29 Jan

During my typical commute, I listen to Mike & Mike in the Morning (I am a big fan). This morning was different after engaging in two twitter chats last night, #vachat and #wcpd. I became so engaged in great discussion with great professionals around the country and all I could think about is how to apply what I learned to my professional development. So, rather than sports talk (I get it- Jim and John Harbaugh are BROTHERS and Ray Lewis is retiring), I drove with the radio off, reflecting on my experience from last night, and the power of Twitter in education.

During #vachat I learned some different perspectives on recent activity in the VA General Assembly regarding student discipline and teacher tenure, and was also able to take a small part in a discussion about the Common Core and VA being a holdout. Being a fairly new administrator, I have to say I am excited about the connections I made, and the future of education in Virginia based on the leaders who were part of that chat. I am already looking forward to the next one.

The chat at #wcpd (still looking to see exactly what that stands for- but that aside it was an awesome experience)- the discussion centered on differentiated instruction, and giving students choices in how they should be assessed. Rick Wormeli even stopped by and the chat produced some tremendous ideas and philosophical nuggets for me to bring into my building this morning!

I would give a more detailed summary of these discussions- but A) I am still reflecting on them, and B) I want to encourage anyone reading this to discover for yourself by searching #vachat and #wcpd. You will also find some great educators to follow there. My real point in posting is that I haven’t posted on here since June, because I honestly couldn’t think of anything to post about. Now that I am getting the hang of Twitter, I have the opposite problem- based on last night’s chats alone, I don’t know where to start!

Shifting the Monkey: Book Review

28 Jun

Being an assistant principal is an exceedingly challenging job.  In fact, I think an argument could be made that it is the toughest in a school.  Teachers work the hardest day in and day out- creating lesson plans, contacting parents,, working on assessments, researching their content, etc.  Principals have the most on their plate- the most responsibility, the highest stakes in their decision making, and the most overall stress.  Many days, being an assistant principal feels like some cruel combination of the two.  The reason is APs are often the “front line” for dealing with difficult people situations.

In a large high school like the one I work in, APs are the direct supervisors and evaluators of teachers (usually large departments- for example, I supervise over 50 teachers in three departments).  They are also the ones that parents go to first for complaints if the teacher was not successful in satisfying their concerns (and many attempt to skip the teacher all together).  Part of how I look at these challenging situations is that the principal is the quarterback, and I am an offensive lineman.  I take on the challenge of protecting my quarterback so that I can keep him from getting sacked. The school needs him to be able to keep his eyes downfield.  Just like an offensive lineman, there is not as much glory in that, and taking on a litany of confrontational situations can become exhausting.  

The bottom line is, in order to be a successful assistant principal, you must have the ability to manage tough situations with people- whether it is job performance or parent complaints.  That’s why Todd Whitaker’s “Shifting the Monkey” really spoke to me.

Let me rephrase that.  It didn’t merely “speak” to me- it allowed me to breath a sigh of relief.

Sometimes I get bogged down by all the confrontation and forget something- that 95% of the people I interact with do their job- and do it very well.  Nearly ALL teachers and parents are positive, well-meaning, and want the best for kids.  The ones who aren’t can ruin my day, week, or month all too easily.  So Whitaker has some very sound advice for dealing with negative people.  (As the tag line calls it, “The art of protecting GOOD PEOPLE from LIARS, CRIERS, and other SLACKERS).  It comes down to identifying the “monkey” (the problem- which the “good people” often put on their own shoulders, relieving the slacker from any responsibility), and putting the “monkey” where it belongs.  To do this, Whitaker argues, managers must treat everyone as if they were good, and base your management decisions on your best people.  This will give incentive to the hard-working people to continue doing the job well, while making the negative people uncomfortable. 

I will say that it is refreshing to hear that to do my job well- I need to focus my time and attention on others who do it too.  It’s a lot easier to go into negative situations when you are treating everyone well, and knowing the monkey does not belong on your back. 

I don’t want to give away too much of the book- it is concise, and a very fast read (perfect for an airplane trip or day at the beach).  Whitaker blends a great sense of humor with some hard and fast management axioms that will become useful to you on a day to day basis.  This book is a must-read for not only school administrators, but anyone in a position of personnel management or customer service.


The NFL: How NOT to Teach

3 Apr

Not that the NFL asked to be a model of how to teach, but the recent situation involving them taking action against the Redskins and Cowboys is a perfect example how poor instruction that we all too often see in schools.  If you are not familiar, you can link here for more background.  The short version is that the NFL owners agreed to not abuse the fact that they had no salary cap for a year…but at the end of the day they had no salary cap for a year.  Two teams, the Redskins and Cowboys, went ahead and front loaded a lot of deals (that would not normally fit under the cap if there was one), and a couple years later the NFL turned around and said they shouldn’t have done that- resulting in them taking money from these teams to spend in the off-season.  So, here is the NFL’s version of “How Not To Teach.”  (Disclaimer- I am not in any way a fan of these teams, yet I have to take their side on this one).

Step #1: Lack of Clear Learning Targets (or Objectives):  This is key- teachers and students BOTH need to know where they are going to end up.  The NFL basically gave the objective: “It’s an uncapped year, only don’t go crazy, so it’s kind of not…but it is.”  Questions for Educators: Do kids understand the objectives we put in front of them?  Do we spend time framing each lesson?  Do we just quote the curriculum or do we re-phrase it in student-friendly language, and take time to explain to students what the curriculum is looking for?

Step #2: Lack of Feedback through Formative Assessments.  Not that it would help without clear objectives to measure progress against, but there was a lack of feedback on the NFL’s part during the process.  The Redskins and Cowboys had to submit their contracts to the league office, and at those times, the NFL said the contracts were ok.  So they had formative assessments in place, they just did not give any specific feedback that could alter the actions of the teams.  The Redskins and Cowboys are now both saying, “We showed you what we were doing- but you never told us we were not doing it correctly!!!”  Questions for Educators: Do Formative assessments line up with clear learning targets?  Is there a method in place for providing clear and consistent feedback to students on their progress, based on the formative assessments?  Are formative assessments a vehicle for students to take ownership of tracking their progress towards demonstrating mastery of the targets?

Step #3: Summative Assessment that was unplanned, not aligned with objectives, and came as a surprise to students: At the end of the day, the NFL looked at what the Redskins and Cowboys had done and said, “You failed, and these are the consequences.”  The teams did not even know how, when, or why they were being assessed- they were just given a final “grade.”  Questions for Educators:  Are the summative assessments we give meaningful and authentic? (meaning they measure actual learning that is to have occurred?)  Do our students understand the methods that will be used to measure their learning of objectives?  Are these assessments methods communicated to students prior to instruction, or does it come as a surprise the day the assessment is taking place?

Clearly, these teams were not set up for success…giving us the perfect model of how not to set our students up for achievement.

Customer Service and Schools: What Apple, Wegmans, and the Ritz-Carlton Can Teach School Leaders

18 Mar


I’ve noticed in my short time as an administrator that a majority of the complaints and negative feedback that get to me about teachers, the school, the division, and education in general really are not about what the teacher, school, or division are doing: they are about poor customer service that parent, student, or community member received.  It is not that the teacher isn’t teaching, it’s that the teacher has not been responsive or helpful.  It’s not that the school is a failing school, it’s that the person answering the phone at the school was rude or…was not helpful.

It has really hit me in the past couple of years how much education has become a customer service-driven industry.  Like a business, schools and teachers are being evaluated by the public by results.  Parents aren’t waiting for the school newsletter nowadays- they are expecting instant updates on their Twitter feed. I remember when I was in High School, my parents saw my report card 4 times a year.  Now, most parents can check their child’s grade in real time on the school’s website.

Don’t get me wrong, these are good things.  Being able to engage the public- specifically parents and students- in the national education dialogue is crucial.  But it also makes customer service increasingly important.  The following are some observations I have had, along with related examples from customer-service juggernauts.  (Customers, by the way, are usually our parents and students- but can be anyone in the community needing to conduct business with the school.)

Customer Service Solution #1: Empower and train employees.  If we build confidence and ability in them, great customer service will follow.  Many teachers are still in the one-room school house mentality, desiring to close themselves off to the outside.  They want to shut their classroom door  and are resistant to let parents in on the experience.  After all, they are the ones who spent years studying educational philosophy and academic content.  They are uncomfortable with the notion that anyone outside could question their methods and experience.  And yes, a lot of this is defensiveness from past experiences of being attacked or over-burdened, and leaders have to acknowledge that.  However, the first step to establishing great customer service is to let the “customers” know they are welcome.  When I think of this problem, I think about Apple.  Their confidence in their product is so strong, that they specifically designed their Apple stores for customers to come in and try everything they produce.  There is no guesswork- if you want to try the new iPad 3, you can just go in and…well, try it.  I am finding as a new administrator that the teachers who are confident in their abilities have no issues talking to parents about why they graded something a certain way, or how assessments are designed, or even with having parents come in and watch them teach!  Those teachers who are closed off, for the most part, are closed off because they aren’t confident.  Parents and students get frustrated with the lack of openness, and go up the chain.

Customer Service Solution #2: Value the feedback, even negative feedback, of the customer:  Education is  a people-driven industry, and therefore there are no perfect schools, administrators, teachers, students, or parents. So, first of all, we need to all work together when something is wrong.  Parents and students are met with resistance when a culture exists that says people who come to our schools to complain or ask questions are the problem.   Legendary UCLA coach John Wooden once said of teamwork, “Consider the rights of others before your own feelings, and consider the feelings of others before your own rights.”    Wegmans Food Markets has the saying in customer service, “Everyday you get our best”- they are not claiming that everything will always go perfectly when you shop there, but are up front about always striving to do the very best.  They accomplish this through the same concept I brought up in #1- their people are empowered to make decisions, and that empowerment comes with confidence and training.  In Shifting the Monkey, Todd Whitaker talks about treating everyone as if they are good.  If we can honestly do that, it goes a long way in allowing our public to feel schools are a place where their input is valued.  Wooden, Wegmans, and Whitaker seem to value the practice of removing our own emotion and truly listening to those who come in our offices.  When I am listening to a long complaint from a parent or student I always say something like, “Listen, we are always trying to improve.  In the short term, we’ll come up with a plan to solve this problem, and in the long term, your feedback is valuable to help us meet that mission of continuous improvement.”  It always calms the other party down- they have been valued.

Customer Service Solution #3: The Ritz-Carlton Model.  The Ritz-Carlton is known all over the world as the class of the hospitality industry.  I had a professor in my Ed Leadership program at UVA who always said he subscribed to their model of customer service.  It’s basic and simple- you can order room service from the bell hop.  You can ask the valet for towels.  In other words, every employee of the hotel is trained to assist no matter the query.  The school I work at is one of the largest in Virginia.  Not every parent, or student, knows that even though their student falls in the section of the student body I am responsible for, I do not supervise their Foreign Language teacher.  Or that if they have a question about the School Nurse, they should contact the Office of Student Services at the division level.  Or if they have a complaint about transportation, I may have never even met their busdriver.  You get the idea.  But one thing I do know is that every single human being on the planet resents being transferred and passed around because “That’s not my area”.  So even if something comes to me that I don’t (or can’t) handle, I try to assist.  If I can’t give you the answer, I will at least give you everything you need to find it, and assist you and follow up with you after the fact.  We need to be flexible with questions we receive in the modern American public school, and we have to understand it is a place that is often intimidating and confusing to those who don’t make their living there.

These are only 3 ideas about how to build great customer service in your school.  I know there are more out there and would love to hear what you do to make sure your customers are taken care of.

Is “Teaching to the Test” as bad as it sounds? It depends on the test.

16 Jan



In our current age of accountability, one of the biggest criticisms is that since schools are judged by results on a test, it leads to “teaching to the test.”  And in Virginia, for example, the Standards of Learning are a minimal benchmark, and if teachers are “teaching to the test”, then we are actually hurting students.

My argument is that the standards are not the problem, the problem is how we assess student progress towards the standards- coupled with the lack of empowerment teachers have to work WITH the standards rather than in spite of them.  If we want students to learn beyond the standards, then our schools need to incorporate not only the knowledge standards but performance and reasoning skills as part of daily instruction.  After reviewing what curriculum standards must be taught, instructors should then consider how to rewrite the standards using these necessary skills, and then design assessment that will accurately gauge progress towards the new learning targets.  Then, classroom instruction must be geared towards supporting student success on the summative test (which could be construed as “teaching to the test”)

Let me use an actual SOL objective from the US and VA History curriculum:

STANDARD VUS.7b The student will demonstrate knowledge of the Civil War and Reconstruction Era and their importance as major turning points in American history by

b)      identifying the major events and the roles of key leaders of the Civil War Era, with emphasis on Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, and Frederick Douglass.

In the “Essential Knowledge” portion of the curriculum, teachers are given several events to choose from (Election of Lincoln, Fort Sumter, Emancipation Proclamation, Gettysburg, Appomattox) and an example of how to describe each of the individuals listed (for example, Frederick Douglass: “Former enslaved African American who became a prominent abolitionist and who urged Lincoln to recruit former enslaved African Americans to fight in the Union army”)

So, if a teacher were to create a test using this standard, they may be tempted to ask a question such as: “Which of the following individuals was a former enslaved African-American who became a prominent abolotionist? A) Frederick Douglass B) Ulysses S. Grant C) Harriet Tubman D) Sojourner Truth”

Obviously, this question asks for a low-level of understanding- especially if going by the standards, Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth are not even taught, and students can remember that Ulysses S. Grant was not African-American.  But does the student have a true understanding of Douglass’ contribution to the Civil War era?

A teacher would be better off- instead of slapping the SOL objective on the board and asking students to memorize the names and events- having the empowerment to rewrite the standard to reflect a deeper analysis (and performance skill) that goes with the content knowledge the SOL is asking for.

For example, how about putting on the board: “Student will analyze the impact of key leaders of the Civil War Era by writing an essay in class that compares and contrasts the goals and contributions of the following individuals: Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, and Frederick Douglass- with analysis of how the outcome of the Civil War may have been different without one of the individuals involved.”

As an assistant principal, I would much rather walk in and see that on the board than a regurgitation of the SOL objective- it is skills based (historical inquiry, writing, compare/contrast), relatively clear (although would be made more clear with a rubric for the essay), and authentic (students will need to learn the material in order to be successful).  The essay would become the summative assessment (the “test”), and all lessons leading up to the day the students would write it would be lead up to it.  One lesson could introduce each of the men, then maybe a day comparing and contrasting each, with mini-lessons on essay writing and thesis statement development sprinkled in.  Who knows- a teacher may find they need to take a step back and teach students how to determine if a historical event or individual is “significant”- it depends on the need of the classroom.  After a few days, students could be prepared and supported to give their best shot.  If that is teaching to the test, then I say go right ahead!

My point is that if we do a better job coming up with assessments that truly measure learning, then students could go to any state in the union and perform well on their standardized test, yet alone the Virginia SOL.  I know we are judged by how many pass the SOL- but let’s have higher expectations for students, and judge ourselves by how many pass the SOL “advanced”.

Before we get to building assessments that go beyond the standards, and instruct to those assessments, there are a some things that need to happen:

1) Empower (and train) teachers to take their curriculum, and rewrite it into clear, meaningful, and rich learning targets for students, as described above.  These targets will align with, but go beyond, state standards to support the needs of the students in their classrooms.

2) Empower (and train) teachers to write summative assessments that align with THEIR learning targets.

3) Empower (and train) teachers to design lesson plans and formative assessments that align with their summative assessments.  Data on formative assessments should be collected by PLC’s to determine if students are ready to take the summative assessment.

4) Empower teacher leaders who can train other teachers to handle #’s 1, 2, and 3 above.  Not everything should come from administration- it is much more powerful when it comes from colleagues.

5) Building a culture that focuses on learning of the curriculum versus coverage.  Yes, it may take more time for students to work on Objective 7b as I described above- but students would be better served truly learning 80% of the curriculum than simply “being exposed to” 100% of it.

Bottom line: Teaching to the test can be a good thing, as long as it’s the right test.

What Teachers Want

1 Jan

Last night, many across the nation brought in the New Year with Dick Clark on what was his 40th year hosting “New Year’s Rockin’ Eve”.  Can you imagine doing the same job for 40 years?  As someone in education, I can’t- and I wish I could.  When it’s going right, it’s among the most fulfilling professions in the world- and you don’t have to work with Ryan Seacrest or pretend to appreciate the musical talents of Miley Cyrus.

In the past year, public education, and particularly the role and status of our nation’s teachers, became a hot topic in the national dialogue.  Most notable were the protests in Wisconsin and the recent (and faulty) studies by two conservative think tanks that determined that teachers are overpaid.  (A nice response to that study can be found here).  Whether it is salary, tenure, or retirement and health benefits- what teachers “deserve” seems to often be a point of contention and has increasingly become a serious political issue.

There is a group of the best teachers I have ever known that I think about when I read about these issues.  They are a conglomerate of teachers I have had as a student, as a colleague, and as teachers I now work with as an administrator.  I have never heard these folks complain about money.  Sure, everyone nation-wide wants to get paid more- and teachers fall into that category with police, nurses, firefighters, etc. who everyone agrees society could not function without.  But master teachers, or those who are at the top of those other jobs mentioned, did not enter the professions for pay.  They entered it because they wanted to wake up in the morning ready to make a difference and go to bed at night proud of what they contributed to the world on a given day.  So yes, teachers should be paid more- but I don’t think the pay alone is what they really want.

While the media, or think tanks, or Cameron Diaz movies might have you believe that “bad teachers” are everywhere (those who are teaching as a fallback option and aren’t really into it), that is blown out of proportion.  The truly bad teachers that hurt the education of kids are not the problem- although it can be difficult, strong school leadership can take care of those problems.  The problem is that mediocrity in teaching is often accepted by school leaders (these are the teachers who “get kids through”) and the great teachers in various school buildings do not have as much incentive to continue their excellent practice, and often burn out.  Not because it’s the easy way out, or they care less- but because they have had lower expectations placed on them by leadership and society at large.  The problem is that in teaching, there isn’t a way to stage a career (and who wants to do the same thing for 40 years unless you’re Dick Clark???).

As a result, the only options are becoming an administrator (which is a very different job that not everyone wants to do, or should do) or moving to some sort of central office job (which takes a great teacher out of the classroom).  That is when the attention turns to pay- the thought being, “if I am going to work hard year in and year out and be in the same place as Mediocre Teacher X- I might as well get paid more!”  When I was in the classroom, I often thought I would willingly take on a class size of 50% more students if I got even 20% more pay, having confidence in my work ethic and education to figure out how to still give huge classes a quality instructional environment.  It would be a lot of hard work, but at least I would be awarded for my teaching ability in a tangible way.

Solutions such as teacher awards and National Board Certification are great, and anyone who has been National Board Certified deserves every bit of respect that comes with that great accomplishment (to the point that I think schools should put the names of their NBCT in a great place of honor- whether on the website, or at the front of the building where you can find the names of administrators).  But at the same time, those master teachers are still bringing in less pay than an older teacher who passes out worksheets and reads from the textbook.  These master teachers still get dragged to faculty meetings to be told something over and over again that they have been doing for years because they are masters of their craft.  (As an aside, I give a lot of credit to my principal- who has done away with the traditional, full faculty meeting in favor of smaller discussions and trainings on instruction).

Finland’s education reform has been getting a lot of attention recently.  An old high school friend posted this article on Facebook yesterday that summarized why it works- the focus is not on getting kids through, it is on excellence.  This starts with teachers who are given high standards to even become teachers.  (Note- in Finland teachers don’t make a lot more money than American teachers…but everyone knows how hard it is to become one, so the payment is in the respect the profession is given).

While it would take a major overhaul of the education system to do what Finland is doing, maybe Iowa is on the right path.  Take a look at the blueprint that Governor Terry Branstad published this October.  Now, I don’t know enough about Iowa politics or the state of their education system to tell you if it will work…but what I do like is the out-of-the-box thinking in coming up with a plan to allow teachers to get promotions, while staying in the classroom!  And as an administrator I can’t think of anything better than having one of my “Master Teachers” working with their own kids every day, but also working with colleagues to help them grow.

The concept brings a sense of respect and career growth that money can’t buy.  And that is what our best teachers want.

Happy 2012, here’s to a year of progress in figuring this thing out.

Decrease the “Homework”, Increase the Learning

30 Dec

I had high hopes for this blog, and letting it go with no updates for 4 months is not what I had in mind…but instead of just trying to catch up with everything that has been going on, I am just going to regroup at what has been the key issue as my school moves towards Standards-Based instruction: Assessment.

As Tony Donen points out in “Grades Don’t Matter”, while school leaders and teachers do a lot of things well, assessment is where we tend to struggle.  Our first phase of training teachers towards the model I have described previously, establishing clear learning outcomes in student-friendly language has been the easy part for folks to grasp.  It gets a little more cloudy when we begin the discussion on HOW to track student progress towards those outcomes…and when you through the recording of grades into the mix, it becomes so foggy you can cut it with a knife.

Case in point, this year I have met with several parents on separate occasions who were concerned that their child seemed to be doing very well on homework assignments (90-100% grades) but struggled mightily with test and quizzes.  They came in with a lot of questions- are the tests that much harder?  Does their son/daughter have test anxiety?  After investigating these concerns, I found that a commonly accepted practice among teachers in this particular department was handing out a completion grade for attempting the homework.  There could be 30 questions on a given assignment, and as long as the student completed all of them, they could get a 100 (if they only did half- 50%).  Of course, students were given chances to ask questions if they didn’t understand why they got a wrong answer (they could “self-check” by using the back of the book).

I find that the teachers following this method mean well and have a reasoned purpose for doing it.  More than anything, they want students to learn the content and be provided with plenty of opportunities to practice.  However, this instructional model is not telling the kid or the teacher (or the parent) anything about what content the students know or do not know.  Rick Stiggins articulates the purpose of assessment through 3 questions that students should be able to answer- “Where am I going?” (Learning Outcomes), “Where am I now?” (Ongoing Formative Assessments that provide meaningful feedback from the teacher), “How Do I Close the Gap?” (Plan for next steps, which should be part of the feedback from the teacher).

Instead of a grade report telling parents, “Your son/daughter does their homework but has problems with tests” I would like them to start telling them, “Your son/daughter understandings learning objectives a,b, and c, but needs to sharpen his/her understanding of x,y,z in order to be more successful in this course.”  If teachers could articulate that through smaller, chunked formative assessments (let’s do away with “classwork” and “homework”- what does it matter where you do it anyway?”

The purpose of assessment is to gauge and address student progress towards learning the content, not coverage, practice, or student behavior.  As Donen pointed out, there is still work to be done in our schools.