Tuesday, November 30, 2010

My Thoughts On Effective Teaching | Connected Principals

Like most educators, I am always interested in articles about best teaching practices.  This article is a very good and quick read that captures the essence of this topic.

As an independent school administrator, I also submit into the discussion the NAIS (National Association of Independent Schools) Principles of Good Practice for Teachers and Supervisors of Teachers.

I find both the similarities and differences between the effective teaching descriptions and the Principles of Good Practice, especially the detail of the PGP list.

My Thoughts On Effective Teaching | Connected Principals

Strategies for Success: Know When to “Get Out the Kitchen”

There is not a single part of a school that I do not enjoy spending time.  It could be just about anywhere.  Libraries, classrooms, lecture halls, gyms, hallways, dining hall – anywhere I go, I like to get a sense of the “energy” of a school in session.  One of my favorite places to go is the faculty workroom (lounge).  Over the course of many years and more than a few different schools, this “sacred” place on campus has been both a source of inspiration and professional discourse as well as a caldron of negativity and office politics.  The key to avoiding the pitfalls of negativity, I offer this strategy for success: 

Know when to “get out of the kitchen.” 

I am fortunate that my current school promotes a healthy professional environment.  This is in no small part due to the example and leadership provided by the Headmaster.  On the other hand, I know of other schools in which it appears a perpetual culture of insecurity and mistrust exists.  These are not healthy places, and from my observations, one of the most volatile places on campus being the faculty lounge.

Therefore, knowing when to remove oneself from these situations is important in maintaining and promoting a counter-cultural atmosphere and a professional demeanor – especially in schools that are struggling to maintain a healthy professional culture.

So, how can an unhealthy environment begin the process of healing?  Building a community of honesty and trust can be difficult.  It begins with a shared commitment to identifying how such improvements can be made and what each person’s role is in making the changes a reality. 

It is possible, but like my high school football coach used to say, “A fish always stinks from the head.”  Leaders who notice, even slightly, a shift in the atmosphere in the “hot spots” should take a moment to reflect on their example and remember the value of human resource leadership and set a tone that makes your school’s “kitchen” the positive and engaging place that supports student achievement and a professional culture.

Educational Reform Thoughts: An Independent Model for Public Schools?

The topic of education reform does not necessarily come up much as part of my role as an independent school administrator.  Because we exist to serve our own mission, such reform efforts do not necessarily make a significant impact on how we operate our school.  Educational reform does, however, provide a wonderful backdrop for creative thinking and the discussion of ideas.  As such, and because I believe that any improvement in education (private or public) is beneficial to all educators, I would like to propose an idea for public school reform that is based on the independent school model – one that has shown to be quite successful in preparing students for life outside of school.  This idea is not without some merit as Vermont considers a similar idea for some schools.

Independent schools are governed by a Board of Trustees who hire the school’s Headmaster to run the operation of the institution.  Boards are basically responsible for a few items (a more complete list of Board functions can be found here).

  1. Make sure the school is operating according to its stated mission.
  2. Secure the financial stability and future of the school.
  3. Hire the Headmaster.

The key element for this structure is that each school is allowed to craft its own mission.  This brings me to my first reform: 

Allow public schools to craft their own mission based on the communities they are set up to serve.

Now, what about standards?  In the current climate, public schools are all basically held to the same standards, and these standards are mostly based on student performance on standardized tests.  At independent schools, accreditation is performed by visiting committees with whom a set of guidelines are used to evaluate whether or not the school is upholding its own mission.  In other words, does the school do what it says it does?  My school is accredited by the VAIS (Virginia Association of Independent Schools).  We went through a rigorous review of all our operations during our accreditation visit.  The results of which point out a number of commendations, but also recommendations which will be checked for progress during the next visit.

This works well because in place of student outcomes as a measure of operational value, the school is held accountable to a set of operational guidelines.  In other words, there is an assumption that if the school is mission focused and operates according to a set of proven operational principles, then student outcomes will be consistent with the mission of the school and generally satisfactory.  This is a contrast to the standard of institutional value being solely based on student scores. 

Therefore my next suggestion:

Government agencies should get out of the governing of schools and begin accrediting schools based on operational principles instead of student test scores.

I am aware of the fact that these thoughts, if at all credible, require refining and a willingness to shift the paradigm of public education away from results based evaluations and more towards developmental based criteria.  There are also a number of logistical issues that would need to work themselves out, but I believe that if we are going to discuss real reform that has potential to make real changes, nothing should be automatically discounted – even the idea of shifting towards a more independent model for public schools. 

Nominees for the 2010 Edublog Awards

The 2010 Edublog Award Nominations are due by Friday, December 3, 2010.  I am happy to make the following nominations.

My Nominations for The 2010 Edublog Awards are:

Best individual blog: Justin Baeder

Best school administrator blog:  Jonathan Martin

If you haven’t checked out these blogs, please do.  I have found them to be a wonderful resource for anyone interested in education.

If you would like submit nominations, please check out the link above or click here.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Greatest Teachers Series: John Dewey

dewey Continuing my series on great teachers is John Dewey.  Anyone who has studied education has likely been exposed to Dewey’s philosophy of education.  Even in today’s push for 21st century reforms, including learning by doing, Dewey’s name remains among the most mentioned in conversation.

Feel free to comment or suggest future entries in this series.

People Centered: A Reflection on The Human Resource Frame in Education

One of the more consistent themes I found while  doing the literature review for my research into the leadership orientations of independent school heads was the frequency of use of the human resource frame by educational leaders and teachers.  For those who are unfamiliar with “framing”, I am referring to the concepts put forth by Bolman and Deal (2003) addressing the way leaders interpret situations and make decisions. 

Bolman and Deal (2003) describe 4 frames (structural, human resource, political, and symbolic) from which leaders use to organize and evaluate the numerous pieces of input regarding a situation.  The frames these leaders use will determine the decisions they make.  Theory is, therefore, the more frames a leader can employ to evaluate a situation, the more likely the leader is to make a good decision.  If multiple frames are used, leaders are then “re-framing” in order to determine possible courses of action that would not be clear unless multiple frames are used.  Of course this is a very simplified explanation of Bolman and Deal’s (2003) framework.

Turning back to the human resource frame, there are a few basic assumptions upon which it is understood:

  • Organizations exist to serve human needs rather than the reverse.
  • People and organizations need each other.  Organizations need ideas, energy, and talent; people need careers, salaries, and opportunities.
  • When the fit between individual and system is poor, one or both suffer.  Individuals are exploited or exploit the organization – or both become victims.
  • A good fit benefits both.  Individuals find meaningful and satisfying work, and organizations get the talent and energy they need to succeed (Bolman and Deal, 2003, p. 115).

In essence, “the human resource frame emphasizes an understanding of people, with their strengths and foibles, reason and emotion, desires and fears” (Bolman and Deal, 2003, p. 18).

Does this frame seem to fit your school?  Your leadership team?  You as a teacher?

Also, as a consistently identified frame for educational leaders, are there any elements inherent with this frame that appears to support the emphasis on 21st century skills and/or the continued integration of technology in the classroom as a tool for building 21st century skills?


Bolman, L. G., & Deal, T. E. (2003). Reframing organizations: Artistry, choice, and leadership. (3rd ed). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Maximizing the Potential Benefits and Sustainability of Good Ideas

Does this sound familiar?  You have listened to your teachers and have gathered input and suggestions on how to address an issue at your school.  With their help, you put together a great idea and begin to implement the idea with great anticipation that the students will soon reap the rewards of this hard work.

After rolling out the new initiative, things begin to loose steam and what was once a high energy project with great potential is now on life support.  If this has happened to you, don’t worry.  It has probably happened to many of us who operate in the leadership arena.  What you should be concerned about is how to minimize the chances of this happening each time you attempt a new idea or try to implement refinements to existing operations.

So, what can you do to help avoid this situation?  I suggest a type of checklist for you to use as you work with your team to design and implement future plans.

When I was hired on for my current position, I was tasked with “fixing” the advisory program already in place.  Fortunately, the school had already bought into the value of having an advisory program and had also cut out time in the daily schedule to support the program.  My task was to bring cohesion and value added through the programs operation. 

Once I identified and put together the team to address the problem (under my leadership), we began the task to defining and describing the program from the ground up.  As a result, we designed a program which could be consistently articulated to various groups.  Below is the list of essential parts to our team’s work that has helped to maintain the impact of our program over the past few years.  If you cannot describe your idea in terms of these areas, you may be opening a door for confusion and lack of buy in – a sure sign that the initiative will not be as beneficial or sustainable as it could be.

  • Statement of Purpose
  • Statement of Commitment
  • Goals of the Program
  • Guiding Principles of the Program
  • Program Structure
  • Desired Student Outcomes
  • Roles of the Faculty, Administration, Students, etc.
  • Methods for Evaluating the Program

By using the aspects of program design listed above, I have found great success in sustaining good ideas while linking the ides directly to the promotion of my school’s mission.

Do you have a similar story or experience?  Please feel free to share your thoughts and comments.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Engaging, not Distracting, the Digital Generation: Responding to the Times’ Wired piece « 21k12

If you are interested in how technology can lead to a more engaging climate in schools, please read this blog post by Mr. Jonathan Martin.  Mr. Martin is an independent school administrator who frequently posts insightful and well written articles about technology and the potential impact it can have on our students.

Engaging, not Distracting, the Digital Generation: Responding to the Times’ Wired piece « 21k12

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Engagement, 21st Century Skills, and the Role of Technology

A common theme I hear (and subscribe to) concerning great teaching is that there is a correlation between student engagement and effective instruction.  In my own meetings with teachers, I use and hear some form of this in conversation often, but wonder if I take for granted that there is a common understanding of what an engaged student is and how teachers can create engaging experiences.  Therefore, I thought it would be helpful to reflect on what we mean by engaged and how it may appear in the 21st century school.

For the sake of this article, let us define engaged as being involved in an activity of great interest.  In order to be “engaged”, by default, the student must “engage”.  To engage, among other possible definitions, means to take part in or be attentive to something.  The next stage of reflection now asks us to apply these terms to a classroom setting.

The application of these terms to a classroom should produce a vision or scene of the engaged class.  Your picture can be as specific or general as you want, but I have found that no matter who performs the exercise, the student engagement is only possible through an active teacher component.  In other words, there cannot be engaged students without engaged teachers.  Being engaged in class is a social function requiring more than one participant.  This reflection further clarifies the roles and responsibilities of the teacher and student in the 21st century classroom.

For the teacher, a key element in designing lessons that are likely to promote engagement is to make yourself aware of the 21st century skills whose development needs the support of professional educators.  These skills are commonly referred to as the 4 C’s:  communication, critical thinking, collaboration, and creativity.  For the student, there must be a good faith effort to provide feedback to the teacher about the effectiveness of the lessons.  Simply put; students, when engaged, must take an active role in the learning.  Only when students are making the effort to learn can the teacher gage the level of success (or engagement) that genuinely exists in the room.  That is not to say that the teacher is not the primary factor in student learning.  Rather, it is a statement speaking to the fact that a social interaction which produces an engaged class cannot be the sole responsibility of any one participant – it must be a collaborative effort.

I am also reminded that while these 21st century skills are essential to a fully developed student, the course content is just as important.  Similar to the relationship between teacher and student for engagement, developing 21st century skills without course content can lead to a class absent clearly understood directions or goals.  Often, such classes become grounds for frustration as the students and teacher eventually realize they are not all working towards the same ends.  Ultimately, a break down occurs and the class is left feeling unaccomplished – a felling that breeds lack of motivation.  The missing link, then, is how to attach course content to 21st century skill development while cultivating an environment in which engagement is not only expected, but the norm.

This is where technology presents itself as a valuable tool.  Many of the available digital tools not only were developed as a result of employing the very skills the 21st century school must support, but also work to promote and enhance these same skills.  While technology can help bridge the divide between course content and 21st century skills, there is also a need to “unplug” from time to time.  This refers to the need for schools to also be in the front of areas such as character development, promoting civility, and service learning/life skills. 

No doubt, technology can help with awareness and information – but it cannot replace “getting one’s hands dirty” and being physically involved (rather than virtually or digitally) in leading efforts to improve our communities.  Either way, we are all better off when we have engaged students.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The 21st Century Principal | Connected Principals

Great article about leading school’s in the 21st century.  The first point about being creative speaks to the ability of leaders to see things from multiple angles in order to make effective decisions.  This is very similar to the ability to reframe situations as written about by Bolman and Deal in Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice and Leadership (2008).

All in all, the article (linked below) is very good at linking the 21st century skills we are trying to develop with students to the work of the 21st century educational leader.

The 21st Century Principal | Connected Principals

Friday, November 19, 2010

Open-Computer Testing: Putting 21st c. Learning to the Test « 21k12

This blog post (linked below) was very good at presenting the topic of open-computer testing.  I found it very informative and highly recommend it for anyone interested in 21st century skill building and/or use of the internet for testing.

Open-Computer Testing: Putting 21st c. Learning to the Test « 21k12

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Education Week Teacher Professional Development Sourcebook: Change Agent

Great article about education, network literacy, and digital presence for schools.  If you are looking for professional development insights or are interested in the growing trends with technology and education, read this article (linked below). 

Education Week Teacher Professional Development Sourcebook: Change Agent

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Value added: Public and Independent Perspectives

Here are two articles that demonstrate some consistencies and differences between the value added measures from the public and independent school perspective.

What is your opinion on value added measures in schools?

The Principles of Effective Leadership Communication

A short, yet insightful video concerning leadership communication.

Greatest Teachers Series - Jesus

In the second installment of the Greatest Teachers series, I include Jesus into the conversation.  Often referred to as “Teacher” by his disciples, an examination of Jesus as a teacher provides an interesting into how to present challenging concepts through the use of parables and a keen sense of social awareness.

I found an interesting paper on the topic of Jesus as teacher that you may also enjoy reading.

While I enjoy the exercise of coming up with a list of Greatest Teachers, I am interested in your thoughts as well.  Please feel free to comment and/or send in your our suggestion about a future entry in this series.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Greatest Teachers Series - Plato

I thought it would be an interesting exercise to begin a series of 10 entries that attempt to discover the greatest teachers in history.  As with any such exercise, I hope this series helps identify common traits among these teachers.  I also anticipate some discussion about each entry as well as suggestions for future entries.

Please note that the order of when any teacher appears is not indicative of any value I may assign.

The first teacher I will submit is Plato.  I found this page from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy useful.


Please feel free to comment on the inclusion of Plato in this series and to offer suggestions for future entries.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Does Your School’s Mission and Ethos Line Up?

One of the distinctive characteristics of private independent schools is the ability for each school to define its mission and state it publicly.  It is this mission that should play a key role in attracting and retaining families to the school.  But does your school’s ethos match the mission statement?  In other words, does your mission actually live throughout your school and does it truly define your school’s community?  If so, then I would anticipate that the school is most likely delivering the educational experience that attracted and retains its families and is providing that experience very successfully.

In order to assess the degree to which a school’s ethos reflects its mission, all school constituencies are valuable pools for information.  These include teachers, parents, students, alumni, administrators, trustees, etc.
Once these groups have been surveyed, look for the common themes that emerge.  If there are distinct similarities, then there is likely to exist a strong ethos based on common beliefs about the school.  If those common beliefs are aligned with the school’s mission, then that school has developed a strong mission based ethos.  If there is disconnect between the mission and the school’s ethos, then there in lies an opportunity to either revisit the mission (by the trustees) or set goals and plan for realigning resources designed to focus on becoming more mission centered. 

Monday, November 8, 2010

Bullying and Civility, in Public and Private Schools - NYTimes.com

Anyone who has read or followed my blog knows I am an independent school administrator.  I say that because I do not make any excuses for having chosen to serve the needs of private school families.

I was pleased to see the comments left in response to the article and would agree with the opinions based on my own experience (see link at bottom of this post).

You may also want to read my blog post about the challenge of addressing declining civility in the face of increasing stress and competition:  Global Competition, Results Based Evaluation, and Building a Culture of Civility in Schools: A Catch-22 for Educators

Bullying and Civility, in Public and Private Schools - NYTimes.com

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Students Are Not Products And Teachers Are Not Social Engineers : 13.7: Cosmos And Culture : NPR

I read this article with the hopes of finding an interesting insight into the argument that our schools continue to operate under a mostly industrial age construct.  I was also hoping to gain a perspective on altering that construct to fit the 21st century.  Unfortunately, I was disappointed and left to wonder what the purpose of the article was at all.

In it, I found a somewhat rambling narrative that begins with what I think is a negative memory of a high school English teacher (who apparently also was a major influence on the author’s own teaching philosophy).  The article then goes on to paint with large strokes an extremely negative opinion of politics and politicians.  Finally, we are led to believe that student performance, student work products, and any hands-on guidance by the teacher is undermining learning and that their is a difference between being a teacher and a teaching professional – basically teaching professionals are defined by their focus on being “social engineers.”  I am willing to consider this, but only if the author would provide some basis to make the claim, like explaining in more detail what exactly he is talking about.  I do, however, strongly believe in the school’s role in promoting democracy and helping to recognize how to further advance the overall well being of our society.  If that makes me a “social engineer”, then so be it.

Let me say that I have never met the author of this article, but I have great respect for anyone who has dedicated their life to education.  I also agree that focusing too much on student outcomes can lead to undesirable classroom experiences.  On the other hand, I do believe that great teachers are defined by great teaching and great teaching is mostly visible in a classroom filled with engaged students.  How each teacher accomplishes this is left to their individual talents.  Talents that I am sure the author of this article employs with his classes.

Students Are Not Products And Teachers Are Not Social Engineers : 13.7: Cosmos And Culture : NPR

Thursday, November 4, 2010

From Expanding Roles to Restructuring

It is not uncommon in schools to have a number of people performing various functions.  It is my experience that many of these people, after a few years, end up spending more time on the expanding role they now play than they do on the original role they were hired to fulfill.  In many cases, these high performers do a very good job of juggling multiple roles.  On the other hand, at some point saturation sets in and good people are faced with extraordinary stressors that can impact the good work they do each day.

As educational leaders, what can we do to help this situation?  I would suggest one possible solution may be found in some strategic restructuring of roles.  If the new responsibilities that have been added are becoming the norm, can you create a new position for that person that is primarily responsible for these tasks while relocating some of the original tasks to a more appropriate office?  Are you as the leader constantly measuring the skills and talents of the teachers while looking for ways to match those skills and talents to the work of the school?

Placing people in the best positions for success is vital to effective leadership.  Often we overlook the opportunities already in place because we do not do enough to appreciate the numerous responsibilities handled each day or are not willing to consider creative and strategic solutions.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Student Motivation and the Role of the Teacher

Recently, I attended a conference at which the issue of student motivation was a major theme in the keynote and in a few breakout sessions.  In at least two discussions, it was declared (by the session speaker) that the most important job of the teacher is to motivate students.  While I certainly agree that motivation, especially internal motivation, plays a major role in the work students produce and the effort given to learning lessons, I am not sure the “primary” role of the teacher is to motivate.  Let me explain.

I think the most important role of a teacher is – drum roll, please – …TO TEACH.  Of course, finding ways to motivate students to do their best will help the teaching and learning process, but teachers are not professional motivators.  Here’s why.  In my playing days, I had some outstanding coaches who taught me plenty about how to play baseball better who were not in the least bit great motivators.  On the other hand, I have observed classes in which the students are highly energized and motivated to be in the teacher’s presence – but the actual lessons left something to be desired.

There is also an idea that students are “unmotivated” because the “what” being taught does not inspire them to achieve great results.  This implies that teaching is limited to the “what”.  That is not true.  Good teaching also involved the how, where, when, and why of a topic.

In the end, teachers teach.  If they do it well the teaching is engaging and invites students to be active participants in the lesson.  The very act of involvement requires a degree of motivation because without it, students are left to passively accept the “what” of a lesson.  Motivation is important, but is more likely to exist in the form of lessons designed for active student engagement than in teachers delivering pep talks.  After all, even the greatest motivational speech given before a football game is forgotten by the players once the ball is kicked off to start the game.

Top issues: Education - CNN.com

Today is election day.  Support democracy and vote! 

If interested in education as a voting issue, check out the link to CNN’s election center.

Top issues: Education - CNN.com

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