Leading with Creativity and Innovation

I am enrolled in what I hope to be a Doctoral program at a local university.  In the latest course, “Leading Creativity and Innovation” we have spent time researching and discussing the topics of creativity and innovation as it relates to school leadership.  The topic, and the ensuing discussions, were multifaceted and led us all to reflect on our current practices as well as where we envision ourselves in the near future and beyond.  The Critical Task at the conclusion of the course was to reflect and answer the following questions, What are my strengths as a creative and innovative leader? What are the concerns I need to think about and address that will help me to be a successful creative and innovative leader? and What will be my plan to understand the culture of a district I am a leader in and move it in a direction to be a culture that more deeply embraces creativity and innovation?  The following is my response to these questions.

As George Couros points out in his book, The Innovative Mindset, failure does not create learning, reflecting on it does.  Reflection is very important, not only does it increase metacognition, but it creates a foundation to build your next steps on.  As I reflect on the first question, it is fairly simple to list a set of skills that are my strengths as a creative and innovative leader.  I believe myself to be a risk taker, a creative thinker and lesson designer, and I am adept at technology.

However, more important than those skills, what helps me most as a leader, is that I try to have a humanistic approach in my decision making and leadership.  While the question, “Is this best for kids?” is always on the forefront of my decision making, I work to keep in mind the nature of who we are as people, and make decisions that maintain dignity and reasonableness of our staff and parents.  This strength has been key in building trusting relationships, which is a vital key to a creative and innovative leadership style. Building a positive professional level of trust forms the foundation that allows staff, students, and communities to take risks, succeed, fail, and find success again.  While all staff need to be vested in building positive trusting relationships, it is the school’s administration that has to model this and set a trusting tone.

Over the years, I have been fortunate to have conversations with educators from different schools and the matter of building trust is a frequent topic.  I have learned that while there are probably as many ways to earn trust as there are schools, there are a few tenants that I hold and actively work on when it comes to earning trust.

Sincerity and believability are paramount. You have to show that you honestly care about your staff, and this takes time, and has to be genuine. You don’t do this by the occasional one minute flash of “good morning, how was your weekend?” but by repeatedly trying to understand the lives of your teachers and community. Certainly greeting teachers can be part of it, but do it in an organic fashion, one that doesn’t feel like you have scheduled time to walk around the school and say good morning. You can however, create times to have those conversations with staff and still make them feel organic: use the first 10 minutes of a staff meeting to have snacks and conversation, have lunch with staff on a semi-regular basis, talk about life during “duty”, or attend a ball game or event with staff and strike up a conversation. Share of yourself honestly.

I was once told (by a Superintendent I respect) that when it comes to administration, “visibility is credibility”. I believe there is truth in that, however credibility is definitely also measured by the type of visibility. For example, one minute classroom walk-throughs do little to build credibility and can even serve to annoy teachers rather than support them. However, ten to fifteen minute walk-throughs are beneficial and can serve to inform instruction and send a message that you care to know what is going on in the classroom. The shorter walk-throughs are not bad if they’re done in conjunction with a ten to fifteen minute walk through program (one designed to provide feedback), but 1 minute walkthroughs alone say you’re doing it just to be seen, not to see.

In order to build a team you can trust to go into battle with you, and will trust you to lead them, you need to be on the front lines with them. Valuing their time by attending meetings, being on time, conducting meaningful staff meetings (PLCs?), and attending in-services with your staff to model learning and shared experiences, are vital. This last one can be hard to do, but if you expect your teachers to participate in an in-service then you need to be there learning right alongside of them, and no matter what you think that may seem more important, to your staff, it’s not.

One of the best things you can do to build trust is to solicit feedback from your staff and utilize it. It is the utilizing of the information that is key. It is not enough to take the feedback or collect the data, you need to actually show that it means something. It is when you, in a transparent fashion, base your decisions on that data, that gives your decision making process credibility and builds trust.  Otherwise if you’re just asking for input and not using it, you will soon have people deciding not to engage in feedback, or giving you what they think you want to hear, rather than the truth.

Lastly, to take this trust to a level that inspires your staff to be creative and innovative, you will need to be willing to take a risk, thus creating an opportunity that demonstrates you understand trust and are willing to trust your staff. Perhaps it’s letting your staff decide on something that is historically the principal’s decision, or sending out a performance survey or trying to learn something new alongside your staff, such as taking an in-house class or workshop about a new technology or initiative. The key is you have to “unhinge” the positional authority that comes with the title of “boss” and open the door of vulnerability and open-mindedness.

A few years ago, after ten years as an administrator, I decided to go back to the classroom.  This was a challenging personal decision, as I had very young children and needed to better balance my life around them and my wife.  It was wonderful, both personally and professionally. Spending time in the classroom, as well as spending more time with my family and community, reminded me about what is truly important in education and life.  “Rigor, relevance, and relationships” are words we hear often in education. Of them, relationships, is the most powerful, as fostering trusting, caring relationships with students, staff, and community helps to open up teaching that is both rigorous and relevant.  

Leaders must work hard to foster a culture of trust in a district if they expect the stakeholders to embrace creativity and innovation.  You can have the best strategic plans and professional development, but as Peter Drucker is often credited as saying, “culture eats strategy for breakfast”.   In addition to building positive relationships and trust there are other factors that one must consider when creating a thriving culture of creativity and innovation.  Schools are all unique places largely due to their unique student population. Depending on the make-up of the school, it students undergo vast social, emotional, intellectual, and physical changes and while it is the role of schools to provide an academically challenging curriculum with developmentally appropriate instruction and assessment practices; they must also assist students in becoming knowledgeable and socially aware of themselves and the world around them. Furthermore, schools that employ practices that inspire and empower their students to take ownership of their learning will enable them to make better decisions about their personal and educational lives as they grow toward adulthood.

Academically, schools work to provide students with a vigorous curriculum that will, simply stated, move them through their own development from predominantly concrete thinkers to primarily abstract thinkers. This needs to be done by well-trained educators who are not only experts in their specific disciplines but are artisans in the area of teaching children. Studies suggest that successful students are taught by teachers who are not only proficient in their discipline (history, math, art, science, etc.) but also have a high level of understanding and training around working with the specific age and development of their students specifically. The same is true about school administrators.

Educators, specifically trained in the proper pedagogy, can create developmentally appropriate curricula that utilizes existing skills while scaffolding opportunities to broaden content and expertise. It is necessary to possess a wide assortment of methods to teach and assess the variety of thinkers that make up the varied students in our schools. These educators will use technology, project-based learning, interdisciplinary links, and more to provide opportunities for authentic learning that fits better with the natural curiosity of children.

In a school and district culture that fosters creativity and innovation, administrators embrace academic rigor, balanced with creating relevance and trusting relationships, to guide the practices in the classroom and the school. Many of these practices are outlined in the Carnegie Corporation’s Turning Points 2000.  Turning Points 2000 specifically encourages practices that support schools where every student is enabled “to think creatively, to identify and solve meaningful problems, to communicate and work well with others, and to develop the base of factual knowledge and skills that is the essential foundation for ‘higher order’ capacities” (p. 10-11). Practices that support these recommendations fit in with today’s educational initiatives to prepare students for their future. These practices should encourage staff to take risks and learn from their mistakes as well as their successes.

District leaders can also support creativity and innovation by supporting the learning that occurs outside the classroom setting; encouraging faculty and students to take advantage of field trips, extracurricular activities, “real world” academic opportunities, and social events. Participation in these activities can be risky for some educators, but they are often successful when they are supported by an administration that allows staff to make mistakes, fostering a culture where failing is a “first attempt in learning”, and getting back up and showing grit, is rewarded. Some of the best learning I have witnessed has been part of outdoor “ropes” course programs, where students and staff need to work together, take risks, and encourage each other. All aspects of education benefit when teachers are open to seeing risks as opportunities for growth and challenges as obstacles to overcome.

Whether starting out in a new district, or continuing in my current role, the steps to creating a culture of creativity and innovation is not a “one size fits all” proposition.  That said, creating a culture of trust, student centered pedagogy, and where risk is rewarded and failure seen as an asset, are truisms that I intend to take with me.

 

Bibliography:

George Couros (2015) The Innovator’s Mindset. Published by Dave Burgess Consulting, San Diego CA.

Turning Points 2000: Educating Adolescents in the 21st Century. The Report of the Task Force on Education of Young Adolescents (New York: Carnegie Corporation, 2000)

Chris Sousa and Robert C. Spear Ed.D. (2007) Academic Vigor and Meeting the Learning Needs of Middle Level Students, Middle Level Issues (NELMS Vol. 7 #1, January 2007)

Chris Husbands and Jo Pearce (Autumn 2012) What makes great pedagogy? Nine claims from research. National College for School Leadership. Nottingham, UK.

What makes a teacher effective. (2010-2014) A summary of key research findings on teacher preparation. The National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE). Washington DC

Advertisements
Posted in Education, Education reform, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Social Media; its not just for kids anymore

So this year at my school, we have spent a fair amount of time focusing on kindness.  Our students and staff have made conscious efforts to treat each other with kindness, always trying to presume the best intentions.  So far, people around the school have been energized by this and has led to Guidance and classroom lessons on kindness as well.

School related bullying and meanness has been around for a long time.  One of the large differences between that behavior when I was young versus today, is that when kids went home, they could escape the meanness and the discouragement.  These days, social media apps such as Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, etc, mean that children can’t escape the negativity.  They are surrounded by it 24/7.  While social media has the capacity for good, such as allowing families and friends to stay connected even if they are separated by great distances, often times, when we find that students have not been kind to each other, social media is at play.

Children are not the only ones that use social media.  Many communities, clubs, and towns have websites, Facebook pages, etc. that act as forums for adults to both praise and persecute.  Much like we see with children, it is often easier for a person to type negative comments, rather than make the effort to seek out face to face conversation to work out differences.  Sadly, I have seen schools and teachers be the targets of such posts all too often.  While public education is often a targeted topic for politicians, newspapers, and television, it is the personalization that social media allows that makes it so pervasive.  When it comes to education and social media, I encourage folks to “Praise Locally and Criticize Globally”.

You may have seen teachers, family, and friends, referenced negatively in a post.  Slandering a teacher’s name or alluding to a specific teacher in a media post does little to solve a problem.  While there may be an allure to public venting, an actual conversation with the teacher about a frustration or miscommunication does so much more to resolve the situation.  Overall, as an educator, I have had great experiences with parents.  Some of whom I have become friends with and most of whom I respect greatly.  It is no easy job being a parent.  I was always fond of telling those parents who apologized for calling me to “complain/discuss” their child, that they should not apologize for being their child’s advocate, even if they are doing it in an emotional manner.  Frankly, I am more concerned with the parents who don’t advocate for their kids, or who are not emotional about their child’s education and well-being.  I just wish folks would refrain from posting their concerns online.

Communication works best when it goes both ways.  As teachers, we often take for granted that our students are talking to their parents about school, and while we provide constant feedback to our students, the major methods of communication home are often the student agenda books, webpages, progress reports and the report cards that go out every few weeks.  Please consider these a strong part of our overall communication.  If there is something that is not understood or concerning, email or call, and we can talk about how we can move forward to ensure learning.  Most times, this results in teachers, parents, students, and principals being on the same page.  It takes time, communication, and understanding so that we all have each other’s best interests at heart but we have to start by assuming best intentions.

Overall, schools work best if we all assume best intentions and increase communication, (and not through Facebook).  If I had one thing to offer to parents (and teachers) it is that positive communication, early and often, is key to creating a strong partnership between home and school.  Take time to think about all the positives we experience with regard to our children’s education, and then highlight some of them with a note or phone call.  I assure you, you’ll make someone’s day, and you’ll be glad you did.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Behavioral Health

What are schools designed to do? It appears that the definition, the mission, of our schools change almost year to year. The days of a school teaching the three “Rs” are long gone. I do not believe that public education can solve all of society’s ills, however, if we are going to educate children, we need to address some of the issues that get in the way of them being ready to learn.

In addition to teaching academics, schools must address students’ behavioral health for students to be successful, and not with the same thinking we used years ago. Behavioral health is more complex. It is an amalgam of mental health, physical health, and emotional health, and as such deserves a more sophisticated approach than the traditional behaviorist strategies. We know much more about how children learn and develop now than we did when I first starting teaching, so we must employ what we know to help students be ready to attend to learning in order for them to be successful.

If you were to ask public school teachers what are the top two things they do as a teacher, they would no doubt say, teach academics and manage behaviors, not always in that order. In each of these veins, teachers are successful with the vast majority of their students, but what about those students that Ross Greene called “unlucky”? Those are the outliers that traditional Skinner-esque interventions do not work with. These are the students that engage in “unlucky behaviors” whose public school behaviorist remedies, often fail and lead to more often than not, strategies that end in “…sion’s” – detention, suspension, expulsion.

Dr. Ross Greene’s premise, that a behaviorist’s approach will not fully change these children’s behaviors, because it simply addresses the symptoms of the behavior rather than its root cause, is echoed by Jessica Minehan, author of The Behavior Code (2012 Harvard Education Press, Cambridge, Mass). She agrees with Dr. Greene, when she states that “behavior is communication.” and educators must dig deeply to find what the communication is telling us about the student’s real concerns or issues. I recall a student I had while teaching 7th grade in a small school in Vermont. His name was Lance. Lance lost his mother two years prior, his father was away often as a truck driver, and there was little financial security in his home. He was a bright enough student, however, he had a particularly bad time behaviorally and academically, especially in my colleague’s English/Language Arts class. I had developed a relationship with him along with our school’s social worker. Together, and not overnight, we surmised that Lance felt powerless in school, particularly in classes that were rather “strict” and limited student choice. We worked with him to take control of his learning, to give him strategies to allow him to change the perception my colleague had of him. We asked him to start by saying hello every day, answering questions in class even if they are wrong, and turning in homework even if it was not done completely or correctly. The teacher started to compliment Lance, and reach out to him to support him, commenting to me and others how much Lance had changed. The effect on Lance was that he began to believe he was gaining some control over his experience in that classroom, and soon his plan to “control” his environment turned into him actually changing his own behavior and achieving some actual success.

I heard Jessica Minehan speak at a presentation in my district. Ross Green’s comments brought me back to her overall message, that we as educators must consider students’ underlying reasons for their behavior, and until we treat the root cause, the behavior will continue. But how we do it is not easy. Early in my career I was part of a team that started a behavioral intervention program where our goal was to address student’s negative behaviors by creating a program that focused on raising the academic levels of the students who happen to be demonstrating the most disruptive behaviors. We started out with a small number of students, as we thought that ratio and relationship development was key to our success. In the first year we did experience success, so much so that the district leadership decided that they would triple our number of students without adding staff. I was not courageous enough as a young teacher to stand up the forces that did this and explain that the programs small ratios and relationship focus was at its core success. In the end, after one year of success, it took less than a year for it to fail. In Alfie Kohn’s book, Beyond Discipline (2006 ASCD Alexandria, VA) he explains that one of the reasons “children act in troubling ways because they are wanting for warm, caring relationships…”. That experience brought Alfie Kohn’s premise to life for me, and has influenced my teaching ever since.

While I recognize that I employ, more often that not, a “Pollyanna” perspective on modern education, I do think that regardless of our success rate, we need to have compassion as we address student behavior. In today’s world of immediate social media posting, lawyers quick to litigate, and the news media’s ease at which to call schools’ to task, employing compassionate, outside the box approaches to behavior is not easy. However, if we are courageous enough and can combine compassion with the correct supports needed to cut to the root cause of student behavior, we can change a child’s academic future.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Professional Development: We’re all in it together

The other night we had a great conversation at #NHED about professional development. There were great insights, encouragements, and ideas. However, many of the posts also highlighted frustrations, and I found myself at times on both sides of the fence. As a teacher I totally get that our PD should reflect our current assignment and be personally meaningful, and as a principal, I understand that school-wide professional development builds collegiality and moves buildings and districts in a way that nothing else can. Upon reflection, I don’t see these ideas as being diametrically opposed to each other, so why do they seem so far apart in practice?

When I started out as an assistant principal at a middle school in northern Vermont, the PD was organized by a committee of teachers led by an administrator (me at the time). Being a new administrator and fresh out of the classroom, I welcomed teacher input, and together we articulated what was needed for systemic growth. It was great because we could tie in personal goals with district and building goals, have team/grade representation in our discussions, and because teachers often led the work, we increased the investment our staff had in our PD days. Since then, I have seen that model change dramatically or disappear altogether.

I don’t know if it is due to the high stakes testing and misguided accountability programs, but it seems that district administrators (and at times principals) have taken over PD, and while they may gather input from a committee, inevitability they do what they feel is best to support a district wide vision. Similarly, I have known teachers who have taken an easier road or divergent path when left to their own devices around PD. Now I do feel strongly, and I wish all teachers and administrators internalized this, that the best of intentions are there. Everyone wants to move themselves, staff, and their school, forward. The reality is however, that for a variety of reasons, the disconnect between meaningful learning and PD occurs frequently. Starting a change in this practice means not throwing blame and pointing fingers; we must all accept and embrace that we all are coming from a place of best intentions.

However, change needs to occur, and to get the most “bang for the PD buck”, both teachers and administrators must be willing to cooperate and see both sides of the coin. Jumping back into the classroom after being an administrator for ten years has given me renewed insights into what teachers do every day and what they need to continue their good work. Furthermore, I empathized with the role my Principal played in guiding my school.  I was fortunate to be able to spend time back in the classroom before returning to administration.  I don’t expect that every administrator or teacher will be able to “walk a mile…” as they say, but if teachers and administrators could find enough common ground, if Principal’s could find the courage to share the responsibility and authority around teacher PD, and if teachers could see the value in systemic PD, then I know they would see great things happen.  It does not mean that principals can’t have a strong hand in setting building goals, and they certainly can set parameters that would require PD to link to building and/or district goals, and it doesn’t mean that teachers can’t hone in on areas that are important to them, but a differentiated approach put into practice by a well-run committee of teachers and administrators, could do so much to engage all educators in continued professional learning.

Posted in Education | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How can we bank Creativity?

Originally Posted on April 13, 2012 by C Sousa

I was once told that time is the currency of education. I believe this to be true. We need time to teach our students, to allow them to reach goals, and be creative in their approaches to learning; and this time must be fluid and flexible in order to support the varied learners in our schools. Recently, it occurred to me that if time is the currency, experience is the bank, and what we bank matters. There have been recent conversations about our education system and how we are experiencing a lack of innovation and creativity, and that we must teach students to think creatively. I agree, and the standardized, over scheduled, lock step programs we have our schools’ operating by does not serve this goal. If we want to increase innovation and creativity in our students, and if time is the currency and experience the bank, then it is just as important to bank creativity, to experience it, as it is to find the time to practice it.

Let me explain. During a recent lesson I asked students to take historically significant speeches and transcribe them using a different vernacular, and perform them. We looked at vernaculars, both past and present, and yes, humor, props, and costumes were absolutely encouraged. In the end we had some great performances of famous speeches done in “valley girl”, “hip-hop”, and “1960’s hippie” lingo. It was fun and it allowed the students to use concrete tools and analyze, evaluate, and create, and while the level of difficulty was not high, I was hoping that the creativity would be.

Overall it was a nice lesson, but what was interesting to me was not the students who excelled, but rather the students who struggled creatively with the assignment. As I thought more on it, and discussed it with my colleagues, it became evident (at least in a totally nonscientific way) that those students who struggled with creativity may not have had much of a bank of creative experiences to draw from. We saw a common thread in those who struggled with the lesson; their educational independence, along with their creativity, had been limited due to a variety of suspected reasons (a hyper-focus on test achievement, parenting styles, school/class rankings, peer pressure, etc).

I recalled what I had learned at the Learning and Brain conference this past fall; that everyone can be creative and that creativity is built on prior learning. Robert W. Weisberg, PhD references this in his recent work; Out-of-the-box thinking in creativity (2009). Dr. Weisberg uses many examples that cite creativity is most often based on prior learning. “Creative” people adapt what they have learned to a new scenario, twist what they have experienced to fit into a new reality, and borrow from past achievements to create the building blocks of new ideas. This makes sense, and following this line of thinking means that we must fill our children with meaningful “out of the box” experiences so that they can draw from them in order to be creative in life and learning.

Now there are certainly some people among us who have a propensity for outstanding creativity, giving way to the Picasso’s in life. And while everyone cannot be a Picasso, everyone to some degree can exhibit Picasso-like creativity. However, it is not enough to only have the prior knowledge in which to build on. The propensity for creativity is also tied to the manner in which that knowledge is acquired. Students who are risk takers, who are not afraid to think independently, who are more willing to “think outside the box” have had that skill fostered. Risk taking has become part of their learning. Our current educational environment is not always conducive to this, and with outside influences that tend to put our children in boxes and label them, teaching students to push their boundaries and take educational risks is more important than ever. To foster creativity we must allow and create opportunities for children to take risks, acquire knowledge, and be available to build, creatively, on their learning.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Middle Schools

Middle schools are unique places largely due to their unique student population. Students ages 10 – 14 undergo vast social, emotional, intellectual, and physical changes and it is the role of middle schools to provide an academically challenging curriculum with developmentally appropriate instruction and assessment practices. They must also assist students in becoming knowledgeable and socially aware of themselves and the world around them. Furthermore, middle schools that employ practices that inspire and empower their students to take ownership of their learning will enable them to make better decisions about their personal and educational lives as they grow toward adulthood.

Academically, middle level schools work to provide students with a vigorous curriculum that will, simply stated, move them through their own development from predominantly concrete thinkers to primarily abstract thinkers. This needs to be done by well-trained middle level educators who are not only experts in their specific disciplines but are artisans in the area of teaching early adolescent children. Studies suggest that successful students are taught by teachers who are not only proficient in their discipline (history, math, art, science, etc.) but also have a high level of understanding and training around working with middle level students specifically. The same is true about middle level administrators.

Teachers, specifically trained in middle level pedagogy, can create developmentally appropriate curricula that utilizes existing skills while scaffolding opportunities to broaden content and expertise. It is necessary to possess a wide assortment of methods to teach and assess the variety of thinkers that make up middle level students. These educators will use technology, project-based learning, and interdisciplinary links to provide opportunities for authentic learning that fits better with the natural curiosity of young adolescents.

Middle level educators embrace academic rigor, balanced with creating relevance and trusting relationships, to guide their practices in the classroom. Many of these practices are outlined in the Carnegie Corporation’s Turning Points 2000 and the Association for Middle Level Education’s This We Believe. Turning Points 2000 specifically encourages practices that support middle schools where every student is enabled “to think creatively, to identify and solve meaningful problems, to communicate and work well with others, and to develop the base of factual knowledge and skills that is the essential foundation for ‘higher order’ capacities” (p. 10-11). Practices that support these recommendations fit in with today’s initiatives to prepare students for their future and can help them gain a clearer understanding of their unique learning processes. These practices should encourage them to take risks and learn from their mistakes as well as their successes.

Achievement cannot be measured accurately for middle level students by traditional standardized testing alone. Educators must assess and provide frequent feedback in many forms, such as classroom discussions, essays, debates, labs, tests, projects, and performances. Authentic assessments, both formative and summative, that focus on content and creativity, grit and compassion, should inform instruction to assist the teacher in developing lessons that move students toward higher order thinking skills. “Nontraditional” assessment practices, such as portfolio reviews and thesis defense, are often overlooked in districts in lieu of more standardized approaches, yet can be strong components of a quality middle level program.

Middle level schools can also support academic vigor by supporting the learning that occurs outside the classroom setting; encouraging faculty and students to take advantage of field trips, extra-curricular activities, and social events. Participation in these activities can be risky for some young adolescents, but they are often successful when they are supported by a deliberate program of student advocacy. This advocacy (or advisory) and the activities that are often centered on them, can serve to encourage students to stretch their social and cognitive boundaries. Some of the best learning I have witnessed has been part of an outdoor “ropes” course program, where students need to work together, take risks, and encourage each other. All aspects of middle level academics benefit when students are open to seeing risks as opportunities for growth and challenges as obstacles to overcome.

When examining the role of middle level schools, it is important to look at the entirety of programs, much like middle level teachers look at the whole child. Middle level educators have always embraced the importance of academic standards within developmentally responsive education; in fact, it is a founding philosophy. In our current quantitatively fixated, data focused climate, “developmentally appropriate education” often gets lost. However, they are not “buzz words”, they are a necessity. As the future of education unfolds, middle schools will continue to look toward the challenge of providing educational programs that provide an overall vigorous educational experience that truly meets the unique developmental needs of our students.

 

Bibliography:

Turning Points 2000: Educating Adolescents in the 21st Century. The Report of the Task Force on Education of Young Adolescents (New York: Carnegie Corporation, 2000)

This We Believe: Successful Schools for Young Adolescents. A position Paper of the Association for Middle Level Education (Westerville, Ohio. 2003)

Chris Sousa and Robert C. Spear Ed.D. (2007) Academic Vigor and Meeting the Learning Needs of Middle Level Students, Middle Level Issues (NELMS Vol. 7 #1, January 2007)

Chris Husbands and Jo Pearce (Autumn 2012) What makes great pedagogy? Nine claims from research. National College for School Leadership. Nottingham, UK.

What makes a teacher effective. (2010-2014) A summary of key research findings on teacher preparation. The National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE). Washington DC

 

Posted in Education, Education reform | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Parents & Teachers: Assume Best Intentions

Here is a post that I wrote in the Fall.  It came up as a topic of conversation and after going back and reading it and the linked article, I thought I would re-post it as it still rings true to me.

This fall I spoke with a journalist from Reader’s Digest, who was writing an article on “What your Principal won’t tell you”, that came out in September. It was a lighthearted look at what a principal would like parents to know. Not long after that conversation I received an email from a colleague with a link to an article written by Ron Clark (an educator who started his own academy in Atlanta and has been touted by celebrities). His article is entitled, “What teachers really want to tell parents”. While his article raises some very good points, I found it to be a bit harsh. As a parent (and an educator) I take issue with some of what he points out, and much of the manner in which he does it, and while that may be the topic of another article, I thought that since these two occurrences happened so close to one another, it must have been fate telling me to write down some of my thoughts on what I would like parents to know.

Generally, as an educator, I have had great experiences with parents. Some of whom I have become friends with and most of whom I respect greatly. It is no easy job being a parent, and I was always fond of telling those parents who apologized for calling me to “complain/discuss” their child, that they should not apologize for being their child’s advocate, even if they are doing it in an emotional manner. Frankly, I am more concerned with the parents who don’t advocate for their kids, or who are not emotional about their child’s education and well-being. While Mr. Clark and I agree on a few things, I am not sure he quite gets that.
Some things I would like parents to understand are:

• The child we see is not the same child they see. Kids act differently at home than they do in “their” environment at school. It is not necessarily better or worse, but different. In this way, teachers and parents get to see a different side of our kids, and with proper and positive communication, can share these perspectives and gain powerful insights into who our students and children are.

• All kids make mistakes. As both a teacher and a principal, I have had countless experiences with students who I have caught lying to me, their parents, teachers, and peers. In the end, most times, the truth comes out and the fact is; kids make mistakes. Please don’t call and say, “that my child would never lie to me”, and that “I know they are not an angel, but this time….” Kids are kids, and sometimes they make mistakes, and yes even lie or mislead their parents, teachers, principals, etc. We want to work with you, not against you, but please be realistic. We are not here to make stuff up about your kids, we love your kids.

• Communication works best when it goes both ways. As teachers, we often take for granted that our students are talking to their parents about school, and while we provide constant feedback to our students, the major methods of communication home are the progress reports and report cards that go out every few weeks. Please consider those reports as a strong part of our overall communication. If there is something that is not understood or concerning, email or call. With so many children to keep track of, most times we don’t call or email home when a student fails a test or drops a letter grade. If the signs are there on the progress report, and you never called in to check on it, then please don’t call after the report card goes home asking why we didn’t notify you they were in trouble. Rather, call to talk about how we can work from that point on to ensure learning.

• Education does not function well with the top-down business model that many parents work in. Principal’s just don’t “tell” their teachers what to do, even if they think their suggestions are valid. Our goal is to influence teachers, to bring them to an understanding, and assist them in broadening their thinking in order to stretch their boundaries. Most times this results in teachers, parents, and principals being on the same page, but it takes time, communication, and understanding that we all have each other’s best interests at heart. Let’s assume best intentions.

• Please know that some of my time as a Principal was spent defending poor choices made by good teachers. Everyone makes mistakes and while parents and students can comment, often in-depth, about how you feel about the situation, principals and teachers cannot. Hands are often somewhat tied by contract agreements, state laws, and respect for all parties. The overarching goal is to listen to your concerns and hopefully reassure you that something will be done about it. However, it needs to be done in a way that brings about meaningful results that we can all learn from and puts the student’s success first.

• As a Principal, I cannot count how many times I have fielded calls from parents and families about concerns over specific lessons or teachers. While I was always pleased that they felt comfortable calling me, the outcome was usually the same; I can do nothing without talking to the teacher first. As a matter of fact, my first question was always, “have you spoken with the teacher?” The answer was almost always, no. I can speculate on the reasons that parents call the Principal first, but in the end, if you really want to help your child, call the teacher first. Ninety-nine percent of the time, it will solve the problem, clear up the issue, and help the child, parent, and teacher.

Overall, schools work best if we all assume best intentions and increase communication. If I had only one thing to offer to parents (and teachers) it is that positive communication, early and often, is key to creating a strong partnership between home and school. Take time to think about all the positives we experience with regards to our children’s education, and then highlight some of them with a note or phone call. I assure you, you’ll make someone’s day, and you’ll be glad you did.

Chris Sousa is the President of the New Hampshire Association for Middle Level Education, and this article first appeared in the Winter Edition of the NHAMLE Newsletter – http://www.nhamle.org/index-6.html

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Role of the Principal

Recently I was asked about the role of the public school principal, and rather then rattle off a list of responsibilities and duties, we had more of a  philosophical discussion.  Here is some of my thoughts on the question.

The Education Commission of the States, as reported in the July 16, 2003 USA Today, suggests that one of the most important factors in student success is having a teacher who is not only trained in their subject area (Art, History, Math, etc.) but also in the pedagogy of the grade levels they teach. A 2004 study by the Wallace Foundation sites that with regard to student impact; highly effective administrators are second only to teachers. Other studies concur that Middle School Principals who are familiar with the best practices of middle level education, the developmental nature of middle level students, and have researched leadership strategies that work, can be significant factors in student success; and it is all about student success.

The role of the Principal, much like the role of public education, has changed significantly over the years. Interacting with the staff and students we work with is a vital part of how we need to do business. No longer can the Principal be confined to office work and formal classroom observations. They must be out in the school community interacting with staff and students, and fostering relationships that encourage trust and caring. Developing mutual respect and teamwork amongst the staff and the students is a high priority; students who do not believe that teachers and administrators respect and care about them, will not care about learning.

Building effective relationships takes time. Some administrators come in as change agents, who can sweep through a school making abrupt and immediate changes with little to no shared decision making. While this style can at times move a school along quickly, often times it leads to discontent and entrenched staff, students, and community members who succumb to self-preservation rather than teamwork. It is the more challenging course of moving slowly, solicitously, and deliberately to build a culture of respect, caring, and excellence within a school that motivates students, staff, and community to strive to be the best they can be. This is the role of the Principal.

There are many factors for a principal to consider when examining and shaping school culture; mission and core values, beliefs and learning expectations, instruction and assessment procedures, home and school relations, staff and student evaluation, etc., and while they have been the subject of many books, workshops, and college courses, the amount of movement is dependent on their starting point. Principal’s need to assess where a school is in order to better understand how those factors may be addressed. Gathering input from a school’s constituencies; students, staff, and community, is a practice that will assist administrators in making good decisions and will strengthen relationships and increase motivation.

The role of the principal is a hard one to define in the narrow space of a blog post. Ultimately it has to be defined by the school and the community served. When an administrator listens to those who are vested in the educational community’s success, and couples that vision and understanding with courage, collaboration, communication, and compassion, you’ll have a better idea of the role of the Principal.

Posted in Education | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

BLOOMS Poster for the Classroom

The links below are to a photo and a PDF of a poster I created (after seeing a similar one in a teacher’s classroom in Portsmouth NH at an edcamp!) of the updated Blooms taxonomy.  Please feel free to take them or create your own!

I have it hanging in my classroom and refer to it often with my kids, especially when we are beginning projects, debates, etc.  I want them to be able to understand what HOTS are and why I push them to stretch themselves.  We have also had conversations about what they learned in previous years and where that fell on the scale compared to what they are learning now about the same topic.  They love to see the progression, not only in subject matter but also in the sophistication of their thinking.

BLOOMS

BLOOMS

 

 

 

Posted in Education | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Do we measure creativity, inquisitiveness, inspiration?

Good question.  Below is a link to a video of a Tennessee high school student speaking at a board meeting about school reform and specifically the adoption of the common core and the assessments surrounding it.  It is very interesting to hear his point of view, and he is well spoken and delivers a good speech.  While he speaks against its adoption and sites some compelling reasons why we should take a closer look at it, what I find most interesting is the point he makes that we have gone to far with our reliance on DATA, and that most things, the important ones anyway, taught in a classroom can’t be quantitatively measured.

However, I believe we can and do assess them.  We assess them throughout the years with a variety of methods.  They are often part of every formative assessment we give and evident in our summatives as well.  It is the amalgamation of projects, conversations, investigations, tests, and all that goes into making learning happen.  It is not however gauged in a “one and done” high stakes test.

While I am not opposed to the Common Core standards I do believe that most things schools, states, and the Federal government test and hold up as meaningful data points lack the true essence of teaching and learning.  If we are to teach the whole child we must embrace the notion that the true essence of teaching and learning are in part, as this young man puts it, creativity, passion, inquisitiveness, and inspiration.

Take a look at this video.  It made me think about my practices and how I not only measure those “intangibles” but how I teach them as well.

Tennessee Student Speaks Up About the Common Core and his Teachers

Posted in Education, Education reform | Leave a comment