Education-An MVP of the Pandemic

This morning I participated in a Twitter chat, #pd4uandme after a little nudging from a colleague. The conversation was about naming educators in our lives who we saw as Most Valuable Players this year. I struggled to identify an individual because the year we’ve had in public education leads me to believe that every educator has been an EDU-MVP in the wake of this pandemic. I tried to think of one EDU MVP and immediately my mind was flooded with so many people, starting with my work family and all the way to my Edu PLN. It’s just too big to name one person. It’s been tough, but we’ve managed…by staying CONNECTED. Education is one of the Most Valuable Professions and has proven itself so during this pandemic.

I hope the spotlight on public education continues to shine in a way that honors our worth, promotes the recruitment & retention of excellent educators, & continues to elevate the profession-when the pandemic is over. Educators are integral to our democracy!

I hope folks will talk about the way educators stepped up and learned to pivot at a moment’s notice as much as they talk about learning loss. Our students need us and we’ve got work to do, but let’s be clear: It’s not because we haven’t put forth exceptional effort.

If I were forced to give an EDU-MVP award, I’d give it to the profession as a whole. When crisis arrived, we answered. We taught-by computer, cell phone, tablet, in 😷, provided meals to students & families, & mental health & SEL services. This shouldn’t go unnoticed.

When I think about how valuable educators have been to society during this pandemic & how valuable we are in general, it brings me great sadness to think we were first to serve, but in many cases will be last to be vaccinated. Our profession deserves better.

I don’t mean to get on a soapbox & don’t care to debate. I just hope we are the topic in conversations about how to honor, elevate, and uplift our profession post pandemic-not just in the ones about how we’ll be punished if the children don’t do well on the test.

We’ve proven ourselves to be much more than test scores.

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

@latoyadixon5

The Truth About Leadership: Part 3 – Resilience Is Required

One of my biggest challenges as a leader has been strengthening my resilience. From the outside, it may appear that I have approached challenges with vigor and persistence, pushing through tough situations and times with a smile. On the inside, there’s a different story. I’ve had to learn over the years not to replay my mistakes in my mind over and over and over again in an attempt to analyze where things went wrong. It’s taken me some time and a ton of experience to understand that healthy reflection includes resilience instead of a long period of deep self-disappointment. Acknowledge the error. Make note of what you could have done differently. And most importantly, move on, and do so with haste. In the early years of my leadership, mistakes seemed to linger longer than they should have and in ways that were not productive. I struggled greatly with being a perfectionist and became a pro at worrying about everything and anything. In 2017, I found myself in a toxic relationship with worry. Even now when I tell folks that they tend to look at me rather puzzled. They almost always say, “I’d never know it. You seem so confident.” But we all know things are not always as they seem. While my confidence is at the best level it’s been in my leadership journey, it hasn’t always been that way. I remember turning 40 in 2017 and thinking that I had spent what could potentially be half my life worrying, and on my birthday I decided I’d worry no more. My relationship with it had made me a leader who lacked resilience and I began to focus on bouncing back rather than being all consumed with making an error.

Here’s the truth about leadership: If you are a leader, you are going to make a mistake. The best thing you can do is spend time working on how you will move on and beyond your errors rather than wallowing in them. Analyze your relationship with reflection and make sure it isn’t toxic. We have a tendency to misrepresent what it means to be a reflective practitioner. Here’s what it doesn’t mean-over indulging in guilt, which can manifest into self-doubt and a lack of confidence. Self-doubt and humility are not synonymous, and all too often leaders operate as if that is the case. Humility means you recognize everything is bigger than you, including your purpose, and it is precisely the reason we ought to be more resilient in our leadership journey.

As a young student in elementary school, my teachers often wrote about how conscientious I was-it’s how I learned what the word meant (report card comments). It’s my nature. I want to do a great job and I was reared to always do my very best. Momma wasn’t having it any other way. But I have finally learned that my conscientiousness cannot be a handicap to my confidence. Leaders must believe in themselves, and we demonstrate that by practicing vulnerability and resilience in equal measure. It makes us more authentic and most importantly, it gives us freedom rather than fear. And we all know that freedom feels better.

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

Latoya

@latoyadixon5

The Truth About Leadership: People Will Use You…If You Let Them.

I recently started thinking about how it is possible for someone to admire and enjoy your insights and ideas, and not be fond of you as a leader or as a person. If we can all learn from someone, it means we can even learn from people we don’t like or who don’t like us. And this is exactly why we must not confuse those, “I want to pick your brain,” requests for anything other than what they are-an exchange of ideas. Coming to this realization often leaves us feeling disappointed, dejected, and even used. That’s right. I said it: used.

As a leader there will be times when you feel used, undervalued, and like a pawn in someone’s game of chess. That’s why you cannot confuse someone’s desire for your insight, knowledge, and expertise, with an invitation for a friendship or an attempt to build a strong and trusting collegial relationship. Quite simply they want what you think, your ideas, and quite frankly may not give a damn about you as a person at all. When one comes to this realization it can hurt, especially if you’ve presumed that one had good intentions in asking for your insight.

The reality is this: Leaders who intend to be successful might work especially hard to have folks with right strengths, talents, and skills around them to help carry out their vision. Building a strong team with diverse experiences can help expedite success, but just because someone ask you to be on their team doesn’t mean they can fully appreciate you beyond your ideas and input. After all it is work, and that is the primary purpose of our professional experiences. And while we should not take it personally, we often do-at least I do. I tend to believe that when someone ask for my opinion, it is because they value me as a person and a professional, but over time I’ve learned not to confuse the two, and how important it is to not blend my personal identity with my professional reputation. While both impact each other, they are not the same. I am not my job. My job is not all of me. Each has its’ rightful place, but must remain in balance for an equally harmonious professional and personal life.

I hate feeling used. But I realize I am in control of the offerings I make, the connections I develop and sustain, and the insights I share and how I share them. I’ll be operating with a lot more intention in the coming year. Sharing, caring, and connecting with intention and deliberateness. While this will help me to make sure others do not take my intellect for granted or that I end up feeling used, it will mostly be a bold demonstration of self-love. Loving myself enough to know not everyone deserves access to my intellect. And I mean that in the most humble way of all.

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

@latoyadixon5

The Truth About Leadership

This is part one of a multi-part blog series. If you are so inclined, I welcome your feedback.

I’ve been thinking about something lately that I can’t seem to get off my mind. It’s the idea that too few people write honestly about leadership. It’s all sunshine and rainbows, but not really. The truth is that leadership is incredibly hard. It is challenging, some days more than others, and it does not always feel great or good. Sometimes it can feel scary or unnerving and other times it can be purely exhilarating and full of joy. But nobody writes about the scary and unnerving times. It’s all about how to be great, how to lead with courage, how to set a great example for others to follow. Sure we all need encouragement and being positive is necessary, but sometimes I just want people to tell the truth about leading. It is tough, and the only way out of the tough parts is through. I’m not going to wait any longer for someone to be real and write about the rawness of leadership. I’m doing it. Here goes nothing. In this blog series, I’ll be writing about the hard parts of leadership because there are too many leaders who feel alone in their experiences because so many simply won’t tell the truth.

Nothing is more demoralizing than a leader who lacks authenticity. One who does the things they think they are supposed to do because they want to be sure they live up to the idea of leadership that others promote. During my time in leadership, being committed to being authentic has been a blessing and a curse. Some appreciate it. Others are uncomfortable with it, and usually they are uncomfortable with the opinions others have of them as well if they aren’t all glowing and positive. But the truth is that if you are a leader, you can guarantee that you will be criticized, not liked by some, and it will not feel good. I’m not writing to tell you that you should not care when others don’t care for you. I’m writing to tell you that it is normal to feel concerned when others criticize your decisions, your leadership style, etc. But that concern doesn’t have to be coupled with conformity. Want to get yourself in a rat race that you’ll never win? Try pleasing everyone. You’re sure to burnout fast. By doing what you believe to be the best thing for the people in your organization and those you serve, you lead. You stand on what you believe in and you accept the criticism where it is warranted and respect the differing opinions of others as leaders should. But make sure you don’t fall victim to losing your authenticity as a leader-what makes you….YOU.

In my experience, I’ve had the opportunity to work with and observe many leaders. Time and time again, I’ve watched folks lose themselves in their leadership. Either taken over by ego or reduced by a few loud voices of criticism, they begin to not even recognize themselves. While leadership and the experiences that come with it are sure to impact you, and if powerful enough maybe even change you, your core values must remain solid. The moment you find yourself shifting in what you believe to be right, just, and equitable for all, or consider taking action in a way that contradicts what you believe, you must reconsider your leadership journey. It could mean you aren’t in the right environment or it could mean you’ve allowed the pressures of leading rather than the privilege of leading to drive you. Because leadership is a privilege, and those who lead should never forget that. In those times when I have faced criticism, I’ve had to work to remain balanced and find the sweet spot between taking it too personally and disregarding it all together. It’s the middle ground of giving consideration where it is warranted, but not allowing it to produce a level of self-doubt that negatively impacts me and my ability to lead that has worked best for me. And finding that balance is a never ending journey.

Real leaders reckon with remaining authentic and true to themselves all the time. I am not sure why few share this experience and so many resort to telling the sugar coated stories of leading. My leadership journey, while full of great experiences, has equally been filled with sleepless nights, stressful days, anxious nerves, wonderings of regret, fearful and tearful moments and conversations, and more. That’s because leadership is hard. It is not easy, and it is especially not easy if your greatest goal is to be an authentic leader who accepts yourself, your flaws, your mistakes, your errors as well as you accept your accolades and accomplishments. This is a mammoth task. It requires a level of personal and professional security that is solid enough withstand the winds of change, the voices of criticism, and the uncertainty of it all.

But I am determined to be as authentic of a leader as possible. I’m not afraid to admit that leadership is the hardest task I have ever embarked upon, and it’s been a challenge at every level, big or small, school, district, or state. However, I recognize that what has kept me in it is remaining true to myself, my core values, and real in my relationships with others. That is the stabilizing force in the journey-the authenticity- of it all. I implore others who lead to join me in telling the truth about leadership. It will help all of us.

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

Latoya

@latoyadixon5

Confessions of A COVID-19 Summer

A little more personal than usual, but a much needed release. Check out my latest blog post: Confessions of A COVID-19 Summer

Summer has always been my favorite season. Even as a young child, I yearned for the time of year when Momma would let us wear shorts. In our house, you didn’t wear shorts before May 1st. That’s how Momma knew all the potential “cold snaps” had passed. I know cold and April don’t seem to coincide, but that’s how it worked for us. Fast forward 40 years and my nieces are granted the opportunity to wear shorts when they ask-May or not. At any rate, this summer has been a real struggle, and it’s not just because of COVID-19.

Obviously, practicing social distancing has impacted my life. Other than my travel to work and a few socially distant visits with my family, I’ve pretty much been at home. I have gone to the grocery store or drug store as needed wearing my mask, of course. Otherwise I have been at home. I’ve tried to spend more time outdoors and I’ve taken up weighted hula hooping which as been fun and good for my mental health. But beyond COVID-19 and the changes it has forced on us all, I’ve undergone other changes.

I started a new job in January, making the transition from my old job to this one over the holiday break, and I have taken no time off, other than our granted Spring Break, since then. I’ve worked hard to support the work of our district, helping plan for reopening, supporting principals as they work to get ready for the school year, working with my instructional team colleagues to plan and execute professional development. I’ve put together more documents and plans in the span of three months (June-August) than I can remember in a long time. I’ve worked long hours, weekends, and evenings to get things as ready as possible for our district, as have many of my colleagues. And when I find myself saying I am so tired, I feel tremendously guilty. We are all tired. All of us. And I am particularly tired of COVID-19.

My usual travels in the summer have been non-existent. For the last three summers, I’ve traveled to Nova Scotia for what I call my Zen Retreat. There on Locke’s Island, at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, there is real spotty internet, and not much to do. It is beautiful, and still, and quiet. It forces me to stop, and I can feel my mind at ease while I am there. While there I’ve hiked in Kejimkujik National Park, visited with friends, and been able to simply stop. Of all the places I’ve traveled in my life, it is by far the place where I have found the most peace-mentally and spiritually. And I can tell I have not had that experience this year.

My social interaction with friends, nights out to dinner, travels to the beach or Mountains, gatherings for fun nights of laughter have been missed. I think if I have learned anything during this pandemic it is that we need each other to thrive-not just to survive. Yesterday, I hosted a virtual check in for educators who wanted to just chat and be encouraged. We spent two hours doing just that and I have to say, it was uplifting and as much for me as it was for them. I needed it. I am because others are. My relationships with others serve as a source of energy, inspiration, and much needed stimulation for me. There is no doubt about that.

Each day, I try my best to be positive. Some days I am better at that than others. I try to post something uplifting each morning and set my intentions to have a great day, to be still in my mind and heart, to be a servant, and to give my all and my very best. So many mornings I see that my post has helped someone else and that gives me so much joy and energy to keep going. And in this time of heightened uncertainty, where we can’t be sure of anything other than ourselves and our hearts, I hope we all recognize that at the core of our humanness is a need for connection and relationship. I hope we will all pick up the phone, call a friend, send a text, and have virtual happy hours. I hope we will not become desensitized to COVID-19 and how it has altered the way we work, live, and socialize. I hope we will not let isolation become the norm. I hope we will check on each other regularly, especially our strong friends.

This is a marathon and the road ahead is long. But I’m encouraged because I have an opportunity to strengthen relationships, to build new ones, and to gain clarity about what really matters. As we embark on a new school year, I am exhausted. I am weary, and I am tired, but I am hopeful. And it is that hope that better days are ahead that keeps me going.

The best really is yet to come.

Until Next Time, Be you! Be true! Be a hope builder!

Latoya

@latoyadixon5

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

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

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

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

Beyond Knowing Your Why: Let’s Talk About How Too!

In recent years, there has been much conversation about the importance of individuals within your organization understanding their purpose, also often referenced as “knowing your why”. While this is certainly an important concept, what is often missing in our quest for improving our organizations, are the methods others might utilize to improve their practices. We can become so intimately involved in focusing on the why of our work, that we neglect the HOW of our work. We spend a great deal of time telling others why we are doing what we are doing and what we would like them to do, and absolutely provide minimal knowledge and information on how to make the much needed changes. If we aren’t careful, we’ll find that we’ve sent folks on a mission with a purpose, but little to no tools to improve it.

What we need right now to improve our organizations, schools, and our lives perhaps, is a fierce focus on the how. In our schools, we have an opportunity to anchor teaching and learning with a defined set of evidence-based pedagogical practices that should be present in every classroom. We can provide high quality professional development opportunities to help teachers work on the how of instruction. We can give teachers the quality of feedback they need and deserve to become proficient at the pedagogical practices that we know result in high outcomes for all learners.

Let’s not allow our focus on the “WHY” make us abandon the much needed focus on the HOW.

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

Latoya

@latoyadixon5