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.

Evolving Role of Principal Leadership

The principal is the most visibly recognizable person in the school.  Principal leadership is the second greatest indicator of student achievement after teacher instruction. Furthermore, the principal’s ability to lead in a way that inspires and energizes teachers is critical to building successful schools. Leaders must be able to build capacity, commitment and the collective efficacy within their schools in order to ensure that teachers are fully equipped to meet the current challenges of public education.

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There is a myriad of educational research that focuses on various leadership styles and the evolving role of school principals. Most research is geared at one particular style of leadership over another; however, through my academic research and personal experience as a school principal, I believe that leaders must possess the following traits in order to meet the demands facing school leaders today:

  • Influencer
  • Capacity Builder
  • Relationship Crafter
  • Systems thinker

Influencer. The leader’s ability to establish and communicate a clear vision to followers is key to being able to motivate others to join them in realizing the vision. Leaders who are influential excite and energize followers because they are inspirational and driven. They have a can-do attitude and can see the possibilities of their organization despite the challenges and setbacks that may present themselves. Followers want to identify with a principal who demonstrates these qualities, and they place a high degree of trust and confidence in them as a leader. Influencers do not accept the status quo. They challenge the mantra “we have always done it this way.” They inspire and aspire greatness, and because of this, they serve as a model for those who follow them.

Capacity Builder. Building professional capital within an organization is a key driver for effective principal leadership. Capacity builders value learning and are not only focused on how they can help others grow, but they are committed to their own growth and development as well. Principals who are committed to developing the professional capital of the teachers in their building establish systems and structures that foster and support a culture of collaboration. An environment of this nature allows teachers to learn from and share with each other best practices and pedagogical expertise and experiences. The principal is a part of this collaborative culture and serves as the lead learner in the organization. The principal leads by ensuring that instructional best practices are researched, shared, taught and evaluated.

Relationship Crafter. Being skilled in the area of relationship building is key to moving an organization from buy-in to ownership. Principals who put an emphasis on relationships are skilled in meeting the individual needs of their employees. They approach each individual differently, which allows them to differentiate support and professional learning. Relationship crafters intentionally focus on building the culture of the organization and use the collective efficacy of the group to motivate, challenge and inspire its members.

Systems Thinker. Principals must be able to work within the greater system to meet the demands placed on public schools at the same time they are thinking and working outside of the box to innovate. Being able to see the big picture and communicate the vision so that others are inspired is a critical component of principal leadership. Recognizing complex issues and problems and how they impact the organizational system is a critical skill. Providing meaning and purpose for followers help the organization remain focused on achieving the vision despite any obstacles that may arise. Systems thinkers are able to work on the system as a whole by focusing on the key drivers that will have the greatest, sustainable impact on organizational improvement, instead of fragmented strategies that lead to short-term wins.

The role of the principal has never been more complex and more critical to the success of public schools than it is now.  With the increased measures of accountability, the varied social and emotional needs of students, being able and available to respond to the needs of teachers, parents and the community, and the other complex variables that influence public education today, leaders must have a tremendous skill set to be able to identify the right drivers in which to focus their attention and efforts.

These are the skills and traits that have helped me on my leadership journey. They are adaptable and transferable to any setting or situation. What other skills and traits can be added to the list? I would love to hear your thoughts.