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When Change Comes

“Write hard and clear about what hurts.” -Ernest Hemingway

When change comes, I’ll tell stories of how the pain led to the love. I’ll be reminded that no matter how deeply things can hurt, the love that can follow can run deeper. I’ll look back and think, we held on to hope, we held on to our faith, and those of us with pure hearts and genuine intentions held on to each other. When change comes, there will be rejoicing where there is unrest, community where there is rioting, and peace where there are protests. When change comes, we will think about how in the midst of pain, there is a story to be told and that we are allowed to control the ending. When change comes, I will no longer feel the pressure that my Black and Brown people feel to be twice as good for a single chance. I will be enough. We will all be enough.

When change comes, the freedom to feel hate, to express it in your bumper sticker, on your website, in your social media feed, will be extinguished. Change will not allow hate to lead the conversation, let alone be a lingering visitor who always overstays his welcome. My friends will love me for who I am and not for what I can do for them. Humanity will be what centers our ability to treat others with dignity and respect instead of money, greed, network, and connection. I will not carry the burden of waiting for my four nieces to experience their own evolution with the pain I have known as racism and prejudice, that my mother has known, or my grandparents knew. Instead, I’ll watch them grow into beautiful, intelligent, young ladies without the trauma of carrying a lifetime of worry about racism and prejudice. There will no need for them to wonder if they will get a fair shot, an equal opportunity, or a chance that they more than deserve.

When change comes, our education system will not highlight turn around principals who pour their hearts and souls into schools of concentrated poverty in hopes that education will be a part of the cocktail of medication needed to change their lives. There will be no more haves and have nots. There will not be people who suffer the consequences of redlining and ecological impacts like chronic asthma and other underlying health conditions because their neighborhoods are built within feet of the city’s landfill. When change comes hunger will not be an issue in the richest and most industrialized nation in the world. People won’t die because they cannot afford medicine because they do not have health insurance or a job that pays a living wage that is less than what they would receive being unemployed. When change comes, an achievement gap, centered in American education’s original sin of segregation, will be healed. Families will choose schools before they choose neighborhoods. Teachers will teach where they are needed and not choose their schools because of a worry that the test scores won’t manifest in a way that demonstrates their sincere efforts and hearts. Educators will be treated like the important people they are and there will be no need to question if public education benefits all of society. When change comes, my sisters and I will not be statistical anomalies. We will forever be examples of the rule and never thought of as an exception.

When change comes, we will feel better. People will be better. Love will be more abundant and present than it ever has before. Peace will be ever present and will be as pervasive as the hate and evil rhetoric that is front and center for the globe to see in America today. When change comes, we will know that justice and mercy, grace and hope, are not for some, but for all. There will be no question as to whether America’s foundations like life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness are conditional and only for some, and not all. But change won’t come, unless we will it so. Change is on us. All of us. We have a responsibility-now more than ever before-to be the change we know the world needs. The time for wishing for change has expired. We are well past due. And it won’t be easy. It will require courage and bravery like never before. We cannot operate in our safe circles and keep our intentions and feelings to ourselves. We must carry each other to the other side of this thing. One step, one idea, one person, one relationship, and one conversation at a time. We’ll have to make sure our vulnerability does not turn into vitriol, our longing for love does not turn our hope into hatred, and that the slow tendency of progress does not cause us to lose our persistence in the fight for what we know is not only right, but also desperately needed. And if we can do this, together, change will come. I believe that. I need to believe that. I have to believe that.

Until next time-be you. Be true. Be a hope builder!

Latoya

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Pain on Paper: The Murder of George Floyd

“Write hard and clear about what hurts.”

-Ernest Hemingway

Stop killing us. Stop killing us. Stop murdering us in the open streets of America. Stop strangling us. Stop shooting us. Stop choking us. Stop using your knee to cut off our airways while we are restrained and handcuffed on the ground and begging for our lives. We raise hell every time you raise the price of a Black American’s life.

I cannot watch the video of George Floyd being killed. My psyche cannot take another mental image of a fellow Black American dying in the open streets of this country at the hands of those whose motto is to protect and serve. The fragility of my emotional state is not due to a lack of mental instability, but due to what seems to be a constant loss of Black life due to hatred, racism, and pure evil. Seems I have spent much of my adulthood trying to reconcile why the unwarranted deaths of Black and Brown people in this country continue-whether it’s the way we’ve been disproportionality impacted by COVID-19, the killing of unarmed Black and Brown persons at the hands of authorities, or the infant mortality rate of Black babies-it hasn’t stopped. In the beginning I asked the question, Why?, Why are they killing us?, but I am far beyond this question now. I’ve come to realize that there is no good why, and so it is not the question that needs to be asked, but the demand that needs to be made. Stop killing us.

I often ask my Mother about the things that trouble me most, and this topic is something we have discussed often. I’ll never forget how she enlightened me on how this kind of vitriol hatred that turns into murder happens: “The only way you can do things like this is to not see another person as human. We are not human to some of them.” The realization that we are seen as something other than human by some stings to the core and eats at my very soul, but doesn’t seem to touch theirs. These are the people who claim Jesus as Lord, as do I, who do not believe in abortion, who believe that their views are not just right of center, but righteous. They use their single religion issues-abortion, gay marriage, and more-to cast their votes, and at the same time can sit idly by while the mistreatment of Black and Brown people is clearer than it was in the age of the Civil Rights Movement. No one was with cell phone to film Bloody Sunday. No one videoed and posted to Facebook the assassination of Martin Luther King. No one posted the recording of the four little girls who were murdered in Sunday School at the 16th Street Baptist Church to Twitter. Yet, change came. Or at least we thought it did.

Fast forward to 2020 and there is no doubt that Emmitt Till’s accuser lied. She admitted it. And there is no doubt that George Floyd, Tamir Rice, Keith Scott, Jordan Edwards, Stephon Clark, Botham Jean, and Ahmaud Aubrey-who was hunted like an animal, just like Momma said, were all murdered. We saw it. We don’t have to wait for an advancement in technology or the admission of one whose days seem shorter and closer to ending to make things right by owning the truth. We have the truth. We know the truth. ALL OF US. We don’t have the inconvenience of determining the truth about what really happened to these people. The truth is before our very eyes, and yet there is still a lack of consensus among us. The need to choose a single side divides us, but what is right is not complicated.

Patriotism has many faces. It’s the tears that ran down my Daddy’s face, an Air Force and Vietnam veteran, when he stood at attention to listen to Proud to Be An American. It’s the fury I feel that we are all supposed to be equal and free and we are not. It’s the pride I feel when I watch the Olympics and see Simone Biles, Serena Williams, and Simone Manuel bring home the gold. It’s the anger I have when I am treated as an exception, rather than the rule. It’s not about which side I am on or if I can feel the complexity of all that I feel and still clearly believe that murdering someone is wrong. I can do exactly that.

As I process all that is happening in our world, I wait. I wait for the day when my psyche isn’t fragile because of the videos circulating of Black and Brown people being murdered, and wondering about the deaths that I haven’t seen because they weren’t videoed. I welcome a fragile psyche due to heart break, loss of a loved one, sadness for a change in life that wasn’t expected, but the traumatic experience of watching Black folks murdered in the street on repeat-and waiting for justice cannot be ignored. I don’t want to wait for the arrest. I don’t want to wait for the trial. I don’t want to wait for them to be punished, to be sentenced to death, to be sent to prison. I’m tired of waiting.

I want them to stop killing us.

-Latoya

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Authenticity-What Public Schools Need Now

It’s taken me so long to get here. From the start of school closure on March 16th here in South Carolina until this past Monday, May 18th, I have struggled. I am now a full time insomniac. I take short naps at night, and wake up almost like clockwork at 2:00 a.m. No melatonin, Benadryl (don’t judge me), or chamomile tea does the trick, and yes, I keep trying it. Yesterday, I felt like myself for the first time. I was able to be intellectually present all day for work and didn’t find myself overwhelmed by the immediacy associated with COVID-19. I finally hit my stride. My brain was working the way it is supposed to, and I have to admit, I did get a nudge from my superintendent after I did not seem present as a thinking partner in a meeting the previous day. While I can think of lots of reasons for my quietness or lack of intellectual commitment during the closure, I know much of it has to do with this global pandemic experience. Yet more of it, has to do with the fact that I am not getting what I need-authentic interaction with other human beings.

I am a people person. I love people. I like to help. I love an underdog. I like to be the person who you can depend on when nobody else shows up for the work. I like to be the one who goes the extra mile when others decide it’s not worth it and sleep instead. And I enjoy working hard not because I want to show anybody up, but because it gives my life meaning. It helps me fit. It makes me matter. It fuels my passion and my purpose. When school closed, my main source of authenticity-my relationships and interaction with other people went from real world to a virtual world. Now I smile just as hard over Zoom as I do in person, but the warmth that is generated in a conversation when you are sitting in a room across a table from someone thinking through something important cannot be felt. The energy that I bring to a room, that I feel in a room, is simply absent in a Zoom or WebEx meeting. And it’s not because of Zoom or WebEx. It is because I feel alone. Isolation is the greatest enemy to progress. Our growth as humans is centered on our experiences, our mistakes, and what we learn from interacting with others. We are social beings and in the absence of other people, over an internet connection, and the physical state of being alone, my spirit suffers.

I’ve come to realize that it isn’t just my relationship with other people that I need, but it’s the authenticity that comes with that. I want to feel deeply connected to others. I want the work that I do to make a difference and touch my heart. We shed tears at a high school graduation because in the moments of struggle we often experience through our learning and teaching journeys, we carry each other. What resonates with us, within our heart, and deep in our souls is that we were able to care for our students enough to help them pull through those tough moments, and they were able to feel that care and give it one more try. This deep feeling of connection sustains us as educators. It’s the reason we return after a terrible day, a tough week, a failed lesson, and after COVID19.

I can’t help but wonder what would happen for our public schools if we centered our efforts around providing students with authentic and genuine learning experiences. What if we made every effort to develop children from the inside out? What if we spent our time really digging into what makes them feel like they matter, that they are cared for, and that life AND their learning have purpose? In the quiet moments of COVID-19 I have come to realize many things, but one thing stands out the most. I love being a leader because it is one of the most rewarding challenges in spite of being one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life. The authenticity of the experiences I have had have helped me develop courage, given me clarity about who I am, how I desire to make my life have purpose and meaning, and why my relationships with others matter. I’m not in hot pursuit of accomplishments, but in need of deep and authentic connections with others. I may be wrong, but I can’t help but believe that this internal need for a genuine connection with other human beings is what keeps me going, and it is what I believe could help us make the public school experience everything we all know it should be for every child who walks through our doors.

Until next time, be you. Be true. Be a hope builder.

Latoya

@latoyadixon5

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The Critical Condition of America’s Public Education System

I am concerned. Here we are amidst a global pandemic, and some are now clearly able to see the cost of America’s original sin against public education: inequity. In the last six weeks the words digital divide, rural broadband gap, and equity have smothered the American education landscape. I want to believe that we all know the truth: This isn’t a new problem. It wasn’t brought on by COVID-19, and it won’t end when and if it is eradicated. The only thing that will eradicate the inequity that our public education system, and more so, our students suffer from, is for us to confront inequity head on and take action to create a new and more equitable system. Our response to this time in history will either exacerbate the gap between the haves and have nots or help to close them. It’s on us. And I mean it’s on ALL of us. Educators cannot do this alone. This requires the collective effort of educators, policy makers, broadband suppliers, the business community, the faith-based community; local, state, and government officials are also included. We have an opportunity to step forward in way that could change the trajectory of public education in this country and more importantly, the lives of many children. What will we do?

Right now, it is incredibly important we move from words to action. We must move beyond shining a light on inequity and closer to doing something about it. We can design a system of public education that doesn’t work against the very core of its’ mission: to provide a quality education for all students. While a change of this substantial shift cannot occur overnight, there is no time like the present. We can begin now, and to not do so, will only contribute to a further deterioration to the essential purpose of the system. I’ve thought about this for a long time, and more so with the onset of this pandemic. I have ideas about how we might do this, and I’d like to share them with you here in this blog.

  1. The system must be student centered.

We must create a system of education that focuses on the individual needs, strengths, talents, and opportunities of students. As we move forward, standardization must be in its’ right place and removed from the places where it has not and will not serve us well. We must reduce the variation in instructional quality as much as possible. We can do that by not duplicating efforts. If we can agree on what students should know and be able to do when they leave our system, then we can design curricular content that is available to every student. Instead, what we currently have is a system where teachers across the country are designing thousands of lessons that are so supposed to ultimately have the same learning goal at the end. We have numerous versions of how we teach converting a decimal to a fraction, how to understand the relationship between causes and effects, etc. In a student-centered system, our focus would shift from pushing out instructional content to focusing on providing quality feedback to students to make sure they are learning and mastering the skills and processes they need to be successful. We’d walk away from the over dependence on standardized testing to inform us on how the system is working, and move to a system where students are at the center and have choice about how they demonstrate to us that they’ve achieved the learning targets we’ve set for them and they’ve set for themselves. Our focus would no longer be on making sure every student gets the same thing. Rather, we’d focus on making sure every student gets what he or she needs. What we can standardize is the belief that a personalized education serves students much better than a standardized one.

2. The system must have the right drivers.

Our students must be motivated to learn by having the opportunity to participate in meaningful and relevant learning experiences. Grades and assessment ratings can no longer serve as motivating factors for our students. With grades at the center of everything we have done with students and a hyper focus on rankings and ratings, we’ve reduced at worst and eliminated at best, the joy of learning and its’ ability to be deep and meaningful. Instead, the effort our students put forth is driven by the grade they desire, and for many, grades are not enough. In the end, our students find themselves searching for purpose and meaning, wanting to be a part of something greater than themselves. Eventually the threat of failing grades, not being able to get into a good college, is not sustaining. They enter adulthood and the workforce where there are no grades and no rankings. They find themselves challenged because they’ve been subjected to a system where their motivation was centered on the grade they received in terms of their effort, rather than on their ability to make a meaningful difference in their organization, their community, and the world. Allowing our students to be driven by exploring their passions, finding their purpose, and experiencing deep learning around those things that touch their hearts would create drivers that are sustainable over time.

3. We must invest in public education.

The impact of the negative narrative that has shadowed public education has caused our students to suffer, and even more so, our educators. The shortage in teachers, the mass exodus many have made from the profession, and the lack of investment in those who serve students, and in a larger sense, society as a whole is clear. Our focus on inputs to the system must be greater than the focus on outputs. We must put forth the effort that public education and its’ educators deserve to help them become skillful practitioners. That might mean more incentives for students to explore a career in education, paying teachers more competitive salaries, and a more robust and personalized professional development system. Whether we are willing to admit it or not, the return on our investment will be directly related to the degree and intensity in which we invest in the system itself and its’ providers.

I am hopeful. I hope we take an opportunity to make meaningful changes that can benefit our students and the public education system for years to come. We need the commitment of everyone who benefits from a strong and successful public education system to help us remedy the inequities that have plagued our system for far too long. While inequity may be America’s original sin when it comes to public education, it’s not too late for us to repent-to turn away from the old ways, and to look forward towards a future that is brighter for ALL children.

Until next time, be you! Be true! Be a hope builder!

Latoya

@latoyadixon5

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Redefining What Makes A School Great in the Wake of COVID-19

Our public schools are more than teaching and learning hubs for our children. Many students receive a variety of services beyond instruction at school. These include access to mental health counseling, physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, art, music, physical education, access to a nurse, food bags on Fridays for those students who we know live in food insecure situations, & breakfast, lunch, and snack at school during the weekdays, to name a few. This ecosystem of services is essential to the healthy development of a child and those are the things you won’t find on any school report card. For example, our school district served 18, 474 meals last week, we handed out paper pencil learning packets, and we delivered meals to those who didn’t have transportation to come pick them up. There’s no rating for that.

It’s high time America recognizes its’ public schools for the incredible work they do. When an epidemic or crisis hits, the school buildings become shelters over night, buses are suddenly used to transport anything-people, food, materials-that will help the situation, and educators stand on the front lines to fill the gaps. As much as some may attempt to use this as an invitation to the idea that brick and mortar schools are no longer needed, everything about how the public school systems and educators have stepped up and stepped in right now says different.

We are an essential part to the success of our country, the continuation of our democracy, the future of our children. Let us not forget that our children our watching during this time. They see us, the educators, working as essential staff to make sure they have food and keep learning. Let us not grow weary about the children and what they are missing right now. We’ve never needed standardized testing to tell us what our children need, and we don’t need it now. They need the opportunity to create, play outside, collaborate, problem solve, read, and write. They need to connect and build strong and trusting relationships with caring and nurturing adults. They need encouragement and support as they face this new situation, just like us.

I’ve never been more proud to be a public school educator. I pray for strength, safety, guidance, and wisdom for all of us, and I hope the rest of the country can clearly see our value and shift the narrative that’s contributed to teachers being underpaid, schools being underfunded, and efforts to dismantle and privatize the important work we do for ALL children. When this is done, let’s work on those things. That will be the best thank you of all.

Until next time, be you. Be true. Be a hope builder.

Latoya

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New Resource Alert for School Leaders

“The real test of leadership isn’t about what you can accomplish, but how well you can drive the improvement of someone else’s knowledge, skills, and capacity.”-Latoya Dixon, Ph.D.

Over a year ago, I started working to put together a practical tool for school leaders to use to support their improvement efforts. So here we have, The Instructional Leadership Workbook: A Practical Guide to School Improvement.

I debated about releasing it for some time, but ultimately decided to share it as a resource on my site, Leadership With Latoya. It is not a perfect tool, but I hope it might help school leaders who are looking for a practical way to approach instructional leadership, desire to pull all the pieces together, or looking for a way to organize their efforts.

The workbook is designed to be used, that’s why it’s available in Word. The hope is that you can type directly into it or print it and write into it as you plan. The formatting isn’t perfect and it potentially has errors, but I am not sharing it because I aim to be perfect. I am sharing it because I have a deep desire to help school leaders everywhere be their very best. That’s what Leadership With Latoya is all about, building community and supporting leaders, one leader at a time.

If you are willing to give it a look, I would love to hear from you. Let me know what parts work well for you and what is missing. My goal is to make this site a resource hub for leaders everywhere and your feedback will help me do that. You can send me your feedback directly at leadershipwithlatoya@gmail.com. Here’s to leading well!

Latoya

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Courage: The Ultimate Challenge of Leadership

It’s not uncommon to chat about leadership with my sisters. While we all work in different fields, we all find how we work with others more effectively to be incredibly intriguing. We see many commonalities in our work with others because working with people, helping them reach their highest potential, supporting their efforts, and acknowledging their hard work isn’t all that different, regardless of the professional field. Over the years we’ve shared insights, challenges, successes, and of course…books. We all love to read and I’d go as far as saying we’ve been in our own exclusive book club for most of our lives.

This week I read Michael Fullan’s book Nuance: Why Some Leaders Succeed and Others Fail. It was an excellent read and I can’t recommend it strongly enough if you are a student of leadership and aspire to be an excellent leader. As I shared some of my learning with my sister over a phone call, I found myself coming back to what I have found to be one of the greatest challenges for leaders: courage. It’s no secret that leaders are charged with making hard decisions, conducting courageous conversations, and nudging folks beyond their comfort zones. This is incredibly difficult work, and making sure your nudge is seen as well intentioned and a result of your caring about the folks you serve as a person and professional can be tough.

Human nature is one that responds well to routine, predictability, and comfort. When we are pushed beyond this, it’s natural for us to resist-and that resistance can manifest in a variety of ways: explicit refusal, indirect avoidance, an uptick in anxiety, or paralysis. And we name this in different ways, feeling overwhelmed is a common one. For those of us who are leaders, our challenge is to not let these facets of human nature drive our efforts. When we are challenged with leading others to a new level of performance, shifting a culture, or achieving their highest potential, it’s not hard to succumb to a sense of empathy that alters our leadership. What we know we need to do gets tangled up with what others feel about what we are asking of them, and we lose the ownership of leading others through these tough and challenging places. Our challenge as leaders isn’t to disregard what others feel, but to help them move forward in spite of what they feel. We do this when we acknowledge the difficulty in something and accompany that acknowledgment with an affirming confidence in their ability to achieve it. It might sound something like this: “I know this is really hard and a big shift in the way we’ve always done things, but I also know you are more than capable of doing this. I believe in you and I am going to help you get through this. You can do it.”

But far too often I’ve watched leaders struggle with how to respond to the difficulty of change and people’s reactions to it. Their empathy turns into sympathy and they change their expectations or shift the need for change to those above them, losing all ownership of the very things they are trying to implement. One thing is for sure-when you don’t own the change you’re in charge of leading, neither will the folks you serve. Courageous leaders operate differently. They acknowledge feelings of others, but they are willing to endure the process of change, and understand that shifting anything-a culture, a practice, a perspective, is a process. It is a long and arduous process, and to shift anything you must stay with it long enough for it to move. Leaders who lack courage quit too soon, give in too early, or become inconsistent rather than persistent, because they lack the stamina that courage requires.

Courage is born in the moments when we decide to not give up or give in, even when things feel hard, difficult, or uncomfortable. It is our ability to “stay with it” that is the ultimate test of our leadership. This development of endurance takes practice. It isn’t something we acquire when given an opportunity to lead. Like a marathon runner, we must train, pushing ourselves for ourselves, so that when the time comes, we can continue without faltering. As leaders, having a strong sense of who we are and what we believe is instrumental in the development of courage. When we know what we believe and what we stand for, we can demonstrate a strength that supports us in moments of struggle. For in the end, it is not our intelligence, our charisma, or our abilities that get us to the victory line, but our steadfast courage that will carry us all the way there.

Until next time, be you. Be true! Be a hope builder!

Latoya

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The Cognitive Conditioning of America’s Educators

I’m afraid we’ve been brainwashed. I think most of us with 20 or more years in this field remember the age-old interview question, “What is your philosophy of education?” I can remember answering that question too. My answer then isn’t different from my answer now. I believe education can change the lives of children. I believe it can and does make a difference. I believe that for all children, but especially for children of poverty, education is the gateway to economic mobility, and gives all of us an opportunity to make the world a better place. I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that it has the power to break generational strongholds of poverty, trauma, and more. Without my education, from Head Start to my Doctorate of Philosophy degree, my life would not be what it is today. And I am willing to bet, if this question was posed to educators across the country their responses would be similar to mine. Yet, when we begin to have vigorous debate about the value and use of high stakes assessments, our philosophies are often overshadowed by a narrative of weaponized accountability, competition among schools and districts, and our perceived need to sort, sift, rank, and label schools and students. 

You might wonder why I am concerned that our colleagues have been brainwashed. There are lots of examples I could give, but here are a few that particularly trouble me. With the reauthorization of the ESEA, also known now as the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, states were given the opportunity to exercise flexibility in meeting the requirements of federal accountability. Yet, few states ventured away from the assessment systems brought on by all of the previous named pieces of legislation, like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. I can’t help but wonder if the redundant inoculation of a narrative that has said we must label our schools to hold them accountable, and we must use high stakes testing to do so, and to prove our worth and validity as institutions of public education and recipients of public tax dollars, has led us to believe that there is only one way to measure success in our schools. This particular mindset troubles me because it creates a false positive, a perception or belief that a few days of high stakes testing can paint the wholistic picture of a school’s or district’s success. I learned early that 175 days are greater than 5 days, and I choose to believe that an absolute measure of our schools are better captured across the majority of time we spend instructing students and students spend learning. This isn’t the only thing that has led me to believe we’ve been conditioned to quantify the complex efforts and skills involved with teaching and learning in absolute fashion. There’s more.

This year, in South Carolina, there is a proposal to eliminate additional testing, not required by the federal government. This means we will no longer test Social Studies at the elementary and middle school level, and Science will be assessed once in middle school and once in high school. This proposal has brought on an onslaught of concern, specifically from Social Studies educators. In short, some of these folks have expressed concern that if Social Studies isn’t included in our high stakes assessment and accountability system, then it may not be taught. This is the epitome of the “tail wagging the dog.” I can’t help but strongly challenge such thinking. What students need to know and be able to do should not be determined by what is on the big set of tests at the end of the year. We know from a variety of research that our students must be problem solvers, collaborators, creative, persistent, authentic engagers of literacy of all kinds, kind, healthy, and whole people to become successful adults. If that is so, then it suggests to me, that reducing our practice as only valid if children participate in a high stakes assessment related to the content we have taught is counter intuitive to what many of us would articulate as our philosophy of education. With or without a high stakes assessment, what we teach students and the skills we want students to know and demonstrate are important. We don’t need a highly consequential assessment to prove that. I trust educators as professionals, who love the whole child, and want children to have the instructional and educational experience they deserve-tested or not.

So why then, have we allowed our philosophies to be disrupted by those who haven’t done the work we do? Why is it, that we buy into someone else’s philosophy, be it corporate or individual, about how we prove that we are doing good work? The futures of our students are the ultimate measures of our efforts. What they become, or fail to become, is a reflection of our work and the work of other important stakeholders such as parents, community members, etc. We do not do this alone. Yet, there are those of us who have allowed the assertions of others to define us. We have been conditioned to believe that if it doesn’t show up on a high stakes assessment as positive, if it isn’t colored in green, if the grade doesn’t show up as an A, if the rating doesn’t say excellent, then our work and our efforts are to be questioned and perhaps, viewed as ineffective or less effective. I whole heartedly reject that, and I hope you will too.

Dabo Swinney, the Clemson Tiger football coach, and two time National Champion, said it best: “Best is the standard.” Our job isn’t to try and be better than other schools or districts. We shouldn’t rests our efforts on how much better or worse our students perform than the school next door, or the state across the border. As educators, we must define best for ourselves and by ourselves. A failure to subscribe to our own educational philosophies has the potential to lead to a brainwashing of sorts-an adoption of a belief that we didn’t originally subscribe to when we started doing this important work.

My charge to educators today is to think for yourself. Make sure your efforts are aligned to your educational philosophy, not the accountability system of the school report card, or the mandates of those who choose to put our schools, districts, and states in rank order and label us because of a perceived belief that it will incentivize better performance. Tell them to apply this same thinking to the work of doctors, hospitals, engineers, IT work, and business. Produce a report card based on a few days of interaction with customers, patients, or clients. Use that data to rank, sift, and sort these entities and publish for all to view and make judgement of quality of their work. I can guarantee you that Apple isn’t trying to be better than Samsung, and Kroger isn’t trying to be better than Publix. They are all trying to be the best they can be…because best is the standard. Decide for yourself.

Until next time, be you. Be true. Be a hope builder!

Latoya

@latoyadixon5

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Four Dangerous Assumptions of Accountability & School Quality

Accountability is important. We all need to take personal responsibility for our actions, for our work, and for our impact on others. We need to know how children are performing, how we can help and support them in improving their achievement, and opportunities to identify areas where they are gifted and strong and where students need to grow. It’s unfortunate, but the weaponizing of assessment in school reform has led to a number of assumptions about school accountability systems. In this blog, I am going to attempt to outline some of my concerns in this regard.

Assumption 1: Accountability scores are equivalent to school quality.

Far too often, school report card grades or scores are driving home values, community growth, and an assumption that the quality of what is happening in classrooms is far greater in those schools with high accountability scores versus those schools with low accountability scores. Quality and accountability should not be conflated, but seems to be regularly in discussions of school reform and improvement. We cannot assume that the score is a solid indication that quality instruction, quality relationships, and quality decisions are being made in a school with high accountability scores, and that the opposite is true for those schools that don’t perform so well in the accountability system.

Assumption 2: High accountability scores are an indication of high teacher quality.

We know, from scores of research, that our students from higher socio-economic families present an advantage in terms of their performance on achievement tests in comparison to their counterparts. The background knowledge and experiences they bring to school reduce the need for teachers to provide explicit direct instruction around academic vocabulary, to scaffold learning, or fill in content knowledge gaps. Simply put, we can surmise that students perform well on the achievement measures if the accountability scores are high, but we cannot assume that those scores are due to a higher degree of teacher quality in comparison to their low achieving counterparts.

Assumption 3: Schools that fare well in the accountability system are doing something dramatically different from those who do not score as well.

It pains me to hear folks talk about accountability scores in this regard. As educators, many of us have probably been privy to a conversation among our colleagues, where one asks, “What are y’all doing to get those scores?” This question is fatal flaw in school improvement efforts because it often leads to a desire to replicate a practice with no adaptation for the context and deficiencies under which a school’s students and teachers might be operating within. The “Simon Says” approach to school improvement does not work. Every school and its community is unique, and we must be certain to account for context in our efforts. Not doing so, in my opinion, is the equivalent of providing a Band-Aid for an infection rather than an antibiotic, and expecting the same healing the Band-Aid produced for a scrape for a bacterial infection.

Assumption 4: More effective and impactful leaders are in schools with high accountability scores versus those in schools with low or average accountability scores.

This one hits close to home. I’m biased and I know it, and it’s because I led a low-performing school, and did so with the highest degree of effort and instructional leadership. To support our students in the midst of a math teacher vacancy, I taught 8th grade math for two periods each morning, and served as co-principal for the rest of the day. I can attest that the challenges we faced in our school were exacerbated and atypical, but we knew we would still be held to the same accountability measures as more affluent, resourced, and advantaged schools. Let me be clear, I have no problem with a standardized accountability expectation. I just want to be sure that the assumption that high performing schools are an indication of high leadership effectiveness is a dangerous one. It is simply not so. One should not assume that there is a phenomenal school leader in every “Excellent” rated school, and conversely, the assumption that there is a highly ineffective leader in every “Unsatisfactory” rated school should not be made. You have to see the work to know the impact and a report and statistical analysis of achievement data cannot provide us with conclusions about leader quality, teacher quality, or school quality.

What troubles me most is the impact these assumptions have on schools, but also on families. The family that assumes they are moving into a great area with a great school only to find that the culture is toxic, in spite of the achievement scores and accountability performance. Further, that the teacher quality is not exceptionally different than that of the previous school their child attended that had lower accountability scores. When folks lean into these four dangerous assumptions, it perpetuates the false narrative that are public schools are failing and that some schools are exceptionally worse or better than other schools. A deficit mindset sets in, schools and families begin an intense focus on what is wrong, and what is right, losing the balanced mindset that we all need that considers all factors when we think about how well or unwell a school is faring. Instead, we need to view accountability scores for what they are: a statistical analysis of student performance on high stakes assessment-not a report on teacher, leader, or school quality. Keeping accountability in the right perspective and communicating about it in a way that makes sense and is honest and transparent regarding what it is and what it isn’t is critically important in the current public education climate and teacher crisis. We can do better, and we should.

Until next time, be you. Be true! Be a hope builder!

Latoya

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Leading For Improvement-Part 10: See the connections. Share them explicitly.

School improvement requires a sense of mutual interdependence. In the context of improvement, it means we recognize how one person’s actions affects another person’s experience. To be more specific, we know that when everyone puts forth his or her very best effort, we all benefit. One of the most important things leaders should do in the improvement process is help members of the organization see the connections among their efforts. Show each person the connection among processes, skills, knowledge, and efforts. Once we can articulate this, we can create a sense of purpose for the team-a purpose that is greater than one’s self. This creates commitment to the work, but more importantly to the organization and its’ members.

This expanded commitment can drive consistency in efforts, fidelity of implementation, and quality of work. When we know that our inconsistency and lack of fidelity to implement the changes we have all committed to can negatively affect the organization and our colleagues, we are more likely to stay true to our change efforts. We want to be sure we can say to our colleagues that our efforts are up to the challenge, and the desire to be a committed and dedicated member of the team can carry us in moments when we feel we cannot carry ourselves. This connection to the collective work and our colleagues can be an instrumental facet of our improvement efforts. At the heart of change is connection, an understanding that what we do or fail to do, is directly connected to the organization’s future or the future of those we serve.

The power of connection is a central theme to improvement efforts. When we make explicit effort to connect to each other, to our work, to our organizations-we are able to learn, grow, and thrive. Conversely, isolation is sure to sabotage our efforts. That’s why leaders must paint the picture for others. Name the connections. Ask others to share ways they are connected to the work and their colleagues. Ask them to name and claim the impact of their efforts and their connections. Connected people are able to take on the challenging work of improvement because they know they don’t have to do it alone!

Until next time, be you! Be true! Be a hope builder!

Latoya

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Leading for Improvement Part 9: Celebrate the change-big or small.

When we press for change, we have to be sure we don’t take on a deficit mindset. It means we must focus on securing small wins rather than thinking about what we are yet to accomplish. These opportunities to celebrate, small or large, are critical to the process of continuous improvement. It is in these moments, that we affirm the hard and challenging work of others, we uplift and encourage them, and we say with our words and actions that the work matters. Our acknowledgement of effort and improvement creates a sense of pride that can only come from working toward a goal and accomplishing it. That sense of pride is what helps us believe in what we’ve yet to achieve and keep going on days and moments when we realize that in spite of all the effort and desire we put forth, there are no guarantees that our work will result in the changes we are hoping to see.

Celebration doesn’t have to be massive, but it must be for the masses. That means we celebrate the efforts of everyone because we approach success collectively, the same way we approach the hard work. As a young principal, I can remember being so excited about making certificates for our entire school staff. I made them to celebrate the improvement of academic achievement we experienced after embarking on the Professional Learning Communities work for two years. Each certificate had a picture of each staff member along with his or her name and a line describing the reason for the recognition. What I did not realize until much later, is how much those certificates helped sustain our improvement efforts. Years later, I saw those same certificates hanging behind the desks of teachers, in the nurse’s office, and the custodian’s closet. That small token of celebration had sustained folks on days far beyond the day I handed it to them.

We must never underestimate the joy that comes from winning. In the school improvement arena, winning means our actions translate into all students learning, improved teacher practice, and that our schools and the people we serve are better because we were willing to do our jobs with love, care, dedication, and commitment. When we win, when we meet our goal, when we make positive progress, we celebrate to acknowledge the hard work of all who serve. Plan on winning and don’t forget to celebrate!

Until next time, be you! Be true! Be a hope builder!

Latoya

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Let’s Stop Weaponizing Assessment

It seems that using a balanced approach to do our work as educators is an overlooked perspective these days. It’s almost as if we have been conditioned to choose an extreme to support our position on literacy, accountability, and assessment. This either/or mentality in place of a both/and approach is troubling. When we fail to honor the continuum of concepts and pedagogical methods by forcing others to choose a position, we lose the opportunity to honor the fact that all of our children come to us with different and unique needs and gifts. What they need, when they need it, and how they need it simply can’t be so stringently defined. Simply put: it depends. There are far too many factors that contribute to each child’s learning journey for us to narrowly define our approach to instructing and assessing them.

With such extreme thinking, we’ve been forced into two camps when it comes to assessment. Camp A: We give too many tests. Tests are stressing our students out a great deal and our teachers are only focused on teaching to the tests. We are constantly assessing students to try and predict how they’ll perform on the big high stakes tests, and many of our students still aren’t demonstrating college and career readiness. Camp B: We have to know how our children are comparing to others in our schools, districts, state, and across the nation. These tests help us hold the educators accountable. We can see who is getting the job done, and who isn’t. We can see where large achievement gaps exist. If we don’t tests our students, how will we know how they are doing? Both perspectives are problematic, in my opinion, and it’s because we’ve weaponized assessment.

Assessment is an essential tool for effective teaching and for learning. When used as a tool rather than a weapon, it can help educators guide their instruction, create formative learning opportunities, diagnosing student misconceptions, and serve as evidence of mastery. It can also prove to be just as useful to students, building their agency in knowing what it is they know and are able to do and identifying areas where they need more deliberate practice and support. Instead, assessment has become a weapon in the accountability arsenal, a far cry from its’ original intent and purpose I believe I’ve outlined here.

Why? Why has assessment been weaponized? Why has its’ weaponization forced us into two camps of thought, neither of which is balanced? I believe there are many reasons for this. 1. It makes accountability easy to measure. It’s a convenient way to articulate the impact of teaching on learning. 2. It’s makes comparing student performance much easier than it would be if we used an assessment approach that wasn’t so easy to quantify, such as performance assessments. 3. It’s a big business. A 2012 article from Matthew Chingos of the Brookings Institute estimated that states spend about 1.7 billion annually on standardized testing, and in 2015 Chingos wrote a follow up article noting that in the grand scheme of things this was minimal, considering that our public education system spends an estimated 600 billion per year. He went on to explain how if the 1.7 billion was repurposed it would do little to improve teacher salaries, class size, supply budgets, etc. His conclusion is simply that we shouldn’t retreat from assessment. It helps inform policy makers and shapes their decisions, helps measure the performance of schools and educators, and enables scholars to take on research targeted at increasing academic outcomes. There is, however, a follow up to this, the growing evidence-based intervention products that are consuming the budgets of schools and districts in their attempt to improve student learning on these weaponized assessments. I wrote about the intervention overdose in an earlier blog. If you’re so inclined, give it a read and let me know what you think.

I can’t help but think what might happen if we invested the dollars in intervention materials in a different way, and I’m not referencing salaries here. We can professionally develop our teachers to build their assessment literacy capacity, to work with and coach them on how to use the information from the assessment to shift their practice in a way that leads to student mastery. We can help our students develop agency, and support them in being able to speak clearly to their strengths and opportunities and their plan for growing their knowledge and skills.

I believe that the ultimate job of the teacher is to be a diagnostician. They must identify and correct misconceptions in thinking and understanding early on and this is a skill that takes practice and development. Instead, we continue to invest in outputs, gathering more results to compare, rank, sort, and hold schools and educators accountable, rather than focusing on inputs-developing the capacity of teachers to be masterful diagnosticians and improving the agency of students. That’s where our efforts and investments should be in my opinion. Thus would help end the weaponization of assessment.

I want to be clear. I don’t believe assessment is a bad thing. This isn’t an all or nothing issue. We need assessment in the educational process. No doubt about it. We just need to return to a more common sense approach. One that honors the teacher as diagnostician and the student as an agent of his or her own learning.

Until next time, be you! Be true! Be a hope builder!

Latoya

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Leading for Improvement Part 8: Fuel the charge with actionable feedback.

High-quality feedback is critical to a system of continuous improvement. With the critical eye of others affirming or correcting our work, we can grow exponentially. This is especially true when it comes to school and district improvement.  Just as learners need affirmation and diagnostic feedback that leads to correcting misconceptions of thinking, teachers need the same to enhance their practices and course correct before things go too far off track. Our responsibility as leaders does not end with the charge to change we place upon others. Instead, we must keep efforts moving in the right direction by providing supportive and actionable feedback that is specific, actionable, targeted, and helps improve the capacity of those we have charged with changing. 

Without feedback, our push to ask others to improve is nothing more than words without work. We must do more than articulate why there is a need for change and what changes need to happen. Our explanation of how members of the organization can make the changes we are advocating for must accompany our feedback. People want to know if they are getting it right and if they are not they want to know how they can get it right. Everybody needs feedback to grow and to thrive. When we fail to provide feedback to those we serve or ask for it from those we are serving, we create a one-way communication system in which our decisions, actions, and direction is driven by our personal perspective. A lack of feedback is the ultimate barrier to increasing the capacity of others. 

Often in the conversation regarding high expectations and the necessity of those to drive improvement, the critical element of feedback is missing. Our expectations alone do not serve as a catalyst for change. They only help us move our organization in the direction we desire if we provide feedback to support those we serve in their efforts. Feedback is leadership in action.  The power it has to enhance improvement or inhibit it when missing is undeniable.  Keep the feedback loop open, transparent, and collaborative. As leaders, we need feedback as much as we need to give it to others! That’s transformation on the inside and the outside!

Until next time, be you! Be true! Be a hope builder!

Latoya

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Leading for Improvement-Part 7: Lead the learning before you set the expectation.

Serving as a leader and focusing on improvement requires a great deal of learning. In order to be able to lead improvement efforts effectively, one must be sure to learn a variety of things: about the organization, the needs, strengths, and challenges. Further, the leader must equip him or herself with the knowledge, skills, and processes to lead the improvement effort. Dedication and commitment are only effective if coupled with the necessary skills and knowledge to make a positive impact in outcomes. High expectations also matter, but before the leader can set the expectation, and hold others accountable for meeting it, learning in depth about what you are about to ask of others is essential. Leaders go first-in their learning, in accountability, and their actions.

Learning as much as you can about school improvement means taking the initiative to learn as much as you can by reading peer-reviewed journal articles, books, and investing in your professional development in ways that produce a positive return on investment. That means being strategic regarding the conferences you attend, and perhaps not attending a conference that you’ve always attended any longer because it actually does not meet your needs when it comes to improving your organization. Leaders who learn before they try leading don’t look to others to serve as the architect of their professional development. Instead, they accept full responsibility for their professional growth and understand the necessity of it if they are going to lead the charge of school improvement and develop a set of expectations for all members of the organization, including themselves.

When leaders set the expectation before they learn about the practices they are expecting others to execute, they create a false dichotomy that effective leaders are effective solely because they have communicated and held others to high expectations. What I know for sure is that the most impactful leaders hold themselves to high expectations before they place expectations on others, and one of those is that they are lifelong learners. Those charged with leading improvement efforts must equip themselves with the knowledge and skills to be effective in leading change. Only then, can they set the expectations for others to meet!

Until next time, be you! Be true! Be a hope builder!

Latoya

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Leading for Improvement Part 6: Pull the team together to start and sustain the improvement process.

We’ve all heard it. Teamwork makes the dream work. There is no I in team. These things have absolute truth to them, but the idea of working to improve a school or district requires more than a mental belief that teamwork matters. It requires work, and as much as I have heard those charged with leading improvement efforts talk about the importance of teamwork, I have heard less talk about the last part of that word: work.

As a leader of a change initiative, our communication must be clear to those we serve. We have a responsibility to be transparent with others about the work that is required for change. That work includes the need for collaboration, meaning members of the team must work together, think together, struggle together, and win together. It is messy and it’s challenging, but if we can get the work part and the together part right, it is quite rewarding.

Our improvement journey must always commence with a focused effort on the collective. That is, we start with making sure everyone on the team knows, understands, and believes they are a valuable part of the change that is about to occur, their efforts matter, and their work is critical to accomplishing organizational goals. Once we have reached this level of consensus among the team, we can begin the work of making sure everyone has clarity regarding what needs to change and why change must take place. Clarifying and communicating the what and why of change should happen often. The work of change is always accompanied by the how of change when improvement efforts are successful. This work of focusing on the collective, the team, should not end once the school or district has met its’ goals. Instead, it should remain at the very essence of the organization’s efforts. This is what starts and sustains improvement-an understanding that it takes work and that work must include everyone on the team.

Finish what you start by being sure to start the way you wish to finish. This means bringing the same energy, effort, and focus consistently to the work. A lack of consistency can sabotage well-intended plans for improvement, and result in a strong start only to be followed by a weak finish. The key is in being disciplined enough to understand that your quest for improvement is directly related to the consistency of your efforts. Steady wins the race!

Until next time, be you! Be true! Be a hope builder!

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Leading for Improvement Part 5: Develop talent to optimize performance.

If we want to improve the overall effectiveness of our organization, we have to be sure to consider ways we might optimize organizational performance. In other words, we must think strategically about how to increase the positive results exponentially while minimizing any areas of weaknesses as much as possible. To do this, we recognize the importance of developing the talent in those we serve. It means we have a willingness to stretch, yet encourage, push yet support, and challenge those who have great potential to reaching the highest levels of effectiveness. Organizational improvement is about collective effort and because of that optimizing the performance of all is a necessary task.

Developing talent in others does not simply translate into empowering them to act, rather it is essential that we start by equipping them with the knowledge, skills, and processes needed to improve their effectiveness. Only after we have properly equipped them should we empower them to take action to help move the organization forward. When leading improvement efforts, it is important to recognize the strengths of individual team members, the interconnectedness of each person’s talents, and then work purposefully to create a sense of collective belief in the talent of the team. Establishing a sense of mutual interdependence is a powerful catalyst for improvement. It means team members think of their work as an integral part of the team’s success and express a willingness to own the successes and the setbacks. 

Organizational improvement rest on the shoulders of all members of the organization, and while leadership is critically important, the leader cannot do it alone. To think that one individual can create all the energy and execute all of the effort needed in leading change is an indication of naivety, inexperience, and poor judgement. As you are working to improve your school or district, you must also work to improve yourself and those you serve. Without a concerted effort to develop the talent and build the capacity in others, you may find yourself feeling similar to a hamster in a wheel-moving fast, but going nowhere!

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Leading for Improvement Part 4: Anchor the core.

Sometimes when I talk with school level leaders about the critical importance of instructional leadership, I have to be careful not to scare them. If I don’t explicitly state that it doesn’t mean you have to be a subject area expert in every content taught in your school, folks walk away thinking just that, but that’s not at all what I mean. Instead, I believe that as instructional leaders we must know and familiarize ourselves with learning science, high-leverage instructional practices and pedagogy, and then set an expectation that those practices will serve as anchors to core instruction in every classroom, at every grade level, in every subject, every day. The research is clear and we know that there are powerful things teachers can do to improve student outcomes: focus on metacognition, developing and articulating clear learning objectives, focus learning on the critical content, etc. Those things should anchor teaching and learning in our classrooms, schools, and districts.

If you have been a school leader or you are one currently, you may be familiar with the parent who calls to ask for a specific teacher or calls to ask specifically that their child is not assigned to a particular teacher’s classroom. This variation in teaching quality leads to a variation in academic output among students. When we anchor instruction in a set of evidence-based strategies and practices, we can reduce the variation in teaching quality and potentially increase outcomes for all students. We can also develop our ability to recognize successfully implemented practices and provide feedback to help teachers enhance, refine, and improve their instructional skills. Anchoring core instruction in a set of evidence-based practices and strategies that we expect to take place in every classroom can be a powerful catalyst for improvement. The key here is to be certain we have anchored the core in the right practices to meet the needs of our students and our improvement goals.

Variety may be the spice of life, but it can be the enemy to improvement efforts if not managed appropriately. Some instructional concepts, practices, and strategies must become non-negotiables if we want to ensure that all of our students have the opportunity to receive teaching of the highest quality.Anchor the core!

Until next time, be you! Be true. Be a hope builder!

Latoya

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Leading for Improvement-Part 3: Know the data to coach the behavior.

For the first few years of my princpalship, I would call teachers into my office and ask them to talk with me about their end of year state summative assessment results. I had been led to believe that this was an impactful practice, made sure that others knew they were being held accountable, and a way to make sure they knew I was…get this…looking at the data. Wisdom comes with age and experience, and after many years of leading, I quietly discovered that none of those data conversations led to change in classroom practices unless I went into the classroom, observed teachers, and coached them on their instructional practices. It was this coaching that really was the catalyst to changing the data. Those meetings were nothing more than a waste of time, and I should apologize to all of the educators who I subjected to such.

One of the most over utilized and misunderstood buzzwords in organizational improvement is data-driven. When I hear many school and district leaders use the word, they usually are referencing the idea that they review or look at the data. Conversely, they also rarely describe how they drive action or behavior because of the data review they’ve described.

What I know now, is that school improvement is rooted in understanding what is at the root cause of the data and coaching to change instructional behavior and practices. When leaders help educators advance their practices, refine them, enhance them, and we connect those things to improving student outcomes, we can help change the data. After all, accountability is about everyone taking responsibility for their contribution to the organization meeting its’ goals. That includes school and district leaders. Our coaching must not be reflected in the words we say when gathered around spreadsheets and charts, or standing in data rooms, but in what we say when teachers are in action-teaching in the classroom. How do we help them become masterful? How do we support them in improving their practices in the classroom? We can’t do that if we aren’t at the game, coaching from the sideline. 

Everybody needs a coach. The best athletes in the world have a coach. What makes educators think we don’t need one too? Be coached and be a coach and your school will soar!

Until next time, be you! Be true! Be a hope builder!

Latoya

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Leading for Improvement-Part 2: Be as vulnerable as you are brave.

Courage is a test of leadership, but vulnerability is the ultimate assessment. In our quest to be courageous, to address the things that matter, but many often avoid because of their controversial or unpopular nature, we must never forget the tool that can help us reach the minds of others: the heart. Our ability to be vulnerable directly correlates with our willingness to be brave. Leaders who act with bravery are able to do so because they don’t mind being vulnerable enough to say “I made a mistake, I apologize, or I was wrong.” Leaders who are leading a change process must practice both. Bravery without vulnerability may be seen as bullying, pushiness, aggressiveness, etc., and vulnerability without bravery may be seen as wimpy, fearful, or playing it safe to avoid having to act with courage. Those who successfully lead school improvement are able to act with both traits, equally balanced and used to spur change, support struggles, and applaud efforts. Both matter and they matter a great deal.

Leading improvement efforts isn’t for the faint of heart. It is hard work. It can mean addressing previously overlooked issues because of the level of discomfort that came with addressing a particular thing, person, or practice. It can mean seeing what’s possible and what could be, when others aren’t quite there yet, and having to wait for them to catch the vision. It can mean pushing others outside of their comfort zone and asking them to embark on something that you believe they have the potential to accomplish, but can’t guarantee they’ll be successful. It’s about taking risks-but being calculated, strategic, and thoughtful about everything you ask of others and of yourself.

Being brave and vulnerable can help improve the trusting relationships between the leader and his or her team. On one hand the team sees that you’re not afraid to do what needs to be done, even when it’s challenging, and on the other, the team recognizes your humility-your ability to own up to your mistakes and failures and to roll up your sleeves and work side by side with them. Great leaders balance this perfectly and with practice, you can too!

Until next time, be you! Be true! Be a hope builder!

Latoya

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Leading for Improvement-Part One

What is your philosophy of education?  If you’re old enough, you may have even produced a portfolio related to this age-old inquiry at some point in your undergraduate studies. However, the question we don’t seem to ask often enough is “What are the most critical elements when it comes to school improvement?” That’s what I attempt to answer in this blog series. I don’t know if these elements are exactly right, but I do know that in practice and experience, at least my own, they have been important aspects of my leadership, especially in situations where I was charged with improving or transforming something. The list isn’t long, but I am making an attempt here to explain each one in hopes that you might also be able to connect with it and recognize it when you see it. Of course, if it’s not in your leadership toolbox, I hope you’ll add it in your efforts to improve your school or district. Here’s the list:

  1. Focus fiercely on the how.
  2. Be as vulnerable as you are brave.
  3. Know the data to coach the behavior.
  4. Anchor the core.
  5. Develop talent to optimize performance.
  6. Pull the team together to start and sustain the improvement process.
  7. Lead the learning before you set the expectation.
  8. Fuel the charge with actionable feedback.
  9. Celebrate the change-big or small.
  10. See the connections and share them explicitly.

These ideas sound simple, but in practice can be extremely challenging. My advice is to start working on improvement right away, but recognize that you cannot do all of these things at once. All ten are equally important. The key is to prioritize and strike the right balance so that you can use the right approach to get the improvement you desire. Each preceding page is a one-page review of my thoughts on each of the elements listed above. Thanks for reading and please…share your thoughts.

Focus fiercely on the how.

Start with the why. It’s what we have all been told as leaders, and it’s good advice. People need to have a deep understanding of why you are asking them to change, do something differently, or rethink their current practices and ideologies. Understanding why we are doing something can serve as an anchor in our daily work, can keep us from getting distracted, or battling with competing priorities. However, as we work toward school or district improvement, we must understand the critical importance of focusing our attention on the what, and more importantly the how. If those we are asking to change fail to understand how to change we’ve empowered folks to be resistant, angry, and frustrated. As leaders of the change, it’s our job to empower and equip others to be able to meet the expectations we set forth successfully.

Although we should start with why, we must push through with the what, and finish with the how. That means that when we are proposing change(s) to members of our organization, we’ve done our research and we can clarify for them, quite specifically, what it is we want them to change (instructional practice, method, etc.) and how we want them to change it. In other words, we’ve clearly taught them about the instructional behavior associated with the change and we have created an opportunity and structure to give them multiple opportunities to practice implementing the new strategy with our feedback as a resource and source of support to help them achieve mastery. We recognize that why is not enough, so our time observing and coaching their work towards mastery of the new practice is critical to the change actually happening and doing so successfully. While we understand that the rationale and justification of the change we are advocating for is important, we know that it cannot happen without a clearly articulated expectation (what) and a fierce focus on how to make it happen.

So yes…start with the why and continue with a clear articulation of what needs to change, but don’t forget to finish as strong as you start by fiercely focusing on the how. If you can do all three of those things, you will find your ability to push for change will move far beyond a mere heartfelt message of why the change is so important. Instead, you’ll see that others are actually willing to do something instead of talking about why they can’t because you have given them the tools they need to make the change a reality. 

Tune in next week for my essay on element #2: Be as vulnerable as you are brave.

Until next time, be you! Be true! Be a hope builder!

-Latoya

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The Problem With Professional Development

I’ve been thinking about this a great deal lately. Seems this sort of thing always leads to a new blog post. Professional development in public education seems highly restrictive to me. It seems that once we decide to become leaders in this work and we move beyond the classroom, the organizational investment in our professional development subsides. Im going to make an attempt to explain my opinion here and in doing so I’ll be making some rather broad generalizations. Please note I realize there are exceptions to this, but I’m speaking generally as a reflection of my experiences and observations.

It seems teachers have routine opportunities to be professionally developed. We have a structure that supports such. There are teacher work days, late start days, and early dismissal days that can be used for teachers to engage in professional development. I am in full support of this, and especially believe that professional development should be job-embedded, continuous, and of high quality. My concern isn’t for teachers, but for others who have the responsibility of leading and supporting teachers: principals and district level leaders.

It seems to me, that as one moves up the leadership ladder, professional development opportunities are gravely reduced. Instead, these school and districts level leaders spend an enormous amount of time in meetings, participating in information download sessions, taking notes, and going back to communicate deadlines and deliverables to their organization. I’m wondering if we also need to be focused on developing our leaders as much as we are focused on developing our teachers. Our efforts to build the capacity of system leaders could have a broader and more significant impact on creating better systems of teaching and learning. I’ve racked my brain trying to think of professional learning opportunities that are routine and job-embedded for school and district level leaders, which I have knowledge of, but the list is very short.

One of the things I’ve noticed is that these leaders are hungry to be developed. They want and need opportunities to learn, not just to collect information and be responsible for communicating it back. They need the opportunity to build their capacity to design efficient teaching and learning systems, to learn how to create mechanisms of support for teachers and others, but it seems there is little time for learning for them. Their days are filled with doing instead.

I’m wondering if we have an opportunity to think of professional development in a broader sense. Perhaps we might think about committing our resources, time, and talents to developing the capacity of teachers and leaders. In my mind it’s not an either/or situation, but a both/and one.

I’d love to hear from you and what you think about this. Perhaps you are a school level or district leader who is in a district that routinely invests in your professional development as they do teachers, and if so I would love to learn more about your experiences in this realm. If your observations and experiences are similar to the ones I’ve described here, I want to hear from you too. Are we missing the boat on professional development? Is our focus too narrow? Are we missing an opportunity to impact the system instead of spot touching classrooms here and there? Let me know your thoughts!

Until next time…be you! Be true! Be a hope builder!

Latoya

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Stop the Intervention Overdose!

I’ve been thinking about this a great deal so now I’m putting the thoughts into a blog. I’m so concerned that we are overdosing our students on interventions as an antidote for poor core instruction. We’ve made the assumption that the core instruction they have received is solid, effective, and of high quality. With the push for Response to Intervention and Multi-tiered Systems of Support, we have to be careful that we don’t forget to work on the most important part of that pyramid we all know too well, and that’s tier one core instruction.

What might happen if we refocused our efforts, time, energy, resources, and feedback on improving core instruction? What if we not only developed school or district wide instructional anchors, but made it our business to see that those anchors were being honored in every classroom every day? What if we focused on the fidelity of instructional practices that we know are necessary for optimal learning?

•having a clear learning objective that is referred to throughout the lesson and that students can articulate when asked what is it they should know and be able to do by the end of the lesson

•checking for understanding throughout the lesson to identify misconceptions and provide clarifying and corrective feedback while the opportunity to course correct is present

•ensuring the use of a lesson structure that is best for learning: direct instruction and modeling/guided practice with feedback/ independent practice

Mastering the foundations of teaching takes so much practice. We must be sure we are not approaching the concept of intervention as a bandaid for poor teaching quality, and that we don’t see it as a way to intervene on the behalf of poor instruction. Quality matters at the tier one level, and perhaps even more.

For years now, I’ve seen schools and districts mandate intervention periods, purchase massive intervention materials, and push that students receive intervention on a regular basis. That in and of itself is counterintuitive to the word intervention. Here’s how Webster defines it: the action taken to improve a situation. What I am fearful of is that in our schools and districts across the country, intervention has become the response to poor instruction. There is a difference.

I’m convinced that if we were to give our attention to improve core instruction the massive overdose of interventions on our children who are struggling to learn might subside. The very concept of intervention is designed to help our students who have truly had the opportunity to learn. That means they had access to quality instruction and still were unable to achieve mastery. Some scholars define opportunity to learn as follows:

“One of the factors which may influence scores on an achievement examination is whether or not students have had an opportunity to study a particular topic or learn how to solve a particular type of problem presented by the test.” (Hussen, 1967b, pp. 162–163)

This means we must focus on making sure that the instruction our students receive is adequately aligned to the standards, appropriately rigorous, and that mastery is the aim. We must make sure that the assessments we are using to determine if students are learning are also aligned and rigorous as they should be, and if they are not, we work on those things before over prescribing intervention to our students. This must be a focus and receive as much of our energy and effort as possible. Intervention is a last step, not a first one.

To make it clear, allow me to provide an analogy. Imagine that you went to the doctor to talk with him about your unfruitful efforts to lose weight. According to you, you’ve tried everything-eating healthy, exercising, reducing your caloric intake. The doctor, immediately applies an intervention and prescribes a thyroid medication that will induce your thyroid regularly which in turn will rev up your metabolism and cause your body to burn more calories. You start the medication, but the truth is you’ve made absolutely no change in your diet and you don’t exercise. To top it off you now feel free to eat whatever you like since you have your new medication that’s going to help you lose weight. When you return to the doctor, you haven’t gained any weight, but you haven’t lost any.

While I’m no medical expert, I don’t think this is what a doctor would do at all. I’m guessing the doctor would start by asking you a few questions about your diet and exercise habits and may elect to give you a blood test. In the interim, while he is waiting on the results, he’s going to probably prescribe what should be your core activity to take care of your health: eat a healthy and balanced diet, exercise regularly, and drink plenty of water. He’ll ask you to return in six months to see how you’ve fared. If your blood test comes back with all things in the normal range, he will continue working with you on the core.

I’m hopeful that the market for intervention programs and products won’t be the driver of our teaching and learning efforts with children. Obviously, there are some children who we know need specialized instruction, but if we aren’t careful, intervention can become the primary mechanism for meeting the learning needs of most of our students, when it should be only prescribed if our students have had an opportunity to learn in a classroom that is anchored in evidence-based instructional practices. A focus on the core and improving it is essential and at the heart of continuous improvement. Let’s get to work on the foundation and make it as strong as possible.

Until next time-be you, be true, be a hope builder.

Latoya

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Why “the why” is not enough…

The idea of leaders articulating the why of any change has been a very popular construct. Simon Sinek’s book, Start With The Why, is a popular text that gives readers many reasons about the importance of starting with why when leading others through change. Leading change is a complex feat. It requires endurance, energy, and a scholarship of the change process. It is difficult, but can be a rewarding experience when done successfully.

I’ve come to realize that many leaders start with why and also expect it to carry them through the change process. This is the fallacy of an over reliance on why change is needed. A balanced approach: starting with why, being clear about what, and providing support and resources needed to help others determine how to change are all necessary. Instead, what I often observe is not a balanced approach. It seems leaders are quick to engage in articulating the why and the what, the moral cause and the vision of such, but rarely support these with a plan of action-or the how we plan to help others get there. In simple school leadership terms it’s making sure we aren’t just asking teachers to implement an evidence-based practice (what) because it will help improve outcomes for students (why), but accompanying that with the resources, professional development, and feedback (how) on the implemented practice to give staff a solid opportunity to be successful and see the change process all the way through until the end. It means when we experience resistance to change we don’t assume the push back is related only to a misunderstanding of the why, but we think deeply based on what we are seeing, hearing, and observing, to determine of the resistance is an indication of the need for further support in the how, what, or why.

Why is certainly where we must start the change process, and clarity around what needs to change is paramount, but we can’t stop there. Change is a process. It requires action and a shift in thinking and practice. We do our due diligence as leaders when we support those charged with changing with a balanced approach.

Simon’s book was Start with The Why, but to finish, we must also be sure to provide those we are charged with leading clarity of what to change and support in how to do so.

Until next time-be you! Be true! Be a hope builder!

Latoya

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Rethinking School Leadership

Rethinking School Leadership

In May/June 2019, a column I published in the National Association of Elementary Principals Magazine highlighted the impact of inequity on principal longevity. For some time now, I have been concerned about the turnover rate among principals, especially those who serve high-poverty student populations. A recent report, Principal Turnover Insights From Current Principals, by Learning Policy Institute and the National Association of Secondary School Principals echoes my sentiment and highlights key considerations for principal support and retention;

  • High-quality professional development
  • Support from strong administrative teams
  • Adequate school resources
  • Competitive compensation
  • Appropriate decision-making authority
  • Evaluation centered in timely, formative feedback

The insights are from the most credible source: practicing principals. I think it is something every education leader needs to read. More concerning is the preliminary results of NASSP and LPI’s study of principal attrition which shows that 35% of principals never make it beyond their 3rd year of tenure. If we want to do a better job of recruiting and retaining principals, we must explore these insights fully, and where possible, take bold action to protect the future of the principalship as a critical professional position in our society. 

High-Quality Professional Development

The school principal must serve as the instructional leader. It is imperative that each school leader possesses the scholarship, skills, and abilities to inform teacher practice in ways that advance student learning. We cannot rely on principal preparation programs to provide this level of readiness when it comes to instructional leadership. Traditionally, these programs have focused on operational issues: finance, personnel, and building management. What those entering the principalship need and those in it must have to improve student achievement includes knowledge of the teaching and learning process, specifically high leverage learning strategies, assessment literacy, and coaching skills to impact teacher practice in positive ways. Unfortunately, principals tend to experience professional development that focuses on the operational aspects of the job. Monthly principal meetings to review plans, budgets, and carry out mandates seem to rule the time and support they receive from district level leaders. As we move forward in public education, we must rethink how district and state level leaders provide principals with the kinds and quality of professional development that can support them in improving their instructional leadership capacity.

Support from Strong Administrative Teams

Work life balance is a challenge in many professions, but as a former principal, I tend to believe that this is especially challenging for school principals. Working with a strong body of administrators can help alleviate some of this challenge, but I have often wondered if it is time to restructure school leadership. Perhaps it is time for us to look beyond the traditional structure of school leadership: principal, assistant principal, dean of students, etc., and look toward a new organizational structure. Repurposing other positions might help districts better design supportive and strong administrative teams that can help principals focus on instruction. Operational Manager, Student Services Coordinator, and Assistant Principal are roles that come to mind. Each could take on the responsibilities related to facilities and maintenance, transportation, non-academic student needs (mental health, discipline, physical health, counseling) while the Assistant Principal works to hone his or her instructional leadership capacity in coordination with the principal. I would also venture to say that principals need coaches, in real time, who can give formative and timely feedback, but support them while in action.

Adequate School Resources

It is important to recognize that without access to a sufficient quantity of timely resources related to school improvement goals, principals face the incredible task of overcoming student achievement deficits and meeting the needs of teachers and staff. While this can seem simple in theory, in practice, this is something faced by many school leaders. When a principal’s effort to obtain the resources that teachers and students need to accomplish goals become more strenuous than accomplishing the improvement goals themselves, the focus of the leaders work shifts from improving the practices of students and teachers to securing needed resources. These things work in concert; in other words, principals must have access to adequate resources in their attempt to serve as strong and effective instructional leaders. 

Competitive Compensation

Principals have a variety of responsibilities: school safety, academic achievement, professional development, financial management, facilities management, and more. In comparing responsibilities of principals to that of other credentialed professionals who serve in leadership roles, it would be interesting to see the discrepancy between average principal roles and other supervisory positions in other fields. I do not have the figures or information to make an accurate comparison, but I am of the belief that a discrepancy exist and look forward to exploring this aspect further. 

Appropriate Decision-Making Authority

I recently heard someone quote a superintendent of schools as saying, “We are moving from a system of schools to becoming a school system.” While I certainly can relate to the importance of addressing challenges in a systematic fashion, it is important to note that principals need to be able to consider their context when solving problems specific to the students and teachers they are serving. Knowing what to apply broadly (across all schools) versus what to apply in a more targeted, and specific way is the challenge of leadership. There are some universal best practices when it comes to teaching and learning, and those best practices remain so regardless of the demographic of students served or school type. Our challenge, however, is in helping school leaders learn how to contextualize solutions for the given deficiencies of their school so that they avoid replicating solutions that have worked in other contexts without adapting them for the context in which they serve.

Evaluation with Timely, Formative Feedback

One way to accomplish this is by restructuring of district level positions that support and provide services to principals. Instead of simply providing a supervisor of principals, providing principal coaches who can give real time formative feedback and support to principals has the potential to change the practices of principals in ways that help them center their efforts on instructional leadership. Following the traditional methodology of principal evaluation results in fragmented feedback, retroactive recommendations, and little that principals can act on immediately or put into practice in an action research fashion. When principals receive feedback about their performance after the school year has ended or at the close of the school year, it creates a tremendous gap between action and reflection and that often does not result in changed practice. A change in practice is most likely when action and reflection happen in close proximity to one another.

Conclusion

Principal turnover and retention is a real problem that needs real solutions. Instability of leadership has a multitude of implications on teachers, students, and parents. We need to rethink the organizational support structure for principals as leaders and critical elements to the success of teachers and students. Our failure to reorganize, restructure, and most importantly, rethink what is necessary for principal success has the potential to cause problems in the field of public education far beyond a high rate of turnover. 

Until next time,

Latoya

@latoyadixon5