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Seasons of Change

Below is an article I co-wrote with two other educators about a year ago. It was rejected by Educational Leadership. I thought mid-summer might be a good time to get it out there for others to read and reflect on. Have a great start to the school year!

Seasons of Change

By honoring, empowering, and encouraging teachers, school leaders can promote a culture of continual growth and ensure all learners realize their true potential.

by Laurie Hittman, Mary Peters, and Matt Renwick

Relationships are the agents of change.

– Dr. Bruce Perry

Theory and Practice

Teacher morale is low. According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, “half a million teachers move or leave education every year. The costs for this attrition on the U.S. is 2.2 billion dollars annually” (2014).

What is the cause? A number of factors contribute to this situation. First, student test scores are still being tied to teacher evaluations, despite the fact that assessment experts do not endorse this practice (NASSP, 2015). Second, the variety and severity of the mental health needs of today’s students is daunting. Teachers are not only instructors, but also serve as parents, advocates, and counselors. When you combine this reality with a reduction in resources and the expectation that all students meet grade level benchmarks, it is no surprise that teachers are feeling stressed.

Educators cannot solve all of the world’s problem. When expectations for teachers are unrealistic, a sense of despair can pervade throughout the school climate, like a sheet being spread over a bed. In our experiences as teachers, administrators, and consultants, we have found three ways in which the culture and climate of a school can be improved:

  1. Honor teachers’ personal and professional lives.
  2. Empower teachers to become school leaders.
  3. Encourage teachers to innovate in their practice.

In the next section, we will describe why these actions are effective and provide examples of this work within one elementary school.

1. Honor teachers’ personal and professional lives.

Recently, Mary found herself stranded in Cleveland when her flight was first delayed and then cancelled. The flight crew had logged too many hours and were required, by federal law, to end their work for the day. It occurred to her that educators (and those they serve) don’t have similar protections. School leaders have to attend to these issues of stress and workloads. People’s basic needs must be met before principals can build trust and develop relationships with and within the faculty.

Recognizing the school’s situation (high poverty levels, reduced resources), Matt connected with Laurie and Mary to facilitate a Courage and Renewal retreat called “Exploring the Seeds of True Self” for all school faculty on the first day back for teachers in August. Courage and Renewal retreats are based on the work of Parker J. Palmer, author of The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life (Wiley, 1997, 2008). The premise of the book is simple: “Good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher” (p. 10). Seldom do educators take time to ask “who is the self that teaches?” (p. 4).

When the agenda was shared out, a few staff members were suspicious. “We’re not talking about literacy or mathematics?” asked one teacher. Even Mary and Laurie shared concerns about expecting all staff members to participate in this opportunity to reflect on why we went into education. Can we force reflection? It was decided that what we needed as a school community went beyond academics.

Our retreat was located in a local woodland shelter next to a lake. Hosting the retreat outside of our school removed any temptation for correcting papers or checking email. The location also provided a sense of peace. In our constantly connected world, the quiet was noticeable and welcomed. In addition, our woodland shelter provided the opportunity to evoke powerful metaphors to better understand the professional journeys.

Fall

Leaves of red, orange, and yellow floated to the ground outside as we settled into our chairs to start the retreat. Within the hall, chairs were circled around a small table. Rocks, a small bowl of water, and seeds sat upon it. The seeds would serve as our main metaphor for our time together that day. Metaphors serve to develop an understanding by “experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another” (Lakoff and Johnson, 5). Laurie and Mary started the purpose for our time together by asking the faculty to connect the concept of a seed with our own lives. Here were a few of their offerings:

Seeds need the right conditions to grow.

A seed can grow into something much bigger than itself.

It is sometimes hard to predict what a seed will become.

The needs of their students as well as themselves were on their minds. This led into a written reflection activity about why each of them went into education in the first place. The staff placed themselves throughout the property, finding quiet spots to think and write by the nearby lake, on picnic tables, benches and even the grass.

The concept of school was no longer the constant within this experience. Our institution’s constraints were shed in favor of our personal and professional needs. For example, there was no limit on time during our opportunity to reflect, write, and think. We came back to the circle when ready, instead of a predetermined time listed on an agenda. Choice was a tenet of our renewal experience.

To create a space in which our ideas and feelings would be both honored and safe, touchstones were shared. Touchstones are similar to group norms or meeting guidelines to follow to ensure a safe dialogue. In groups of three (triads), each person had the opportunity to share why they went into education for five minutes. Everyone else listened and could not respond. Once each person in the triad spoke, only then could they ask each other questions and have a conversation. Listening without judgment or comment – a rarity in our connected world where responses are expected and silence is an offense. The respect shown by colleagues honored their personhood and who they might become as professionals. The participant evaluations were overwhelmingly positive.

2. Empower teachers to become school leaders.

Leaders cannot affect change by themselves. It’s a fool’s errand to go it alone. They have to employ their best and brightest within their organization to realize the mission and vision of their school.

Empowering teachers to be leaders within their learning community provides multiple benefits. First, they can experience a sense of ownership for their school because the decisions are made with their input. Teachers is positions of leadership carry more pride in how the school is run and perceived by others. Second, the principal has taken something off of his or her plate. He or she can attend to other matters that involve instruction. Finally, when a group is tasked with decision-making authority, the outcomes are generally as good as or better than what one person could make alone.

What does this look like in practice? Our school has adhered to the tenets of Regie Routman’s work around increasing knowledge about literacy and leadership throughout the entire building (2014, pg. 231). One practice we have applied from her work is using focus groups. These teams are focused on a schoolwide topic, including building business, behavior management, academic intervention, parent partnership, and instructional leadership. Teachers can select two focus groups they want to join. Matt makes the final decision to ensure balance in teacher placement.

Of special note is the separation of building business and instructional leadership. School leaders can attest to how nonacademic topics, such as scheduling parent-teacher conferences, can creep into staff meetings that should be designated primarily for professional learning. By assigning building business for a specific group, schools give the proper attention to pressing issues while still holding the available limited time sacred for a whole faculty. Matt strives to attend all focus group meetings, serving as the facilitator for instructional leadership and as a primary resource for the other team meetings. Agendas are sent out ahead of time to ensure communication about the different conversations are transparent and clear.

Winter

Education does not follow the changes in seasons as suggested by our calendar. Fall starts when school does. When the snow starts to fly, it is officially winter.

Matt’s school took a new approach for their time together for professional learning. Instead of having staff gatherings taking place in the library, each grade level team selected one month in which they hosted faculty meetings in one of their classrooms. Before getting started, the grade level teams was asked to share one thing that was going well for them. Materials or a write up were not expected – just have a brief conversation about what’s working for them and why.

What was shared was brief but profound. One grade level team highlighted how they use a graphic organizer to facilitate student reflection about their independent reading. Another team found a better way to communicate student learning with families. Allowing teachers’ idea to spread and take root in other environments can have big benefits.

Once teams shared, Matt presented the host teachers with a gift of appreciation continuing with the theme of seeds from the August retreat. The gifts were nominal: A bottle of water, a notebook and pen, or a candle. However, the meaning of the gift-giving was deep. The water represented an essential element for seeds to start. A notebook and a pen were tools to reflect and to document growth over time. The candle represented how educators can burn bright, but sometimes at their own expense. These metaphors were stated as the gifts were given.

Winter is also a time of dormancy, for seeds as well as for people. This season can be a good time to curl up with a book and read by the fire. Several teachers, both at Matt’s school and in within their district, elected to do a book study for The Courage to Teach by Parker Palmer. Mary and Laurie served as instructors so educators could receive university credit. Because it was sometimes difficult to get together with our busy lives, teachers used an online space, a Google+ Community, to post questions and share thinking. While this forum provided for quality conversations, it wasn’t the same. Subsequently, some teachers came together at a local coffee shop to talk about the book and what it meant to them as professionals and leaders.

3. Encourage teachers to innovate with their practice.

The definition of innovate, according to Merriam-Webster, is to “to do something in a new way; to have new ideas about how something can be done”. What is hidden within this definition is in order to innovate and do something in a new way, educators also have to give up past strategies. This is challenging because teachers personalize their practices. As Jim Burke notes, “Teaching is so public, so personal, so dangerous. You walk in each day, to each class, to begin that unit, that lesson, that activity as if for the first time because you have never taught that lesson to that class or this kid” (Intrator, 13). It takes courage to change as well as to teach.

One way to innovate as an organization is by developing shared beliefs. Also from the work of Regie Routman (2014, pg. 83), this process includes identifying what one currently believes about instruction, comparing these beliefs with what colleagues hold to be true, and then having a conversation about everyone’s responses to these beliefs. For the beliefs in which everyone came to agreement, the school faculty then owns them. They are expected to be applied into practice throughout the building. Examples of literacy beliefs Matt’s school owns include “Students need writing models in order to write well.”, and “Students need to see their teachers as writers.”

Areas where staff disagree are not seen as points for argument, but rather opportunities for conversation. Using a discussion protocol, similar to what staff used in the fall with Mary and Laurie at the Courage and Renewal retreat, the teachers took turns speaking and listening about why they agreed or disagreed with a statement about literacy. While they did not own these literacy beliefs, everyone walked away with a better understanding about why we are doing what we are doing. The conversation promoted empathy and modeled for everyone what it means to have the capacity for growth.

Spring

As the snow started to melt and the trees revealed their buds, sleds were replaced with basketballs and snow hats traded in for ball caps. Howe Elementary followed nature’s lead.

At the last staff meeting of the school year, the host teachers were presented with a small pot of soil. Inside was a seed not identified to the faculty. They ended their time as they began: By using the metaphor of seeds, and now growth, to understand themselves and their students as learners.

Growth happens minute-by-minute.

You may never know the impact you make on a student.

You might be surprised by the outcomes.

It was evident in their responses that the teachers viewed this season as a time of renewal and an opportunity to continuing growing, right up until the last day of the school year.

The goal with bringing in Mary and Laurie was to provoke a new way of thinking about our professional lives. Teachers needed to keep their sense of self-worth in the face of time constraints.

An example is when the school social worker at Howe decided to lead book clubs for teachers following this yearlong experience. She was inspired by the spring courage and renewal retreat that culminated Mary and Laurie’s book study. While continuing the conversations about the tenets of Palmer’s book in the same shelter we started, she realized that she didn’t want this to end. So she created her own context instead of allowing outside factors to determine it. Now some of the teachers meet every two weeks to discuss a book of their choosing during lunch and after school.

Conclusion

School leaders have to recognize that the needs of their staff sometimes extend beyond academics. They should understand how the dispositions of educators can be just as important as a professional training or classroom resources. Change is inevitable. By providing time to reflect and renew, along with empowering and encouraging leaders within a school, they sow seeds of opportunities and cultivate the right conditions for growth.

 

References

Alliance for Excellent Education (2014). “Teacher Attrition Costs United States Up to $2.2 Billion Annually, Says New Alliance Report”. Press Release. Available: http://all4ed.org/press/ teacher-attrition-costs-united-states-up-to-2-2-billion-annually-says-new-alliance-report/

Intrator, S. (2002). Stories of the Courage to Teach: Honoring the Teacher’s Heart. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

National Association of Secondary School Principals (n.d.). “Value-Added Measures in Teacher Evaluation”. Position Statement. Available: http://www.nassp.org/Content.aspx?topic=Val- ue_Added_Measures_in_Teacher_Evaluation

Palmer, P. (2007). The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life, 10th Anniversary Edition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Routman, R. (2014). Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

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A More Responsive Schoolwide Approach to Student Behavior

This article was submitted to an online site but was not published. It happens. Now you can enjoy it here. Have a great summer! -Matt

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Every building has their issues with student behaviors and how to support kids who struggle socially and emotionally in school. We sometimes refer to these students as “frequent flyers” as they are repeat visitors to the office. The usual reasons include noncompliance, disruption, disrespect, and physical aggression, at least at the elementary level.

Schools that focus on responsive language, common expectations, and a coherent approach to addressing behaviors usually experience success with 80% – 85% of the student body. So what about the 15% who need additional support? It’s easy to administer consequences that stop these behaviors in the short term: Detention, suspensions, even police referrals. But these are not strategies that help students over time. They are quick fixes but do not address the root of the problems that students are experiencing.

Here are four strategies our school has found to be effective for our students with the highest needs. They are not prescriptive. Schools should make informed, professional judgments about which approach(es) might best address the situation.

  • Quality Classroom Instruction

This is sometimes the elephant in the (class)room. In the case of a poor teacher, a student might be acting out because they are bored or they do not have a good relationship with the adult. It falls back on not having high expectations and/or not taking the time to build trust and a community with the students. This requires that the principal be in the classroom more often, offering coaching and feedback to improve instruction.

Also a factor in classroom instruction is how a school places students into classrooms the prior spring. My predecessor started a process where every teacher notes the level of academic and behavioral support each student needs. This is communicated with next year’s teachers, who then place students so there is a mix of high, medium, and low needs in both areas across the grade level. Of course, this is a challenge with smaller schools.

To help monitor classroom instruction, we ask all staff members to complete an office discipline referral form in the situation of a student misbehavior. This form is not a “write up” or similar documentation that treats the student as a problem to be fixed. Staff are instructed that this referral form is a data collection tool to help us find patterns and trends in a student’s behaviors if it becomes an ongoing issue. There are consequences for student’s negative choices, but they usually only address behaviors in the short term.

  •  Family Communication

If the instruction is of high quality and the general level of classroom community is strong, yet a student still struggles with behaviors, we have found that frequent family communication is key to seeing improvements. (We use the term “family” instead of  “parent” because we have such a wide range of home situations where a parent is not necessarily the primary guardian.)

This isn’t simply a note going home anytime a student has a bad day. For students who fall in that 15%, families need regular feedback about how school went for their child. It should be objective and related to a student’s goals for improving behaviors. One approach we have found effective is Check in-Check Out. This is borne out of the Positive Behavior Intervention and Support system. It involves the student checking in and checking out with an adult in the building about how their days are going with regard to their goals.

Students receive ratings for every part of the day on their performance regarding areas they need to improve upon. This data is put into software to see how students are faring over time. Staff and families can monitor how the child is progressing. Once students meet a certain threshold for success, such as an 80% success rate, they are exited out of the program.

  • Relationship Building

Dr. Bruce Perry said it well: “Relationships are the agents of change.” All of the feedback and structure we might provide will not be successful in the long term for our students with the most needs without a caring person who they can trust in their life. Relationships are the foundation in which all other successes are built, both academically and socially/emotionally.

Going back to Check In-Check Out, we have found that it is this scheduled time with an adult who shows interest in and listens to the student to be the largest factor in improved behaviors and school performance. When a student is doing well, the adult celebrates their efforts that led to their success. When a student is having an off day, the adult is taught to inquire about why he or she is struggling. They also help the student connect where they have been successful during the day to the situations with less success. The hope is the student will start to generalize these positive habits of mind to all areas.

Relationship building has become a part of our acknowledgment system when noticing positive behaviors during the school day. In our school, students receive paw prints (our mascot is the bulldog) at unexpected times when they display expected behavior in sometimes problematic areas of the school. Instead of trinkets or prizes, students can bank these paw prints to have lunch and play a board game with the counselor or principal, help the custodian scuff out black marks, or work with the library aide to check in and reshelve books. As they work and play with the adults, a relationship is developed beyond the formal student-teacher connection that often occurs in schools.

  • Personalized Behavior Plans

For those few students who do not respond to interventions and supports limited in duration and intensity, a school services team needs to come together and decide how to address an ongoing, chronic situation where a student is losing valuable instructional time and even preventing the teacher from being successful in his or her classroom. Although each child is different, most of these issues are either a) an outcome of a child’s home environment, or b) a mental health issue that is not being adequately treated.

We usually administer a functional behavioral analysis when beginning the development of a plan. This assessment helps determine why a student is acting the way they are, when and where this is usually happening, and what happens before and after the behaviors occur. It gives a school team more specific information about how to design an approach for this student to help him or her experience more success at school.

These plans detail the goals for the students, describe how often the team will reassess growth, and offer specific strategies that both the family and educators can utilize to help this student now and in the future. Strategies we have found successful in the past include: frequent breaks, scheduled opportunities for movement, fidgets and other sensory tools, regular counseling, outpatient therapy facilitated within the schoolhouse, and individualized instruction regarding acceptable choices. Students are involved in every step of this plan development to help ensure buy in and a sense of ownership.

If all else fails…

If a student has not experienced long term success after a considerable amount of time, effort and supports have been provided and implemented, we know within reason that a student is going to need more accommodations than what is currently available within the regular education programming. At this point we might look at a special education referral for an emotional or behavioral disability, hopefully with parents in agreement.

Having a system in place that creates consistency with instruction and is flexible enough to accommodate a student’s needs allows for a school to properly address almost any situation in the building. In the end, a student will receive what they need. It’s a matter of determining what that need is and monitoring progress of the implementation of the intervention and other supports. The ultimate goal is to help every child be able to experience and build upon success as well as see themselves as a learner.

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Suggestions for a First Year Principal (from a veteran principal who remembers)

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Below is an article I wrote for the Association of Wisconsin School Administrators (AWSA). Click here to view the original source. If you have additional suggestions for first year principals, please post them in the comments.

I didn’t think I would write something like this, a list of strategies for new building administrators. Who am I to make suggestions?

Yet here they are. So what changed? First, I have been a school principal, either as an assistant principal at the secondary level or as the head principal at an elementary school, longer than I was a teacher. Second, I was the on-site supervisor for two building staff members pursuing their own administrative license. Third, I was asked. In this article, I’ll do my best to come across as experienced instead of an expert.

Get to know your staff

You only get your first year to make a positive impression with faculty. Don’t waste it. When I was hired for my current position as principal at Howe Elementary School in Wisconsin Rapids, I invited everyone to a building listening session. This took place in the late summer in our LMC. I asked thought-provoking questions such as “What do you most enjoy about teaching at Howe?”. The staff provided their honest responses. I wrote down what they had to share on a whiteboard to show that I was listening and would take their input seriously.

Once the school year started, I hired a floating substitute teacher for two days so I could meet with each faculty member individually. No strings attached – we just had a conversation about their personal and professional goals. You glean a lot from these conversations if you listen with intention.

Revisit and review your school crisis plan

As a principal, your number one job is not to ensure students achieve at high levels. That is your teachers’ and students’ jobs. Your number one job is to ensure a safe learning environment that will allow for this learning to occur. Before the school year starts, go over your school’s crisis plan. Check to make sure it is aligned with district expectations. Share your revised plan with administrative colleagues for feedback.

Once ready, present it at a staff meeting, going over it line by line. We try to keep our plan no longer than two pages, including graphics. This plan should be revisited throughout the school year with inclement weather and school safety drills. There are lots of areas where the school leader can acquiesce responsibilities. The crisis plan is not one of them.

Examine your beliefs about instruction

Your school probably has a mission, a vision, or both. That’s fine. They are also not worth the paper they are printed on if they are not realized in the daily instruction that occurs in your classrooms. Examining your beliefs about instruction is a collaborative process of determining what you value as a professional educator and how they align with everyone else’s beliefs.

Our school has used resources such as Regie Routman’s book Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Success (ASCD, 2014) for this annual activity. Faculty read twenty statements about reading and writing that are either aligned with best practice, or contrary to them. An example would be “Grammar should not be taught in isolation.” We selected “agree” or “disagree” for each statement in a Google Form, and then analyzed the results. After discussion and debriefing, we own those beliefs that we unanimously found common ground on, which are then visibly posted in school.

Visit classrooms daily

It has been said that what gets measured, gets done. I would expand on that statement with, “What gets recognized, gets done well.” This acknowledgment can only happen when we witness quality instruction in person. We can have all of the data walls and progress monitoring we want, but if we are not seeing the learning with our own eyes, we may be focused only on the outcomes, instead of the context and process where learning takes place.

Visiting classrooms shouldn’t be an event. In the beginning of the year, I let all staff know that I will be in their classrooms on a regular basis and without invitation. If someone shares concerns, I’ll reinforce that I am looking to document positive actions in their classrooms based on our shared beliefs. Often I will write a simple narrative of what I observed along with thoughtful questions. Sometimes I’ll take a picture of powerful practice in action with my smart phone, annotate it with feedback using the app Skitch, and then email it to the teacher while I am still in the classroom. I’ll also save this information as artifacts within Evernote, a productivity app.

Read widely

Anytime I hear an administrator say, “I just don’t have time to read”, I think about how their students or staff might react if they heard him or her say that in their presence. Reading widely means going beyond the educational resources and board minutes you might receive in your mailbox at school. While those are important, principals should also be reading books students are reading, leadership journals, local and national newspapers, excellent blogs and websites, current research on education, and of course fiction. We are smarter people when we draw upon a more diverse set of ideas and opinions.

What about when? Here are just a few of the places where I have been “caught” reading:

  • On the way to and leaving school, via audiobooks on CD or my smartphone
  • In the cafeteria while kids are eating breakfast or lunch
  • During your own lunch
  • With a group of colleagues in an online or in-person book club
  • On special days, such as the Scholastic Principal Challenge
  • In classrooms, reading aloud a favorite story from your own days of teaching

Not only do we become more knowledgeable leaders, we also model the most foundational skill that we promote in our schools.

This list is not exhaustive. Connect with your new colleagues in your district and online to make your first year an excellent one for you and your school.