Tuesday, September 24, 2019

What I have learned since I returned to the classroom

As a teacher, years ago, I met a few administrators that needed a quick return to the classroom to see what it was like.  My teacher brain made me think that they had forgotten what it was like to be with students all day long.  The fact that those same people had actually walked in the shoes of a teacher at some point in their past didn't seem to matter too much.  Then I became a campus administrator.  And I am quite sure that teachers said the same thing about me.

I tried my best to put myself in the mindset of a teacher as I made campus decisions and took actions as a campus leader.  Even so, teachers probably said I had forgotten what it was like to be in a classroom all day long.  As much as I tried to think like a teacher, it just wasn't 100% possible.  I was a campus administrator with different responsibilities.

I realized that my job was different, but the idea of returning to the classroom stuck with me.  Could a successful principal return to the classroom?  Would a year or two teaching make me a better principal?  What if every principal spent a year in the classroom every five years?  These thoughts began to drive my belief that a campus administrator has two primary duties.

First, a principal must clear paths for teachers.  The principal must administer systems that support teaching and learning.  The principal must carefully choose what to add to a teacher's plate with minimal negative repercussions.  What things can simply be done for the teachers?  How can we protect planning time for teachers?  Principal's must ensure that teachers have clear information in a timely manner as much as possible.  Job #1 is to clear paths.

The second thing a principal must do is set the course for the continuous improvement of teaching and learning.  Professional learning should be at the top of the principal's priority.  Learning does not improve when we measure students.  Learning improves when teachers become better teachers based on those measurements.  Job #2 is to lead focused efforts that improve teaching and learning.

Three years ago, I started thinking about a return to the classroom.  While the primary reasons that drove my decision were not based on my need to see things from a teacher's perspective again, many things that a successful principal needs to do became abundantly clear.  Some of them, I get to pat myself on the back and say, "Good job, Me!"  Other things, I could've done better.  My thoughts about successfully clearing paths and leading professional learning efforts will be the topic of my writing.

I would love to hear your thoughts and opinions about these posts!

Friday, September 13, 2019

Writing again!

I haven't posted anything here in over a year.  I have written several articles during that time, but I chose not to publish them.  Sometimes, they went unfinished.  Sometimes, I couldn't find the right words.  Sometimes, I didn't publish them because I felt like the words I wrote were too negative.  I felt like I was constantly finding things that were not going well.  After fifteen long months of observation and introspection, I am ready to publish again.

After 23 years in the education biz, I changed districts for the fourth time.  I felt like I understood that things could be different and I would be able to handle any/all the differences between my new district and my previous employers.  How different could it be between neighboring districts of similar size and demographics?  I was wrong.  I wondered if my lack of understanding the rationale for the differences was perhaps a negative vibe that had found its way into my soul as an educator.  (It hasn't.  I simply stand firm in my belief that we should strive for better!)

For years, I felt like I ran through each day with optimism and hope for improvement.  I tackled problems positively and laughed through the successes and mistakes.  I tried to model forward-thinking and I tried to squash TWWADDI (That's the way we've always done it) mentality.

I looked back through several years of posts.  The overarching theme has been my deep seated belief that we can always improve what we do in education.  Sometimes I highlighted great things that I witnessed.  Sometimes I made observations about current realities.  My posts in 2017 and 2018 seemed to have a deeper feeling of frustration.  While writing can be a therapeutic means of reflection, I made a choice to stop publishing my pieces.  I didn't want to write my opinions without sufficient evidence.

It has been two years.  I am ready to publish again.  I am ready to note wonderful things that are happening in my world.  I am also ready to examine things that need to be better.  In this profession, like no other that I know, we struggle with systemic change and we don't learn from our neighbors.

It has also been two years since my return to the classroom.  I did some things really well as a principal.  I also had some glaring weaknesses.  Don't we all!  At this point, I can see what I would do better as a campus leader more clearly than ever before.

I am really looking forward to this writing endeavor! 

Friday, May 11, 2018

Test Time End-in-Mind

The big tests are next week for my kids.  Math is Monday and Reading is Tuesday.  I cannot guarantee that every one of my students will pass these tests.  In preparation for the tests, I cannot say that I have scientifically broken down the identified objectives and systematically formed small group learning activities to strengthen those objectives.  I have done this a little bit, but it has definitely not been the most important thing in our classroom.  I cannot say that I have focused the last three weeks on last-minute test preparation.  These tests are not the end-in-mind in my classroom.

I can tell you that my students talk about the things they read almost every day this year.  They analyzed good pieces of writing for author's purpose.  They made connections to their readings.  They wrote critically about the things they read.  They wrote their own pieces using author's tools and tricks they encountered and discussed.  In math, they collaborated to find solutions.  They solved problems multiple ways.  They proved their solutions were accurate.  Oh, and they did a TON of mental math.

How will they perform on the test?  They will be fine.  Some will do wonderfully.  All will try their best.  The kids who didn't pass the test last year may pass it this year.

Yes, I want them to do well!  I know each child wants to pass and do well.  Their families want them to do well.  The campus folks want them to pass (or better.)  The district wants them to pass or better.  The community wants the campus and district numbers to look good.  No one is cheering for mediocrity or worse.

However, ask anyone what they want from public school education and they never start with, "Great test scores."  They always talk about graduates that can solve problems, communicate well, and perform well on a team.

When the test comes around, take it seriously.  At all other times, keep your desired end in mind at the front of your lesson design!

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Are they students or authors?

Do your students know why they write?  Do they write because they are trying to communicate something, or do they write because you told them to do so?  The more I work to refine my writer's workshop for my 4th graders, the more I realize that it is challenging to keep writing authentic for all of my kids.  No matter the subject matter or the purpose for writing, it is contrived for some kids.

I don't believe that our little ones come to school without anything to write about.  I think that if every Kinder kid had a switch on their backs that could be flipped to, "I AM A WRITER," every one of them would begin to write voraciously.  Everyone one of them would love the opportunity to communicate.

I can imagine several of them thinking, "WAIT!  You mean there are TWO ways for me to tell my very important stories?!?!?!  I can use my voice AND my pencil?!?!?!  AWESOME!"

Then they get a little older and they get through a few years of writing lessons.  Some of these lessons may be great!  They may be excellent activities that allow kids to write for meaning to an important audience.  Many lessons are not so great.  Too often, we ask kids to write for the sake of a state-mandated or district-mandated reason.  We do this because they need to learn a certain writing objective.  We try to make that learning objective fit within their purpose for writing.  It doesn't work for all of them every time.  For some of them, it doesn't work very often.  Many of them become reluctant to write.  They are told what to write about and the purpose is minimalized or meaningless.  We give them feedback about their writing that makes it sound like it isn't good.  More reluctance.

Then they hit 4th grade.  The writing grade.  The writing test.  Panicky teachers get even further away from authentic, purpose-driven writing.  But more tragic, the test absolutely requires a ridiculous format.  The parameters are set up so that teachers must teach kids how to fit their writing into the little box the state asks for.  It is challenging to keep their writing authentic and engaging when the test will give each child and the school a score.

Even as I tried to ignore the test, there came a point where I had to focus on the format they would be expected to "write" for.  If there was no test, would my writing instruction be better?  Absolutely.

And the units of study I am expected to follow?  The written curriculum?  It is definitely a challenge to get it all in.  Really, it is impossible.  Sure, I could spend seven minutes on period usage, 13 minutes on Similes, and 2.5 minutes on the semi-colon.  That would just about cover it. 

Sean Cain, the author of The Fundamental Five, has data that shows it is better for student achievement when a teacher "gets it all in."  I believe his information specifically pertains to content subjects like science and social studies.  Regardless, too many teachers see all written curriculum objectives as checklists.  Cover it all!

Other researchers, like Mike Schmoker, have evidence that the most successful teachers totally simplify the written curriculum and focus all of their energy on providing students with multiple opportunities to write, read, discuss, and argue  They basically ignore the checklist of objectives.  They ignore the "written and guaranteed" curriculum.

If the language arts curriculum for the state of Texas was better, would my writing instruction be better?  Absolutely.

Regardless of the parameters, I make the plans for writing in my classroom.  I keep going back to the word authentic.  If I dictate what they write, is it really authentic?  Can I design a classroom where they want to write because they feel compelled to communicate through the written word?  Can I create classroom experiences that include experiences for students to prepare written arguments for important opinions?  Can my classroom compel kids to communicate their scientific findings?  Can my classroom be a place where kids write for the art of writing?

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

I swear they knew this stuff before Thanksgiving!

So you want the learners to learn what you want them to learn.  You have chosen your learning targets and you have designed learning activities to engage them.  You have taken the time to investigate what your learners already know so that you can build on their prior knowledge and experience.

Then you get started and it becomes clearly evident that the learners don't know what you thought they knew.  You ask questions for clarification and you realize they really don't get it.

So then what?

Sometimes educators make assumptions about the prior knowledge of their learners.  Sometimes we assume that just because a kid has finished 8th grade math, he is ready for algebra.  We frequently assume that our own class knows what they need to know from our own prior lesson.  We may even see data that tells us they know it!  More realistically, the data tells us that the kid knew the right thing on test day in the manner that it was tested.

So they don't know it now.

As a teacher, what do you do?  Undoubtedly, it is frustrating to work so hard "teaching" something, only to see that they don't know it at all later on down the line.  How do you handle the frustration?  Do you find fault in the students' work and their study habits, or do you look at your own work and determine what you can do better next time?  Do you bring out what you have already tried or do you go find new and better?

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Do you blame the parents?

For over 20 years, I have heard that children are less responsible now than they once were.  Shoot!  I am pretty sure I heard that I was less responsible than the kids who came before me!

Is the level of responsibility and self-reliance of kids declining?  Do kids perform fewer chores than they once did?  Are students less able to organize and maintain their "stuff" at school?  Can they find their own stuff?  Can they organize their own thinking?  Do they seem more helpless than a few years ago?

At school, teachers constantly create new and improved methods to keep the kids organized.  We want them to find their "stuff."  We want them to hold on to it until they need it again.  We want them to be responsible for it.  Binders and color-coded folders and labels and dividers and shelves and cubbies and trays and boxes and checklists and rubrics and agendas and planners and...on and on and on...  Some classes have ALL of those things.

Some kids can handle our systems of organization perfectly.  They do so every year, regardless of how the teachers differ in their approach.  Other kids are seemingly hopeless each year, regardless of how the teachers differ in their approach.  And variations in between.

Some kids keep a messy desk, have a messy backpack, they leave their lunch in the car at least once a week, and they never seem to get homework done.  Nothing gets signed and returned on time either.

Some kids have a tough time taking responsibility for their own choices.  They will try to blame others rather than looking at their own actions, "Little Glenn made me do it!"

Unorganized, or irresponsible, or always pointing a finger...who do you blame?

Some teachers look at the kids and blame the parents.  They say things like, "If parents did a better job at home, kids wouldn't be like that."

This statement may actually be true some of the time.  It doesn't matter.

Blaming anyone for a child's behavior is a waste of time.  Instead, look forward and focus your energies on teaching this child how to act in your classroom and in your school.  Teach the kid the behavior you seek.  It is OK to teach kids that there are a different set of rules and a different mindset for success at school.  Create a classroom that works for this student to be successful at school.

Or...deal with the status quo.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018


The things that absolutely must happen.  No matter how positive or negative, no matter whether or not they are value-added or worthless, and regardless of how well they are done... they must be done.

Some person or group made a decision to deem some thing... non-negotiable.  The decision-maker believes in that thing and wants to see it come to life and add value to the efforts of the district or campus.


A district I worked for a few years ago has a list of non-negotiables for elementary reading instruction.  It lists a handful of things that needed to happen every day, in every classroom. One of them states, "Every child writes every day."  To some teachers, it means that every kid develops original thoughts and puts them on paper.  To a few teachers, it means copying a poem.  Both are called writing.  One is not writing.  All of these teachers checked it off their "must do" lists.

Another school insists that every child practices and masters basic math facts through daily, five-minute practice.  It happens every day for every kid.  The results are quickly graded and recorded by non-classroom teachers.  It takes less than ten minutes a day and there is accountability for task completion.  Check it off the list.  Some teachers really use this practice to fills the learning gaps for kids who don't understand how the numbers work together.  Other teachers simply pass the sheets out, then collect them five minutes later.

Another school requires students to maintain Level Zero volume in the hallways.  There are signs everywhere that state the required volume level.  Teachers give numerous, daily reminders.  Many students walk through the halls holding up a ZERO sign.  The expectation is Level Zero.  This non-negotiable is clearly defined and well-understood by the teachers.  One would think that the students also fully understand the expectation.  The hallways are not silent.  The biggest volume in the hallways comes from teachers voices trying to get kids to hush.

Another district expects every student in certain grades to complete a science fair project.  The informational packet is sent home.  Teachers are given the discretion to choose how much control they take over the projects.  Some teachers simply send it home, then wait for the due date.  Other teachers manage the steps of the project throughout the process.  Some kids present projects that they created on their own.  Others present their mom's project.  And everything in between.

I can think of other school-related non-negotiables.  There are so many.  Some of them are etched in stone while others are simply understood.  Whether they are called non-negotiables, mandates, or "we wills"... they imply required compliance.

Non-negotiables define the necessary compliance.  They do not state the required knowledge or buy-in.  Those are intended to come later.  If everyone complies with the mandate, the practice will build knowledge and the results will garner buy-in...hopefully.

Because of that, they are often seen negatively by lots of folks.  Some folks even apologize for using the word, "non-negotiable."  Like it is a bad word.

A non-negotiable isn't a bad thing as long as it is communicated well, it adds value, and it is purpose-driven.

What is missing from the scenarios above to make them more successful?  What non-negotiables do you have in your classroom or your school that need improvement?  More importantly, are you encouraged to discuss your non-negotiables?

If doing these things is non-negotiable, doing them well should also be non-negotiable.  Talking about them should be required (non-negotiable.)