The Status Quo

There is a key point that I always keep in mind when hiring new teachers: We do not want the teacher we hire to become more like us; we want our school to become more like them. The gist of that statement comes form Todd Whitaker in his book What Great Principals Do Differently or maybe it was from a presentation I heard him do but either way I’ve always attributed the thought to him.

By this tenet I want to be an organization that continually grows. I never want to become stagnant in the way we think or the way we interact. New blood allows us all to become better; challenges us to change for the betterment of our kids. While I’m a proponent of allowing autonomy among the teachers, I also understand that everyone has an impact on everyone else. Ask not for whom the bell tolls…and all that! Which leads me to the status quo and this blog post by Greg Miller: You Weren’t Hired to Maintain the Status Quo.

The post came at a very important time for me. Having just completed interviews for a teaching position I was left with the undesirable decision of whether to hire a new graduate or an applicant who had extensive substituting experience in the district. I chose the candidate that best fit my tenet from above: Which candidate do we want our school to be more like? While I will hang my hat on the fact that the best applicant for our students was chosen, it was still one of the hardest phone calls I’ve ever had to make. The easy decision would have been to hire from the substitute pool but the interview team felt that this applicant made our school better and I couldn’t disagree. In Dr. Miller’s blog he quotes Dr. Justin Tarte, “You weren’t hired to maintain the status quo; you were hired to make a difference and make an impact.”

Dr. Tarte and Dr. Miller were using that statement to talk about hiring teachers. It is also important to remember as administrators. Whoever hired us didn’t do so because we were exactly like the last person. We were hired to make our schools and districts better. We were hired because someone thought we could make an impact. We were hired because we are risk takers and capacity builders.  We were hired because we love kids and someone believed that these kids deserved us. We should never lose sight of that. Sometimes that means making the tough choices. It means upsetting someone as well as the status quo. It means always making the students the focus of your decision making. And it means that sometimes people aren’t going to like us.

Another motivational guy on Twitter, Salome Thomas-El put it this way:

 

That sounds tough but it’s true. Our jobs aren’t easy and we shouldn’t need to be told that. We chose to be the people who have to make tough decisions and as long as we are making the right decisions for the right reasons we should be able to sleep at night. All of us know people who have chosen not to take that step into administration. This is a big reason why. Does it make me feel good that every year I have fewer friends? Not really. Is it easy for me to see my wife’s disappointment when community members avoid her? Not at all. Does it make me feel good that I am making decisions that positively impact students? You bet.

Besides that, I like dogs.

Count on Trolls

This wasn’t what I set out to write today but this is where I have ended up. Today marked the day that Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error hits newsstands nationwide.  I haven’t read it but I have read some reviews. This morning, while reading Ms. Ravitch’s own account of her stop in Pittsburgh, one of the commenters posted a link to a review of the new book. I wasn’t on full troll alert so I followed the link

Turns out, after a few seconds of heart-stopping anguish, that it wasn’t a troll at all.The site is obviously satirical but not that far off of what some believe. The site is called Last Stand for Children First which at first blush sounds like another public education hate site. Read on my friends, critical reading and thinking are important 21st Century skills. From the billionaire CEO, Myron Miner, who taught in the tough inner city of Boca Raton to the Chief Education Director whose only apparent credential is that he played hoops with Arne Duncan in Australia to the notoriously fictitious Rep. Jack Kimble from the mythical California 54th, Honorary Director. We even have a Sigma Chi representative on the BoD.

It was a bit scary at first because I wasn’t quite sure whether it was real or not. Statements like these below aren’t all that far from some of the things we hear in public education:

On Ravitch’s new book: “While I didn’t actually read Ravitch’s book, I think I’ve gotten a pretty good feeling for what it’s about by reading the cover..” from the CEO of Last Stand for Children First

On improving teacher quality: “Our research has shown that the best teachers to motivate inner city youth are white, fresh out of college, and preferably from a privileged background.”

On improving the curriculum: “Too much of a child’s day is taken up with classes like music, art, and social studies, which are not even tested.  These classes have been created by teachers unions trying to create jobs and give teachers prep periods.”

And their tribute to billionaires: “Billionaires have the clout to influence public policy in a way that few other people can. There is no better way to democratize education in this country than by bringing the voices of CEOs and hedge fund managers into the equation.”

As well as a common man’s understanding of statistics “Nearly 25% of all American high school students in 2008 scored in the bottom quartile of state standardized tests in reading and 10% scored in the bottom tenth in math.”

Not sure who is responsible for this but, “Well Played, Sirs, Well Played.” I’ll be back!

A Giant Cup of I’m the Boss

It’s back to school time and after a summer of graduate school, I’ve had a few days to reflect on what I do. There are things about being a leader at which I think I am quite good. I love being around the kids. They keep me young. Mentoring teachers to be the best they can be is a challenge that I enjoy. Reading about new trends and researching ideas for better schools and classrooms is kind of my nerdy hobby that I partake in through many different outlets like Twitter, Diigo and Scoop.it. Taking all of those ideas into the practical world of the school is rewarding for me. 

There is one thing that I don’t think that I’m cut out for naturally and it causes me stress and anxiety. It is my professional goal for this year. This will come as a surprise to people that think that leadership is all about power. The one thing that is difficult for me is being the boss!

I’m not a fan of people looking up to me because of my position. I would prefer that people judge me and respect me based on my record and how I treat them or their child. I don’t want false respect that is triggered by my leadership role. I intend to prove to people that they can trust me and that I have earned their respect.

No matter, sometimes you have to be the guy that makes the tough decisions, you sometimes have to be the guy who tells people that aren’t doing a good job, you are going to be the guy who loses friends because of your decisions and you are going to have to be the guy that enforces the rules even when you don’t like the rules.

Those of you who know me well will understand why those things are difficult for me. We can talk about shared leadership or transformational leadership. We can talk about Theory X and Theory Y. We can go on and on about leadership in the 21st Century and the benefits of situational leadership. But in the end, one leadership trait never goes away. Some days you have to be the boss. Some days you have to switch into your big boy pants, enforce the rules and make the tough calls. That is the part of my job that I like the least.

In our school we have some fantastic teachers, we have some average teachers and we have some teachers who should move on. I enjoy mentoring teachers but there is a point where some teachers are not cut out for the job. They know it and I know it and sometimes you have to be the guy that tells everyone where the bear shits in the buckwheat.

So my goal for this year is to be more open to making the tough calls. To be the guy who is honest about the performance of teachers and staff. Be the man to make the difficult call to a parent who is also a friend or acquaintance and tel them what their kid is up to. 

It’s time to be the boss.

Industrial Age vs. Information Age, Part 2

From the time of the one room schoolhouse until the very recent past, walls have played a significant role in education buildings. Walls were built between classrooms with the intention of keeping everyone out. Other teachers were not invited into the classroom to assist or just to take a look. Doors were shut as a matter of course. Principals and superintendents knocked on the door to acknowledge their presence. Parents did not have an open invitation to visit neither the school nor the classroom. Although this has changed over the last few decades, it hasn’t really gone far enough. Parents are accepted as volunteers but very rarely as equals. Classrooms are co-taught but it is the rare that both teachers share the role of expert. Principals and superintendents visit more regularly but are still seen as observers not participants. The 21st Century superintendent will need to eliminate walls that constrict education. Not necessarily physical walls but virtual walls that keep the teachers and students in and the rest of the world out. As the world becomes more of a digitally connected society, superintendents will have to model and reinforce practices that create “thin walls” or “flatten” classrooms. This fundamentally open classroom should be a priority of superintendents who wish to address the challenges facing today’s students. Teachers need to begin to look for the experts in their surroundings and tap into their expertise. Administrators need to become a part of the educational experience so that students and teachers see them as contributors and not guests.

In all of this flattening and thinning, the Fantasyland superintendent should have several roles. He or she should be the leader through exemplification. As teachers and students begin to develop personal learning networks, superintendents should assist and support through their own personal learning networks. The days of not “friending” or “following” people who work with you or students are over. Superintendents need to model appropriate virtual behavior so that all of the stakeholders can see. As teachers begin to learn side by side with students, superintendents will need to be cheerleaders for their efforts. It won’t be easy for teachers to give up control of their classrooms so administrators will have to show their support for the challenges that they undertake. Superintendents will also have to serve as pitchmen for their schools. In the financial state that public education is currently experiencing and the negative connotations that sometimes go with our professions, superintendents will have to sing the praises of changes in the district while staying grounded in the data that supports technology efforts and keeping a close eye on the purse strings.

One concept that will most assuredly have to go in the 21st Century classroom is the idea of standardized testing to prove achievement centered around a finite set of standards in a limited array of subjects. Assessment, as we progress through this century, will have to change to encompass a new type of learning, a type of learning where calculators and computers as well as smartphones and tablets are part of the equation and the solution. Assessments will have to be able to gauge creativity and connectedness along with real world problem solving and leadership skills. As a superintendent in this generation of education, a priority will be placed on assuring that our teachers and our students are assessed on the skills that matter to this generation of employers and the next. The superintendent will have to be an advocate for assessments and standards that do not limit the education that our students receive or limit their post secondary opportunities. This means that a superintendent will have to be connected to the world as well as the classroom, an advocate for real reform in the global community and at home and a master diplomat when dealing with politicians and leaders of industry.

Industrial Age vs. Information Age

A shift in the world has obviously taken place over the last hundred years and it has accelerated into a boom in the last ten to fifteen years. As I am sure things changed slowly in the shift from educational ideals prior to the industrial revolution to industrial age norms, education establishments are slowly treading into the information age. The change has come so quickly that teachers with fifteen or more years of experience are more than slightly overwhelmed. Those that did not embrace technology at the offset are now struggling with simple tasks as we strive to take the next step. Administrations cannot continue to devote time for instructing staff on how to access email and use spreadsheets when the new expectation is to Skype and use backchannels.

In the Industrial Age there was a strong need for students to conform. When the bulk of the employment opportunities were for factory workers, schools needed to churn out students who could perform mundane tasks for long periods of time. A hundred years ago a sincere issue among political leaders was how to find enough factory workers. For that reason, government leaders and heads of industry viewed school as a way to produce the human resources that they needed to continue to be productive. They couldn’t afford to allow schools to produce thinkers because thinkers weren’t very good workers. Those schools generally produced students who were good at going to school. A top student would be one who used good manners, never received punishment for the teacher, and always did their homework. Children who were good at going to school would also be good at going to work.

In the Information Age we practically need the antithesis of Industrial Age schooling. We need to begin churning out students who can solve problems that we don’t even know are problems yet and students who can lead. The jobs of the future will require students to have creative minds. These adults will be required to collaborate with others and question whatever is placed before them. Employers will be looking for workers who can use their networks to find the answer to whatever conundrum they come upon. Networked people will be more powerful than the greatest scholar because they will have the brain power of hundreds or thousands of minds. Today we can’t afford to produce students who are just good at school. We need to produce students who can survive without a detailed syllabus. Being like everyone else will no longer be a sought after attribute.

#hashtags and #edchats; a primer

So, a couple of people have asked me to elaborate on what constitutes a Twitterchat. Especially as it refers to educational Twitterchats. I guess to put it simply, it’s a chat that occurs on Twitter! Too simple?

Okay then, a little history. In the Dark Ages of Twitter, the search feature was disastrous. It was almost impossible to find people with whom you wanted to chat. For that reason, someone came up with the idea of using hashtags (#). Now, if you wanted to search for a group or a particular subject you could just search the hashtag. If people remembered to use the hashtag, it was easy to find the conversation. Thankfully those days are over and the hashtags are not necessary. They do however persist and have taken on a new role. Hashtags now allow you to search and find a conversation even if you weren’t present for it. They also allow you to follow a conversation in semi-real time as well as participate in said discussion. It’s kind of like having a conversation with a large group of people on a common subject. Doesn’t matter if you know them or if you “friend” or follow them. Everyone is there to talk about a commonality.

Which leads us to #edchats or #educhats. The education community has run away with the idea of joining people of like minds to have conversations using hashtags. There are so many hashtags that  it would be insane for me to try to list them all. Luckily a Twitterer extraordinaire has done that for us. Jerry Blumengarten, who can be found @cybraryman1 on Twitter, has compiled a monster list of educational hashtags. (Don’t go look for it now! I’ve included a link to a livebinder site with all the info). I didn’t count them but there are way over 100. Everything from New teachers #ntchat to Australia education chat #ozchat. He has also but together a nice schedule, although not comprehensive, of when the chats are live – I’ve included that in the live binder.

So, here’s what you do. Most people who chat suggest that you use a third-party app. It is not completely necessary especially if you are using mobile devices but it does make it a little easier. I use TweetCaster on my Iphone and Ipad and TweetDeck on my desktop. There are others too like Hoot Suite and Seesmic. If you are going to participate live, put the hashtag in the search bar on your app. It will immediately take you to all the tweets with the same hashtag. For example, one that I like to participate in is #geniushour. I put #geniushour into the search and magically all the tweets are there. One thing that you will want to do if you find a chat that you like is to follow the moderator. This will allow you to know what the topic for the discussion will be prior to the chat. The moderator will be the person asking the questions. They will number their questions Q1, Q2, Q3, etc. You can just follow along or you can participate. If you participate, you should label your answers A1, A2, A3, etc. so that everyone can follow the conversation. Within a question there is always some back and forth between participants and a lot of retweeting.

If you happen to not make it to the live chat, no worries. You can search the hashtag anytime after the chat and see the whole conversation. Many moderators also archive the chat in programs such as Storify or on their wikis for access after the fact.

Some of my favorites are #geniushour, #abedchat, and #DENchat. Those are probably good ones to start with. When you start to build you PLN, you will see people tagging their tweets with different hashtags. Feel free to search that tag and participate in the chat. I have tweeted with Alabamians in #aledchat and Chicagoans in #iledchat as well as the great Canadians in #abedchat.

As you can see, as your PLN grows, the world gets smaller and smaller. I regularly tweet with a teacher in Australia. One of the teachers in my building met a woman in Texas whom she regularly tweets with and Skypes into the classroom for class to class discussions. One day I had George Couros respond to my tweet. I was pretty ecstatic.

I know this is quick and dirty so I’ve created a livebinder with a bunch more information on educational chatting on Twitter. Much credit should go to @cybraryman, Alan November(@globallearner), @EdTech_K-12. @CorMur21, and @teachthought.

If you have questions, ask below or find me @dogilicious on Twitter.

Hope to #edchat with you soon!

PLNing!

Damn, now I’ve done it. I let the proverbial cat out of the bag! In my Teach and Facilities Management course we read about establishing a PLN. One of the challenges issued by the good Doctor was to start a blog to reflect on what it is that we do. For those of you who have read this blog in the past, you know that’s not always what I do. My narcissism was hanging out though! What could I do? The good Doctor was praising everyone who started a blog and I just blurted it out! “I’ve got a blog at http://www.40phor.com but it’s not new.” See what I;m saying. Now all of these people are going to stop by and read it! I’ve tried for so long to keep this quiet (and if you could see mt stats you would know what I’m saying!) and in the minds of complete strangers. Now I have to really work at it.

So let the PLN begin! I have been working hard to create a working list of followers and the followed on Twitter. I must confess, though, that a big pile of those educators are the ones who feel the same way that I do about the deleterious reformers and their little bubble sheets. My community of people that I learn from is smaller but powerful. I like to hit the #edchats whenever possible especially #geniushour and #abed (who knew there was so much progressive ed. in Canada) and the occasional #satchat.

Welcome to my little PLN and since I have resolved to write daily for the near future, I’ll try to ebb the flow of the politics of education to spend more time on educational reflection.

If you haven’t read my about page Ill give you a head’s up, this hasn’t always been a blog about education. It started out as me trying to find my way. It has settled fairly firmly on educational topics in the last year with a few minor digressions. Feel free to browse and if you are offended, saddened, disgusted, turned on, elated, I am glad that I instilled some type of emotion.

Do It For Them

One of the things that I know I contemplate often is the fact that we don’t take enough time out to reflect on what an important position we hold in this country. As teachers and people who lead schools we have a very important responsibility. I know that may sound trite but if you seriously reflect on the role that we have in the lives of students, it is more than a tad overwhelming. The time that students spend with us is equal to or often times more than they spend with any other adult figure.

If you have had the opportunity to work with students who are from low income or otherwise difficult households, you will see this impact multiplied. These students are looking for attention, someone to look up to, and sometimes love. At the end of the school year these are the students who don’t want to go home. They don’y know why but they want to stay at school. They want to stay because they feel safe, they fell loved and they feel that they belong. The experience at home may not be the same. This impact that we have on students is profound. Some of us have even had the pleasure of a student who mistakenly called us mom or dad or uncle or aunt. And sorry to say, grandma or pop. That happens because we fill that void for them when their near relatives are absent or maybe we fill that need in general.

In that vein, don’t we have a responsibility to step up our game on a daily basis? I have told my staff on several occasions that my expectation is that they are all in everyday. Can a reasonable leader expect anything less? I’m not sure what we would be holding back for. This is the only shot we have. It is the only shot that your students have. We owe it to ourselves, our students and the world to go all out, to be all in, on a daily basis. There really is no time to be off your game because today might be the day you changed someone’s life deeply and do you really want to be the one to steal someone’s dream. I don’t and I don’t want to be responsible for the person who does.

In this day there is very little love for education in the mainstream. Respect for teachers and education is in the doldrums. But we chose this. And in a way, this chose us. I’s okay for us to be mad at the worked for the way we have been treated but it’s not alright to make students the victims. Some days I know it is hard to do it for ourselves but remember why we are really here: Do it for them!

Rich School , Poor School

Is there any question that every child has the right to the same education? I would say that education is a human right. When we talk about human rights we talk in terms of every child having equal access to a quality education. People from all sides of the argument can rally around that last statement. One side of the debate can argue that charter schools are the answer. When families have choices and competition exists, public schools will rise to the occasion. Another side will say that teacher quality is at an all time low and that is especially  relevant in low achieving schools. Obviously there are more than three sides but another legion will claim that a consistent, rigorous set of standards such as CCSS will equalize the education that every student receives.

Just so we’re clear, the people above fall into two categories: either they have have no concept of what education is like for some of our poorer citizens or they are outright liars with some kind of profiteering agenda.

According to Do Something, students who live below the poverty line have higher absentee rates, higher dropout rates and lower rates of post secondary education. In a post I wrote several months ago I compared PSSA scores to school district aid ratios. That research showed that the richer the school district is, the better chance that students will reach proficiency. That doesn’t really sound equal.

I can’t speak of all states but in Pennsylvania the funding inequities are tremendous. I know that I’ll hear that poor schools receive way more state funds than rich schools.No kidding. Spend more than a millisecond trying to figure out why that is. Poor schools, especially poor rural schools, have a very limited tax base. A limited tax base means poor local funding and I can assure you that the state does not make up that difference. That of course leads to districts surviving on a shoestring. Cutting positions that lead to larger class sizes. Cutting positions that make a difference to student achievement: literacy coaches, math coaches, reading specialists, counselors and paraprofessionals. According to a study by the Pennsylvania Education Law Center, the highest poverty school districts spend $75,000 less per classroom than the wealthiest schools. As in many other areas of our country, the privileged rich continue to flourish as the poor continue to languish.

As a human right, education should be of the same quality no matter your demographics. Students should have access to the same resources no matter their economic status. Education should aim to raise the achievement of every child not just the rich, powerful and politically connected.

What we have in Pennsylvania and across the nation is not an achievement gap, what we have is a funding gap. Rather than billionaires spending there money on influencing education policy, what if they used some of that money to equalize the funding in our impoverished urban and rural school districts.