Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Take Risks, Learn From Mistakes, and Always Think Big Picture

If you have read this blog before you might have ascertained that I am a presidential history buff. I believe that there are a lot of good and bad examples of leadership in American Presidential history to from and I am a history teacher at my core. So naturally, parallels to the Commander and Chief are a reoccurring theme in my reflective process. But there are a few things that I think teachers and school leaders can learn from our greatest heroes. As long as we all start with the understanding that humans are flawed and Lord knows so are presidents, we should be fine in drawing comparisons.

Take Risks
There have been Presidents in our history who have not wanted to risk anything for the greater good of the country. Those presidents usually only serve one term and are often considered "lame ducks." 
As educators we should be confident enough I our talent, values, and goals to take a leap of faith. If we never take risks, our rate of progression will slow down. The best teachers have completely bombed lessons on more than one occasion and have lived to tell the tale. Mediocre teachers stay the same without ever moving past their comfort zone.
Abraham Lincoln assembled a cabinet of the very men who rivaled him in pursuit of the presidency. This was a major risk, but he knew it was best for the country. And as you know, aside from a few glitches, his risky appointments paid off.

Learn From Mistakes
When called into leadership, mistakes should be anticipated. I believe one of the most essential characteristics of strong leadership is not being afraid of mistakes. However, mistakes are a tool for improvement. The same mistake cannot be made repeatedly in the pursuit of greatness.
John F Kennedy is one of the more complex presidents to examine having been assassinated early in his presidency. However, there are two distinct events that shaped his presidency: The Bay of Pigs Invasion and The Cuban Missile Crisis. In one of these JFK was embarrassed but in the latter he was viewed as a savior. JFK learns from the Bay of Pigs to assert his strength rather than tip toe around what is facing him.
As School Leaders we must always learn to improve. Our students will see that, recognize it is human, and respect us for adjusting. There is no room for egos, pride, or stubbornness as we aim to provide top notch education to our students. Each week, each month, each semester and each year we should adjust to fix our mistakes.

Always Think Big Picture
When trying to accomplish major change, naysayers will always  let themselves be heard. Negative energy enjoys company and those who live in that space will try and keep you there. It is important to stay the course with the greater good in mind.
George Washington (you may have heard of him) was given the keys to the country. Early Americans were ready to make him leader till death. In fact, he was reluctant to take the job but his colleagues wouldn't take no for an answer and Washington knew it was best for his country. Against popular approval, Washington only stayed in office two terms(setting a precedent) and asked only to be called Mr. President (rather than your highness as some had proposed). Many felt that Washington should have taken more authority while others argued he should have taken less. However Washington acted in the bet interest of the country rather than being swayed by naysayers.
We as teachers and leaders must always be acting for the greater good of our students. Sorry to say but that takes precedence over all else. Some things we do may not always be popular but if we can go home and tell ourselves that everything you are doing is best for kids, there can be no argument against it.
We as educators must live these characteristics. Just like presidents, we come into our position with different life experiences, political views, and personalities but we act in the interest of our students above all else. Just like the presidents it is not an easy job but that is why we are called to be great. Have a Merry Christmas and a happy new year. Leading is Teaching.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Teachers in Action: Why Teachers Should Observe More Often

Like I have said a few times in this blog before, the teaching profession is much different than most. One of the major abnormalities of the teaching profession is that we rarely have the opportunity to watch other teachers in action. In other words, we don't have much to compare our class with since we haven't seen many others. I believe that peer to peer observation is an excellent way to sharpen our craft.
There are many different ways in which we evaluate ourselves such as student feedback, data, classroom response to lessons, formative assessments, and the overall "groove" of our class amongst other criteria. However, where do we get our ideas? We read about them, we think them up, or we hear something that we think is worth trying out. But what if I told you that right down the hall, a teacher was doing something that would work great I your classroom? Wouldn't you want to go see what it was? That is why peer to peer observations are so beneficial.

In most professions you have the opportunity to see others work. You can see what works for them, and what might work for you. You can observe their talents and visualize how your work flow could mesh with theirs. Because of this opportunity, you are more likely to improve more rapidly because rather than coming up with it on your own, you see it with your own eyes. To go even further, in a small school you have the chance to observe the Sam student you have, have had, or will have with another teacher. Let me tell you, that experience is an eye opener.

Since moving into administration I have has this wonderful opportunity this year. In addition, I still teach a Native American Studies class. The chance to observe has made me realize the areas where I can improve and areas where I could use some fresh ideas. When teacher are able to watch each other at work, they become better for it.

We recently began the Instructional Rounds process in which we observed all of our teachers with one school goal in mind. We did not right down how each teacher performed. We merely took objective notes with no names attached, scrambled the notes and then asked ourselves, are we meeting the goal and what can we do to meet it if we are not. This process has led to improvement school wide. And teachers were the driving force behind this positive change.

Administrators need to create time for teachers to observe each other. We spend thousands to bring in professional development when observing another teacher is often just as beneficial. This should be a priority in all schools.

We need to take out the evaluative and negative tone out of observations in schools. We need to come to an understanding that we must do whatever it takes to make our schools the best that they can be. We need to do all we can to be great teachers and great school leaders. If we truly want this we should be open to watch others and open to be watched I our classrooms. When those barriers are removed, we will become better at our craft and our students will receive a better education because of it. Leading is Teaching.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

5 Things I Have Learned About Students

Teaching is a job that can take many forms. Many people think that the job of the teacher is to deliver the content of their subject area to the students and to hold them accountable for learning that content. However, once you spend a week in the classroom as a teacher on a week on campus as an administrator you know that it is much more than that. Teachers are mentor's, friends, disciplinarians, coaches, psychologists, doctors, comedians, inventors, carpenters, IT personnel, and performers amongst many other jobs. The truth is, there is no handbook on how good teaching is done. Sure we have teacher preparation courses and tons of books on the subject (I hope to write one soon), but we are all so very different. Students come from all walks of life and so do teachers. So I figured I would just mention a few things I have learned about students that have helped me adapt in my pursuit to be an impacting educator.

1) We cannot treat all children the same because they are not.
The initial response to this may be, "That isn't fair to treat children unequally." That is not what I am saying. Actually, there is a difference between equality and equity. What I am saying is that our job is to teach students to their full potential and there are many different ways to accomplish this. Some students will respond to tough love, while others will shut down. Some students will be inspired by your words of motivation while others need you to show it with the act of side by side support. But it all comes down to knowing them and understanding where they are coming from. It is important to embrace their different talents and interests because that is what makes our classes fun.

2) Humor can break down the biggest barriers with students.
Many educators have had that moment when the student who was completely disengaged finally cracked a smile. That is typically the beginning of progress. Think of all the toughest moments in life and think of how often it is humor or common ground that bring us comfort. In environments without humor, it is hard to enjoy anything. Of course, there are scenarios when there is too much humor going on but the quickest and most effective way to create a bond is through humor. If there is smiling, laughter, and light heartedness within the walls of your classroom and you are managing that at a healthy level, chances are you are doing something right.

3) Students will only accept challenges if they trust and respect you.
 We all have the desire to push our students to their maximum capacity. We want our students to exceed expectations and reach high levels of learning. Well, I believe that in order for us to teach like that, our students need to feel compelled to do so. If we are leading an expedition, our students need to know that we will not leave them stranded in the wilderness. We need to build up to success. We need to provide them safety nets rather than threaten them with failure. The lifelong A student will always be intrinsically motivated for success. But what are we doing to make our C students motivated to succeed. We are leaders and effective leaders inspire faith in their followers. What are we doing to inspire faith in our students?

4) Students will perform at a higher level when they are interested.
Lets get this straight, students will never be 100% interested, 100% percent of the time. However, the more often they are interested, the more often they will perform at a higher level. There are always building blocks that need to be established that aren't thrilling but we need to infuse interesting topics to inspire achievement. Think about the most productive and successful moments or projects in your life. Chances are, you were not bored while doing it. A quiet classroom is good sometimes but the constantly silent room is probably filled with a good amount of boredom. What are we doing to keep students interested, active, and inspired.

5) The moment when you have a breakthrough with a student will change your life forever.
Schools often feel like battlegrounds. Teaching is tough. Students are not always the most endearing characters. But those moments when you connect with them or have significant breakthroughs with them are worth all of the effort. I believe that educators have the best job in the world. We see growth, impact, revelation, and many eye opening moments throughout the year. I think we are very fortunate to have that opportunity.

These are just a few of the things I have learned about students. I learn just as much everyday as they do. That is why I think it is so important to reflect from time to time. Leading is Teaching.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Inquiry and the 10,000 Hour Rule

Recently I have been reading Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers" for the second time. Like all of his books, Gladwell poses some thought provoking theories about society, behavior, and the human mind in this book. However, the element that is sticking out to me the most this time around is the 10,000 hour rule. Gladwell cites the "ten thousand hour rule" as the rule in which it takes ten thousand hours to become a world class master of anything. Whether it be playing the piano, shooting free throws, writing a blog, or ice skating, it take that many hours to become elite. Well that seems simple enough to me. However, what compels me is where the motivation lies while performing the "ten thousand hour rule."

As you all know, we do not, and never will have ten thousand hours with our students. Those classes where they are analyzing text, working out math equations, creating a story, or using the scientific method will not add up to 10,000 hours, let alone 10,000 hours doing any specific skill. So how in the world can we help to make our students masters of anything? Well, I believe it starts with creating a foundation of skill, and promoting inquiry within our students.

Think of what you have mastered or are currently trying to master in your career and life. Why would you spend that many hours on one particular skill? The truth is that we only spend that amount of time on something we value or something we believe will benefit us in the long run. That is where inquiry comes into play with our students.

I feel that we must encourage our students to have inquisitive minds in order to shape them into people who will one day be masters of something. We need to teach them that trial and error, repetition, experimentation, and persistence are all elements of success. This could obviously come in many forms from Skateboarding to engineering. As educators we must plant the seed of inquiry in their hearts and minds so that it will carry over into their adult life.

The skills of reading, writing, research, presenting, collaboration, and organization are all very important but we must inspire our students to be invested in those things and realize the value they hold in conjunction with their interests.

How do we do that? We give the students a framework of required skills and practices but we combine that with choice. We allow our students to experiment and explore without our constant intervention. We design projects that allow them to fail and learn from their mistakes. We give them the reigns and we help them when they fall behind. We encourage them along the way to persist and take risks. This is what inspires inquisitive minds, passionate people, and future masters. This is what conditions our students to not give up when they miss their free throws in life. As we know, the best motivation is always intrinsic and I believe that this is how we inspire is. Are your students going to embrace the ten thousand hour rule? Leading is Teaching.