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

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

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

Be G.R.E.A.T! by Latoya Dixon

FEATURED originally as a guest blog on https://ourteachertribe.com/be-g-r-e-a-t-by-latoya-dixon/

It’s no secret I love Clemson football. I graduated in 1999, following my sisters Elisa and Tonya, who graduated in 1997 and 1995 respectively. It’s in my blood. I also admire and have the highest degree of respect for Deshaun Watson. He’s now the quarterback for the Houston Texans, but like me, he’s also a Clemson Tiger. I like how he looks an obstacle in the eye, stays poised in the most dire situations, and views challenges as an opportunity to be great. I haven’t abandoned the home team (Go Panthers!), but I sure do enjoy watching him play on Sundays. The wildcard game against the Buffalo Bills this year was amazing, and Deshaun Watson in his usual fashion, was the star of the show. At the end of the game an ESPN sports caster asked him what he was thinking in the moments that they were down and working to make a come back. The Texans were losing 16 to 0 at the half, but tied the game up in the fourth quarter to send it into overtime. They won the game! His response, “So I said let’s be great today. So somebody had to be great. Why not me?” I couldn’t seem to get that response out of my head. I am so inspired by the way he responds to challenges, both in action and words. I can’t help but think about how waking up each day with the intention and goal to “be great” might change our lives as individuals, as members of families, and especially as educators.

Sunday can be a day of dread for many, and that’s no different for teachers.  It’s Monday’s prep day. It’s the day to ready ourselves for the week ahead, and if we aren’t careful it can be filled with anxiety, fear, uneasiness, and worry. But if we approached our Sundays like Deshaun Watson approaches challenges on the football field, with the intention being great, how might that change our entire perspective? To me, it would make Sunday the best day of every week. Being great isn’t about being better than others, but about being our very best selves. That’s what I heard when Deshaun Watson asked, “Why not me?” He challenged himself to set the example, and we can do the same thing. Here’s what being G.R.E.A.T. means to me: 

G: Grace-We extend grace to others and ourselves. When something goes wrong, we focus on resilience. We work to help others and ourselves bounce back from missteps instead of wallowing in them. We move forward with a joyful and positive spirit.

R: Relationships– We center and still our hearts and minds. Our focus is on treating others well, building trust and understanding in our classroom and school community. We do this with intention because our relationships are at the center of all we desire for our students to accomplish, and we can only accomplish those goals with healthy and productive relationships with our colleagues.

E: Encouragement– We encourage ourselves and others through positive affirmations, kind words, and supportive actions. We recognize that encouragement is what we need most when we are faced with challenging situations. Our words have the power to hurt or help. We choose them wisely and with care.

A: Accountability– We take personal accountability for the energy we bring into the spaces where we work, serve, and socialize. Our attitude and our efforts are under our control and therefore, are our responsibility. We have the potential to set the tone positively or be toxic. We choose positivity, and accept personal accountability for our actions and reactions.

T: Trust-We trust that every moment we experience as educators-the most challenging ones and the most glorious ones-are helping us develop and grow into the educators we are meant to become. We are present in our conversations and collaboration with colleagues, students, and all members of our school community. We trust that if we show up in the moments that bring us the most challenge, we define our legacies in ways we can be proud of in the future.

So, Why not you? Why can’t Sunday be your day to get ready to be great. Who can you extend grace to during the week? Which relationships can you look forward to improving? How can you use your words to encourage? What are some ways you can take personal accountability for the energy you add to your classroom, your colleagues, your school community? How can you work toward trusting that every moment matters, and make sure your legacy will be something you can be proud of in the future?

I’m no Deshaun Watson. He’s an amazingly talented football player. But we can all make Sunday our day of preparation to be G.R.E.A.T. Why not us? We are the teacher tribe! 

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

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

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