Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Dear Principal: Some things I need you to know...

Dear Principal,

I'm sure you are just as excited as I am for the upcoming school year. The summer has been full of learning for me and I am definitely recharged and ready to do this!

There are however some things I'd like you to know and some things I will need from you this school year. Please don't take this as me telling you how to do your job, as your job is very difficult and encompasses much that I probably don't understand. Please read this with an open-mind and remember that I love my job and I aim to do what's best for our students.

1). I'm planning to try some new things this year that I've learned this summer as well as just wasn't able to fit in last year.

I need you to understand that when I try these new things they may not go over well. There may be confusion in my classroom and it might just be a total disaster. But, I do promise to learn and improve from what I'm trying. Having said that, if you come in to do an observation and I'm trying something new, I need you to understand I'm taking a risk. And, just as we tell our students, it's OK to fail sometimes because that's an important part of the learning process.

2). If we are going to be gathered for a staff meeting, please do everything in your power to keep it positive and constructive. 

I know the hot trend now is to empower building staff and to allow them to run and control meetings in an effort to get buy-in and to get ownership in the process. I completely agree with this approach, but at the end of the day, you're our leader and I assume you were put in this position because you have a specific skill-set and expertise that allows you to move our building to consensus. Sometimes when teachers lead the meeting, not all voices are heard and the meeting can become disconnected and confrontational. We need you to be present and we need you to ensure this doesn't happen. Most people don't enjoy confrontation, so the idea that we will 'police' ourselves isn't always sound. There is nothing more frustrating than seeing a meeting high-jacked by a personal agenda while building administration sits by and does nothing.

3). If I make a mistake, please let me know. If someone else makes a mistake, please let them know and not me.

There's an epidemic in leadership that undermines the integrity of leaders all around the world. It's simple... don't reprimand and lecture everyone about a problem that you are having with only a few people. As Todd Whitaker would say, don't use the 'blanket monkey' to avoid dealing with those few individuals who are causing the problem. When you speak to the entire group about an issue, we all start to second guess ourselves and worry if you are talking to us. Do everyone a favor and increase the chances of eliminating the problem by going directly to the source. Your entire staff will appreciate this, I promise you.

4). Push me in my thinking and help me grow as an educator.

This is difficult for some people, but it comes with your job, so hopefully you can handle it. I need you to push back on my ideas and some of things I'm doing in my class. I need you to help me grow and develop as an educator. I need you to be an instructional leader in our building. Now, I'm not saying I want to be completely torn and ripped apart when I share an idea, but push me and question me and make me squirm just a little bit to justify my idea and approach. This will help flush out my true goals and objective and create clarity in what I'm trying to achieve. I might not like you at the moment, but I will respect you in the end.

5). We are all busy and we all have a full plate. Help keep my plate full of what matters most.

Yes, there are things you will be told we need to do from the 'higher-ups.' Yes, there are things we need to do to stay in compliance and stay legal. Yes, there are pieces of information and data you need to help in your decision making process. But, let's not forget why we are here and what our primary focus should be. Help me and others in our building to keep the focus on student learning. Avoid as much as possible asking us for mundane paperwork and menial tasks that steer us away from what our ultimate focus should be. We will need your protection and coorperation here because it's very easy to say it will only take a few moments. Each time we say it will take just a few moments a small puppy somewhere cries because we all know that nothing takes just a few moments. Also, all these 'few moments' tasks seem to pile up quite quickly.

Thanks for taking time to listen and please know we are all looking forward to a great and wonderful school year!

Thank you,

Your favorite teacher...

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

5 ways to boost creativity in your class

1). Find opportunities in your class that allow your students to be the lead learners.

Our kids come to school with a unique and different skill-set and far too often these wonderful abilities are suppressed under the weight of objectives and learning targets. What would happen if students were able to take their skills and build on the required objectives and learning targets? Better yet, what if students helped to come up with those objectives and learning targets? What if we allowed and encouraged our students to share their genius with others and join the ranks of teachers as facilitators of learning...?

via the Huffington Post
2). Do whatever you can to change up the learning space and get students to do things outside of the traditional classroom space. 

The learning spaces and environments that kids experience have huge implications on how they respond and what they are able to imagine. In a traditional four-walled classroom, students' creativity is limited and contained just like the classroom itself. Open up student minds by getting them outside and by getting them in different spaces. A cheap way to boost creativity is simply to keep the learning space fresh and unique.

3). Don't use rubrics for everything and don't tell students what the final objective is.

This might sound counter intuitive and against all typical teacher training programs, but far too often rubrics crush any level of creativity and when the final objective is outlined in the beginning there's no room for flexibility or variation. Let go and don't allow yourself to be consumed with how you are going to assess, grade, and how you are going to hold students accountable.

4). Encourage risk-taking and embrace failure.

When we tell kids it's not Ok to fail, we are telling them to never take risks and we are encouraging them to focus on playing it safe. Ironically enough, the biggest risk our students and even us educators can take is not taking any risks at all. Playing it safe is actually the most unsafe thing one can do, and it's in classrooms across the globe that we need to encourage kids to take risks. Naturally, these risks will result in failures, but it's in this process of risk-taking and failure that kids are able to take 'what is' and creatively think about 'what could be.'

5). Praise great questions over great answers.

The type of environment that breeds creativity is an environment where kids are free and encouraged to ask deep and thoughtful questions. Students are pushed to ask questions that have multiple answers and very rarely do these questions have a correct answer. When great questions are asked great opportunities for creativity quickly become possible. When students think they have an answer to a question, change things up by asking them 'what if...' and change a variable. Students in time will start to anticipate what questions will be asked which will open up their minds to a world of possibility.

Good luck in creating an oasis of creativity!

Monday, July 21, 2014

An open letter to educators

I write this post for all those who call themselves educators.

I write this post for superintendents and the schools boards for whom they work.

I write this post for both central office and building level administrators.

And finally, I write this post for teachers of all grade levels and all content areas.

There is a vicious epidemic that has been spreading and continues to spread unchecked across the globe. The achievement gap that is so often spoken of is merely a cover for what is really happening.

We don't have an achievement gap, we have an opportunity gap...

We have schools that are providing life-changing opportunities and experiences that others can't even fathom. We have kids who are doing work in their classes that is both impacting and affecting the world in which they live while other kids are doing worksheets from outdated textbooks about material and content they can't relate to.

There are kids who are being positioned to be game-changers in their respective parts of the world while others are being comfortably placed among the ranks of industry that is disappearing with skills that haven't been in demand in a decade.

The opportunity gap is widening at an accelerated pace during a time when technology and global connectedness are soaring.

Sure, it's easy to say that kids and their families have a choice as to which schools they attend. Families can move to different communities or choose to attend private or parochial schools that provide some of these wonderful before-mentioned opportunities.

But there's a reality that most know but seem to ignore.

Most families and students don't really have a choice as to where they reside and where they attend school. Communities are built around schools and more frequently than not, those schools who offer vast opportunities exist in communities that most can't afford. The 'haves' and 'have nots' legacy is deeply entrenched in education.

For educators, there are many variables that we can't control and as a result we must learn to work with and accept what we are presented.

This challenge can look very similar to an excuse and justification for why we can't or aren't able to do something.

I refuse to let what we can't control dictate what we can or can't do... and so should you.

When you go to school, fight for what our kids don't have. Fight for the opportunities that our kids can only dream of. Fight for the opportunities that our kids can't yet dream of. Fight to put an end to the opportunity gap and whatever you do, don't use it as an excuse.

Remember, the next time you hear about some school or district doing something amazing with their kids, keep in mind that the only thing preventing you from doing the same or preventing you from doing something better, is you...

Sunday, July 20, 2014

10 pieces of advice for new teachers

In just a few short weeks new teachers around the world will embark upon an exciting and crazy adventure. This adventure will surely have its fair share of ups and downs. In spite of that, this adventure will allow for countless opportunities to serve and positively impact current and future generations of students. This adventure will be like no other adventure...

Here are 10 pieces of advice I'd like to share with new teachers as they prepare for this adventure:

1). Strong student relationships will be your best friend. Get to know your students and get to know what makes them tick. Learn about their interests and hobbies and make sure they know you care about them. When students know you care about them, they will trust you. The strong relationships you create in the first few weeks of the school year will set the tone for the entire year.

2). Find time to go observe other teachers. Maybe this happens during your plan time or you work out some special arrangements with your building administrator, but going to observe other teachers teach will be very valuable for you. Also, don't just go and observe the teachers who you hear or think are good, go observe all types of teachers from all different content areas.

3). Don't be afraid to say, 'I don't know.' The people who always have an answer and the people who go to great lengths to make themselves sound smart or sound like they have every answer typically come off fake and insecure. You're new and it's ok not to know everything. Sometimes not knowing allows you to see things from a different and unique perspective which can be a positive. Embrace what you don't know.

4). Treat all students as if they were your students. Yes, of course you will have your own students, but at the end of the day all students are our students and they deserve to be treated as such. It takes a whole village and now you are a part of that village, so do your best to never say, 'those aren't my students.'

5). Plan for more and prepare for more than you think you need. When designing lessons and thinking about learning activities, it's often hard to know how long it may take. This is especially difficult for new teachers since in most instances they've never done that particular activity before. You'd rather have too much than not enough... but be careful and recognize that quality will always supersede quantity. This is especially true for student learning.

6). School districts are not employment agencies. In order words, you were selected to fill this teaching position because you bring a specific skill-set and/or expertise to the mix. Don't be shy to voice your opinion and don't by shy to speak your mind. You've got a set of experiences that others don't, so be sure you play an active role in what happens in your school and avoid being just be a spectator.

7). Look in the mirror before pointing your finger. Sure, there are things that will be out of your control and things that will happen that you can't control, but at the end of the day, there are more things that we can control than we can't. Additionally, when things don't happen like you want them to or think they should, it's a lot easier to change what you are doing than to get others to change. Lastly, it's quite empowering when you take responsibility for what happens rather than shifting the blame to others.

8). Be aware and be on the look out for 'that' group of teachers. Most folks are good at heart and want to help. Unfortunately that leaves a few folks who aren't always equally committed to helping and seeing others succeed. Similarly, there are some folks who appear to thrive in the presence of others' failures. This group will be attractive because they welcome new members, and they especially like new young teachers who don't know any different. You've been warned...

9). Say 'yes' more often than you say 'no,' but don't be afraid to say no. As a new person, you will have opportunities to be a part of committees and groups. You will also be asked to attend professional learning events. You may even be asked to pilot new programs or initiatives. This can really add up quickly in terms of time commitment but you can also learn a lot in the process. Get involved but also remember that there are only 24 hours in a day, so there may come a time when you have to say, 'no thank you.'

10). Take responsibility and ownership for sharpening your own saw. Sure, you will have some conference and learning events you can attend, but don't let your learning and growth be limited to what your school or district provide. There are so many informal learning opportunities available to you, so be sure to take advantage of them. When it comes to your learning and growth, you know yourself best and you know your needs best, so take control of your own learning.

Good luck and enjoy this wonderful adventure... we've been waiting for you!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Leadership: Dynamic vs. predictable

For me, leadership is one of the most complex and most exciting things to talk about and think about. I find leadership to be the eternal engine that keeps everything moving. Similarly, leadership appears to be the linchpin factor when it comes to organizations and structures that succeed and those that don't.

We all know the leader who is dynamic.

We all know the leader who is innovative and creative.

We all know the leader who bucks the system and pushes others beyond their borders.

We look up to this leader and respect their ability to take what is and turn it into what can be.

This type of leader is the type of leader we read about and hear about...

This type of leader plays big and wins big.

This type of leader also plays big and loses big.

Knowing that, I recently read an article titled, 'The Boring Trait Google Looks for in its Leaders.'

Naturally the title of the article attracted my interest, but it wasn't until I started reading the article that I really became interested.

The premise of the article is that leaders who are 'predictable' are those who create the most effective and most productive work environments.

This seemed to fly in the face of everything I thought about leadership.

How could someone who was predictable be a good leader?

When did 'boring' and 'dull' become leadership qualities that we would hope to obtain?

I then started to think about it and the more I thought about it the more it made sense.

So, think about those leaders with whom you work.

Think about your own leadership capacity and leadership philosophy.

Can you imagine a world where boring and predictable leadership would be valued and would be an integral part of one of the most forward-thinking and innovative companies in the history of our world?

Kind of hard to imagine isn't it...

Just remember, those folks at Google seem to have something figured out...