Thursday, July 26, 2012

Building higher

  I was watching my children build a tower out of Lego blocks recently.  As the tower grew in height, it began to lean and eventually fall.  At first, frustration set in, but then they figured out two ways to keep a higher tower upright.

1.  They could build a wider foundation to support the tower.

2.  They could build the tower around an already standing structure that was tall enough to support the tower from the inside (basically adding a skeleton to the tower that couldn't be seen from the outside).

We expect students to learn more, grow intellectually, and ascend to higher levels of understanding.

Maybe there is something there to learn from the Lego block tower.

  • Are you providing students a wide enough foundation to support that level of achievement?
  • Is there a constant support system working from within to encourage higher levels of understanding?

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Place your bets: A thought about technology in the classroom

image found at
I am all for teachers trying new ways to make connections in their class by using available and engaging technological tools.


At some point, your connection may be slow, the power may go down, your battery runs out (and you forgot your power chord, etc.

These are the moments that highlight which teachers are putting the cart before the horse.  It is not about the tools.  What matters is the learners.  Your connection to them should never be as limited as an image on a screen, a comment box under a blog post, a search result, etc.

Those rarely change and have no ability to adapt to the needs of the learner.  That video you rely on to "teach" the lesson isn't paying attention to the reactions of the students.  It can't stop itself and hold an unscheduled discussion of an issue that suddenly and obviously hits a nerve.  The video just plays, unaware of the response it receives.  A search for "Thomas Jefferson" will yield the same basic results each time.  It isn't concerned with the context in which the search is being made.

Again, this is not intended to be a condemnation of technology in the classroom.  Current and future technologies have the ability to enhance a critical element to engagement and success in the class - the relationship between professional educator and student.

The problem is that when teachers willingly (or unwillingly) abdicate the responsibility of forming those relationships and begin relying on technology to be more that a tool to enhance the relationship, they are betting on something other than themselves to achieve what they, the teacher, is ultimately going to be held accountable for - students' learning.

No one is going to blame the computer or the Internet when your students feel less than supported by you and demonstrate this feeling with less than expected results.

Integrate technological tools to enhance the experience.

Bet on you to deliver the goods.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Ideal qualities of the professional educator

Each year, I have the pleasure of observing and interacting with a number of teachers.  In the 20 years I have spent working in schools, I have come to believe that the point at which every educator grows from beginner (or novice) teacher to established professional happens when a certain set of qualities moves from requiring conscious effort to the habit of serving students.

There is no time table for this transformation.  Some teachers are lucky enough to have wonderful mentors and administrators who help them develop these characteristics fairly quickly.  Other teachers start off with bad advice, develop poor habits, and have to re-invent themselves (usually with a fresh start at a different school).

Either way, I believe there are five characteristics that, once they become habits, are indicators of the ideal professional educator.  To remember them, I have come up with the acronym FRITR (pronounced fritter, like the pastry).






You may notice that none of these characteristics speak directly about content knowledge.  There is a reason for the omission.

I consider content knowledge a given quality for a professional educator.  If you do to know "your stuff" you will never get close to the level of a true professional anyway, so leaving that quality off the list is not an oversight as much as it is an attempt to avoid stating the obvious.

Also, if you do not know what you are teaching, it is virtually impossible to embody these characteristics.  Students today, I have found, have a very refined sense of when their teacher is unsure of content.  As a matter of fact, over the years, one of the more frequently mentioned student complaint to me has been that the teacher "doesn't seem to know the subject."  If this is the case, or if the teacher is projecting this image, it will be very hard for...
  • the student to consider the teacher a "trustworthy" guide in that class.
  • the teacher to be "responsive" to student questions.
  • the teacher to lead "interactive" lessons.
Professional educators provide value beyond the content.  Often that value is a manifestation of the qualities listed above.  In looking forward to next year and when planning professional development opportunities, keeping these characteristics in mind and providing chances to refine or enhance their role in your school is a good place to start.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Student Effect

When students enter school, there is always great hope (and the expectation) that the student will grow and develop over the course of time and leave the school having become a better, more fully prepared citizen.

However, the relationship between school and student is not one sided.  While it is natural to expect the school to have an effect on the student, how the student effects the school can often be overlooked.

One of my favorite questions to ask students, especially those who are new to the school, is,

"What do you think you need to do to make the school better?"  

Students are usually stunned by that question and have a difficult time thinking of an answer.  Mostly, they try to think of what kinds of activities they can participate in or teams to join.  While there is absolutely nothing wrong with contributing to the life of the school by being an active participant, the answer I guide students towards is less about any one specific activity and more concerned with an attitude (mindset) about being a student which is conducive to having a positive effect on the school.

So, what do students need to do to make the school better?  How does the student effect work?

Here is what I tell them.
Every day, strive to be the best version of yourself you can be.  Some days, you will be 100%, so give us 100%.  Other days, you may only be at 80%.  On those days, give us the 80% and know how to use your support system (teachers, advisers, coaches, counselors, friends, etc.) to help you fill in the missing 20%.  What you cannot do is come to us at 80% and choose to only give us 50%.  That is a recipe for failure and frustration.  Give us all you have every day and endeavor to get a little bit better.  That is how the student effect works on schools.  That is how you will make the school better. 
How do you see the student effect working at your school?

P.S. By encouraging and supporting an environment that allows students to have an effect on the school, you are, by default, also maximizing the chances of the school having a positive effect on the student.  Funny how the relationship works, isn't it?

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Schools: A stage or an opportunity?

stage curtains
image found at
Educators can view their relationship with schools in many ways.  Here are two worth reflecting upon.

1.  In exchange for your time and talent, the school (or school system) in which you work gives you a stage to demonstrate how much you know.

2.  In exchange for your time and talent, the school (or school system) in which you work gives you an opportunity to demonstrate how much you care.
image found at 

Which statement is more aligned with how you feel?  

Preparing students to stand and deliver

  Being able to do a quick online search is helpful.  Knowing where to find the correct information is a useful skill.  Having the ability to collaborate with skilled peers gives you an advantage over those who do not understand group dynamics.


There are times in life, and especially in leadership roles, when you need to be agile.  You need to move quickly.

You need to stand and deliver.

Not just deliver with acceptable results, but deliver with remarkable results.  You need to deliver the goods and deliver them spot on.

This is much easier for those who can draw upon a vast reservoir of knowledge and experiences.  

As such, content matters because through the learning of subject matter content, we absorb information.  Sharing information matters because by engaging in the social process of sharing information, we create knowledge.

Whether knowing the atomic number of Argon (18 by the way) or having gone through the experience of having to learn it is more important will depend mainly on the decisions and experiences of the student after they leave your class.  Either way, at some point that student will have had to stand and deliver on a Chemistry test and, eventually, sand and deliver in their chosen field of work

Preparing students to stand and deliver has value and shouldn't be minimized (or forgotten) in the conversation about personalized learning and technology integration.

P.S.  I am not a chemist, so yes, I did Google search for the Argon information.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Edleaders Hangout: Leading changes coming to your school

During these summer months, educational leaders are preparing for the approaching 2012-2013 school year.  In every case, some form of change will "go live" once teachers and students arrive.  These changes can take on a wide range of forms.  

Here are a few examples that may be familiar.

  • Completely new school schedule
  • New technology integration initiative
  • New teachers to replace long-serving, and now retired, faculty members
  • Greater focus and emphasis on already existing programs
  • Small adjustments in multiple operational procedures
  • You, as a school leader, serving in a new role or at a different school
Of course, there are many other possibilities.  However, I have found that most school changes fall into three broad categories:

  1. Something completely new (program, person, procedure) replacing a previous form of the same item
  2. Something new to support an already existing program
  3. Noticeable adjustments to an existing program to highlight its value

Leading the changes in your school is the backdrop to my first ever Edleaders Hangout on Google+.  The Hangout will be held on Tuesday, July 17th at 9 pm EST. The topic will be 

"What one thing do you want to change or highlight about your school next year and what do you need to get started now?"

I performed a practice hangout recently, so I believe I have the procedure down.  Also, I anticipate using Hangouts On Air to record the event and post the video on this blog as well as on my YouTube channel.

In addition, an hour seems quite long (as it does to me in Twitter chats).  So, I am planning this first Edleaders Hangout for 30 minutes with the option of extending the hangout up to an hour if participation is robust.   

Maybe we can call any extended time, Edleaders Extra Credit?

I hope you will consider joining the Hangout on Tuesday either as one of the 9 guests that Google+ Hangouts allows to join in via video conference or by contributing to and/or following along from my Google+ stream.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Aware and available educators

 Recently, we experienced a few unusually strong storms here in Northern Virginia.  During one, the wind was gusting up to hurricane force levels.  Quite a few trees fell and power was out for many people for multiple days.

During the height of one particular storm, my neighbor decided to call her roof and siding expert.  It was about 11:00 pm and she figured she was going to need him to come by the next day after hearing the damage being done outside.  Because of the time, her hope was to leave a message so she could get on his, surely to be long, list of customers.

To her surprise, the owner actually answered the call himself.  He was manning the phones to make sure his customers, who he knew would be needing his help, would know for certain that he had received their call.  He couldn't calm the storm, but her was able to provide some degree of assurance.

My neighbor could now worry less about someone being able to come fix her damage because the expert was aware of the conditions under which his clients were living and available to reassure them.

Certainly, there is a lesson here that educators can appreciate.  Students, from time to time, find themselves in situations that tend to induce extra anxiety (exams, students starting at a new school, large project deadlines looming, etc.).  As an educator, how aware and available are you to "answer the call" and provide some helpful reassurance.  

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Knowing when administrators should call an expert

  In the midst of a recent room renovation, I called an electrician for help with a wiring problem.  While he worked, I commented that though I am not necessarily the most accomplished DIYer, I typically try to take care of issues before calling a professional - EXCEPT with electrical work.  I believe I said, "With plumbing, I am not likely to drown myself if I mess up.  Electrical is another issue altogether!"

In my mind, I know when to try something new (after researching the issue and possible solutions) and when to call an expert.  Usually, the scale begins to tip towards the expert when my attempt to fix it involves a greater than acceptable risk of serious injury to myself or damage to my home.

In my professional work, I have been called upon to provide support in areas which I have a history of success.  These areas include personnel management, strategic thinking, synthesis and analysis, and goal setting.  Of course, I am not an expert in all things, so as with my home projects, I am sensitive to when I need to seek an expert in matters concerning schools and students.  These areas have included individual counseling matters, subject specific curriculum adjustments, and outdoor education (to name a few).

As school leaders, administrators should not shy away from tackling new issues and try to resolve problems with reasonable and historically effective solutions.  However, there are times when the problem may exist within an area which if you try to resolve them yourself, the potential for damage to your own professional standing and the health of the school is put in unnecessary jeopardy.

Know when to call an expert.

Being like Jack

Image adapted from Wikimedia Commons file, Jack_Be_Nimble_1_-_WW_Denslow_-_Project_Gutenberg_etext_18546.jpg, Illustration by w:en:William Wallace Denslow from the Project Gutenberg EBook of Denslow's Mother Goose, Original copyright 1902 by William Wallace Denslow From:

School leaders face numerous situations which require decisions.  Often,a thoughtful and prudent approach to making decisions works well.  However, there are times when the leader needs to be nimble and quick, such as emergencies or taking advantage of sudden opportunities.  Knowing when to act quickly and when to proceed with caution is important.  Misreading the situation may cause the leader (and the school) to "get burned" by the metaphorical candle.

When quick action is needed, leaders need to call upon a reserve of experiences and knowledge to guide them.  In addition, leaders who are rarely "like Jack" may find it difficult to effectively be nimble and quick.

Here are a few ways school leaders can maintain (or develop) their ability to be nimble and quick.

1.  Get out of the office and see for yourself how things are operating.

2.  Ask questions, especially to those whose work is often affected by your decisions.

3.  Stay current.  Subscribe to blogs, read newsletters and books, attend conferences, develop a personal learning community.

4.  Make a few quick decisions about a few low impact questions.

5.  Have a solid default decision making philosophy (i.e. When in doubt, serve the needs of the person in front of you).

Feel free to add to the list in the comments section.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Teaching "in the zone"

Flow at Work
image found at 
remember playing baseball and being "in the zone."  At bat, the ball seemed to move slower and appeared bigger.  In the field, I could anticipate where the ball would go before the batter made contact. On the mound, my focus was razor sharp and the distance to the catcher's mitt seemed more like 40 feet away than the actual 60 feet 6 inches.  When I think back over those moments, it was as if every move was effortless, instinctual, and exactly timed.

Now, I am not an expert on being in the zone.  As a matter of fact, I am reading Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihaly to try to understand this experience better.  Since I have not finished the book yet, I cannot make any decisions based on its suggestions.  However, after reading The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg, I am led to believe that some aspect of being "in the zone" might have to do with the timing of habitual responses to a very specific cue which produces both a physical and psychological reward that acts to "recharge" a state of focus.

Unfortunately, the cue which led to the habit which may have led to being "in the zone" may be terribly difficult to identify.  While the physical responses may have developed over time with training and practice, the "in the zone" feeling was brought on by more than just a simple cue.  If it did, then being "in the zone" would happen more often.  Maybe there needs to be a perfect mixture of timing, temperature, student responses, preparation, attitude, what I had for breakfast, ...

There must be more to the cue that leads to being "in the zone" as opposed to being aware and present.

As a teacher, I find it harder to remember times in which I felt I was "in the zone" in class than I remember being a ball player (which was over 20 years ago).  That is not to say that I haven't had such moments.  I remember having times in class when the questions seemed to flow like a well timed Twitter feed.  The students were all engaged and their eyes were larger in anticipation.  There were no wasted words nor wasted movements.  One activity flowed in to the next with little friction.  Time flew by, yet when class ended, it was clear that significant progress was made.

The problem is not remembering what my "in the zone" class looked like.  The problem is pinpointing the cues that led to the feeling.

So, what does it feel like to be "in the zone" as a teacher?  Are you maximizing your chances of more "in the zone moments?"  Do you reflect on your classes to try to determine which cues led to better interactions with students?  Is your training, professional development, practice, etc. working to help you develop habits of teaching that are conducive to being in such moments?

Have you every been "in the zone" while teaching a class?  If so, how did it feel to you?

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