Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Cornfield Races and Other Things That Need Improvement

Imagine running a race down across a recently-harvested corn field.  Bumpy, lumpy rows of dirt and rocks, scattered with cornstalk pieces and random ears of corn.  This would definitely not be a place to hold a race.  No record times would be recorded and a few twisted ankles would most likely occur.   Unfortunately, your supervisor and your company require weekly measures of your performance in the plowed corn field dash.  They say this metric helps the overall measure of the organization.

Even though you realize that there is no meaningful purpose to run a race across a plowed-up corn field, you continue to run this race because it is mandatory.  You may complain to your coworkers, hopeless that things will get better.  Some folks might even mention the issues regarding the mandatory race to their supervisor, hoping to be heard.  A few brave souls make recommendations.

After enough of these seemingly meaningless runs, quite a few folks would stop trying.  Others would simply grit their teeth, go through the motions to finish, then go on with their lives as if nothing happened.  Many would find a reason to exempt themselves.  Pretty much everyone would continue to wonder why nothing is ever done to improve the race or end it altogether.

Every school has hundreds of little processes, procedures and protocols.  Very few of them are perfect.  Most of them work just fine.  They accomplish the purpose.  Many of them are like the cornfield race.

Potential improvements to the current processes, procedures, and protocols are plentiful on every campus.  Does your campus make tweaks or full-scale changes that improve processes on a regular basis?  Or, does your campus keep the status quo and only make changes during the summer?

In order to lead a teacher-centered campus, school leaders must address many of these on a regular basis.  Teachers want processes to improve and are usually willing to help with the improvement process.  As a former principal, There were very few days that I  did not hear a desired improvement from someone.

Sometimes, the reply was simple, "Great idea!  Would you like to take care of that or would you like me to take care of it?"  Sometimes the reply was, "Tell me more," or, "How will this be beneficial?" or, "Who else can sit down with us and talk about this more deeply?"  The easiest answer I gave was, "Yes!  I'll take care of it!"

There are tons of experts that will tell a leader to keep your head down and focus on your hedgehog concept.  Maintain a keen focus on the big rocks.  While I agree in so many ways, a school leader must address the cornfield races.  Minimize the bothersome practices that teachers must endure.  When teachers are clearly just jumping through hoops, make the situation better or make the hoop easier to jump through.  Don't ignore teacher's requests for improvement.

Whether the problem is like a grain of sand between the toes or it is a cornfield race, don't wait to make it better.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Visible and Available

Teacher-centered principals visit classrooms all the time.  They do so without doing official walkthroughs.  They visit without looking to coach or guide the teacher.  They visit to simply give praise and notice something good!  If the teaching and learning aren't exactly easy to praise, the principal can talk to kids.  Build relationships.  It only takes minutes!

A teacher-centered principal is available.  An open-door policy means that teacher can walk right in when the door is open.  The door doesn't always need to be open.  Close it when you need to.  Leave a note on your door stating why it is closed.  Teachers typically respect the amount of work principals do.

Being available also means making sure you are available before school each day.  Walking around the building before the tardy bell rings can do wonders for your visibility and your availability.  Likewise, walking around after dismissal does the same thing.  It doesn't need to be every day, but often enough for teachers to see you regularly for no specific reason at all.  It is tough when you need administrative support just a bit late and there never seems to be an administrator around.

Personally, I believe the principal should almost always arrive prior to anyone's morning duty each and every day.  If the first teachers hit their duty spots at 7:05 a.m., I believe the principal should be on campus by that time most days.  It is disheartening for teachers to see the campus administration rolling in after the official start time for all teachers.  Personally again, I believe the campus administration should stay extra late every now and then and walk around the building.  It is important to touch base with the teachers who stay late.

A teacher-centered principal also asks for feedback anonymously on a regular basis.  It is important to do so more often than the annual district survey.  Principals should ask often enough so that teachers believe that their input is valued.

Visible and available.

***  Also, teacher-centered principals make these things happen realistically.  If you are the last one on campus for a couple of evening events, give yourself some grace and sleep an extra 30 minutes.  If you need to leave once a week a few minutes early to see your own kid's basketball game, by all means go!  ***

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Walk the Talk

There are plenty of folks to tell us that the job of a campus administrator is to create a culture for teachers to thrive.  They tell us that the principal has the power to mold a school culture either positively or negatively.  An excellent school culture for teachers makes an excellent school for student learning.

"We do what is best for kids!"

This is definitely at the heart of what good schools do.  Successful principals spend a great deal of time doing what is best for teachers.  In a teacher-centered school, principals walk the talk.  The principal makes sure his/her actions match his/her words.

For example, if the school leadership spends time talking about engaging lessons, then every PD opportunity needs to model engagement.  Don't give teachers feedback about engagement levels in their classrooms if you don't ask them for feedback during your faculty meetings.

Another example, every time you interact with a kid in front of the staff, you are modeling how you want them treated.  Every time.  Sure, there may a few outliers that require a much more stern interaction.   The teachers know which kids are the outliers.

Also, teaching is not an eight-hour-day job.  Teachers are expected to get it "all" done regardless of how many hours it takes.  Principals need to model that willingness as well.  Sure, teachers and principals can take work home.  School leaders also need to model a willingness to occasionally stay late and support the teachers who stay at school after hours.  Principals should be one of the first ones in the door every day too.  Model your willingness to be there!

A final example, make your own personal learning and improvement efforts transparent.  Teachers are expected to get better throughout the year.  Learning and improvement is a never-ending process for teachers.  School leaders need to publicly share their learning and improvement efforts.   Share your goals.  Get their feedback.  Model your desire to improve and the work you put into it! 

If you say that your BIG ROCKS are higher-level thinking skills, kind and considerate children, and writing across the curriculum, be sure that pretty much everything you do touches on one of those rocks.  It can't be a big rock if you rarely address it.

A teacher-centered principal walks the talk.

Friday, January 31, 2020


I'm wearing jeans today.  It is a Friday.  It is jeans day.

In many schools, jeans are not professional enough to wear as a teacher unless it is a special occasion.

Jeans day.  Jeans pass.  Special jean allowance.  I wish I could wear jeans.  Did you see Ms. So-and-so...she is wearing jeans today!  Are you going to donate $5 so you can wear jeans next week?  Hurry up, Mr. Smith...if our whole team completes this task, we all get to wear jeans on Monday!  College t-shirt day means jeans!  The temperature is under 32 degrees which means jeans!  Holiday break jeans week!  Field trip = jeans.

With all of the millions of things teachers could be talking about, I am surprised at how often the topic of conversation turns to jeans.  It is almost funny that it is such a big deal.  Moreso, the fact that jeans are still an issue is silly.

My current district's dress code in the employee handbook is simple:

"An employee’s dress and grooming shall be clean, neat, in a manner appropriate for his or her assignment, and in accordance with any additional standards established by his or her supervisor and approved by the Superintendent."

It says nothing about jeans, but I don't know of a campus in this district that allows jeans, or better stated, I don't know of a campus in this district that has made jeans a non-issue.

Another local district is much more specific.  Their employee dress code has fourteen specific points for teachers to follow.  It spells out what can be worn and cannot be worn.  It also offers suggestions.  There are four, well-written exceptions to those fourteen rules too.  The best part of that dress code states that males are encouraged to wear ties, but dress shirts with turtlenecks are acceptable.  When was the last time you saw a male elementary teacher wearing a turtleneck in lieu of a tie!

Why are jeans an issue?  I ask this all the time.  I hear three answers the most:
1.  We should dress professionally.
2.  Better dressed teachers get more respect from students.
3.  It is a good way for the principal to build relationships

I'm an elementary guy.  I have spent three years at the middle school level, but most of my time has been in the lower grades.  I don't know a single teacher that doesn't plop down on the floor with kids.  I know lots of teachers who are constantly getting their hands dirty throughout the day with various learning activities.  Many teachers get through the 10,000 step barrier by 11:00 a.m.  Most elementary teachers are constantly getting down to eye level with their students.  I know that teachers are somewhat less-inclined to get down on the floor and get dirty during learning when they are dressed nicely.  Last week, I heard a teacher say, "I only do real science on Fridays with my jeans on."  This is only one person, but it isn't wholly untrue for many teachers.

I'm not sure who thinks that teachers wearing wrinkled khaki pants and tennies with a school t-shirt is any less professional than jeans with the exact same shirt and shoes.  I'm also not sure who thinks elementary kids are any less respectful due to the teacher's clothing.  I have yet to experience a teacher who can base the level of respect they get from their students on the clothes they wear.

Another consideration is the comfort level that some kids have with ties and jackets.  A few years ago, I sat down with a focus group of 4th and 5th graders.  I was asking their opinions on all kinds of school-related things.  I asked what they thought about the student dress code and the teacher dress code.  One student said that he was glad I didn't wear a tie like the old principal.  Most of the other students agreed.  I asked why.  Another student piped in, "Other than him, the only suits I have ever seen were at a funeral."  A third student said, "I don't actually know anyone that wears ties."

Do jeans passes and jeans days build relationships between teachers and principals?  I think not.  I have never heard a teacher say, "My respect for Principal Jones goes up every time I am allowed to wear jeans."  I have heard plenty of teachers say, "Good.  I can wear jenas tomorrow!"  That statement is never followed by, "Thank goodness for my awesome principal for this opportunity to make my attire more comfortable."  If the relationship-building logic made sense, wouldn't it build relationships even better if teachers could wear jeans anytime they wanted???

Part of the constant conversation about jeans makes me laugh.  If jeans are not professional, are teachers unprofessional on jeans day?  Are they less professional when they use a jeans pass on a Tuesday and everyone else is not wearing jeans?  If jeans are not professional enough, why do principals offer jeans passes at all?

Carrots.  Principals offer jeans passes as an incentive.  They know teachers will do a little extra for a jeans pass.  They sell jeans for work.  I bet there are some principals that wouldn't give a flip about teachers wearing jeans regularly if it didn't take away their biggest carrot!

Monday, January 27, 2020

Data meetings

Data meetings are not a new thing in education.  Assessments happen, data is collected, and folks analyze it.  Then what?  In the most simple of terms, data is collected for two primary reasons.  First, the state and the district collects data to measure a school.  Second, data is collected by campuses, teams, and/or teachers on various assessments in order to guide instruction.

Do principals want teachers to use data?  Of course!  Most teams have at least one or two data hounds.  They know how to find the desired data and they want to talk about using it to improve teaching and learning.  Let them!

Principals (and oftentimes, district folks) have certain data needs they want teachers to analyze and use.

Principals know that every team is different when it comes to data analysis.  Some teams will totally rock everything you ask them to do.  Other teams will struggle to analyze the same data.  Lots of teams merely go through the steps to comply with the principal's request. 

Principals, asking for compliance is not an issue.  If you need teachers to recognize their data and plan for teaching based on that data, it is perfectly OK to make them do it.  It is important to support fully support their data analysis.  This means different things for different teams and different teachers.  Regardless of the amount of support, there are a few guidelines that can help principals make decisions about data meetings.

1.  Do you give the data or do you expect them to find it and bring it to the meeting?
A fellow principal once used the old adage, "I want to teach them how to fish rather than give them a fish."  I understand the idea, but very few schools use data as daily meals.  Data analysis is typically like a trip to the grocery store.  A full cart of data can last awhile!  Don't ask teachers to gather their own data if you are going to facilitate the meeting.  Provide the data you want them to see.  Join them as they look at it.  When teachers are trying to gather the data you want them to look at, they are not doing other things that make their classrooms good places.  Is the purpose of your data meeting to teach them how to fish or is to facilitate meaningful usage of data?

2.  What is the purpose of your data meeting?
If your purpose is to allow teachers to analyze data and make a plan of action, be sure that is exactly what happens.  It is easy for data meeting leaders to get stuck on certain aspects of the data.  Sometimes, data clearly points out the things that need attention.  Usually, there are many things that need attention.  As the meeting facilitator, simplify your meeting purpose so that teachers can walk out of the meeting with some clearly-defined action steps.  Even better, they have a well-defined plan of action ready-to-go!  All too often, too much time is spent drilling deeper and deeper, so teachers are forced to hurry with the part of the meeting that is meant to plan for learning with the data that was just analyzed.  The most important part of the meeting to your teachers is the planning part!  Knowing the data and having no time to create a plan of action is wasted time.

Be sure you don't hijack a data meeting to take teachers down the district's ideas of important data.  If teachers need to hear that, it should be done at a faculty meeting as quickly as possible.  Teams should not be responsible for looking at their own data through a lens created for district-wide or campus-wide data analysis.  For example, if your district/campus needs to give attention to the reading growth for the Hispanic kids, don't spend the whole meeting discussing this.  Share the data, then let teachers plan for instruction.  Teachers do not make plans specifically for Hispanic kids.  They do make plans for small groups of kids who have specific learning targets.  Simply and quickly knowing that our metrics for Hispanic kids needs improvement is fine.  Making plans to teach/reteach based on the data is where the power of data meetings comes to life.

3.  How much data do you use?
The purpose of data is to measure our students' mastery of the curriculum.  Tests are not the entire picture of mastery.  Data is not the only measure that should be used.  Tests have bias and almost never accurately measure what you want them to measure.  Nevertheless, data meetings should be spent looking at data.  It is easy to get caught in a cycle of discussing all that is wrong with the test, the problems with the fire drill and the assembly right before the test, the poorly-designed reading unit of study that didn't prepare them for the test, or the other, numerous reasons the data isn't accurate.

Spend your time at data meetings analyzing data and making plans.  It is perfectly OK to explain that the data you are looking at is simply one, important piece of the puzzle.  Don't treat it like gospel.  Don't blow it off as meaningless.  What can you find in your data that will help kids show mastery?

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Team meetings and principal expectations

How often does your team meet?  Do you only meet when it is required?  Do you meet with the team members you see eye-to-eye with more often?  How productive is your time together?

A team is not a static enterprise.  It is a living breathing organism that ebbs and flows.  Every team has highs and lows, strengths and weaknesses.  Every team has successes and failures, leaders and followers.

A few years ago as principal, I facilitated a 2nd grade team meeting.  The purpose was to plan collaboratively with the district's new curriculum documents.  The district wisely invested in a solid written curriculum and spent a great deal of professional development time with the new documents.  Teachers needed to learn how to turn them into the taught curriculum.  I was excited and ready for the growth.  The team was anxiously willing and open to the new curriculum and wanted to make it happen.  They were not at all excited about my idea of collaborative planning.

The looks on their faces told their story.  Nevertheless, I pressed on.  For that meeting and several more.  In order to guarantee the written curriculum would be taught in every classroom, I wanted to stick with a protocol that required teams to discuss the learning targets for each unit and the method for students to prove mastery.  (Sounds like a PLC discussion, doesn't it?)

After a few meetings, one teacher approached me and asked me why I continued to hammer forward when the meetings weren't meeting the teachers needs.  I told her that I could easily see the frustration, but that we really needed to assure we were using the new, written curriculum with fidelity.  She nodded yes, and said, "But we are not talking about any learning at the lesson level, so is it actually making our instruction any better?"

Great question!  I turned it back around to her?  In her optimistic way, she agreed that it had forced her to really focus on the learning target rather than the activity.  She said that it also made her check to see if her activities were actually focused on the 2nd grade objectives.  Perfect!

But there was more truth to her words.  I was charged with ensuring that teachers were using the new, written curriculum in their classrooms.  I also needed their team meetings to be beneficial to them.  She told me they were not able to have the discussions they needed to have in order to design excellent learning activities for their classrooms.  Furthermore, she said they were so pressed for time, that they didn't want to meet any more.  They just wanted to take care of their own lesson preparations.

How could I do both?  How could I ask them to be true to the docs and give them time to take care of their team needs for successful classroom learning?

I found a way, although it was far from perfect.  But that is not the purpose of this story.  As their principal, I needed specific things from them.  They also had specific needs from their team meetings.  My needs were to grow the curriculum planning across campus.  They needed to talk about lessons.  As their principal, I listened and I tried to take a few steps back.  Again, it wasn't perfect, but it didn't make sense for me to command every team meeting.  They need to be productive in other ways too.  I needed to get out of their way as much as I needed them to use the new documents.

Now that I am a classroom teacher, I see things more clearly from both perspectives.

My advice to principals
Principals, unless your teams are a complete wreck, don't attend every team meeting.  This goes for the assistant principal and the instructional coach as well.  Give them some time without you.  Otherwise, every meeting is contrived and shallow.  They won't storm and norm.  They definitely won't perform.  Every team must find its relational pattern and learn to work together.  It won't happen if you are always present.  Another strange side effect is that they won't meet without you either.  I've had fellow principals say, "They can meet all they want without me."  They usually don't.  Especially if the team relationship is strained.  (If the team is really moving a grooving, they will insist that your instructional coach is part of the team)

Get feedback from your teachers about their team meetings.  Ask them what is working and what needs to be better.  Please don't do this by simply asking them during a team meeting.  You'll only get opinions from the teachers who already think they are on your good list or they are always willing to share their personal opinion.  You won't hear any truths from most teachers.  Ask individually or send a survey.  If you send a survey, share the results.  Be transparent.

Also, don't dictate an agenda for team meetings that gives teams no flexibility to meet their needs.  The second grade team I worked with was crushed under the expectation to focus on the learning targets every meeting.  They had other team needs that would make school better for kids!  If I had continuously pushed them to keep their entire focus on the learning targets, it would not have been pretty.  I had to clear the path for them to meet their own needs without giving up on the necessity to use the curriculum documents.

It is OK to ask for some type of team notes so that you are in the loop.  At another campus, years ago, I asked teams to submit their agenda for their team meetings at least one day prior to the meeting.  I would usually include an item from me that needed to be taken care of.  It was almost always related to the four questions that guide a PLC culture.  The purpose of the agenda was two-fold.  I wanted their meeting time to be intentional and I wanted to be able to ask good questions afterwards.  It was the best way I knew to hold them accountable for collaboration without commanding their time.

This is hard!
Considering all the teams I have been a part of over the years, many have been high-performing and many of them were much better teachers together than they would have been alone.  But finding the right administrative requirements while giving teams what they need is tough stuff for a principal.

I was lucky enough to work with one 3rd grade team that absolutely rocked their collaborative planning.  They started off like so many other teams and just met as the principal required.  After a few years, the team met almost every day.  They had purpose to every meeting.  They discussed learning targets and planned lessons collaboratively.  They looked at results and made improvements.  They also made sure that learning was engaging for kids.  I tried to shine some light on that bright spot for others to emulate.  But teams are made of individuals and relationships are always unique.  What works well for one team will not work exactly the same for the next team.  We can learn from the bright spots but it is hard to copy them!

Set your expectations and let teams do their own work.  If they don't know how to do it, show them what you expect, then gradually get out of the way.  Clear expectations are necessary.  The method of attack should be malleable.  Get feedback regularly.  Expose your bright spots.  Don't build barriers.  Clear paths for teachers to collaborate successfully!

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Planning time priority

As a principal, I tried to be cognizant of stealing planning times from teachers.  Cognizant doesn't mean that I followed the rules.  In Texas, in the simplest explanation possible, teachers must have:
  • 450 minutes of planning time every two weeks
  • during the instructional day
  • each planning time must be a minimum of 45 minutes.
This time shall not be infringed upon by the administration.  But it happens.  I did it as a principal.  It is almost impossible to get away from.

Many districts offer 50 minute planning times on a daily basis.  This means that one day every two weeks may be required for team meetings, learning sessions, or any other reason deemed by campus administration.  The remaining nine days give the teacher 450 minutes.  This is a lawful practice.  It is still hard to live by.

Years ago, as a principal, I required weekly team meetings.  I was unlawful.  I also did not work around holding ARD meetings and 504 meetings during conference times.  Unlawful.  And there were always several other things that required teacher attendance during their conference times.  I broke the rules.  

Undoubtedly, many teachers would rather do many of these things during their conference time instead of fulfilling the requirements after dismissal.  Legally, this is not a choice any teacher should consider.  Legally, teachers should be able to opt out of anything that does not follow the legal requirements.

This rarely happens.  I'd love to hear about a principal who has figured out how to lawfully honor teacher planning time in elementary school.  I know some principals are better than others.  I don't know any campus leaders who have been able to make this happen.

I know a lot of teachers who are more than frustrated by their lack of planning time.  A 2013 study found that teachers in the US spend a great deal more time actually teaching and they get less time to plan for instruction.  I am not saying we should be like any other country.  I am saying that other countries seem to value the importance of planning time more than this country.

What can school leaders do?
  • Ensure that your teachers have as much voice as possible in their planning time activity
  • Do not require meetings during planning time in order to communicate information that can be sent in writing
  • Do not require meetings during planning time for activities that you can do for the teachers.  For example, don't ask teachers to meet to verify student test codes or create class lists
  • Create schedules that extend planning time for team meetings.  Be creative with your specials schedule
  • If you attend required meetings during planning time, be sure to fully participate in the meeting.  Don't multi-task.  Don't be silent.  Be a part of the team or better yet, leave them alone sometimes.  If you are always present, the team cannot grow organically
  • Always consider the best possible way to clear the path for better lesson design during planning time.  Do not create barriers!