Friday, Friday

So this week I’ve gotten to thinking about the culture of my school and other institutions.  In Todd Whitaker and Steve Gruenert’s new book School Culture Rewired, they discuss a variety of different elements to look at when analyzing the culture of an institution: Climate, Mission and Vision, Language, Humor, Routines, rituals and ceremonies, norms, roles, symbols, stories, heroes, and values and beliefs.  This got me thinking to how my school uses these things, and that got me to thinking about how a schools culture can be seen just by looking to the days of the week.

Fridays and Mondays bookend our time with students.  How do you, and your school, value these days?  Are Fridays a day of celebration because the week is finally over?  Is Monday a day to dread?  Think of the underlying message we send when we have that attitude.  If we truly value our role as educators, why do we look so excitedly to our time to be over?  Aren’t we being just a tad hypocritical when we tell our students that their learning time is a great opportunity and they should be excited to be in school, when we so earnestly celebrate the day that denotes the end of the week or so dread the day that starts the week?

If we truly want our culture to celebrate the time with students, maybe we should make a more active effort to look at Mondays more positively and not celebrate Fridays so heartily.  Sometimes small changes like this can change the culture of the classroom or even a school.  Enjoy your weekend, but I urge you to embrace Monday as a good thing.

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Positivity

It’s easy to feel beaten down as a teacher.  There seems to be a steady stream of mandates and demands from administration, state and federal government, parents, teachers, etc.  We’ve all seen the research–the burnout rate among teachers is overwhelming.  That being said, so many of these demands come from a good place.  As I think about these demands and their effects on teachers and students in a school, I think what can we as a community of educators due to ensure success for all students without getting burnt out?  I believe much of that answer lies in attitude.  While the issues of teacher burnout and students success are complex and mulit faceted, I truly believe that maintaining a positive attitude can make a tremendous difference in changing a culture.

Standardized testing season is fast approaching in my school, so administration has been speaking with teachers regarding the test and teachers are talking to their students about it.  Think of the words we use when we present this information.  The attitude we have when we present this is huge, if you ask me.

As an English teacher I am responsible for proctoring the new Smarter Balanced test which means leadership had to present me with the information about how the test looks and how it is to be proctored.  This disrupts the school day significantly pulling me out of my classes for days disrupting my curriculum.  From the start, this has been presented in a “this is terrible, but we have to do it” manner.  Unless teachers make a conscious decison otherwise, most teachers present this same attitude to their students.  So students will be walking into this test saying “this is terrible,”  yet we expect them to try their hardest and perform well.

I would argue that a simple change in tone (and wording) to look at the positives when presenting this would make a world of difference to the climate when testing and talking about testing.  It may be difficult to find the positives, and we may not truly believe the positives, if you fake it til you make it, I bet we’d see a big change.

As an example, when my students groan and stress out about a test at the start of the year (not standardized, just a test in my class), I always try to frame the test as an opportunity for students to show me what they’ve learned.  Sure, they roll their eyes at first, but I keep at it.  I promise you that the groaning, mumbling, and stressing greatly decrease as the year progress.

Positivity may be difficult at times, but the outcome is huge and necessary.  Teachers must maintain a positive attitude, and leadership must portray that as well.

The importance of the first follower

When people talk or write about leadership, they often speak of leadership styles and stories of leadership.  Rarely does the literature (at least in my experience) really delve into the reasons why some leaders are more effective than others.  And when the literature does ask this question, it is often framed around ideas of leadership styles and the like.  Last week I hinted at this idea by examining the difference between leaders and managers, but today I’d like to talk about the importance of followers and change the focus from the leader to the follower and consider their relationship.  After all, what do you call a leader who has no followers?  Just a guy taking a walk.

Leadership is generally about change, right?  It is about getting a group of people to move from one place to another–be it physically, mentally, behaviorally, or what have you.  When you think about how movements get started, you will generally see one person (the leader) suggesting something that seems outlandish.  Historical examples abound, but perhaps the most obvious (at least to me) is MLK Jr.  One man stood up and said blacks and whites should have equal rights but let’s fight for it in a peaceful manner.  At his time, this seemed outlandish and people were afraid to join his movement because such change puts people at risk.  Naturally people like comforat and safety, and the status quo is just that.

So how does someone take an idea that seems outlandish or even scary and get people to follow along?  Well that is a multifaceted question for sure, but no movement can take off without followers.  Honestly, no matter what you are trying to do, you can always gain a follower.  As ridiculous as your idea seems, there will always be one person willing to follow you.  I would argue that how you treat that first follower will determine the rest of your movement.

The people who come after–the 2nd and 3rd followers and beyond are not coming because of the leader.  Those people are following the 1st follower.  That means it is imperative for the leader to embrace the first follower as an equal.  If the leader does not do this, the first follower will stop following.  If the first follower stops following, none of the rest will follow either.

Let’s think about this in educational practice.  Let’s say as a leader you wish to implement a new initiative in your school (or department or whatever is applicable).  Perhaps this new initiative is a change in assessment practices to eliminate tests and quizzes and focus all assessment on projects and performance assessments.  Simply standing before your staff (the people who you want to follow you) and saying “There will be no more quizzes and tests” will surely backfire.  So instead you stand before your staff and you outline your vision and your reasoning (how you approach this matters greatly but is a topic for another day).  In just about any scenario, you will have at least one staff member who jumps on board–your first follower. How you treat that individual or group of individuals will determine if your initiative will take off.  As a leader you must embrace them as equals in this journey; you cannot be preceived as higher than them at all.  If they preceive you as attempting to be higher or mighter than they, they will surely abandon you, and you will not gain more followers.  If you treat them as equals, they will continue and be successful (assuming the initiative is a good one).  Other teachers will begin following them and establishing project based assessments and the movement will take hold.

In any movement the first follower cannot be discounted.  How you treat your first follower will determine the 2nd and 3rd followers and the success of your movement.  We’re working during an exciting time in education; there are  many great movements and initiatives out there.  Let’s hope leadership can cultivate their followers well.

leadership or management?

Here’s a scenario for you: You have a choice to send your children to a school with mediocre teachers but great leadership or you can send your children to a school with great teachers but poor leadership.  Which do you choose?  I would argue that the better choice is the school with great leadership.  Great leadership will change those mediocre teachers for the better, but poor leadership will drive away great teachers.  Schools need great teachers, but schools need great leaders even more.

Of course, this begs the question what is leadership, really?  Well, trying to write one simple definition to cover this idea is all but impossible, but I posit that there is a tremendous difference between being a leader and being a manager.  There are schools (and organizations of any type) that have excellent managers and/or management teams, but there is a dearth of great leadership in schools today.

So what is this difference?  Managment is about running an efficient organization.  It is about running things smoothly–making sure the trains run on time to use a terrible cliche.  Some examples of managment are administrators carrying out appropriate discipline for an unruly student.  Determining the infraction, speaking with the student and meteing out appropriate punishment, filling out the proper paperwork and communicating to the parents and other parties are all necessary tasks to ensure the efficient running of the school, but that is also all management.  For a department head to determine an appropriate budget and then allocate resources accordingly is necessary, but also all management.  Based on purely anecdotal evidence, much of what department heads and adminstrators due in schools is management.  Now there is no doubt that this management is necessary, but it’s not the same as leadership.

So what is leadership?  Leadership is about inspiration.  Leadership is about having followers and creating and driving at a vision.  True leaders focus on the school’s values and work to drive those forward.  Perhaps the best explanation of leadership I have ever heard is in Simon Sinek’s Ted talk here:http://https://embed-ssl.ted.com/talks/simon_sinek_how_great_leaders_inspire_action.html

As I first listened to this talk, I thought of all the managers and leaders in my life as well as in the culture and history of America that I speak of in class, and all I could think was how very true this is.  Great leaders focus on the why.

Now one must recognize that school leadership is so much more complicated than is presented here, but I think the underlying message is true and important.  Yes, school leaders are being pulled every which way and have all sorts of people to try to please: students, faculty, parents, school board, etc.  Yes, leadership means more than just stating your beliefs, but leaders keep their focus there.  Leaders don’t maintain a focus on the day to day management.

Let’s end here for now.  Tomorrow I’ll discuss the importance of followers and embracing them as equals.

rubric concerns

Yesterday, we had an early release day due to voting.  As a department, we spent the majority of our 3.5 hours together discussing our plan to formulate common rubrics for all our argumentative, informational, and narrative writing.  The idea (I think?) is that we would be able to use these rubrics for any writing assignment that falls into one of these major categories and people in other departments could also use these rubrics in their class.

This is where I start having a problem.  For a rubric to be a valid form of feedback for students, it has to actually match the assignment.  One can’t simply take any old rubric and slap it on any assignment and expect that the rubric will give the student worthwhile feedback.

Now I add the caveat that I am a huge support of rubrics, but only when they are done correctly.  For a rubric to be worthwhile at all, it must provide some sort of meaningful feedback, right?  Well, for that feedback to be meaningful, a rubric cannot be so generic that it simply can apply to any assessment, right?  Grant Wiggins describes this beautifully in his (somewhat lengthy) blog post: https://grantwiggins.wordpress.com/2013/01/17/intelligent-vs-thoughtless-use-of-rubrics-and-models-part-1/ where he defines rubrics very clearly as: “It summarizes what a range of concrete works looks like as reflections of a complex performance goal” I don’t see how this can be done when a rubric is so generic that it can apply to just about any assessment.

When I raise this concern, many people tell me that I need to just “tweak” the rubric to match the assessment.  OK, but if the point (well, one of them anyway) of us all creating and using this rubric is to ensure fair and consistent grading, doesn’t that negate the purpose. Then again, creating a rubric that is so generic that anyone can interpret it any way they want isn’t isn’t fair or consistent either.

As teachers and schools think about creating rubrics, we must use caution.  I truly believe rubrics are wonderful tools for students to learn, but I also truly believe that is only possible if rubrics are done thoughtfully.  Unfortunately, I worry that many teachers, departments, and schools are using rubrics poorly.

Praise

I just came back from a committee meeting on teacher evaluation.  We’ve been working to fine tune our evaluation document to really focus on teacher growth and giving meaningful feedback.  All the conversation got me thinking about what leaders do in regards to meaningful feedback.  There is seemingly this real emphasis on constructive crticism and having administrators and/or department heads work with teachers in their areas of weakness in order to grow as a teacher.  This sounds great in theory, but the practice seems to fall apart.  To me anyway, it seems to focus on the negative.

This led me to start thinking about the culture of schools and how leadership praises and recognizes their teachers.  As a teacher, how often are you sincerely praised for something you have done that is meaningful on an educational level?  I’m not taking being praised for planning the annual holiday party or a blanket email to the whole school vaguely thanking everyone for their work with some such initiative.  I’m talking real and honest praise for a job well done regarding something meaningful in terms of teaching.
Like any school, our department heads and administrators do walk throughs from time to time (though not nearly enough).  Twice I have received an email afterwords praising me in somewhat vague terms.  I guess this is better than nothing, but I truly believe a culture where praise is given often and specifically can make a huge difference in a school.  After a walk through a simple sticky note on the desk that applauds a teacher for something specific can make a huge difference in how that teacher preceives that administrator or department head.
As somebody who has recently received his Principal Certification, I think often about leadership.  Leadership and management are not the same–but that is an issue for a different day.  Leaders have an incredible effect on the culture of a school.  I truly believe that one way leaders can better the culture of a school is through more honest and specific praise.  Maybe this is asking leadership to change their mentality as they go through their day, but I think it’s an important change.  Maybe it seems minor in the grand scheme of the job, but the effect isn’t.  I’d like to see leadership make a more concerted effort to praise their faculty in meaningful way; I’m betting it would make a world of difference in making teachers feel appreciated which makes a world of difference in how the school operates day to day.

Change

From time to time we have what are called “dine and discuss” lunches that are run by an administrator or a committee and teachers from across the campus can sign up to attend.  The school provides lunch and we discuss various issues about education around campus.  Yesterday I attended a dine and discuss revolving around the idea of grading and a vision for how to change grades to more accurately communicate learning to students, parents, etc.  Grading is a whole different discussion for another day (I’m not sure any blog post can be long enough to truly discuss all the intricacies of grading and assessment), but this talk got me thinking about change.

Change is vital for any organization to grow, educational or otherwise.  We live in an ever changing world and teachers and schools must adapt to those changes to be effective.  When then are we as educators so resistant to change?  I happen to teach in a school that just celebrated its 200th anniversary and is steeped in tradition, but many of my colleagues all be refuse to change, even when they know it is what is needed.  Is it something about the way people attack our jobs (politicians, citizens, etc.) that makes us feel like we would be caving in to their demands?  I don’t know.  I’m not presenting answers right now; I’m merely pondering the question.
Change is tough for all people.  I get this.  But I have worked in various non educational organizations such as Starbucks, and people there were far more willing to change than I have seen in education.  And I know that this is true of other schools as well.  I have friends who teach in other districts and I have shadowed in othe districts and seen the same problem.
While I contemplate this issue, I am confident that good leadership can enact the necessary change.  One needn’t look further than the work of Malcom Gladwell to see the importance of the “tipping point” that allows change to happen.  Education is messy; so is change.  I guess it makes sense that they go together.