Teacher Observations: Are we talking about the right thing?

I’ve got it written in my planner: start the teacher evaluation cycle. Something I am definitely going to communicate with faculty this week. Okay, probably.

The formal evaluation process is one aspect of my role as a principal that I have minimized over time. It’s not that I don’t take it seriously. I dot my I’s and cross my T’s. I even see it as beneficial when addressing performance that is not up to a minimum standard of excellence. But when it comes to what matters regarding teacher supervision, I would rather focus on my daily classroom visits and instructional walks.

As I have described in the past here, instructional walks are informal observations of instruction. What I experience is communicate in writing. They are non-evaluative and focused primarily on the positive aspects of teaching and learning in the classroom. My role is active: I am interacting with kids and letting the teacher know what’s going well in the classroom. Feedback is provided only when trust is established between the teacher and me and the faculty have been provided with the professional learning to improve.

This topic is on my mind right now because of a recent article in ASCD Education Update. In it, a teacher and a principal from two different schools provide a hypothetical conversation about the accuracy and effectiveness of traditional classroom walkthroughs. The teacher felt like the principal only came in when some of his students were not cooperating. He also wanted this administrator to inquire more about why certain kids were not successful. In response, the principal empathized with the teacher, acknowledging the limits of their evaluation system with a promise to be more present.

While I appreciate these types of conversations, and I understand that different states approach teacher evaluation differently, I feel like we are not talking about the right thing.

The right thing, from my perspective, is to discuss instruction as colleagues. To have constructive and even critical discussions about teaching and learning. To engage in conversation and reflection without worry of reprieve or hurt feelings. In these situations, we almost forget about who is in what role. We are focused on the practice.

Can this happen when a principal’s time is monopolized by a system that positions them primarily as an evaluator instead of a mentor and a coach? I don’t believe so. In these situations, trust is hard to build. Collegial relationships rarely form to their potential. Teaching to standards that need to be checked off a list of look-fors can inhibit innovation and the creative process of teaching.

My only suggestion is, as I shared previously, to minimize as much as we can regarding the current evaluation system if it is not effective for engaging educators in a reflective process of constant improvement. Dot those I’s. Cross your T’s. And when the paperwork is done, get back into the classroom and start learning and leading with your teachers.

 

Lead Like a Coach

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Photo by Kevin Maillefer on Unsplash

I am part of a family of coaches. My earliest memories in athletics include going to summer basketball camps during my elementary school years. My grandfather, a former high school basketball coach, would stop over and stand on the sidelines while we scrimmaged or drilled. I can still hear the squeak of rubber soles against hardwood as we played while he looked from afar. My memory of him does not include a lot of talk about basketball; for him, it was more a presence and quiet observation.

From there I have had my step-father serve as an assistant coach during junior high basketball. My father-in-law is also a former high school basketball coach; my brother-in-law and sister-in-law also excelled in coaching in this sport. It shouldn’t surprise that I too became a coach once able. Throughout my college career, I would come home during the summers to lead summer recreation programs including Little League and girls’ softball.

As a newly minted teacher, I quickly sought out the opportunity to coach junior high basketball. One story I like to share from that time is that when I received a coaching stipend one year, I took that check, deposited it in my bank account, and then bought a ring that I would later offer to my girlfriend. (In case you’re wondering – she said yes.)

My career led to becoming an athletic director as part of my role as an assistant principal at a junior high school. I was now a coach for coaches, in a sense. While I couldn’t be as involved in the day-to-day coaching experience, I gained a broader perspective about what characteristics an excellent coach might embody.

These memories have spurred reflection about what not only makes a great coach but also how these qualities also make them great leaders. These reflections have raised awareness for me about how my own position as a school principal can “take a coaching stance” when working with faculty. At any rate, here is a working list that I have developed. I see these attributes as applicable to anyone in a coaching role within a school: instructional coach, teacher-leader, and a principal.

  • Make goals clear and attainable for the work
  • Maintain high expectations for performance
  • Develop beliefs, commitments, and values with a team
  • Able to demonstrate new skills and strategies
  • Celebrate people’s efforts and successes
  • Foster trust and relationships with team members
  • Create an environment that is conducive for innovation and independence
  • Provide support through instructional coaching, online PD, study groups, etc.
  • Build collective responsibility and empower others to lead
  • Communicate when expectations are not being met

Leading like a coach in a school is complex. I don’t know if any one person can distill all of the qualities to specific criteria. So what are your thoughts? Would you add (or subtract) from this list? I am truly interested; please share in the comments.

 

Read by Example Newsletter 9-15-18: Finding the Time

This blog now has a newsletter! I’ll be reposting the first couple of lists here to build awareness for it. You can subscribe here for free. Thanks for reading, -Matt

This week’s theme finds time as a thread throughout the ideas shared here.

  1. In my post The Best Way to Learn, I highlight research about how much time is actually spent reading and writing in typical classrooms (hint: not a lot).
  2. The research by Richard Allington cited in the previous post can be found at the Reading Rockets website; click here.
  3. Allington’s book with Patricia Cunningham, Schools that Work: Where All Children Read and Write (Pearson, 2007), is also excellent for literacy leaders.
  4. The idea that we should assign 20 minutes a day of reading to our students has come under scrutiny. What is “best practice”? We explore this issue in my post on the topic. Check out the insightful comments, too.
  5. You can find The Atlantic article I cited for the previous post by clicking here. While reading logs is the topic for the article, it is a companion practice to expecting students to engage in a specific amount of time devoted to reading.
  6. How might we shift from “20 minutes a day” and other outdated practices? Edutopia is a favorite website of mine for resources on many topics related to modern learning. Check out this article on conferring during reading instruction.
  7. Kelly Gallagher is quoted in the “20 minutes of reading” post. His book Readicide is an essential resource for educators. I encourage educators to explore his website, where he shares many resources for free, such as his one-pagers idea.
  8. Our beliefs and our practices are more closely connected than we might realize. Check out my post on this topic. We can benefit from taking a moment to reflect on our actions and examine why we are doing what we are doing.
  9. I didn’t mention which books I read as a teacher by Cris Tovani and Stephanie Harvey in the previous post. They are I Read it, But I Don’t Get it and Strategies that Work, respectfully.
  10. Rita Platt, a contributor to the blog, offers ideas for building and maintaining a positive school climate in her post for MiddleWeb.

Take care,

Matt

P.S. Ever wanted to participate in a Twitter chat but you were not sure how? Read my post on this topic and then try out these ideas with the #G2Great group on the following dates:

Read by Example Newsletter 9-8-18: Reading Clearly

This blog now has a newsletter! I’ll be reposting the first couple of lists here to build awareness for it. You can subscribe here for free. Thanks for reading, -Matt

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This week’s theme is on deepening our understanding of our role as literacy leaders.

  1. How do you know if the task you agreeing to take on is worth your limited time and energies? Check out my post on the importance of staying in your lane when asked to take on additional responsibilities as a school leader.
  2. The post from #1 was an uptake of a previous post titled “What is your job with a capital J?”. I recommend school leaders conduct their own T-chart analysis of what tasks are and are not your responsibilities. The idea came from the helpful resource The Together Leader by Maia Heyck-Merlin.
  3. The “Capital J” question is lifted from a chapter title in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness guide Wherever You Go, There You Are – an excellent resource for improving one’s social/emotional well-being.
  4. Speaking of mindfulness and education, check out English teacher Mark Levine’s blog Mindful Literacy – he posts daily about his current thinking around cultivating awareness in the classroom.
  5. Should we be teaching reading differently when students are online? I explore this question in my post on deepening comprehension in digital spaces.
  6. Social networks such as WordPress and Twitter can be effective for highlighting our process as well as our products. Show Your Work! by Austin Kleon is a current reread for me. He has excellent ideas for engaging with an audience during all parts of the creative process (such as the template for this newsletter).
  7. Dr. Maryanne Wolf’s article on “bi-literacy” was a primary resource for the digital reading post. All educators should become familiar with her research.
  8. Kevin Hodgson, a 6th-grade teacher, shared in a comment how he and some of the teachers he works with are using a digital tool, Hypothesis, to closely read the Wolf article highlighted. Check it out!
  9. We do our students and ourselves a service by slowing down during these first days of school. A post I wrote on this topic describes a 4th-grade teacher’s classroom environment, especially her willingness to co-create the space with her students.
  10. What is a favorite picture book to read aloud on the first day? I chose School’s First Day of School by Adam Rex and Christian Robinson. Funny and reassuring.

Take care,

Matt

P.S. In case you missed this summer’s book study on Literacy Essentials by Regie Routman, you can read and respond to every post by clicking here. Many literacy leaders contributed to this online professional learning experience.

Stay in Your Lane

Our school is in a transition period with new staff members. I’m grateful for the people we’ve hired. With this type of change, people both in and out of school are sometimes unsure about who handles which duties. “Who do I speak with when we need to whitelist emails for our digital collaboration project?” a school partner asked me. I don’t know what a whitelist is, so I encouraged them to speak with our IT department.

We can get ensnared in these tasks if we are not careful. Sometimes we are even able to complete the task. “Yes, I know how to get students registered on their laptops,” I shared with the same person when asked. But should I? As I asked in a previous post, what is our job with a capital J?

The phrase “stay in your lane” comes to mind whenever I feel the inclination to take on tasks that are not a priority in my position. “Stay in your lane”, a term I first heard in the book Talk Like TED by Carmine Gallo, means staying true to what you are best at and are in the best position to address. My belief is we have around 1-2, maybe 3 areas in which we should focus on as school leaders.

You ask: What are those areas? The specifics can vary from school to school…schoolwide professional learning has got to be one, along with building trust and culture. You pick the third as needed.

This is not to say that I am unwilling to pitch in when something comes up unexpectedly or when we are in the middle of a transition. Everyone should shoulder more responsibilities to help our new people get acclimated. While walking through classrooms recently, a document camera was not functioning properly. I happily offered to check the cables and settings while the teacher worked with her kids. Not finding success, IT was contacted. Allow people to do what they do best. That goes for ourselves as much as anyone.

Professional Learning: The Gift of Time

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Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

The week of getting ready for the first day with students has come to a close. This time of year is typically one big rush to “get things done”. Bare bulletin boards call for welcoming messages. Schedules are updated continuously, rarely due to a school’s priorities. Enrollment and ordering resources become mini-emergencies instead of part of the daily routine. ‘Tis the season.

This year our faculty was provided with the gift of time for a day. (Due to a scheduling conflict, we had to reschedule our speaker’s second day to later in the year.) Once this day opened up, my initial/habitual reaction was to cram in as much literacy and PLC content into the day, topics we had initially prepared to address in September. We resisted this impulse. Instead, we spent the morning exploring reading instruction and the afternoon attending sessions on the topics of community engagement and academic innovation. Our agenda listed ideas and relevant topics instead of stuff.

Next are some of the outcomes from slowing things down and better appreciating the gift of time.

Faculty Viewed Professional Development Positively

Certainly, the content and planning for our time together contributed to the positive feedback our leadership team received. Being intentional about what we were learning together cannot be minimized. But it needs to be pointed out that allowing for more time for conversation and for the exploration of ideas during professional development decreases the anxiety of trying to get through everything we think needs to be accomplished. We had an agenda, yes, but it was minimal and allowed for flexibility.

Idea: If we feel like we have too many tasks planned for a professional learning experience, then we probably do. Push back some content to a later date, or even completely cut it out. If it is not essential to a school’s goals, then it is expendable.

Teachers Facilitated Professional Learning Experiences

When we learned that we had a day now open for building-level professional development, my first thought was, “I cannot do it all.” Fortunately, I work in a school with many talented individuals, so I didn’t have to. I reached out for help, asking several faculty members to lead afternoon sessions on mindfulness in the classroom, personalized learning, designing local curriculum projects, and healthy habits for educators.

Idea: To better know our teachers’ interests and specific talents, get into classrooms on a daily basis. Experience classroom visits as a learner instead of only an evaluator. Have real conversations with faculty and students. We can lead side-by-side.

Frame Professional Learning Time as an Investment

If all we do is learn together without seeing the results of our work, then professional development becomes routine and starts to lack meaning. There needs to be some level of connection between our self-improvement efforts and student outcomes. If teachers don’t see our time spent together as valuable, then it is perceived as wasted. For example, I shared with the faculty that our below basic scores on our state reading test have gone down 9% in the last two years. This is likely a result of our focus on embracing authentic literacy practices and a more data-informed approach to Response to Intervention.

Idea: Create visual representations of your assessment results and share them with faculty. It saves time in analysis. Point out the positive results first, then focus on the next steps. Celebrate, then educate. For us, we need to address our more advanced students’ needs who are already successful but may not be growing as much as their peers.

How do you as a literacy leader best utilize the gift of time for professional learning? Where do you struggle? Why? Please share in the comments.

 

Principals: What Is Your Job with a Capital J?

“What is my job on the planet?” is one question we might do well to ask ourselves over and over again. Otherwise, we may wind up doing somebody else’s job and not even know it.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are, pg. 206

In a previous post, I posed the question: “If you knew that your last day at your school was tomorrow, how would you decide to spend your time?” I offered my own response (spending time in classrooms, ignoring email, etc.). Yet I didn’t address a possible follow up question, one that couches us in our daily realities: How do I find the time to spend with students and teachers in classrooms?

This is a reasonable concern. The emails in our inbox don’t magically disappear. Requisitions need to be approved and evaluations have to be completed. What helped me prioritize my limited time in school is to ask myself a follow-up question (adapted from a chapter title in Kabat-Zinn’s book): What is my job with a capital J?

To find out, I created a T-chart. Next, I looked back on my calendar and started listing all of the tasks I had completed in the past along with what I remembered doing but didn’t schedule. On the left side, I wrote down all of the tasks that should belong to me as a school principal and instructional leader. On the right side, I listed tasks that were my responsibility as a principal but didn’t necessarily need to be completed by me.

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This idea comes from the book The Together Leader by Maia Heyck-Merlin (Jossey-Bass, 2016)

Here’s the list. It’s evolving. For example, I still do some data entry for discipline. I also tend to take care of a few purchase orders because I get uptight about our school budget. But overall, this process was both freeing and empowering. Freeing because I could give myself permission to not feel like I needed to be everywhere at once. Instead I’ve learned to trust staff to be responsive to students’ needs. Empowering because I am finding that staff members who I have asked to take on certain responsibilities are doing as good if not a better job than I would. For example, some of our most popular professional learning experiences have been facilitating by our teachers. I had as much to learn as anyone.

To be clear, I don’t value my tasks over what others might accomplish with me. Everything is important. What I know is that principals cannot do it all. So we have to be selective about how we choose to prioritize our time every day. If our expertise and efforts are best served as instructional leaders, then we have to find ways to delegate some of the non-instructional tasks to other staff members in order to be most effective.

What tasks have you found to be essential or nonessential to your role as a school principal and instructional leader? How did you re-organize responsibilities? Please share in the comments.