Category Archives: Instructional Leadership

Cultivating Teacher Leadership Through P-12 and Higher Education Partnerships

Partnerships matter. Partnerships empower people and organizations to do good work. They build trust and camaraderie, and expand opportunities for all participants. Partnerships are critically important to the success of any institute, particularly in an era of rapid change and scarce resources. For the past two years, SUNY Plattsburgh at Queensbury has partnered with neighboring school districts to promote teacher leadership. Over three hundred teachers, school leaders, and district administrators from Fort Ann Central School District, Cambridge Central School District, and Warrensburg Central School District have partnered with SUNY Plattsburgh at Queensbury to the benefit of students, parents, teachers, administrators, and higher ed faculty and staff.  See the following link and feel free to contact Stephen Danna with questions or for more information about how we’re working with school districts to grow teacher leadership in our schools.




Teacher Leader Reflections on Covey’s 7 Habits

Last week our Teachers As Instructional Leaders Seminar Series met at the SUNY Plattsburgh at Queensbury Branch Campus to review Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. We’re a small group of eight creative, self-directed teachers seeking strategies and understandings to grow our skills as teacher leaders and better serve their students and schools. The Covey session was not originally listed in our six-session Series, but was added at the group’s request following a brief discussion about Covey in an earlier meeting. After a quick review of the habits, we brainstormed simple examples of what the 7 Habits look like for teachers and teacher leaders.  I then asked the group to look at the habits through the lens of school reform. See below for minutes of this thoughtful group. Enjoy.

Habit One: Be Proactive

  1.  A proactive teacher leader would act upon education rather than being acted upon by the educational process.  We would be a driving force as part of the change because we have already identified the need for changes in our classroom/curriculum  and understand those goals most clearly.
  2. We would be the voice rising above the educational chaos and jargon, the leaders saying follow me because I know what I’m doing, and you have nothing to fear, we will achieve this together.
  3. We would not wait for the educational standards to arrive, we would be the educational standard everyone is trying to achieve. Ahead of the changes, always on the cutting edge of the next educational opportunity for our students.  We would see and realize the change even before it arrived.  
  4. Ask ourselves how we can implement the common core by working together. We need to implement them, so let’s take the initiative and make it work for everyone.
  5. To be successful, you must be proactive. I don’t want to react to something, but rather study it, fix what needs fixing, and then go with it. Prepare for success. 
  6. The failures of my students to meet the standards are my failure. If it isn’t working, it’s due to something I did in the classroom.
  7. Common core standards are an improvement over past standards, and a work in progress. We must figure out how to get everyone to accept and use the standards.
  8. Using midterms and finding strengths and weaknesses for students to learn their strengths and weaknesses. Helping others see the value of such assessments. Matching up students’ predictions with the actual results.
  9. Using KWLs so I don’t spend time on boring stuff they (students) already know or are uninterested in. I can take what they want to know and work it into the curriculum.
  10. Ask colleagues for topics to discuss at department meetings. I am not their boss, but do organize and prioritize their interests into the agenda.
  11. I try to think of the APPR as an opportunity to make my teaching and my classroom better. To use it for my own advantage and not something imposed on me.
  12. Student excuses. If I take responsibility for not getting their homework graded on time, I can honestly tell them I made a mistake. I am going to model proactivity and responsibility.
  13. School Reform: Give it a chance. Keep an open mind.
  14. School Reform: Get the facts straight and don’t make assumptions.

Habit Two: Begin With The End In Mind

  1. Think of the footprint of your career. What do you want said about you at the retirement dinner.
  2. When planning, I want to anticipate where my students are going to struggle.   
  3. Thinking about what my students will need when they leave my class for middle school. Being mindful throughout the year about those needs.
  4. At the high school level, being mindful of what students will need for career or college success.
  5. Curriculum. What are your exit outcomes and ensuring students realize the goals. Planning a given unit. Working backwards from the major assessments.
  6. As a teacher, thinking what you could learn to make you a better teacher for the following year. Reflective thinking.
  7. Working with students with disabilities and determining reasonable goals during IEP prep followed by purposeful planning to close the gap in their deficits.
  8. I don’t worry about attendance, I worry about the students in my class. I don’t worry about SLOs or the proper paperwork. I run with the good ideas when they arise.
  9. School Reform: Look at how the reform could be a positive (the district goals).
  10. School Reform: How do you want your school to be perceived (reputation).

Habit Three: Put First Things First

  1. Comfortable environment for the students. No drama. No gossip. No negatives.
  2. Meeting students where they are at and guiding them to where they need to be. We’re not going to have a half hour fight over whether they have a pencil or not.
  3. Putting together my evidence binder. The not urgent paperwork that is important. The budget. The field trip paperwork….
  4. Parent letters. Not urgent, but very important to send home periodically. Lowers parents’ anxiety.  At elementary, letters go out regularly.
  5. Unit planning. Getting the plans organized.
  6. Next Generation Science Standards. Taking time to learn them in preparation for their pending arrival.
  7. Attending professional development when available. To improve your skills—curriculum development, common core,.….
  8. Using department meetings and common planning time to do important work.
  9. Faculty meetings have fallen into the urgent but unimportant category. They can be a horrible waste of time. Help principals make better use of such meetings.
  10. School Reform: Student-driven. Students must always come first. Even when an IEP says a class of two.
  11. School Reform: Prioritize. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Make the change that’s really needed. Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill. Let things roll off your back.

Building Up The Emotional Bank Account

  1. Going to outside school events to show support. Dance recitals, soccer games, science symposium, horse shows, plays, music events, concerts, art shows, fiber tour, Washington county fair, 4H events, FFA events, winter Olympics, charities
  2. Being on time and attending all meetings with undivided attention (cell phones off)
  3. Listening to your colleagues and your administrators and students. Listening to what’s not being said. Being aware of the nonverbal. Trying to see things on their side. Walking in their shoes. Thinking about them while driving through the neighborhood and passing their homes.
  4. Clarify expectations. Write objectives on the board. I tell them there will be surprises such as pop quizzes.
  5. Sticking to a routine. That stability piece gives students a sense of clarity. Model integrity.
  6. Giving out a golden broomstick award (Witches) for students who went beyond the expectations of the classroom. Giving out stickers that work towards a party day once a month. They can play a game that is math related and a treat they select (apple cider, Christmas cookies….)
  7. Bucket fillers. Elementary are so much better at praising students and recognizing their accomplishments.
  8. When I make a mistake, I promptly apologize.
  9. It’s important to say when we don’t know. It builds trust when we admit we don’t know the answer.

Habit Four: Think Win-Win

  1. Sharing ideas with your colleagues.
  2. When focused on decisions, make sure the decision is student-centered, not teacher-centered. It’s not personal. It’s about the students, even if it means sacrificing. It’s professional, not personal.
  3. You should like everyone else’s idea for at least 15 minutes.
  4. Realizing that your big ideas may negatively impact others and being aware of such impacts.
  5. Putting yourself in other people’s shoes when making decisions.
  6. Being with administrators or colleagues in a team (there’s no I in team).
  7. School Reform: Work together. Parent-Teacher-Student-Administration-Community relationships. Make the school the community and the community the school.
  8. School Reform: Offer the proper continued support for everyone involved with the reform. Professional development, time, resources, and recognition (private or public) are essential. Ensure there is follow through.

Habit Five: Seek First to Understand Then to be Understood

  1. With students or colleagues, ask questions first. What would you do, what do you think.  Then offer your ideas.
  2. When a student is seated at their desk and not doing something, try not to take it personal but instead think how to get them back on track. Don’t assume.
  3. Try not to be judgmental. Don’t judge a book by its cover. People have different moral compasses. Correct behaviors, not judge them.
  4. Use the ten-second rule. You can’t respond for ten seconds.
  5. Ask and listen.
  6. School Reform: Think about the school’s needs. Community forums. Fully understand the purpose of reform before offering your thoughts or input.
  7. School Reform: Fully understand what the implications would be for students, teachers, staff, community…

Habit Six: Synergy

  1. Find the strengths of all students and exploit those strengths. It empowers them to do great work. We all have special talents which together make us more powerful as a department, school, and community. Our school and community are almost like one. This begins with our administration.
  2. Let students know this isn’t the only way to do something. I teach math, and they need to recognize there are other solutions to a problem.
  3. Apply for a grant with a group of people or a fellowship with a colleague. It creates great synergy.
  4. Focus on your strengths and manage your weaknesses.
  5. You can’t force synergy. You have to want it.
  6. School Reform: Have every person involved. Use their strengths. Everyone has a role. Everyone owns it.

Some of Our Teacher Leader Contributors:

Nicole Dixson, Rebecca Harke, Gwynne Cosh, Nicole Fortier

Race To The Top in New York: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

To get in the right mood, think Clint Eastwood as bounty hunter, spaghetti westerns, and the haunting theme music of Ennio Morricone. Think gun slinging outlaws, dusty deserts, tired horses, and poorly lit bars. There we go. Now we’re ready to talk about the biggest modern day reform agenda launched in New York state history, ie. Race to the Top (RTTT). One reminder, however. All significant change events carry with them good, bad and ugly elements, and so it goes with the New York State Board of Regents Reform Agenda-an agenda which has taken more than its fair share of heat. Here’s how I see the breakdown.

  • The good: Career Teacher Ladder, Teacher Leadership, Common Core State Standards, Data-Driven Instruction, Evidence-Based Teacher and Principal Observations, Rigorous Assessments, and Student Learning Objectives.
  • The bad: Career Teacher Ladder, Teacher Leadership, Common Core State Standards, Data-Driven Instruction, Evidence-Based Teacher and Principal Observations, Rigorous Assessments, and Student Learning Objectives.
  • The ugly: Career Teacher Ladder, Teacher Leadership, Common Core State Standards, Data-Driven Instruction, Evidence-Based Teacher and Principal Observations, Rigorous Assessments, and Student Learning Objectives.

Okay, that’s not fair. How can we have all these various RTTT deliverables categorized as good, bad and ugly together? Is there a way to differentiate the best RTTT has to offer from its worst elements? I’m biased, obviously, so I don’t dare venture too deeply down such a path. However, I think it’s fair to venture a little.

Common Core Standards are not good, they are great, and their adoption across the nation brought consistency and rigor to the 45 States in which they now exist. Rigor that was sorely needed to increase our students’ capacities to successfully compete in a flattened world. It’s hard work when a curriculum bar is suddenly raised, particularly when the rigor is two years higher than past curricula. Our students are now being asked to do 5th grade math in 3rd grade. To do 7th grade reading in 5th grade. Etc. Needless to say, there are serious growing pains with such a change in standards.

Data-Driven Instruction is not good, it’s essential. Many schools claim they’ve been doing it for years. Yes, end of year student assessment data have been analyzed and curricula changed in some schools. And yes, primary school teachers regularly use running records and other reading data to inform decisions. However, the widespread, purposeful actions of Assess, Analyze, and Act are done sparingly in our nation’s classrooms. Too much to do, a lack of professional development on how to do DDI, and other reasons compromise a truly data-driven instruction mindset.

Evidence-based observations of teachers AND PRINCIPALS are not good, they are desperately needed in all schools. Perhaps for the first time ever, all teachers and principals are being observed by lead evaluators trained to do such observations. And the observations conducted are based on analytic rubrics proven to be aligned with teaching and leadership standards. That’s fantastic! I remember years ago having observations done sparingly, and with checklists. There were no detailed descriptors built around reputable standards of teaching or leadership. Rather, they were primarily subjective evaluations (think judgments) of what good instruction or leadership looked like. That’s a dangerous proposition, particularly if the evaluator has unsound understandings or values.

There’s so much angst about Race to the Top, so let’s jump to the “ugly” elements. I will admit to being a fan of more rigorous state assessments, but there are obvious flaws in our present model that are blemishing the Regents Reform Agenda. The biggest issue is tying teacher and principal performance to student assessment data while the plane is still being built. Though the vast, vast majority of teachers are placing in the effective or highly effective APPR rankings, it is still exceedingly stressful to have one’s professional performance review partly contingent on how your students do on a new assessment based on new and much more rigorous standards. That’s very scary for many, and that is what adds the ugliness to the equation. Other “ugly” elements are just part of the change landscape. We will always have our “deniers” and “chicken little” types who prefer the comfortable status quo they’ve grown to love. However, most professionals within the field are working their best to make the necessary adjustments, and doing so successfully, though not without the periodic “hiccup” or “crash” such wide scale change brings.

Affirmation in the Churning Whitewater of Educational Reform

Before finalizing a purchase, stock investors conduct what is known as due diligence. They evaluate a company’s products and services against its competitors, study its balance sheet, and look at various charts and ratios to decide if it is an investment worthy of their hard-earned dollars. Not necessarily so for teachers and principals in public education. Instead, policy makers in concert with experts at all levels, conduct the due diligence to write regulations that educators and administrators are then required to follow. In the recent case of the Common Core State Standards, Data Driven Instruction, and Evidence-Based Observations through Race to the Top, that has been a good thing (not so sure about tying teacher and principal performance to student state assessment results, however). The really good news is all stakeholders are working hard to implement the change, even if they weren’t privy to the due diligence work. One only needs to spend time with P-20 educators to see the hard work happening across the state.

Fortunately for me, I get to see great educators and leaders at work frequently in my job, and last week was particularly favorable for such observations.

Tuesday, AM: High School Presentation on Understanding by Design and Lesson Planning using Backwards Design.

Tuesday, PM: SUNY Plattsburgh at Queensbury Seminar Series for Student Teachers on Common Core Instructional Shifts in Literacy

Wednesday, Full Day: edTPA in New York Implementation Conference

Thursday, AM: Principals as Instructional Leaders Seminar Series (SUNY Plattsburgh at Queensbury and WSWHE BOCES Partnership Project)

Thursday, PM: New York Association of Colleges for Teacher Education Reception and Dinner

Friday, AM: Teachers as Instructional Leaders Seminar Series (SUNY Plattsburgh at Queensbury and WSWHE BOCES Partnership Project)

Granted, I wear rose-colored glasses, but the events of this past work week clearly show significant progress in our efforts to raise student achievement. On Monday, I visited a small rural high school in upstate New York and was greeted by an audience of teachers in black t-shirts sporting a Wordle design celebrating their roles as teachers. Their solidarity spoke volumes of the dedication to each other and the children they teach, and our review of UBD led to a spirited discussion on  daily lesson planning and student achievement. The teachers greatest concern was writing detailed lesson plans while learning and implementing new curriculum modules and data driven instruction. There is plenty on their proverbial plates. Later that afternoon, I met with 25 student teachers and field supervisors to discuss and model some of the Common Core Instructional Shifts for Literacy. We covered each shift, but practiced text-based answers, academic vocabulary, and building knowledge in the disciplines. Ending the day with young, ambitious future teachers was very nice indeed.

Lest we forget the stressors on the higher ed community, on Wednesday I joined 250 other university and college professors and administrators to learn how best to roll out the edTPA. As we know, future teachers will be required to pass more rigorous exams and complete performance assessments that ask for descriptive, analytic, and reflective thinking and writing on their videotaped lessons. The edTPA demonstrates the value of assessing teachers’ capacities to thoughtfully process their pedagogy against standards of effective teaching. The complexities of rolling out edTPA can not be understated. However, at the edTPA in New York Implementation Conference, my colleagues and I got to see first hand the success stories of early edTPA pilots in colleges and universities spanning the state. It’s working! It’s hard, and it’s messy. However, if you are a fan of authentic, clinically rich self-assessments, then you do what’s necessary to make edTPA work. Another great day.

On Thursday, SUNY Plattsburgh at Queensbury launched the Principals as Instructional Leaders Seminar Series in partnership with WSWHE BOCES. 17 school administrators showed up for the first of a yearlong series of seminars and group research studies that focus on developing instructional leadership skills. Despite their frenetic schedules, these busy school administrators joined together to seek strategies and supports as instructional leaders, and we’re hopeful the content of our seminars and the research each group will conduct around data-driven instruction, common core instructional shifts and standards, and cultivating teacher leadership will meet their needs. Most importantly, we expect the seminars will provide opportunity for sharing ideas, asking questions, problem solving, and networking that otherwise would be unavailable to busy school administrators. Later that evening, I joined other invited members of the Professional Standards and Practices Board for a NYACTE Reception and Dinner, highlighted with Presentation of the New York State Teacher of the Year Award to Ashli Skura Dreher.  The evening ended with an uplifting presentation by Ashli on her deeply held and success-proven convictions that all students will learn. Another great ending.

Friday brought together a small group of seven teachers chosen by their superintendents to participate in the SUNY Plattsburgh at Queensbury Teachers as Instructional Leaders Seminar Series in partnership with WSWHE BOCES. The teachers began arriving at noon, though we weren’t officially scheduled to start till 12:30. What energy these folks have! As with the principals who participated in Thursdays seminar, these folks signed up for the series in spite of their workloads and lack of time. Most interestingly, when asked what their greatest fear was as instructional leaders, their concern was that the Common Core Standards would change. It wasn’t things like, “I’m worried about credibility from my colleagues,” or “I don’t know if I have the skills and understandings to be an instructional leader.” Instead, they simply hope there are no more changes. They want to get Common Core, DDI, and Evidence Based Observations right! Hopefully, this seminar series will help them realize their goals. And so ended a very busy, exciting, affirming week.

P-20 educators understand all too well the “churning waters” analogy as the weight of omnipresent forces impact teachers, principals, teacher assistants, superintendents, higher ed faculty, deans of education, student teachers, and most importantly, our children. Despite the chaotic nature of reform and the fact that few were invited to do the due diligence and “sign up” for the changes, most are committed to the Common Core State Standards and concomitant instructional shifts, data-driven instruction, and evidence-based observations. However, most are also frantically clawing to keep their heads above water as they grapple to adapt to the new and seemingly ever-changing landscape.  And they don’t want to “Wait five years till something new is in place.” To my P-20 colleagues, I say “Hang on.” “Don’t let go.” It’s extremely challenging, and at times imperfect, work. Still, steady progress is being made which will ultimately best serve our students and this great nation.