Changing the Way We Think About Teacher Engagement

Life experiences can be categorized in two ways– as mountain-top highs or valley lows. Working with the #edwritenow team has certainly been one of the most personal and professional mountain-top highlights of my life. Being able to contribute to this project to help other educators grow was definitely rewarding, but knowing that the proceeds from the project will support the work of a worthy organization is fulfilling.

Ten educators were charged with writing a book on some of the most pressing topics in education. We were given less than 72 hours to complete the project. Bringing different educators from all over the country, with more varied perspectives than similar ones, to produce a book that sounds like one voice was AMAZING! Kudos to Jeff Zoul and Joe Mazza for their vision on this project.

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As we began to write, the collective genius and professional capital in the room was so exciting; but more importantly, the personal relationships that were developed while writing on this project outweigh the satisfaction of its completion.  

During my writing breaks, I talked to some of my esteemed colleagues about their work. Tom Murray was one of my accountability partners. As I read his work, Changing the Way We Think About Technology, I couldn’t help but think about how much technology has changed the way we do business. On the other hand, Tom also challenged my thinking by pointing out that in many cases technology has just replaced worksheets and other low level tasks. He challenges educators to use technology authentically so that students can connect with others in ways that they never have before to create things that would not have been possible without technolgy. 

I also took some time to talk to Starr Sackstein about how “assessment” has become a word that causes teachers and students so much stress. Unfortunately, when the word assessment is spoken in our profession, many think about standardized testing. The era of high-stakes testing that we are currently working in has led to, in my opinion, the lack of teacher engagement. In my contribution to the book, I outline ways that leaders can create an environment that promotes, ecourages, and supports active teacher engagement. 

If teachers are responsible for student engagement, what role do leaders play in teacher engagement?

While the responsibility cannot totally fall on the shoulders of leaders, it is important to note that they certainly play a significant role in creating and sustaining a culture that encourages, promotes, and supports active teacher engagement. As professionals, we have the responsibility to continue to learn and grow, regardless of the working environment and leadership we may encounter, but it is my opinion that strong leadership can move the teacher engagement pendulum. I do believe that teachers must have the desire to move from being disengaged or engaged to become actively engaged, but I think leaders should see themselves as part of the process of removing barriers that hinder teachers from becoming actively engaged in their work.

Being a leader is a huge responsibility. Teachers, students, and parents are watching your every move. People want to know what makes you tick as a person, and it matters to them what you think. Because of my position as a leader, I recognize that I have a responsibility to the people I serve each day. Although there are days I fall short, I seek to add value to someone’s life each day. I am not perfect by any means, and unfortunately, I do miss opportunities. When that occurs, I constantly think about what I need to do the next time to correct the missed opportunity to engage with teachers in a meaningful way. If you, as the leader, are not making others who work around your better, then I question your purpose. Leaders must see every single encounter with a teacher as an opportunity for authentic engagement.

Leaders must be able and willing to help teachers connect their “why” to the work. Being able to anchor the work to a greater purpose is what will sustain and motivate teachers through challenges. In addition, when teachers are a part of creating the purpose of the organization, the long-term benefits of ownership will carry the organization further along than the short-term wins that buy-in promises. Furthermore, leaders must be intentional about developing a culture that promotes, encourages, and cultivates learning by giving teachers the opportunity to learn from one another. Encouraging this type of collaboration will not only build the professional capital of the teachers, but it will also deepen and enrich the collegial collaboration amongst them as well.  When teachers know that they are appreciated, valued, and supported in all aspects of their lives, they will be committed to their work and to those around them. This commitment will fuel them with the desire to become better each day.

Although leadership is not the only gatekeeper to teacher engagement, it is certainly a critical component to creating an environment that fosters active engagement. Leaders must be willing to change the way they think about their responsibility in cultivating a  working environment that promotes and supports active engagement. In the absence of leadership, only pockets of excellence will exist, but with strong leaders at the helm, systems of excellence that foster and support high teacher engagement can be created and sustained.

Next week’s post will be shared by my friend and colleague, Amber Teamann. As you continue to think about ways you can create engaging working environments for teachers, I encourage you to read Amber’s ideas on changing the way we think about leadership. I guarantee you will be challenged and encouraged to think about leadership in a different way.

Be sure to pick up your copy of Edcuation Write Now in December 2017.

 

Principled Practices for Principals

In the past few months, I have presented at a couple of conferences on the topic of leadership. The primary audience at these conferences have been principals or aspiring administrators, and in my opinion, there is nothing more challenging than presenting to my peers. Principals can be an intimidating audience because they have a range of expertise and experiences. When I know I am presenting to principals, I always try to share something that causes them to reflect on their own leadership.
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When I am preparing to speak, I always have to personally reflect on who I am and what I am about as a leader. Recently, I have discovered that there are three fundamental principles that drive me as a leader.
  • Bring Value to Someone’s Life Every Day
    Being a leader is a huge responsibility. Teachers, students, and parents are watching your every move. People want to know what makes you tick as a person, and it matters to them what you think. Because of my position as a principal, I recognize that I have a responsibility to the people I serve each day. Although there are days that I fall short, I seek to add value to someone’s life each day. I am not perfect by any means, and unfortunately, I do miss opportunities. When that occurs, I constantly think about what I need to do the next time to correct the missed opportunity. If you, as the principal, are not making others who work around your better, then I question your purpose. As a leader, I see every single encounter with a student, teacher, or parent as an opportunity for transformation.
  • See the Possibilities in Every Situation
    One of the main life lessons that I learned in college was that excuses are tools of incompetence. I believe, wholeheartedly, that is my responsibility to help teachers see the possibles in every situation. Making sure teachers have the resources and training they need to do the job is my number one priority. Giving quality feedback, in a supportive learning and working environment, makes the “impossibles” become “I’m possible.” When teachers have the belief in themselves to do the work, they feel confident and equipped. If the principal does not believe the organization can be successful, then the conditions necessary for success will not be created or cultivated. Excellence cannot thrive while being surrounded by mediocre thinking; thus, being excellent involves possessing an attitude and work ethic that rises above and repels mediocrity. It is my belief that every situation has possibilities and untapped potential yet to be seen.
  • Be Excellent on Purpose
    “Excellence is not a skill. It is an attitude” (Ralph Marston). I don’t know many people who wake up each day and say, “I want to be average, below average, or completely ineffective.” Being excellent on purpose means setting a standard for success and doing whatever it takes to close the gap from where you currently are to what you are striving to become. If someone is pursuing excellence, they are able to see past the barriers that are preventing them from achieving their goals. They surround themselves with others who are going to push them and make them a better person. Seekers of excellence aspire to inspire others around them to be great. When you are excellent on purpose, you make it a priority to make others around your better by building them up instead of tearing them down. Being excellent on purpose means being intentional with your time, the company you keep, and where you focus your thinking and energy.
 
These are my leadership principles. This is what keeps me grounded in my integrity as a principal. When I deviate from these principles, I am acting outside of my integrity. Fortunately, I have surrounded myself with people who always bring me back to my practical leadership principles.

What are your leadership principles? More importantly, who have you surrounded yourself with that can keep you focused on who you are as a leader?

What Are You Trying To Measure?

I recently read an article written by a poet who struggled to answer questions on a Texas standardized test. As the author, one would think that she would be able to analyze and answer questions about poems she wrote. I found this article to be amusing, sad, and full of common sense wisdom. I read this article two days before the state of Texas released a model of district and campus A-F ratings to meet the legislative requirement of HB 2804.

Even in the midst of standardization and scrutiny of public education, which comes mostly from those who have never set foot in public schools, educators around the world are working hard to create memorable learning experiences that cannot be standardized or measured on a test.

A student at my school drew this picture from a photograph that was given to her by one of her teachers. The artistic talent that is displayed in this drawing blew my mind! How can this be the work of a 14-year-old self-taught artist?

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When I saw this student during the passing period the next day, I complimented her artistic ability and workmanship. I also asked her what her fee would be for drawing a portrait of my children. At the conclusion of our conversation, I shared an idea with her that I had about creating a piece of art to remember our dear counselor who passed away in the fall. I already had a meeting scheduled with Andrew, the artist I use often, but I felt that having a student create the piece would be more meaningful. This student has proven to be a serious artist, and I know that she is more than capable of doing an exceptional job.

During my meeting with Andrew, I showed him the picture above and he was amazed. I went on to inform him that I had just reassigned a job I had slated for him to complete to my student artist. We continued our meeting, which led to us walking the building to look at some areas we had in mind for some upcoming projects. During our walk, we ran into the student artist we had discussed earlier. The conversation that transpired between the two artists was AMAZING! A student with a dream talking to a person who is living his dream of making a living sharing his passion and talent is what school should be about. This is learning. Schooling in the 21st century is about the possibilities and the realization of dreams, not how quickly content and strategies can be regurgitated to pass a test.

At the conclusion of the conversation, my student artist said that having the opportunity to talk to an artist who uses his talent to make a living was an answer to her prayers. She shared with us that she had been talking to her mother about what a future career would look like as an artist. I told her that with a little guidance and support, she could be a 14-year-old entrepreneur today! Her eyes popped out of her sockets, and she grinned from ear to ear. Passionate students, with the right influences and relationships, pursue excellence that positively contributes to making the world a better place. I am not sure what learning objective that is, but that is what I want my personal children to learn after 13 years of public education.

How would you measure the moment this student had? What letter grade can we put on this experience? Which experience would you want to have as a student? Furthermore, which experience do you want your children to have? I don’t know about you, but my school, my children’s school, my district, and my neighborhood are so much more than a letter grade. My children and the children I serve each day are greater than what a standardized test can measure, and the professionals who chose our worthy profession deserve more than a letter to measure their effectiveness, commitment, and dedication.

At the time when we need to be helping students find their passion and talents so they are equipped to tackle the complex problems of the 21st century, and are prepared for jobs that do not yet exist, we are using the most simplistic form of measurement to determine if they are ready. For those who need to measure the effectiveness of public schools, I would encourage you to choose your metrics wisely. Be sure your metrics can easily be explained, replicated, and not manipulated. As for me, I will take my chance on passion, creativity, personal stories, and connection over a letter grade any day.

No Label Teaching

I was reading a devotional a few weeks ago, and I came across a reading that really resonated with me. It made me think about what is often done to students in schools. In our profession, students are often sorted and labeled based on their achievements, appearance, activities, or abilities. The phrases “those kids” or “these families” instead of “our kids” and “our families” are often used when describing students who are underprivileged.

Unfortunately, students who are underprivileged are often viewed as a problem that needs to be fixed or addressed by somebody else; however, the somebody has not been identified by the people closest to the need. Oftentimes, the somebody is the person who is looking outward for someone else to identify and address the student’s needs. When we signup to be educators in public school, we do not get to pick and choose what comes through our doors. A child’s zip code should not determine the quality of education they receive.

Screenshot 2016-09-03 21.55.31As educators, the only thing we can pick and choose is our attitude, our dedication, and the amount of determination we will pour into “our students” and “our families.” We are the somebody’s who will help our students see the possibles. We must remove the boundaries and labels that others have put on our students. Labels become impossibles. No label teachers see every child as if they were their own personal children. No label teachers are committed to student growth, regardless of where the starting point may be. No label teachers seek to find the possible in every child and are committed to helping them become their best possible self.

Labels are useful when sorting items, organizing groceries or sorting laundry. Labels are necessary for organizing our time, our things and our activities; however, labels for people quickly turn into impossibles (Martin, 2013). No label teachers don’t see impossibles. No label teachers are committed to finding a way to reach every child because every child is someone else’s whole world. Every student who walks through our doors are “OUR KIDS” and they should mean the whole world to us!

Who is Responsible for Teacher Engagement​?

According to a 2014 survey conducted by Gallup, only 30% of teachers are engaged in their work. When I first saw this statistic, I was somewhat surprised. After reading the report further, I asked myself the following question, “Who is responsible for teacher engagement?” Before I share my thoughts on this question, I want to define the levels of engagement that were discussed in the report: engaged, not engaged, actively disengaged.

The actively disengaged employee is not only unhappy with his or her work, but they want to make sure others are unhappy and unsuccessful, too. This type of employee is a culture killer who seeks to create and spread toxic energy. They undermine any good that is occurring on a campus or in the professional lives of others. They are so miserable in their role, and probably with their life, but yet they keep hanging around instead of seeking other employment opportunities.

The employee who is not engaged can be described as being compliant. They go through the motions without any purpose or passion. They do what they are asked to do, not because they believe in it, but because they were told to do so. This type of employee is on auto pilot. They are not causing problems by rocking the boat, but they are not interested in making any positive waves. Compliant employees are not hot or cold, but can be considered to be lukewarm. With support or a nudge from the right influencer, they can move up on the employee engagement barometer.

The engaged employee is committed. They are constantly seeking to grow professionally. They own their professional learning and see the value in connecting with others to improve their craft. Engaged employees do not view the teaching profession as work. They  view their chosen profession as an ongoing passion project with endless possibilities.

1. Read more books2. Get a new hobby3. Try rock climbing4. Be more creative

If we believe that student engagement is the responsibility of the teacher, what role does the principal play when it comes to teacher engagement? Below are three suggestions for leaders about how to create a more engaging working environment for teachers.

Give teachers permission to take risks and support them when they fail. Teaching is an art and a science. I don’t know of any artist or scientist who did not fail during the artistic or scientific inquiry process. Teachers must be given the opportunity to think outside of the box as they focus on how to meet the multiple needs of the learners in their classroom. The ability to solve problems and think critically are key characteristics of risk takers, and in almost every risk, there is a high probability of failure. Failure is not the end; it is just the beginning of a breakthrough. Engaged teachers are risk takers, and they need principals who will encourage and support them in their risk taking efforts. Principals need to give them quality feedback on identified areas of growth, recognize their effort and desire to improve, and celebrate their success.

Listen to the voices of teachers. One of the main points of the study discussed the lack of teacher voice in the profession. Teachers surveyed during this study expressed that they felt their voice was not heard, and their opinions did not matter. Historically, our profession is one that follows the bureaucratic model. Typically, initiatives are top down from the federal and state government to the local agency, from the local agency to the principal, and from the principal to the teachers. Ultimately, teachers are the doers, but they are often the furthest away from the decision-making table. When rolling out campus initiatives or embarking on the change process, it is important to have teachers sitting at the table. Allow them to be part of the conversation. Listen to their suggestions, concerns, hopes, and fears. This discourse will help leaders think through the change process and make more informed decisions that impact the lives of the teachers on the campus.

Help teachers innovate inside the box. There are many aspects of schooling where educators do not have a say in what happens in public education. The role of the principal is to make sure that the campus is compliant in those areas, but it is equally important for leaders to help teachers innovate within the box. Giving teachers permission to work through the parameters that have been set, without neglecting the compliance pieces, is possible if the leader has developed a collaborative culture that values shared decision making. Shared decision making leads to a culture where teachers understand the big picture, are committed and dedicated to the work, and can see impossibles as possibles in waiting.

Strong principal leadership is a contributor to a positive, engaging working environment for teachers. In the absence of leadership, only pockets of excellence can exist. With strong leaders at the helm, systems of excellence that foster and support high teacher engagement can be created and sustained.

 

Will the Real Disruptive Educators Please Stand Up?

Originally posted on LeadUpNow

As educators when we hear the word disruptive, our minds usually reflect on students in the past who have misbehaved in school. The word disruptive often has a negative connotation associated with its use. It is synonymous with words like troublemaking, disturbing, distracting, and unruly. 

However, the beauty of the English language is that we have multiple meanings for words. When I searched Google for the meaning of disruptive, the search engine returned two meanings:

1.) causing or tending to cause disruption

“disruptive and delinquent children”

2.) innovative or groundbreaking

“breaking a disruptive technology into the market is never easy”

To frame this post, I want to focus on the second meaning of the word as I define and illustrate the meaning of a disruptive educator.Disruptive Educators (1)

Disruptors Innovate

Disruptive educators are innovators. They are chasers of the breakthrough, and they are driven by groundbreaking discoveries. They don’t know when the breakthrough may come, but they continue to disrupt the status quo in an effort to innovate. Disruptive educators are committed to radically changing our profession by creating a new way of thinking about how we educate students, and how we grow professionally. They are the early innovators and early adopters who have the courage to explore something new. Simon Sinek references the Law of Diffusion of Innovation in his How Great Leaders Inspire Action TED talk. Disruptive educators fall into the 16% of the profession who are either the innovators or who are the early adopters of the innovations.

Disruptive educators have a drive, a different speed that is driven by a purpose, an attitude, and an unrelenting sense of determination to contribute to a greater good. Being a disruptive educator is a way of life. It is a thought-process and a state-of-being. Disruptive educators are not uncomfortable with others challenging their thinking. In fact, disruptive educators welcome the challenge from those who are not quite sold on their innovative ideas. They need the early and late majority who challenge and question their innovations. It is this questioning and challenging that helps them refine and improve their thinking. If the innovation is real, it will eventually reach the tipping point and become a new way of doing business.

Disruptors Find Their People

Disruptive educators are connected. They are not lone rangers. A lone disruptor may be viewed as a nuisance, a troublemaker, or a radical who others may not take seriously; but a connected disruptor is part of a movement others want to join. Disruptive educators are contributors and collaborators. They seek to disrupt, not for notoriety or fame, but because they see a need and want to make a difference. More often than not, disruptive educators are not self-proclaimed. Others have identified them as disruptors because of their openness and willingness to share. Disruptive educators are committed to making great things happen for students. They understand that BIG things don’t happen with small thinking.

Disruptors Move Beyond the Conversation

Disruptive educators choose to be bothered and challenged by what others believe to be impossible. They have bold dreams and the courage to not only pursue their dreams but to make their dreams a reality. Disruptive educators are writing a story and acting it out simultaneously. They are key players in the story they are writing, and they live in a state of constant revision. They don’t know how the story will end, but they write the story with such purpose and passion that the journey is worth more than the final destination. They try, they fail and they try again. They are persistent, courageous, and so necessary to our profession. Disruptors not only join the conversation, but they turn the conversation into action.

The status quo is not and will not ever be good enough for me. I challenge you to change the education narrative by moving beyond the conversation of what’s wrong in schools and focus on what’s right. Focus on your circle of influence and innovate in your current setting. Disrupt yourself! Our profession and our students deserve it. 

Building Professional Capital to Impact Student Learning

A fundamental core value that I hold as a leader is that it is people, not programs that improve schools. I consider it my primary responsibility to hire well and to build the professional capital of those who are working under my leadership. I understand that the success of my school is dependent on my ability to focus on areas that make the greatest difference. Being able to do the most important things well creates the conditions that are necessary to innovate, transform, and sustain change. As a leader, I have found the following activities to be purposeful and important in creating a collaborative culture among the educators in my building:

  • Identifying student learning needs
  • Developing a strong instructional core centered around best practices
  • Providing structure and support that allows teachers to learn from each other
  • Monitoring and evaluating progress

In collaboration with my instructional coaches, I lay out the instructional focus areas for our campus. It is this focus that centers our work and drives all professional learning decisions. Since our work has been focused and intentional, teachers have had the time to grow and develop their professional capital.

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In order to move our work to the next level, I made the decision to introduce the instructional rounds practice to my teachers. I have participated in the instructional rounds process with a team of principals for the past two years, and through this collaboration, I have gained a great deal of insight about instruction and the importance of reflection. Because of my experience with this process, I wanted to create a framework for teachers that would allow them to learn from each other. The goal of the rounds process is to create the opportunity for structured discourse and reflection about our instructional practice. Another goal of the rounds process is to professionalize the role of the educators in the building.

Prior to conducting the rounds, we identify the problem of practice in which to focus our attention before we enter classrooms. The purpose of the instructional round visit is not to be judgmental about one another’s practice, but to learn from colleagues, to gain insights, new understanding, and to identify strong instructional practices. By analyzing our instructional core as a group, we are utilizing the collective expertise and experience of the group to build professional group capital.

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As a team, we review our collective agreements for how we will engage with one another during the classroom visits and during the debriefing process of those visits. Setting the stage for the day is a critical activity and a huge factor in ensuring that the instructional

rounds visit is a time for focused learning. Participating in the instructional rounds process is voluntary. Most of the participants are looking to learn how to improve their practice. After the classroom visits, the team returns to debrief and share the data collected during the rounds process. Discussions about next steps for campus professional learning, as well as personal reflection time about how their own practice will be impacted as a result of participating in the rounds process, are key areas of focus during the debrief session. At the end of the every instructional rounds visit, the feedback from the group is shared with the staff, and the leadership team analyzes the reflection sheets to identify common themes.

The benefit of implementing this work on my campus has been amazing. The collaborative learning that occurred across grade levels strengthened and added value to the professional core of my campus. Teachers are now seeking guidance from their colleagues on how to address instructional issues, and they are engaging in dialogue about professional best practices. They also felt validated about their current progress, and they are highly engaged in their work as professionals. It is unlikely that the rich dialogue and reflection that takes place at the end of the instructional rounds process would have naturally occurred if teachers had not been given the opportunity to observe and learn from each other. Building the professional capital of the teachers on my campus by empowering them to learn and share with each other positively contributed to the collaborative culture of professional learning at my school.

Resources used to move the work forward include:

How have you built the professional capital within your school? I would love to hear your thoughts.