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Sunday, August 13, 2017

This Day Forward

I presented these words to the staff of our school n the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attack in 2001. The message rings true on this day following a different terrorist attack in Charlottesville, Virginia.

This is a day that will define us – not as educators – but as people. This is a day that we were not prepared for by college, but by our parents, family, and friends. This is a day to ignore the scores on a test, but concern ourselves with the test of our mettle. 

Our school is special because of the people within it. You were each hired because of your care and compassion, commitment and cooperation. If we are determined to pursue a mission borne of fostering hope and feeding dreams, then we must sustain that belief throughout this day and those that follow. 

Let us conduct ourselves with dignity and civility, sensitivity and faith. We must serve as purveyors of information, and reservoirs of understanding. Rest anchored to facts, not fiction; objectivity, not opinion. 

When the school bell rings, on this day that the nation mourns, we may be judged - not by grades and points, but by hugs and tears. If we are resolved to a future of freedom, then we must remain strong, speak as one, and act for all.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Buying and Selling

I recently, and reluctantly, parted ways with my car, after 178,000 miles. Many of us, including me, may loathe the process of buying a new care for fear of the complicated and burdensome interactions required to advance from looking for a car to signing on the bottom line of a contract. I never looked forward to dealing with salespeople.

That changed after reading Daniel Pink's book, To Sell is Human, and reviewing my notes from Harry Beckwith's Selling the Invisible. Pink makes the convincing case that we are all involved in selling on a regular basis, once we escape the notion of limiting sales to an exchange of money and products and understand that sales involve "moving people" through concepts and proposals... We are "selling" ideas to others all the time, whether it's making a pitch for which movie to watch tonight or explaining why we should not drink and drive.

Within that context (please read both books, it will be a wise investment of your time) I perceive myself as a person who sells ideas in exchange for the resources of time and energy and commitment. Think about it - effective schools "sell" parents on the value of their children sustaining a 13 year commitment in quest of a diploma that will lead to....? This is not like convincing a car buyer to purchase a specific car. The customer can see the car, touch the car, drive the car, and imagine how this car will make them feel. It's a transaction centered on a concrete object that results in an immediate receipt of a product by the consumer.

Conversely, as educators we must make a persuasive case for parents extending their commitment for a product (a diploma certifying standards and levels of performance) that they cannot see or feel. hence, Beckwith's book, Selling the Invisible. Beckwith contrasts selling a concrete object with selling an idea that is invisible that extends into the future with the following advice - "Selling aspirin to someone with a headache is much easier than trying to sell life insurance to a twenty-two year old bachelor." One has an immediate need, while the other is something that is not seen or touched or used for perhaps many years into the future.

That's the challenge for educators - selling the value and purpose of education to the community in a convincing enough fashion that the taxpayers will maintain financial support.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Something Old, Something New

As soon as one school is completed, preparations for another begin. One of the primary responsibilities in forging plans for the upcoming school term involves hiring staff members.

I have been performing this task for many years now. It's a challenge I enjoy. Nurturing growth in staff members is rewarding. I especially like observing the energy and enthusiasm that accompanies the resume each candidate brings to the interview.

However, the longer I remain in education, the more echoes of the past emerge. With a career than spans four decades, I have experienced a robust array of programs and practices pushed by consultants (all too often former educators imbued with the sales pitch of a snake oil salesman seeking to bilk public funds from anxious consumers in search of a quick remedy...) at conferences. During the course of a lengthy career, one hears programs explained in terms that sound vaguely familiar. Peering beneath the shade, light is cast on elements or concepts that are true, but couched in updated buzz-words and enhance with the technology of the time - all, to appear different enough to distinguish the program from earlier versions. Think about paraphrasing a quote, or citing a reference with a footnote in tiny font at the end of the book/article. As kids say, "the same, but different."

Somehow, amid all of the hype and noise, arise research based proposals that have survived critical analysis and been identified as viable solutions to stated needs. Even these programs are subject to subtle, nuanced tweaks that accumulatively have the effect to cloak the original and birth a new product.

Such was the case when I, many years ago as a new teacher, excitedly explained to my mother-in-law (a former teacher at a one room school house in Kansas, and later a principal of a small rural school there) about the new concept entitled "cooperative learning." I recounted the wisdom and recommendations presented by the authors (themselves products of a one room school house) and went on and on about the virtues of the philosophy and practice. My audience of one was patient, gracious, and accommodating.

Finally, after exhausting my knowledge and effort, my mother-in-law politely offered that it, "sounds a lot like what I learned years ago when studying the work of John Dewey." That took a little wind out of my sails, though she clearly did not intended to dismiss or discount my interest in cooperative learning. Nor did she imply that the Johnson brothers who formed the basis for cooperative learning were copying the work of Dewey, but rather building on his efforts and refining/updating the practice.

Nonetheless, it was an example of what continues to occur in the field of education, old practices and programs wearing new, more stylish clothes to impress shoppers.

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.


Tuesday, January 24, 2017

School Is Closed By The Weather Outside, But We Must be Open To Our Climate Inside School

This post, authored on a day when snow and ice conspired to cancel school, emerges from an article that appeared in NPR Ed series, How Learning Happens, on November 1, 2016 and attaches itself to a message to our staff at Molly Stark Elementary School in Bennington, Vermont.

The thrust of this piece is certainly one which has long resonated with me, but the strict, externally imposed mandates that emphasize formal state-wide assessments seems to have unfortunately obscured the essence of the article throughout the nation's public schools. In other words, following that adage that we, "measure what we treasure," too many schools have subjugated concerns about school climate in favor of devoting resources of time and money toward increasing learner outcomes on the aforementioned state tests.   

Despite the integration of an array of technology and the flood of high stakes tests, schools are ultimately a human resource agency dependent on the dynamic relationships among and between the children and adults within the building. Success rests on people. 

                                              ***

Dear Colleagues,

I hope that you are all resting comfortably near a warm fire on this snow day, with a good book in one hand and a remote control monitoring a great movie (or your kids) in the other. However, if you want a break from that I came across a short, interesting article that speaks to the direction we are moving at Molly Stark. 

We have embarked on refining our instructional delivery system by effectively using data, and simultaneously embraced an important, more subtle, effort to enhance the climate of our learning community. The Ci3T comprehensive, multi-tiered response to learner social, behavioral, and academic needs is a prime vehicle in our improvement process. The combination of these two strategies will surprise many people outside our school and serve as a platform for future advances. 

Your commitment and collaboration have already revealed progress in increased attendance among learners (95%) and decreased discipline referrals (review weekly and monthly summaries). Every staff member contributes directly or indirectly to the atmosphere of the school by both words and deeds. Whether we decide to or not, we are influencing the shape and form of our environment at Molly Stark. Children will pick up on what we model and how we model. While we lack the ability to impact our salary, externally imposed policies from out state and nation's capital, the home situations of our learners, and so much more - we do have the capacity to influence a positive climate at school. Let's continue to promote a constructive environment and practice what we preach.

The primary substance of the article I referred to at the beginning of this message is excerpted below. Enjoy this day and be careful driving to school tomorrow.

Mike


"A study published in the Review of Educational Research today suggests that school climate is something educators and communities should prioritize — especially as a way to bridge the elusive achievement gap. The authors analyzed more than 15 years of research on schools worldwide, and found that positive school climate had a significant impact on academics
And here's the biggest takeaway: There's no link between school climate and socioeconomic status. In other words, there are plenty of happy schools in low-income neighborhoods, too.
"Obviously you need to have a great math teacher that can teach math, but those social and emotional connections really help in the academic area too," says Ron Avi Astor, a professor at the University of Southern California and a co-author of the study. "That creates a lot of opportunities for the low-income schools," by giving reformers more tools to think about, he says.
When Pam Hogue took over as Weiner Elementary's principal three years ago, tardiness was a problem. Enrollment was down. The community was losing faith in its public schools.
Weiner is a rural town with a population of less than 700. A majority of the kids come from farming families — soybeans and rice, mostly — and more than 99 percent receive free and reduced-price lunch.
Hogue sat down with a faculty team to envision the school they wanted — a school with the tagline "A great place to be a kid."
Now, students are rarely late (no one wants to miss out on that assembly). Average attendance is 99.93 percent this year. And most importantly, Hogue says, people in the school — students and staff — are happy.
This idea of creating a good school culture isn't new, but 2016 has been a big year for urging schools to measure it.
For the first time ever, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires states to include non-academic factors — like school climate — in how they gauge school success. Earlier this year, the Department of Education released an online toolbox to help administrators better measure and understand the school climate. One recent brief even linked a positive environment with improved teacher retention.
The potential payoffs are big, says Joaquin Tamayo, director of strategic initiatives at the U.S. Department of Education.
"Improving school climate is tough, it's tedious, it's incremental," he says. "But when folks can do it right, and when they really put not just their mind but their heart into it, it's just such a beautiful thing."
There's still a lot of work to be done in terms of defining, and measuring, a school's climate. A great school culture in the Bronx, for example, might require different resources than a school like the one Pam Hogue runs in northeast Arkansas.
But the new study's co-author, Ron Avi Astor, says the best schools transcend the culture of the community around them. They may differ in design, but they can feel very similar.
"They kind of see themselves as vehicles to change society — that these kids are going to go out and not just reflect where they came from and who they are, but change all that," he says. "And those are the most exciting schools."
Pam Hogue sees school climate as a launching point — a way to catapult kids toward opportunities outside their immediate environment.
"What we want to do is give our kids not only the skills but also the attitudes — things like confidence — to choose where they go in their life," Hogue says. "I want them to have the skills and the confidence to make that change
."

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Mile Markers

I recently returned from a trip to Boston. It's a journey of about one hundred seventy miles. A little over three hours by car, after accounting for any potential construction and traffic. The experience is not unlike the path we take in school when improvement is our destination. There's often unexpected construction and traffic before we reach our goal.

Beyond the technology that allows us to gauge our progress and project a time of arrival, there are other benchmarks that offer a perspective along the route. Many people may not recognize the mile markers that flank the median side of the highway as they whiz by these posts at regular intervals. These markers preceded the electronic devices many that motorists employ as guides, and they provide a more frequent indication of our progress than the large signs that dot the roadway and state distances until the next city. The markers reference each mile with a simple number that reflects

School improvement is an ongoing process that requires an enduring vision and unwavering commitment. There is a Chinese proverb that asserts, "a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." One method of fueling progress on that path involves success by approximation - opportunities to identify and reward achievements that represent incremental steps toward the metrics defining the improvement goal. The leader must make genuine attempts to recognize and acknowledge performance, constructive changes in behavior, and persistence among engaged stakeholders. Small but meaningful ceremonies (pot-luck meals), notes (positive reinforcement), tokens (preferred parking for a week...) can serve to reinforce efforts and sustain the group's energy.




Monday, January 16, 2017

Shared Decision Making

Last Friday, January 13th, marked the initial meeting of the Molly Stark Shared Decision Making Team. The primary purpose of this group is to enrich our future by reflecting on the past and analyzing the present. Our goal remains to promote opportunities for the success of learners of all ages, at all stages.

There are two quotes that drive our pursuit - Winston Churchill's claim that, "Those who help build the house are least likely to destroy it." and "Power is the only thing that multiplies when it is divided." (author unknown)

Furthermore, Alex Pentland writes in his book, Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread - the Lesson from a New Science, "It seems that the key to harvesting ideas that lead to great decisions is to learn from the successes and failures of others and to make sure that the opportunities for this sort of social learning are sufficiently diverse." (page 29)

With this in mind, we embarked on our with a team comprised of representatives of the following stakeholder groups: parents, support staff, teachers from all roles (special education, special areas, interventionists, and classroom) and the principal.

Parameters were outlined, informative materials were provided, group norms were proposed, expectations were expressed, and we marched forward. The first tasks of the team pose challenges - 1. re-imagine a master schedule that optimizes learning opportunities, 2. create a space-use plan that promotes a effective and efficient learning environment.

We're off and running...