19 December 2015

The Long Distance Sprint

It is done. I have finished my admin credential---from start to finish in 6 months. I enrolled in a competency based program, so seat time wasn't a factor. I began on July 1...wrote a paper a day...and wrapped up all of my coursework on August 5. The next week, I sat for my Praxis exam and started collecting the 540 hours toward my internship. I've been interning in a school at least one day a week (and often two days) throughout the fall. And yesterday, I turned in the last of my portfolio assignments, my log of hours, and my professional growth plan.

It's been a long, hard, fall semester.

The credential was not an official condition for my being hired into my current job, but it was strongly suggested. And while at this point in my career, I have no particular interest in being a building principal, I have a long way to go before retirement. So, I will put this one on a shelf and, if the time and opportunity are right, I'll put it to work for me.

While losing 20% of my work week to an internship was difficult, I truly enjoyed being in an elementary school again. I had great mentors and fantastic teachers and para-educators to spend time with and learn from. I will miss being part of that.

But I've been very sick this fall, as well. Four months of treatment and three surgeries later, and I am still working on getting over things. I have another surgery next month...and possibly another later this spring. Juggling that into the mix of internship, classes, portfolio, and trying to do my regular job has not been simple.

A "year" means something different when you work in education. I suppose I am looking forward to 2016 for personal reasons, but in my professional life, this point in the year is only a pause in our marathon. Winter break is a time to catch my breath, and set some goals to accomplish between now and the end of the year. January will be a time to rededicate myself to my current role and maybe take on a new project here and there.

Best wishes to you all as you recover from getting the school year up and running...and make an effort to finish strong in the coming months. It's a marthon, not a sprint, after all.

04 October 2015

The Conflicted Disciplinarian

I stepped out into the office this week to find a kindergartner looking over the counter. He resembled a Kilroy cartoon---just his fingers holding onto the counter and the part of his head from the eyes up. "Are you ready to go back to class?" I asked him. He looked very confused. "I missed my recess again."

Yep, little one. You did. I asked him if he remembered why he didn't get to have recess and he knew it was because he had used his scissors to cut another student in his class. But I could tell that he didn't really understand what that had to do with recess. The connection between action and consequence wasn't clear to him.

The assistant principal and I had talked to the student before lunch. And while it would have been within bounds to suspend the student for the act of "violence," I couldn't advocate for that. First of all, he's five and has been in school less than a month. I don't know that he understands what school is yet...let alone why you might not be allowed to come to it. Second of all, he's five and doesn't have a lot of "tools" for dealing with conflicts he has with classmates.

The story goes that the teacher asked students to put their scissors away, and this little boy didn't. Another student repeated what the teacher said and the boy cut her on the finger. He could have said "Mind your own business." or "You're not the boss of me." or "I'm almost done." or a host of other things. But at that moment, he just reacted the only way he knew how. I'm not saying it was appropriate. I am saying that this is our opportunity to help him learn about other choices and how to use his words to communicate his feelings. Sending him home for a day doesn't do that. Frankly, I had a hard time taking away his lunch recess and afternoon recess, but that's what we ended up doing. The little boy had already apologized to his classmate.

Later that same day, we talked to two first graders that had been fighting on the playground. At some point during the scuffle, one punched the other and received a kick "in the nuts" (as one of the six-year olds stated) in return. Again, we could have suspended the little dudes...but I just couldn't justify it. This is mostly due to their age. I do believe that at age six, a child is old enough to understand that punching and kicking someone else is not okay. I don't believe that at age six that a child can manage all of their relationships effectively. I know plenty of adults who can't, either, but that's a different issue. Is it more important to assign the consequence and hope it makes an impression...or is it more important to use misbehavior as a teachable moment so that they student learns other ways to interact with classmates? Are both necessary?

Seattle schools recently instituted a one-year moratorium on suspensions for elementary students who commit non-violent offenses. While neither of the incidents I encountered this week would have been considered non-violent, I really have to wonder how many suspensions for any reason are necessary for elementary students. I know that there are some times when it is best for the student to have a break to regain some self-control, as well as times when a classroom may need a break from a chaotic student, too. But how many of those are there?

I also wonder about how and when we implement restorative justice as an approach at elementary. If you're five and already struggling to understand that there are more ways to get your point across other than acting out, is a sincere apology enough, knowing that older grade levels will add on to that base?

There's a lot to balance. In the case of the kindergartner, I'm sure the parent of the child who was hurt expects the school to assign a punishment. I'm sure that his guardian, who is homeless, just needs the boy to feel safe and cared for in a stable environment during the day. I'm sure that the little boy just needs to be a little boy.

When a kid gets sent to the office, I'm supposed to be the "bad cop," so the relationship with the teacher is preserved. I'm supposed to be the hardass when dealing with kids who can't even open their own milk cartons. I'm supposed to be judge, jury, and executioner...and that feels like a lot of responsibility, especially when I'm looking at a kid who can barely see over the counter. Maybe I'm just too big of a softie at heart, but I find it really difficult to bring down the hammer on any of these kiddos.

Meanwhile, over at the high school, it's a very different sort of story. Kids who are caught with pot in their backpacks. Kids who are leaving campus during the day to walk around the neighbourhood and smoke a cigarette. Kids who don't go home at night and have worried parents calling the next day to see if they've shown up at school. Kids who know how to push a teacher's buttons and take great pleasure in doing so.

Now what?

At high school, everyone involved in those conversations is world-weary, including the students. While no one admits that they are giving up on kids outright, there seems to be a pervasive attitude that the best thing to do is just find the easiest path to graduation for students. Change their schedule. Put them on the list for alternative school. Send them to ISS for one period a day to do their work there. Send them to counseling. Most of these solutions don't really get at the root cause of things, but are instead designed to put on a patch until the kid leaves school, one way or the other. With a graduation rate around 80%, that's a lot of kids who get the message that school is not the place for them.

I suspect that there are other ways to manage all of this: teaching social-emotional skills, establishing restorative justice practices, allocating resources to keeping older students engaged and on track. I don't know how we put it in place. It's great that we have systems for positive behavior supports, but I don't think this is enough for 20% of our students. What is your school or district doing that seems to be working? How do we as a system make connections between our own actions and consequences?

27 September 2015

Learning All the Time

We're a month into school...and I'm about halfway through collecting hours toward my administrator credential. I'm spending most of my time in an elementary school, but there will be some in middle school and high school. Here are a few things I've learned so far:

I am twice as tired at the end of a day at the elementary school than I am from interning at the high school. The elementary has a principal, assistant principal, and counselor. The high school has 200 more students, but it has three administrators, three counselors, two security guards, one campus resource officer, and fifteen security cameras. In other words, the high school has way more support for watching, moving, and supporting students and teachers. At elementary, if a SpEd kid tries to run away---there goes at least one of your administrators, leaving the other to cover everything else. Meanwhile, nothing else can get done: being in classrooms, preparing safety plans, focusing on instructional leadership, etc. It's not that one grade span is "easier" than another---just that we really need to look at the balance between what we ask administrators to do and the resources provided.

The problems encountered by high school administrators---at least in terms of students---are far more complex and, frankly, depressing. This is not to say that little kids don't have difficult personal lives, too, but they're sheltered from some of it, either through their own ignorance/self-absorption or by adults. Five year olds don't show up drunk or stoned at school. When a kid shows up in the office at high school, there are some seriously messed up things happening in the background.

Lunch duty in the cafeteria with kinders and first graders is hilarious. Lunch duty with high school kids...not so much. At elementary, I spend time opening milk cartons, tying shoes, avoiding hugs from sticky-fingered and sticky-faced small people, and reminding them to walk (not run) to the playground.

A kinder recently asked if he could get his coat before recess. I walked him to his classroom, but it was locked. I suggested that when he got to the playground that he just run around in the sun to warm up. His reply? "But I can't run very fast...because I'm only five." He was so forlorn about it.

Whoever invents something for female administrators to easily carry their radio, phone, and keys will make tons of money. We need some cute little shoulder bag or fancy fanny pack. Get on that, would you?

As a teacher, I was always aware that I was the adult in the room. As an administrator, I see this need tenfold. If you have a defiant fifth-grader who insists he will never ever come down from the monkey bars...you have to outlast him. If you have a high-school student who insists on a testosterone-fueled response to someone staring at him, then you have to outrank him. I don't mean any of this in a cruel way. I just mean that by the time a teacher or someone else in the building has called you to deal with a problem. you have to find an immediate way to show the student that (a) you care and (b) you are the authority. It's best to reach a common understanding whenever you can, but when that is not possible, you get the last word.

Administrators can't fix kids---anymore than a teacher can. Administrators can't fix adults, either, and yet much of the job is centered around adult problems. Parents who are homeless and have significant needs. Teachers who are addicted to drugs or alcohol. Office staff that can't get along. Coordinating with community services. The list goes on and on.

Last week, I was greeted by a second grader with "Hi, Miss Principal Lady!" It made me smile. Although I don't see myself ever officially being a principal, one of the things I am learning is that I could do the job. There's still a ton of things for me to take in, of course, but it doesn't feel insurmountable. In my current administrative role, I only have to know a slice of what a principal knows---but, I have to know that slice for 10 schools and 2 programs, as well as all of the relationships. A principal needs to have a much broader knowledge of school function, but only for one slice of students. A good principal, of course, is much more than what he or she knows---there's a magic to the way that they apply it. That is not something that can be learned, I think...but we'll see what happens between now and end of my internship at winter break. For now, I'm learning all the time.

07 September 2015

Make a Wish

It's almost time to start a brand new school year. Sure, some of you have been back at it for more than a month, but Washington has a kinder, gentler calendar: after Labor Day or Bust.

We had inservice days last week, and I got to hang out with the school where I am doing my administrative internship. I remembered a post from Organized Chaos from a few years ago where her school asked parents of kindergartners what their hopes and dreams were for their children. I loved that idea when I first read it. We are often so focused on what we have planned that we forget to ask everyone in the system about what we want.

So, this year, we asked parents to fill out a card when they dropped off school supplies: What are your hopes and dreams for your child? Most parents responded with ideas about the school year, but a few took a larger view and commented on college or aspirations for life skills. Here is a summary of what they said...
  • Kindergarten: make friends; have fun; love to learn and to be at school
  • Grade 1: make friends; love learning; build social and behavioral skills
  • Grade 2: increase social skills; build self-confidence; be challenged
  • Grade 3: make friends; build self-confidence and self-esteem; stress-free
  • Grade 4: make friends; have fun; build self-confidence
  • Grade 5: make friends; increase social and emotional skills; improve in reading and math
  • Grade 6: make friends; be challenged; stress-free
We were somewhat surprised by these results. They represent about 2/3 of the families at the school. And their biggest wishes for their children's experiences at school have very little to do with academics. Really, I think that's okay---even better than okay. In an era of school improvement, federal mandates, and public accountability, parents are telling us that they hope their kids will be happy and well-adjusted little people. It is the foundation for everything else.

Can the school write a SMART goal around "make friends"? Nope. But I think the data parents have provided are good reason for the school to create a focus on social-emotional skills for kids...something much more than just reading and math. Schools will always have a focus on academics. They can also help nurture the hearts of the communities. From what we see on the cards parents wrote for us, it looks like they're wishing for that, too.

My career turns 25 years old this year. I am excited to be back in a school this fall, looking through the lens of a principal for the first time. My wish is for a year full of learning and professional growth, along with some balance to have more time and opportunity for a personal life.

How about you? What is your wish for the 2015 - 16 school year?

17 August 2015

How Goldilocks Got Her Groove Back

I'm about to start my 25th year in education. That puts me slightly past the halfway mark of my career, and in that time I've had a variety of roles: middle school teacher, high school teacher, elementary instructional coach, district curriculum specialist, state program manager, and now back to a district level role.

Here's a little secret. I have always been jealous of those teachers who stay in the classroom for their entire careers. You know the ones (one of them might be you)---like the 60-year old kindergarten teacher who approaches each new school year with as much energy as when she was 25. I have long admired not only their devotion to the task, but also their contentment with the work. As much as I loved teaching, I never felt at home as much as some people do.

It's my second year with my current job. Last year was a blur. I had a steep learning curve for most of the work and spent a lot of extra time just getting my feet under me. I am looking forward to this year when not everything will be new---even if it is still demanding and time-consuming. More importantly, I feel like this job fits me. It suits my strengths and provides me with challenges that are just the right size. I look forward to going to work each and every day. I don't resent working evenings or weekends, when necessary, because I enjoy the tasks. It's been long enough that any "honeymoon" with the new job should be over. Is it possible that I've finally found the Goldilocks career opportunity? I like my work...I like my environment and the people with whom I work...I like my paycheck and responsibilities. I don't see this as a stopping point on the way to something else or even want to look around for other possibilities. Maybe I will someday, but for now it just feels good to head out the door each morning with a smile on my face.

We have three more weeks until school starts here. There's a lot of work to do between now and then---lots of professional development opportunities, data to crunch, and connections to make. But instead of feeling overwhelmed or sad to see the end of the summer, I feel excited about getting back into the groove of another school year. I hope you all get the chance to feel the same way.

09 August 2015

What I Did on My Summer Vacation

Calling it a vacation is a bit of misnomer. However, for the first time in seven years, I had two weeks off. In a row. It's the miracle that happens when you leave a state agency and go back to a school district. I am an administrator, so my contract is different from when I was teaching. I don't have summers off...but I do get those first two weeks in July. It was luxurious.

But back to my story.

I started work on an administrator credential. (I know.) And for those of you worried about me unleashing myself on some poor unsuspecting school, rest assured that I have absolutely no desire to be a principal. I've seen enough excellent ones now that I have too much respect for that job---I couldn't do it nearly as well. But the credential is important for my current role and with 20 or so years left in my career, I may really appreciate having the additional options that come with just such a piece of paper.

So, on July 1 I started an online program. (I know.) I looked around at a variety of options. If I had the money (~$18,000), there were two brick-and-mortar options that would allow me to complete the programs in a year. I think that if I was just leaving the classroom and had not had any teacher leadership opportunities, I would find a way to do that sort of program. But I've worked as a district and state administrator. That doesn't mean I know how to run a school, just that I understand some of the vagaries that go along with it. So, I picked a competency-based option.

Do you see all those little blue ribbons? Those are all the credits I've completed since July 1. Yep, since that time, I've finished every single course in the program except for my internship (the one in green with the 7 on it). I wrote 30 papers in 35 days and then took a final exam this weekend. Now, I need ~13 more weeks of hours in my job and in a school this fall. Poof. I'm a principal.

It's not much of a vacation. Okay, so it wasn't a vacation at all. But my job is too big to have to squeeze in all of the coursework---I already bring home a lot to do on evenings and weekends. This was also an economic option. I'll complete the entire program for $3000, including books. No travel, no parking or other fees to manage. It may be a budget credential, but the program is accepted for accreditation by the state. I will say that there were lots of opportunities to post on message boards and engage with an online community. I did none of it---just the required assignments. Again, if I was a complete n00b heading into this, I would probably feel differently. As it was, I was grateful to just jump the hoops.

The internship, however, will be a welcome addition when school starts again. I'll be working with and learning from two utterly fantastic elementary principals and am most anxious to have a reason to not be in my office...to be in classrooms with teachers and children. There is one other requirement of the program, and that is to take a Praxis test from ETS for administration. I'll take that this Friday. My state certification office doesn't care about the score---I just need one for the program. I think I can manage it.

It's a beautiful afternoon outside. I should be working on my presentation for this week's administrator retreat, but I think I will grab a bowl of ice cream and sit outside for a few minutes. I can pretend it's a summer vacation.

15 April 2015

The Whole Child's in Their Hands

The unofficial theme of this year's ASCD annual conference was accountability. With new tests rolling out across the US this year, the possible reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (a/k/a "No Child Left Behind"), and continuing focus on teacher and principal evaluation, it's no wonder that accountability is on the minds of every educator. It's a difficult balancing act in public education, however, because of all of the voices that play a role: parents, students, teachers, administrators, district/state/federal officials, communities, and so on. Accountability looks different through all of those lenses. I know that many teachers feel that they are caught in the middle at times.

One session I attended had a series of Ignite presentations around the theme of accountability. One of the presenters implored us to "wholed" her accountable...meaning that we shouldn't limit our judgement of a school to test scores. And while I agree in principle---schools are worth more than annual test---having worked outside of a classroom, I could quickly see how this could backfire. I could easily imagine all of the new reports that would be required for student health, community engagement, and so on. We have to be careful what we wish for, educators.

However, each year one school is selected for the Whole Child Vision in Action award. This year, Magnolia Elementary School of Joppa, Md., led by Patricia Mason, received this honor. Schools that participate in the whole child initiative focus on ensuring that every child learns about a healthy lifestyle, has a safe place to learn, is engaged with learning both in and out of the classroom, has a system of support, and is challenged academically.

I am inspired every year by the award winners. They have a sort of magic---one that cannot be replicated, and maybe not even repeated from year to year---but for a moment in time, they have everyone and everything moving in a significant and positive direction. You can read more about the specifics of their school in the press release from ASCD.

I spoke with the principal and three of the teachers over breakfast one morning. This is the third time that I've had this sort of opportunity and if I could boil down what all of these schools have in common, it would be "Everyone does whatever it takes to focus on students." Too simplistic? Maybe. But it's not just pockets of teachers in a school doing good things. It's all of the teachers...and paraeducators...and secretarial/custodial/food services staff...and administrators. It's students reaching out to parents to bring them to the school. This is no small task. Teachers step up into leadership roles. Principals create the conditions that allow teachers to take on this responsibility and authority.

Something else I've noticed is that these schools don't get caught up in all of the trends. Yes, they pay attention to requirements and test scores, but none of them are active on social media or tricked out with technology. Magnolia only had wifi access points installed the week before they came to Houston. Money, time, and energy all go toward taking care of students and teachers.

Congratulations to Magnolia Elementary!

12 April 2015

Get Real: Passion for the Classroom

I like to believe that all educators are passionate about students, learning, and good instruction. These factors reveal themselves in different ways. I've seen teachers in "supersmall" districts---ones where there are only two teachers---who drive the bus, feed students (because there is no meal program), and be the heartbeat of their community. I've watched teachers in larger districts collaborate with their peers on a regular basis to engage in reflective practice. I regularly read blog posts by teachers from all over the world who share their triumphs and struggles as they work to continually improve their practice on behalf of their students. And, I see it shared at conferences and workshops, too.

At the recent ASCD annual conference, I sat in on two presentations in particular that showed passion for educators at an entirely different level---one which not only conveyed their heart for the work, but inspired and sparked commitment. One was by Dr. Robyn Jackson and the other by Regie Routman.

I read Jackson's Never Work Harder than Your Students five or six years ago and then met her at an ASCD author's event two years ago. (I did get to see her at a similar event last month.) However, this was the first time that I've seen her present. Her topic was "Failing Up." Here was the session description: What do you do when your students are caught in a free fall of failure? How do you help them learn from failure? How do you motivate students who have failed so much they've given up? Learn how to turn failure into a valuable learning experience. Discover specific ways to help students develop resilience, take risks in the classroom, and try, along with practical strategies for turning failures into powerful learning experiences that builds students’ motivation and grit. And while the session was well-paced and the ideas solid, it was her practitioner's stance that struck me. To be sure, she is no longer in the classroom, but I had no trouble visualizing her there...her quiet resolve and unwaivering faith in students' abilities at the center of every move she made. I also appreciated her sense of humanity. It would be easy for her to focus on the success stories, but she shared difficult moments and also very personal stories. This lack of hubris makes the strategies she provides feel much more attainable---that it is not an expert preaching a gospel, but someone that you would have appreciated in the classroom next to you. Someone who shows up each day ready to give it their best.

I had not seen Regie Routman present until last month, either. Years ago, I read her Teaching Essentials book and I remember being struck by her plain talk. There's not a lot of that in education. We like big ideas. We like to dream big. But there aren't a lot of people who work side-by-side with teachers and students who clearly state what the job is and that you need to get it done. I didn't get to talk with her much at the author's event this year, but looking back through Ye Olde Blog, I see that a commenter here in 2011 said that Regie's presentation moved her to tears. I didn't have quite the same visceral reaction to the message, but I will say that she is different from every other expert I've seen in action. The difference is that Routman conducts her work as residencies in schools. She doesn't just tell you what to do, she comes to your school and teaches in your classrooms so you can watch. Instead of a formal presentation, she has hundreds of photographs of student work and video clips of her conferencing with teachers and students with one goal in mind: making literacy the center of classroom learning. She creates and supports sustainable change in schools. Her focus is on the joy that is part of learning---not focusing on a deficit model of what students can't do, but using effort and persistence to help students move forward. Her new book, Read, Write, Lead, is a rich source that reflects her depth of knowledge in the field of literacy, as well as her core beliefs about classrooms and student learning. I have not finished reading it yet---it's so dense with ideas that I am taking in bits and pieces for my mind to "digest" before going back for additional helpings. If you work in a K - 8 classroom, and especially if you are a principal for those grades, I highly recommend that you pick up a copy.

What made these two authors, educators, and presenters different for me was that they weren't in the room to sell anything. They were there to communicate, to reflect, to engage with a community of other practitioners. They didn't try to package and sell the golden bullet. Instead, their unwavering resolve shows that they are in for the long haul and that they will continue their work until every student finds success. It's such a significant and meaningful message...moreso than the "Just add #hashtag!" crowd.

As I go back to work after Spring Break and face the last quarter of the school year, it would be easy to get caught up in the little things---state testing, annual reports, end-of-year budgets, and so on. But both Jackson and Routman have inspired me to do my best to keep my focus on the larger purpose and goals for my work...that every day is an opportunity to make a difference. Maybe they can do the same for you.

28 March 2015

What's Your Why?

I spent last weekend at the ASCD annual conference---my fifth one. They are a blur of conversations, learning, laughter, and vendor-dodging. I look forward to these moments all year. They are my opportunity to visit with friends I only see once a year and build connections that make my work at home that much more rich.

At one of the presentations, a student teacher group asked the audience, What's your why? For me, this was a great frame for the conference.

My "why" is different now than when I was a student teacher---when I was sure I could change the world. Robyn Jackson told a story during her presentation about when she was about to be a first year teacher. She was convinced that she was only months away from a book or movie deal. After all, isn't that what happens? An enthusiastic young teacher enters a classroom for the first time and transforms the system? (I don't know about you, but I've seen that movie many times.) While Dr. Jackson has had her own journey in the educational world, you know when you meet her that she has not lost her why...her passion for students and learning...her belief that she can make a difference, even if she never has that movie deal.

There was a fabulous keynote speaker: Sarah Lewis, author of The Rise. Speaking on how we develop our sense of perseverence, Dr. Lewis was resolute in the passion of her message and beliefs. Failure is neither an end or beginning, it is just part of the journey. It is part of how we develop our why. I am most anxious to read her book. I also recommend her TED talk.

The conference had a different feel this year and I believe that it was due to a more balanced approach to what was offered. It seemed like last year (and the year before) were way too heavy on edtech sessions. The great thing about a large conference like this is that it's an opportunity to learn things you might never run across in your day-to-day world...and sessions that focus on what a Twitter hashtag is dumb down the overall experience. Edtech has had its day in the sun and now it's time to let the grownups talk for awhile. Anyway, this year, most of the sessions were geared toward elevating our conversation in education. Lots more sessions with a focus on social justice, helping students create meaning, and supporting principals in their work. The quality of the why was increased tremendously this year.

This was the first year that I've attended the conference with several other people from my district. Many were first-timers at the conference, and their "why" was focused on seeing as many big names as possible. (I remember doing that, too, at my second conference.) It was a good opportunity for them to reflect on their current goals and hopes while listening to experts talk about their own vision. An annual conference is a good opportunity to consider the state of your why.

As for me? My why continues to evolve. I have had a grand love affair with my new job this year, even though it exhausts and challenges me relentlessly. Being around 9000 others who use the conference to recommit to the critical work we do with students is both energizing and reaffirming. I have no doubt that all of our whys are different, but I don't believe that matters. It's the collective voice and synergy that make public education as rich as it is.

I came home with some new ideas, a few books to read, and other ideas to share. Look for some new posts in the coming weeks that follow up on these ideas.

23 February 2015

Help Wanted

I can't speak for what's happening everywhere, but here the economy is much better than it was a few years ago. People who needed jobs as substitute teachers in 2010 don't need them now. If you have a degree and some experience, you've got a permanent position somewhere---perhaps not even in education.

But our need for qualified teachers, paraeducators, and other support is greater than ever.

We're not the only district experiencing a sub shortage at the moment. And while we can kick around some possible solutions, in the interim it's really hurting professional development opportunities for teachers.

Voters in our state recently passed an initiative to reduce class-sizes. It's a feel-good sort of thing. People like the idea of more personalized attention for students...never mind that the research shows that it's ineffective in all but a few situations. Voters didn't really think the whole thing through. Where are we supposed to get all these teachers---many districts can't fill the positions they already have? Where are all these classrooms going to come from? Most schools don't have the physical space to create dozens of new classrooms. Supplies for all the new classrooms? Are voters going to open their pockets to fund those, too?

I was just reading about a proposal for more STEM-related summer activities and learning for students in grades 5 - 12. Love the idea...and my first thought was "Who will lead it?" There aren't enough teachers to go around---not when you factor in all of the workshops and other professional learning that happens in the summer...let alone the need to recharge for another year.

So to sum up: not enough subs...not enough teachers to staff schools...not enough other adults to support additional programming. If you've been thinking about a career in education (or just a move to Washington state), now's your chance. We have good jobs for you.

But we need to think long-term, as well. Maybe it's about money...but I'm not so sure. Higher pay may well attract people that wouldn't have originally thought about being in the classroom. Maybe we need to think about diversifying the pathways that lead to the classroom. Perhaps it's about better support---adding apprenticeships or other extended learning that help new teachers feel ready to step into their own classrooms.

What are your solutions to the "help wanted" issues in education?

20 February 2015

Because I'm Bad, So Bad, You Know It

Here are a few reasons I regularly hear or see about why students have a low score on a state test:
  1. The kid was having a bad day.
  2. It's a bad test.
  3. The kid is bad at taking tests.
The first one is possible, but I rarely put any stock in it. Why? Because not once have I heard the opposite reason given for a good score. "Wow! That kid passed the test. He must have been having a great day." It's understandable that we get disappointed when students perform well---especially when we have been beside them every day and have seen all the progress they've made. Makes it all the more important to celebrate the successes we have. One score does not define a student or a teacher. But we shouldn't dismiss it based solely upon Chance, either. If we're not willing to say that the scores we like were only attributed by good days, we can't toss the others to bad ones.

As for the second, I'm willing to believe it far more for a teacher made test than a large-scale version. Why? Most teachers have had no formal training in assessment. I've seen plenty of poorly developed items and poorly constructed tests at the classroom level---including my own. For a lot of my classroom career, I would not have been able to tell you whether or not an item was good---Did it measure what I wanted it to measure? Was it free from bias? Was the content accurate? Did the analysis of the student responses support the goal of the whole assessment? Bad tests exist. But they are not the ones your state is using to measure student learning. Don't like the way the results are used? That's a whole different discussion.

The last reason is similar to the first in that it does exist...but very rarely. In my classroom career, I only ran across one student who was truly terrible with tests. She was in an AP class and could answer nearly any question I asked her in a conversation. On paper---even with the benefit of her textbook and all of her notes, labs, and assignments---she couldn't pick the right answer. She is the only student I ever discouraged from taking the AP test. I tried coaching her all year...we went over questions and talked about the thinking involved with answering them...but we just couldn't get her enough strategies to make it work. So, she was one out of thousands that I could truly say number 3 fit. As for the rest, I rarely made a concerted effort at "test prep." I did work with students on metacognition---being aware of how they were making choices with questions. But the most important thing to do was focus on content and teach to the standards.

Lots of people---both in and out of the classroom---don't like large-scale testing. I'm not one of them, as unpopular as it might be to say so. But then, I've had the benefit of being involved with writing items, test builds, scoring sessions, rangefinding, and more. I've seen the entire sausage get made. However, I don't like how the scores from these tests get used---for graduation requirements, student placement, teacher evaluation, and other uses for which the tests were never intended. But we can't disconnect those from testing by attacking the tests themselves with arguments about them being bad.

18 February 2015

Rookie Card

I had a principal tell me this year that the ID badge of all new employees should have a big "R" on it for "rookie." And when you were faced with an awkward situation or made a misstep, you could pull out your rookie card and ask for forgiveness. I think this is a brilliant idea.

I have been a rookie at several points during my career---from the very first day in the classroom, to new buildings, grades, courses, and roles. I am beginning to be "a woman of a certain age," meaning that by this point, others are expecting me to be settled down into a career...and competing with younger (less expensive) workers is going to be an increasing challenge. But it also means that I'm not bothered by change anymore. I'm too old to let that get in the way of what I need to do. I know it's a waste of energy to worry about it.

I can't claim, that it gets easier. It's hard to start all over with a new job in a new district. It's humbling to continually admit that you don't know the answers (yet) and build relationships when you don't know all of the back stories. I will say, however, that this has been the nicest transition I've ever made. It makes all the difference to be surrounded by people that care about doing the best job that they can and who appreciate what I can offer and bring to the district.

I told someone recently that I had forgotten that people could say nice things. It's not that my previous job was awful or that there weren't good people to work with. But it had been such a long time since anyone cared about what I had to say or had an interest in new ideas. I feel valued as a person and as an educator. My work days are long and I have more to do than ever before...and yet I wake up every morning and can't wait to get to work. That feeling, too, had been long forgotten.

The rookie card is an awkward one. On one hand, it screams inexperience...and on the other, it asks for empathy. I only have six more months to use mine, although I feel the need to play it less and less. I may be turning into an old lady, but I also feel more confident, more needed, and more ready to help teachers and students than ever before. I'll be ready to flaunt my pro status.

16 February 2015

Getting Along

I've been thinking about this slide a lot. I have used it for almost a year now when talking about systems for data use. The start is the teacher/classroom. Teachers collect a lot of data--attendance, grades, etc. that they need to use on a very short timeline---they have to make (tactical) decisions about the work they'll do with students the very next day. However, they aren't the only users for this data. Conversations may happen at the PLC level (department) when teachers share student information. Schools and districts look at similar data, but on a longer timeline (quarterly or annually). They look for trends and patterns across buildings or grade levels. As we continue to aggregate data outward, we end up representing a lot of teachers and a very long timeline. Some things, like the Civil Rights Data Collection only happen every other year. Election cycles can further drive when strategic planning for education occurs. Different methods of data collection (school information systems vs. state/federal databases) also add a layer of challenges.

At the end of the day, this image is about communication...or the lack thereof. I can picture a teacher looking up through all those layers of the system and being exasperated that s/he isn't being heard. "Don't they understand what I'm going through down here?" And I can also imagine someone sitting atop the federal level saying to the teacher "Don't you understand that this is bigger than just you?" The truth is they're both right. It's public education---and everyone gets a say, whether you like what they have to say or not. Someone in a leadership position who doesn't share your point of view shouldn't automatically be labeled a bad leader. If anything, it's a chance to find out what they know that you don't---and also to share your information with them to round out their thinking.

I had an email this week from a teacher asking about some course title work that was happening. She referred to "the district" as if it really is an entity separate from everything else in the system. It's not. She's just as much a part of it as anyone else, even if she didn't see it that way at the moment. I tried to be careful in wording my reply---not only to put a face on "the district," as the matter in question is a project I'm leading...but also to help her think about empowering herself as part of the discussion. We're all in it together.

When I think about the data and communication pieces, I also think about this tweet from Hilary Mason:

Photo: cc-nd-nc-by Christopher Penn https://www.flickr.com/photos/financialaidpodcast/2287769216/
It's a great question. Much of the data we gather and use in the education system is about students. What does it mean to help them gain power with what we learn from the information that we have? What does it mean for a state government to help teachers gain power from the aggregated data that they collect?

I spend a lot of time thinking about my role in all of this. I'm not interested in changing the system. Over the years, I've grown to accept it as a fact of life.  Railing against other parts of the system so you can be master of your own box will get you nowhere and will only make you more frustrated and angry. Go ahead and write a bunch of blog posts about how Arne Duncan is a poopy-head because he doesn't know your classroom...but all you're really doing is confusing your job with his.

I am a mediator of sorts when it comes to data between all of the various levels. I do some of the things you might expect---looking for patterns and trying to find the signals in all of the noise we generate. I also do lots of very unsexy things---I have lots of conversations about data quality, trying to help an individual teacher understand that whether or not s/he takes attendance contributes to acts of policy at the outer levels. We can't just shake a tiny fist and claim the federal government doesn't understand when all we've provided is bad data for them to build their ideas from.We have to find ways to get along.

13 February 2015

These Are the Days of Our Lives

I thought my days as a classroom teacher were full to overflowing---working with students and colleagues, planning lessons, grading and feedback, communications with parents, school and district committees and meetings...not to mention trying to find a spare moment to use the restroom, choke down a sandwich for lunch, or pretend to have a personal life.

I can't say that working life in the district office is any different this year, although I don't bring home a head full of students every evening. Here's a snapshot from one of my days this week:

  • 6:30: Arrive at the office---a late start for me
  • 6:30 - 8:45: Eat breakfast at desk; pull data for various requests across the district; meet with support staff; check-in with colleagues and supervisor on various projects and initiatives
  • 8:45 - 9:00 Travel to meeting and check-in
  • 9:00 - 1:00: Participate in regional conversation about new assessment and technology needs and eat lunch (not at desk...for once)
  • 1:00 - 1:10: Drive back to office
  • 1:10 - 1:30: Meet with principal to discuss possible solutions for kindergartner and fourth grade attendance issues
  • 1:30 - 2:00: Meet with superintendent to review materials for board meeting presentation
  • 2:00 - 3:00: Meet with community partner about data project connecting student needs with community resources
  • 3:00 - 3:45: Prepare for next meeting about mentorship opportunity for CTE students
  • 3:45 - 4:00: Travel to meeting
  • 4:00 - 5:00: Mentorship meeting...last chance to clean up details before March 5 event
  • 5:00 - 5:30: Travel back to office and pick up dinner
  • 5:30 - 6:45: Eat dinner at desk while catching up on paperwork, filing, and email; pretend to work on upcoming ASCD presentation; pull files and pack bag with information for tomorrow morning's first meeting away from the office
  • 6:45 - 7:00: Set up for school board meeting presentation
  • 7:00 - 7:45: Attend and present at board meeting; respond to questions
  • 7:45 - 8:00: Travel home
  • 8:00 - 9:00: Talk to colleague about upcoming work
  • 9:00: Get ready for bed...next meeting is at 7:30 a.m.
I won't claim that such a schedule happens every day, but more often than not, I'm in my office from 6'ish a.m. to 5 p.m., much of that time occupied by meetings or other needs driven by others. But it is also a job where people appreciate my thinking and what I can offer in terms of skill and knowledge. I am needed...and I also have the authority and responsibility to support change. This makes all the difference.

It is the craziest job I have ever held in education. It is busy and loud and lived on the run...and I absolutely love it with all my heart. I drop down exhausted into bed every night with a smile on my face. I am working harder than I ever have for any other job, but with only 10% of the stress.

I have given up on feeling guilty about not having enough time for other things. Obviously, I haven't spent a lot of time here this year (and not as much on Twitter, either). It has been a whirlwind first six months on the new job. I am grateful for the little snippets of text exchanges with friends that remind me that there is an outside world...and also for Amazon Prime that delivers most of my shopping and keeps me set with basics like deodorant and shampoo.

It would be easy enough to shake my tiny fist at the lack of balance in my life...to blame the demands of others (both inside the district and outside) on being overworked. But I think it's better to just hold tight this year for the ride. Next year, once I know the ebbs and flows of the various programs, I can make some different choices. I know I won't be honeymooning with the job forever.

For now, however, it's a grand romance.