Video killed the Teaching Star

The droids we're googling for
Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Stéfan via Compfight

Hey man, my schooldays insane
Hey man, my work’s down the drain – David Bowie

I recently was involved in a conversation on Twitter that grabbed my attention.  One of the people I follow was attending a conference and the session they were at involved using Youtube. I suppose the question was raised, “what do I do if Youtube is blocked by my school?”  To which there was a reply, 1. Complain (okay I agree with this), 2. Add an “S” (to the http) – hmmm I’m not so sure I agree with this.  I know what the teacher was attempting to do.. show a video that was relevant and maybe helped students learn the material better, but exploiting a security weakness in the schools filtering system seemed to be rather underhanded (I’m also not a fan of giving advice at conferences that has the potential to get many others in trouble with their admin or I.T. departments).

When I raised the specter that perhaps it was best to download the video and then show it (thus eliminating the need to circumvent in-house security protocols while also having the added benefit of having offline viewing for reliability during down Internet moments) it seemed that I was in the minority. Some felt that they would “do whatever was necessary to teach the students” or that the blocking of sites like youtube had nothing to do with protecting children but was mostly administrator or I.T. ignorance.

At one time, I’m sure I would have been in the same camp with these educators. Maybe its the administrator side of me that is finally beginning to say, “hey wait a minute… there are reasons for this.”  I have youtube open for use by my teachers, but there are other schools and administrators that do not.  I’ve heard their arguments and I have to say that they are erring on the side of caution (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing when it comes to children and potential exposure to inappropriate language in an annotated video, or an advertisement that runs counter to our Catholic values) – Note, my school is a Catholic school so this is a very big deal.

I guess what surprised me the most was that these educators felt it was their right to circumvent school or district policies to do their job.  My opinion is that one should work within those policies or work to actively change them to meet your needs. However, to do otherwise jeopardizes your job as you put yourself in direct violation of the policies set forth by those who are entrusted with making these types of decisions. You may not always agree with these decisions, but it is your duty to adhere to them or to find acceptable alternatives (such as downloading for offline viewing).

I wonder if those educators who “will do whatever it takes to teach their students” will still feel that way when they are removed from the teaching profession entirely because they refused to follow protocols put in place to protect children. Sure, it may be ignorance in some cases, but it is the ignorance of those who are held responsible for protecting children and they may need some education to help them understand how to safeguard children while maximizing learning opportunities. However, It isn’t the teacher’s call to willfully disregard these decisions… at least not without the possibility of negative consequences.

Its a tricky issue… so I welcome your feedback and comments… I’m open to dialogue, and as an administrator I can say that I’m not ignorant when it comes to technology… I see both sides of this issue… my main concern is that we may lose some great teachers because they decide they can do whatever they feel is in the best interest of learning even if it violates school policy.

I look forward to your comments. click the comment bubble at the beginning of this post to leave your mark, or click here to leave a comment, thought or question.

Libraries and Tech Labs: Oh My!

New York Public Library

Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk via Compfight

Moving backwards through time; Never learn, never mind – Soul Asylum

I’ve been reflecting on the nostalgic urge that seems to have a stranglehold on most adults. We tend to cling to those artifacts that we have learned to use and we resist changes that may make our lives easier.  One of the greatest challenges that I faced when we were building a new school was to decide what to do with the library.

For centuries a library has been the hallmark of knowledge and research.  Having a large school library made a statement that the school had the tools to teach students.  Yet, every book in the library we had could easily fit on an iPad and still have room left over. I remember the looks and comments I received when I said we were not going to have a traditional library.  Many simply couldn’t fathom how or why we would take this course of action.

I’m not one to just remove something without a reason.  A quick review of the records for books checked-out from the library revealed that over 80% hadn’t been taken from the library in several years.  A closer review of the inventory also revealed that many of the books were well out of date and no longer reflected accurate information.  The reality is that the library had become an antiquated showpiece that resonated well with adults and parents who had grown up with the library in school, but it received little effective use by the students.

I had a recent visit from a librarian who asked me why there was no library.  I gave my usual answer, which includes: “students use devices that have all the books and materials (updated in real time) on modern devices, the library wasn’t a room that was used effectively for the type of learning that once took place within its walls, we were able to create smaller classroom libraries that were designed to be able to change rapidly based on student interest and changing world conditions, etc.”  The only response I received was a nostalgic sigh and a statement that “… But there’s just something about a book, opening it, turning the pages.”

I can relate. I too grew up with libraries, but I wonder if this “something” about a book is our desire to hold onto our old ways of thinking and learning.  Are we forcing students to learn using an outdated method simply because we are most comfortable with the resources we used as children?

Many know that my background was in educational technology. So the common response is often “well then you must have put in a computer lab.” Once more, I had to reflect on this method of teaching.  Is an artificial lab experience really the way in which students interact with technology on a daily basis in their everyday lives? Therefore, we also do not have a computer lab.  Instead, we are focusing on using the technology that students work with in their everyday experiences.  We do not create artificial learning environments, but strive to create authentic learning opportunities for our students.

I know that this is a very divisive issue.  After all there are librarians and tech coordinators that still hold to the nostalgic way of thinking.  I think libraries and technology are  important for schools, but not in the nostalgic ways we’ve been implementing them. We have to change.  Administrators, Teachers, Librarians and tech coordinators need to reenvision their roles and responsibilities and take a leading role in creating environments that will better serve students.

I’m happy that I have made the bold choice to bring my school into the current century.  I believe that we need to use the technology of today to help prepare students to use the tools of tomorrow for a successful life.  Far too often we are using the technology of the past and this technology doesn’t even begin to prepare the students for the jobs of the present.

As always, I welcome your comments and thoughts on this very active and changing issue in modern education.  What ideas do you have for libraries and technology labs? How do you envision the future of these resources?

Click on the comment bubble at the top of this post or click here to leave a comment.

Wish you were Here

What's on my [Crazy] Desk?
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Can you tell a green field from a cold steel rail… How I wish you were here –Pink Floyd

Today’s post is largely about the hidden world of administration.  Its about the things that go on behind the scenes to ensure that schools stay open, teachers continue to have jobs, and students can continue to learn.  I often hear educators lament that they wish they could “just teach”, yet frequently there is a lack of understanding of what must transpire to allow educators to “just teach”.  One of the greatest complaints I often hear from teachers is that they wish that their principal could be in their classrooms more often.  As a principal, I share this frustration.

All principals began as teachers, they hold their teaching credential and I believe most (not all) still find that the classroom is where their heart truly feels at home.  Yet, the awesome responsibility of helming the ship that is the school and steering it on a particular course often means that we have to judiciously choose when, where, and how we can interact with the classroom environment.  In self-contained classrooms, it is very easy for teachers to develop a myopic view in which their classroom becomes the only world in which they live.  The principal understands this world, but also has the worlds of every other classroom in mind when charting the course for a school.   To help breach the event horizon of the classroom walls and principal’s office, I’d like to share a typical day of a principal with those of you who are reading this.  Perhaps a better understanding of what principals do and what keeps us from being in the classrooms every moment of the day will help to illuminate what is often a teacher’s complaint and a principal’s greatest frustration.

6:30-7:00AM – Arrive at school, start up office machines so that teachers can make copies without waiting 8 minutes for the machine to warm up, check voicemails, emails, calendars, lesson plans for the day.

7:00 -7:45AM – Greet parents, and students as they arrive to the school, listen to parent concerns and ideas about the direction of the school, speak with teachers about how they are doing, monitor traffic safety, direct security assignments for the remainder of the day.

7:45-8:15AM – Close down entryways to the school, secure perimeter, and begin working with those who are arriving tardy to school, escort late arrivals to their classrooms.

8:15-8:30AM – Re-check emails, respond to emails, review attendance reports, respond to voicemails, morning meeting with office and administrative staff.

8:30-9:00AM- Meeting with major shareholder of the school and campus grounds, issues dealing with property management, non-school time room assignments, safety issues.

9:00-10:00AM – Scheduled meetings with parents, business leaders, parish employees, etc.

10:00AM-10:40AM – Supervise recess with students, meet with students and teachers, at conclusion of recess observe a classroom.

10:40-11:00AM – Conduct walkthrough of entire building, informal observations of teaching and learning.

11:00-11:30AM – Check and respond to emails, voicemails, issues as they have arisen throughout the day.

11:30-12:00PM – Administrative meeting

12:00-1:00PM – Supervise lunch (if lucky eat lunch while supervising) meet with teachers and students

1:00-3:00PM – This time usually varies but it is often booked with diocesan/school district meetings, Consultative School Board Meetings, Meetings with the local public school district, Meetings with parents, Meetings with business manager regarding budget, etc. Largely this time period is very booked and many of the meetings take place off-campus.

3:00-4:30PM – Meet with teachers that have requested appointments, meet with parents who could not take time off from work to be present during normal school day hours, review financial situations of families and help design payment plans to assist families in need.

4:30-5:00PM – Review lesson plans, review grades and assignments teachers have submitted for students, review events of the day, check and return emails, phone calls, and other important matters, attend school events (choir, art, athletics).

5:00-6:00PM – Meet with administrative team (If lucky get something quickly to eat), prepare for next meeting.

6:00-7:00PM – Parent Guild meeting, then return home.

(Though this is off-time often we are constantly checking emails and reviewing education issues for the rest of the night)

It is quite a busy schedule and one that I have only begun to scratch the surface of in terms of describing all that goes on to keep the school running.  There are many days with alternative meetings or responsibilities.  Days in which a budget must be constructed, reviewed, and invoices and reimbursements paid out. Days in which a parent reveals that they have just lost a job and that he or she does not know how to keep his or her children in the school. Days when a medical emergency takes place, or an important teacher review takes place.  These all occur, ebb and flow as the school is in operation.

Believe me when I say, that the best place to be and the place most principals desire to be is in your classrooms. However, also know that we are steadily charting the waters of education through a sea of obstacles.  We steer a course that takes us from your classrooms so that you have the ability to teach children.  We have faith in you as educators to do what is best and to make smart decisions to help every child succeed.  To that end, we are constantly checking lesson plans, grades, summative assessments, and conducting informal observations as we sail through the tumultuous seas of teaching.

There are times that we schedule more formal observations, however we cherish and take any chance we get to see what is happening within the walls of your classrooms.  It may look like we are simply moving from one emergency to the next, but in those few brief moments we are walking through or by your room, we are present.  We are observing. We watch, classroom management, pedagogical practice, student interaction, methodology, and a myriad of other important factors that relate to your teaching of students.  Just as you are trained experts in teaching (as are principals) we are trained experts in observing and leading. It’s a daunting task to get to know your classroom of 30 children, but remember the principal is charged with the wonderful duty of learning every child within the school (often some 200-600 students).

Again, I share this so that a greater understanding of what transpires for a principal can be shared with teachers.  I am often amazed that the one greatest complaint from teachers to principals is often also the one greatest frustration of principals.  Yet, there are duties that must be followed if the school is to remain open and students are to be able to learn.

As always, I welcome your thoughts and comments.

Click on the comment bubble at the top of this post or click here to leave a comment.

 

5 Suggestions for New Teachers

The Waterford School

Photo Credit: Rob Shenk

“Anyone with gumption and a sharp mind will take the measure of two things: what’s said and what’s done.”

–Beowulf

There are few things in the world that are as full of energy and enthusiasm as new teachers.  I’m often impressed by their willingness to jump into the fray and take on new challenges.  This is one of their greatest strengths; it is also one of the greatest challenges.  So often, neophyte teachers jump before they look.

Our current culture has resulted in teachers who demand instant results and immediate impact in the larger workings of a school system.  Often, this results in frustration on the part of the new teacher and it has the potential to hinder their voice within that school system in the future.  It is an interesting challenge administrators face in helping new teachers when they must contend with something that is equally a great strength as well as a weakness.  While we face this challenge on a daily basis I offer these five suggestions to new teachers eager to make their mark:

1. Remember our purpose

First and foremost we are here to educate children and to help them become successful in life.  A desire to do something on a larger scale must always have this maxim in mind.  So often, this one simple truth is lost in the desire to make an impact.  Many fledgling educators mistakenly believe that the only way to enact real change is to immediately jump into district or diocesan level committees in order to create a name for themselves. The truth is, many of those that serve on those committees have spent long hours in the classroom, clear on their purpose in education. If you focus on the purpose of educating children, your work will eventually be noticed and your expertise sought.

2. Be willing to Sacrifice

You may have a great idea and firmly believe that it is the best way to go forward only to be told that the school, district, or diocese, is moving in a different direction.  This is not the time to argue or assert that your way is the right way. I’ve been there and felt that desire to assert my ideas.  However, the ability to take a step back and realize that others have equally valid ideas is a strength.  Should the initiative fall through, you can always resurrect your idea for possible implementation.

3. You will not always be given a reason

One error I often witness new teachers making is that they believe they deserve to know the reasons behind every decision.  The truth is that there are many decisions that are made based upon very complicated realities, interactions between schools and other diocese, and more often than not many of these complicated situations involve the inability for comment due to confidentiality or legal reasons.  There is also the reality that, often times, explaining the reasons would take an inordinate amount of time and this time would be better spent moving forward.  I believe in offering reasons (as often as I can) however there are many times when I and other administrators cannot offer a reason other than to say that we must move forward.  Have faith in the leadership within your school, diocese, or district and understand that they may have a global view that is beyond your current understanding.

4. Network, but do so carefully

There is a desire amongst novice teachers to make as many contacts as they possibly can.  While this is often a great strategy, it is one that must be enacted carefully.  Those new to the profession or to a school or diocese often do not have a full understanding of the political structures found within those systems.  Quickly associating yourself with one person or another may hinder your ability to help you enact suggestion #1 (remember our purpose).  Do not be quick to “jump on the bandwagon” just because someone makes a statement that aligns with your current worldview. Step back, be nice, and as Polonius said: “To thine own self be true”.

5. Teamwork is key

I’ll be the first to admit that in school, I hate working in teams. However, the real world is full of instances when teams are necessary.  The power of the group and collective intelligence is greater than any one member of the group.  I’ve learned to work in teams.  I’ve worked as a leader as well as a worker in a team.  Both are rewarding roles.  Do not be eager to always be the leader.  Leadership is a skill that is honed over time.  Take the experience of being a worker and learn from it.  Then, when you are in a leadership position, you will remember what it was like to be a worker and will be better equipped to offer support and advice.   When the team goes in a direction counter to your desires, do not fight against it, rather give it your full support.  We owe it to each other to always support the bold mission of educating children so that they may have a successful future.

I hope that these five suggestions help new teachers as they begin their exciting and rewarding journey in education.  If you have to boil it all down, always remember suggestion number 1.

If you remember your purpose then helping even one child is more rewarding than any accolades that may later be bestowed upon you.

I’d love to hear some of your thoughts or suggestions for new teachers. Please leave a comment below.

Ushering in the New Renaissance in Catholic Education

SJSA Grade Six -  The Year I Rebelled
Photo Credit: Michael 1952 via Compfight

Catholic education once stood as the bastion of Catholic faith formation and academic vigor. In 1965 there were approximately 12,000 Catholic schools serving nearly five million students. According to a recent NCEA report there are now 6,685 Catholic schools serving nearly two million students. If we liken this to historical events, I would argue that it is safe to say that Catholic education has been, and is continuing to go progress through its own “Dark Ages”. I believe that it will take a New Renaissance in Catholic education to bring our schools out of these dark times. What does this mean? First it will be important to identify just what makes this the “Dark Ages” for our current system.

Logically, the decline of enrollment and the closure of schools is the first indication that things are not well for our Catholic school systems. Like most large institutions the Catholic school system has been slow to change and to adapt to the modern world. Prior to Vatican II, Catholic education had a very easy way of being self-sustaining. The pastors would compel the parishioners to send their children to the parish Catholic school. Religious, keeping the costs of operating such schools to a minimum largely operated the school.

As the teaching and administrative positions in schools were filled by the laity, and parents were no longer compelled to send their children to Catholic schools, a natural decline in enrollment took place. Unfortunately, many administrators and teachers falsely believed that enrollment would hold steady or increase simply because it always had in the past. Despite decades of decline, I find that some still hold this perspective. This is a sure recipe for the complete collapse of the system. So what are we to do?

It is at times like these that we stand on a defining point. It is our perspective and willingness to take action that will determine if we fail or succeed.

If we take the traditional view, we will be doomed to failure. This view makes the point at which we stand a precipice that falls to a bottomless pit. Taking no action and simply expecting parents to show up will not work. Relying on strategies and implementations that have not yielded results over the last few decades with the expectation that they will somehow suddenly reverse the tide is foolhardy at best. In the words of St. Joan of Arc, “Act and God will act, work and he will work.” Ladies and gentlemen, it is time for bold action and bold change.

Rather than see our current status as a precipice, I see it as the base of a steep incline toward growth and rebirth. We have an opportunity to redefine Catholic education, while still holding strong to our faith, Catholic Values, and teachings. For so long, we have been complacent to teach using traditional pedagogical approaches. We have held fast to the rows of desks facing the front of the classroom and surprisingly…. we STILL have schools with the green slate boards and chalk! We have held onto antiquated designs and methods simply because it is the easiest road to take; it requires the least amount of work. Parents are less likely to argue if you keep the system the way it has always been, yet the system has been ill for quite some time. We, as professional educators and administrators, have a duty to become the penicillin for our ailing school system before it becomes terminal.

As we stand at the beginning of a climb to greatness, we must be bold and strategic. My motto has been, “Business as usual is not how we conduct business”. This means that there will be conflict. Teachers will be asked to work harder in ways that they have not worked for the last few decades. Administrators will need to acknowledge that some will resist these changes, even from those that have been their most ardent supporters. And in the words of DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, sometimes, “Parents just don’t understand”. I am not saying that this road will be easy. On the contrary, those willing to take up the noble goal of breathing new life into Catholic education will often feel as though they are standing in an empty field taking on the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. It is important to remember in these times that our mission is to provide the best possible Catholic education to families who desire to receive this type of education.

Those who take up arms against this change do so largely from an innocent ignorance. It is important to remember that parents assume that their children will be taught in the same manner in which they were taught. Often, this means that parents came from a time before state standards, academic standardized testing, and differentiated instruction. The modern classroom is perceived as alien to many parents. Likewise, many seasoned administrators and teachers have similar perceptions. If we are to change the course of this ship, it will take bold action on the part of administrators and teachers. Some administrators will need to face a faculty and parent community that does not understand the change. Some educators will have to face administrators who do not see the benefits of implementing a new program that will cause dissonance among other faculty members and parents. Some parents may desire this change and face a school environment that is content to keep business as usual, as the faculty and administration watch enrollment ever decrease.

Ladies and gentlemen, whether you are a parent, administrator, or teacher, if you wish to ensure that Catholic education not only survives (something which many perceive as the goal) but THRIVES (what the real goal should be) then we must make the difficult decisions. We must admit that we need to work harder. We must join the current century and prepare children to enter the adult world prepared, not for the present, but for the future. You will face opposition. You will encounter resistance. The battle will not be easy. But the faith formation and academic preparedness of our students is of paramount importance. I challenge each of you to take on the goal of implementing at least one small change this year. Step by step we can usher in the New Renaissance of Catholic Education.  We can not only match the enrollment that occurred in the mid 1960s, but we can surpass it. Join me in this journey and let us walk together in prayer and thanksgiving for the success we are sure to experience with our faith in God and our hard work at his disposal.

Some ideas for change:

– Alternate classroom arrangements / environments

– Implementing a 1:1 technology program

– Changing grading practices (IE. Homework worth 0% of grade or elimination of HW)

– Removal of textbooks and other primary sources used in their place

– Strengthening the schools Charism throughout all programs

These are just a few ideas; I’d love to hear yours. Please leave a comment below and lets build a bright future for our students and Catholic schools!

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The Art and Necessity of Resting

牧草原上鋪了葱豔床單,
Creative Commons License Photo Credit: eliot via Compfight

“By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work” – Genesis 2:2

One should never underestimate the importance of rest. It is easy to delve deep into the swirling waters of self-sacrifice in the education profession.  After all, most good educators understand that what they do has the potential to positively or negatively impact the lives of roughly 30 children or more a year.  If you’re an administrator, then you realize that every year the future of hundreds of children’s lives can be impacted by the decisions you make.  Understanding this noble responsibility is important, however it can also consume a person.

We all wish to have those teachers and administrators who have that special spark and fire that helps bring education to life for the students.  However, the flame must be carefully tended, or it may turn to a raging inferno that consumes its fuel leaving nothing more than the charred remains of a once bright light.  I speak of course of teacher burn-out. Its something that happens for many reasons.  Today, I’d like to talk about of the need for rest. Down-time should not be something that is put on the backburner and ignored. I learned this lesson a long time ago as a manager for a retail establishment. I would work 80 + hour workweeks and I burned out fast.  It cost me a great deal and I learned that you absolutely must ensure that you have time to rest and reset yourself.  After all, if God decided to take a rest on the seventh day, what makes us think we don’t need even more rest than he does?  The question though is, “how do we rest?”

 

Resting is necessary

 

I find it interesting that there are so many teachers and administrators who are shocked when I tell them I try to leave the school site by 3:30PM.  Now that’s not to say that it always happens, but more often than not it is possible.  There are always exceptions.  Sometimes there are situations that absolutely must be dealt with that will keep you tethered to your office until the daylight has long left this side of the world.  There are also the requisite meetings, sports games, and special events for which you are expected to be present.  However these should not overwhelm a person to the extent that they arrive home exhausted, have not family life, and lack enough sleep to be effective the next day.  It is important to remember that we are humans.  If you’re a Catholic school teacher, we often speak of the need to be a whole person and part of that is having time to be yourself.  Often times, I find that teachers and administrators let their passion and fire for education burn so far out of control that they are spent and exhausted.  Some have asked me what my method is and how I manage to find time for myself (Now, even I think I can improve upon this, but others certainly are burning the midnight oil).  I’d like to share just a little of my philosophy and methods for remaining a whole person.

 

Problem solving  Situation Solutions

 

It is going to happen.  Problems will arise, though I like to call them “situations” or “opportunities”, “Problems” has a negative connotation that puts you in the wrong mindset for finding unique solutions to the situation (besides, the alliteration alone makes “Situation Solutions” so much more appealing).  So how do I handle situations?  Like most, I prioritize the situation.  I assess if it is critical and needs to be solved immediately.  If it is, then that’s what I work on until it is resolved (these should be far and few between).  If not, then I place it in my to do list.

The next question I often ask as the email comes across my screen after the school day has ended is Can this be solved tomorrow?  Often times, the answer is “Yes”. Now I know that there are many people who want to find the solution right away so that they are not thinking about it throughout the night.  I used to be one of these people, but I found that it drastically impacted my personal family time. That’s when I came to the realization:  Even if I solve the situation right now… no one will know it was solved until after the beginning of the school day tomorrow.  More often than not, this is the case. Once I made this realization, I began to reclaim my personal life. Solving situations has become something that I enjoy, but it is not something that consumes my daily living.   Situations are fluid and there are times when one must be sure to act immediately if it is necessary. As teachers and administrators we often put more pressure on ourselves than is fair for any one human to burden.

 

Vacations are just that

 

I’ll be the first to admit this… I am not the best at this piece of advice though I am trying to improve.  A vacation should be exactly what the name says: a vacation.  Its important to disconnect yourself from work emails, work cell phone calls, IM, etc.  We need time to rest, to recharge our batteries so that we can approach our work renewed and re-energized.  After all, our students are returning renewed and if we are not at least somewhat rested, its difficult to meet their level of energy.  Often wonder why the students seem so excited and energized when they return from vacation, yet the teachers seem tired… it just might be that the teachers haven’t truly rested.  I can do better in this area (I like to answer and check emails as often as possible) and it is something upon which I am actively working toward improvement.

 

Concluding thoughts

 

It is important that we actively seek out rest.  If the creator of the universe felt the need for rest, then we should learn by his example. I worry for my fellow teachers and administrators who burn so brightly and face the specter of extinguishing their flames.  Burning the candle at both ends is no way to ensure effective longevity in education (with the last name of “Wick” I’m wary of burning two ends of any candle).  Bad puns aside, the truth is that we need time to be ourselves, the problems that show up in our inbox at 7PM will still be solvable the next day at 7AM.  The benefit is that you can approach the situations refreshed with the benefit of sleep and rest on your side.  A tired person makes rash decisions, while a rested person can assess the situation more thoughtfully.

What are your methods of ensuring you get enough time to rest?  Do you rest? What questions do you have about making time for yourself? Do you have any advice for teachers who feel overworked?  We’d all like to hear from you.  Click on the comment link below and share your comments!

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Facing the fear of change for the benefit of students: Braving a change of grade level assignment

blindfold
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“…in our world everybody thinks of changing humanity, and nobody thinks of changing himself.” – Leo Tolstoy

The above quote from Tolstoy touches upon an almost universal truth.  Humans, more often than not, tend to look at how they can change the world without first examining how they can change themselves.  It is hard to turn the lens of critical analysis upon oneself and to embrace change as a key component to continued growth.  Humans, for the most part, tend to find their comfortable niches and stick to the routines that have proven manageable.  I say “manageable” because these routines may not always be the most effective; they simply have to suffice for the task at hand.  We get comfortable and begin, like Garth in Wayne’s World II, to “fear change”.  It would seem that the very nature of the universe is change and it is the one thing that can be counted upon time and again to strike the most fear into the hearts of humans.  Fearing change is like wearing a blindfold. It hinders you from seeing the bigger universe.  It is time we take off our blindfolds and venture forth into the world with our eyes wide open so that we may be able to help our students succeed in life.

You may be asking, why I’ve developed a sudden interest in change and the natural fear that seems to go along with it.

The truth is that next year I will be starting a new school and my vision is to have this school be the very essence of change. It will exist to improve student learning through the piloting of new programs and initiatives.  It will become a laboratory in which our goal is to help all students achieve mastery of their subject domains. I’ve long been, and continue to be, a supporter of using research to drive instructional and organizational decisions. However, I’ve found almost zero research for one of my initiatives that will be implemented next year. I’ve conducted research in a multitude of literature journals and educational databases from the university and I’ve still found little in the way of research.  That means that the initiative I am proposing is based upon anecdotal observations.  I propose the following:

Every three to five years, teachers should change the grade level in which they teach.

I know that some teachers are already pointing their slings and arrows in my direction, however I ask that, if you are one of these teachers, you hold back your attack and first listen to the reasoning behind this initiative so that you might understand why I have chosen this course of action.  Perhaps by the time you are done reading, you too may be swayed to take arms against a sea of troubles with me (Hopefully Shakespeare doesn’t mind me repurposing his words).

Let me preface this next section by stating that next year every teacher at my school is experiencing some type of change (be it grade level assignment, subject matter taught, or pedagogical methodology).  The response has been overwhelmingly positive from my faculty and many are excited to be a part of this initiative. With that being said, here are my observations (and these are taken not only from schools in which I have taught but in visiting many other schools and observing their operations).

Stagnation can lead to atrophy

 

As a reminder, these are all of my own anecdotal observances they are not based on any research.

I have witnessed teachers who teach one grade level for many years.  By many I mean 10 +.  Some would argue that this would make the teacher an expert in that grade level and I would agree.  This is certainly a possibility, however, more often than not, I have found that teachers in this situation tend to stick to the lessons they like the most, they don’t embrace new teaching methodologies, and they genuinely have a severe lack of understanding of what other grade level teachers do throughout the year.

In the process of remaining the same, they begin to whither in their effectiveness as educators.  I’ve witnessed teachers teaching lessons about butterflies, dinosaurs, family trees, etc. when these topics are not even part of the standards that are supposed to be taught to their grade levels. I’ve witnessed teachers who actively resist utilizing new technologies that have been proven by research to help improve student learning, teachers who are more happy using an overhead than actually having a student interact with the subject through using technology.

In essence, teachers in this situation tend to get stuck in a feedback loop and never really develop beyond their first few years of lesson plans. The tragedy is that students suffer at the cost of keeping a teacher comfortable.

Lack of organizational understanding

 

The other observation I have made is that sometimes teachers who remain within one grade level tend to become an island unto themselves. They lack a clear understanding of what other teachers do for the school and only focus upon their single room. Imagine a teacher who never understands the pressures and responsibilities that an 8th grade teacher has in helping his or her students enter high school, the responsibility of teaching sacraments in 2nd grade Catholic school, or the difficulties in planning weeklong science camps in the middle school?

For some, it is difficult to develop a true respect for the roles and responsibilities of other grade levels until they have been asked to take on those responsibilities. In this regard, I seek a deeper understanding and mutual respect among fellow educators.

The god complex

 

I’ve witnessed this in at least two different schools with teachers that have held a single grade level position for more than 10 years.  Sometimes teachers begin to believe that they are the best individuals for the grade level and that no one can do the job better than they can.  I’ve heard these teachers actively throw near tantrums when a change to their curriculum is introduced or when a teacher is asked to take a portion of their class to teach because the class size is too large for one teacher. I am under no misconception. I know there is always someone in the world that can do the job better than I can. My job is to do the best I can with what I am assigned.

The danger is that these teachers develop such hubris that they begin to stop seeking better ways of teaching and actively derail new initiatives if they do not fit within their comfort zone. It is better to be humble than to build delusions of grandeur.

The plan

 

So, what then is my plan?  As an administrator of a Catholic school I have a global view of the teaching landscape within my site.  I am not hindered by thinking of only a single classroom or grade level, yet I also lack research to support the initiative. Does that mean I should do nothing and allow 200 + children to remain in a situation that I feel is not in their best interest? I think not. So here is my plan.

First of all, I need teacher buy-in.  For the most part I have it.  Any new teachers that are hired will be hired with a full understanding of this plan and that should help alleviate any anxiety about moving to another grade level (after all I will be upfront and discuss it during the hiring process).   Once I have teacher buy in, I need to develop the implementation.

I do not believe that switching grades every year is helpful (unless a teacher specifically requests it).  Rather, I believe that 3-5 years allows a teacher to develop a thorough understanding of the grade level they are teaching and to have confidence with their subject matter.

I also do not believe in drastic changes, such as moving an 8th grade teacher to teach Kindergarten.  It takes a special teacher to teach kindergarten and a special mindset to teach middle school. Drastic changes such as these would happen only at the request of the teacher and only with thorough analysis and review conducted by the administration.

What I propose is that teachers move within roughly a 3 grade level setting.  For example teachers moving from grades 1-3 would help develop a greater understanding of the responsibilities of these grade levels in developing literacy for students.  Grades 4-5 may wish to move up or down depending on their preference. Middle school is a bit tricky.

Middle school tends to be departmentalized and I do not believe in moving someone outside of his or her credentialed area of expertise. Therefore these changes would largely be between grade levels.  Most of these teachers teach grades 6-8 for their particular subject so their curriculum really doesn’t change that much.  However, changing homeroom grade levels does introduce them to the responsibilities that each grade level faces.

This is truly a pilot program that I am initiating in my school next year so I will be carefully assessing its effect upon student learning.  If it proves successful, then I will continue to adapt.  If it does not, then I will adjust as necessary.  The one thing I cannot stand doing is nothing.

As an administrator, it’s my duty to ensure that the students receive the best possible learning opportunities.  I know that there are teachers out there who will read this post and have an immediate negative reaction.  I also know there are some who would be excited by such an experience.   The nature of my school next year is innovation and change and if all faculty members believe in this, then I believe we can accomplish great things for our students.

Perhaps Tolstoy was correct and its time we look to changing ourselves in order to help change the world. After all, Socrates believed that “The unexamined life is not worth living”.  I agree. It is time we examine our practices, our lives, and start truly living in the realm of modern education.

I welcome your thoughts and comments on this topic.  What has been your experience with this? Would you like to try a program like this or does it cause anxiety? I look forward to your comments.

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Gen X in Education: Don’t be Late

Generation X

Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Chrisinplymouth from Flickr

Our little group has always been and always will until the end – Nirvana

I’ve been mulling over what it means to be a member of a generation that is smaller than the generation that came before it and the generations that have followed. You see, I’m a member of that “forgotten” generation known as Gen X. Ive been reading “X Saves the World” and finding it entertaining and informative. Because this generation is a minority sandwiched between the Baby Boomers, Y gen, and Mellennials, I’ll fully understand if you skip reading this post and move on to other compositions that appeal to the masses. However, if you are compelled to read further, then I welcome you to this reflective piece of writing.

At the beginning of this school year I sat in a room with other administrators to hear a presenter give a speech on generational differences. He asked those in attendance to raise a hand if they were born between certain years. As he did this a vast majority went up for the Baby Boomer generation. Then he came to my range. I sat in the front row and raised my hand when he asked who was born between 1965-1980. I saw an interesting look cross his face as he noted me then scanned the room and stated “just you?” I glanced around the room and apparently it was true; I was the only administrator who was a member of Generation X. I thoroughly enjoyed his speech, however it was tailored to the Boomer principals dealing with Mellennials. I found myself in the unique position of reversing a great deal of what he said to help me work with my Boomer-Mellennial faculty.

Many of the traits associated with Gen X are vital to pushing education in new directions that have the potential to help improve student learning. Here are just a few traits associated with my compatriots:

  • Expects immediate and ongoing feedback & is comfortable giving feedback to others
  • Independent
  • Resilient
  • Highly adaptable
  • Dislike authority & rigid work environments
  • Eager to learn new skills
  • Works to live does not live to work
  • Not impressed by titles
  • Technically competent

The list goes on and on. As I read through the list above, I find that there is a need for each of these qualities in order to make significant changes to education. It would seem that built into the very fiber of my generation is a need to ask “why” something is done rather than to blindly accept what has always been. This is a valuable asset when taking up arms to challenge educational practices that have been in place for more than a century.

I’m under no delusion, we also have our weaknesses. Gen Xers can be overly confident. We can sometimes push forward and think, in our own naïveté that we know best. It’s a double edged sword. Sometimes that confidence is necessary to ignite real change and to weather the maelstroms that threaten to sink our initiatives. Other times, our disdain for authority hinders our ability to change course when the rockets come at us sideways. However, more often than not, it’s a benefit rather than a weakness.

Being a member of the minority generation perhaps means that even as more and more people become administrators, the number of Gen X administrators will always be small. However this should in no way hinder our ability to affect real, significant change in education. We may be a small group when it comes to generation population numbers, but we are also innovative thinkers who desire new methods of solving old problems.

I am the first Gen X principal in my diocese; an honor and a pressure that I embrace. I consider myself the first shot fired across the bow by Generation X to herald innovative, revolutionary change in Catholic education in my diocese. However, I cannot do it alone. It will be with the help of my Boomer, Y, and Mellennial colleagues that we truly improve student learning. I may be at the helm of the ship I call my school, but it is the crew that must trust in the direction in which I steer our course. Conversely, I must trust to the strengths and skills of the other generations that sail with me.

Gen X may be a small generation, however we have the potential to enact real, significant change. I call upon my brothers and sisters of my generation to stand up and apply for leadership positions in education. The time to make our voices heard is now. In the words of Nirvana (a symbol of Gen X):

“Take your time, hurry up, the choice is yours. Don’t be late”.

Perhaps it’s that last line that means the most. We (Gen Xers) do things the way we want, but we are rapidly approaching the point where we may be too late to affect change. So don’t be late my fellow X colleagues. We need principals with your unique qualities.

I found this to be an interesting reflection on my generation and value your feedback and thoughts. I would love it if you would share with me a comment or two on this topic.

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Teaching an Egg to Fly

“It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn how to fly while remaining an egg.  We are like eggs at present.  And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg.  We must be hatched or go bad.” – C.S. Lewis

I start this post with the above quote from C.S. Lewis.  We have been eggs for too long my friends and we face the prospect of going bad.  In this regard, I speak about our failure (yes, if we are being honest it is failure) to have every teacher use technology effectively in the classroom.  We’ve been told that we need to teach 21st century skills, yet we are over a decade into the 21st century.  Must we believe that our teaching should encompass 100 years as an acceptable learning timeframe for technology?  Technology changes too quickly.  In the latter part of the 21st century will we really want to know how to operate an iPod or post a video to YouTube? Instead we need to teach this year’s skills and look toward the future. Yet we have failed. There are many schools in which teachers have resisted technology in their classrooms and they are still resisting it to this day.

Far too often I find that administrators focus on what makes their teachers the most comfortable and not on what the students need in the classroom to thrive in our current and future society.  This is the year 2013 and there are still teachers who rarely, if ever, use technology to help teach a lesson in the classroom, let alone providing the students with technology to use in their actual lessons.  I was in elementary school when the Apple IIe was being introduced to schools.  These computers were being placed in schools twenty years ago, yet we still have teachers who refuse to use the technology.  I say refuse, because at this point there really is no excuse for not learning how to use technology and implement it with students.

I think part of the problem emerged with Prensky’s “Digital Native – Digital Immigrant” labels.  At one point these labels may have been true, however I believe the labels have crippled any real progress toward teachers integrating technology.  It is far too easy for teachers who don’t want to use technology to say, “I’m a digital immigrant”.  Once that label is used there’s a sense of entitlement the supposed digital immigrant believes is his or hers.  They need help and we have to take it slow with them. – This is their belief and, unfortunately, the belief of many of their principals.  I’m sorry, but Prensky’s article was written in 2001 and for the term to still be in use over a decade later makes me want to laugh, cry, or both. Think of all the changes that have taken place in the last twelve years with technology, iPhones, iPads, Surface, etc. Technology has moved forward at an exponential rate (Moore’s Law anyone?) yet we have been taking microscopic steps toward holding teachers accountable for integrating these technologies.

Our students live in a world where they go home, use a computer, use a tablet, use a cell phone, video chat, etc. For 16 hours of their day they are surrounded by technology.  The true crime is that for 8 hours of the day we put them in an artificial reality (one devoid of technology) hand them books and pencils and we tell them to learn using almost none of the technology they use on a daily basis. If we think we are doing students any real favors we are deluded. How do we expect our students to be successful in a world that demands the competent use of technology if we hardly ever let them use it in their formative learning years?

I believe its time we stop holding the hands of those who are holding our children back. I cannot sit idly by and allow students to be hindered because an adult feels uncomfortable with technology. It is important that we remember that we are there for the children and not for the adults. The only way that we are going to help the children succeed in their future lives is to have strong administrators and teachers who are ready and willing to stand up for children.

We have to ensure that all teachers are using the tools of today so that our students will be ready to handle the realities of tomorrow.  I ask that you take a look at your own schools and teachers.  I’m sure you will find at least one individual who is fighting the rising tide of technological innovation. We have to get through to these people that the time for change is not now… it was yesterday.

I welcome your thoughts and comments on developing methods of helping students receive the quality education they deserve.  C.S. Lewis was right, we must grow or we face going bad; unfortunately resisting technology doesn’t just cause the teachers to go bad, it also threatens to cripple our students’ future lives.  We should already be learning to fly, but so many of our colleagues are still in their shells.  Its time administrators and fellow teachers make a stand to crack a few bad eggs.

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Image: Artwork and permission to use image granted by Terry Border  http://bentobjects.blogspot.com