Planning for Active Engagement

Regardless of the level of active engagement measured while students are in the classroom, those classrooms in which there is an expectation of student performance aligned to the standards achieve high levels of academic success.  Because of that, I have been focused on making sure classroom instruction  is aligned with the “right content” at the appropriate level before even touching active engagement.  

Once the appropriate foundation has been laid, however; it’s time to tackle students’ active engagement with the content.  I have found it to be quite challenging to scale practices that enhance student engagement across a school.    Some classrooms seem to just “have it” while others tend to be more passive.  No matter how many times it is suggested that teachers use a cooperative learning structures or a simple “turn and talk,” before having students raise their hands, it seems that many classrooms are resistant to changing whole group practices.

This is the challenge I face as I take on this initiative.  I decided to start by building on our teacher strengths in clarity of standards/content and rigor of instruction.  I created a planning checklist that I hope will help the teachers incorporate student engagement strategies as they plan their upcoming lessons.

We will be breaking this down this month through highlighting examples from classrooms in the staff blog, following up in our PLC team meetings, and through sharing results from walkthroughs at the end of the month.  I am hopeful that by emphasizing how the engagement strategies would fit within standards-based planning the teachers are already doing, we will be able to gain some traction on leveling up in student engagement throughout the school.  #levelup

 

Applying Craig Groeschel’s Six Steps to Your Best Year of Leadership to School Leadership

Prestep:  Before thinking about what you want to do in the new year, start with who you want to become…

I began listening to Craig Groeschel’s Leadership Podcast this year on my 30-minute drive to school.  By far, it is my favorite “work” podcast, even more so than the school leadership podcasts I listen to.  The advice Groeschel gives is simple, smart, and practical and the presentation of the podcast gives you deep, yet digestible bits of information with immediate opportunities for reflection and application.

Groeschel introduced the Six Steps to Your Best Year of Leadership in his leadership podcast in January as we entered into a new calendar year.  For those of us in schools, this time of year is a great time to start thinking about planting seeds and developing roots for next year.  When I begin thinking ahead to the next school year in February and March I get excited and energized.  Pulling out this positive energy is sometimes difficult during these cold and dreary days when you are tired and just want spring to come.  I find some future planning brings a little warmth and sunshine to my days.

Before he dives into his six steps, Groeschel encourages the listener to think about who he or she wants to become.  To do this, I brainstormed all the traits I want to have a school leader.  This became my “To Be” list.

To be

Daily, instead of measuring the success of my day based on the completion of my “To do” list, I changed the focus to my “To Be” List.  I start each morning going through my schedule and reflect on these traits as I envision my day.  I set up my day for success by identifying how I want to show up for meetings and activities and thinking about what I need to do to show up like that.  (I read or heard this idea somewhere and wish I could remember where so I could credit the source.)

tobe2

At the end of the day, I reflect on how the day went, listing my wins and thinking about what I could have done to make things better.  This simple shift in thinking has made me more present for people and has helped me focus on the people and tasks in front of me rather than worrying about the to-do list.  It also has helped me focus better during my office work times when I am dedicating my attention and energy to the to-do list.   It has also helped me react better when faced with stressful situations or when unexpected situations arise.  This simple practice has been one of the most valuable rituals I have taken on this year.

Beginning a Schoolwide High Expectations Initiative

In the last 11 years in my work as a curriculum and assessment coach, as an assistant principal and now as a principal, I have had the opportunity to be in a lot of classrooms.  I’ve seen instruction from teachers who consistently achieve incredible growth and high achievement from their students year after year no matter the class makeup.  Across the classrooms, these teachers used different class structures, techniques, and strategies, but there is one quality that all of these teachers have had.  They all have exhibited an unrelenting determination to bring their students to mastery of the standards.  When you take that tenacity and pair it with a deep understanding of the standards you get high expectations.

As administrators we know who these teachers are. We wish we could clone them.  We want to scale what they do across our school, but how?  I recently took on this challenge in my school.  My goal is to initiate conversations about high expectations in our school, provide opportunities for teachers to reflect on their own expectations, and then to learn from each other how to improve practice.

In the spirit of beginning with the end in mind and in being clear about my own expectations, I needed to define for teachers what I meant by high expectations.  I wanted to paint a very clear picture of what classrooms with high expectations look like.  I started where I often do when considering the quality of a teacher behavior or the impact of instruction:  student work. Student work is where the rubber meets the road.  It is the indisputable evidence that determines whether or not a strategy worked or if the teacher’s lesson/technique was effective.  In classes where the teacher has high expectations, the vast majority of students leave them demonstrating the grade level or course content at a high level and they are able to transfer that knowledge or skill to novel or unfamiliar situations.

So I asked myself, “What conditions exist and what do I see in classrooms that are marked by high expectations?”  I wanted to create a document I could use to define specifc look-fors related to high expectations.  The answer led me to AdvancEd’sEffective Learning Environments Observation Tool® (ELEOT).  I was introduced to the ELEOT through participating in an AdvancEd diagnostic review of a school.  I love how the ELEOT focuses on the students in the learning environment with one of the seven key environments being “high expectations.”  I decided to create my own simplified version, using many of its look-fors, but adding some of my own.   I created a 3-column chart with these headings:What are the Students Doing?

  • What is the Teacher Doing or Has Done to Support this Expectation?
  • What does the Student Work Look Like?

Under each heading are specific look-fors with check boxes and a place for the observer to write evidence.

Next, on my in-house school blog that I use with our staff, I shared the tool and a simple definition of high expectations.  I wrote that by high expectations I meant that “the opportunities provided to students to demonstrate learning are rigorous, students are expected to respond at a high level, and they are held accountable to do so.”  I shared my intent to focus on high expectations and wrote, “in order for us to reach the next level of success and get more students to proficiency (especially in math) we need to look at the level of expectations we have in all classrooms.”

I gave my teachers these questions to consider:

  • What are we expecting our students to do with the knowledge we impart?
  • Are we providing opportunities for students to show what they know in a way that matches the rigor of the standards?
  • How do we get to that point consistently in every classroom?
  • What curriculum work and assessments need to be written so that we have clear targets for our expectations of students?

After planting the seed with my teachers, I put my fellow administrators in the district to work. In my district, we have a weekly administrators’ instructional meeting where we meet at each other’s schools and usually conduct a group walkthrough of a classroom.  It was my turn to host and I asked if the group would help me gather some baseline data to begin the discussion of high expectations with my teachers.  I had my fellow principals and district administrators fan out across the building to find examples of high expectations in action.  They used the tool I adapted from ELEOT which included straightforward look-fors and a place to write evidence or examples.  They were instructed not to assess the level of expectations but to just use the checklists as ideas for what to look for and then to jot down examples of what they saw in the classrooms.

I wrote in our school blog that I hoped having this feedback will spark some rich discussion in our PLCs.  I asked the teachers to look at the look-for instrument and told them that the bulleted check-box lists aren’t all-inclusive or items that all HAD to be present in their classrooms.  I gave them the option of proceeding on as planned during the time the team would be at school to allow the visitors to “see what they see,” but also gave them the option of reflecting on what they had planned and making changes in hopes of providing exemplars for the visitors.

The administrators’ walkthroughs provided quality, specific, examples to share with the teachers and gave me just what I needed to begin the conversations during our PLC meetings next week.  I am excited to share with the teachers the examples we found and look forward to hearing their reflections.  Next steps will include having teachers bring student work to their PLC and analyzing those samples for high expectations.  I will also use the instrument I created to for more observations and to give the teachers individual feedback on the evidence I am able to gather on the level of expectations in their lessons.  It would be great to include teachers on a hunt for high expectations throughout the school, as well.

This is exciting work we are beginning.  If this process works well, I could see it replicated with other attributes we value in our teachers or lessons. Qualities like student engagement or differentiation could be defined and broken down in similar ways then taken through the same steps.  I am energized by the possibilities!

How to make it until Friday.

By Friday I was so depleted.  I had nothing left to give.  I had suffered blows and attacks all week long and bore the weight of every negative comment or individual teacher’s problem or issue that came back to me that week. It was just too much for me this week.  By  4:00 pm on Friday when I said goodbye to the student I was keeping for after school detention, all I could do was the bare minimum of a weekly email and head home.

I kept asking myself, “Why am I doing this? What difference am I making? Who am I even helping?  This job is so not worth it…I am not cut out for this. Surely, there is something else out there where I can make a difference that doesn’t take this toll on me.”

You ever feel this way?  I have no big aha’s or insights to give at this time, but I can share what I did to make it to Friday. First, I breathed.  A lot.  Not kidding.  You know that feature on your Apple Watch?  Yup.  I used it as well as an app called, “Simple Habit.”  Every morning before work I did at least 5 minutes of meditation.  Filling myself with this before work gave me something to draw upon when the “stuff” came at me.

Meditation is part of my morning routine that I go through as I get ready.  I start every morning with a shower then I head to my home office and I use an app called Morning Routine to help me complete my daily routine.   Within the app I set up routines like my morning routine,  my work routine, and my end of the day routine.  The app will time each part of your routine and reward you with an inspirational quote when you finish a routine. My morning routine includes meditation, devotion, prayer, gratitude, and affirmations.

It’s normal when you are feeling the negativity coming your way to want to respond in kind–to hit right back with negativity or defensiveness.  There were times this week when I did just that–even if it was just in my head.  I judged the person, student, or the student’s family who was hitting me with the issue, problem, or attack and stewed in my self-righteousness.  I’m going to tell you, while those judgements gave me a quick hit of justification and self-satisfaction, they left me feeling even more depleted.  The times where (even in my head) where I responded with empathy, love, and forgiveness are what got me through to Friday.

Now, I don’t want you to think that when, for example, I was cussed at by a parent earlier in the week I was able to transcend that and be nice to her and respond with love right away.  That was not going to happen, but I could respond in love to someone else.   I purposely and intentionally did something nice for someone to give them a boost and it really did help me feel better.  By the time the parent called to apologize a couple of days, I was ready to accept it with grace.

Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t use these strategies successfully 100 percent of the time this week.  There were several times were I leaned into my own negativity and justification.  Those times did nothing to advance my own cause and just left me feeling worse.  Then to make things worse, I beat myself up for all of it and every other shortcoming I have.  Last night I spent the evening binge-watching season 8 of The Walking Dead and as tears streamed down my face thinking about Carl’s letters (those of you who watch it know what I’m talking about)  I felt sorry for myself thinking about every mistake I’ve ever made personally and professionally.

One last strategy that I am using in this moment is reflection.  For me it helps me to write.  It helps me to evaluate my actions throughout the week and think about what I’ve learned, how I can do better, and how what I’ve gone through can help someone else.  Right now I’m hoping someone will read this and be able to relate to what I am feeling and at least feel like he or she is not alone.  If nothing else, it helps me to get past the week before and not dread Monday.

Sometimes it’s all we can do to get to Friday.  Last week was that kind of week for me.  I think my big takeaway is to accept that.  It was a bad week.  I had times where I responded well to the challenges and times when I could have done better.  It is what it is.  I also know that every week is not always like that.  Dreading and worrying about what might come at me next week will only ruin my present moment.  My biggest successes were when I suspended my judgement and responded with love somehow.  That’s what got me through and filling myself up before the day started with a solid morning routine helped me to have something to draw from when the well was dry.  By the end of the week my well was completely dry, but I survived.  Sometimes that’s all you can do–just survive–and that’s okay.  Tomorrow is a new day and next week is a new week.  While I have no idea what will hit me, I know I can get through it.  I know I will make it until Friday and some weeks that’s enough.

Going on a Bearhunt

We’re goin’ on a bear hunt
We’re going to catch a big one,
I’m not scared
What a beautiful day!

Uh-uh!
Grass!
Long wavy grass.
We can’t go over it.
We can’t go under it.
Oh no!
We’ve got to go through it!

Each day I go on a bear hunt.  My bear is not a literal bear, but definitely may have teeth and claws.  I never know what I might find on this daily hunt. When I come to work each morning my day rises up to greet me in ways in which I would never have dreamed.  Some days go as planned.  I get in my expected number of walkthroughs, meetings, observations, and then have some time to do reports, paperwork, or planning.  Other days the office door is a revolving door of discipline issues, teacher issues, or impromptu planning meetings.

In order to be successful in each day’s hunt, I have found that more than anything, I need mental toughness and emotional resiliency.  I didn’t realize the level of stress that would be associated just by having unmet expectations of how one’s day would go.  This is not even including the stress associated by the event itself.  For example, let’s say you have expectations that you will complete 3 walkthroughs and write your weekly staff email before 10:00 this morning.  Instead, you needed to provide safe crisis management support all morning for a student.  The event itself is stressful and takes an emotional toll upon you.  Couple that with the stress of having 2 hours of work that did not get completed and now the additional paperwork that accompanies the safe crisis management.  The stress in compounded.

I have come to realize that there is nothing I could have done to prepare for this.  No class, no workshop, no book.  In order to develop the strategies to persevere through each day’s hunt, I have to go through each day and learn as I go.  It’s faulty thinking to tell myself, “I am not cut out for this” as I have been known to do at the end of a, particularly hard day.  There is no genetic or innate trait that would make that statement true or false.  There are better or worse ways to handle situations and better or worse ways to think about or frame them.  Somedays my instincts will lead me in the right direction and my training will help with what to do and other times I will make a mistake.  Nothing, however, that I have experienced before becoming a principal has prepared me with how to think, react emotionally, and cope.

There are specific strategies and ways that I frame my thinking now, but I wouldn’t know or understand how to use these tools without the experience to provide the context.  I’m not always successful in remembering to employ them, but I know I will improve each day.  One thing I do know is that I can’t avoid the situations.  I just have to go through them to become better at using my strategies.

A discussion of the tools and strategies I use is for another blog post, but for now, I hope to leave you with the idea of learning to accept that you can’t always be prepared for what comes, but with the hope of knowing it does get easier.   No amount of careful planning and strategizing will prevent all problems.  No daily devotion or minutes spent in meditation will equip you with the armor to face all situations with grace, confidence and a peaceful spirit. However, certain tools can help you get through the tough situations and with practice, you can get better at dealing with what comes.  You can’t go over it, you can’t go under it.  You just have to go through it.

Reflections on My First Year

It’s easy to look back on my first year as a principal with a sense of contentment and nostalgia as I sit here in the comfort of my kitchen after doing a little professional reading and writing this morning by my own choice and on my own time schedule.  Understandably, I’m in a good place today.  As I think about the year, I am able to do it today without a sense of judgment, but with a sense of gratitude.  I am thankful for the opportunities I was given to learn and grow this year and for the grace of those around me to allow me the space for that growth.

Even with conceding that hindsight is 20/20, I do think there are lessons learned from this first year that I can take with me into the future.  When I think about the most significant things I have learned, it’s not a list of the best processes and procedures to use for a team meetings, observations, or even time-management strategies, but more of a mindset and perspectives to maintain, especially when the stress gets high.  I haven’t in any sense mastered these perspectives, but I am working toward seeing the challenges of the position in ways that benefit instead of discourage me.

If I can get to the point where I can embrace difficult situations as opportunities to develop skills so that I can support others better, I can move myself from a defensive state to a proactive one.  Instead of focusing on ways to just handle, manage, or deal with situations, I am working towards embracing them as ways to build my leadership skills.   I read somewhere that this attitude is like the multi-headed Hydra from Greek Mythology.   Whenever one of its heads was cut off, two would grow back in it’s place. The Hydra didn’t just deal with the situation, but thrived from it.

I learned this year to frame situations differently.  The chaos and unforeseen circumstances that inevitably come with the job of principal do not need to be seen as tests to see if I have what it takes to do the job.  I think that’s the mistake I was making many times this year.  I would handle a situation, then l would later reflect on how I managed it, evaluating myself on what I did or didn’t do.  While this reflection is not necessarily a bad thing, it in itself is not sufficient, and for me, can easily lead to beating myself up.  Sometimes, I was left thinking, “I am not cut out for this.”   Instead, if I can truly embrace difficult situations and challenges as opportunities for learning new skills, the reflection changes from judgement to growth.   The reflection then changes to, “What did I learn from this experience that makes me better able to support and lead tomorrow?”

It’s not enough for me to be mindful that I am learning perseverance or resiliency under pressure, but to reflect on the skills that I am gaining to equip me to be the leader I want to be tomorrow.  With this mindset, I hope this year to not just handle the stressful situations better, but also to use them to build my future leadership.

The Power of Feedback

This week as I’ve been visiting classrooms, I’ve been focusing on finding great examples of ways teachers are providing feedback to students.  I saw everything from peer editing, QR codes, small group direct-instruction, and computer programs used to provide immediate and frequent feedback to our students.  It was exciting to see!  Feedback is a powerful and effective tool in moving students’ learning forward.

As a district we use Mike Rutherford’s Artisan themes for teaching as the basis for the language for which we provide feedback to teachers. One of the themes is performance feedback, which is feedback that increases students’ persistence at a task by providing knowledge of results regarding students’ work.  Performance feedback names the response teachers give to the work students are doing, with an expected response within students (persistence).  The development of persistence is a key element to performance feedback.

The idea of performance feedback developing persistence was not something I had previously given much thought to.  I typically think of the results of feedback in terms of mastery of content, not in development of a particular disposition, but when you  consider performance feedback in terms of assessment for learning, it makes sense.  Stiggins writes, “as students become increasingly proficient, they learn to generate their own descriptive feedback and set goals for what comes next on their journey.”  When students become comfortable with the assessment for learning process, they know where they are headed and can see that success is within reach if they will keep on trying.  This will keep them going and help them to develop persistence.

As principals we are the lead learners for our buildings.  We give feedback as part of coaching and evaluating our staff and receive feedback from a variety of sources and stakeholders.  As a new principal, I am finding that I have to develop a thick skin and sort through the feedback I receive.  Some of it is warranted and helpful, directed at decisions and actions that I need to adjust or improve, and some of it is not so helpful.

First I have to sift through whether the feedback is accurate, also taking into account where it is coming from, decide the value I need to place on it, then act accordingly. Even when feedback is warranted and valuable, if it is based on a mistake I have made, or is directed at me instead of the work, it is hard to take.  I find that I can easily handle feedback based on my growth areas I have already identified because I have already been much harder on myself than anyone else will, but when I have made a bad call and feel I should have known better, it’s a much harder pill to swallow.  I can shift to self-beratement pretty quickly.  Teachers have to go through the same processes as they often receive feedback from multiple sources.

In his leadership podcast, Craig Groeschel discusses giving and receiving feedback as a leader.  He tells us that as leaders we should crave feedback.  He quotes Ken Blanchard who says, “feedback is the breakfast of champions.”  Many successful people will echo those sentiments when it comes to mistakes.  You hear statements such as “fail forward,” or “an expert is the person who has made all of the mistakes in a given area.” Much of our success is tied to how we give receive feedback.  How we internalize the feedback and how it moves us forward (or not) determines our future actions.  So how can we move to a place where we, the leaders, and our students crave feedback?

When thinking about feedback with staff, I shared this equation:

Engaging Work + Feedback = Learning

We focused on the equals side of the equation when considering student learning.  We looked at what needs to happen with feedback so that learning can occur (Timely and frequent).  Another way to look at the equals sign is to think about  what needs to happen within the learner for learning to occur.

Considering ourselves as the learners how can we learn from the valuable feedback we receive and the mistakes we make?  Craig Groeschel gives us 3 keys:

  1.  Separate the “Do” from the “Who.”
    It’s about the action, not the identity.  We have to remember when we receive feedback not to take it personally.  It’s not about us as individuals, it’s about something we have done or am doing that’s not effective.  The action needs to be fixed, not our person. Groeschel even goes as far to say that the more we want to push back against that feedback, the more it indicates that it is a significant area of growth for us.
  2. Ask Clarifying questions.
    When given a general statement of feedback we can ask questions that help us to get to the heart of feedback and use it to improve.  Questions include:
    What did you mean by that?
    Can you give me an example?
  3. When possible, get feedback before an event.
    Run it by people you trust. Be open and vulnerable so you can grow.

Giving and receiving feedback is not easy.  For me, when I receive critical feedback, I have to remember the first key–feedback that tells me how to improve is not about who I am, it’s about “performance and actions.”  I have to stop myself from being defensive or going down a path of self-loathing and tell myself to stop, be mindful of where my thoughts are headed, and learn from the experience.  I need to chew on the feedback, reflect, and make a plan to move forward.  Then I need to see the entire experience not as a negative one, but as one that is helping me to improve my skills.  It’s not easy, but it’s critical both in my personal growth and in modeling that disposition for others.  If I am mindful with what I do in context of the “equals sign” in the equation, this performance feedback will not only contine to grow me in “leadership content,”  but will also develop my persistence.

Baby Steps

When I began my blog, I was hesitant.  I didn’t feel that as a new principal I would have much to offer readers in terms of advice or learning.  In my first post, I wrote how I decided to press on anyway because of the value found in documenting one’s progression in thought, ideas, and learning.  I thought if nothing else, I knew I would be able to look back on where I began if I documented my steps along the way.

Recently, this reasoning has been confirmed by a podcast I listened to.  In The Productivity Show, Brooks and Mike discuss how to avoid the 6 “Deadly Sins of Productivity.”  One of the sins they discuss is how to avoid is comparing oneself to some ideal that doesn’t exist.  I’ve heard this advice before, but they take it a step further.  They say that this thinking is based on a gap between where you are and where you want to be and that it breeds discontentment.  On the other hand, a more productive way to measure is from where you were to where you are now.  This is measuring the gain.

As I measure the gain I’ve had from where I started with my electronic communication with staff and where I am now, I feel satisfied with my progress.  I know I have more to accomplish, but It’s helpful for me to see where I began to where I am now.  In addition, if I share with others the steps I took from the beginning of the year until now,  they might know where they can start.

I wish I could say that I did these steps purposefully and intentionally, but that is not the case.   I just did what I could when I could.  It’s been all about taking baby steps but keeping my vision in mind so that I could take advantage of any opportunities I get (like a snow day or a 4 ½ hour plane ride) to advance that vision.

First I started with sending out two emails a week to my staff.  I started with an informational email on Fridays to let staff members know what upcoming events and important information for the week ahead.   On Sundays, I sent out an instructional email where I shared instructional thoughts based on what I was seeing in classrooms or what I felt was important in relation to our school initiatives.

Progression of the Friday Informational Email
It started with a linear structure with these subheadings:
Important Information
Things to Turn in
Calendar for the Week

Eventually, I was able to create a living calendar for the remainder of the month and then the remainder year.  I attached a Google Slide to the email with a link to the living calendar so I don’t have to type the Week’s Upcoming events each week in the body of the email.  In the body of the email, I am now including just a few sentences of the “Important Information.”  The Google Slide includes the “Things to Turn in” and “Big Events” for the week.  I also embedded links for anything teachers need to access. Of course, I stole all these ideas from Andrew, the Middle School principal who got them from someone else too.

Progression of the Sunday “Advancing the Vision” email
When I began, the content I sent out each week was in no particular progressive order and the structure of the email varied.  The content was more random because I really hadn’t had time to plan ahead at that point. Then I made the content based on classroom instruction I want to see or saw that week based on my district’s lesson essentials.  As that progressed, the format of emails changed from a random to a predictable structure  with these subheadings:

Vision
This month’s Teambuilder: (From Kagan Cooperative Learning)
This month’s Classbuilder:  (From Kagan Cooperative Learning)
Review from Last Week
What’s Next:
So…now what?
What to Expect When You Are a Teacher at Paint Lick:
You should be able to
You probably will be able to…
You may possibly be able to

I started making the content progress from concrete structures that should be present in all classrooms to digging deeper into the art and science of teaching.

This week I will only send out one email.  Within the body of the Friday email there will only be “Important Information.”  The Google Slide that has been changed to a pdf with live links will include links to a school blog with weekly posts containing instructional content previously sent out on Sundays structured with the above subheadings.  The slide contains the following  links/information:

  • Living Calendar
  • This month’s teambuilder and classbuilder
  • Tech tip
  • Big Events this week
  • What to prepare for
My communication evolution was a case where I didn’t begin with the end in mind. I thought my 2-email-a-week plan was good. I also received feedback from staff that it was. I didn’t know the Google Slide/Living Calendar/school blog options even existed until I went to a principal ed camp at the beginning of the first semester.
In this case, I wasn’t satisfied with good. Once I saw the possibilities I wanted more. I’m glad I didn’t know about those possibilities in August because I might have put undue pressure on myself to meet those expectations right then. From this progression, I learned a valuable lesson that I can use in the future and pass on to others.   Instead of measuring oneself against an ideal, use the ideal as your vision and map out baby steps to get there. Then keep moving. Take those steps slowly then all along measure yourself against the gain instead of the gap.

Advancing the Vision

I came across an article about this video that has gone viral this morning.  You have to watch it! It’s hilarious. It’s one of many “I Ain’t Doing’ It” videos created by comedian, Heather Land.   This one, which is aimed at CrossFitters checking in on social media,  has resonated with millions.  The article delves into why this video more than others has been her most popular.  In discussing this video’s relatability, Land talks about the commonality of reasons why people post to social media.  She says, “We all essentially ‘check-in’ during the week.  We all throw something out there for the world to see…Our check-ins are, in a sense, an invitation to our world.”

I think as a principal, I need to be sure to send these invitations to my staff.  Before I became a principal I thought about the type of communication I wanted to have with staff.  I knew it was helpful to me as a teacher to have the upcoming week’s important events sent to me, but as I stepped into my new principal role, I felt I needed something more.  When I was an assistant principal, I was a part of the instructional vision for the school with the principal.  I knew her thinking, her vision, her goals, and felt like together we had our hands on the pulse of the school.

I was surprised to find out that what I thought was clear was not so transparent to other teachers.  I had a different perspective from my seat than the teachers and sometimes actions that came from my office were misunderstood or misinterpreted.  So, when I  took the helm at Paint Lick I felt I needed ways to be completely transparent with my thinking about where our school was instructionally and where I want us to head.

That’s when I decided to have a weekly instructional email, as well.  I send out this instructional email (Advancing the Vision) on Sunday evenings.  I want teachers to know where my head is, what trends I am noticing when I go into classrooms, and what vision I have for our school.  To be honest, it probably helps me more to send them than it does for my teachers to read them.  I get clear on what I am seeing and what I hope to see more of, and I think that’s a win.   Just like those “check-ins” on social media are more validating to the poster than the “liker,” maybe that’s okay.  I’ll continue to send out those invitations to my world, hope they help someone, yet not worry about the “likes” or impact.  I’m doing what I need to do and I am good with that.

It’s a Puzzle

Recently my 11-year-old son, Jack, decided we should work on a puzzle together.  We went to Walmart and he picked out a 300 piece puzzle for us.  Jack and my 13-year-old daughter, Emma, easily put it together in an evening while I cooked dinner and completed other chores.  I didn’t even get a chance to contribute.  We decided we wanted a bigger challenge.

Next, we purchased a 1,000 piece puzzle.  Emma was able to get most of the edges together over the course of a few nights and then stalled out.  Overwhelmed by the mass of inside pieces, she gave up and hasn’t touched the puzzle in weeks.  Jack and I turned over all the pieces to the correct side one evening and I got some pieces to go together, but for the most part, it sits lonely on the card table in the living room just waiting for someone to give it some attention.

puzzle

Is this puzzle too much of a challenge for us?  Should we have gone with a 500 piece puzzle instead?  I’m not sure, but I do know I’m not giving up on this baby and I am not finishing it alone.  Emma and Jack better get ready.

As I wonder what I can do to make them interested in the puzzle again, I think, “I need to make some progress on it–get some pieces together and get the kids closer to the end result.” Those of you in education can probably see where I am going with this.  We have a goal or a target we want our students to hit.  We know that it’s not fair to our students to lower our expectations for them.  All students deserve the opportunity to get there.  We can not deny any students the most rigorous curriculum, but certainly, it’s going to be a longer and more difficult road to get to the same target for some students more than others.

The challenge we face as educators is to provide the supports and pieces that give our students a gentle push and a leg up at the same time.  There’s a sweet spot between a puzzle that’s too easy and one that overwhelms them.  We can’t do the puzzle for them, yet we can’t just let them give up.  So what’s the answer?

The answer lies in the way we differentiate.  As we enter into our second semester, I am reading, Leading for Differentiation:  Growing Teachers Who Grow Kids by Carol Ann Tomlinson and Michael Murphy.  Ethically, I know differentiating instruction is the right thing to do.  Tomlinson writes:

In a democratic society and based on our best knowledge of quality teaching, there is a strong ethical imperative to differentiate instruction in the context of heterogeneous classrooms.  Strong leaders have the opportunity to help colleagues establish and follow an ethical North.

I couldn’t believe in this more.  Tomlinson continues:

Teachers who differentiate instruction effectively craft an environment that signals the value of each individual, provides high challenge with high support, and emphasizes the power of community in achieving success for every learner.

I’ve been in classrooms where teachers do this at high levels.  These are the teachers with the highest expectations, who are not satisfied until all of their students master the content, and whose test results reflect those behaviors year after year, no matter the group.

As I dig deeper into the content of the book, I can see that as I attempt to lead for differentiation I’ll be putting together a huge puzzle of my own.  I’ll be learning and making my own mistakes along the way, and I’m sure I’ll continue to feel overwhelmed at times.  I do believe it is among the most noble of causes, though.   Tomlinson writes that “it provides an opportunity for leaders and teachers to honor what should be the promise of every school for every young person who enters its doors:

We see you, we hold you in high regard, and we will give ourselves to your success as a learner and as a human being.”