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!

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Consider the opposite

As I worked to plan and prepare for the changes I wanted in my classroom, I started a list.  That list is now dangerous!

The list began as a way to track the changes I wanted to consider.  As I added items to the list, I wrote down a few that surprised me!  Do I really want to consider adding, "snack time - anytime?"  Do I really want to consider, "Shoes OFF - Anytime?"

The list also included somethings that I might need to reconsider.  Way back in the 19XX's, I quit Accelerated Reader and Spelling tests.  Should I give them another chance?

There are also certain things that I can't seem to muster up the courage to reconsider.  For example, basal readers in 4th grade have been poor instructional resources for as long as I have been a teacher.  Too many kids simply can't read it.  It goes against the work of so many literacy experts.  I have never heard a class full of students say, "I can't wait to get back into my textbook!"  Perhaps it is not courage that keeps me from adding the textbook to my Reconsider List.  Some things really do need to be left off my list forever.

As teachers, we are regularly told what needs to happen in our classrooms and within our job descriptions.  We also get varying amounts of liberty to change things as we see fit.  As we all know, there are numerous procedures and processes in our classroom that we plan and implement.  Many of these things are seemingly written in stone because we have done them a certain way for so long or we whole-heartedly believe we do it the best possible way.

After awhile, we may simply continue with the same thing because it works.  Why change something that works!  We have enough to do!

What can I learn by considering the opposite?  I am in the process of noticing when kids moan, groan, or roll their eyes about something.  When I see it, I write it on my list of things to consider the opposite.  I wonder what I'll learn from such things???

Monday, January 6, 2020

The perfect time to make changes

I spent time in my classroom over the holiday.

A  few hours over the break make things easier for weeks to come.  Sure, I'd prefer to be at home doing something with my family!  But the hours in my classroom will save me many more hours later on.  More importantly, I am getting ready for several changes that will initiate on Tuesday when my kids come back to school.

Yes, I am changing things up!  Why?  Because I believe the changes will improve student learning in my classroom.  Simple.

I waited until now to make several of the changes.  I needed a little time without the pressure of being ready for tomorrow/next week/the next meeting.  I waited so that I could make them happen with a better chance of success.  Teachers know this.  We wait for the right time to make a change.  We wait until we can adequately prepare for the change.  We also try to choose a time when the change will cause the least amount of disruption to our students.

Many years ago, I found myself stating, "I can't wait until next year to start ______!"  Fill in the blank with numerous improvements.  The idea of waiting until the next school year seemed silly.  If the improvement is worth doing, why wait?

Really... teachers make changes ALL THE TIME.  We constantly tweak/shift/add/drop/change stuff in our daily routine.  We also learn and get better throughout the year, so we do things better. 

One of my bedrock beliefs for school leaders is to clear paths for teachers.  How can you clear a path and ask teachers to start something new at the same time?  Every new thing deserves a little thought and a little talk with this question in mind.  If your new thing clears a path and makes things better, do it immediately!  If the new thing begins with a slightly fuller plate for teachers, but quickly lightens and makes things better, don't wait until next year.  If the new thing makes a significant improvement to learning and teaching, don't wait until next year.

A few years ago, I was the principal at a school with a master calendar that was built for 5th grade teachers in a manner that supposedly helped the kids have the best opportunity to pass the state test.  Unfortunately, the Kinder and 1st grade students had their large learning block in the afternoon and the 2nd graders had a schedule that required every subject to be broken by lunch, specials, and recess.

The master schedule needed to change.  It needed to be better.  Several teachers got together and created a master schedule that gave our youngest learners better blocks of learning throughout the day, and especially each morning.  The 5th graders still had a solid schedule that supported minimal interruptions to their learning.  We changed our master schedule in October. 

Some teachers were worried that their students wouldn't adapt easily.  They asked if we could wait until next year.  Kids adapt more easily than adults to almost any change.  There were concerns that the new schedule would mess with parents who already had plans for appointments and lunches.  We began communicating the changes three weeks early.  Parents knew!

There were a few bumps on the first day, then everything normalized.  Overall, the new schedule was better.  The survey showed that the majority of teachers agreed that it was significantly better for learning across the campus.  I'm glad we didn't wait until the next year.

Principals notice things that can be improved all the time.  When you see something, choose the best time to make it happen and remember that next year is a long time away!