Thursday, March 31, 2011

Signs that your school may be starting to look back

45-looking_back   Looking back can be useful.  Imagine driving in reverse without looking back.  Not wise. 

Walking down a dark alley?  Probably doing quite a bit of looking back.

Looking back is not inherently wrong.  As a mater of fact, in the right context looking back is an appropriate and wise decision.  It is also important to differentiate between looking back and reflection.  To me, reflection is a powerful tool for personal growth.  As the name implies, you are actually clearing your mind’s eye in order to take a look at yourself and your present situation.  You are literally examining a reflection of yourself in a mental mirror.  Looking back, to me, is a conscious decision to revisit and dwell on the past.  Another pitfall of looking back is that you cannot see what is ahead of you at the same time.  This is because what appears ahead of you is actually behind you – you have just simply chosen to turn your head around.

On the other hand, there are also times when looking back is not the best course of action.  It can cause progress to stop and actually work to discourage new and innovative thinking.

Here are a few signs that your school may be starting to look back.

  • Your budget for chalk is increasing :)
  • It is difficult to articulate your school’s vision for the future.
  • Your new teachers need professional development in how to “do email.”
  • Your student supply list is adding more textbooks and binders.
  • Conversations with other teachers and with parents are mostly about what happened instead of what can or will happen.

Do see any signs that your school may be looking back?  Is it for good reasons or is it impeding progress?

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

5 Qualities of Strong Educational Leaders

Olympic_Strength

 

Not intended at all to be a definitive list, I share these brief insights.  Feel free to comment and/or add to the list.

Strong educational leaders…

Remember that they are educators

When the day is done, strong educational leaders are still, at their core, educators.  While that may sound obvious, the demands of leadership roles that take one away from the hallways and classrooms can often cloud perspective.  Strong educational leaders remain grounded to the school and its operations as a school.  They make efforts to stay present in the instructional climate of the school.  

Think strategically

Being able to evaluate the present conditions of the school, articulate where school needs to go, set goals and deliverables, and implement a plan to achieve those goals is an important quality for school leaders.  Every decision has implications for future decisions and affects operations.  Having a strategic and systematic way of thinking helps avoid haphazard and superficial decisions from becoming the norm.

Harness the power of symbolism

Strong leaders appreciate and look for opportunities to enhance symbolic leadership.  Providing a context that takes an seemingly ordinary action and transforming that action into a deep, valued message is often a hallmark of quality leadership.

Leave the stress of the job in the office

There are any number of stressors that enter into the lives of those who have accepted the burden and responsibility of leadership.  Strong leaders keep that stress under control an in the office.  Once the leader emerges, she needs to be “on her game” with teachers, students, parents, etc.  Others look the leader to provide an example.  Leaders who demonstrate high stress publically are setting up the entire staff to share in issues that should not, generally, be shared.

Connect individual talents and needs with the school’s goals and mission

This quality is evidence of the leader using the human resource frame.  The human resource frame has often been associated with effective leadership in educational settings.  Making these connections also requires an investment in getting to know the teachers on a deeper level than what is needed to provide purely structural leadership.  These connections should also motivate teachers to do their best work as that work is connected to both organizational and personal needs. 

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A well placed detour is better than a blocked road

detour One of my favorite moments as a school leader is when teachers approach me with good ideas.  To me, this is not only is a sign that I am doing something right in terms of leadership, there is also a degree of internal motivation exhibited.  These are wonderful situations and I get excited about the idea of building the leadership density among the faculty.

As the formal leader, I also have the responsibility for making sure any new implemented ideas are mission appropriate and well supported.  Even though the idea may not have been mine, I am still responsible.  As a wise friend of mine says, “You can delegate authority, but you cannot delegate your responsibility.”

Therefore, it often falls on me to ask questions about new ideas and pursue them with a frame of reference that is usually bigger picture than the teacher.  I am also sensitive to the pitfall of creating an environment in which teachers do not approach me with new ideas because of fear of too many roadblocks.

Good leaders are aware of the climate of innovation in their schools.  If you are not noticing teachers engaged in creative thought or approaching you with ideas, then you may need to begin working on “opening the road up” again.  It is ok to be cautious.  After all, you are responsible, but caution does not necessarily need to be synonymous with closing off the path to innovation.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Phases of professional development

professional-development

Image Source Page: http://thejerseyalliance.wordpress.com/2011/02/08/fitting-professional-development-into-your-busy-life/

The phases and reflections below are solely based on my own journey as a professional educator.  I welcome your feedback and your own perceptions about the different phases and outcomes of professional development.

Phase Description Purpose
1 Establish survive, overcome mistakes, establish voice and professional identity
     
2 Discover new interests, hidden/untapped talents, vision for my professional future
     
3 Seek and Prepare on the job, theory and practical, learn from others, expertise, confidence
     
4 Share and Lead mentoring, networking, presenting, clarity, effectiveness

Professional development phase 1:  Establish

In the fall of 1993, I began my first teaching job.  During the summer before, I crammed as many education courses into my schedule as I could because I had chosen to pursue a career in education, but having come to that decision late in my undergraduate work (it was actually the spring semester of my final year) I really knew nothing about being a teacher.  Some of those courses were helpful.  If nothing, I learned that the field of education was more complex than simply lesson plans and classroom management.

That first year, though, was mostly about lesson plans and classroom management.  Trying to keep my head above water and return for another day was first and foremost on my mind.  Sure, I made some mistakes – ok, I made PLENTY of mistakes, but I paid attention to the more senior members of the staff and learned as much as I could.

This pattern of internally focused professional development designed to establish my voice as a teacher and develop a professional identity lasted in some form for much of my first 4-5 years.

Professional development phase 2:  Discover

Professional development then made a gradual shift from establishing my professional presence to discovering my other interests in education and accepting that a new professional future is possible and desirable.  It was during this time that I changed my focus in education from teacher and coach to a future in administration.  This was the result of others seeing something in me (I still do not know what they saw) that compelled them to begin planting the seed that would eventually lead to my career shift in administration and leadership.

At first, I thought about athletic administration.  I pursued a graduate degree in Human Performance and Health Promotion.  What I discovered was that about 3/4 finished with this degree, I was interested in more than athletic administration.  I became Dean of Students for Upper School and applied for acceptance in a doctoral degree program in educational leadership.  I discovered I had interests in leading schools in the highest positions.  The performance feedback I received suggested that I had some talents conducive to high level leadership positions, with the proper training and knowledge.

Professional development phase 3:  Seek and Prepare       

This phase is marked by tremendous changes in my life, both personal and professional.  Personally, this period includes: getting married, buying houses, having children, moving away form home, moving further away from home, and getting through and re-establishing life after Hurricane Katrina. 

Professionally, the changes include: seeking and finding a leadership mentor, finishing my M.Ed. and Ph.D., changing roles from Dean of Students to Assistant Principal then to a founding Head of School and eventually my current position - Head of Middle School.

Development for me during this time was the most diverse.  Of course, with graduate school, I was immersed in researching, writing, and discussing the theoretical issues related to educational leadership.  Practical knowledge came more from on the job training.  I learned many lessons from my own mistakes (similar to the first years of teaching), but just as often, I learned from the decisions and actions taken by the leaders with whom I was working.  Many times, I would take mental notes.  Usually, these notes were in the form of categorizing actions/decisions in one of two areas:

  1. When I am faced with a similar situation, I want to respond like that.
  2. When I am faced with a similar situation, I will never do what that person did.

Out of this phase, I developed a sense of “expertise” in matters related to educational leadership.  The other, and possibly most important, outcome of this phase was gaining the confidence I needed to put myself “out there” as such an expert and to seek greater leadership responsibilities.

Professional development phase 4:  Share and Lead  

I consider this the phase I currently inhabit.  Having said that, this phase is also the one that I believe is potentially the most powerful because by its nature sharing and leading imply effecting others.  In many ways, this is the “pay it forward” phase, but it is also extraordinarily introspective and reflective.

This phase is marked by a number of action steps on my part.  You are reading one.  I established this blog as part of my desire to share and lead.  Other examples include social networking (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.) and presenting/actively participating in conferences.

At my school, this phase clarifies how to lead and support teacher professional development as well as establish/implement new division-wide initiatives.

The future and conclusions

I’m not sure what the next phase will be for me.  That is what makes this so interesting.  I can look back on my career and up to this point see a path that is marked by successes and set backs.  Through it all, I have never waivered from the belief that what I am doing is important and worth every effort I put into it.

I continue to learn and grow.  Now, I also enjoy being a part of other educators’ journeys.

Thanks for including me in yours.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

“Nothing could have prepared me for this”

prepare

Image Source Page: http://minimediaguy.org/2007/02/20/how-to-make-friends-and-interview-people/

Going on six years ago, my wife and I (along with our two dogs, two cats, and new SUV) evacuated the New Orleans area for what we thought would be another brief period while Hurricane Katrina approached the Gulf Coast.  Seven weeks later, we returned to our home that was, for the most part, unharmed. 

Oh, I almost forgot.  We returned with two dogs, two cats, a mostly new SUV and…our five day old daughter, my mother in-law, father in-law, and brother in-law.

Truly, nothing could have prepared me for that experience.

There are other events that those involved could not have possibly prepared fully to experience.  For example, the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the attacks on 9/11, the BP oil spill, etc.

What I find interesting is that I also hear educational leaders (principals, heads of school, superintendents, etc.) whoa also claim that nothing could have prepared them for their leadership roles.

Really?  Nothing?

Was there no lessons from teaching that were applicable? 

Nothing learned in graduate school? 

Coaching?

Mentors?

Nothing at all?

Maybe these statements are simply overstatements, but if they are sincere then what does that say about our expectations of the teachers we lead?

A basic definition of leadership is “Follow Me!”  If you claim nothing could prepare you for your role, then how can we expect those we lead to but into their own professional development plan or even give much credit to our ideas for their professional growth?

If someone asks you to talk about your leadership experiences, think before making a statement like, “Nothing could have prepared me for this” and maybe think about all the people and events that helped you get to where you are today.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Talent untapped and talent unused

Effective school leaders are quite savvy at making the connection between an individual’s needs and desires to the goals and objectives of the school or program.  To do so, leaders must be willing and able to invest the time to observe, listen, and learn as much as they can about their teachers.  This investment may pay off with the discovery of untapped talents.  These are the hidden gems often disguised by teachers who are unaware of how that particular skill can advance the mission of the school.  Untapped talents that are connected to larger school-wide goals provide great opportunity to build morale and internal motivation.

The other side of the equation is unused talent.  This occurs when an individuals talents have been identified, yet their appears to be some roadblock that prevents them from being used.  Roadblocks can originate from the teacher, the leadership, or the structure/policies/procedures of the school.  If those talents are useful, some solution that allows for them to be shared can be powerful.

Here are a few examples of what to listen for in order to evaluate how effective your school is at “finding talent untapped” or “encouraging talent unused.”

Talent “untapped”

Talent “unused”

“I didn’t know I could do...” “I wish I could...”
“I think I can help…” “I’m too busy to help…”
“I appreciate the opportunity…” “I would rather not…”
“Here I am…” “I’m not available…”

Every school will have some degree of both untapped and unused talent.  There is no end game to the efforts needed to identify the former while minimizing the latter.  The challenge for school leaders is to notice signs of the presence of both.  Once identified, engage talent untapped and motivate/encourage talent unused.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A little pragmatism may go a long way


In Pragmatism,William James writes,
"There can BE no difference anywhere that doesn't MAKE a difference elsewhere - no difference in abstract truth that doesn't express itself in a difference in concrete fact and in conduct consequence upon that fact, imposed on somebody, somehow, somewhere and somewhen."
For James, this is the basis of the pragmatic method used to settle metaphysical disputes.  James also writes,
" The pragmatic method...interpret(s) each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences.  What difference would it practically make to anyone if this notion rather than that notion were true?  If no practical difference whatever can be traced, then the alternatives mean practically the same thing, and all dispute is idle.  Whenever a dispute is serious, we ought to be able to show some practical difference that must follow from one side or the other's being right."
There are any number of issues faced by educators in the quest to "make a difference."  Is it practical to emply the pragmatic method to these issues?  If so, then what are the results of that application?

Most decisions about programs are based on an empirical philosophy.  This implies a "fact" based opinion with an underlying tones such as sensationalism, materialism, pessimism, fatalism, and skepticism.  The explanation of these decisions usually is accompanied by statements such as: "research suggests", "studies show", "teaches using this method demonstrated..."

There is nothing inherently wrong with this philosophical position, but it only addresses areas that can be measured and empirically studied.  The challenge is that education is about more than empirical elements.  It also involved the devleopment of areas less evident to empirical designs.

This opens the door to the opposite philosophical view, the rationalistic view.  Rationalistic philosophy is based on "principles."  The underlying tone of the rationialists includes intellectualism, idealism, optimism, and free willism.  Advocates of the rationialistic philosophy may employ less tangible methods and explain these methods by dismissing data and relying on instinct and feelings such as:
"Regarldless of the testing data, I know our students are making improvements.  They are happier, more engaged, and are generally more interested in learning." 
The challenge with a purely rationalistic philosophy is that while optimism, choice, and ideals are all important, there is a real need to measure and gather the results of our efforts to gage and relfect on our pedagogy.  In other words, there is a need for cold hard facts as well.

I believe that in matters concerning educational philosophy, we need an approach that allows for "intellectual abstraction" and also "makes some positive connection with the actual world of finite human lives."  This is what James considers pragmatisms role to be.  Pragmatism satisfies both demands.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Mastery cannot end with content

Master's cap for graduates in the globe. 3D

Image Source Page: http://news.everestonline.edu/post/2010/12/what-can-a-master-s-degree-in-business-do-for-you

One of the most memorable pieces of advice I received in an undergraduate education course was in response to a question about being nervous about mastering our content area during the first year of teaching.  The professor, a well seasoned life-long learner, looked at us and said, “Just remember that no matter how insecure you feel about knowing your content, you know more than the students in the class.”

Now, back then that was good advice.  There was no universal access to the sum total of human knowledge at the click of a button (Yes, I’m talking about the internet).  Today, when I work with new teachers I cannot give that advice.  Students are very savvy and any part of the teacher/student relationship that once gave the teacher an upper hand based on content, is basically nonexistent today. 

Mastery of content is still important.  I consider the credibility based on a teacher’s content knowledge one of the foundational elements of an effective classroom experience.  On the other hand, effective classes cannot exist anymore based solely on the teacher being a content master.  This speaks volumes, in my opinion, about how teacher preparation and professional development needs to transform parallel to how we see student learning changing.

As “masters”, what areas should teachers focus their mastery efforts in order to create an effective classroom?  Some studies suggest that a couple of the most powerful influences on student achievement is the relationship between teacher and student and the use of formative evaluations of programs (for a very good article on these topics, and others, see this post).

Here are a few other areas to consider if you are seeking your next “mastery” challenge.

  • Holding yourself as accountable as your students (deadlines, preparation for class, level of respect, etc.)
  • Understanding the nature of change in schools
  • Recognizing your role as a member of a team of teachers, not a lone wolf tasked with championing your subject area
  • Reading the non-verbal clues sent by your students in class
  • Engaging parents proactively and positively as part of building an important partnership
  • Using positive language (what you can do for your students) rather than negative (what you cannot do)
  • Effective written communication
  • How to create and deliver good assessments to students AND be willing to admit when the instrument you used is flawed - poor results are not always due to lack of student preparation
  • More collaboration (critical and honest conversation about instruction and programs)
  • Acceptance that technology is changing the rules of engagement – if you want to maintain an advantage, you must control (or at least be comfortable with) these new rules

Friday, March 18, 2011

Lighting a fire or fanning the flames?

light a fire

 

 

 

 

 

Image Source Page: http://www.fotoblur.com/images/90907

Practically every effective educator that I have known has had one common quality:

They are passionate about what they do.

Passionate educators are a valuable asset to your school.  These are the inspiring, motivated, team members who are often “leading from the front.”  When I am looking for new faculty members, evidence of being passionate about teaching is one of the foundational elements that I need to see in order for a candidate to move on in the hiring process.

Passionate educators also seek to surround themselves with other passionate educators.  Schools staffed with passionate educators are largely active, engaging, and positive places that demonstrate an obvious student-centered mission.

However, passion that is misguided by unfocused leadership can soon transform itself from a positive force for student achievement to a fanatical movement operating on the “lunatic fringe.”

Educational leaders should remember to identify their most passionate people and find appropriate ways to include them in efforts to move the school forward.  This is particularly important during the change process.  Passionate educators care deeply about their students and their schools.  They are a source of great energy and are often the voice many parents and community leaders have come to respect.

In leading our schools, let us be wise enough to know the difference between” lighting a fire and fanning the flames.”

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Thoughts on pay for performance incentives

A very recent blog post by Daniel Pink offers yet more information that points to the suggestion that a financial incentive for teachers as a means to improve student performance do not work.  For those us us who work in schools, this is not likely to be ground breaking news.  I would assume that none of us became a teacher to begin with because of the money.  Therefore, the promise of more money is not likely to be a huge motivator.  The article does reference a recent study of New York City public schools.  Here are a few thoughts I have after reading Mr. Pink’s blog post and also his book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.

  • New York public school teachers are among the highest paid public school teachers in the country.
  • In Drive, Daniel Pink talks about external rewards (such as these pay incentives) as being effective in basically 2 situations:
    1. When the person is NOT being fairly compensated.
    2. When the task being paid for is menial or non-challenging by nature.
  • None of us would turn down more money to teach, but as an incentive to do a better job – that is tricky
    1. What else can be used to determine effectiveness?
    2. Is the reward enough to off-set the expenditure in time and effort to work “harder”?
    3. How many teachers are already doing a good enough job to not qualify for the incentive?  In other words, if my students do well all the time, is it harder to show improvement?
  • If the financial incentives do not work, what does that say about teachers’ own perceptions about how they should be compensated?
    1. Teachers will generally admit that they are underpaid and underappreciated.
    2. Educators also are traditionally quick to point out how money was not a factor in their decision to teach – thus sending a signal that money is not important.
    3. What incentives would work to help underperforming teachers do better?  Is there a price tag that can be placed on that figure?
    4. If I am a high performing teacher and an underperforming co-worker gets paid an incentive for doing a better job, is there a danger of fracturing a faculty?
  • Is it possible that it really isn’t about the money from the paying entity at all?  Is it possible that for years teachers have said that they are underpaid and in an effort to demonstrate that teachers are appreciated, these pay for performance incentives emerge out of a lack of better ideas? 

Money that is handed out politically will always have conditions attached.  If pay for performance programs do not work for our students (which I believe they do not), then in place of saying it doesn’t work, can we offer some politically attractive measures that will?

Ideas that improve student learning, motivate teachers to continue to do good work, and set up our public officials to benefit from good public relations will be the ideas that should get promoted by the educational community.

You can take that to the bank.  

Global collaboration, professional development, and TED-ED

As educators have been exploring how to transform student learning in the 21st century, I believe that we must also examine how professional development form educators should also transform.  Emerging technologies, social networking, and video sharing have all created the possibility for global collaboration.  In many ways, the traditional professional development model of teacher in-service days are counter productive as they do not usually inspire the motivation to follow up on them with any real gains.  In other words, these traditional models do not address what Daniel Pink (author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About what Motivates Us)describes as essential to motivating teachers for continued development – autonomy, mastery, and purpose.  Sharing with others and engaging in professional conversation addresses all 3 of these areas.
Since last year, I have entered into such a professional development model as described above.  Blogging, Facebooking, and Tweeting have been major components to my collaborative effort.  I am also very pleased to announce that I have begun to contribute to another outstanding endeavor, the TED_ED Brain Trust.
In the coming weeks and months, I hope to write more about my experiences with this group.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Reflecting, writing, and taking measurements

Image Source Page: http://www.faqs.org/photo-dict/phrase/682/thermometer.html



I began writing this blog almost 8 months ago on July 21, 2010. While I am not sure if the quality of writing has improved all that much (I am my own worst critic), the reasons why I sit down a few times each week to offer my insights has certainly become more clear to me. At first, I did not really have much of a purpose other than to simply add my two cents in the educational blogosphere. That has not changed. I still would like to think that I have something to offer and look forward to the reactions I receive from time to time. The difference, though, is more aligned with what motivates me to write these posts beyond the sense of accomplishment I get once I hit the “publish” button and watch my words go out via blogger, Twitter, and Facebook.
In many ways, my writing taps into what Daniel Pink describes in Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.  Writing the Art of Education allows me a great forum for autonomy, mastery, and purpose.  Meaning I can write on my own terms, do so as often as I like, and commit to doing so better each time with the goal of learning more about myself as well as possibly helping others.  These are certainly reasons that motivate me to keep writing, but I have found another reason.

The field of education and educational leadership is a very broad field.  It covers a variety of topics from pedagogy to dress code.  Conversations can range from the universal and philosophical to the practical and specific.  It is this diversity of topics that was a major attractor for me to get into education in the first place.  Interesting enough, this diversity has also become a key element to why I write these posts.

When I write, I do so from my own perspective.  I draw upon my own experience and knowledge.  One drawback from doing so is that I understand that my experience and knowledge is contained to just that - MY EXPERIENCE AND KNOWLEDGE.  I often wonder how my experiences, ideas, etc. match up with or at least are somewhat consistent with those with different backgrounds.  Thus, my writing is also a way for me to "take the temperature" of the educational spectrum.

Reflecting on one's practice can be a somewhat lonely exercise unless we find a way to share those reflections in a manner that allows us to align our thoughts against a larger point of view.  I appreciate your feedback and look forward to my next post.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

In response…

I am grateful for all the visitors who happen to give my writing a few minutes of their time.  I am even more grateful for the few who have shared comments about my posts.  On Friday, I wrote a post titled, “The necessity of inventive thinking and its challenge to educators” which elicited this anonymous response:

“Everybody says these things, but nobody really believes them in schools. If you try to do these things you get your butt kicked....mine has lots of bruises!”

Since reading this response, I have been reflecting on how to both empathize with the responder and offer some intelligent post that serves not only his or her response justice, but also may serve to help others who may be feeling the same way.  Here is my humble attempt at both.

The best educators I have ever met all have one thing in common.  They care deeply about what they do because they understand that their work does matter.  There are those who have given up and are coasting along to retirement.  Unfortunately, those are the teachers who do as much damage to the profession than they do to the students who are in their care.  The great ones care, and they care deeply.  How do they show it?  One simple way is to simply show up and do your best each day.  The comment above demonstrates frustration, that is easy to see.  But if you look at it closer, you may also see some real grit in the words.  This person has “lots of bruises” which may mean that he or she continues to work at their best regardless of the obstacles they have encountered.  Not a bad quality to have given the landscape of education and the demands placed upon educators.

I also am compelled to point out that I speak from experience with frustration with schools.  My own career has had its challenges along the way, but I maintained an attitude that I could learn from each experience and use it to grow both personally and professionally.  Set backs are difficult and they hurt, but if you truly care about what you do and the students you teach, then I also firmly believe that you are making a positive impact no matter what you may be feeling at this point.

To the commenter, I would say that you have probably made an even greater impact on those around you than you may ever know.  I am sure your example has inspired others to do things they would not have tried to do.  My response to your comment may not do much to comfort the ill will you obviously are feeling, but try to take some solace in knowing that all teachers worth their salt have likely been as frustrated as you feel now.  My advice, as easy as it may sound, is to focus on what you can control, learn from your experiences, and keep doing good work for the students you encounter.

While I do not necessarily agree that “Everybody says these things, but nobody really believes them in schools” – I will admit that trying new things and working to make changes takes courage, skill, and a little luck.  So to all of you who may feel, from time to time, like the commenter:

Don’t lose courage

Keep working skillfully to do your best

and

May you all find a bit of luck when needed

Friday, March 11, 2011

The necessity of inventive thinking and its challenge to educators

invention-of-wheel Image Source Page: http://www.chrismadden.co.uk/yah/invent-wheel.

It is said that “necessity is the mother of invention.”  In our schools, we certainly are faced with a variety of necessary tasks and challenges to overcome.  These may change from school to school and from class to class, but I am not aware of any educational institution that does not face some sort of necessary challenge.

While necessities may spark invention, I would also say that the very challenge to become more inventive about teaching is, in and of itself, a necessity in schools.  I am not saying that teachers need to come up with a radically new approach to their craft.  What I am saying is that reframing what we already know about teaching to reveal fresh, new ideas is essential to professional growth and for motivating both teachers and students.

So if a necessity of teaching is to be more inventive in our thinking, then how can teachers search for ideas to explore that inspire this form of thinking about their instruction?  In other words, what can teachers do to gather options that address inventive thinking?

This is where various opportunities to engage in collegial discourse about what goes on in schools is valuable.  In light of this issue, many will point to social networking such as Twitter and Facebook as the solution.  I believe these are valuable options, but are even more valuable as part of a holistic approach that includes on-site teams, conferencing (either physically or via video), and reading works by other good teachers (blogs, books, and other publications come to mind).  Inventive thinking is also a reflective practice.  Teachers, in the course of drawing upon experiences, often are exposed to “ah ha!” moments which can serve as models for future ideas.

Keeping a class fresh and motivated to learn can be a challenge.  A little inventive thinking can go a long way in helping address this issue.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The qualities of a “quality” teacher candidate

A friend of mine once said that when she is interviewing potential teacher candidates she looks for evidence of two items before even considering the possibility of moving the candidate further along in the hiring process.  These two things are:

  1. A passion for their teaching subject (or grade level as the case may be).
  2. Sincerely enjoys working with students.

I agree with her assessment, but only as a litmus test for whether or not the candidate should move forward in the hiring process.

So, as a potential teacher or a teacher looking for a fresh start in a new school, what additional qualities or skills are important to demonstrate in the hiring process?  Here are a few additions to the list that I have compiled based on my own experiences in recruiting and interviewing educators.  They are in no specific order of importance.

  • Are you an early adopter or an user of technology?  The technologically opposed educator often costs too much in time and energy to make it a sustainable relationship.  You don’t need to be an expert, only willing and/or able to embrace the role of technology in schools.
  • Uses positive language rather than negative.  I want someone who’s natural response to situations is what they CAN do rather than what they CANNOT.
  • Disciplined and effective communicator.  Can you make your point clear and interesting in a way that invites your audience to engage rather than tune you out.
  • A reader.
  • Has a vision for their classes and a plan to work towards that vision that reflects an emphasis on ethical and moral professional practices.
  • Is willing and able to be collegial as well as congenial.
  • A team player, not a clock watcher.
  • Has an active life outside of “work”.
  • Views families as partners with distinct roles in the education of the student.
  • Enjoys and seeks opportunities to grow professionally and engage in a network of educators.

The qualities I list above are what I consider those of a mature, professionally minded educator.  You will notice that I do not specifically mention items such as years of experience, certificates earned, and formal educational background.  While all of those are important, I have found that they are only as important as they have supported the qualities in action as I describe above.  In other words, a certified teacher with years of experience and an advanced degree from a quality university does not guarantee an effective teacher, though those accomplishments do certainly point to the candidate having been exposed to the opportunity to develop and employ those qualities.

Being an educator is a demanding profession that requires both a solid foundation in methods of teaching as well as subject matter knowledge.  In the end, there is likely to be a good fit somewhere for anyone who embraces that challenge and works for the betterment of the student, the school, and one’s profession.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Common sense and the effective teacher

In my last post, I ended the article with a reference to “good old common sense.”  Since hitting the “publish” button, I have been thinking about what that means in education.  Jackson (1986) talks about common sense helping teachers read and appropriately respond to behavioral cues such as:

  • what a person looks like when they want to say something
  • noticing expressions of disbelief
  • recognizing nods of understanding
  • to speak in a clear voice
  • write legibly
  • listen when others speak
  • ask questions when puzzled
  • smile when pleased
  • frown when displeased

There are, of course, many other possible descriptors of common sense that good teachers draw upon.  I am sure you could probably rattle off a few yourself, but I think we can agree that at the very least -

Teachers who have strong tendencies to employ solid common sense are using an essential element to the art of teaching.

But where do teachers learn or at least refine their abilities to use good common sense?  Can common sense actually be developed?

I suggest that good teachers are also good learners.  As learners, these teachers are always seeking opportunities to engage with others and reflect on their practice.  In other words, good teachers need “common” time with other teachers in order to make “sense” out of their own actions and decisions.  Thus, the sum total of a teachers’ exposure to other teachers is, essentially, a means of developing “common sense.”

Conferences, faculty meetings, social networking, etc. all present chances for teachers to engage in building their capacity for common sense in the classroom.  As leaders, administrators should place value on these interactions and work with teachers to remove the barriers that prevent such interactions from taking place.

Reference:

Jackson, Philip W. (1986). The Practice of Teaching (Chapter 1, On Knowing How to Teach).  Teachers College Press, Columbia University.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Thoughts about knowing how to teach

  Socrates_teaching  Image Source Page: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Socrates_teaching.jpg

There are good teachers who distinguish themselves by their methods of teaching.  I have also met a number of good teachers who stand out due to their level of content knowledge.  But, the truly outstanding teachers are those who typically have a sound grasp of both methods and content.

Methods

By methods, I am referring to the way of actually delivering the instructional experience – outside of any specific content knowledge needed.  Methods includes teaching philosophy, beliefs, approach to communication, ability to empathize with students, creativity, etc.  Methods include pedagogy, but goes further than the style or strategies of instruction to include the emphasis and ability of the teacher to develop a professional and positive relationship with students and families.  These methods are also used to create meaningful connections with other teachers.  In short, good methods are related to the talents and skills of a true teacher-leader. 

Content

Content is easier to recognize and define.  It is simply the level of content area knowledge the teacher possesses.  Strong content knowledge is usually associated with having formally studied the content in question at the undergraduate and/or graduate level.  If the course being taught was not the teachers field of study, strong content knowledge can also be achieved through practical experience and/or post-degree programs.

Below is a matrix I created to describe teachers in various states of methods and content ability.  This matrix is not designed to describe every teacher, but to simply provide a basis for further conversation concerning these two areas.

Teacher Methods/Content Matrix (Roddy, 2011)

 

Strong Content

Weak Content

Strong Methods
  • teacher incorporates a diverse collection of resources and activities in class
  • teacher has a full “toolbox” from which to seamlessly pull from to adjust to the “flow” of the class
  • students and parents are fully aware of the course objectives and are engaged partners – each with a specific role to play in the success of the course
  • classroom environment is respectful and collegial, often with an active and engaged dialogue going on
  • professional development goals should include leading peer coaching and mentoring of other teachers
  • teacher creates and nurtures a positive environment that fosters positive student-teacher interactions
  • students generally approve of the teacher’s treatment of them as individuals, but are left feeling as if the course was not necessarily the stimulating experience they were expecting
  • parents express concern over perceived lack of academic focus, but admit their children enjoy the class
  • teacher uses limited resources and uses little creativity in lesson design – will not generally take instructional risks
  • professional development MUST address content area competency – possible areas of focus include professional organizations, additional coursework, and peer coaching
Weak Methods
  • teacher often comes across as distant or unaware of students’ needs
  • teacher’s communication may be poor or unclear
  • classroom environment is less interactive and more traditional (non-constructivist)
  • lectures and note taking are the primary activities
  • students are rigorously challenged academically, but often feel a lack of support
  • professional development should include reflective practices including vision philosophy
  • observations of peers and feedback loops from administration can be powerful tools for helping improve methods without sacrificing content focus


  • teacher likely relies heavily on textbook or other pre-packages resources to deliver content
  • teacher struggles when faced with having to go “off-script” when lesson plan does not work
  • students are likely confused about what the course is trying to accomplish and typically feel that the teacher does not listen to them
  • classroom environment may exist at the extremes of complete disengagement to utterly uncooperative
  • professional development plan MUST address both content mastery and pedagogical development
  • clear and tangible professional development goals must be met or teacher faces reassignment or a non-renewed contract

As one who has engaged in significant formal training in education, it may be somewhat odd to point out that many of the best known “stars” of teaching had little or no formal training (Socrates for example).  This does not imply that we do not have much to learn from the study of teaching.  It does, however, imply that much can also be gained from an appreciation of what Dewey called a “spirit of inquiry” and good old common sense.

This post was inspired by:

Jackson, Philip W. (1986). The Practice of Teaching (Chapter 1, On Knowing How to Teach).  Teachers College Press, Columbia University.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Do you know how your students learn?

I had a grade level team meeting recently at which we were discussing the various challenges facing a few students as we move into our trimester exam period.  One particular student was being discussed and, as usual, I directed each teacher to offer insight into how he was performing and the areas in which he appears to be in need of support.

This conversation was moving along as expected until the teachers suddenly realized that they had all offered basically the same insights and were then stuck as to what they could do to help this young man get out of his current situation.  I should mention that it was not that the student was doing horribly in school, but simply not quite progressing as well as expected.  He too, it seems, was stuck on an academic treadmill.

It was at this moment that I said, “I know all of you have talked to him about the quality of his work and what he needs to do to improve his grade, but has anyone asked him how he learns best?”

Hearing no answer to my question, I suggested that if we wanted to develop a plan to help this student, we should probably invest some time in figuring out that answer and create a plan based on it.

This seems like an obvious course of action, but it got me thinking about how infrequently we discuss “how” students learn.  We talk plenty about how we teach and what our students are doing (or at least being assigned to do), but we do not talk as much as we should about how students learn.

My wife teaches a few courses at a local community college and she sent me this article that I found interesting.  While it speaks to mostly the higher education community, I believe we can take away from it a stimulating article concerning the marriage of pedagogy and science.

In schools, we often talk about how students learn in terms of learning differences or styles.  To the average teacher, these topics can quickly become overwhelming and confusing.  Maybe we should simplify the conversation and begin by asking students to tell us about their most genuine learning experiences and following up that answer by asking these students how they believe they learn best.   

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