As we round up our No. 2 pencils, tweak schedules, bag snacks, and count test booklets, we reflect on another academic year. We ask ourselves, "What growth have our students made? How will they do in reading, math, and science? Did we do everything we could do to help them learn?"
It's that last question that we dwell on...
We wrestle with the thoughts on system changes since the previous year. Adjusted our tutoring strategies to focus on Reading, Math, and Science. In our labs, students receive focused tutoring to ensure success in class. After school, for three hours a week, we have core content teachers available for extra support. This, coupled with busing to the nearest feeder school, allowed for no excuses.
However, we also know that "we can't intervene our way to success." We need to re-tool what we are doing to meet the needs of our students who have changed.
This year, we focused on building the foundation of high school literacy. This led us to work on infusing literacy into the daily operation of our teaching. Historically, our teachers have been very good at focusing on content and know what needs to be taught to prepare students for the next level. This year, we added the element of "how" students will engage with literacy (reading, writing, speaking, and listening) to show that they have learned the content. Through posting and referring to both content and language targets, teachers deliberately focused on supporting our school's two largest subgroups - English Language Learners (21%) and Low-Socio Economic Status (70%) students. We knew that was just one step.
The second involved writing. With "Literacy" being the focus, we knew it would have to be very deliberate - we must write and write daily. A major contributor to the thought was Hattie's work on making thinking visible. When we look at the four elements of literacy, two make that happen - speaking and writing. Knowing that we will one day depart Iowa Assessments and move toward Smarter Balanced Assessments, writing will be even more critical to show our students learning. Our students must write and they must speak.
That hasn't been easy. Our students wrote more this year than they have ever written. Seeing students provide written explanations of thought is exciting. It truly makes learning visible. However, some teachers struggle with daily writing and our administrative team struggled monitoring it. We could easily see the results (we requested samples every 3-4 weeks. However, we still need to foster a way to "see" it happening daily in classes.
I am excited for our students to take the state test tomorrow. We aren't about hyping the test anymore. We have done that every year with little to show for it. This year, we focused on being good at a few strategies that should support the learning of our students. A pep rally, pre-test pancakes, fruit snacks, or shaving a teachers head can't take the place of solid academic shifts focused at supporting and improving student learning.
This year, we focused on the right things. Did we do everything we could to help students learn? We did more of the right things and that's the start.
In days of social media and instant information, parents have more lines of communication than ever with schools. However, parents still desire to have a formal communication from school. For the past year, we have sent a weekly bulletin to parents. It has included student announcements, messages directly to parents, data about attendance, messages from the principals, and weekly schedule of events.
We are constantly seeking ways to improve our communication. This spring, our parent teacher conferences focused on communication. First, we built communicated the reason for the changes. With online grades, weekly grade reports emailed, and parent-teacher email communication, many parents did not feel the need to attend conferences.
Sometimes, tough conversations have to happen. During my principal endorsement courses, I read the book "Fierce Conversations" by Susan Scott. Various elements of that book stuck with me during the formative years of my leadership training. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to be trained as a "Fierce Conversation" trainer. That's when things clicked.
"The conversation is the relationship."
When things aren't going as planned, I stop and reflect on what is happening. Most often than not, I realize that I have stopped the conversation. Although there is a honeymoon period for every new job, I felt mine at North High School lasted longer than normal. Needless to say, it ended. During that time I thought deeply on "what happened?" I immediately looked outward and pondered why the staff changed? What was their problem? Then it hit me. I no longer focused on the conversation. Thus, the relationship I was building with the staff started to fade. Our relationship lives in the conversations we are having.
"Let silence do the heavy lifting"
Tough conversations aren't easy. We often don't know what to say. Once I learned that I didn't have to fill the silence with talking, conversations became easier. We have all had those conversations where we didn't know what to say. Sometimes, we filled the silence with whatever spewed out of our mouths. Often, that gets us into trouble. Alternatively, think of a time a family member or friend just needed you around. No words were spoken but the silence said volumes. The same concept applies to our most difficult conversations. Silence can be awkward and uncomfortable. However, when we let silence do the heavy lifting, the person we ware having a conversation with will often be the first to break the silence and begin the process of facing the consequences or reality of the conversation.
"Tackle your toughest challenge today"
Since we don't like uncomfortable conversations, we often put them off. We "don't want to ruin our day." The question is, "Do we ruin our days by not tackling our biggest obstacle right now?" Yes. One of the quotes used by Fierce Conversations from Annie Dillard is "How we spend our days is how we spend our lives." Nothing could be more true when it comes to the conversations that we need to and must have. When we put off those conversations because of fear, we continue to hold back an improved reality. Think of how great life would be if "that" conversation was had today? Yes, it will make your stomach ache. Yes you can't predict how the other person will respond. What you will know is that you cared enough about the relationship to have the conversation.
I hate tough conversations. I don't like telling adults they aren't meeting expectations. I hate telling parents their son or daughter got in trouble. I hate telling people they didn't get the job. I hate telling people they are losing their job. However, I care enough about them to have the conversation.
Ryan Dumkrieger is the principal of Sioux City North High School.