Over the past few weeks, I have been stopped by a teacher who, for a lack of better word, struggles. I will be clear, she never struggled in the way that I questioned whether she should teach - she has the heart of a teacher. She struggled in the way many teachers do. She questions her worth, whether she is making a difference, and whether or not she should keep teaching. I am not surprised we have had the recent conversations we have had. Today was our latest conversation.
Today, I was busy. I had meetings all morning, was in the building for just a short while, then had to leave again early. My time in my office and completing my tasks was my top priority. Then, she walked in. She did that, “Hey, do you have a minute?” thing that everyone answers first in their heads, filters it, then replies. I of course said, “No, I am really busy, but come on in.” I struggle sometimes being “on-demand.”
We walk into my office and take a seat. I am at my desk, straightening things up. I am half heartedly paying attention. Then, she says it. “Thank you.”
She had my attention.
This teacher began stating how this is one of her best years. That she is taking risks and doing things she never would have done in the classroom. She talked about how she is making deeper relationships with students and finding they are rising to her higher expectations. She is collaborating with her peers in PLC and taking their ideas and trying them after tweaking them to her style. She isn’t afraid to fail.
At that moment, I was fully re-engaged. My management hat was off and my instructional leader hat was on full display. She came into my office, took a risk, and won my attention.
This teacher reminded me today of a few things:
This teacher is every teacher - every school professional. We question our worth, our value daily. These teachers have the efficacy to get the job done and done well. Sometimes they (we) lack the confidence because we are scared, unsure, or tired. I personally have spent a lot of time this afternoon reflecting on this teacher’s journey by putting the pieces together and trying to read the map that lead her from Point A to Point B. There is no map, just trust and awareness that good teaching and learning has a level of risk.
This semester has brought a word back to my mind on occasion. That word is "persistence." When I think of the teachers I admire most, that is the word that rings through.
As defined on webster.com, persistence is a "to go on resolutely or stubbornly in spite of opposition, importunity, or warning." I think back to my teachers. The ones that I admire today. They were persistent.
With the end of the year quickly approaching, it rings true. I recently listened to a podcast "What To Do On Lame Duck School Days." The podcast and accompanying article features low and high value items to do during "downtime". The ideas feature go beyond the "show a movie" that we have all encountered. Although the list contains some low-value items that don't connect curriculum, there are many ideas on what can filled with educational value.
We have to be persistent in focusing on education until the last day. With summer brain drain on the horizon, we need to make sure that students are pushed until the final day of school. We can't afford to quit on May 1st or once prom is over. We must be persistent in focusing on continued learning. We must be persistent that students behave at high expectations. We must be persistent that students are engaged. To do so, we may have to get more creative this time of year.
Some kids are scared. I don't write this for propaganda or other political influence. It's the facts. Prior to the election, students were having conversations about what will happen if one candidate got into office. Today, that is a reality for them. What's next?
We have over 600 Hispanic students in our school. That is our largest subgroup of students. Some were born here, some immigrated, some are refugees, and yes, some may even be here illegally. But it's not just our Hispanic students that have made mention of the new realities in which we live. We have had black students feel as if they lost a voice. We have had East African students worry about families being able to visit or if they will be able to return to visit them. That is just the ethnic and racial aspects. We have a strong LGBTQ and Muslim population as well who may now struggle to find their voice and place in our community.
But, that's our job as school leaders. We set the tone and direction for all of our kids.
First thing this morning, the administrative banter began to discover how we ensure a "smooth transition of power" for our kids? How do we reduce the anxiety of the election results for some of our students while allowing for students on the other side of the issue to feel pride and success? We shared ideas, read articles, shared thoughts, and crafted words. We wanted our kids - no matter the subgroup - to know that they were our kids and we have their backs or supported their beliefs even if we don't as adults. That starts with empathy and understanding. We sent a common message and the staff response was immense.
Our teaching and learning staff have seen change and evolved to embrace it. We are the most diverse school in Western Iowa. This is a very, very foreign concept to our community and not well understood by others in our state. Our students do not look or sound like those of the rural, farming communities that surround us in the Midwest. They don't have the same life experiences or backgrounds. We speak 15 different languages and have 51 students in our school who are new to the country. We are their first taste of America. I wouldn't trade one of our urban 1,498 students for the world. Each one of them gives me hope that, generationally, we are progressing and becoming a better populous.
We will continue to prepare our students for a global economy. We will teach them humility and respect. We will hold them to high expectation. We will support them. We will teach them democracy built on the premise of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." We will encourage them to be civically minded and to act on the ideaology they choose.
As a principal, I never thought I would need to write about a presidential elections impact. I pray that I never have to again. As a student body and a staff, we will move on and grow from this. As I see it, it is like planting a tree. Years from now we will reap the benefits of what is sowed today - sometimes we have to weather storms to get there. All storms pass.
I have been with the same school district since the fall of 2010. One of the first things I remember learning is that it was a district expectation that teachers post "student friendly learning targets in 'I can' statements." Our walkthrough form had a section where the target is identified as posted or not posted. I learned that it was an expectation teachers struggle with achieving.
Fast forward six years...
The expectation has not changed and neither had the struggle for teachers to consistently post targets. Human nature tells me that with 100 teaching staff members, a few will forget to post or change them on any given day. Looking back on walkthrough data our school building consistently posts and teaches content learning targets 81% of the time. Why is it not 100% or at least extremely close?
So, I asked teachers...
Answer 1: We get busy and we forget to post them.
Answer 2: The students don't look at them.
Answer 3: I don't see how they help. I don't believe in them.
These answers made me realize the "mandate to post" targets was heard more than the "mandate for posting" targets. We want to ensure students understand the relevancy and "why" of learning something. We must do the same here.
What is the Mandate for Posting Learning Targets? Below are the four points that, I believe, sell posting targets in clsssrooms.
Just Posting Targets Will Do Nothing
Having well written targets on the board does nothing to support learning if they are not explicitly taught to students. Students must understand what the target means and understand it's connection to the day's activities. Teachers who start with the target, refer back to the target, assess the target, and holds closure on the target will have deeper student understanding - if the student understand the learning target. Having them visual supports our English Language Learners.
Targets Must Tie to Common Formative Assessments
As a student, if I read a target as "what" I am learning today, how will I know I learned it? The content of the target is the most important concept, problem, or theme of the unit or lesson. Teachers should be developing formative assessments that measure the content learning target. This allows the student to assess his or her learning and the teacher can examine data to determine progress of learning.
It Is Research Based
McREL completed a study update on Classroom Instruction That Works in 2010 (1) and showed the effect size of posting objectives as 0.31. This would equate to 9-10 month's growth in student learning. The key to it being research based is that it is used to connect students to learning. When written as "I can" statements it sets the stage for the student to self assess learning.
We Missed the Boat
The video below is researcher John Hattie who explains how posting Learning Targets without also addressing success criteria weakens the goal. Students must not merely know "what" or "how" they are going to learn but also what the criteria is to be successful at a high level.
Posting targets must be about the "what" (content target) and the "how" (language target). We must also present, for understanding, the criteria for achieving the learning of the target. Students must know what they are learning, how they are learning it, and the criteria set to measrlure if they learned and at what level.
What we are learning (Content Target)
How we are learning the content (Language Target)
When will we know we have been successful (Success Criteria)
Tuesday, when we return from the long weekend, we are set to begin our daily writing expectation in each class. There are many reasons writing is important and why we have set this expectation. First, writing makes student thinking visible. When students put onto paper (or insert into a text box) what they know about the content, we can easily see what they understand or where they struggle. Students can guess on a multiple choice, true/false, or similar style question. When they write about what they learned, how they learned it, or why theylearned it, deeper understanding is established. Secondly, we must prepare students for next generation challenges. Thosechallenges may be high stakes assessments, college entrance essays, or the work force. For these reasons, our students must become better writers.
As we begin making writing a daily practice, focus on content. Don’t worry about giving feedback on specific writing skills—that will come later. Give feedback on content targets. We know that through continual practice, student writing will get better. Writing every day in our classes will help us to identify areas we must focus on to further improve our student's writing.
The teachers who have already worked to include writing in their classes are impressive. We have observed students completing numeric problems and then writing to explain their thinking while solving the problem. Teachers are helping students set up blogs for journaling, and some students have already written and presented speeches about new content. We are off to a great start.
We have three Consulting Teachers who are ready to supportteachers by providing strategies, modeling, and collaborating on lessons as needed. The administrative team is ready to monitor the implementation and identify areas where support and resources are needed. Teacher success with implementing daily writing centers on support, embracing risk, and sharing successes with colleagues throughout the building.
I look forward to supporting teachers in this process.
This morning started like each of the past few years. Teachers and staff congregated on a cool, August morning under the skywalks while principals whipped up pancakes. Teachers, support staff, and custodians ate and enjoyed each others company and then introduced all the new faces to the group. Every bit of the event was the same as the past. Eat - Chat - Laugh. We then ventured into the auditorium for the annual "Vision" speech.
I hope teachers found a sense of urgency with my opening.
This year, the difference came in that annual vision meeting. I hope teachers found a sense of urgency with my opening. That by staying focused on what our kids need, we will build upon the successes of the past few year. We discussed big obstacles and challenges we face (overcoming language acquisition, ensuring high expectations for all students, and supporting each other through change). For the first time, on the first day, I laid out five non-negotiable expectations that we set to hold each other accountable for increasing student achievement:
The desired outcome of our building goals and non-negotiable expectations is to decrease teacher variability within the building, increase teacher efficacy (both personal and collective), and ensure student learning for all students no matter their unique circumstance.
With teachers implementing the five non-negotiable with fidelity, the building leadership monitoring the implementation data, and leadership focused on supporting teacher success through AIW, SIOP, and Liferacy, we will achieve our goals of improving student achievement and decreasing the achievement gap.
We know it will be tough. It is change and sometimes change gets messy. That is why it was so important to receive teacher input on what each of them needed to be successful. That's why the consulting teachers are using that information to develop a support plan.
I committed to teachers today, and again now, that I have never been so ready to be the "champion" and ensure our teachers are "on the path" and have every support they need to become expert teachers and remain focused on doing what works no matter how hard our jobs are today.
This image is of a quote board. It is on display in the auditorium but will find its forever home in our Professional Learning Community room. The goal is to get teachers reflecting on their current level of expectations. The key will be connecting what we want students to achieve with the supports to help them achieve it.
In working on professional development plans and goals, we reflect on how we can monitor implementation and provide feedback for teachers. The key is making student learning visible.
John Hattie's meta-analysis of nearly 1200 meta-analysis' ranked 195 "influences and effect sizes related to student achievement." The average effect size was 0.40 and he declared that number to be the "hinge point" with anything above that works best in education to improve student achievement.
Taking items from "Do we have the same vision and do we have the right resources?" to "Are we having and impact, is it worthwhile, is it sufficient?"
Six Influences that Matter Most
Below are six influences that were described by Peter DeWitt (@PeterMDeWitt) for mattering most and having the greatest impact.
This week has been a week of learning. We spent a day in a poverty simulation, a day with McREL building an understanding for writing across the curriculum, a few days at School Administrators of Iowa Annual Conference, and a day diving deeper into Sheltered Instruction Observational Protocol. My mind is swimming with the great things we are doing and the things we must do to leverage our resources and focus to address our needs.
My takeaway learning that has shaped my vision for the upcoming school year is grounded in three major areas: Teacher Input and Collective Efficacy, Collaborative Leadership, and Feedback for Learning.
Teacher Input and Collective Efficacy
Our teachers know I struggle at delegation. This is true in both thought and action. I struggle at handing over tasks that I know I can do and do well. Handing things over will help us achieve our goals. First brought up through our work this week with McREL in our Writing Across the Curriculum foundation work, we discussed what we can do as a team that we cannot do alone. I must give up the idea of "being the one" to improve student achievement. The first thing that must be done is to improve the avenues for teacher input in the academic program of our school. This will be more evident on the first day back with teachers. By increasing teacher input, we should simultaneously increase our school's collective efficacy.
At the right is a picture from @PeterMDeWitt and his research on collaborative leadership and visible learning. The "Collaborative Leadership Framework" illustrates the four quadrants of instructional leadership and places leadership styles along the continuum of partnerships and outcomes. Using this model, I am a negotiator. I revel in "knowing" the best practice and what must happen to get it done. I work tirelessly to achieve the goal and usually without delegating and doing it alone. Creating teacher buy-in (through input and conversations), student learning will improve. When teachers believe they make a difference, that their peers are competent in curriculum and instruction, our school will be better place for student to learn and grow because it is a better place where teachers learn and grow.
Feedback for Learning
A common theme this summer, in the sessions I attended at SAI and journals/books/blogs I read, has been the decline in the usefulness teachers are experiencing with observations and the evaluation process. It has also become evident in the conversations I have had with teachers. Just this week an EDWeek Blog addressed the topic (Click Here to read that blog). The current process for many schools, including our own, has become more of a task of compliance than of growth or reflection. Our leadership team has reflected on the process by which we use observations and evaluations to enhance student learning and teacher performance. Through team meetings, we have decided to pursue an enhance process to make the observation and evaluation cycle more meaningful. Michael Fullan states that collaborative cultures where the focus is on improving teacher practice, where teachers learn from on another, and ones that are "well-led and supported" by the principal, are the most effective in closing the achievement gap (Learning is the Work). This requires principals to provide feedback on three main areas: teacher collaboration, implementation of professional development in the classroom, and teacher reflection. We understand that feedback focused on things that matter (Hattie's work shows that formative feedback for teachers has an effect size of 0.9) will have a substantial impact. Those things that matter are planning, instruction, and assessment.
“Returning from work feeling inspired, safe, fulfilled and grateful is a natural human right to which we are all entitled and not a modern luxury that only a few lucky ones are able to find.” -Simon Sinek, Leaders Eat Last
Currently, I am reading, "Leaders Eat Last" by Simon Sinek. Something in the first few pages have got me stirred about our instructional assistants. At the beginning of each school year, we work so hard to make sure that teachers and students are ready for learning, but what do we do for our instructional support personnel? It reminded me of a video we watched once at a conference about how aware we are when we are focused so hard on something else.
I have been so focused on "counting passes" by one part of our system, that I have failed to see something that has great value right in the mix. Due to this reflection and realization, we have put together a draft of meeting schedules to formally place instructional support staff as key players in our school improvement plan. As we embark to reduce chronic absenteeism and work on full co-teaching inclusion, our instructional support staff will need support, access to administration, and additional learning. We need to make sure that the feel "inspired, safe, fulfilled, and grateful" as they spend so much time directly working with students and parents.
Our first step is to develop our understanding of their needs. It is our goal that they will be able to use our time together to address their support needs - do they feel safe and comfortable in their current (which is slightly new to them) roles. Our overall goals will be to train them in our PBIS model, Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP), and Literacy. If they know what we expect of the certified staff, they will have a better vision of where they should be focusing their time.
Category: Shared Vision, Management
This past week, I spent time at my parents. There, I helped my dad in his garden. It was time to cultivate. I asked him what the purpose was in tilling the dirt and he said that it kills the weeds and it allows nutrients and other good things to get to the roots of the plants.
As I took over the machine, I realized that I had to slowly begin to give the tiller gas to get it going. If I went too hard, too fast, it would kill the engine. In essence, when I started slow, it would save time. I also discovered that where the earth had been previously tended to, it was easy to cultivate. My work was easy and it took very little energy or thought. Where it had been missed and neglected required me to use more of my energy to slow the machine down, stand firm, and let it dig in while I crept forward. Then, with each pass, it became very workable - it just took a little more focus and work.
Throughout that process, I correlated the work my father has done his whole life to my own. I also had insight into what I had been missing to really get greater gains in my "crop". It is easy in schools to continually cultivate the same path that we know and have found success with in the past. It is harder to stand firm and dig in where the hardened exterior pushes back on our work. The key is to always cultivate the easy areas to ensure they stay effective. However, you also have to expand your garden and dig into that area where nutrients need to hit the roots.
Category: Shared Vision
Ryan Dumkrieger is the principal of Sioux City North High School.