??? Whoa!

Fast-forward 25 years later, and I can only chuckle at the naivety and silliness of such thinking. I found my summers and those of many colleagues had some nice stretches of rest and relaxation, but inevitably, there were five weeks of personal learning and school preparation that consumed our time each and every summer, and it was all good. Good because we knew it made us better educators. We chose summer institutes that built our professional networks and stretched us to learn new strategies and skills. We enrolled in workshops on curriculum and assessment, pedagogy, and classroom management that were lauded as best practices. Understanding by Design, Literacy in the Content Areas, Woodrow Wilson Fellowships, etc.. Over time, many of us gave back to the profession by being the presenters. Those were great days! Collegial support, time without students to process and learn deeply, good food, and facilities with soft furniture. Best of all, we still had time sacrosanct for family and self. Five weeks seemed like a really good deal.

Today, fewer and fewer school districts send teachers and students home for ten straight weeks. Instead, many schools have teachers remain for an additional week of mandatory professional development while students are given a brief respite before their summer programs ramp up (Assuming monies are set aside for such programs). There’s just too much to do and too much at stake to do otherwise. Teachers are also expected to return up to one week before school starts for additional professional development programs. The logic of such changes in policy are sound. Trying to provide meaningful, sustained professional development to entire faculty during the school year is challenging and costly. Time out of the classroom is minimized when summer time is used, and many rigorous professional development programs require more than a few hours here, or one or two days there.

This past week I had the privilege of working with elementary teachers, aides, and instructional leaders at Eagle Point Elementary in Albany, New York. We studied how the brain learns and applied those understandings to Wiggins and McTighes’ Understanding by Design. What a great group of educators and staff! Their enthusiasm, thoughtfulness, and attention to detail reminded me of why I got in the business of teaching 25 years ago! When I told them on our last day that I was all that separated them from summer vacation, they rewarded me by working hard right through the end of our day. So, yes, July and August are two of the best things about teaching.  Best because these are well-earned times for rest and recreation, and best because they are opportune times for meaningful and sustained professional growth. Enjoy the summer and all it brings.


When Innovative Thinking and a Sense of Urgency Impact Educational Leadership Programs

Excluding the role of family and community, we know after teachers, the most influential players on student achievement are principals. With that in mind, last summer a group of ten local, regional and national experts and practitioners on educational leadership preparation joined together to create an innovative SUNY Plattsburgh at Queensbury Educational Leadership Program which reflected the latest research on instructional leadership and the New York State’s Regents Reform Agenda. We drew upon the Educational Leadership Policy Standards: ISLLC 2008, Teacher Education Accreditation Council Principles and Standards, and National Educational Technology Standards, and we sought out best practices and tools from the Wallace Foundation School Leadership Studies, Southern Regional Education Board, Quality Measures Principal Program Assessment, and New Leaders.

Our sense of urgency was driven by a clarion call for school reform sweeping across New York State and much of the nation. A growing body of research on the pivotal role of instructional leadership and the increased rigor and accountability expectations for students and educators alike was a leveraged moment to rethink and act on how we do educational leader preparation at SUNY Plattsburgh. We knew there were exemplary educational leadership programs scattered across the country, and we wanted to replicate as best we could some of the more successful program elements. Our committee also sought to ensure the region that we were creating a rigorous program which would best serve their students and staff.

With resources in hand, we surveyed regional school and district leaders on their perceptions and needs regarding educational leadership and then broke out into teams to create clinically rich cornerstone projects that promoted rigor, relevance, and relationships. Our projects include 1) Assessment of Teaching and Learning Using Student Data (ie. Data Driven Instruction), 2) The Annual Professional Performance Review which includes Evidence Based Observations, Student Learning Objectives (SLOs), and Evidence Binders, 3) Professional Development Curriculum Project which address the Common Core Learning Standards and Instructional Shifts, and 4) Peer and Self Assessment of Leadership. We also added a Digital Portfolio, Rigorous Internship, Site Mentor, Application of Instructional Leadership Standards to Practice Seminar Series, and Internship Coordinator.

Beginning this fall, SUNY Plattsburgh at Queensbury will begin offering three Educational Leadership Programs: A 12-credit Teacher Leadership Graduate Certificate, a 30-credit School Building Leader Certificate of Advanced Study, and an 8-credit School District Leader Graduate Certificate. Under the guidance of co-directors Dr. Michael Johnson and Dr. Harry Brooks and our strong faculty, we believe our candidates will have a truly exceptional, clinically rich experience grounded in educational leadership research, the ISLLC Standards, and the New York State Regents Reform Agenda. We firmly believe we are preparing the next generation of leaders with the necessary skills and understandings to transform how we prepare students for lifelong success. It’s been a good year, and in the words of Margaret Mead,  “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Looking for Landmarks During Times of Change

Open water swimming is a joy for those who regularly swim in pools. No lanes to share. No chlorine or salt to taste. No fluorescent din, and no stale, steamy air. Okay, it’s not quite that bad, but pool swimming can not begin to compare with that of open water. The one significant challenge when swimming out in nature is staying the course–particularly when there is no lifeguard monitoring your safety.  In a pool, lane buoys and painted lines keep you in your lane and prevent swimmers from straying off course. Not so in open water. Swim as you do in the pool with head in water except when taking in a breath and you will end up “who knows where.” In some ways, school reform is analogous to swimming in open water, with vast possibilities as one goes beyond the safe, structured setting of public education into an unknown, and potentially uncomfortable environment of innumerable opportunities.  Getting to a desired destination, the tricky part,  requires faith, knowledge, skills, due diligence, and attention to where you’re headed.

It’s easy to get caught up in the change process and neglect to check one’s position. In open water, the conditioned habits of pool swimming can lead to a circuitous rather than direct path, resulting in greater fatigue and other potential issues. For that reason, experienced open water swimmers regularly lift their heads to sight every 5-9 strokes, looking forward with head out of water to a distant landmark. Each time the head is raised, the landmark is targeted. If off course, subtle changes in stroke direction quickly remedy the swimmer’s path. Failure to sight is analogous to working with blinders on, clueless to changes around us, and inevitably leaving one far off track (Not a good thing whether swimming in a lake or implementing new assessments, curricula, or professional performance review protocols in a school building). For whatever reason, be it fear, perceived or real lack of time, old habits, or other challenges, getting lost in the churn of change is easily done.

Back to the open water swim, it’s relatively easy for the swimmer to monitor and adjust his or her path. Other than occasional chop in the water, keeping track of your landmark is easy. However, for the educator, the process is much, much more complicated and dependent on team work and good leadership. First of all, everyone needs to know what the landmarks are in the action plan process. What are the goals in the reform effort? Secondly, people need the skills, knowledge, and incentives to target those landmarks. Open water swimmers don’t venture beyond shoreline without good technique and aerobic capacity. Unfortunately, the same can’t always be said for educators ill prepared to grapple with complex change required in the reform effort. Last but not least, educators need time. Time to lift their heads and check out their surroundings. Time to perfect their technique and capacity, and time to celebrate the progress being made in their concerted efforts.

As school winds down, summer is the perfect season to create purposeful action plans that clearly identify desired results (landmarks), ensure sustained quality professional development (technique and capacity), and build in regularly scheduled times to monitor and adjust progress (sighting on landmarks). Oh, and it’s also a great time to get out to the water for a refreshing swim.

When It Comes to School Reform, Time is Not on Our Side

In ’64, the Rolling Stones sang, “Time is on my side, yes it is
Time is on my side, yes it is.”  Well, that may have been the case in the 1960s, and it may indeed apply in Mick Jagger’s world, but alas, time is not on the side for present day educators or instructional leaders grappling with school reform. On the contrary, today’s teachers and building principals are on the wrong side of time, working feverishly to fulfill APPR requirements before finals and graduations. Compromised by a system ill-structured to handle evidence-based observations, student learning objectives, data-driven instruction protocols, and significant curricular and assessment reforms, many principals and teachers are gasping for air as they finish up the year overwhelmed, overloaded, and completely spent.

It doesn’t have to be this way. After all, it’s not a precondition for school reform that stakeholders long for the “good old days” while cursing the new conditions and perceived burdens placed on them by outsiders and higher-ups. Rather, it’s simply about making time in the school schedule for matters of importance. Time to empower staff and faculty to do the hard work the Regents Reform Agenda calls for. Time to collaboratively figure things out together to implement new curricula, data-driven instruction, student learning objectives, and evidence-based observations. Time to reflect on what is and is not working, and time to make the necessary changes to streamline the process and reduce perceived complexities. Time is the tonic that cures all.

Next year is a pivotal year for educators in New York and other Race to the Top states across the nation. With varying degrees of success, schools have received professional development in reform agenda items. Educators and principals have toiled through Common Core Instructional Shifts, Next Generation Assessments, Evidence-based Observations, Student Learning Objectives, Data-Driven Instruction, etc. However, for meaningful change and deep understanding to take place, teachers, principals, and others will need ample time to analyze and reflect on their reform efforts. Early release time, late start times, team planning meetings, full day sessions, and summer work are what is needed for reforms to get traction. The system can not function as it has in the past, and if we hope to carry forth the education reform agenda so vital to our students and country, then we had better be sure time is on our side. (We also need to encourage teacher leadership).