A Principal's Reflections

Reflections on teaching, learning, and leadership.
  1. There are many factors that inhibit change. In some cases, comfort is the enemy of growth. We teach the way we were taught or lead the way we were led. Now I am not saying that this is bad per se, but the bottom line is whether or not the practice is effective. The same could be said for the status quo. Doing what we have always done might seem like a sound path forward if the results you are judged on are good or increasing. Herein lies one of the most prominent challenges schools and educators face, and that is perceived success based on traditional metrics and methodologies. 

    Achievement is great, but it is one piece of the puzzle. How the structure and function of a learning culture lead to improvements in achievement and outcomes is where change efforts should be focused. This leads to the point of my post. Where is your learning culture? Think about this question in the context of the world where your learners will need to thrive and survive. Will they have not just the skills, but the competencies to succeed in a world that is in constant flux? 


    New jobs and fields require learners to be both dynamic thinkers and doers where they have the competence to think in complex ways and to readily apply the knowledge and skills they have acquired. Even when confronted with perplexing unknowns, learners can use extensive experience and expertise to create solutions and take action that further develops their skills and knowledge. As I have written in the past, we are well into the 4th Industrial Revolution characterized by automation, advanced robotics, artificial intelligence, and disruptive innovation. Seismic shifts in the society and the world of work compel us to take a critical lens to our practice, as improvement is a never-ending endeavor.

    So how do we begin to transform culture? The journey starts with being honest about where you are in order to chart a path forward to get to the place you want to be. Reflection is a powerful tool for growth. Take a look at the image below and reflect on it for a minute or two.

    Image credit: Awaken Group Revolutions

    Where does the culture of your school fit into these categories, and why? Think about what needs to happen to make needed shifts to practice that aligns with the 4th Industrial Revolution. Success, in terms of achievement only, can, at times, be a mirage. A learning culture should best prepare kids to meet the demands inherent in the new world of work. The first leg of the process is being honest about where you are.
  2. Most educators desire meaningful feedback that can be used as a catalyst for growth. When it comes to improving learning, criticism will rarely, if ever at all, lead to changes to professional practice. Here is the main difference between the two:
    Feedback - information about reactions to a product, a person's performance of a task, etc., used as a basis for improvement.

    Criticism - the expression of disapproval of someone or something based on perceived faults or mistakes.
    As you reflect on the two definitions above, what pathway would you prefer? Successful feedback lies in a variety of factors such as delivery in a timely manner, detailing practical or specific strategies for improvement, ensuring the delivery is positive, consistently providing it, and at times choosing the right medium to convey the message. However, one of the most important considerations is to ensure that a two-way conversation takes place where there is a dialogue, not a monologue. Virtually no educator wants to have suggestions dictated to him or her.

    A recent coaching visit with Corinth Elementary School placed me in a position to model all of the above. Over the course of the year, I have been working with the district on building pedagogical capacity both with and without technology. After visiting numerous classrooms, I met with a grade-level team and the administrators to facilitate a dialogue as part of a more meaningful feedback conversation. Instead of just telling them what I saw and thought, I instead had them pair up and discuss their lessons using the following question prompts:

    • How do you think the lesson or activity went?
    • What would you have done differently?

    The point here was for them to begin to reflect on both the positive outcomes as well as the challenges that might have been experienced. Lasting improvement comes from our own realizations as to what can be done to grow and improve rather than just being told. After some volunteers shared how they thought the lesson went, I then challenged them with the following questions to facilitate a more in-depth analysis of the effectiveness of the lesson from their lens:

    • How do you know your kids learned?
    • Where was the level of thinking?
    • How did kids apply their thinking in relevant and meaningful ways?
    • How did you push all kids regardless of where they were?
    • What role did technology have in the process?
    • What accountability structures were put in place?
    • What do you think your kids thought of the lesson?


    These questions really got both the teachers and administrators in the room to think more critically about whether or not the lesson or activity achieved the desired outcome in relation to the aligned goal. What was powerful from my seat was that most of the feedback I had written down didn't have to be delivered verbally by me as the educators offered it up themselves upon critical analysis of their lessons. This is not to say that I didn't add more detail or provide specific strategies to improve. I most certainly did, but the culture that was created through the use of all the above questions was more empowering and designed to impart a great sense of ownership amongst everyone present.

    Whether peer to peer or from a supervisory position, engage in a collaborative dialogue during any feedback conversation. Then provide time to process, further reflect, and develop action steps for improvement. I hope you find the questions in this post as useful as I have.
  3. No matter your position in education, you have gone through some form of professional development. In many cases, the act of being “developed” comes in a variety of standard types such as workshops, mandated PD days, presentations, conferences, book studies, or keynotes. Many of these are often the one and done variety or conducted in a drive-by manner. Now, don’t get me wrong; some educators find value in the experiences I have outlined above and have gone on to change their respective practice for the better. However, I would say an equal amount have found little to no benefit. The bottom line is that all educators yearn for quality professional learning as opposed to development that leads to sustained improvements in teaching, learning, and leadership. The image below from Katie Martin sums up nicely what educators want out of professional learning. 



    So where is the disconnect when looking at the typical professional development offerings? Some recent research provides great insight into this issue (Darling et al., 2017):
    Research has noted that many professional development initiatives appear ineffective in supporting changes in teachers’ practices and student learning. Accordingly, we set out to discover the features of effective professional development. We define effective PD as structured professional learning that results in changes to teacher practices and improvements in student learning outcomes. Through a review of 35 studies, we found seven widely shared features of effective professional development. Such professional development:
    1. Is content focused
    2. Incorporates active learning, utilizing adult learning theory
    3. Supports collaboration, typically in job-embedded contexts
    4. Uses models and modeling of effective practice
    5. Provides coaching and expert support
    6. Offers opportunities for feedback and reflection
    7. Is of sustained duration 
    The same focus areas listed above apply to people in leadership positions just as much as teachers, as supported by research. Leaders need consistent support and feedback on all aspects of the position to continually grow and improve, but the most emphasis should be on issues related to instructional leadership that leads to pedagogical change.

    Over the years, I have been blessed to be a part of several long-term professional learning projects in schools and districts across the United States. Even though each project is different, each contains an assortment of classroom observations, strategic planning, coaching, and loads of feedback. Through each experience, I open myself to learn, unlearn, and relearn with the educators that I am working with shoulder to shoulder in the trenches. Below are a few lessons learned.

    Model what you expect

    Adult learners don’t like to be spoken at. Many want to see what a strategy actually looks like in practice and then have the time to apply it. The also really want to see how it can be successfully implanted when aligned with the realities they face. A focus on the why might get educators all excited, but that typically fades when they need more of the how in terms of what the strategy actually looks like in practice. After you model, give people time to apply what they have learned.

    Share exemplars

    I am always asked for examples of innovative practices in action and what they look like at various grade levels. It is important for many educators to see success through the lens of their peers. By doing so, the task of change becomes more doable in the eyes of those engaged in the professional learning experience. Thanks to being in different schools each week, I have been able to curate so many artifacts that are then used to help others see how a strategy or idea has been implemented successfully (especially from Wells Elementary). Once an exemplar is shared, give educators time to reflect and then plan their activities.

    Feedback and more feedback 

    Virtually every educator wants feedback, and when delivered the right way, it can lead to powerful improvements to practice. When it comes to ongoing support in the form of job-embedded coaching, timeliness and specificity are critical in the eyes of the receiver. During year two of my continuing work with Wells Elementary, the administrative team asked me to develop videos for each grade level. For example, after conducting walk-throughs of all third-grade teachers time was built into the schedule for me to create a video emphasizing commendations and areas for growth. By the end of the day, six different videos were reviewed by the teachers during grade-level meetings. The goal was then to act on the feedback prior to my next visit.  Always make time for feedback.

    Get Creative 

    Doing the same old thing the same old way becomes boring not only for those engaged in professional learning but also for the facilitator. That’s why I am always open to ideas from the schools and districts I work with to spice it up. Recently Cheryl Fisher, the principal of Wells Elementary, asked me to create a scavenger hunt. I am so glad she did, as it was a huge success. Here is some more context. The school opened up three years ago, and I have been engaged with them since the beginning.

    In an effort to differentiate on this particular day, I was to work with all first-year teachers. After a hands-on workshop with time to reflect and apply what had been learned, I sent them all on a digital scavenger hunt using Goosechase. Several missions were developed where they had to go find evidence of the practice being implemented by one of their peers. Not only did they have a blast, but also we were all able to see how innovative methods have become the standard at this school. Getting creative with professional learning will take a little time on your part, but in the end, it is worth it.

    Add some personalization

    There is nothing better in my opinion than putting teachers and administrators in charge of their professional learning. I see personalization as a move from “what” to “who” to emphasize a shift to ownership on the part of the educator. For example, I have been working this year with the Corinth School District in Mississippi in a job-embedded coaching role. After spending an entire day visiting classrooms and providing feedback, I then empowered the teachers and administrators to collaboratively plan out their next day with me based on agreed focus areas.

    When I was the principal at New Milford High School, I created the Professional Growth Period (PGP). By giving my teachers time during the school day, I let them choose their own path and pace to work on innovative practices. Feedback on what they had accomplished was provided at each end of year conference. In the end, I gave up my time to cover duties, so my teachers could learn.

    Time 

    Time is critical to success, no matter what professional learning pathway is pursued. As you think about what you want to accomplish in your school, organization, or district, think carefully about how time will be provided. As you have seen above, time is a crucial element in each strategy above.

    When it comes to professional learning, either advocate for what you feel you need and deserve, or work to create the types of experiences that educators will find value in.

    Darling-Hammond, L., Hyler, M. E., Gardner, M., & Espinoza, D. (2017). Effective teacher professional development. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute.
  4. It seems like ages ago that I was taking courses to become a teacher at East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania. My professors were huge proponents of the Instructional Theory into Practice (ITIP) model developed by Madeline Hunter. Thus, once I had a classroom of my own, I implemented what I was taught to create effective lessons. Virtually all of the facets of the ITIP model still have value today, although by no means do all seven steps have to be a part of every lesson. I will say though, that in addition to closure, the inclusion of an anticipatory set is of utmost importance. Below is a description of the strategy:
    Anticipatory set is used to prepare students for the lesson by setting the students' minds for instruction. This is achieved by asking a question or making statements to pique interest, create mental images, review information, focus student attention, and initiate the learning process. 


    The first couple minutes of every lesson is critical to its success, and a pedagogically sound anticipatory set that meets the criteria outlined in the picture above is well worth the time when it comes to planning lessons. I get the fact that some educators might question the validity of this strategy that dates back to the 1960s. It is also understandable to have concerns when considering the demands that some districts place on getting through the curriculum, so kids are ready for standardized tests.

    The fact remains that anticipatory sets not only matter for the reasons already outlined above but also for the fact that inclusion in lessons is supported by research. Jennifer Gonzalez highlighted four separate pieces of research that link to achievement gains. I encourage you to read the entire post as she not only highlights research but also provides some examples and creation tips.

    Creating an anticipatory set is not labor-intensive. During some recent coaching visits with the Corinth School District in Mississippi, I was able to observe two great examples. In an elementary classroom as class started the kids responded to the following prompt during an ELA block – “If you could be any animal, what would you be and why?” In a middle school classroom, a teacher used a picture prompt, which you can see below.


    Anticipatory sets should not be a time sap when it comes to planning. Below are just a few quick ideas that can be implemented quickly:

    • Picture prompt
    • Real-world problem of the day
    • Current event or personal story
    • Open-ended writing prompt that sparks inquiry and creativity
    • Riddle
    • Short, engaging video followed by a turn and talk
    • Sensory exploration 

    Be sure to take advantage of the opening minutes of each class. Starting lessons off with a bang not only makes sense but will pay dividends both in and out of class.
  5. It’s no secret that great cultures bring out the best in people and in turn, this leads to systemwide success. Success is a fickle thing, though. There might be specific indicators that are used to quantify whether an organization is good or even great, but there is no set recipe that I know of as to how to accomplish this feat. What I do know is that it is not the result of one person or department. When change happens and leads to improved outcomes, it is the result of the collective. One person, however, can be the catalyst for this type of change through a variety of strategies that empower the masses to be more than they feel they can be. Lolly Daskal outlines eight realistic ways to bring out the best in people you either work with or serve.

    1. Appraise them carefully
    2. Model the way
    3. Believe in their success
    4. Provide feedback
    5. Give them power
    6. Offer public praise
    7. Give autonomy
    8. Lead from within


    The above advice is spot on and can serve both teachers with their students and administrators with their staff. Each strategy leads into some much more significant elements of school culture. Thus, I decided to create an acronym that outlines how to bring out the best in others.

    Belief
    Empathy
    Selflessness
    Trust

    Belief is a superpower, in my opinion. Empowering others to believe in something bigger than themselves leads to the embracement of new ideas and strategies. Without it, the chances of implementing and sustaining change are net to zero. Belief in our learners also goes a long way to getting them to willingly engage in more challenging thinking and application of learning.

    Empathy means, quite simply, showing to others that you genuinely understand what they are going through. It is vital for us to imagine ourselves in the position of our students, staff, and community members. This gives us a better perspective on the challenges and feelings of those we are tasked to serve. Better, more informed decisions can result from “walking in the shoes” of those who will be most impacted by the choices that we make. A culture of excellence is created through relationships built on trust and sustained through empathy.

    Selflessness means putting others before yourself through both talk and actions. It is about helping those around us or within our care and not looking for any type of favor to be returned or recognition. The messages sent through selfless behaviors build people up in more ways than you will ever know. By selflessly serving others, a culture of respect and admiration will be created. Even if you are in a position to hold others accountable, remember that you are just as accountable to them. Selfish behaviors, on the other hand, do everything but bring out the best in others. Nobody is willing to give themselves up or work harder for someone who is only about themselves.

    Trust might be the most critical element when it comes to bringing out the best in others. In the words of Brian Racy, “The glue that holds all relationships together — including the relationship between the leader and the led — is trust, and trust is based on integrity.” Without trust, there is no relationship. If there is no relationship, no real learning or change will occur. It is critical to reflect on how we not only improve but also develop trust in and with the people with whom we work.

    As you reflect on your role as either an administrator or teacher, think about how your actions bring out the best in staff and students respectively. More importantly, where is there an opportunity for growth?