Sunday, September 13, 2020

Our Teachers Are Awesome. I know, I live with one.


    I am so proud of all the educators I know. Teachers all over the country have started or will start their school year very soon.  In my district, we started the school year virtually for the first three weeks and when we went back to in-person learning last Tuesday. We had about half of our students choose to remain in a virtual setting. While I am too old and too set in my ways to ever be convinced a student isn't better off in an in-person school setting, I do understand and respect the decision of families that choose to keep their kids home during these uncertain times.

    My wife and kids work and attend school in a neighboring district. They start their in-person learning tomorrow.  Suddenly the decisions I have been dealing with on a professional level have become very personal.  After months of wondering if and when we would ever go back to school, the time is here. To be honest, I am not worried about the kids. Maybe I should be, but I truly believe they will be okay and I know it will be good for them to be around their peers. They like school for the most part and I trust they will be in the best care possible.  It is the educators I am worried about.

    I read an excellent blog post this week written by a teacher entitled I Don't Like Brene' Brown Anymore (I love her work by the way, and so does the author) and thought it was an excellent reflection on just how much we have all relied on teachers during this pandemic.  They have done SO much.  I know.  I live with one.  My wife, Sarah, is going to teach second grade this year for the first time.  She has taught multiple grade levels, been an assistant principal and principal, then chose to return to the classroom a couple of years ago.  Why you ask?  Because she loves it. She loves her students and from what I can tell, is a great teacher. Yeah, I might be biased, but I am not the only one that says it. She still hears from kids that have graduated that she taught in first grade so I would say she has had an impact on many. I know this, few, if any, do it with more passion or enthusiasm.  

There she is!!

    Over the last few months, I have gotten a true behind the scenes look at what our teachers are going through and I am so proud of her and all my educator friends.  I have seen her cry because she didn't get to say good-bye to her kindergarten students in May.  I have seen her work for hours upon hours this summer making videos to welcome her students and create lessons so they could understand and enjoy school again.  I have seen her laugh with her team during zoom meetings (or zoom happy hours) and I have seen her sit through long, monotonous virtual meetings with the very best of intentions. I have even been next to her when she has gotten kind, sweet emails from parents and when she gets ugly, mean ones as well. With all the frustrations going on in the country right now, teachers have taken more than their share of the responsibility in making things right. Like teachers everywhere, Sarah has played the role of teacher, tech support, counselor, doctor, and even parent, for the families she serves.  All of this was new for her and she has done a remarkable job holding it all together.  You wouldn't know that if you didn't live with a teacher.  

Here is what conferring and giving feedback to a student looks like!!

    There is a lot of things you wouldn't know if you didn't live with a teacher. I have gotten to see the countless ridiculous requests that are made of them (some from administrators like me). I have seen her answer the same questions graciously to the same parent for the fourth, no fifth time.  I have seen countless Amazon boxes be delivered to our door in the last few weeks, all ultimately destined for the classroom, because some student might not have what they need or because she had to have these flashing disco lights that might just make the class a little more fun.  I have been up to the classroom a few times to try and help.  I got to tape the name tags on the desks and lockers (only after specific directions and a tutorial), but I left and she remained at school for hours to make sure it is just right.  We made a few trips to get school supplies and pick up the pictures of her kids she had printed so she could put in frames. 


 

Wall of Fame! Late night run to CVS to pick up the rest!

    When she got her class list this year she was so excited and she has done her very best to make them feel comfortable during virtual learning the last couple of weeks, but tomorrow she will meet them for the first time.  She is nervous.  As teachers, we are all nervous the day before school, but this year is different.  This year the "team building" activities won't look the same. This year they will eat lunch two kids per table.  This year they can't share a book or pencils. This year she and teachers everywhere are having to relearn and reinvent everything they have ever done.  And most, like Sarah, are excited and thankful to do it.  

Essential supplies by the classroom door!

  Tonight, we have about about five boxes by the front door to take to school tomorrow.  They are packed with a lot of the usual things.  There are snacks for the students that may forget or don't have one.  There are extra school supplies.  But there is also a box of face-masks and a box of disposable gloves along with extra hand sanitizer.  She is a teacher, not a nurse, but yet these are a must this year.  These are the things we didn't use to think about on the eve of the first day of school.  There are a lot of things we didn't use to think about.  

    Sarah, like so many others, pours her heart into her job. Yes, I am so very proud of teachers everywhere tonight.  They truly do make a difference, they always have. This year teachers, more than anyone else, may be the key to our country getting back to normal (whatever that is). They are being asked a nearly impossible task this school year, so please say a prayer and give them a little grace and encouragement. They work so very hard and they are incredibly dedicated to their students but you might not know that if you didn't live with one like I do. 

    To my wife on her first day, to my many friends who are educators, and to the millions of teachers all over the country, I say thank you for all that you do. Stay safe. Stay strong. Be Bold. 

1st Day With Students!!


Wednesday, August 19, 2020

1st Day of School: "Get them fed and get them home safe?"

The first day of school….

 

Every year, I always say, “If the kids get fed and get home, it has been a great 1st day.”  Well that phrase is out the window this year! Too many other things to worry about! Although I did hear someone tell a parent, “at least you won’t lose your kid, they are at home with you”.  It actually made the parent feel better.  Truth is, some things did not go well today and there were loud voices in our ears telling us so. Things like "your plan is too easy, too hard, or isn’t working."  But others were quietly appreciative and reaped the benefits of our hard work and the fact that kids were engaged in school and learning again. That is what is is all about!  I couldn't visit schools like I normally would, so I lurked on twitter and saw tons of teachers and students having fun!

 

Today marked  my 27th year as a public school educator and I feel like a new teacher all over again.  I started today wide-eyed and truly not knowing what is going to happen.  New job. New District.  I just didn’t know.  

 

But I do know this…The first day of school was AWESOME.  It always is! Every year, no matter where I have been working, we always, without fail, seem to say this was a great day! This time, it may be more appropriate to say, “that was the most unique first day ever!”.  Unique, challenging, different, innovative, busy…we will probably use lots of adjectives to describe school this year but we will have school and it will be AWESOME.  It has to be.  Our kids need it.  Our parents need it.  Our teachers need it.  The whole community needs it!

 

I saw this tweet today and I thought to myself, this kid gets it.  She sees firsthand how her dad is trying his best.  I hope most kids and spouses of teachers feel this way and see the struggle so many teachers are having trying to connect with students in new and even unorthodox ways.  These people should be applauded!  Talk about examples of life-long learning…they have had to reinvent how they do the job that many of them have done for years.  It is not easy, but the heart of a teachers won’t let them do anything else.

 


One thing that the 20-21 school year has in common with all the others…Anything is possible on the first day of school.  All our dreams and aspirations are alive and in front of us. The hope that springs eternal is that of a fresh start promised to everyone…teachers and students alike. This year may be different, but the opportunities for success remain. I often use the hashtag #BEBOLD with my tweets.  I started this a few years ago as I would send daily texts to my kids encouraging them to branch out and try new things.  It then became more of a personal challenge when they would ask me, “Are you bold?”  So it has become kind of a personal reminder. What will I do to push myself out of my comfort zone? Won't take much this year. 

 

I hope this year teachers and students will take advantage of the circumstances and be bold. They should try the craziest of ideas, or maybe that thing that has been burning in the back of their thoughts for so long they just can’t stand it anymore.  You have a safety net.  If it doesn’t work, blame it on the pandemic…but what if it does work?  What if that one idea or thought is the thing that makes all the difference.  You will never know if you don’t try.  This is Day 1…the perfect time to start. #BEBOLD

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

What can educators learn from Kobe?


I need to say right up front that Kobe was not my favorite basketball player.  It may be my age, but I always was, and always will be, a Jordan guy.  I did always have a healthy respect for Kobe, mostly because he always struck me as a player that truly respected the game and tried to play it the right way.  However, after reading and listening to so much over the last couple of days since his tragic death,  my respect for him has grown tremendously.  I have found myself wondering why.  Why does a basketball player have such a tremendous, positive impact on so many people all over the world?  And if we somehow could understand and harness that impact, maybe we (as mere mortals) could have that kind of influence as well.   

MAMBA MENTALITY:
The first thing that almost everyone mentions in recollecting on Kobe Bryant is his relentless, killer instinct. They call it the Mamba Mentality.  Now, "killer instinct" might not often be used to describe educators, but the great ones are most definitely relentless in their pursuit of excellence.  They do not quit and they do not accept failure from anyone; themselves, their students, or their peers.  Kobe was like that.  If there was ever a criticism about his game, it was that he didn't pass enough, but when things got tight at the end of games, he knew he was the best player on the court and he had the confidence to do what was necessary to help his team win.  John Hattie and Peter DeWitt have made the terms "self-efficacy" and "collective efficacy" common terms among educational leaders with the idea that if we believe we can make a difference, then we often will.  Kobe's confidence and "self-efficacy" also translated to leadership.  That leadership gave his team the "collective efficacy" it needed to achieve greatness.  They often won simply because they believed they would. Check out this link from the ESPYs!



WORK ETHIC:
Kobe Bryant's work ethic is legendary.  Almost everyone who achieves greatness in any field shares this trait, but even among his peers, Kobe stood out.  He was known to push his teammates harder than their coaches.  One legendary story has Kobe taking away his personalized "Kobe shoes" from players because their work ethic (not their play) did not meet the standard necessary to wear them.  The players got the message. In the video clip below, Kobe starts with a simple, but telling phrase: "If I have to fight you to get in the gym, that is a problem."  Every school I have ever seen has teachers and administrators that work very hard. What often transforms campuses to greatness is the influence these hard-working, over-achievers have on the rest of us.  Do you have an environment where slackers can get by because someone else is doing more work than they should or does everyone pull their weight? Do you have to fight them to "get in the gym" (PLC, professional development, etc.)  Kobe was not afraid to work hard, but he also challenged others to match his commitment or get left behind.  Countless players (in various sports) this week have talked about how he made them better just by modeling his work ethic.  That is leadership.



TRANSCENDENT:
Finally, I wanted to look up this word to make sure I have the definition right in my mind.
adjective- going beyond ordinary limits; surpassing; exceeding.
superior or supreme.
Theology(of the Deity) transcending the universe, time, etc.
Philosophy.
  1. Scholasticism. above all possible modes of the infinite.

I think it helps answer my original question of why does a basketball player have such a profound impact on the world.  It's not just his extraordinary basketball talents.  It's any person that goes beyond what is expected and does things that seem impossible.  All of us respond to greatness and most of us respect it, even if we are not fans.  Kobe Bryant was transcendent.  We will miss him.  #RIPKobe



Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Do Be A CRAB! Push others to the TOP!

Have you ever worked with people that go out of their way to make sure new things don’t work?  They don’t want to put in the extra effort it might take to get ahead, either because they are afraid of failure or they are content to do things the way they have always been done.  I have worked on campuses, where teachers were actually ostracized for going “above and beyond”!  Simple things like gaining praise for a great newsletter, an extra parent call, or even enthusiastically participating in professional development can sometimes make others jealous or even resentful.  In some places, this is called the “Crab Mentality”.  The crab mentality is a natural phenomenon that even scientists can’t explain, but it almost never fails.  You see, if you have a bucket of crabs, they easily have the capability to climb out of the bucket and save themselves, especially if they work together.  But they will not.  Sometimes the crabs seem almost malicious. They climb over one another and even work to pull those that appear to be making progress towards success downward to the group.  They are not interested in others success. 

We should all be on guard for the Crab Mentality. Even at schools with great culture and climate, it can creep in and pull others down.  Look around your own campus and your peers….I am willing to bet that everyone there is working hard and trying their best.  However, I also believe that there are a few that stand out. Maybe it’s the way they teach a lesson with a smile, they make even lunch duty fun, or they have a way of getting along with that student/parent than no one else can seem to reach.  The question is, what is keeping them from falling into the crab mentality?  And more importantly are you one that is pushing them upward or pulling them down.


 The crab mentality is a reflection of the famous saying “we all like to see our friends get ahead, but not too far ahead.” Learning to recognize the crab mentality in yourself and others is a very good idea, especially in schools.  Our schools need teachers that “get out of the bucket” to seek adventure and try new things, not groups that are holding them back.  Don’t be a crab!!
Have you ever worked with people that go out of their way to make sure new things don’t work?  They don’t want to put in the extra effort it might take to get ahead, either because they are afraid of failure or they are content to do things the way they have always been done.  I have worked on campuses, where teachers were actually ostracized for going “above and beyond”!  Simple things like gaining praise for a great newsletter, an extra parent call, or even enthusiastically participating in professional development can sometimes make others jealous or even resentful.  In some places, this is called the “Crab Mentality”.  The crab mentality is a natural phenomenon that even scientists can’t explain, but it almost never fails.  You see, if you have a bucket of crabs, they easily have the capability to climb out of the bucket and save themselves, especially if they work together.  But they will not.  Sometimes the crabs seem almost malicious. They climb over one another and even work to pull those that appear to be making progress towards success downward to the group.  They are not interested in others success. 

We should all be on guard for the Crab Mentality. Even at schools with great culture and climate, it can creep in and pull others down.  Look around your own campus and your peers….I am willing to bet that everyone there is working hard and trying their best.  However, I also believe that there are a few that stand out. Maybe it’s the way they teach a lesson with a smile, they make even lunch duty fun, or they have a way of getting along with that student/parent than no one else can seem to reach.  The question is, what is keeping them from falling into the crab mentality?  And more importantly are you one that is pushing them upward or pulling them down.


 The crab mentality is a reflection of the famous saying “we all like to see our friends get ahead, but not too far ahead.” Learning to recognize the crab mentality in yourself and others is a very good idea, especially in schools.  Our schools need teachers that “get out of the bucket” to seek adventure and try new things, not groups that are holding them back.  Don’t be a crab!!

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Students as Curriculum Designers? Why not ask the experts?


I was asked this week about some ways to empower students.  It seemed pretty simple at first, but upon reflection, I wondered if some of the traditional ways truly impact the learning environment and empower students they way we hope they would.  There are countless ways to give students a voice in the classroom and on the campus, but some thoughts I had on how students could impact themselves and future students is by getting them involved in the teaching and learning on the campus.

Great teachers empower students.  Period.  They do it in a variety of ways, and sometimes they can’t even describe how they did it, but great teachers and great schools empower students to own their own learning. This is the essences of empowerment.
The students of 2020 have perhaps the greatest experience in schools in history when compared to any previous generation.  The resources, thanks to technology, are almost limitless, and the emphasis on student-choice and social emotional learning have created classrooms and schools that are designed to engage students and make the learning experience meaningful to each individual child.   Is it working?  Yes and No.  There is no doubt that many classrooms around the nation have transformed from the traditional rows of desks and teacher lectures to a more inviting learning environment of flexible seating and student choice, but is it having a real impact on student learning?  Have the lessons and tasks really changed or have we just made the kids more comfortable?
I believe one of the best places to look for true empowerment of students is to solicit their feedback and reflections after the lessons have taken place.  As educators, we often spend precious hours of planning time to try and create lesson choices that will entice students and stimulate their minds so they will be interested and engaged.  Think about how much time could be saved if we had a few students around the table joining the teachers in a PLC to give feedback on previous lessons and input on upcoming units. Give your students, not just your top students, but the struggling ones as well, as chance to give you feedback on the tasks in your classroom or even your teaching style.  And here is a little secret, students do not hold back near as well as adults do.  You want to know the truth, ask a kid.   
As educators, formative assessment is something that is stressed at every level as the best way to monitor student progress, but what if we truly empowered students to formatively assess our curriculum and instruction?  We might not want to hear what they have to say!  As a middle school principal, I once had a group of students tell me, “If you want to LEARN you take this teacher, but if you want to have FUN you take this one.”  Originally, I was baffled by their candid answer, but I have used that example many times over years to make the point that “Kids Know”.  They know who pushes them and who lets them slide.  They know when they can turn in less than their best effort and when they must do their best.  If we want to get better, we should give them a seat at the table and make them a part of professional collaboration.  How in the world could that happen?  In a few easy steps:
1.       Individually- Create a system in your classroom where students give you regular feedback on your teaching and the tasks you assign them (you may or may not have control over the tasks you give).  If you keep a reflective learning journal, this is a great place to take notes to formatively improve the next lesson or change the task for next year.
2.       Campus or PLC- Invite a small, but diverse group of students to your grade level/department PLC.  Don’t put them on a stage as a panel, which is often fake and kids see through fake, but instead give them an equal seat at the table. You might have to train them a bit so they realize what lesson planning and curriculum mapping is all about, but they will catch on quickly.  Don’t do it a once.  Commit to making the group a regular part of the discussion for at least a six to nine-week grading period.  If they are with your PLC that long, they should experience lesson design, reflection of lessons/units, data dives, etc. Basically, a full learning cycle.  After that, switch to a different group.
3.       District- A larger commitment might be to invite a group of students that just completed an entire course to be part of a district level curriculum writing team.  Who better to share what was good and bad about Algebra than the students that just completed the course? Think of the power of hearing about the same lesson from three or four kids from different schools. It has the potential to help with curriculum alignment and calibration.  
I have five kids spanning from a kindergarten student to a junior in high school and everyone of them will tell you what they liked about school and what they didn’t.  When pressed, the older ones will tell you what lessons were challenging and which ones were “busy” work.  They will tell you what they remember from several years ago and what lessons had the biggest impact on their learning. KIDS KNOW.
Imagine the impact over time on the learning environment if we spent more time letting the kids help us design the lessons?  It is a different paradigm then simply differentiating a lesson and letting kids have “student choice” over a few activities all designed by adults. Its challenging but it is a way to truly have students own their learning in a way that adults cannot.  Be bold and give it a try!


Sunday, August 12, 2018

A - F rankings, Why I still don't agree with them, but now I feel guilty about it!

About a year and a half ago, somewhat out of frustration, I posted the blog below about my own kids' experience at schools that somehow didn't make the grade in the Texas accountability system.  The post must have struck a nerve with some people because it got over a half-million views!  That was pretty big stuff for someone whose normal posts reach about 400!  I was interviewed by several publications and the State Commissioner for Education, Mike Morath, even gave me a call to congratulate me.  The response was almost universally positive, save for a few comments from those that classify educators as whiners.  Unfortunately, the discussion was short lived and we all went about our business. Our schools and students kept doing great things, parents kept supporting our schools, and it seems there remains a group committed to showing our schools are not doing a very good job.  Some things never change.

Fast forward to present day.  In the past couple weeks, perhaps in preparation for districts' A-F ratings to go public, a number of high ranking school administrators, many of whom I call friends,  have come out against the rankings and are pleading for a better system.

TASA Issues Statement on Accountability

Educators Don't Agree With A-F

While I could not agree more with the countless educators sharing their views on the accountability system, I can no longer solely blame our Commissioner or even our Legislature without also looking in the mirror at wasted opportunities.  The State has given us small glimpses of hope that it would be willing to offer changes, but I do not think we have taken full advantage of the opportunities.  That is where my own guilt comes from.  We don't need the State system to certify the quality of our schools.  What we need is to place value on the multiple measures for which we advocate.  It is not enough to say the system is unfair.  We have to commit to offering a better solution.

Wasted Opportunities:


In 2011, House Bill 1157 called for districts to apply to be part of the Texas High-Performing Schools Consortium.  My own district was 1 of 22 accepted and the group began to work together to share lessons learned and forge a new path for education.  At the premise of these discussions was the concept of Community Based-Accountability.  Many of us worked with our own stakeholders to create multiple measures to assess our schools.  Here lies the hurdle that many of us can't seem to get past: We are still receiving an annual ranking from the state and while the belief in the locally controlled, multiple measures was strong, so was the pull of having to perform well on a one-day, one test accountability system. The information and desire is still strong as witnessed by the Future Ready Schools website, but we have yet to gain the kind of traction needed for true public acceptance.

Student Centered Schools

Next came House Bill 5 in 2013.  This well publicized bill generated lots of discussion and feedback around the five student endorsement plans designed to have students college and career ready, a far less discussed portion of the bill actually gave the opportunity for schools and districts to finally rate themselves on something other than test scores.  It outlined eight domains that would allow for multiple measures and, yes this is the amazing part, districts would be allowed to set their own system for evaluation!!

·      Fine Arts
·      Wellness & Physical Education
·       Community & Parent Involvement
·       21st Century Workforce Development Program
·       Second Language Acquisition Program
·       Digital Learning Environment
·       Dropout Prevention Strategies
·       Educational Programs for Gifted & Talented Students

It was finally here, locally controlled accountability over multiple measures. 2013-2014 was the first year the system was reported to PEIMS and districts not only were able to create their own measurements, they only had to pick three of the eight.  What happened next might could have been predicted, but it was very unfortunate.  We, as educational leaders, did not take full advantage of this opportunity.  Well over 90% of the districts gave themselves perfect scores.  Little time was put into the development of true measures and when the student achievement didn't match the exemplary ratings, who could blame the State for deeming the experiment a failure.  While HB5 was not perfect, the state did it did open the door for some local control over accountability, but we failed as a profession to truly take advantage of it. And again, I feel guilty about that.

I am ready to call the next piece a missed opportunity as well, although the jury may still be out.  In 2015, House Bill 1842 introduced Districts of Innovation (DOI) as a concept that would allow school districts the opportunity to create their own plans to free themselves from Texas Education Agency mandates. It was praised as a way to honor schools eager to transform with new and innovative ideas, however something just doesn't translate.  You can ask for anything you want but you can't get out of the accountability system. Basically, the state challenged you to find a better way to do "old school".  Here is a link to TEA's information on DOI:

TEA: Districts of Innovation

Why, in my opinion, is the jury still out?  We could start with the fact that the top 4 exemptions asked for as part of DOI are as follows:
  1. School Start Date (I get it. If you start earlier you can finish the first semester before Christmas and start the summer earlier.  All for it)
  2. Teacher Certifications (Again, in some cases, especially in CTE fields where industry experience may be paramount, a person without a teacher certification may be the best person to teach the course. But are we ready as a profession to ask permission not to be certified?)
  3. Class Size (Currently K-4 grades are capped at 22, but I guess the innovative idea is to make the classes bigger?  Again, I understand the proposal but let's be careful what we ask for.)
  4. Class Size Part 2 (This one I love.  In the age of transparency, this exemption allows districts to go over the class size cap and not have to tell parents about it?  Seriously.)
I would suggest that three of the four have everything to do with saving a district time and money and nothing to do with innovative teaching and learning. That is not to say that districts haven't tried to be innovative, but the combination of the rules surrounding DOI applications don't truly call for school transformation.  I am guilty on this one too.  Other than changing our calendar, I am still working with others to find innovative ideas that fit our districts needs.  To read more about DOI's implementation:

Texas Classroom Teachers Association - Districts of Innovation: The Reality

Top Twenty Exemptions for Districts of Innovation

So why did I write this tonight, especially at the risk of alienating some of my educator friends? Because I want us to do better and I think we can.  I am tired of waiting for the legislature to send a miracle that will save our public schools.  I am tired of trying to explain/defend an A-F system that really doesn't make sense as a comprehensive tool to measure schools (On a side note, the state delayed A-F for campus ratings.  Two years wasn't long enough to figure it out.).  But I am also tired of feeling guilty that we haven't done enough to show what our schools really can do.  In my district we have developed 12 indicators and rubrics to measure what we think is important (the eight indicators from the original HB5 plus four locally developed academic goals).  They are designed to be difficult to achieve, but more importantly, they were developed by our district stakeholders (students, parents, teachers, administrators, and community members) to show what we value in our community.  I choose not to be frustrated anymore about an accountability system that does nothing for us.  Instead I pledge to focus on what is important to our schools and the community we serve and I commit to sharing the results that matter most.  Schools deserve it.

To see our Community Based Accountability rubrics:

NISD CBAS

#guiltfreeeducator