Friday, July 31, 2015

Let's Get in the Game - 5 Simple steps administrators can take right now.

This is a message to all school administrators.

Bless you all, you have one of the hardest jobs that exist in today's world.  But many of our school leaders are falling dangerously behind.

Professional development and the use of modern communication tools tend to focus on teachers and classroom instruction (and rightly so).  But formal, institutionalized professional development has neither the agility nor the flexibility to serve the needs of educators in today's rapidly changing world.
As a consequence, many teachers have adopted social media and the concept of professional learning networks as their primary means of growth and learning.  This is often referred to as, "being connected".

Unfortunately and for various reasons, this new playing field has left many school leaders behind.  As the rules of the game have quickly changed, many administrators are still playing old-school, ever more alone and isolated.

If you are like me, you reached adulthood in the ancient days when the "deal" was clear; go to school, start a career, become an expert.  Congratulations, you have arrived.  You get to spend the next 20+ years knowing what to do, having all the answers, and showing others the way.

As a fellow leader, I'm sorry to break it to you, but that "deal" has been busted.  The paradigm no longer applies, certainly not to our students.  But it's critical for us to recognize, the same is true for us.  The longer we labor under the old context, the farther behind and more obsolete we become.

The age of experts is over, and we are all learners.  We have to let go of the notion that leadership requires that we have all of the answers, and embrace the idea that what leadership really means is that we support the right questions and the collaborative search for solutions.  This is difficult to do if we refuse to adopt the new tools of the trade, because modern leadership requires communication and collaboration.

We also have to accept the fact that we are never going to "arrive".  The remainder of our careers will be messy, full of mistakes, and will require constant growth and learning on our part.  Even when you do master something new, your expertise is doomed to fade very quickly as the world moves on, and new tools replace old ones.

Fortunately, the same tools that have brought about this change in our culture and society are available to help us become the leaders we need to be.  But we have to take the first steps in becoming connected.  If we don't start moving in the right direction NOW, we will soon become irrelevant and ineffective.  And if we stubbornly guard our old-school turf, we'll do more harm to our students than good.

One of the worst feelings in the world is to look up from dogged pursuit and see just how far behind you've fallen.  The good news is, we've all been there.  And this kind of game is not won by being first or scoring the most, it's won by trying.  The only way to lose is to do nothing.

So, let's get in the game, let's take the first steps.  They look like the hardest, before you take them.  But they're not hard.  They just take an open mind, a willingness to learn something new, and a little courage.

  1. Start a blog.  Don't know how?  Here's a short video tutorial for creating a blog using the google platform Blogger.  If you have a google account, you already have blogging tools available.  It's as simple as writing a Word document.  Don't know what to say?  Every administrator I know has at least a weekly news post to staff.  Start with that.  You don't' have to share it with the world, and you don't have to write a literary classic.  Just communicate.  Once you start, you'll see why blogging is a good tool for those weekly (or daily) posts.
  2. Learn the collaborative power of google docs.  Here's a short tutorial on sharing docs.  Share your meeting agenda ahead of time with your participants and ask them to help create the agenda.  Want to know what people think?  Write a question in a google doc, share it with your staff, and invite them to comment.  Once you learn the basics, you'll find you can have all kinds of meaningful conversations without wasting meaningful time.
  3. Get in the habit of posting on Twitter or Instagram one positive thing from your school each day.  Ask your staff to do the same, using the same hashtag.  You will be amazed how this will impact the culture of your school.  If you need help with social media, just ask someone who uses it, they will be happy to show you how it works.  Yes, the unknown is scary.  Remember the little bit of courage?
  4. Use Remind to communicate with staff, students and parents.  Send one inspirational note or quote each day.  Remind lets you schedule these ahead of time, your inspirational thoughts can be shared even when you are gone.  It may sound a little hokey, but this is incredibly motivating to staff when it comes from their leader.  Remind is also a great notification system for school events and alerts, and it is completely free.  This simple tutorial will help get you started.
  5. Learn about and use screencasting to partially "flip" your staff meetings.  Screencasting tools are free and very easy to use.  Good ones to start with are Screencastify (a chrome browser extension) and Screencast-O-Matic (a program you install on your computer).   These tools record your voice over what is happening on your computer screen.  Very easy to use, and you can publish directly to YouTube or save the video as a file.  (Note:  If you publish to YouTube as unlisted, only those who have the link from you can view the video, you don't have to share with the entire world).  Your staff will appreciate being able to get the details you want them to have when they need them, not just during the meeting.  And they can easily go back and review.
Any one of these steps moves you forward in the world by leaps and bounds, each is simple to do, and none of them require a huge investment of time.  You just have to start.  And once you do, you are back in the game.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Common Ground: Teachers, Administrators and Evaluations

A few days ago, @CHS_Mr_F (a great connected educator in our school) shared a post from a blog conversation between two other respected and connected educators.  Pernille Ripp (@pernilleripp) is a teacher, and John Bernia (@MrBernia) is a principal.  The conversation centers on teacher evaluations and the perspective of each "side".

This is a great conversation and I love the perspective from both sides.  I've said many times, the job of principal has become nearly impossible, and it requires a ton of talent and hard work to do it well.  Teachers have to work very hard to do their jobs well, too.  But they do have the luxury of clarity of purpose.  Teach kids, help them grow and to learn.  The good ones are the most valuable assets any school has.  Indeed, their purpose is the very reason schools exist.

The principal has a much different challenge.  Most would argue that the primary mission of the principal is to support instruction (and therefor, the teacher) and that is certainly true.  But principals must serve more than one master, and in the past two decades, those masters seem to present ever more crossed purposes.  Supporting instruction is certainly necessary for teachers to be at their best.  But a principal must also feed the system of accountability and management.

There was a time (some would say, back in the "good old days") when information and content was warehoused and curated by academic institutions.  In those days, systemic management, accountability, and support of instruction went hand in hand.  The school educated the child, the system was designed to feed that education through the teacher, and the system served all with efficiency.

But a funny thing happened on the way to this century.  Content and the ability to access it left the realm of the school and became ubiquitous.  The role of the teacher changed dramatically.  We don't feed; we coach, we guide.  We help students discover their own learning.  The role is every bit as important and the teacher every bit as essential, but it has changed.

In this time, the system of accountability, management and support has changed very little.  The built-in structure of most schools and state agencies simply does not possess the agility and flexibility of the individual classroom.  So, as our teachers discover the new mission and follow the path, the system falls further behind.  And there in the middle, lies the principal.

The irony of the times in which we teach is that everyone really wants the same thing.  We serve students.   The trouble is that the paths available to that service are far less open and clear to the administrator, and even less so to the state bureaucracies which must support them.  It is a very strange time.

The hope, I believe, lies in communications.  Conversations such as these are far too rare.  Isolation is the enemy, and connections are the most effective weapon to defeat it.  We have to do a better job of helping our leaders to connect with each other, with state agencies, with their teachers, and with the local community.  Yet we spend very few resources on this task.

The final irony is that very many well-meaning and dedicated principals feel that sacrificing their professional growth and learning for the sake of supporting their teachers is a wise choice.  The logic is that resources should go more directly to instruction, and that is a noble thought.  But it is misguided, for if we are lead our teachers, we must go before them, or at least travel with them.  We can't simply try to follow.  We truly must lead from the front.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

We're All Learners

There is comfort in routine.

As we enter the "dog days" of summer, that brief pause between the ed conference season and the harried start of a new school year, I look to my familiar list of tasks and find comfort.  I know exactly what needs to be done to close out the old and start the new.  Most of these tasks involve systems, not people.  While there are always updates and changes, these "systems" tasks retain their purpose.  They are necessary and familiar.  I can feel a sense of accomplishment without really needing to stretch myself as a learner.

It's a nice break from the mad rush of trying to be innovative and creative, of iteration and failure, of staring at the unknown and realizing how much I have to grow.  If I were a tree, this would be the season that creates a new ring, the pause before the frenzied growth of spring.

While in some ways I relish this interlude, I can't imagine staying in this season for long.  We all need growth and purpose.  We are all learners.  As with trees, growth takes resources.  It's frenzied and sometimes haphazard.  But it is the whole point of being.  We are not designed to be static beings.

There are many myths in education, and some die harder than others.  One in particular is not taught, but it is understood, almost as a bargain struck in our choice of career.  Start young, spend a few years learning your content and your craft, and you arrive.  A stately elm, gently swaying in the forest of public education.  Strong enough to weather the storms of new initiatives, but solid and unchanging.

Some have difficulty in releasing this myth.  It may have seemed appropriate in decades past, but the pace of change in communication technologies and access to information has more than proven that life for us is not that of a tree in an unchanging forest.  We are all on a journey, and while rest-stops and layovers are comforting and even necessary, still we move forward, or we are left behind.

We are all learners.