Isn’t it interesting to think about how school is one experience everyone has in common? Unlike being an engineer or business leader, everyone has school experience. So when it comes to thinking or talking about what’s right and what’s wrong with school, everyone has an opinion and usually it’s one they feel pretty good about because it’s based on their experiences.
Do I have the right perspective?
Today I listened to a great keynote speaker at the Responsive Classroom Leadership Conference. The speaker was Ceasar Cruz. He was awesome and inspiring. What I liked most about what he shared is that he was honest. Sometimes his honesty was painful. He crammed so much information into an hour and fifteen minutes and I have a new list of books I want to read. But mostly, he helped me to reach the realization that often it is our pain that gives us our power.
I, too, like him have spent time sharing the story of my childhood and how I grew up and into who I am with multiple audiences. People are inspired when they hear how my sisters and I trudged our way through a life of poverty to accomplish a great deal. I go through all my barriers-single parent home, absent father, rebellious child, basketball playing curious girl who wasn’t a bad rapper, growing up in the projects in South Carolina. I’ve often looked at so many of my obstacles as pain, but Cesar Cruz helped me realize that my pain is now my power.
Growing up the way I did taught me many things: Efficiency. Determination. Resiliencey. Courage. Focused. Delayed Gratification. So much can be learned from the absence of what we believe makes a well rounded childhood. And I’m not sure the presence of what we believe to be the necessary components of a stable and productive childhood are a garauntee for success either. What I am sure of, is that growing up in my circumstances gave me a sense of power that others don’t always have and can’t produce.
When things go awry, I often remind myself, “This is nothing,” because usually it is no comparison to the things my sisters and I faced and overcame. Not having my father around taught me one thing-Do it anyway. No matter the circumstance you face-Do it anyway. No matter the situation-Do it anyway. So what if people don’t believe in you or aren’t sure you can accomplish the goals you have set for yourself. Do it anyway. Figure out what you want and go for it!
Not having money taught me something else-Figure it out. I am a creative problem solver. I know how to “make do” as my mother would say in a way I would not otherwise know and I recognize that it is not the end of the world. There is a way around almost everything. If you are faced with a situation that requires your creativity, you instantly become a lot more creative.
Growing up in the projects gave me something else-A sense of intuition that I have a hard time verbalizing. I read people well and I sense things around me and in others that are not spoken aloud. Developing an appreciation for Tupac’s linguistic abilities and attempting to imitate him in my own raps that I started writing in 5th grade taught me that I can be an intellectual who loves rap. I do not have to choose to be one or the other. I can be both-and my students appreciate that although I am not sure others understand it or even desire to see the complexity of layers within my personality.
For a long time in my life, I saw my obstacles as pain, but I have learned to use them as power. I recognize that I have developed a tenacity that cannot be inspired in someone, but only earned through experience. I have a determination that I have developed over time by facing obstacle after obstacle and overcoming each one. So my pain is my power. Now, all I have to do is figure out is how to get my students to see their pain as their power. Ideas anyone?
Until next time-be you, be true, be a hope builder,
The more I think about this topic, the more ideas I have. To rethink how we operate within the educational institution, would mean totally scrapping everything we know about how teaching and learning should occur. This is a grand task. In a conversation with my co-principal, we recalled that between that we’ve each had 34 first days of school. After experiencing school in it’s traditional fashion for over 30 years now, I’ve decided that what we need is a real shake up. Not an innovative way to do things that we’ve traditionally done, but a true way to do the opposite of all we’ve ever known. I continue to look at the traditions that keep us from being truly innovative.
Tradition #4 Personalized Learning with Generalized Accountability
Why is it that we have spent so much time on the whole child and personalizing the learning experiences that we provide for students, yet generalizing their academic success or lack there of? I find it quite interesting that although we know students do not begin their academic journeys in the same place, we make no adjustments to the finish line. Proficiency has no personalization. The emphasis on standardized testing and student achievement create this oxymoron. But in my imaginary school, taking into account the needs and styles of a variety of learners won’t end at the learning experience. We’ll extend that to personalized academic goals. Mastery will be our focus and we’ll accept that mastery may happen at different times for different students at no consequence if the “end of year” test arrives and students just aren’t there YET.
Tradition #5 Academic Priority before Social, Emotional, and Leadership Learning
Why is it we squeeze out time to provide students with direct instruction on self regulation, making and maintaining eye contact, tracking the speaker, and other pro-social and pro-learning behaviors? We’ve become so hyper focused on test scores and data, that in some ways, we’ve sacrificed these important skills. Also, why aren’t we teaching students what it means to be a leader and what leadership looks like? Oh, wait, we don’t have time! We’re so busy being sure we are teaching content in time for the assessment! But in my imaginary school, we’ll start our day with this kind of teaching and embed it though out the day. Learning behaviors that help students succeed will be more important than the academic content itself because we know the second cannot happen without the first. Our work won’t be driven by test scores in my #imaginaryschool.
As I continue to think about how we might reinvent school, I get more excited about thinking about breaking all the rules. I keep sharing the #imaginaryschool, and I’ve already got some folks who have tweeted that they’d love to join the movement. I wonder what we might come up with if we can just keep thinking about what we’d like for our imaginary school to be for ourselves and our students. I’m guessing we could blow ourselves away. Tweet your ideas with the hashtag #imaginaryschool. I can’t wait to read them.
Until next time-be you, be true, and be a hope builder!
I’ve been thinking. I do that often these days. I recently posed a question to myself. What are the traditional measures of schooling that impact our ability to do what the research says we should? I have a few theories. Bear with me.
Tradition #1: The Faculty Meeting
We know that collaboration is key to improving teacher efficacy and student achievement, yet we fill up teacher time to do this with meeting after meeting. And we don’t dare not use the all the time that’s alloted for these staff meetings. After all we know teachers work best after teaching for 7 hours and are bright eyed and ready to learn after school.
What if we cut faculty meetings to the bare minimum? Meet once a month and utilize technology for communication beyond this monthly meeting. How might this give more time for teachers to actually plan instead of sitting and listening to all the things they need to add to their to do list? What if we didn’t try to get the attention of teachers after a full day of work? I haven’t worked outside of the education realm, but I’m wondering if corporations like Apple, Google, and Amazon schedule their meetings after work. I’m guessing the answer is no. I’m always amazed by the educators who talk about Google’s 20% time they provide to their employees, and then claim to implement the same thing in their schools but conveniently forget the autonomy to work on what you want to work on that comes with it. Are you mad at me yet?
Tradition # 2: The Planning Period
If we want teachers to be designers of engaging, authentic, and rigorous curriculum, we might want to rethink the traditional planning period. I remember my first encounter with this thought. As a new elementary school AP, I wondered how teachers of all subjects for 20+ kids design work and plan in 45 minutes? Take away the time it takes to escort their kids to art, music, etc, to use the bathroom, and to return a parent phone call, and you can easily watch 45 minutes become 25 minutes. Add to that a grade level meeting and there you have it-no planning. We continually ask teachers to design quality work that is challenging and engaging for students, yet give them little time to develop it. Designing this type of work should mirror the same rigor and challenge we want students to experience when they engage with it. This takes time and lots of it. I’m baffled by how we ask teachers to do amazing things in ridiculously small amounts of time that’s often compromised with duties, meetings, and more.
What if we moved to a 4 day school week and the fifth day was a full day of collaborative planning for teachers? What if we held no more than two formal staff meetings a month? One might be a faculty meeting and the other a grade level or department meeting. What if we stopped being suckers for education publishers who promise they have the best worksheet aligned to our standards, even though they have never met our students? If we gave teachers the time they needed to plan, we’d call the planning period the meeting period with a bathroom break and move to a four day school week with a full day planning period. Are you imagining this yet?
Tradition #3: The Solo Principalship
Although we know collaboration is critical for our professional development, we continue to make administrative roles solo ones. Other than our traditional monthly principal meetings, we don’t create structures for principals to collaborate. The same is true for assistant principals and other administrative roles as well as for our fine arts teachers in many instances. We expect a single person to increase the individual efficacy of a dynamic and complex group of people. Realistic? Not at all.
If collaboration is good for classroom teachers, isn’t it good for everyone else?
I continue to believe more and more that we need to rethink how we do school. This means moving away from the way we’ve traditionally conceptualizer education and thinking about this differently is a real challenge. That’s why I’m creating an imaginary school in my head. There’s no model for me to reference so I’m starting from scratch. Too often in education we go searching for an example of what we’d like to see. This forces us back into traditional thinking and doesn’t push us to be innovative. Tweaking an already established idea isn’t innovation. It’s replication with a twist. So my challenge to educators is simply this: Let’s redesign school and totally forget everything we already know. What’s there to lose! If you’re interested in being a part ofmy imaginary school, follow me on Twitter @latoyadixon5 using the hashtag #imaginaryschool and tweet your thoughts and ideas. Ready to join? Let’s start a movement!
Until next time- Be true. Be you. Be a hope builder!
Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about what an audacious task teachers have before them. I’ve tried to really think like a teacher and consider what is asked of them on a daily basis. I began my career as a teacher in the late 1990’s but so much has changed about the way we educate kids. In a conversation with a new teacher who shared with me his astonishment at the varied number of academic levels in each of his math classes, I suggested to him to consider differentiating and utilizing more small group instruction as a way to meet the needs of every student. I offered my support. I told him I was willing to sit down and plan with him when he was ready to implement this in his classroom. He was grateful and thanked me. I told him I did not want him to feel overwhelmed, but whenever he was ready to move in that direction, I’d be happy to help him plan for this.
Several days later our conversation came back to me on a drive home. As I chatted with my co-principal I began telling him how incredibly difficult, time consuming, and complex planning can be when a teacher truly makes an attempt to differentiate in their classroom. It’s like writing a lesson plan for 26 kids, I told him. The entire planning process is different and requires so much more time.
Today, we are no longer asking teachers to write lesson plans, but learner plans. We are asking them to take a look at each student’s strengths and weaknesses, and plan for how they might bring that student to proficiency based in their learning needs and styles. What a grand request! A planning period doesn’t begin to meet the time requirement needed to accomplish this. Then we top it off by utilizing our teachers’ planning periods to hold meetings, requiring them to submit meeting minutes, asking them to listen to us talk about the important upcoming meetings and calendar events, or quizzing them to see if they have read the book study book or viewed the latest greatest video we’ve seen as principals and thought was so awesome, or we use it to conduct a professional development session. Some meetings can’t be avoided, but we can be more strategic and focused about when we meet and how often we do so.
As principals, it is our duty to protect the time of teachers. I’ve always been a proponent of meeting less and collaborating more. As I reflected on my conversation I began to feel an overwhelming sense of panic about what I’d suggested to the teacher. I recognized that I needed to go back to him and offer to help again. I understood we would need multiple days to really plan for this and get it right. And so I will do just that.
However, it doesn’t take away from the fact that what we ask if teachers is incredibly complex. How we support their work matters. We can’t do that by filling up their calendars or creating due dates with non priority matters. I’ve never been a collector of lesson plans for this reason. For most of my career I’ve known teachers who were required to turn them in yet received no feedback on them. The reality of the situation is this, how many principals have the time to give every individual teacher the feedback on their lesson plans that they deserve? Very few that I know. Instead, I ask teachers to have their plans available because I feel confident that I know good instruction when I see it. A lesson plan doesn’t tell me if the teacher has the ability to use the pedagogical knowledge that they have or to adjust and monitor in the midst of a lesson when students aren’t understanding. Collecting them in my opinion is an excercise in futility. Feedback I provide from an observed lesson and a collaborative follow up conversation has proved to be far more valuable to me and the teacher. So…that’s what I do.
This year marks the tenth year since I have not been a teacher in the classroom. What I fear most is forgetting what it is like to be a teacher in the classroom and making decisions that I truly don’t see the impact of on the classroom teacher. Because of that I sub when possible and on Friday I did just that in a reading class. I do it, not because I have the time, but because it keeps me grounded. It helps me keep my feet in the shoes of a teacher and ultimately it helps me make better decisions in the instructional leadership realm.
The support we provide to teachers as lead learners and principals is critical. It is hard to lead someone if you are not familiar with their daily experiences. An immersion back into the classroom can be very valuable to administrators. So I challenge the principals out there to teach for a day. Give a teacher an additional planning period and cover their class. Plan a lesson for a class and teach it. Walk in their shoes every once in a while.
You’ll be amazed at how that will feed your instructional leadership perspective. Do your feet hurt yet? Mine do.
Until Next Time- Be true, Be you, & Be a Hope Builder!