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Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Here's the Bill

After a rumbling sound emerging from the bowels of my car that could no longer be ignored by turning up the volume of the radio, I accepted reality, combined with my ignorance of things mechanical, and trudged into the local auto dealership. I drive the car 50 miles each day, to and from work, with little idea of how it works. I know there are pistons and spark plugs, valves and hoses... but that's about the extent of my knowledge.

The phone call from the service department could well have been conveyed in another language other than English. It was replete with acronyms, slang, and unknown terms that left me bewildered. When they arrived at the final cost of services there was nothing I could say. After all, how would I know what each part cost, or how long it took to replace? So, whether they said it would be $200.00 or $600.00, who was I to claim otherwise. I paid the bill.

On the way home from the garage, I realized that too many parents leave school after attending conferences with the same forlorn, perplexed, sense of resignation I felt when handed the bill because, like my puzzled mind sorting through terms and concepts that were foreign to me, they are often left in a fog of educational acronyms and esoteric data. Questioning educators by seeking clarity may expose the parent as less intelligent than they really are and serves to reinforce an asymmetrical knowledge relationship where the teacher holds power due to their possession and use of unknown phrases or uncertain meanings. Rather than expose their lack of understanding in an issue considered significant (the education of their child), the parent likely accepts the outcome and walks away as I did after paying the bill for car repairs.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Full Meetings of Empty Calories

Wikipedia defines "empty calories" with the following words: "In human nutrition, the term empty calories applies to food such as solid fats or added sugars supplying food energy but little or no other nutrition. The USDA advises, "A small amount of empty calories is okay, but most people eat far more than is healthy."

I have labored to endure a series of monthly meetings of a coalition that has mired itself in the consumption of empty calories that lack any form of nutrition. In other words, the members, though well intended, appear to measure themselves by the number of meetings they attend and the amount of words they deliver. They routinely arrive, address vague goals and undefined outcomes, dispense with updates on what their organization, watch the clock, and then bid each other farewell until next month.

The lack of cohesion toward a clear purpose and the meandering progress of the coalition have prompted my decision to invest my valuable time and energy elsewhere. I can't sustain myself on empty calories.




Go To Your Corner

The demands and challenges of school leadership, or virtually any leadership position, can be taxing. At times, the onslaught of people seeking answers, advice, or an opportunity to complain, can become overwhelming. Once emotional fatigue seeps in, subsequent decisions can be negatively impacted. Responses can be exaggerated, wrong, or emotional.

Before it reaches the stage of fight or flight, I seek refuge in an environment that has the potential to restore energy, reaffirm purpose, and return to equilibrium. It has varied from assignment to assignment, but it's always a welcoming atmosphere. It's usually been a particular classroom where a visit serves as a reminder of why we're involved in leadership, includes learners and teachers who are positive and constructive, and overall breathe life back into an otherwise deflated soul.

Among a few specific retreats within the building I work, one stands out. The kitchen is occupied by several women who are committed to providing nourishment for the bodies of our 400 learners in the form of two meals per day, and provide nourishment for the self-esteem of our 400 learners in the form of personalized communication featuring comments of recognition and acceptance. Both of these functions are exercised at high levels of performance. On top of those contributions, the kitchen staff members have a collective sense of humor and offer support through casual banter. They treat me like a person, not a boss.

As I thought of how the kitchen staff is a source of revitalization, I conjured up the image of the trainer and medical staff that jumps into the ring and supports a boxer during breaks between rounds of a boxing match. They provide the boxer with advice and encouragement. Similarly, the kitchen staff uses smiles, laughter, and personal stories (and a taste test of whatever meal they are preparing) to offer a brief respite from the daily work that often seems like the jabs and punches the boxer tries to dodge.


Who vs. What

We have recently been conducting search and selection procedures in an effort to fill a few vacancies and long term substitute positions. This process usually involves a number of different methods and people. Despite the time and questions and responses and ... the decision is reduced to the "who," as opposed to the "what."

That is, who the candidate is, not what the candidate is. The resume of the applicant reveals the degree status, schools attended, certifications held, work history, and often grade point average. To a large extent, this data, or "what," is very similar among all applicants. Each prospect must possess the required certification - which also correlates to a particular degree, and assumes a grade point average necessary to receive a degree. All teacher applicants have at least a student teaching experience, many have some experience (though not too much, because it means the candidate is sacrificing their seniority status in their current position, and it increases their expected salary at a time when most school districts remain operating under budget constraints).

What separates prospective employees is "who" they are and "who" they want to become. My experience leaves me feeling that the vast majority of candidates prepare themselves by emphasizing the "what," and enter the process lacking a description of the "who."

Board of Education Decorum


Recent actions evidenced by those casting ballots in Bennington, Vermont have been reaffirming. The results of the latest budget and Board of Education vote reveal support for the financial map outlined for the district, and a firm, collective voice for a new direction for the School Board.

Three incumbents were swept from their roles in a clear mandate that welcomed replacements with distinctly different perspectives. Together with an individual who was running unopposed to complete the remainder of the term of a member who had resigned several months ago, and these three new members, the majority of the seven member Board will be new to their positions. The fact that there were seven candidates seeking the three seats on the Board up for election was indicative of the toxic turmoil that had prevailed for too long at Board meetings. The people have spoken, and they want a re-orientation for the governing body that represent them.

The former Board was dysfunctional and entangled in a spider web of personalities that were either too strong or too weak. A casual observer at these meetings would leave thinking that the two most vocal members, strident in their opinions that were sprinkled about with impunity, were actually the Chair and Vice Chair of the group. Rather, it these formal leadership roles were actually in the hands of two well-mannered but docile members who sat by and acquiesced to the dominant pair that operated on a belief that whomever spoke loudest and longest would control the day. This was perhaps the most defining characteristic of the Board.

Members of the district's staff or public who did not share the views and beliefs of the two domineering Board representatives were often victimized by a condescending, or worse, a vitriolic dismissal in the form of a rant or rave, often accompanied by eye-rolling, finger wagging gestures of disdain.

Ah, but one person opted to adopt a firm stand and methodically articulated evidence of the hypocrisy of the Board's two primary mouthpieces, exposing them as bullies who assume that the speaker who expresses themselves the longest and the loudest prevails. The resistor's presentation was deliberate and delivered in a soft spoken tone before a large, supportive audience that had anxiously awaited such a rebuke of the pair of autocrats. He highlighted major points of the irreconcilable differences between his values and beliefs, and those of the most vocal board members. In addition, he faulted the Board for not delegating responsibility for instruction to the superintendent, follow appropriate policies (most notably, the district's anti-bullying policy, and the restriction that prohibits responding to questions at Board meetings that were not agenda related) of governance, Two separate standing ovations punctuated his speech, but quickly turned to gasps when he revealed his intent to resign his position at the conclusion of the school year.

Within weeks, the annual voting occurred and the community displaced three incumbents.










Sunday, April 2, 2017

A Growth Perspective



Our school district has embraced the Ci3T program (Comprehensive Integrated Three-Tiered Model of Prevention) as a means of nurturing the growth of learners in academic, social, and behavioral domains. This strategy reflects the system’s commitment to grow learners beyond a singular focus of academics. More important than the particular program, is the fact that adopting a broad-based system reinforces our perspective that the social and behavioral components of each individual have an impact on their cognitive development. Such an encompassing goal is significant in that it has evolved despite the nation-wide use of high stakes tests of accountability, during which too many schools have seemingly compromised, or at the least reduced, their allocation of resources of time, materials, and energy to instead invest everything in manufacturing higher achievement levels.

Our district’s willingness to maintain a direction that does not allow the pursuit of academic outcomes to dwarf the need to respond to, and accommodate, the child’s social and behavioral status. It is a plan that acknowledges the research of Abraham Maslow who asserted that the individual’s need for security and acceptance precede their need for achievement. By simultaneously addressing social and behavioral needs, along with an attention to academic progress, we expect that our learners will prosper in the long run and success in learning outcomes will be supported by our comprehensive strategy.

This structure of priorities is a feature of our school system that is aligned with my personal beliefs and values, and represents an attraction that ensures my commitment in contributing to the district. I am convinced that our school’s performance on the recently administered state assessments will yield a return on our investment in the form of increased rates of proficiency. I will re-visit this Blog post when we receive the results of these tests from our state education department. Until then, we will continue to follow our path and trust our orientation.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Transformation - not change

Pulitzer Prize winning author, James MacGregor Burns, is considered one of the preeminent scholars of the subject of leadership. This post draws on his work in the book, Transforming Leadership.

Enduring and effective organizations are proactive and transformative rather than one that simply changes and adapts to external conditions.

MacGregor explains the difference between "change" and "transformation." He states, "We must distinguish here between the verbs "change" and "transform," using exacting definitions. To change is to substitute one thing for another, to give and take, to exchange places, to pass from one place to another. But to transform something cuts much more profoundly. It is to cause a metamorphosis in form or structure, a change in the very condition or nature of a thing, a change into another substance..."

Our Shared Decision Making Team has embarked on a process that will produce  a transformation in the structure and condition of our school. The school and staff have been held hostage by a complex and unwieldy master schedule of classes (special areas...) that is based on a six day rotating schedule. This make sit difficult to plan meetings ahead of time due to the constantly changing schedule. That is, this Monday may be a Day 2 in the schedule but three Monday's from now can't easily be determined without counting out the days on a one through six format. With such an uncertain infrastructure, the staff is unable to look ahead, literally and figuratively.

A set, five day schedule where, for example, Art classes on Monday are always on Monday, allows staff members a more regular schedule whereby they can arrange collaboration meetings and conferences with parents... It also enables elementary age learners a predictable and consistent path through time at school.

Sound easy enough? It's far less challenging to merely alter labels on a master schedule in a series of incremental modifications through the years, than to engage in the intellectual wrestling and alternative thinking that accompanies transforming an organization. The former is an act of management that is cosmetic, the latter is the result of purposeful leadership aligned with a vision.

What's the difference? Currently, we are not capable of sharing staff and operating more efficiently since the other two elementary schools in our district already operate on a set schedule that is disjointed from one that rotates and changes each day. Planning meetings is a chore that defies logic and order. People can't keep track of the days in advance.

A transformation will permit us to arrange collaboration meetings (essential for us to align our efforts and improve our delivery of instruction in a coherent manner) and, by moving collaboration time to the period immediately after school, within the work day of the teachers, we can include all members of the grade level team, including special education staff, special area staff, and Reading and Math interventionists.

This move, in tandem with the group's work on using our available space more efficiently and effectively, will position us in line with increasing momentum for progress.

The Shared Decision Making Team will spearhead the commitment to ensure that the school operates in the best interests of the learners and promotes opportunities for success for all.