Monday, August 31, 2015

Collaboration is the Key to Success

People who work in an organization benefit from periodically looking back in time as they make plans for moving forward. A great advantage to working in schools is that every fall we have an opportunity to start over. On the opening Institute Day, Diona (assistant principal) and I did just that. We divided the teachers into two groups to make each group smaller and more manageable. Diona structured a game similar to  Taboo.   The purpose of the game was to generate some thought about various initiatives that our school and district have pursued over the past 5 years. Teachers were broken up into teams depending on where they sat.  Everyone was given 2 minutes to write down as many educational trends/buzz words that they could come up with and fold up their ideas and drop in the bucket.  When time was called, each team picked a person to start and that person got 1 minute to describe as many of the words as possible to their team in order to get them to guess the buzz word/trend. They got 1 point for every correct answer. The group discussed how ridiculous some of the initiatives were; those that had lasting value, but especially those that contributed to the success of Pershing School.

I led the group in the hallway. On the walls, I had posted artifacts from building meetings from the past 5 years. On these poster sheets, teachers had recorded the things that they needed to stop, start, and continue to do. The school improvement plans had evolved from these documents. Above the artifacts were two graphics that told the truth of state test scores over time. One graphic showed the entire district while the other included only schools on the same side of town. Our school’s tests scores had plummeted from 2002-2010. Scores were the lowest when I was assigned to Pershing School. Between 2010-2014 (the last ISAT scores available), Pershing School moved steadily upward and lined up with the other schools in the district. Below the artifacts was a timeline.
I asked teachers in the hallway to read the artifacts and the data and to record what we were doing as a staff on the timeline.

Following this exercise, we debriefed and drew conclusions. The groups noted various initiatives that strengthened classroom practice such as co-teaching, 1:1 technology integration and instructional coaches to support that, literacy coaching, RtI, and full-day kindergarten.  One teacher pointed to the upward movement after 2010 and said, “it matters who your principal and social worker are.” So true. But the biggest aha resounded through the group when they realized that the greatest impact on student learning was collaboration.

We restructured our elementary school planning time so that it included common plan time for every grade level.  Teachers meet together with the literacy coach for 70 minutes a week. Her work with them has evolved over time from strengthening the literacy practices in the classroom to her current work with them that includes a focus on writing across the curriculum. Teachers use common plan times to look at student data and work. For the past two years they have used the unpacked CCSS to determine if students were below, at, or above standards.

In a meaningful collaborative culture, all effort is focused toward improving student learning. The students become the collective responsibility of every adult in the school. Inquiry and examination of student work and behavior are the norm. Teachers with particular interests lead various efforts. Over time, we have seen our Pershing teachers take responsibility and lead RtI, implementation of best practices in math, literacy, and the integration of technology. Those teacher leaders have pushed and pulled other teachers along with them. Our PE teacher and nurse have developed a system that keeps kids moving and learning about healthy habits. They encourage all of us to attend monthly fitness nights and to join runs with the students. Egos are kicked to the side in this type of culture. It is our collective spirit that energizes the organization; students, parents, community members, and each other to give 100% to our students.

By the end of week one, grade levels committed to their plan to reach our school improvement goals. Students learned classroom expectations as well as started academic work.  We have 38 kids signed up for an October Frank Lloyd Wright Race and beginning their twice a week 7:30 am running club. We are off to a great start!

Sunday, August 23, 2015

A Kinder, Gentler Me

I have chuckled to myself many times as I’m told how tough I am. I considered my toughness useful throughout my daughter’s middle and high school years. She and her friends knew that I didn’t “play.” The lying and deception that went on in so many homes, just did not happen in mine. I have been an administrator/ school principal for 12 years and the toughness worked well in many contexts in schools.  

I’m currently preparing for my sixth year as principal in my current school. This is also my final year in education. I have a deep desire to make this year before retirement, my very best year. There’s no reason that can’t happen as our school culture is as close to perfect as is reasonable. In preparation for this final year, I surveyed the teaching staff in the spring asking for feedback on areas that I consider have the greatest impact on student performance (support, feedback, communication). I devised a plan that can be mapped out on a calendar to keep improve in all those relevant areas.

What I didn’t have a plan for, until now, was how to change myself into a kinder, gentler, less “tough” individual. I not only want to be that new person when I retire, I want to be that person in my final year. I found the answers this summer in a Cognitive Coaching seminar that I attended. I have attended these seminars the past two summers, building up my knowledge and abilities to help others to build their own capacity and contribute to a community of thinkers. I had an “ah-ha” moment when I came to the understanding that our identity is flexible, not stagnant and is formed and in constant flux with our interactions with others. 

I have formed some goals that will support the staff, but will also reshape my identity. My greatest challenge in cognitive coaching is using “tentative language.” My communication style has been very direct; nothing tentative about it! However, I didn’t talk like that years ago. Being direct and sometimes brutally honest has streamlined difficult conversations at work. The down-side of that has been that behavior crept into my personal life too. I never learned how to change my “talk” depending on the context. My family, friends, and co-workers will hear “how might you…” or “what might be…” or “as you consider..” or “what are your hunches…” 

As I practice tentative language, I will also focus on constructing an approachable voice. That type of voice invites rather than scares others. This visual says it all about what an approachable voice is:

I will be employing many strategies to keep myself on track. I am creating some visuals that I can easily post that will remind me of my intentions. I’ll be asking some of my fellow cognitive coaches to sit in on conversations and give me feedback on my coaching. I invite all those who know me to pay attention and give me feedback as my identify evolves over this next school year.