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.