Why I Became a Principal

I have been asked why I became an elementary school principal, by educators in the classroom and by prospective administrators curious about my position. Here are a few reasons off the top of my head:

1. I Didn’t Have to Leave the Classroom

When I began teaching, I fully intended to end my educational career as a teacher. That is, until my principal read aloud in my classroom. Watching him share his favorite literature with my students, interacting with them not as the authority figure but rather as a knowledgeable and caring adult, opened my eyes to the concept that a principal isn’t necessarily a suit sitting behind a desk. It was an “Ah ha” moment for me, probably similar to when students see their teacher at Wal-Mart and realize he or she doesn’t live at school. I am proud to say that I continue this practice of reading aloud to students on a regular basis.

2. I Had Some Great Principals

I am very fortunate to have had three terrific administrators to work for, as an intern, as a teacher, and as an assistant principal. All three had a unique way of leading, which helped me determine what kind of principal I wanted to be. What did they all had in common?

  • They put students first.
  • They made decisions based on what was best for student learning.
  • They didn’t lose their cool when problems came up.
  • They always had time to listen.
  • They were honest and forthright. I knew where I stood with them at all times.

I definitely was not the perfect staff member; I made several mistakes along the way toward my current position. However, they allowed me to deal with those situations and help reflect upon how I could have done things differently, rather than step in and try to prevent struggles. I was allowed to learn from my mistakes.

3. I Was a Good Teacher

One of my former administrators once asked me, “What type of teacher is most suited for the principalship?” I didn’t know, I said. “The best teacher in the building,” he replied. At first, I questioned this logic. Why would a great teacher step out of the classroom and give up the opportunity to make an impact on kids? As I found out, I continue to make a difference. I do this by falling back on what I know great teaching looks like. I use this knowledge to guide my staff on the path of constant growth.

I believe I was successful as a teacher, and I became better every year. This gives me the experience, validity and respect to observe in any classroom and determine the effectiveness of the instruction. If I wasn’t a good teacher, how could I ever possibly be an instructional leader in my school? If you are a teacher, I encourage you to find out what your principal did before his or her current position. You may be surprised. Most if not all administrators do not let their teaching licenses expire. Many continue to teach, even if it isn’t always in the classroom.

4. It Is a Challenge

I am not saying that teaching is any less challenging. It is just a different type of challenge. Instead of keeping 25 students focused on the activity for the day, I am expected to help that one student who doesn’t want to participate to turn it around and get back into class.

One of the first ways I experienced this new kind of challenge was when I participated in building and district committees. These activities gave me the opportunity to see what it was like to lead an initiative and work with teachers on buy-in for an upcoming change. I found that I enjoyed collaborating with adults in this capacity, even if it was sometimes a struggle. The success we achieved together validated the effort and made the process that much more rewarding.

5. It Is a Change

One colleague of mine described entering the principalship as taking on an entirely new profession. This is very true in many ways. For example, no longer are you beholden to the almighty school schedule. For the most part, I am able to allocate time that I feel best benefits my students and aligns with my building’s goals.

I started to feel the urge to venture out into new territory in the latter part of my teaching career. I was very happy in the classroom, don’t get me wrong.  At the same time I saw the opportunity to become a building administrator as a way to make a positive impact on student learning in a broader sense.  I am able to be a part of more learning endeavors and participate in the entire school experience with everyone in the building.

For current principals, what would you add to this list? For prospective principals, how are you learning more about this great profession? Please share in the comments.

Beliefs vs. Values

My school is at a point of transition. We are nearing the completion of a three year professional development plan involving the Reading-Writing Connection, developed by Regie Routman. We have seen evidence that the instructional framework we have incorporated into our classrooms, the Optimal Learning Model, has helped increase student achievement. Our core literacy beliefs grew from only two the first year to eight this year. The staff participated in many different professional development activities over the three year period to arrive at this point.

So where do we go from here? Are beliefs alone enough? These were a few thoughts that have recently come to mind.  As a leader, I think it is okay to sometimes have more questions than answers. To seek more information and consider the next steps, I started learning more about professional learning communities. Over the summer, I read Professional Learning Communities at Work by Rick DuFour and Robert Eaker. This is a great place to start the journey toward developing collaborative teams with a singular focus of student learning.

However, one section of the resource touched on beliefs in a way that was different than what I had previously understood. The authors stated that beliefs alone were not enough. You needed to have values. The authors define values as core statements that clarify how a shared vision, or a list of beliefs, becomes a reality. It was made clear that as leaders, we need to focus on behaviors, not beliefs.

Okay, this is a problem, I initially thought. How can two highly respected educators such as Regie Routman and Rick DuFour be on opposite ends of the spectrum on this issue? Confused, I went back into the resources my school team received at a literacy and leadership institute.

I found my answer. Judy Wallis, a literacy consultant, explained that beliefs and values (also called “practices”) are part of a continuum for a school in change. She explained that schools can develop their shared beliefs first. These are the principles that, as Judy put it, you would be willing to fall on your sword for. An example she shared was, “We believe students should have wide access to books they can and want to read.” Would any educator worth their salt disagree with this belief?

Once beliefs are established, schools can then consider their practices, or values. Judy defined these practices as beliefs in action. Reading the previous paragraph, a value for the example belief could be, “A sufficient amount of time will be allocated for independent reading every day”.  This makes sense to me now. You cannot have one without the other. A common language is required if we are expected to implement common practices. This is especially needed in today’s educational world where the initiative du jour can cause a school to lose their focus on best practices and student learning.

Does your school have a set of common beliefs and practices that you all adhere to? How did you get to this point? Please share in the comments, as my school is very much still on the pathway toward becoming a community of learners. If your building has not started discussing your shared beliefs and you are not sure where to begin, I highly recommend Richard Allington’s Educational Leadership article Every Child, Every Day. My staff read it and discussed it briefly, but we only touched on a few aspects. I believe a school could take this one article and spend an entire year discussing the six elements and how they fit with current literacy practices.

Our School’s 21st Century PD Plan

After much thought, lots of professional reading, and many conversations with practitioners and experts, I felt ready to put together this coming year’s professional development plan. I find it helpful to create a visual of the goals. Using Grafio on the iPad, I was able to develop a snapshot of what this year’s learning will look like:

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What I Feel Good About
“Year 3” in the middle just signifies that we are in the third year of our three year professional development cycle. We are using the Regie Routman in Residence series Reading-Writing Connection. The Optimal Learning Model (OLM) is a framework of instruction similar to the gradual release of responsibility process. (Last year our main focus was implementing the OLM; the year before was an introduction of the OLM).

The three main components of the plan are continuations of where we are at and where we want to be. Example: Last year half the staff had iPads for instruction and intervention; this year all staff will be using them. If we don’t set aside time to learn how to effectively use these powerful teaching tools, we aren’t tapping into their true potential.

I also like that all learning is supported by our foundation, the Optimal Learning Model. Anything we set out to learn as a staff, as a grade level team or as an individual comes back to this framework. It is the coatrack that we can hang our instructional hats on. Teachers have autonomy within this framework to pursue specific interests they believe will best address their students’ needs. At the same time, we all move together toward the same vision of ensuring students receive the best learning experience possible.

The Unknown
At first glance, it looks as if this plan does not address some of the pressing topics out there in education, such as Common Core and Response to Intervention (RtI). However, as Prego states, “It’s in there.” We will address the new standards when we agree as a group what is essential to see in the classroom during instructional walkthroughs. Likewise, RtI is embedded in our plan, whether through PBIS or strengthening our core instruction.

A new shift to note is giving technology as much of a focus as it has, being one of the three main goals for the building. We have allocated a significant amount of our Title I dollars into purchasing iPads and apps. It’s a bit scary when I think about investing in this yet-to-be proven tool for instruction as we have. However, the potential that this technology has to engage students and make the learning tasks more relevant for them is too strong to ignore.

What are your thoughts? Have I missed anything, or have I given something too much focus? Your feedback is appreciated.

Summarizing a Book Study with Prayer Cards

If you are Catholic, you may have recently noticed the changes in our prayers and responses. To help remember these changes, my church created double-sided laminated cards with the revised language.

In one of those rare moments when I was not totally focused on the homily, my mind began to wander back to these prayer cards, thinking, “Would something like this be useful after reading an educational resource?”. Everyone is different in how they curate the important information they glean from a worthy text. Some educators like me write in the margins while others highlight. A few people I know are so careful about leaving the book as they found it that you would not find one underline or a note in the entire volume. The difficulty I find with all of these methods is teachers have limited time to go back, look in a book and pull out what is needed for their instruction and planning.

What I believe matters most when doing a book study, either school wide or in a small group, is that we are applying what we learned as a group directly to the classroom. All staff should be making a concerted effort to improve as a whole building so that students receive consistently effective instruction year after year. As chance would have it, my school just recently finished the book Teaching Essentials by Regie Routman. Using my church's prayer card as a model, I lifted the most important/talked about/thought-provoking/necessary statements from Regie's book and put it in these cards. Much of what I took is based on the staff book discussions I observed, along with concepts we needed to keep at the forefront of our minds.

At one of our last staff gatherings, I distributed these “Prayer Cards” as a way to celebrate our learning.

I see a number of benefits to providing this document as part of our professional development book study. First, everyone has the important concepts at hand so they can be transferred from mind to action more easily. Learning lost is nothing gained. Second, staff know it is expected we apply this knowledge to the classroom. It's not enough to sign off on a plan saying we completed so many hours of professional development; we as educators need to put our plans into action. Lastly, I believe it is important that kids see these cards in the classroom. As an example, some of the teachers taped them down to their desk, while others posted them on their personal bulletin board or made bookmarks out of them for their lesson plan books. However they are visible, students seeing a product of their teacher's growth sends a strong message about how learning never stops.

 

I Read (and Wrote) to the Principal

When I moved into my new office last August, I found approximately 800 green pencils with “I Read to the Principal” printed on them, left for me by my predecessor.

Save that thought.

In my last blog post The Principal as a Writer, I wrote about how I modeled writing for my students and staff using Moleskine notebooks and a document camera. The modeling component of instruction is essential, but so is giving students the opportunity to practice their skills. As I have learned, student work should be authentic and relevant to their own lives.

I hoped that the students would be as motivated as I was to write about books I enjoyed. With that, I purchased one Moleskine journal for each classroom in which I regularly read aloud. Once they had seen me write a review, I handed off their classroom journal, with the following expectations:

1. They only put books in the journal that they truly enjoyed (four out of five stars or better).
2. They had to write to an audience, namely their classmates, their teacher and me.
3. They had to include their name as the reviewer. The idea behind this is classmates would presumably read the book review journal looking for their next great read. When they found a book that interested them, they could talk to the reviewer to get more information.
4. When students completed a review, they were encouraged to read their review to me in my office. Their purpose was to convince me to read the book they liked, as I had limited time to sort through all the literature out there.

Moleskine journals were now available in an opportune place in the classroom. Student book reviews commenced! Some classrooms used them more often than others. When I had not recently received a visit from a room, I again modeled a book review for that class in my own Moleskine journal, then encouraged the students to do the same.

Here is a third grader reading aloud his book review to me back in April.

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This is the book that he was trying to convince me to read through his review.

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He had me at “gruesome”.

After sharing, I gave each student one of the “I Read to the Principal ” pencils. What was nice was that they read to me their own writing. This practice corresponds with a number of my building’s beliefs we unanimously agreed upon as a staff, including:

Young children do not need to know all their letters and sounds before they can write stories and read back their own writing.

Shared writing text involving common experiences are often the easiest text to read.

A Couple of Reflections

– Writing for an authentic purpose is so critical. I couldn’t imagine writing this very post if I didn’t think I had an audience to read it or an opportunity for some constructive feedback. I imagine students feel the same way.
– Book reviews are a form of persuasive writing, an essential skill for students and for informed citizens.
– The reading-writing connection is a concept stressed by Regie Routman and other literacy experts. Reading makes better writers, and writing makes better readers.
– As a principal, this is another opportunity for me to visit with students in a positive context.

“Making meaning is good. Doing meaningful things is better.”- Peter Johnston, Opening Minds

My Teachers’ Favorite iPad Apps

Teachers in my building could sign up to receive an iPad 2 plus training during second semester. Using Kathy Schrock’s iPad app Evaluation Rubric, teachers culminated the first round of training by recommending a favorite reading or math app they used with students in their classroom.

ABC Magic
Recommended by: Lisa B
Grade Level(s): K-1
Content Area: Language Arts
Cost: Free

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Description
A phonics-based series of apps to reinforce sound and spelling patterns.

Futaba – Classroom Games for Kids
Recommended by: Krista
Grade Level(s): K-2
Content Area: Math or Reading
Cost: $3.99

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Description
This app has been popular with my kids because it is a game that more than one student can play at a time. They work together cooperatively and have fun while practicing math facts or sight words. I have used this during literacy time (it was a task that needed to be completed for the literacy menu). I like that you can customize this app to fit the needs of each student or group of students. I would like to see more game content added. There are a few glitches that might need to be worked out.

Counting Money
Recommended by: Monica
Grade Level(s): K-5+
Content Area: Math – Money
Cost: Free

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Description
I would recommend this title and it’s similar app titled Counting Money + ($1.99). I have used it whole class and it could easily be used with pairs or individuals. It doesn’t have the fancy graphics that some apps have but the sound and real pictures it offers of dollars and coins is great. The settings this app offers allow you to set it for beginners or advanced learners. Within this app are three different types of games: counting only coins, counting only dollars, and counting coins and dollars.

Motion Math: Wings
Recommended by: Janice
Grade Level(s): Ages 4+
Content Area: Math – Multiplication
Cost: Free (with option to purchase more levels)

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Description
This app is a great way to practice math fact skills. There are many levels available for young to older students. Motion Math also has Hungry Fish.

Wake the Rooster by Telling Time: Tiny Chicken
Recommended by: Bri
Grade Level(s): Primary
Content Area: Math – Time
Cost: Free

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Description
It’s a basic app, but offers repeated practice setting times. I like it because it includes all increments and varies in difficulty. I don’t like that it doesn’t show the correct time if you get one wrong.

Spelling Test
Recommended by: Kim
Grade Level(s): K-5
Content Area: Language Arts – Spelling
Cost: Free

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Description
This app allows teachers to input spelling words for the week, along with a voice recording of each word, so students can practice independently. The student simply taps on which list they would like to practice, the words are displayed, and when he or she is ready, the student taps on “take test”. A word from the list is read orally to the student (in the teacher’s voice), and the student types the word on the keypad. If the student needs to hear the word again, there is a button to hear it repeated. Immediate feedback is given to the student following each word. At the end of the test, all words are displayed alongside the correct spelling. There is also the option to have test scores reported by email (I have not used this option, yet). This is a great app to use with students who finish early or students who don’t practice at home.

Baseball
Recommended by: April
Grade Level(s): 3-5
Content Area: Math – Multiplication
Cost: Free

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Description
I recommend this app for intermediate students who finish early. It’s fun for students to play with a partner; it challenges their multiplication skills. The automatic outs allow both teams to have a chance to play often. It would be better if it had an option to specify facts.

Rocket Math
Recommended by: Jean
Grade Level(s): 3
Content Area: Math
Cost: Free

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Description
Great for all levels – independent use. Kids construct own rocket with $300 to buy boosters, color and rocket. Then they choose a skill area to practice – money, time, multiplication, etc. They earn points based on skill and how high their rocket launches.

Math Garden
Recommended by: Jen
Grade Level(s): K-5
Content Area: Math
Cost: Free

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Description
I would recommend this app for students who need to practice their basic math facts. In Math Garden, you get to grow your own corn fields but you need to water them by answering math questions. You can choose the level of difficulty and the type of problems to practice addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.

24. Math Game
Recommended by: Dawn
Grade Level(s): 3+
Content Area: Math
Cost: $1.99

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Description
I would recommend this application for developing basic math facts, order of operations, and flexibility in thinking. We use 24 as a warm up for every math class. Kids LOVE it! It is an excellent math thinking game. Each time a student gets 24 by four multiplication/division/subtraction, new cards are dealt. To provide choice, we write down the first set of cards so that if kids want to stick with those numbers to get 24 a different way, they can. I limit the game to five minutes and keep track of who gets 24.

iEarnedThat
Recommended by: Lori W
Grade Level(s): All
Content Area: Motivation
Cost: $1.99

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Description
This is a useful app. It allows you to determine a separate reward for each student and monitor their progress. The 3D puzzle is an effective way to see their progress toward their goal. It eliminates charts. Can be used for multiple students.

Bluster!
Recommended by: Sue
Grade Level(s): 2-5
Content Area: Language Arts
Cost: Free

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Description
Bluster! is a language arts app for grades 2-5. It may be used individually, as a team, or two students against one another. It works on adjectives, prefixes, suffixes, rhyming words, homophones, root words and synonyms. Students are working on skills presented in class. They are motivated by the iPad format to practice.

Evernote
Recommended by: Molly
Grade Level(s): All
Content Area: Productivity
Cost: Free

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Description
Helps you remember everything across all devices. The app can voice record, capture photos, and make notes. It has a lot of potential for recording student work.

Flipboard
Recommended by: Molly
Grade Level(s): N/A
Content Area: News
Cost: Free

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Description
The app works like a cool magazine. It lets you search the Internet for articles in a specific area, then presents them in a magazine format.

Story Builder
Recommended by: Genesis
Grade Level(s): K-5
Content Area: Reading – Story Elements, Inferencing, Answering “WH-” Questions
Cost: $5.99

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Description
This app won Best Reading App of 2011 through the Huffington Post. It allows children to create stories by forming individual sentences using pictures and question prompts. Students record themselves sentence by sentence and play back an entire story they created. The instructor needs to provide the feedback for this app. There are scaffolding options so students can build stories with less prompting. In addition to story elements, this app can be used for inferences, “WH-” questions, fluency, grammar/sentence structure, sequencing and sound production. The pictures and audio feedback are engaging and promote expressive language.

Toontastic
Recommended by: Matt
Grade Level(s): K-5
Content Area: Reading – Story Elements, Fluency, Creativity
Cost: Free

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Description
Student can create a visual story, summarize a book and learn about the elements of a narrative. Teachers should first ask students to write a story board before using Toontastic. The app also asks students to provide narration for the story and practice fluency by recording their voice. When completed, students can celebrate their efforts by sharing their final product on the document camera or mirroring via Apple TV.

Math Drills
Recommended by: Colette
Grade Level(s): K-5
Content Area: Math
Cost: $1.99

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Description
Students have own personal settings for practicing math facts. Kids like the review part because it gives a good visual for skip counting. Boys like the race car reinforcement such as the car noises and the M.P.H. report on how fast you completed your facts. Also, the pit stop lets you go back and redo a problem you missed.

The Social Express
Recommended by: Jill
Grade Level(s): K-5
Content Area: School Counseling – Personal/Social and Health
Cost: $89.99

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Description
I recommend this app for any student who struggles socially to work with others, to make good decisions, and to express feelings appropriately. It would be especially beneficial for students with emotional/behavioral disorders, autism, and Aspergers.