Friday, July 27, 2007

Hello from Niagra Falls

Our family is in the middle of an East Coast vacation and we rode the Maid of the Mist across the length of Niagara Falls. What a spectacular place! We are enjoying plenty of time with family and the great outdoors and getting rest and inspiration for another year of school. I hope all my teacher and administrator colleagues are enjoying or have enjoyed much of the same this summer.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Instruction, Mistakes, and Balance

Part 4 of 4

Here's the thrilling final installation of leadership behaviors for the Principal.

10. If you're not improving instruction, you're not doing anything.
The rubber meets the road in our schools at the classroom door. Nearly every initiative to improve schools must have an impact on instruction. One of the pillars of breakthrough performance mentioned in Fullan, et. al's book, Breakthrough, is the need for precision. This refers to precision in assessing the academic need through formative tools and precision in applying specific instruction to meet that need. Teachers need plenty of support to develop the expertise to become such precise instructors. The Principal needs to become an expert in instruction. The move toward instructional leadership the past decade supports my assertion. If you're spending too much time helping plan the Spring Carnival and fighting over minor expenditures with your School Site Council, you are wasting time that can be better spent on the classroom. Of course, if you are far from an expert in instruction, the next best thing is to find a resource teacher who shares your philosophy of leadership and has the expertise to coach teachers to higher performance. I don't believe our schools will reach the lofty goals we are setting without disrupting (in a good way) the work of classroom teachers to implement the many known best practices that often go unimplemented. See The Gift of Bleak Research (*Education Week registration required) for more evidence of the need for improved instruction.

11. You blow it sometimes, so deal with it.
We're only human and sometimes, we are just plain wrong. The best solution is to own up, make amends if possible, and move on. Don't let your pride force you to maintain a wrong-headed path because you don't want to go before the group and fess up.

12. A Balanced Diet will keep everyone fit and frisky.
Balance and moderation are critical elements in all of life for healthy living. A school is no different. The Principal needs to balance a loose/tight leadership style. There are certain things that need to be required and others that need to be left to teachers' choice. I try and err on the side of giving teachers more freedom than restrictions as that is the environment that I work best in myself. For example, we have not settled on any one curriculum for language arts and literacy. My mantra has always been "Show me your results" and I don't care how you get there. We have avoided prescriptive approaches to literacy, which I believe honors the teachers professionalism, while making clear the expectation that we need to learn from teachers on our staff or elsewhere who are getting better results. Another resource that has impacted my thinking on this is Joy at Work by Dennis Bakke.

There are many ways to maintain balance. While it's important to push forward for improvement and initiate new programs, the leader needs to know when the plates are truly full and pull back. That can be just as effective as pushing forward. This goes back to the need to trust one's intuition and know the culture of the school well.

Well, there you have it. Those are my thoughts during a relaxing summer hiatus on the most important leadership behaviors of school principals. I'm sure there are many more things of importance, but these have certainly been the most critical in my training and experience and I welcome dialogue form colleagues on these areas or others that they feel deserve attention.

Model, Confront, and Laugh ... a lot

Part 3 of 4

Let's keep rolling along with the Leadership Behaviors every Principal Should Master (notice humility is not on the list.)

7. Be the Change you want to see in your school (apologies to Ghandi)

Good teaching begins with good modeling and the principal has the enviable position of serving as the model for so many things to the students and staff. I've already posted recently on this subject so here is a list of a few things I believe are important to model.

Model productive relationships
Model sound instruction
Model use of technology in service of learning
Model Lifelong learning
Model balance between work and family
Model good character including integrity, compassion, generosity, etc.
Model high standards in all aspects of work and life

8. Face the Hideous Beast (AKA Confront Unproductive Behavior Productively)
This one is down near the bottom because it is one of my weaknesses, but it is a must. My preferred modus operendi is to stick my head in the sand, but that doesn't seem to be very effective. I've learned to confront behavior that I believe to be unproductive, always trying to keep the admonishee's sense of dignity in tact. This refers to interactions with teachers as well as students. I remember observing an administrator partner of mine take a kid apart verbally (he deserved it) when I first entered administration. I soon learned that such a style didn't work for me. I was able to find a style of discipline that worked for my personality. The important thing is that unproductive behavior not be ignored, however the manner of confrontation will vary depending on the personality and belief system of the confronter.

9. Laughter is good medicine or "A spoonful of sugar makes the initiatives go down".
Humor can get you in a lot of trouble if you're not careful, but I have found it is an effective tool to keep things in perspective and remind us all to laugh and enjoy life since we're all working so hard. One of the greatest compliments I received lately came from my Superintendent's visit last spring when he said, "Everybody is so happy around here." It was off the cuff and I think represents the tone of our school "most of the time". Humor contributes to that culture and, I believe, leads to greater productivity and better mental health for everyone.

Decisions, Intuition, and Recognition

Part 2 of 4

Here I continue my thoughts on leadership essentials for the Principalship.

4. Be Clear in the Valley of Decision
The key aspect of decision making is to be clear upfront what type of decision you are going to make. Her's what I mean. There are basically four ways to make a decision.

Command - (My personal favorite) It's just like it sounds. Ladies and gentlemen, we don't have a choice, this year we need to teach reading. Any questions?
Consultative- I need your input before I make the call, however once I've received input from everyone that needs to be consulted, I will make the final decision
Consensus - This is the toughest. Here we need to come to substantial agreement before we decide. This means that everyone needs to support the decision even if they don't agree with it. This can only be achieved after (sometimes) lengthy and healthy debate. The reason folks can support something they don't agree with is that they know they had a fair chance to speak their mind and make their voice heard.
Convenience - It doesn't really matter, so let's just take a vote or let Fred decide.

I could say a lot more about decision making, but here's the bottom line. These different methods are each appropriate in different circumstances. What is most important from the leader is to be specific and clear about the one you are using for any given decision. The best way to spoil your momentum on an initiative is to lead people to believe that you are using consensus when you're actually using consultation, for example. Oops! Not that this has every happened to me!

5. Intuition is sometimes better than a mountain of data
Of course, we all like to pride ourselves these days on making decision based solely on the data and nothing but the data. One of the drawbacks of this approach is that decisions sometimes don't happen because one might not feel that there is enough pertinent data. Here's where I vote for intuition. Sometimes a poor decision is better than no decision at all. You want to avoid the paralysis by analysis factor and move forward. So, even if you make the wrong decision, now you can move forward knowing one more direction that won't work. I call that learning.

6. Recognize Effort and Achievement Creatively and Frequently

One of the tings I miss most about teaching is contributing to the development of students, but now I have embraced my role as the teacher of teachers. I get a kick out of helping teachers improve their craft. I think this is done by providing clear expectations for classroom practice, heaping on the training and modeling, and most importantly, recognizing both effort and achievement. Three books that have given me some good support on this journey are Building Teams, Building People by Tom Harvey, If you Don't Feed the Teachers, They Eat the Students, and Whale Done! The Power of Positive Relationships by Kenneth Blanchard. I mentioned two things that I feel deserve recognition and let me elaborate.

1) Effort - Effort needs to be recognized, especially when things don't go right. This is another name for learning. If we want teachers to try something new and innovative, we need to toot their horn even when the attempt blows up in their face. Teachers who try out something new are deserving of praise and recognition.

2) Achievement - Of course, this can be tricky with teachers for some reason. The culture of school teachers tends to want to downplay achievement. Sometimes the achieving teacher would rather remain in the background. Therefore, you've got to be careful and sensitive to the honored one, but on the other hand, I think we need to change that culture by pushing the envelope a little. Some teachers are more effective than others and their excellence and productivity should be recognized, lauded, and emulated!

One final point on recognition is that I pride myself on recognizing teachers, but the bottom line is that I still don't do it enough. I know there are still teachers who don't feel recognized on my campus, so I will keep up the crusade to fill their bucket every chance I get. Speaking of filling buckets, this book seems like a good reminder of those benefits. I'll have to add that to my reading list.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Vision, Teams, and Data

Part 1 of 4

In my last post, I listed 12 essentials of leadership and now I'll explain in a little more detail what I think about these twelve ideas.

1. Articulate a Clear Purpose and Compelling Vision

Much has been written about the need for vision and purpose and I'm convinced that these two things need to be established and consistently out in front of school work. Vision statements can be useful, although I've seen few examples of vision statements or mission statements that continue to affect the daily work of schools once developed. I have tried to keep the purpose of school in front of my teachers in a variety of ways. One is simple, the other is a little more complex. First the simple one.

Results in literacy and math must be our primary reason for existence. - Although it's true that there is a lot more to education than these two areas of study, you can't do the many other educational endeavors very well unless students master literacy and numeracy to a very high level. Therefore, we set ambitious goals to raise our student's achievement in these areas and focus our staff development primarily on literacy and secondarily on math.

The other aspect of purpose and vision that I present to my teachers is an attempt to answer the question - Why? Why should kids be literate? What is the purpose of education? The goal is to tap into the teacher's sense of calling and remind them that the work we are doing is truly life changing. I am always looking for stories of teachers who have changed a child's life and they're not hard to find. I'm also looking for historical, national, and international events that underscore the benefits of education in communities and the pitfalls in societies where education and children have been neglected. The goal is to remind teachers that while they are busy sorting through the latest formative assessments, dealing with student tantrums, parent complaints (or vice versa), and Principal pressures, the end result of their work will have an enormous impact on children, society, the world, and future generations. I can't emphasize frequently enough the power teachers have to make a difference.

As my dissertation was a case study on High School Principals who were both visionary and practical I have done a lot of thinking about how to accomplish a shared vision. My approach is to become a student of the school culture first, before working to create a collaborative sense of where we all need to go. The reason that there is no blueprint on achieving this is that the unique circumstances and personnel at every school demand a different approach to building that critical future focus. Eventually, I believe the vision of where the school needs to go naturally emerges when staff are working together toward common goals which leads to...

2. Go Team! Build Collaborative Teams

The bottom line is that the most effective decisions and learning will take place in collaborative teams of professionals. The collective wisdom of just about any group is greater that the individual. Leaders need to find a way to provide the time, training, and support for teachers to have time to collaborate with their colleagues. It's important to make the outcomes clear for these meetings and I'm finding that I need to model the process of collaboration more effectively in the coming year as everyone has a different idea of what collaboration looks like. One book that has assisted me in this area is Building Teams, Building People by Tom Harvey. More on modeling a little later.

3. Embrace the Numbers and Squeeze 'em for all they're worth.
We have embraced data, sometimes quite clumsily and without effect, but we are constantly learning how to access, analyze, and interpret data to provide sounder instructional practices throughout our school. It's not always easy to confront the brutal facts, but as we have come to dig deep even when it hurts, we are finding that there are few obstacles that can't be overcome with our best thinking and focused attention. This is an area that begs for the use of technology to make our life easier. We have implemented some technologies to sort through data, but are always on the look out for tools that will do the work of collecting, sorting, and displaying data so we can concentrate on the thinking that is needed to making better decisions. Mike Schmoker has had several resources that have affected my thinking in this area including Results: The Key to Continuous School Improvement and the Results Fieldbook: Practical Strategies from Dramatically Improved Schools and I think I'm going to have to get my hands on Results Now: How We Can Achieve Unprecedented Improvements in Teaching And Learning since I've already skimmed quite a bit while browsing in the book store.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Twelve Essentials of Effective Leadership

After reading Greg Farr's manifesto, I was inspired to finish my own draft of the things I believe are essential to leading a school. I have tried to implement these ideas, some more successfully than others, however I'm still a learner, so ideally the degree to which I'm putting these into practice is increasing as I gain experience and deeper understanding of the people and processes that make a school work for kids... and adults. Below is a list of the top twelve behaviors that I have found indispensable in leading a school. I will follow this up with a detailed explanation of each item in subsequent posts. They are in no particular order of importance.

1. Articulate a Clear Purpose and Compelling Vision.
2. Go Team! Build collaborative teams.
3. Embrace the numbers and squeeze 'em for all they're worth.
4. Be clear in the valley of decision.
5. Intuition is sometimes better than a mountain of data.
6. Recognize effort and achievement creatively and frequently.
7. Be the change you want to see in your school (apologies to Ghandi).
8. Face the hideous beast (AKA Confront Unproductive Behavior Productively).
9. Laughter is good medicine or "A spoonful of sugar makes the initiatives go down".
10. If you're not improving instruction, you're not doing anything.
11. You blow it sometimes, so deal with it.
12 A balanced diet will keep everyone fit and frisky.

Well, there you have it. Some are a little more obvious than others, so I'm sure you'll be waiting eagerly for the rest of the story.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Literacy, then what?

We are embarking on an exciting quest to reach 90% proficiency in reading in the near future and I feel that it's a goal that makes perfect sense for our elementary school - or for any other elementary school for that matter. However, some of my summer reading has got me wondering about the end game. Is literacy in itself the goal? I would argue that it is not. In fact, literacy is simply the requisite fundamental skill that most benefits sound thinking and can also contribute to character and community service. The books I've been reading lately like Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini and A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah have knocked my socks off. The first is fiction and the second is non-fiction, but both opened my eyes to the worlds of Afghanistan and Sierra Leone, places that were none to friendly to children.
Here are some thoughts that I've had from these books.
1. Our students need to be exposed (in age-appropriate doses) to the world outside their local community.
2. Our students need to experience the power of literature to tell a story.
3. We need to teach values along with these high powered literacy skills so that our students don't make C.S. Lewis a prophet who said, “Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil.”
4. Effective education can have a powerful harmonizing effect on society as a whole.

These are just a few rambling thoughts that seem to interconnect while reading these books. What do you all think when you consider the end product of literacy?

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Model the modeling

While preparing for 07-08, I've been thinking how I need to restructure my work as a Principal to support the learning of teachers and students. One area that I can definitely be more effective is by modeling with staff how I expect them to work with students. Here's what that means:
1. Presenting teacher training using effective instructional strategies
2. Provide consistent and ongoing feedback to teachers on their performance for improvement. (This will involve choosing appropriate assessments of performance that can provide objective data for teachers to ponder)
3. Demonstrate how technology can accelerate learning for teachers and students.
4. Differentiate my approach with every teacher. Deliver training and feedback that is tailored to individuals' strengths and weaknesses.

This is all the more significant in that our instructional focus in the fall will be "modeling". It sure would be nice if the Principal actually provided consistent examples of the type of instruction that should be going on in the classroom. Let's hope I'm up to the task.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Speaking of Teacher Culture

Another voice that says too many teachers don't create classrooms where learning takes place. Does this ring true? Does this offend you? What do you think?

Stark Reality

Ok, time for the glass half empty or half full talk! This post by Scott McLeod gives some thoughts on time wasting activities by teachers that are concerned that we don't have enough time to be data-driven. Then, there's this article at Education Week that shows how most classrooms don't apply many of the tested and true strategies that make teaching effective.

My thoughts on these tend to follow the glass half full mentality. We have been working on a schoolwide literacy assessment plan that will give us a huge push forward in our grade level and cross grade level discussions next year. Simultaneously, we'll be spending much more time in staff development, observations, coaching, and feedback with teachers focused on the elements of good teaching such as a clear purpose and good modeling. I think we are poised to see consistent improvement in every classroom. I believe we have built up a strong professional culture at this time in our school to overcome some of the typical inertia in school staffs that completely resist changes to daily instruction.
An ever-growing contingent of researchers is beginning to concede that instruction itself probably has more impact on learning, and on achievement gaps, than any other factor. So the key to better schools is not commissions or new commercial curriculum materials, or even professional development. Each of these lacks the most basic, critical ingredient: a willingness to establish clear expectations for instruction, to arrange for teachers to work in teams so they can meet and exceed those expectations, and to institute simple routines for honestly and continuously monitoring teaching to ensure its effectiveness.

We are on our way to make this happen at Halecrest.

Frequent and Immediate Testing Increases Memory

One of my teachers sent me this article from the Chronicle of Higher Education that summarizes the benefits of immediate and frequent testing to increase long term memory. It begins with a study done in 1939 that demonstrated students performing much better if they had been quizzed within 24 hours after receiving new information. The author concluded.
"Immediate recall in the form of a test is an effective method of aiding the retention of learning and should, therefore, be employed more frequently in the elementary school."

There were a few more nuggets to chew on. One concept that was reinforced over several studies was that when you test students, the very act of asking them to recall information, changed what they actually remembered.
"People usually imagine memory as a storage space, as a space where we put things, as if they were books in a library. But the act of retrieval is not neutral. It affects the system."

Also, short-answer quizzes produced better results than multiple choice quizzes. Here are the results of students given information in three different formats.
A month later, the students were brought back to take a 90-item short-answer test that covered all three artists. This final test included some facts that the students had not reviewed at all. On those items, the students answered only 20 percent correct, on average. On the items that had been studied through rereading or through multiple-choice quizzes, the students averaged 36 percent correct. And on the items that had been studied through short-answer quizzes, the students averaged 47 percent correct.

I think this also underscores the need to have students write what they know, even if they simply summarize the learning for the day or list the ideas and knowledge that they have gained during a period of the day. I always liked a quote from Advancement Through Individual Determination (AVID), which stated, "How do I know what I think until I read what I write?"
The most damning quotes comes from Andrew Butler, a graduate student in Washington, who administered the aforementioned study.
"A lot of educators don't make the connection between their teaching tasks and their evaluation tasks," he says.
"The way that we typically do things in education," Mr. Butler says, "seems almost reverse-engineered to produce the least possible learning."

Well, let's test this out. After reading the article, here is your quiz:
What type of memory is most affected by immediate and frequent quizzing?
Describe the study(ies) that were used to come to this conclusion?
Enjoy your summer vacation!