Connection: What Every Educator & Learner Needs

I’ve come to realize that there are few things more important to learners and educators than to belong to a community that embodies what we all want and need: personal connection, an opportunity to grow, and people to do it with who encourage, support, and stretch us in ways that allow us to meet our potential. In this era of hurried living and convenience concept inventions, like DoorDash to deliver a hot meal from most any restaurant, not just the local pizza place, and Shipt, that will save you a trip to the grocery store if you still wish to cook at home, but don’t have the time or energy to complete a physical trip, connection has become a commodity.

People are seeking authentic networks-both personal and professional ones; they are in search of belonging, of purpose, of contributing to a cause greater than themselves. What’s interesting about how technology has in some ways given us an opportunity to be more widely connected to events and organizations, and even people, in a sense, across the globe, it’s also elevated the deep desire of all humans- to be linked and intimately connected to others. We all need that experience and opportunity to laugh, love, and live a full life. No matter how convenient some of the revolutionary technology may have made some of our routine activities, we still have a deep need to be connected to one another.

While we may be thrilled to not have to stop by the grocery store on our commute home from work, pressing “like” on our social media applications isn’t the same as saying, “Hi. How are you?,” and giving someone you haven’t “seen” in some time a big hug. No matter how well technology allows us to “see” our family and friends via pictures, videos, and posts, what we gain by being a part of a community and sharing successes, failures, triumphs, and struggles together cannot be compared. It is the process that comes with these experiences that ends up linking us to others for an extended friendship, sometimes for a lifetime.

As I attended the first personalized learning conference in South Carolina today, I was struck by an ever present theme that ran through the entire construct: relationships. At the center of being able to personalize learning experiences for students is the ability to develop a connection that is authentic and trusting enough to support educators in designing teaching and learning activities that work for each child. Without this connection, the power of flexible learning environments, learner profiles, learner pathways, and student ownership is limited. What personalized learning asks us to do as educators is to honor the human element at the center of our work: students. In order to provide our students with an equitable learning experience that creates a guaranteed opportunity for reaching the outcomes they set for themselves and we set for them, we must start by being connected to the students we are teaching and to our colleagues who are in this work with us.

That connection must not be underestimated. It is the sustaining element and critical factor in making personalized learning more than an idea, an initiative, or the latest and greatest ed reform topic. It’s personal and that is why I believe it is at the heart of what educators and students alike need-a trusting community of peers and partners to learn, grow, thrive, and connect with to live full lives where each person can be sure their potential isn’t underestimated or out of reach.

In the years and decades to come, I believe this need for personal connection, strong, trusting, relationships, and learning communities will remain a solid and essential concept in our profession. Above all else, we’ll continue to find that our relationships with one another are really the glue that holds us all together.

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

Latoya

@latoyadixon5

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SEL for Educators-Also needed NOW!

There’s a widespread engagement with the need for social emotional learning in our schools. Our students are faced with more trauma and bring an emotional deficit, disruption, or traumatic make up with them to school each day, and because of that educators are being tasked with teaching the standards and helping to create whole, healthy, and healed young people. While the need for such for our students seems very logical and clearly understood, I think it has been over estimated that educators have the skills needed to do just this. Broken themselves, they too often need some help in their own healing, their own wholeness, with their own mental health. However, this need, not being described here as one that should supersede the needs of students, but one that is equally important seems to be overlooked in the persistent advocacy for social emotional learning. The wellness of our educators cannot be overlooked. While some see their sharing of the burdens educators face in this profession and are challenged with as whining, selfish, and a distraction from their focus on students, I see it quite differently. We know that broken people can’t help others become whole, that those who are in a disharmonious state, whether it be personally or professionally, find it difficult to be the sense of calm in a student’s world of chaos. For sometime now, I’ve been thinking and writing about the importance of educator wellness, and I want to make a clear distinction that I’m talking about every educator: teachers and administrators.

While some are quick to note that teaching often comes with working 10 months out of the year instead of 12, many others in various professions like engineering, business, or finance, aren’t tasked with being exposed to the burdens of young people-daily. Story after story, my mind recalls all the things I carried home as a school principal and teacher. Like the time one of my students asked me to help him find somewhere to take a shower because he hadn’t been able to bathe in days, or the student who I saw eating from the trash can in a community eligible school that was 100% free lunch, or the student who ran away from home one weekend, whose father had allegedly attempted to kill her as a going child and mother was a known prostitute, or the student who was murdered by her grandfather after losing her mother to cancer, and surviving a nasty divorce. Those are just a few of the stories that live in my heart, and that I carried and still carry with me each day.

What some don’t quite seem to understand is that being stressed about a product coming in on time so that production of a device can be complete by the deadline or a delay on shipment causing an issue with quarterly projections don’t quite feel the same as the stories above. As educators we work with human beings and while there is no greater joy or assurance of the difference we make, an investment in the wellness of educators-mind, body, and spirit-is long over due.

We’ve subscribed to an educators are givers and not takers mentality for far too long. The missionary nature of our work and our deep desire to love and educate children doesn’t mean we are equipped to handle all that we are faced with in today’s public schools. We, too, need help. Our emotional well-being has a direct impact on our children and when we are healthy, we can be better educators for students and better people for ourselves.

I’ve often wondered what would happen if schools were built to include a wellness center for staff-a place where educators could exercise, meditate, sit quietly, or even work with a counselor. What if we had a registered dietitian on staff who helped staff develop and maintain healthy eating habits? What if we had group therapy sessions where teachers had a place to talk about and deal with what they are facing but also were able to receive recommendations on next steps and how to deal with the stress in healthy and healing ways? Think about the teacher who is trying to help her students be proficient in the area of social-emotional learning but also dealing with her alcoholic husband and heroine addicted child. Is it whining to say that the teacher is over burdened? Should she simply have chosen a different profession if she didn’t really love teaching? Should her dedications and commitment be questioned because she is unable to “leave her problems at the door” when she arrives at school? I know that teacher because I was her principal.

Contrary to what I’ve heard from many and may have been guilty of saying myself in the past, none of us leave our burdens at the door when we enter work. They live within us, in our hearts and in our minds, and they have a tendency to manifest when we feel like we can’t control what’s happening to us personally or professionally. Why should we expect folks to operate absent from who they are, their lived experiences, the good, bad, and ugly?

Would an increased focus on wellness and the social emotional health of educators result in an improves retention rate of principals and teachers? Might we be able to keep new teachers who tend to leave within the first five years in the profession longer? Might we be able to keep administrators in high poverty schools that have 30% principal turnover rates in their positions longer and more successfully? Might our nation prove well to invest in those who care for its’ children as much as it says it cares for its’ children?

I could be way off base, but I am willing to bet that any educator who reads this will likely be in agreement that the social emotional learning movement can not be absent of the need to invest in the wellness of educators.

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

-Latoya

@latoyadixon5

A Little Bit of Good

This week I attended ASUGSV19 in San Diego. It was amazing to be with so many people who are thinking about the future of human potential. As a first timer to this conference, I have to admit the first morning of the first day was a bit overwhelming. Thankfully, my colleagues Lauren and Stephanie, who were with me and had attended before actually helped me get my bearings. That being said, being in the room with venture capitalists, start up CEOs, and ed tech folks and others, made for a brand new experience. There were a few common themes beyond the obvious one, bending the arc of human potential, that arose. These people were future focused, desired to bridge the gap between education and the future of work, and leverage technology to improve economic mobility.

As I attended various sessions I found myself initially questioning the authenticity of the experience, questioning whether or not some of the people actually meant the why they expressed, and wondering what was at the root of their efforts. I was trying to make meaning from it all and I wanted to feel confident and secure that everyone meant well and would do well by those whose lives would be impacted by their technology, investments, and efforts. Immediately I exercised a lack of trust and then was later convicted by my own conscience.

After much thought and on my last day at the conference, it hit me: A little bit of good is good. We can’t always know how far or how wide our reach will go and we can’t be sure of the size and degree of our impact. However, if our intention and our effort results in making a difference, how much difference is made shouldn’t discredit the good that’s done. A little bit of good is good because everyone’s little bit of good can come together to create a lot of good.

We have to start some where and few ideas or efforts result in solving multiple problems. No solution is perfect and some good is certainly better than none at all. I am hopeful that my desire to see a more equitable public school system does not become intimidated by the daunting tasks ahead or the complexity of the issue. Instead, it is my desire that we all continue to do our little bit of good and hopefully, the sum of the efforts of the equity action oriented folks and equity minded people will be a great deal of good.

I’m going to be sure to keep doing my little bit of good in this corner of the universe. Join me?

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

Latoya

@latoyadixon5

Instructional Leadership: The Heartbeat of School Administration

Being a school administrator is an enormous responsibility. There are a variety of roles school administrators must fill. They must be excellent communicators, great relationship builders, and good managers of people, resources, and processes. School administrators have the audacious task of serving students, parents, teachers, and staff. This is not an easy task. It is complex and difficult. The days are long, the rewards great, and the pressure to do it all and do it well is present. At the heartbeat of school administration however, is instructional leadership. Too often, folks pursue the leadership role for its surface structure. They think it might be fun to be the face of the school or perhaps they are attracted to the idea of being in charge…whatever that means. What happens often in school administration is that those with a love of instruction and curriculum, with teaching and pedagogy see the administrative route as a mismatch for their skill set and passion. I contend that those people are exactly who we need as instructional leaders and school administrators.

High-Expectations are not enough.

So many school leaders believe they are charged with setting high expectations for staff and students, and while that may be true, high expectations alone aren’t enough. A leader who compells his her staff to change and provides an explanation of why change is neccessary isn’t the same as one who also shows staff how to change. Of all the time school adminstrators spend in school buildings, providing valuable feedback to teachers around the how of change is most critical. Too often the focus is centered on what and on why, with little attention given to the how, and teachers find themselves searching and trying to figure out exactly what the principal wants to see in their classroom. Instructional leaders must move beyond a compelling why and a clearly defined what. They must give teachers a clear articulation of how their teaching and/or pedagaogy should change to improve student outcomes. An instructional leader sees this as the most important mechanisim by which her or she can effectuate change in instructional practices and thereby advance student learning. A simple demand for teachers to perform better, be more effective, and the like just isn’t enough.

Coach the behavior to coach the data.

My sister, who has a career in business, said to me in one of our many conversations, “You can’t coach data. You coach behaviors.” I was awestruck by her idea. In a field like public education where we use the term data-driven as often as an article in the English language, I took a few minutes to process what she was saying. She went on to explain that in order to help people produce better results, you have to focus on the behaviors that are neccessary for such improvement. A simple conversation around data, around a percentage of students who have not met standards, around the number of students who didn’t fare well on the assessment, won’t produce a change in practice. To change practice, we must coach behavior. That is, we must coach teachers around the instructional practices that impact student learning. Data in and of itself tells us what’s wrong and where to look, but it does not tell us how to fix it and that is precisely what people need to know: how to fix it. Instructional leaders don’t just point out what is wrong. They are precise in guiding and coaching teachers on how to fix those areas of ineffectiveness.

Start with your learning.

I want to know what makes effective teachers effective. I want to be certain about what practices are those that make learning most possible for students. To learn that, I read a great deal. I study. Recently, I’ve been digging deep into Cognitive Science. This has been a very interesting personal research study because it makes clear what many scholars have written about in terms of high-yield learning strategies. Our brains are in best shape to learn when we account for cognitive overload, analogical transfer, and constructivisim. If we know this, our duty as professionals is to dig deep into the pedagogical structures and strategies that best account for these. Instructional leaders don’t guess about how to make academic learning and effective teaching happen. They study it. They read. They research. Instructional leaders are learners first and foremost.

At the core of being a school administrator, is the responsibility for teaching and learning. Instructional leaders see their purpose as two fold: to improve teacher practice and to advance student learning. Everything else is icing on the cake.

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

@latoyadixon5

Reflections on 2018 #OneWord: FORWARD

My #oneword for 2018 was FORWARD. I wanted to concentrate on moving forward in every aspect of my life and work diligently to improve my resilience. In 2017, I had a breakthrough moment in my personal life. I realized that I had likely spent half of my life (if I am blessed to live an equal amount beyond the present) worrying. I worried about everything, no matter how big or how small. I took myself too seriously. I spent a great deal of time trying not to make any mistakes and then digging myself out from beating myself up for having made an error of some kind. It dawned on me that for all the worrying I had done, none of the things I often feared as my mind went to worst case scenario had actually come to fruition. I resented all the nights I could not sleep, all the time I spent worrying instead of having fun, and I promised myself in 2018 that I was done worrying. No more sleepless nights, no more stressing out over things I could not control, and no more trying not to make any mistakes…a nice way of saying I was releasing myself from my perfectionistic tendencies.

Some people who know me are likely to say they don’t see this or didn’t know this, but ask any of my closest friends, any of my former supervisors, or my family and they will tell you it is true. I need no external pressure to do a good job. I do an outstanding inside job of that on my own. I have always struggled with anxiety. From the time I was a small child, I was described as conscientious. At school I was usually able to hold it together, but at home I battled with worry and anxiety often. Whether it was math homework frustration or worrying because my mom was later than usual getting home, my worry wire was active at an early age. Being conscientious is a part of who I am, but it no longer holds me hostage or sends me into a spiraling series of self-doubt. After nearly 20 years as an educator and a work record that I am proud of, I recognize that this life is short and I’ve given it my best and plan to continue doing so. That is enough and it always will be.

I chose the word FORWARD for 2018 because I wanted to focus on moving on, not getting bogged down in what went wrong or what might go wrong, but having a really balanced perspective that didn’t require an unrealistic pressure to get everything right the first time. I still focused on doing my best but I accepted that mistakes would be inevitable. I would make them, but the important thing was to focus on how to move forward, on my ability to bounce back and move on, on my resilience. I am so glad I did because 2018 was a great year.

In 2018 I found myself focused on being happy, having fun, and working hard. For me, the word FORWARD, didn’t mean to keep going in a careless manner. Instead it meant to move forward with courage, and to not allow fear to hold me hostage. This prevailing thought gave me freedom in ways I never imagined. I didn’t overthink wearing my favorite sneakers, Air Jordan’s, on the weekend, releasing my self published book, making rap music for fun, or writing more scholarly articles and submitting them for publication even if rejection would be the result. I trusted myself and my abilities. I finally realized that no matter what happens I would be alright and it, whatever it was, would also be alright. Experience said so. In 2018, I gave myself the freedom to be me and I have never felt more free and happy. There’s still room for growth, but I am off to a good start and I feel amazing. I hope this continues in 2019 because it’s amazing what the word FORWARD did for me in one year and I can only imagine what might be if I can keep this trend going for years to come. That’s why my #oneword for 2019 is FORWARD. It’s my eternal resolution.

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

Latoya

@latoyadixon5

The Competition Myth: Confronting the Consequences​ of Making Public School a Competitive Experience

Many economists assert that competition is a driving force that catalyzes improvement in businesses. BusinessDictonary.com defines it this way:

Competition:
Rivalry in which every seller tries to get what other sellers are seeking at the same time: sales, profit, and market share by offering the best practicable combination of price, quality, and service. Where the market information flows freely, competition plays a regulatory function in balancing demand and supply.

I am no business expert, but I think I have a basic understanding of this concept. Let’s use an analogy to help make this clear. Apple’s iPhone has driven the market in cellular phones. Samsung, LG, Tracfone, and others have had to improve their combination of price, quality, and service when it comes to the smartphone movement. As Apple has linked several of its’ other devices to the smart phone-think Apple Watch, Ipad/Ipad Pro, MacBook, it has created a community of consumers who more often than not own multiple products. By making sure the smartphone they design changes the way we work, live, socialize, and entertain ourselves, they force companies like Samsung and LG to create products like the Galaxy that can perform similar functions for a more reasonable price. This theory works well for products, for actual things because it diversifies the market, ensures that company innovations match consumer needs, and creates an opportunity for everyone to have a smartphone, even if they can’t afford iPhone X.

Some believe this same concept can help create better schools, and force educators to improve their practices to remain relevant in the market. They argue that adopting this philosophy to teaching and learning can help create better-prepared teachers, more motivated students, and force school districts to improve the quality of learning they offer when parents have other choices for their child’s educational experiences. A fundamental reason for competition is its effects in creating a diversified marketplace for better schools. After many years of a great deal of advocacy for a competitive mindset to be applied to American schooling, one has to ask, have all of our schools improved and gotten better as a result of this competition mindset we’ve adopted?

Hart and Figlo answered that question this way in their 2011 Education Next article, Does Competition Improve Public Schools

It is notoriously difficult to gauge the competitive effects of private schools on public school performance. Private schools may be disproportionately located in communities with low-quality public schools, causing the relationship between private school competition and public school performance to appear weaker than it actually is. If, however, private schools are located in areas where citizens care a lot about educational quality, the relationship will appear stronger than it truly is.

Other scholars now say that competition improves not only the quality of public schools but can also improve outcomes for students. In Bozzo’s 2016 article, School Vouchers: A Vehicle to Induce Greater Competition In Public Schools, she concludes:

“Many previous voucher studies have found that programs are successful at increasing competition and student academic outcomes but only on the lowest and highest performing public school students and in the most competitive school districts. Therefore, voucher programs are not an education reform that will work for all student groups and for all states, and vouchers will not be the panacea that will help all low-performing students to catch up. Moreover, precautions must be taken to ensure that heightened scrutiny and competition do not lead to negative unintended consequences, such as cheating and increased stress for students. Despite these limitations, greater competition has led to increases in student achievement in public schools in Ohio and Florida, particularly among the lowest performing students. Future studies and efforts should continue to identify the distinctive populations and contexts that can successfully use vouchers to foster greater competition and promote improvements in educational performance, particularly for vulnerable populations.”

The question I am left with is who are the children that end up on the downside of this competition? Unlike second place smartphones like the Galaxy when compared to the Iphone X, I believe none of our children deserve a second place education. When competition comes into play, it means there are winners and losers. It means someone has to be the best and someone has to be the worst. It means some schools have to be exceptionally better than others and some have to be exceptionally worse. That troubles me greatly because I believe all children deserve a high-quality education and none deserve to be on the lower end of the competition chain in their educational experience. What happens to those children whose parents don’t have the means or capacity to choose? What happens to the children whose mothers and fathers happen to not be engaged at all in their education? Who deserves the Iphone X education versus the Tracfone education?

The competition concept is a myth because I am uncertain as to whether it makes us ALL better. Instead, I believe it creates exceptionally great access and educational opportunity for some while others are left behind. I worry often that choice, which sounds good in theory, leaves some students with no choice at all. I think the education of students is far too complex to apply a broadly based business theory to an exercise in human interaction. I may be too utopian and idealistic in my beliefs, but I can’t help but think about the children on the bottom of the competition and what it means for them.

I think we’d be wise to look at this concept as something to be applied based on context, if and when it can be helpful, instead of broadly across public education. I remain uncertain as to how this impacts teacher and leadership retention, and how it impacts the rhetoric that some public schools are failures when in reality the idea of competition means someone has to fail in order for someone else to succeed. I have no answers for this myth, except to say it is something that stays heavily on my mind. What I know for sure, is that I believe all means all and that all students deserve the absolute best education we can offer them and I am not sure that is something we should make competitive.

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

Latoya

@latoyadixon5

The Zip Code Myth: Dismantling Predictive Geography

We’ve all heard it before. A child’s zip code should not determine the quality of education they receive. We’ve sat through or read numerous pieces on why we cannot continue to allow zip codes to determine the success of our children. I agree. I believe with my whole heart that every child deserves a quality educational experience that allows him or her to reach their highest potential. However, it almost seems silly for us to reduce the well known inequity students experience to geography and zip codes. We need to go beyond the idea that location of where you receive your education matters and dig deep into the mindsets that hold some communities hostage in the fight for equity.

I guess my frustration with the zip code argument is that there is nothing one can do, no action a student can take, to change where he or she lives. Additionally, seeking teachers or educational leaders who are “beating the odds” signifies that we’ve given up on changing mindsets, on creating more equitable communities, on calling out White flight and segregation academies meant to keep children separated during the time they spend in school. All the zip code rhetoric in the world doesn’t answer these questions:

1. Why can’t all of our students attend a quality school together?

2. Why can’t we pool our resources and provide a great education for every child instead of spreading resources and opportunities thin because there are separate systems of schooling (both formally and informally)?

In Mark Elgart’s 2016 Huffington Post article, Student Success Comes Down To Zip Code, he shares:

A study recently released by sociologist Ann Owens of the University of Southern California showed that access to good schools in the nation’s 100 largest cities continues to exacerbate income inequality between neighborhoods. Income disparities in communities increased by 20 percent from 1990 to 2010, largely because of the desire people have to live within the boundaries of top-performing schools. The study also indicates that income segregation between neighborhoods was nearly twice as high among households that have children compared to those without.

Instead of talking about the impact of zip codes and residential location on school quality, why isn’t there more conversation around who is drawing attendance lines that exacerbate inequity? Why aren’t we discussing how we can create more mixed income neighborhoods? What’s keeping us from talking about the root causes of the income disparities this researcher speaks of and how we begin changing that?

Zip codes aren’t the problem. It’s the mindsets of those who have forgotten or either don’t believe that the public education of all children is for the public good of all of us. As long as we champion a “beat the odds” mentality instead of a “level the playing field one” the zip code narrative will hold true. While I applaud every student who overcomes the obstacles of poverty and trauma, and every educator who is able to help students be successful in spite of the obstacles they face, wouldn’t it prove helpful to work on reducing the disparities and obstacles instead of giving all of our energy and attention to how we overcome them? If we were to spend more time addressing the causes instead of the effects, perhaps we might be able to shift this conversation to one that boldly and courageously addresses what we’ve known to be a key issue in our work since James Coleman’s 1966 report: We are better together. Coleman notes,

The research results indicate that a child’s performance, especially a working-class child’s performance, is greatly benefited by his going to school with children who come from different backgrounds,” Coleman said. “If you integrate children of different backgrounds and socioeconomics, kids perform better.”

We have an opportunity before us as educators to call on policy makers and others who make decisions about economic development, jobs, quality housing, and more to help reduce the inequities that plague these areas where zip codes are credited for the lack of success children experience. If we know we are better together, that all of our children are better when we educate them together, let’s stop talking about zip codes and start talking about how we can live, work, and learn together for the benefit of all involved.

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

Latoya

@latoyadixon5