The Principal's Principles

A Middle School Principal, striving to make the world a better place, one day at a time.

You can come back from a bad decision, but a bad process….

In an era of reductions in our profession, we’ve seen a number of difficult decisions that must be made that often erode programs that people are passionate about. Repurposing or closing schools, staffing reductions, teacher schedules requiring multiple content areas or preps are all examples of scenarios that all agree are not optimal, but are a product of challenging financial times. 

In these moments, process matters more than ever. Being clear, communicating effectively and operating with intentional inclusivity are critical. As a leader, you can listen and take input, even when the final decision rests in your hands. 

Remember “often, trust arrives on foot and leaves on horseback.” Focusing on process won’t make a painful decision “feel good,” but it will allow you as a leader to maintain trust. Ignoring the process and acting arbitrarily will erode relationships and undermine your effectiveness. 

A Role Reversal

The post I wrote as a companion piece to the work of teacher extraordinaire Pernille Ripp on closing the gap between administators and teachers yesterday was still on my mind this morning when I picked up my newspaper. I saw something in the sports section that may hold promise for some tangible next steps. 

The NBA is in the midst of summer league play. It’s commonplace for the head coach of the team to attend and watch the prospects that are playing, but, the teams are coached by assistant coaches, many who have no head coaching experience. For these coaches, it’s the chance to grow and learn what it means to be the head coach of an NBA team. 

Where are there programs in our schools where teacher leaders can step out and serve as administrators? Are there programs, that do not totally disrupt summer vacations, where teachers can take on roles to see what it’s like to be an administrator, while still retaining their role as classroom teachers? How can we appeal to a wide variety of teachers, beyond those with administrative ambitions AND, where can principals pick up some responsibilities from these teachers leading the program to create the time? 

There’s potential here to not only develop leaders but also to close a gap and help our groups understand one another better. 

If you’re interested, here’s the article from this morning’s paper. 

Dear Teachers, Can We Tear Down the Great Divide?

Dear Pernille,

I saw your post and it made me pause and do some real thinking. I know you are a strong, respected professional who can represent the teacher viewpoint on the issue. Here’s hoping I can speak for administrators here in our corner of the Internet. 

I can still recall the moment and feeling I had when one of the very best in your field, upon telling me she did not agree with a decision I made, looked at me and in anger said “you’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a teacher.” To some degree, she was right. While I have taught before, I didn’t know what it was like to work with her students and the mandates she faced that year. 

To some degree, I’d say “you don’t know what it’s like to sit in my chair.” It was a major change when I moved from being a teacher to being an administrator; truly, it was getting a new job. It was my first year of teaching all over again, in front of professionals with expectations of me, some who knew me as a peer a year before. 

A gap exists. It’s there because we have very different jobs. We work in the same place, our goal is the same, but our roles are different. What’s needed (in my view) is an environment where we presume positive intent, which requires a lot of trust. 

“Support” is a two way street. You need me as your administrator to support you and your work. I need the same from you. Each time something is reported to me about a teacher, I cannot rush to judgement and I must remember that there is more than one perspective. I need to trust the teacher, as a professional, and hear what they have to say on the matter. The challenge for you in supporting me lies in the fact that sometimes, I can’t always talk about my side of the issue and the “other perspective” belongs to one of your colleagues. 

Part of the solution requires blind faith. Part of the solution requires more transparency from both of us on our challenges. We both can do a better job of saying “I trust you,” “I respect you,” and “we disagree, but we’re both professionals who want the best for students.” Part calls for some tangible action, like me dealing with some mandates or you sitting in on that tough parent meeting about one of your colleagues. 

I hope we can keep talking. Together we’re better. 

Let’s close the gap,

John

#ISTE2015 attendees, principals need you

Inspired by the sessions I have attended, the teachers I have spoken with, and a post by my friend Pernille Ripp calling on me not to give up on “those” teachers, I sit down to write today with two purposes.

To open, as a principal, I want to foster an environment where professionals feel valued and can grow their skills. I want to eliminate roadblocks so that everyone has the opportunity to do their best work. We work in a system where the state and federal government pass along mandates for our schools. As a principal, I have to ensure we comply with these policies to keep our doors open. I know there is far more to our work than standardized scores and procedures to take attendance. My role requires me to strike a balance, ensuring we follow the law, but also that we have a place where you can be creative and do purposeful work you find engaging.

The above paragraph doesn’t make me special, my views as a principal are common. As administrators, we don’t get up in the morning thinking “how can I stifle my students and staff.” We don’t want you to be frustrated. Sometimes there’s a shortage of resources. Sometimes we’re just not clear on what you’d like to do.

This transitions well into my second point, and that is really more a question than a statement. As I have reflected on the sessions and conversations I have been having, I find myself wondering “what do you want from me?” I wish there were an open forum where teachers could simply speak their minds, giving a national perspective on what teachers, who are doing incredible work, want to see from their administrators. Send me a tweet, respond here, or say something when you pass me on the way to a session.

As a principal, here’s what we need from you. If you feel supported, tell us you feel supported. If you are frustrated but understand, tell us you are frustrated but understand. If we clearly don’t understand your vision of where you want to go, help us understand. Don’t assume that others are telling us we’re doing well, or that we need to do something differently. Speak up!

What we measure, gets better

I’m a big believer in the adage “what we measure, gets better.” Demand for analyzed data is a call for accountability, a demand for metrics, and a statement about your values.

With this in mind, I offer the follow up statement “if what we measure gets better, we had better measure the right things.”

  • Do we measure if a learning target is posted, or if the learners in a classroom know what the learning target is?
  • Do we measure if assignments are turned in, or if our assessments truly measure learning?
  • Do we use our data to inform instruction, or simply to say “we have data” for evaluation purposes?

The difference in outcomes of these and similar questions is critical. If what we measure gets better, we had better measure the right things.

A Letter to @SHendersonFreep on some Ed. Policy

Dear Mr. Henderson,

Before I get to the heart of the matter, I want to open by saying that I’m a big fan of your work. I’m a daily reader of the Detroit Free Press editorial page, I listen to Detroit Today on WDET, and I watch both of your shows on PBS (American Black Journal and MiWeek). What I like most about your work is your willingness to talk about all sectors of education (public schools, charter schools, home schooling). Don’t get me wrong, I like the other topics you take on, but, my profession makes me most interested in the way you grow the conversation around education.

In recent weeks, you’ve talked with legislators and people who report on education. The goal of my letter is to offer some thoughts I have on what many of the pieces you write come back to, literacy. Literacy is critical for college and career readiness. At the secondary and post-secondary level, I’d argue that most classes are simply reading classes. My experience tells me that there are some things that good schools (ours included) are doing that should be considered by policy makers.

1. Pick a measure and stick with it.

Simply put, state tests are in a state of transition, and it will take time for proper piloting to determine how effective the new M-STEP measures student reading progress. There are standardized choices, such as NWEA, iReady, DRA, DIBELS, Fountas & Pinnell, among others. While there are cases to be made for any of them, districts should pick one to use to measure reading fluency (the ability to read with speed, accuracy and proper expression) and reading comprehension (the ability to read a text, process it, and understand the meaning). This should be measured 3 times per year in the fall, winter and spring.

2. Move from “data” to “information.” 

Education is famous for data collection and measurement. We’re not as known for using the data properly. Educators need to spend time in the fall, winter and spring analyzing the data collected by the universal measures mentioned above. This analysis should identify what interventions/remediation is needed and who it is needed for. Keep in mind that interventions are needed for struggling students, as well as those who have test scores far above the target.

3. Require reading.

The only way to improve reading skills is to read. Beyond instruction on phonics, talking about text, or analyzing someone’s approach to books, the act of simply sitting down and reading for a stretch of time will have a positive impact on a student’s ability. During reading units in English Language Arts classes at our middle school, students have 24 minutes to read a day. Elementary students in our district read every day. District policies can, and should require time for students to read.

4. Provide ongoing professional development to teachers and principals.

Teachers need training on the reading assessments selected by districts, as well as on reading instruction. Principals need training on what kinds of questions to ask teachers about reading instruction, and how to offer specific encouragement to teachers around literacy. Another key idea here is what to do with new staff. As new teachers and new principals are hired, training on reading measures, as well as reading instruction must be offered.

5. Make the measures stick.

State law requires educator evaluations to have a student growth component. These standardized reading measures can and should be part of teacher and administrator evaluations. Accountability will make sure the assessments are given with fidelity, and that students are given the proper time to practice reading.

6. Educate parents and community.

Whatever the measure a community chooses for reading, that information should be shared in a user friendly way with parents and with the local library. Uniting all stakeholders with a common vocabulary around reading will empower everyone involved in a child’s education to ensure he/she can read successfully.

In the growing conversation about education in the media, many are calling for “literacy,” but few offer specifics on what schools can do and what stakeholders should be asking for. Here’s hoping the above points can be part of the next wave of thoughts on the nuts and bolts of “what can be done.”

I remain a reader, listener and fan of your work,

John

What’s so special about an Edcamp?

I attended EdcampLO last Saturday, along with about 50 other educators. While I was there, I noted a few things that were special, and are not often seen at traditional conferences. A few examples:

  • There is an energy in the room moments before an Edcamp begins. It’s early on a Saturday, and there’s a buzz in the room about the ideas and upcoming collaboration.
  • The absence of a keynote allows the energy in the room to transfer immediately to sessions based on the interests of those in attendance. 
  • Some sessions and topics are proposed because a participant is looking for an answer, not because “they are an expert.”
  • After the first session on Saturday, a group came into the hallway and asked for some space they could use because “they weren’t done with their conversation.”
  • Almost everyone participates. While someone facilitates and gets the conversation rolling, the absence of formal presentations generates more active engagement.
  • Many stay until the end of the day and the last session of the day sometimes “plays overtime.” That doesn’t happen very often.

EdcampLO was a reminder of what Professional Development can, and should, be. Attend these events, and bring a friend. Put ideas into practice and share what you learned (and where you learned it). Building a critical mass will move these evnts from Saturday to Thursday.

Youthful Enthusiasm

Yesterday, I sat in a session at EdcampLO about literacy. As the conversation moved around the room, one person commented “I need conversations like this because I’m a first year teacher and I need to learn as much as I can.” This statement resonated with me and reminded me of how I felt at the start of my career, each day really was a chance to grow and learn something new. 

Moments later, another participant in the conversation responded to the new teacher with the comment “I’m a veteran teacher, and I need to learn as badly as you do.” Her response made me take stock of my own dedication to my professional learning now that I too have become a veteran of our profession. 

The fact is, I am still as driven to learn as I was when I was a new teacher. However, I will admit there are days when “Mr. Bernia, the first year teacher,” approached his work with more energy and enthusiasm than “Mr. Bernia, the 12 year veteran” does. 

This week, my goal is to find that postiive energy and enthusiasm every day. Optimism is contagious, and is needed right now as we approach our second of six weeks of M-STEP testing and the spring has sprung at our middle school. 

What I’m thinking about this month

We’re a few weeks behind, but here’s what’s on my mind for April.

I’m preparing to attend:

EdcampLO – a morning unconference that our district is putting on.

I’m reading:

The Principal 50, a new book by one of my favorite authors, Principal Kafele.

I’m listening to:

BackChannelEdu – A podcast, focused on situations that arise for school leaders.

A shattered phone, a silent week, and a lesson learned

As any parent can tell you, sometimes, we have to make decisions our children don’t like. This happened recently when my daughter and I headed home before she was ready. As I helped her out of the car, she expressed her frustration with my decision to end our time at the park before she was ready with a swinging arm that connected with my shirt pocket. I watched, almost in slow motion, as my iPhone traveled through the air before connecting with a loud “thud” on our driveway.

I can still make calls using the voice commands, and if I hold the screen the right way, I can see who calls me. When the moment is right, I might be able to answer a call. Outside of that, there’s nothing I can do with my phone. No email, no text, no Twitter.

For the past week, if I want to participate in Social Media or send email, I have to be at home using a device. During this time, I learned some invaluable lessons.

  • With our smart phones, we travel in a bubble. We can communicate with anyone, across any distance. What we miss is the people right in front of us, the new people that we can meet when we put our devices down. As I sat in the waiting room at the dentist office, I got to talk people I had not met, or people I had seen in previous visits and done little more than say a quick hello. I felt energized by these exchanges, by making myself aware of who was around.
  • With our smart phones, we see the content we want, and most often, the content that supports our viewpoint. We can listen to podcasts or content in the car that we select, read news sources and social media posts from friends and like minded individuals. As I drove in my car, or had a free moment or two, I found myself listening to, reading and paying attention to material that was selected for me, instead of content I chose. I realized just how many perspectives are out there, it generated some reflection on my part.
  • With our smart phones, we are never out of the office. Emails and texts make our work ever present. This week, I truly got the chance to get away. I was more present with my family, I felt as though I had down time, and felt relaxed.

My iPhone helps me to be more productive and is a helpful tool. Being without it continues to present some challenges, but it has also yielded some valuable learning.

Put your phone down – something good might happen.

This post is dedicated to my friend Rachel Guinn. When I told her the story of my lost phone, she laughed and said “I can’t wait to read about it,” providing the inspiration for this post. 

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