Saturday, November 4, 2017

Wounded But Not Weakened

And with a broken wing
She still sings
She keeps an eye on the sky
With a broken wing
She carries her dreams
Man you ought to see her fly


Martina McBride

Confession: I have a love/hate relationship with the first parent, student, teacher conferences of the year. Ninety-nine percent of the time, these meetings come and go without incident, and I genuinely enjoy the conversations that I have with parents. It is rewarding to celebrate their child’s progress and to set new goals. However, occasionally preparing for those first conferences is a little more stressful than usual as I anticipate some difficult conversations. I've usually had several discussions with more difficult parents, but I never quite know what to expect. Even one or two upset parents can feel like a full-scale attack. It’s hard not to take criticism personally. It’s hard not to fall into the trap of “we against them.” It’s hard to listen, understand their point of view, and to learn from the feedback. Criticism hurts us deeply because we are so passionate about education and our students. After the recent conferences that I had this year, I feel like a bird with a wounded wing. I’ve cried. I’ve rationalized my thinking and played the blame game. But mostly, I’ve done a lot of reflecting.
     Over the span of my career, I’ve worked with some of the most amazing parents! The last five years have been more than I could ever dream of as a teacher. Parents were in my classroom every day, and I felt like we were indeed partners with common goals. They were engaged and often empowered as we made instructional decisions together. The timing couldn’t have been better. I was trying many new things, and the parents thoroughly trusted and supported me. But, I changed schools and went to an entirely different community. Problems started to develop because I failed to build strong relationships with my new parents. I didn’t bank enough trust but continued to implement practices that were entirely new. I thought my reputation would follow me and I didn't put in the work. I failed to build from the ground up. I made assumptions. And so now, I have to back up, slow down, and hopefully, develop some credibility and move forward. I think I’ve learned some things that can help other teachers and leaders.

Use critical feedback as a chance to reflect on your practices and grow. This is hard! We have to be careful not to be defensive rather than listening to understand. There usually is a little nugget of truth behind every complaint. And, we shouldn’t feel defensive if we are making our decisions based on what’s best for the students. Every parent wants to feel listened to and understood. Listen and clarify your understanding. Apologize if you make a mistake. Be open and honest. Language such as, “I am sorry that happened,” allows you to keep your dignity while demonstrating to the parents that you are empathetic and want to be an educational partner. Being reflective is a chance to ask yourself some hard questions and define your “Why.” Ask yourself if you’ve communicated your vision to your parents. In my case, I failed to explain my “Why” of blended learning, no homework, flexible seating, standards-based grading, etc. I had good intentions and plans and thought I was sending out plenty of information. My failure was not making it a priority to teach parents more.

Traditional practices are what parents know. As teachers make the shift from more traditional methods to different ways of doing things, it’s important to keep parents in the loop. For the past eight years, I’ve used a learning management system with my students, and they’ve loved it. I’ve had a 1:1 Chromebook classroom environment for the last four years. Being paperless is not new to me. I forget that this is a new concept for many people. The transition for parents is sometimes challenging. I was caught a little off-guard that parents complained about not seeing worksheets and worksheet packets especially in the community where I’m currently teaching. I’ve had to find some compromises to meet parents where they are at and move forward from there. It’s not about giving in to a parent’s every demand. It’s about helping parents to feel like I’m on their side and that I’m attempting to understand their point of view. I’m still very confident in the direction that I’m moving and in my abilities as a teacher. I just need to show parents effective ways to support their children’s learning without depending on a worksheet.

Communicate! Communicate! Communicate! I’ve heard it said a million times that you can never communicate enough. Most problems arise because of a lack of communication and misunderstandings. Even when you think you’ve sent out a lot of information and used many platforms, you can always communicate on a more consistent and regular basis. I also think it’s important for teachers to communicate with simple language absent of educational jargon and buzzwords. I love the idea recently shared with me by a great mentor about the 7-11 principle. The local corner convenience store will have a mix of people with varying backgrounds in the store at any one time. Are you communicating in such a way that the people in the convenience store clearly understand your vision? Another mistake of mine that I’m trying to remedy is that I need to do better at two-way communication. Sometimes we educators think it’s enough to send out information, but fail to provide ways that parents can give us regular feedback. Parents who feel listened to will be much more likely to trust you.

Build trust and strong relationships with parents. An ounce of prevention goes a long way. I’m glad that I made “deposits” in parent bank accounts at the first of the year with positive phone calls home, notes, and emails. My epic fail was that I neglected to send home consistent positive communication. I let my priority of cultivating trust and positive relationships take a back seat as the school year jumped into full speed, and I got busier. I allowed myself to be distracted and lost focus. This is a mistake that I hope I never repeat! I knew better. Communicating in good times was precisely when I should have been doing more to make sure that parents were informed. I know that sometimes you have to go slow to go fast when implementing change. But, I’m not always very patient. I want to innovate, to feel like I’m changing the status quo, and to be on the cutting edge. But by not going slow, I nearly fell off the edge! I’ve learned. It’s easy for me to respect the journey that teachers are making. Everyone is at a different place. I also need to appreciate the journey that parents are taking as shifts happen in education.

I feel a little wounded, but I will heal. I can still sing (figuratively, not in real life), hop around, flap my good wing and dream of where I want to be. Parents are not an enemy of teachers. In fact, I’ve found that I soar the highest when parents are my partners. I’m looking forward to implementing some tweaks to what I’m doing. I’m looking forward to building stronger relationships with the parents in my new school community. Although I’m not entirely there yet, I think that I’ll look forward to the next parent, student, teacher conferences. I've learned a lot.

Most birds take shelter from a storm. An eagle stretches its wings, leans into the wind current, and uses adversity for an opportunity for lift and leverage. The greater the opposing wind, the higher the eagle flies!

I will fly again.


Sunday, October 8, 2017

Hierarchy of Our Words


Personally, this has been a tough start to a school year. For various reasons that I am unable to articulate, my confidence and teacher self-efficacy has waxed and waned as I’ve navigated through the first months of school. There’s no one cause that I can pinpoint, but it’s instead a combination of factors. I’m usually a pretty confident person, and along with that, I’ve been quite confident in my ability as a teacher. But, I’ve struggled this year to consistently feel the same level of confidence that is my norm.
The other day, I jumped onto Twitter (which I hadn’t done for a long time), and I noticed a graphic made by a principal. Instead of signing the graphic with the common closing of “principal, instructional coach, lead learner” or other similar titles before the name, there were the words “educator, ” and it hit me like a ton of bricks! Yes! I am an educator! We (teachers, administrators, coaches, curriculum directors, etc.) are educators! Immediately, the Youtube video explaining the subtle difference between teacher and educator came to mind.
By definition, a teacher shows or explains, gives information about or instructs, encourages someone to accept something as fact, or causes someone to learn. An educator inspires, coaches, illuminates, advises, empowers and mentors. Educator came from educare and is related to educere bring out, lead forth.”
In essence, we are (or strive to be) educators regardless of formal titles and positions. We are in fact leaders in education working to “bring out” the greatness of those we serve. Teachers are not “just” teachers. Teachers are educational leaders! The subtle language and mindset shift are empowering.



At a time when we know collaborative leadership and teacher efficacy is so essential to student learning, I can’t help but wonder if the hierarchy of the words we choose make a difference. For example, many teachers think of themselves as “just” teachers! It’s as if they don’t have any value, creative autonomy, and ability to make meaningful instructional decisions. Great teachers in millions of classrooms fail to see themselves as leaders, and yet they’re leading their classes and others within their circle of influence every day. There is nothing more important than the work of an educator in the classroom who mentors and inspires students. Teacher efficacy, the belief in one’s capability to make a difference in the lives of students, impacts teacher behavior, their goals, and student performance. Without teacher efficacy, it’s much more difficult to expand the idea to collective efficacy and collective teacher efficacy.
If we are all educators/leaders if we’re all learners and if we all are focused on improving student learning, do we need to use titles as a means to show that one leader has more value than another? Why does the title of instructional coach, team leader, or department chair have more value and prestige than the title of a teacher? Why is the title of a principal more valued than a vice principal or instructional coach and so on up the chain?  Is it possible to address ourselves as an educator or even as an educational leader rather than using titles as a means to show that one person has more value in a school system than another? Can we flatten the school hierarchy by choosing different language? Can we change the paradigm that the person highest in the hierarchy should single-handedly make all of the decisions? Or can we slightly change the culture to be more collaborative just by the words we use? Titles need to be used for practical purposes, but maybe they don’t need to carry as much weight or significance in a school community of educators who have the mindset that everyone has strengths and leadership capacity. A common goal to increase the growth of every student will happen when teachers view themselves as educational leaders rather than “just” teachers and of less value than others in the traditional hierarchy of school leadership.



Saturday, October 7, 2017

Evidence of Neglecting to Blog

I just spent the last 30 + minutes trying to figure out how to log into the account associated with this blog. I couldn't remember the gmail account information nor the password. Sigh.....

It's not that I haven't been thinking and writing down ideas. I have. I'm just having a hard time blogging and even being on any social media at all. I don't know why.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Rusty

I haven’t posted a blog post since last April. Even the few blog posts I published back then didn't make me happy. I’m struggling as a writer. It’s not that I don’t have plenty of topics to write about because I do. I’ve reflected and thought quite a bit about a whole host of subjects. But, when I’ve sat down to write, the words haven’t come. Sometimes I’ve written some thoughts and deleted them. I shouldn’t do that. I should keep them to revisit them later. Sometimes I've composed thoughts in my head with just the right words, but my critical voice rebelled and pushed them out of my mind quickly so that I couldn't recall and write them down.

I’m rusty now. I’m out of practice. I’ve worried about things that I shouldn’t worry about like who will read my posts and what will they think. I know better. Blogging is about reflecting and growing as a person. It’s a place to jot down thoughts about where I am in this space and time. Opinions change. My views have changed considerably about a lot of things since I’ve become a connected educator. It’s good to ask, “Why?” It’s good to have my ideas and practices challenged. It’s good to go back to read about where I was and where I am now. This journey is an "edventure, " and I need to share my story.

This blog post is bland and unimportant. But, I’m posting it. It doesn’t matter to me if anyone reads it. I need to take this step to help me get back in the routine of reflecting and writing down my thoughts.

I don't feel like I'm living true to my one word. Maybe that's been a roadblock too.


Sunday, April 23, 2017

Swim!


I nearly drowned as a second grader! A couple of the other kids had their arms around our coach as she walked closer to the deep end of the pool. I followed closely behind her. But before I knew it, I could no longer bob up and down and touch the bottom of the pool with my toes. I panicked and tried desperately to keep my head above water. At the moment before I knew my life was about to end, I looked up into the stands and saw my mom motioning to me to put my head down and swim. “Swim, Sandy!” she yelled. I looked to the side of the pool, and my coach was doing the same thing. No one was running to save me! “Swim, Sandy!” their blended voices hollered. It wasn’t the most graceful American crawl, I’m sure. But, I did make it to the side of the pool and am still alive to tell the story.
I’ve often thought about this experience when I’ve faced changes and challenges throughout my career. When I start to feel a little self-doubt, I hear the voices in my head saying, “Swim, Sandy!” I know then that I need to FOCUS and swim! It isn’t always pretty getting to the side for a breather, but I make it. My coaches don’t jump in and rescue me, but I know they’re on the side cheering me on because they believe that I’ll be successful. As a result, I have a stronger sense of self-efficacy. There is a need for some basic knowledge, but the application of what I’ve learned is up to me.
“Jumping into the deep end of the pool” can be a little scary, but it’s also where we’ll experience the most growth. Being in the deep end of the pool forces us to leave our comfort zones and apply our new learning. While many educators heed the advice of starting small when it comes to change, I’ve always jumped in and have swum for my life. I’ve grown very accustomed to being comfortable with being uncomfortable. Making mistakes and learning from those mistakes is part of who I am. It’s part of my creative spirit. Although I can envision where I need to go and want to be, I don’t always know the “how-to’s, ” and that’s where there’s risk-taking. It’s often through play, experimentation, and collaborating with others that the best ideas come about and benefit kids.
Regardless of whether educators jump in the deep end of the pool or start at the shallow end, the point is to move forward and start making the changes that our kids deserve. It seems that our profession is the only one where those who remain stagnant are allowed to keep their jobs. We would never go to a doctor or dentist who was not current with the most updated medical practices. We would never board a plane of an untrained pilot and seek advice from a lawyer who did not know the current laws. Businesses that don't continually change and adapt go out of business. Yet, educators who have children's lives on the line, continue to hold onto old mindsets and traditions.
There are times when initiating change where it’s better to start small and gradually build momentum. But there are other times when we need to just jump in and start somewhere. It most assuredly won’t be perfect. It’s inevitable that we’ll make mistakes, but we won’t drown. Focusing on our “WHY” will help us “swim to the side” so that we can catch our breath and reflect on what is working and what needs tweaking. Over time, the little tweaks will lead to transformational change. Our ability to “swim” will get easier.
We have a great work to do! We have a lot of work to do! We’re not going to benefit our kids much by splashing around in the kiddie pool. We cannot keep educating our kids in old tired traditional ways. Our kids deserve better and more opportunities that will prepare them for their future. 



Friday, April 14, 2017

Transitioning from Teacher Leader to School Leader: What I Learned From My Intern Experience


This month, my compelled blogger tribe is writing about Spring Break. Officially, our Spring Break came much later than other schools and was much shorter. But I'm in a year-round school, and I've had a couple of weeks off. The past few weeks have been a time for a lot of self-reflection.

What I've Learned From Being An Intern

Everything about school leadership, for me, comes down to one thing and that is the relationship that you build with the people you serve. Most of my intern hours were completed when I was off-track. It was a blessing and a curse. It was a blessing because I was officially able to complete my required hours. It was a curse because I had very little time to build trusting relationships with the people that I worked with every day at my assigned schools. To their credit, I was able to quickly build positive relationships with the staff, students, parents, teachers, and other community members easily. I feel like a family member at both schools and am so grateful for such a positive experience! I genuinely love the people at both schools!

I learned the importance of listening and leading by asking questions. I'm naturally a pretty good listener, and I treasure the 1:1 conversations that I have with people. But as an intern with a different role to play, I caught myself several times wanting to give answers rather than helping the teachers discover their own answers. Thankfully, I hear daily from my PLN the importance of leading by asking questions. It's something that I've worked hard to improve in my classroom and something that I was very conscious of as I observed teachers and gave them feedback.

Communication is always important, and you can never seem to communicate enough! Email is a common way to communicate but for me, one of the least effective ways to share a message. But I learned to meet people where they are at and communicate the same message repeatedly and in multiple ways. I'm grateful that I already had worked on building better lines of communication and had experience with using social media, tech tools, and other traditional forms of communication. Communication is much more than an email or newsletter. I learned more about the importance of clearly articulating your values and beliefs as a leader. It really came back to listening and clarifying what was shared with me. I think that communication can always be improved!

Another leadership lesson that was reinforced was the importance of being visible. It would be easy to be trapped in an office all day. There's always plenty to do! But my favorite thing as an intern was to visit and observe classrooms! I loved watching and interacting with the students, having them tell me about their learning, and why it was important. I enjoyed watching the different styles of teaching and talking to teachers about their instructional choices. I gained a lot of insight and tons of ideas! One of my favorite times of the day was being outside greeting kids and parents in the morning and then wishing them a goodnight at the end of the day. Lunchtime was also a time when I had a chance to get to know the students and engaged in some fun conversations. To my surprise, I actually enjoyed going to school board meetings and other meetings with various community members. I learned a lot and built a larger network. I enjoyed conversations as I worked with support staff members. It was a pleasure, and I sure laughed a lot! It was clearly evident throughout my intern experience the amazing people working for the benefit of kids!

It was an odd sensation at first, but I was acutely aware of people watching me all of the time- of how I acted, talked, interacted with students and others. I was myself but aware that I was wearing a different mantle of stewardship on my shoulder even as an intern. Intentionally or unintentionally, I was modeling behavior for students, staff, parents, others in the school community. I felt a need to be "professional" but personal. I also learned, even more, the importance of walking the talk. If I encouraged a teacher to take a risk, I also had to be willing to do the same. It was new to me to be so vulnerable in such a public way. I take risks every day in my classroom with my students and give it very little thought. But to risk in front of colleagues was a little scary.

Thankfully, I had great mentor principals and vice principals, and I learned a lot about management. I feel very comfortable being an instructional leader and working with students and teachers. But, I'm less comfortable working on the management side of being a leader in a school setting. I'm grateful to my mentors for taking the time to show me the "paperwork side" of school leadership. There is a lot for me to learn!

Another lesson that I learned is the importance of confidence and self-efficacy. Although a lot of the intern experience was new to me, I did have a calm confidence that I could do the job and be successful. Although, I will admit that going to the middle school was a complete culture shock and I was a deer in the headlights for a couple of days. I can laugh about it now, but at the time I was stressed! Did I make mistakes during my internship? Yes! My mentors were very kind and patient as I learned. And I have so much more to learn! But, I know that I can be a successful administrator. I know I'm ready for a new challenge. I know that I'm ready to transition from a classroom teacher to a school leader when the opportunity comes. Being in the classroom for as long as I have has helped me to develop a certain skill set that most administrators don't have. I have classroom experience, but I've also had to adapt to the many changes that have happened in education- especially during the last seven years or so. I've adapted to the Common Core, more testing, and accountability, integrating technology, PLCs, and many other changes. I have a degree of credibility and instant rapport with teachers, and I know that I can leverage that to improve student learning in a school. It's always much harder to implement new initiatives in a classroom than it is to just read and learn about something from a book or conference. An opportunity for me to be a school leader for the next school year likely won't happen- which truthfully hurts my heart. But, I will remain positive and take advantage of the time to continue learning and growing.


Sunday, April 9, 2017

Renewal


Renewal. It means to make like new. Synonyms include words like restore implying returning to an original state after depletion, renovate as in repairing or rebuilding, and rejuvenate suggesting a restoration of youthful vigor, powers, or appearance. We renew library books, licenses, acquaintances, and vows. Holiday breaks renew our spirits; exercise renews our energy. Spring is the renewal of life after a long spell of winter. Our world is in a constant state of change and adaptation. Change comes in cycles of birth, growth, death, and renewal. Renewal is the acceptance of change.

John Goodlad said, “Most of us generally don’t pull up stakes and move simply because the paint on the windowsill starts to peel. And we don’t destroy our old garden and start over from scratch each time the blooms begin to fade. We do better when we exercise patience, ongoing care and while monitoring the effectiveness of that care, make adjustments where necessary. Such an approach, when applied to schooling, is what we call educational renewal.” In the words of John Goodlad, educational renewal is primarily designed for two purposes. First, renewal is to prevent current conditions from deteriorating and to address problems that arise. Secondly, school renewal aims to effect and sustain the changes that are desirable.

Educational renewal is never on a checklist as something that can be “done.” It is not a program, mandate, or initiative. It is not a mass produced package with instructions on how to fix problems by replacing what is currently happening in a school. Renewal is a way of being. School renewal includes all stakeholders- teachers, parents, secretaries, administration, custodians, librarians, students, bus drivers, etc. that collectively look at the school experience and inquire about what is working and what is not working. Everyone has a voice and ideas are shared on a regular basis. Alternatives to the status quo are examined, put into practice, and assessed to determine their impact. The responsibility for change lies with those who can and must make the changes and who will also be affected by the changes. In a school setting, renewal may look something like providing more support and training for literacy instruction rather than replacing a whole reading program. It is different than a reform. School renewal is more about the continuous tweaking of behaviors that over time lead to a greater transformation much like a gardener prunes, weeds, and tends to other tasks that nurture the plants within a garden. And just as the soil must be primed and ready for a fruitful garden, a school’s culture must be primed and ready for risk-taking, open discussion, and change.

Unfortunately, developing a school culture that fosters school renewal doesn’t happen quickly and easily. It takes a courageous leader to clearly articulate and communicate a shared vision. Leaders must model and embody the values that they want to instill in others. They must be resourceful and understand how resources and budgets can be used to influence change strategies. Strong leaders must develop leadership skills in others by identifying strengths and finding opportunities for their staff members to lead. They must examine data, determine next steps, and evaluate the impact of those next steps. Leadership for school renewal can’t just be positional if long-term changes are expected to take root. Teacher leaders can influence the thoughts and actions of their colleagues to improve their practices. A culture where renewal thrives is created when engaging in inquiry, and reflective behaviors is a norm.

       One of the greatest responsibilities of leaders is to foster a strong sense of self-efficacy in teachers and the belief that their purposeful actions can make meaningful changes in the lives of their students. Leaders must trust their teachers and communicate the belief that collectively, SMART goals can be achieved. They instill hope despite the obstacles and empower their stakeholders to create the conditions that will make educators more successful. The optimism, confidence, and determination of great leaders to persevere are infectious. Strong visionary leaders passionately inspire their staff to focus on what students are to learn and be able to do. Feedback about each student’s progress is timely and ongoing so that teachers can use the embedded structures to give students more support. Professional learning communities provide timely feedback to each teacher regarding student learning in comparison to other students so that teachers can identify their strengths and weaknesses with instruction. A PLC becomes more than just another educational acronym. The school becomes a place focused on learning. The school and the people within the school improve simultaneously. The message of “We’re all growing, learning, and improving our ability to ensure that every student is learning” is loud and it’s celebrated!

       An ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, said: “There is nothing permanent except change.” As educators embrace the concept of renewal in their school, changes won’t seem so daunting. Those things that work and are valuable to a school community can be retained while at the same time promote the changes that will improve educators and their practices. Small consistent changes for improvement over time lead to a level of transformation and lasting effective change. Perhaps the most common metaphor for transformation is the metamorphosis of a caterpillar. Maya Angelou said, "We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty." Simultaneous educational renewal is a transformation that benefits all stakeholders as they change and grow together.
         Successful leaders in educational renewal efforts must rise above the common standard. As Goodlad stated, "Our schools today desperately need innovative leaders who can dust off the narrative that implores creation of a thoughtful public, as proposed by Thomas Jefferson, Horace Mann, John Dewey, and many other distinguished scholars. We need innovative leaders who are ready and willing to challenge the status quo, leaders who can influence others in pursuit of schools that engage all students in meaningful learning toward the ultimate purpose of creating a thoughtful public willing and prepared to work toward a healthy and just democracy."