Friday, November 28, 2014

New Teacher Seminar:The Best Classroom Observations --Third in a series on developing new teachers

A great deal of my week is spent in teachers' classrooms observing them teach. I do this work at their invitation, as a part of our school's evaluation process, or at the request of a divisional principal or department chair. This past week I watched an experienced teacher guide his sixth grade instrumentalists through their rehearsal, an intern lead a discussion on Antigone,  a first year teacher review three verbs in a high school Spanish class, a veteran choral teacher work with 7th and 8th grade boys, a second year teacher introduce the Buddha to a high school religion class, and an intern teach math to primary circle students.  In each case, I was struck by the passion and care each brought to his or her work.
DKNG Studios

As teachers in our classrooms we assume that our students are always watching us, they have to be in order for the classroom to work.  Having an adult observer in our classroom while we are teaching is something else entirely. It changes the dynamic, students behave differently, we are more self-conscious. When the observer is an invited peer or a young teacher wanting to observe a more experienced teacher, the experience is more low key. When the observer is a supervisor the stakes feel higher, even when the administrator is there by invitation. Though the act of observation changes what is being observed, observation and constructive growth oriented feedback are essential for every teacher, especially for a new teacher.
Photo by @Doug8888

  • The best observations begin with my asking the teacher what they want me to watch for. Young teachers in particular need to develop the habit of self-evaluation: what went well in the lesson, where did I lose the kids, did they learn what I hoped or something else entirely, how did this lesson fit into my plan for this unit, am I reaching every student, what am I not seeing or doing? These are only some of the questions we need to consider. Given our overfull days, creating space for asking and answering these questions is challenging. Observations by others and the conversations they foster create the time and space for this reflection.
  • While not always possible, I like to arrive before the students. I want to see how they transition from the minute they cross the threshold. I often keep a running record of what I see within a time frame. I have found this helps me stay focused on the observation. I like to record the time in three to five minute intervals. Time is the commodity of schools. We never have enough and we have to use what we have effectively. Young teachers should be asking questions about their management of time as well as of students
  • I also like to look at the physical classroom and how well teachers are utilizing their spaces. While Lower School teachers understand the importance of well-designed spaces, most Upper School teachers think little of their spaces except as containers for teenage bodies. Often, a small tweak in classroom set up can solve a much larger classroom management challenge.  In comparison to his other classes, the religion teacher found this group of students' energy to be flat and and that individuals were easily distracted. After observing his class I asked him to think about how he moved around the classroom and how he wanted students to interact. After listening to him, I asked what would happen if he abandoned his current set-up and experimented with something that made it easier for him to move and that placed his students in closer proximity to each other. Later in the week, he told me that he had moved two tables. Rather than sitting in a large u around the room's perimeter, now the students sat across from each other at the tables. The tables were in two rows running the length of the room. He had easy access to the boards on every wall and he could move easily down the middle of the room. As they were sitting closer to each other, the majority of his students who were engaged and focused, helped the few who faded in and out stay in the learning. 
  • During any observation I focus on the teachers' questions about their practice. If I have learned what the students have learned, then I have failed as an observer. I need to watch the teacher and see what she is doing and saying. At the same time I need to watch her students and see how they are reacting and acting. Do they understand what they are supposed to be doing? Do they know the class routine such that the learning is the focus of what happens not the mechanics to make it happen (what should have been prepared for class, what happens as students walk into the room, how quickly is the sheet music passed out, how quickly does the lesson begin, how are class discussions constructed, etc) 
  • Most importantly I want to gauge student engagement. I take as a given that engagement goes up the safer the classroom is for students. In a school like Westtown, I take physical safety as the norm, I am looking for something more subtle, what Claude Steele would call the absence of stereotype threat. Often student intellectual and spiritual safety isn't the thing a young teacher is asking about directly. Focusing on this yields greater returns than almost any other tool a teacher might develop.
After the class if I am not meeting with the teacher within an hour or so, I send an email with quick questions and concrete "this is what I saw." Nothing replaces a good follow up discussion. With young teachers, I provide both directive feedback-- "You need to tighten up how class begins", "you tend to call on girls more frequently than boys", "your questions were too basic to encourage thoughtful discussion"-- and ask questions. The questions always take into account what they have wanted me to think about. But the questions also come out of my own wondering about what I have seen. With the intern leading a discussion on Antigone, I wanted to understand how she had planned her questions. I wanted her to think about other ways the discussion might have progressed. I asked "I wonder what would have happened if you had asked a few of the students to tell you more about their answers?" After a few moments of reflection she began to think of how this might have stretched her students' thinking. I asked about specific students. She was worried she might not have gotten them to the conclusion she wanted them to reach, that they would have gone off on a tangent. We discussed the trade offs of moving through her prepared series of questions versus asking follow-up questions and following her students's leadings. There were no right answers, only learning possibilities for my intern.
"I wonder. . ." may well be my favorite question!

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The New Teacher Seminar:books that work - Second in Series on Developing New Teachers

I recently gave a presentation at the PAIS Biennial Conference titled "From Hiring to Mastery: A Comprehensive Induction Process." Mentorship was one of the themes I stressed. However, good mentors are only a portion of what new teachers need. As a part of our support for our teachers, Westtown requires all of its new to teaching folks to participate in our New Teacher Seminar. Where once I led 10th graders through US History,  now I teach a curriculum intended to help interns and first year teachers take successful first steps towards a career in education. There is very little theory in this curriculum, instead we focus on practical ideas for the next class. The class is a mix of discussing books, sharing successes, asking questions, meeting with seasoned teachers and support staff, and building a personal learning network.

First and foremost the sessions are designed to provide ideas new teachers can implement now. When our group is largely teachers who will have their own classroom we begin with two intensive sessions of mapping out units of study and writing the first two weeks of lesson plans. When the group is weighted towards interns or assistant teachers we focus on classroom management. One of the best tools for rapid improvement in classroom management is Doug Lemov's Teach Like a Champion. While Lemov's audience is teachers working in school's with at risk students, his techniques translate to Westtown's independent school culture. The beauty of this book is its focus on concrete techniques easily implemented in the classroom. Such things as "100 percent", "no opt out", and "post it" provide our newest teachers with a means of achieving high classroom expectations. Furthermore, and this is most important for young teachers, these techniques provide a means of helping young teachers get over their fear of not being liked. The specific techniques take the practice of teaching out of "I want them to like me", and put the focus squarely where it needs to be on the students and their success. I follow up on our class discussions with direct classroom observations. In my post observation meetings, I am able to speak directly to how well I see them implementing something like "Right is right" or "Stretch It." We talk about what worked, what didn't and how they might adjust to make it better the next day. At some point, these teachers will need to better understand the theory underlying their practice, but in their first year, they need to do, to get feedback, and do it again.

Later this year we will read Peter Gow's The Intentional Teacher, which is focused on teaching in independent schools. Mid-year Gow's book fits well with that moment in which new teachers find themselves wondering if this is the right setting for their aspirations. His is one of the few books for new teachers that is geared towards independent schools. Most importantly, his book helps to provide new teachers with a context for understanding their work in terms of Westtown's Mission. We will finish the year with Mary Cowey's Black Ants and Buddhists. I use this book as a means of transitioning from surviving the first year to thinking creatively about their next year. Cowey's classroom serves as a model for where these young teachers should aspire to go in creating a student centered approach to teaching.

These texts were selected with specific outcomes in mind:

  • day to day success in classroom management and student learning
  • developing a sense of what it means to be a professional in an independent school
  • creative planning for year two

Monday, October 6, 2014

So your child’s teacher is new to teaching. . .

Every teacher has to have a first year of teaching. Over the course of her school years, your child will have a first year teacher or two. Very few professions expect someone to show up the first day and be ready to take full responsibility for the success of a group. Teachers have to know their content, implement best pedagogical practices to deliver that content, and manage a group of young people in such a way that every student learns to his or her full potential. There are steps you can take to ensure that your child has a great learning experience.

First and foremost, find out what supports are in place for the new teacher.
  • You should expect your school to provide every new teacher with a mentor and strong mentoring program. If your school doesn’t have this support, work with administrators to set up a program linking experienced teachers with new teachers.
  • First year teachers need ongoing education. Some schools offer a first year teacher’s seminar. This provides directed professional development in the areas new teachers most need.
  • Every teacher needs regular, formal evaluative feedback from supervisors. Make sure new teachers receive this several times in their first few years.
Second, assume that the new teacher is the best candidate for this position. Hiring great teachers is as much art as science. Young adults are choosing careers in education out of a paired love of working with young people and passion for content areas.
  • When you meet with your child’s teacher connect your wisdom about your child with the teacher’s passion for teaching.
  • If your child has complaints or concerns in the first two weeks, it may be that the complaints are simple things common in any new situation and will be corrected through the ongoing support of mentors, colleagues and supervisors.
  • Ask your child to tell you what he likes about the new teacher, what the new teacher does well.  You want to help your child discern an honest, correctable rookie mistake from something bigger.
  • Even a ten year teacher veteran has to learn a new school culture.

Third, when things don’t seem to be working reach out quickly and directly to your child’s divisional director or Principal.
  • Principals are responsible for teacher quality and student success.
  • Ask for an indication that action has been taken. While you won’t know what has been done, its fair for you to know that your concern has been heard and that appropriate action (as determined by the Principal) is in process.
  • Be persistent and patient . . . to a point. You don’t want your child to lose a year, but you need to give the new teacher time to make whatever adjustments a supervisor may deem warranted.

Fourth, let your child’s teacher know when things are going well.
  • The best teachers are life-long learners. Knowing a lesson or a practice inspired a child, helped a student solve a problem, or understand himself better as a learner is valuable information for  a new teacher.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

From Beginner to Master Teacher -- year one -- the importance of mentors

1994, my first year of teaching, I had a two day orientation focused on school policies. I was given a text by my department chair and invited to ask questions if I had any. I had a wonderful faculty go to person (not a mentor) to help me understand school policies. What happened in the classroom was up to me. It was assumed (I guess) that since I had a PhD in history, I could teach history.

Elizabeth Green is just the most recent expert to talk about what new teachers need to thrive and grow into a master teacher. For our first year teachers we combine our New Teacher Seminar and regular support by supervisors with a mentoring program. The mentor program serves as the foundation of our system for taking promising young hires and helping them grown into great teachers. The mentor program, under the direction of two faculty leaders, pairs experienced teachers with our new teachers, includes a week of orientation before school starts, and holds retreats during the year. Most critically, mentors meet with their mentees regularly.

Most of our mentors have had training as mentors and peer coaches. Whereas peer coaches help their coachees find answers for themselves, mentors (especially in the first year)  answer questions--often in very directive even prescriptive ways.  First year teachers need a peer mentor, a go to person who is a safe, low bar resource for any and all answers. The mentors, as a group, meet with their faculty leaders to discuss supporting their mentees. This collegial system provides a forum for exchanging ideas and serves as important professional development for the mentors. Mentors are often the first to see when and where a new teacher most needs support. Last year, a mentor brought to a supervisor, a particular challenge a new teacher was experiencing. The mentor couldn't fix the problem but knew that the right administrator could. New teachers can come to their mentors with questions about pedagogy, class management, content, grading, really anything and know that they will get practical, timely answers. Mentors also become friendly class observers. Having a mentor observe you teach is much less stressful that having a supervisor observe.

Mentors are able to support our new to teaching teachers (and just new to Westtown) because they see themselves as being in partnership with other mentors, the new teachers, and administrators. Helping new teachers succeed becomes an extension of our school's mission and promise to our students.  While not the shokuin shitsu of Japan, our program incorporates the important element of teacher leaders taking on responsibility for the success of new teachers.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

What's your Freebird?

This past weekend my daughter played lead guitar on Lynryd Skynyrd's "Freebird" at Downingtown School of Rock's Southern Rock show. She assures me that along with "Stairway to Heaven" (which she has also played in a show), this song is one of the givens for aspiring guitarists. She learned she had the solo in late May. Along with preparing pieces for a touring show with the School of Rock All Stars, "Freebird" has been her particular focus all summer. After the concert she shared with me that she knew she had given it her all and that her two performances were true reflections of her effort, technical ability, talent and pleasure. Last week when she created her Facebook list of the ten albums that had most influenced her as a musician, "Lynryd Skynyrd" (and its song Freebird") was not on the list. For her the song was a right of passage more than an influence. (If you were wondering, her number one influential album was Tedeschi Trucks Band's "Revelator.")

We all have a "Freebird."

I asked my Independent Seminar students to imagine it is January 10, 2015 and they are reflecting back on their first semester work including their demonstration of learning. In essence I asked them to imagine the day after their "Freebird" performance. I wanted them to project forward and then backwards, to engage their imaginations in self-reflection. I wanted them to imagine what a successful learning process would feel like; how they would know they had achieved all that they could even if the final product was missing elements they had planned for in their Independent Seminar proposals. While some students struggled with the idea of looking backwards, they all understood that for each of them the process was more important that the product. Three examples of their thinking follow: Lili (creating podcasts) wrote "I have had practice doing what I hope to do with my life and I have seen if it is really the right fit for me. I have also found strength in myself to interact with my community and present this to them. I feel proud of myself for this and have learned much from those around me. I only accomplished this with the help and support of the people around me. I now know more about my priorities and goals and hope to continue to experience life through the lives of others." Joe (studying Game Theory) asserted "I tried my best throughout the semester. Although the phrase “try my best” is platitudinous and has different meaning to different people, I interpreted it as exploring my potential and having no regret for myself even when I failed to comprehend part of the material." For Margot (studying Beatnik Culture)  the tangibles were easier to project forward than backwards. "I find it intimidating to be so heavily reliant on self-direction, because I know that the effort and attention I put into this course will truly be reflected in the work I produce. I am fully accountable for every aspect of my own success, which is exactly why I am so determined to take up this challenge."

For each of our students there are both foundational influences and rights of passage. Independent Seminar attempts to create space for students to bring these two strands in their education together. Whether its a self-created recital for the student body, a portfolio of visual work, a forty page research paper on the Syrian Conflict, or an application of mathematical modeling, or a podcast of student life, the final product is more than the sum of its individual elements and the learning is as much about the process as the product.

Monday, September 8, 2014

summer curriculum grants

Today I have been thinking about her effort in relationship to the faculty reports of summer work I have been reading. Westtown has a program to support faculty professional development and curriculum development. Last spring teachers submitted proposals for summer projects, conferences and workshops. Early in September they submit a written reflection about what they have learned and where appropriate the new courses, projects, or units of study they have developed. Many of these reports reflect significant, extended focus over the past two months.

In deciding which proposals to submit, preference was given to those which supported Westtown's strategic initiatives and which brought teachers together in collaborative partnerships. Two religion teachers worked together to create a new 9th grade course in Quakerism. A group of middle school teachers created a cross disciplinary unit based on the book The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. The 11th and 12th grade English program will feature two new electives "Classic Adaptations" and "Poetic Encounters" -- the first will look at Hamlet, Faust, and the Odyessey

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The first two lessons from six months as interim Principal

I am an oldest child. I have a habit of taking charge. In many respects this is a good trait for a Principal. There were times when a decision was needed...when everyone in a meeting was waiting for a sense of direction or an understanding of next steps. There were other times when I wish I had waited to step in or had asked a few more questions or sought out other's opinions before I waded in. Twice I know I muddied the water by responding and deciding rather than making sure I had the best information. In both cases, apologizing and working with all those involved helped to bring a good resolution.

In another instance, I didn't like the direction a faculty member was heading with a process to support students.
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Rather than meeting and asking the person to rethink and consider the implications of his assumptions, I sent an email and simply took over. Understandably, this person felt undermined and angry. In retrospect, I should have had the discussion first. I might still have had to intervene, but I would have given this person the opportunity to provide the solution himself.  We both wanted to support our students. As Principal I had a different perspective, that of parents and their expectations for what the school should provide, and what I thought was realistic. My colleague had concerns about job creep and increasing demands on teacher time.

Besides stepping in when I should wait, I found it all too tempting to send an email
rather than speak to someone in person--while I was Principal my inbox doubled over its previous volume. Opting for email was especially true when I anticipated meeting resistance or displeasure with what I had to say. So my second lesson from this six months is to choose face to face or a phone call (not voicemail!). This summer I have made a point of walking out of my office to find people to respond to their emails or to ask a question that needs more than a yes or no answer. I know that this won't always be possible in the crush of the school year, but if I practice now, it will be easier to do when its harder to do.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Freezing Green Beans and Reading Charles Wright

A week ago I finished reading Seamus Heaney's District and Circle (again), breaking my own rule that my first poet of the summer is someone I haven't read before. I found new poems to hold onto and visit again..."The Tollund Man in Springtime", "Planting the Alder", and "A Stove Lid for W. H. Auden" to name only those most present in my mind. The new poet for this summer is Charles Wright, named Poet Laureate in 2014. After a little research, I chose Negative Blue: Selected Later Poems. I think I chose it because it included his poems from his collection titled Chickamauga.  Many years ago I spent the summer reading Shelby Foote's Chickamuaga and Other Civil War Stories.  I have only read the first eleven of Wright's poems; I know I need to give him and his poems more time. But even the poems set in spring and summer such as "After Reading Tu Fu, I Go Outside to the Dwarf Orchard" have an autumnal feel. I feel detached, held at a distance by this poet contemplating what it all means in the second half of his life. . . what it all means through the lens of LaoTzu and the poets influenced by him. (When I think of Lao Tzu, I tend to remember the sense of humor and for Chinese poets I gravitate to Li Po).  I remember having the same reaction to Don Delillo's White Noise, and anything by John Updike. The sense of detachment and emptiness as emptiness (rather than emptiness as receptivity) in these first poems is out of synch with where I am, when I am.
Perhaps, I shouldn't have started my day in my garden watching bumble bees gather pollen from the liatris. Perhaps I should have skipped counting how many new blooms were on the Magnolia tree. Perhaps I should have started the day with the New York Times and the fighting in the Middle East, the downed plane in the Ukraine, the man killed by the Staten Island police.

Perhaps, I shouldn't have spent my day in the kitchen. Maybe, I could have been more ready for Wright. On the one hand, of what use is it for me to clean, blanch and freeze green beans I bought at the West Chester Grower's Market yesterday? I can for much less money (and time) buy frozen beans at the Acme. Thoughts like these might have opened the way for Wright's lines from "Easter 1989."
On the other hand, I could have spent my day reading something from the piles of books I have throughout the house; I could have spent the time exercising or writing college letters of recommendation for my students. I could have started my reflection on being Interim Principal. If I had a third hand. . . I would say to the other two hands . . .I spent my morning at my kitchen sink, snapping beans and watching "my" humming bird sip nectar from the bee balm Sarah planted in her seventh grade butterfly garden. In between beans, I rolled out the flaky pie crust I had started the day before (and yes a store bought crust is faster and sort of good). Then the crust sat in the fridge for an hour to rest --for better flakiness. The peaches macerated in their own juices which were then boiled down to a third cup of syrup. Peach and blueberry pie and green beans, one for tonight, one for this winter. 

While I worked I thought about how much pleasure I take from looking out my window at the life right there, how much creativity I bring to creating meals for my family, and how much I will enjoy going down to my freezer next winter to get a bag of my frozen beans for one of our favorite winter soups. At that moment I will remember the hummingbird, the sound of the lawn mower, the rooster down the hill and the mockingbird at the top of the Crimson Maple. 

This day, which included cleaning two bathrooms as well as the cooking and baking, brings to mind how much I delight in the witch's stories in Terry Pratchett's disc world series. Unlike the wizards, who mainly eat and argue, the witches do what needs doing, they pay attention, they are woven into life --individual lives and the web of life. Perhaps that's why I savored every page of Michael Ondaatje's Divisidero and had such trouble even finishing Snow Falling on Cedars. (However,  a very good friend tells me to give David Guterson another try).  I want what I read to connect me to life, not hold me at arm's distance, not wallow about death or immortality or numbness or regret or anomie. With bumblebees drunk on nectar who has time to do anything but be alive?

Thursday, April 3, 2014

WEEK 26: What makes a great team mate? #savmp

This week in SAVMP we are asked to consider what makes a great team mate.
“Leaders should never work in isolation and the best one’s often create teams that will ensure they are doing what is best for kids.  In a previous article I posted on my own blog, I share some of the attributes that I look for in a great Assistant Principal.  I would like to challenge you to think and share what you look for in a “leadership partner”?  (George Couros)
I have a quote from Peter Drucker, business guru, on the bulletin board in my office " the task of leadership is to align strengths in such a way that weaknesses are irrelevant.” I have spent considerable time considering the strengths and talents (and areas for growth and even out right weakness) of those I work with. In my more usual job I serve in a role akin to a public school Vice Principal shared across divisions and help our Lower, Middle, and Upper School Principals with curriculum development and faculty evaluations. Reporting to the Head of School I also help the him with special projects. In this role I see myself as the team member rather the constructor of the team. As interim Principal I inherited the team constructed by my predecessors. In all cases I see my task as seeking out the best partners from my co-workers and drawing out their strengths.

In thinking about the attributes I most value in my educational partners I would lift up the following three:

1)  A relentless, laser focus on our mission as a school; the corollary would be a comfort with saying "no, that's not what we do." As an independent school with a very specific and aspirational mission in a very competitive market, decisions have to be consonant with our mission and sensitive to our student market. This is no easy task. In the end, mission has to trump all else. Our mission, in the limits it imposes, fosters incredible opportunities for creativity. Some of my best partners have challenged me to remain within the mission even as we are forging new ground with approaches to program and personnel development.

2) Willingness to always put students first: Teaching in any school is exhausting, in a boarding school the exhaustion can be relentless. In every conversation about balance of life or pace of life for teachers the danger is to put the needs of the adults above the needs of the students. Whether its designing a new student leadership selection process or implementing a 1 to 1 program or creating a new schedule, I want a partner who understands that what serves our students best will in the end serve the adults well too. I am not suggesting that the students run amok or are spoiled or catered too. Rather, the school and its systems are here to serve and educate our students (from within our mission!).

3) Risk taking/confidence/moxie: When I was a full time class room teacher, I experimented with my curriculum, pedagogy, and assessments as a matter of course. I thought everyone did. In a recent meeting, when a well respected, mid-career colleague said that for our emphasis on Action Based Learning to Work, she needed permission to fail, I was reminded once again that my habit of leaping before I looked is not the norm. Many of my colleagues want permission first. While I appreciate caution, I seek out partners who are willing to try something new, have the confidence to be wrong, enjoy taking a creative approach, and are willing to challenge me. I am most impressed when this confidence is accompanied by a genuine unassuming manner.

There are other characteristics I value, not the least a willingness to challenge my assumptions and present alternative ideas. But when it comes to courageous leadership I find the three I listed invaluable.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Week 23: Being a Student Driven Principal #SAVMP --scattered thoughts on a Sunday evening

This week Amber Teaman asked us to consider the challenges of keeping teachers and other adults in a teaching community focused on doing what is best for our students. Recently, we adopted a new schedule. The three prime directives of this schedule were that it serve the needs of students first, that the middle and upper school schedules align enough to allow for student (and therefore teacher) cross over, and that it increase time for extended projects and deeper learning. In other words, the schedule needed to serve students needs to take as wide a variety of courses as possible, to take the courses that best fit their readiness to learn -- 8th graders taking language and math courses in the high school program--, and that time for student exploration be hardwired into the day. The unintended but not unexpected consequences included less meeting time during the day for adult committees and fewer free periods for teachers.The daily period changes were accompanied by a switch from trimesters to semesters. Through the process I observed the correlation between an individual teacher's general unhappiness with the old schedule and now with the new schedule and the number of times sentences about the schedule would began with "I need in order to . . . " or "this doesn't work for me because . . . ."

I believe my colleagues are genuinely motivated to teach because they see themselves as serving their students. Those that don't have this approach generally don't last in today's climate in independent schools.  Naturally, we want to do and teach what we enjoy. If we aren't already knowledgeable we want to be learning something new that interests us. We want to work with students in ways that play to our individual strengths. And as a Principal/principle I want to align my faculties' strengths with the needs of my students and the tasks that need to be accomplished (clubs, sports, advising, academics, dorms, leadership roles, athletics) within the complexity of a school. Having said this, there are any number of things in a school that are good for our students, good for the school and not always good for a teacher. Perhaps, I am over focused on this prompt in job descriptions and the day to day work -- this is probably a reflection of where I am in the cycle of the year.

Let me try and step up to a thousand feet at least.

I intended to write about school change to benefit students and put their needs first. Maybe, I shouldn't have started with the schedule ! :) For the past year I have had the same chart over my desk that Amber placed at the top of her blog. As an administrator I have had to work hardest at avoiding both confusion and false starts. Either the vision isn't clearly articulated or in the end the action plan needs better delineation. Both run into the same problem in the end. Only a clearly articulated vision and a carefully planned set of action steps will overcome inertia and TTWADI. When presenting student centered initiatives, I have found it useful to remind us of where we have been and how the work we have already done has led us to this place -- to lean into the direction we are heading and remind us of why we are doing the work before us, no matter how challenging (or exhilarating!!). This helps with establishing the vision. That work always has our students at the core. I am reminded of a workshop led by Heidi Hayes Jacobs in which she had us imagine students sitting next to us as we mapped our curriculum and then she invited real students into the room. Lately, I have been adding students to faculty committees to remind us always that the decisions we make affect our students; why not invite their voices where appropriate (they are sure to share them inappropriately otherwise).

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Week 20: The Art of Delegation #SAVMP

This week in SAVMP we are considering the importance of delegating tasks to succeeding as an administrator and insuring that our schools thrive. This topic resonates on several levels, the first of which is mere survival. Two weeks into my term as Interim Principal, people ask me how I am getting along. At the end of my first week I was thrilled to remember I had managed to get to the gym three times! At the end of the second week I was struck by how spatially constrained I was by the demands of my new responsibilities. Before, I was observing classes in all three divisions across all of the campus. I tended to meet people in their classrooms and offices, now people come to find me. Instead of working with teachers as people working on the craft of teaching, I find myself talking with upper school teachers about upper school students and upper school department chairs about course offerings and staff needs. One significant and anticipated shift has been in the time speaking with parents. Hearing their concerns, celebrating with them their children's achievements, and solving problems with them has become the  prime focus of my work. Some of this last work should never be delegated -- it properly belongs to the principal.

I have survived this first stretch because I have delegated . . . .and trusted. The only way to step in mid-year is to rely on the staff in place and ask lots of questions. My favorites right now are "what do you need from me," "what does the principal typically do," and "how might you handle this?"  I know my team as colleagues but the specific tasks they perform, the projects they carry forward, the processes they administer are all new to me. My predecessor, Eric Mayer, worked hard to leave me with a strong team. He told me to trust them and I do.

Given the scope of the exciting and energizing work we (the high school) have before us the rest of the year, delegation is the only way forward. Part of delegation includes rethinking how the work gets done and trusting colleagues to do it. In decisions affecting the entire division, our faculty prefers to work as a committee of the whole and yet, over the next several months we have to divide into teams. These teams will each be responsible for a piece of the work, the rest of the faculty will have to trust that the recommendations and plans brought forward are what we will do and not concepts to be de-constructed and then re-structured by the committee of the whole. With four teams meeting at the same time, I can only be in one place at a time. I have to trust that the clerks (in a Quaker school a clerk is the team leader/committee chair) of the teams will carry out the charges/tasks before them with all the creativity and thoughtfulness I know they each possess. This is a different sort of delegation. It requires a trust among colleagues and an openness to the leadership of others.

Because schools have relatively flat structures identifying authentic leadership opportunities becomes critical to developing teacher leaders. Delegation at Westtown works because over the past decade we built a culture of collaboration and have developed more and more avenues for teachers to assume leadership roles as committee clerks, as mentors, as peer coaches. In all of these situations I enjoy the opportunities to listen to these leaders, ask questions, help remove road blocks when I can, redirect when necessary and always support. It brings me great personal satisfaction to see in action the younger men and women who have grown and are growing into leaders within our school.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Week 19 – Communication Essentials #SAVMP

"For this week, I want you to talk about some of your communication essentials and ways that you believe are imperative that we communicate with all of these technologies available."  George Couros

Parents want to know what is happening in their children's lives. 18 years ago when I started teaching parents of our high school students were guaranteed four comments a year from classroom teachers at the end of each marking period and two letters a year from their children's advisers.  Advisers were also expected to call parents within the first month of school to check in and introduce themselves. Today's parents expect more--in an independent school especially. No-longer is it enough for us to tell parent's that we know their child, we need to demonstrate this over and over again.

For students who are struggling, who have IEPs or LSS (depending on your school's lingo), the promise is regular, weekly communication between adviser and parent (and sometimes teacher and parent). But what about students who are doing fine or even excelling? For these parents, our new communication tools are a boon. As a class room teacher I made it a point to send an email out to parents every few weeks sharing where we were in our history studies and giving highlights of student projects, debates, essays or experiments.
Over the course of the year I made it a point to send each parent a brief email about a success enjoyed by their child in class -- leading class discussion, proving a point in a class debate, discovering a new resource in their research process, improving their thesis development. These two types of emails connected parents to our class. As an administrator I will tweet about events at school or to share a picture showing a happening I see in the course of the day. I would never use twitter any other way with parents.

While email works for my happy and general information out to parents, when parents contact me I use another standard. First, I try and respond within 24 hours. If a parent texts (something that rarely happens) I would at least email.
If a parent emails me, I call them. If a parent calls and leaves a message I call and offer to meet in person. If a parent cares enough to call, I need to offer to make it even more personal. Quite often, the parent is satisfied to speak over the phone. I find making the offer of my time in the office conveys my genuine interest. Speaking over the phone allows me to hear the emotion the parent may be feeling--something absent from email. I am able to ask questions in real time and get the information I may need. In person meetings allow for full knowledge of a parent's concerns. I need this knowledge if I am to be an effective partner with parents in their child's education. Being at a boarding school means that not all parents are able to come in, for these parents SKYPE is helpful. For parent's for whom English is not their first language using a translator becomes imperative. We must be able to listen, engage, and understand in order to serve our students and families. The fewer barriers of time, technology, and language between me and my students' parents when they want to talk to me about their children the better.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Interim - Not just a stop gap

Starting tomorrow (1/6/2014) and continuing through June 30, 2014 I am the Upper School Interim Principal. Our previous principal, Eric Mayer, has assumed his new job as Head of School at St Stephen's in Rome. Last summer in anticipation of his departure, in good Quaker order we convened a search committee and conducted a nationwide search. With great excitement, Chris Benbow was selected and accepted the job as our next Upper School Principal. He needed to finish out his current year at The William's School. I am filling the gap.

Many of the goals I set for myself at the beginning of the year have to be set aside. Fortunately, my predecessor and mentor is coming out of retirement to take on most of my responsibilities as Director of Teaching and Learning (DT&L). He will oversee the Visual Arts and Performing Arts curricular reviews. He will participate in the remaining 360 faculty evaluations scheduled for the year. He will take over leadership of the Professional Development Committee, shepherd through the second year of our sabbatical process, and support our first year teacher induction program. Finally, (and most dear to my heart) he will take charge of my five interns.

People I haven't seen since the interim announcement congratulate me, my extended family sees this as a plum, even a temporary promotion (principal makes more sense than Director of Teaching and Learning) . My immediate family and friends know I don't see it that way -- I see it as moving down the hall to a different office, switching administrative assistants, and trading one set of responsibilities and opportunities for another. Furthermore, I know that the challenge to create space for thinking, creating, and planning will multiple exponentially. Part of my role as DT&L was to meet with each of our principals and create space through our conversations for them to take in the bigger picture. Being principal brings with it the unpredictability of students and their parents. Equally, as principal I will be directly responsible for a large faculty rather than the eleven folks who currently report to me. This brings with it another level complexity. In honesty, this dailiness and what one colleague calls the firefighter nature of being a principal is what concerns me the most. At the same time, the opportunity to be in relationship with more of Westtown's constituents is one of the draws to my move down the hall.

I suspect that there are some on the Upper School faculty who are hoping that with an interim, we will take a collective deep breath and hold off on further transformations-- just teach our classes and consolidate the changes already made. Indeed how much change can a six month interim reasonably expect to effect. And yet, when our Head of School asked me what I was excited about in taking on this work, I realized it was the ability to better drive the Upper School initiatives I was supporting in my DT&L role. The next six months will see the actualization of four projects in the works for quite a while. Two will be trans-formative, the other two will require systemic disruptions to the way we have "always" done things.

So I have new/old goals for the rest of the year:

  • To ask lots of questions
  • To bring my full attention to the person/people sitting with me in my office
  • To do this work before me with integrity
  • To lead our faculty through to realization of the school's initiatives
  • To challenge our faculty to be stewards of our students and the world they live in.
  • And to happily hand off this work to our new principal in July!

Friday, January 3, 2014

Reflections on the First Semester of the Independent Seminar

This is a re-post of a blog I wrote for Westtown School's Independent Seminar Blog

We are in the last weeks of the inaugural Independent Seminar. If you have been following the Independent Seminar blog you know that each of the students involved is pursuing a very different passion. In mid-December they each wrote a final blog post and are now writing self-reflections as they put the finishing touches on their projects.
I have been trying to decide how to describe my role as it has evolved. What follows are some terms that do and don’t fit.
facilitatorFacilitator– I have helped them at different points along the way to find the person they need or to talk through an idea. For Isabel’s performance I helped her think through all the support people and scheduling hurdles she would need to negotiate in planning her performance.  I connected Eric with our Lower School Principal so that he could set up a day long visit. Tristan and Habeeb’s poetry jam took a different sort of facilitation — assuaging the concerns of teachers that the assembly would be too provocative (it wasn’t).
Mentor — Lyra and I discussed feminist theories of writers and wondered aloud what her French fairy-tale writers were challenging. Emma needed help from time to time talking through a writing idea. Taylor wanted to discuss the writing process. Nate needed to try out his ideas on the Alawites. Shuangcheng needed to talk through his frustrations with Westtown’s performance at a math competition. Chester, writing a computer program, probably thought I had little to offer and yet we talked through the steps he needed to follow and the problems he was encountering. I didn’t have answers, but I did have the sense to help him consider his program from different perspectives.
Administrator/Conductor — I am not sure about these two.conductorCertainly, I have had final say on publishing each post and seeing to it that the posts happen on time. I have alerted other administrators that students would be coming their way to set up use of the theater, schedule final presentations, or visit classes. I have kept in contact with mentors and made sure students fulfilled the intent of their original proposals. I haven’t been able to pull the eleven into a semi-cohesive group seeing themselves as supportive and more than mildly interested in each other’s work. Efforts to have them comment on and read each other’s blogs have been sporadic at best.
Teacher — One of the skills we have focused on is blogging. Over the course of the semester each student has received feedback on everything from grammar, to tone, to using images to add interest. What’s interesting and challenging is the awareness they have that what they write goes out to a wide, unknown audience TeachLearnBlocks1and a resistance to adopt techniques to improve that reach such as adding hyperlinks or sharing their posts on their Facebook and tumblr pages. Our college counselor wished that each blogger had attended to the over all quality of their writing (as did I). As a teacher of blogging I give myself a B- and look forward to having the opportunity to improve! 
Another skill reinforced was creating an annotated bibliography. Taylor’s bibliography includes sources on ammunition, Isabel’s focuses on the pieces she selected for her recital. Each has expanded his or her understanding of this most basic of tools for recording and focusing one’s work. 
In the next two weeks all of their work will come in, I will read their self-reflections, check in with our librarian about the quality of their bibliographies, sit in on their presentations and defenses, check in with their mentors, write summative comments and assign grades. This feels teacherly.
In spite of or perhaps because of the muddiness of my own role, everyone involved in this first go round feels this experiment in education has been hugely successful.