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The Importance of Good Mentors

I just finished reading a book on being a successful school administrator. The book included anecdotal observations and experiential information from past and current educational administrators. It was unanimous. All of the administrators who provided their expertise for publication in this book said the same thing: all educators, including assistants, teachers, curriculum coaches, maintenance and janitorial staff, building level administrators, and district level administrators need good mentors.

I try to read at least two educational books a month and as many research articles I can find. I’ve scoured the internet searching for books to read that could help me in my profession. I’ve picked my colleagues’ libraries clean in search of practical books/information that can help me grow. All this searching and reading has been extremely beneficial. However, besides on the job experiences and making mistakes then learning from them, I think mentoring is probably the most propitious form of growth in my professional practice.

Many districts place heavy emphasis on the mentoring and induction of our new teachers. Yet, I know there are some districts that provide no formal mentoring for their administrators. I’ve heard how some districts assume that because someone was a successful teacher, they will be a successful administrator. I find that assumption problematic.

I’m thankful that my district invests in its administrators by providing them an opportunity to work closely with mentors. During my first year as an assistant principal, I was partnered with a retired high school principal. Because of the difference in grade level experience of my mentoring relationship, I was skeptical at first. However, even though my mentor was a previous high school administrator, much of the wisdom he shared with me has been certainly applicable. In addition to my formal experiences with a mentor, I’m thankful for a superintendent who invites all the administrators in the district to learn and grow with him. I feel that he has taken me under his wing and helped me understand things and get better at things along the way. This informal mentoring has been and continues to be just as beneficial as the formal mentoring.

Essentially, I think it’s important for districts to remember that as administrators, we need mentors, too.

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Teacher Quality and Practice Comes First

At yesterday’s district institute, we had a wonderful presenter who initiated the conversation regarding grading practices and homework. He brought the data to help support his claims. He cited relevant research that showed that homework, especially in the primary grades, often results in an effect size of zero when it comes to student learning. Yet, one of the aspects about his presentation that made it so compelling was his connection to our children and our students. We may have heard the message before, but he was particularly effective in communicating “If it’s not good enough for your own kids, why would you consider it good enough for the students you teach?” I’ve traveled to neighboring districts to see similar presentations from different presenters on grading practices and homework policies. The presentations lacked that compelling piece.

I completely see the validity in the presenter’s claims regarding homework and grading. It’s hard to argue with the majority of the evidence he presented. However, I’m not quite sure that teaching/instructing/informing teachers about proper grading practices is a step towards district improvement (or the most effective step towards improvement). For example, with homework, if a teacher looks at an assignment and determines that it’s good/quality, but in reality, the assignment is not very good and serves no purpose for student learning, I’m thinking there’s a deeper issue at hand. With this scenario, we may have an issue of teacher quality. In this instance, I do not believe that teaching/instructing/informing teachers about proper grading practices or what good homework should look like (if homework is given at all) is the first step in the process of improving the quality of that teacher. Yes, having this knowledge regarding grading practices and homework is essential. But, like I said, there may be an underlying issue that can’t be completely addressed by learning more about homework and grading.

Point being, improving teacher quality (especially from an instructional standpoint) before focusing on grading and homework policies is essential. We may be putting the cart before the horse by considering homework and grading policies before considering teacher quality.

Later, I was fortunate enough to participate in a round table discussion with the presenter. He agreed that addressing teacher practices and teacher quality before grading practices and homework policies was essential. He then clarified (which I had difficulty articulating for some reason) that with good teaching practices and improved teacher quality, grading practices and homework policies could lead to school improvement.

Overall, the presentation was fantastic. I’m simply concerned about any execution of his suggestions before improving teacher quality (and administrator quality for that matter).

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Safety in Our Schools: A Parent’s Poignant Question Regarding Erin’s Law

Last night, I had the pleasure of meeting Tom Kress. He will be presenting information concerning Erin’s Law to our entire district (parents, students, teachers, administrators, and other community members). His presentation was very informative. In addition, it was certainly geared towards his most important audience members: students.

Last night’s session was intended for parents and community members. Tom presents to parents and community members first in the event that a parent may wish to opt out his/her child from the school-wide presentation. Thankfully, it didn’t seem that any of our parents desired to do so.

After the presentation, Tom opened the floor for a Q & A session. A parent asked a question that rattled me all night and has stayed with me this morning as well. She asked, “Why aren’t training and informational sessions such as this [Erin’s Law training and informational sessions] mandated like other safety drills throughout the district/schools?” The parent was referring to tornado drills, fire drills, lockdown drills, etc. I began to cogitate on her inquiry. We have fire drills. We have tornado drills. We have lockdown drills. We constantly engage in other safety precautions and measures throughout the entire school year. It’s not that these measures aren’t important (especially from a preventative perspective). I’m not saying that these drills are not essential. Of course, anything that has the potential to keep our students safe is pivotal. However, we haven’t had a fire in years. We’ve never had a tornado. We do occasionally have external lockdowns (when something unsafe or potentially unsafe for students occurs within the city or community), but they are always resolved by the community police force. Yet, we have an abundance (unfortunately) of students who are the victims of sexual abuse. As a teacher, I had multiple students confess to me about sexual abuse they experienced. As an administrator, I’ve had teachers bring their concerns to me regarding potential abuse of students in their classrooms. Clearly, as a mandated reporter, I brought these concerns to the proper authorities. But, one can’t help but wonder about this reality.

In the room last night, a parent broke down and admitted to being the victim of sexual abuse as a child. She mentioned knowing others who were also victims of sexual abuse. If we work to keep our students safe at all times from ALL threats, isn’t sexual abuse training just as essential as the tornado drills, fire drills, and lockdown drills, especially considering that many of us teachers and administrators have actually had to navigate situations where children confide in us regarding some of their horrific experiences?

I encourage you to reflect on this parent’s question. Should we mandate and normalize sexual abuse training the same way we’ve mandated and normalized tornado drills, fire drills, and lockdown drills? In addition, should parents be able to opt their children out of training regarding sexual abuse? This is an issue that impacts so many and truly has the potential to alter the trajectory of a child’s/family’s life.

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Learning During the Teacher Evaluation Process

I’ve been in a copious amount of interviews throughout my time as an educator. Fortunately, I’ve been on both sides of the interview table, as part of the hiring committee and as a potential employee. In almost every interview, someone asks some kind of question concerning teacher evaluation (as they should. It’s an important part of the job). In regards to questions about teacher evaluation, I believe that administrators can and should learn during the process. In addition to some members of my hiring committees, some of the people interviewing me seem put off by that comment/belief. They seem fairly traditional in the sense that the teacher evaluation process is a learning experience (ideally) only for teachers and that the administrator evaluation process is a learning experience (ideally) for the administrators. I don’t agree with that.

Like Randi Weingarten says, teacher evaluation can and should build the capacity of our teachers. I go a step further. I believe that it can and should also build the capacity of our administrators. I’ve been asked, “What types of skills can an administrator possibly gain during the teacher evaluation process?” My answer regarding skills that administrators can build/develop during the teacher evaluation process is usually something like the following (this list is not exhaustive):

  • Empathy
    • Some administrators forget; we were once teachers (at least the majority of us). The teacher evaluation process is extremely stressful. The transition to the Danielson Framework was complex and was not easy for all teachers. We must empathize with our teachers as we all continue to grapple with the evaluation framework and the fact that teacher evaluation is extremely strenuous.
  • Inclusion
    • We must focus on conducting evaluations that include the teacher as opposed to being “done” to the teacher.
  • Communication skills
    • Conducting teacher evaluations requires navigating precarious terrain. Obviously, some teachers are more open to evaluation than others. Clearly, some teachers see evaluation as an accountability measure that administrators use to dismiss teachers. Good administrators don’t view it that way. Regardless, as administrators, we must communicate effectively with teachers during the evaluation process that helps put them at ease. For me, having a stressful and, possibly, even an animus evaluation process is one of my least favorite aspects of the job. Collegial communication could help assuage teacher concerns and establish teacher evaluation as a process for continued learning.
  • Organizational and prioritization skills
    • Teacher evaluations are a lengthy process. In addition, many schools have large amounts of teachers who need to be evaluated. As administrators, we must be seriously organized while coordinating all of our teacher evaluations (among the plethora of other responsibilities).
  • Professionalism
    • Horror stories abound regarding teacher evaluation. I just heard a story from a teacher who said that her principal set up two formal evaluations in ONE week. Not to mention, the administrator then canceled one of the formal evaluations and didn’t show up for the other. Come on… Seriously?
  • Instructional knowledge
    • With the intention of developing the quality of our teachers, it should be presumed that evaluation conversations (held throughout the evaluation process), focus on practices that help positively impact student achievement. That being said, collegially conversing about student learning would ideally help develop a collaborative understanding regarding the practices that best improve student learning and achievement.
  • Informal, anecdotal needs assessment
    • Yes, administrators (especially new administrators at new buildings) should administer a needs assessment at the beginning of the school year to determine the school community’s needs. However, properly conducting the teacher evaluation process helps administrators “keep the pulse” of teacher needs as well.

Overall, as educators, we must always be aware of opportunities for learning and growth.

Human Cognition and Implications for the Constructivist Classroom

In light of Brain Awareness Week (March 13-19), I thought I would write about the brain!

With the development and increased usage of the FMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), I find myself reading more and more findings regarding human cognition and neuroscience. It has also become a major interest of mine. That being said, while analyzing study findings, I find myself in a state of excitement, discovery, and uncertainty. The more I learn about human cognition, the more I question current best practices, educational trends, teaching strategies and approaches, etc.

In the context of direct instructional guidance as it relates to human cognition, learning is defined as a change in long-term memory. Kirschner, Sweller, & Clark (2006) posit:

The aim of all instruction is to alter long-term memory. If nothing has changed in long-term memory, nothing has been learned. Any instructional recommendation that does not or cannot specify what has been changed in long-term memory, or that does not increase the efficiency with which relevant information is stored in or retrieved from long-term memory, is likely to be ineffective. (p. 77)

Based on my readings and knowledge regarding human cognition (which is admittedly limited), I find that these cognitive researchers often sound very definitive when talking about learning. However, for me, questions continually abound regarding their claims or evidence. For instance, can Kirschner et al. safely conclude that absolutely no learning has occurred if nothing has changed in long-term memory? Again, for me, that sounds very definitive.

Kirschner et al. further posit that controlled experiments almost always demonstrate that when students are dealing with novel information, they should be explicitly shown what to do and how to do it (sounds somewhat like lots of hand-holding). If they are not, students may experience an excessive cognitive load that is detrimental to learning.

As an avid and vocal proponent of project-based learning, I always get a little nervous while reading and analyzing cognitive studies that decry constructivism or constructivist teaching approaches. I’m not denying the results of these cognition studies or the plethora of literature reviews concerning human cognition that suggest that direct instructional approaches are more effective and more efficient.

However, with well-designed and well-planned project-based learning, students are provided with a real-world problem and (often) a pathway or guidelines to follow in order to solve the problem (therefore, possibly alleviating the “problem-solving search” that has been shown to deplete working memory). Well-designed PBL is highly structured and organized by skilled teachers. Students are guided through the journey as they endeavor to meet project deadlines, secure resources for their projects, practice and prepare for presentations in front of authentic audiences, and receive and reflect on critical feedback. When done well, and when students are truly engaged in these endeavors, though it may not be considered a “direct instructional approach” or “direct instructional guidance,” PBL can have profound learning impacts on students, right? I’ve seen it happen. Or, is what I’ve seen simply increased levels of engagement and excitement regarding learning activities? Is what I’ve seen simply students engaging in meaningless activities that look good, but will not transfer to long-term memory alterations? Cognitive studies often rock educational foundations. As such, these are turbulent times for me as I grapple with this information.

Human Cognition and the Case for Early Childhood Education.

Also, as we become more informed about human cognition, I can’t help but think about its implications for early childhood education. Based on what I’ve read and what researchers have found, a substantial amount of information stored in long-term memory is essential for continued and future successful learning. If this is the case, I don’t see why early-childhood education is not mandated (I’m sure most people will resort to the argument that there’s not enough funding for it). I live/work in Illinois. Students don’t have to go to school until they’re 6-7 years old (first grade). In underserved communities, it’s highly likely that if students are not attending school during those foundational years, they are not building experiences necessary to form and fill long-term memory. By the time some students come to us at 5 or 6 or 7 year olds, they may have missed a copious amount of opportunities to build their long-term memory.

 

What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear from you! Feel free to follow/share/leave a comment!

Transparency -> TRUST -> Social Capital -> the Community Allowing a Certain Degree of Risk-Taking

I consider myself somewhat of an innovative risk-taker when it comes to education. I love working with/along side fellow educators who challenge the status quo and break free of the traditional mold. As I expand my horizons and continue working with educators from other districts and other states, I occasionally see overwhelming levels of trepidation from educators and school officials when it comes to making changes or “rocking the boat.” In addition, some of the pushback comes from the communities in which these districts are located (which could be the reason for the trepidation on the part of the educators and school officials). In certain districts, I’ve attended informational sessions for parents regarding potential changes being made, where these sessions have turned into full-blown debates. At times, these debates have gotten so heated the educational administration has had to end the meeting in order to “cool down” and reconvene at a later time.

Many people think that because they’ve gone to school or that their kids are in/have gone to school, they’re experts in the field (example: politicians who have no teaching or administrating experience in education crafting and implementing policies). I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the assertion (or similar sounding assertions) “Back in my day…”, “I went to school during the golden age of American education…”, or “This is the way we used to do it.” Unfortunately, there never really was a golden age of American Education. As Ravitch points out, there never was a time in American education when everyone succeeded in school. American students were never very good at taking standardized tests (like the Long-Term Trend NAEP) compared to other nations. I wish more communities and policy makers would understand this or at least be aware of it.

I see the formula in the title as a way of possibly encouraging the community and education officials to allow teachers and administrators a certain degree of risk-taking. As school representatives, we must be transparent concerning our intentions, and our intentions must be aligned with what’s best for students. Transparency helps build trust with the community (schools decide how they want to go about being transparent. Will it be through an active social media presence or through more traditional channels like a newsletter?) When the community is constantly informed/aware of the amazing things going on in school, this helps build trust. A simply Google search of “social capital” reveals, “social capital is the network of social connections that exist between people, and their shared values and norms of behavior, which enable and encourage mutually advantageous social cooperation.” Again, being transparent will help build trust which then helps lead to mutually beneficial social relationships and cooperation between the school and the community. Ideally, this synergy will help parents, community members, and other stakeholders understand that innovation and change aren’t bad. Both are hard and may not always work. However, as times changes, our schools must keep up.

In the end, the formula helps demonstrate the notion that we’re here doing this job to help kids. Trust us. We want what’s best for students. We may not always get it right (especially the first time). But, that doesn’t stop us from wanting what’s best for kids. Innovation failure will not deter me from wanting what’s best for kids.

It’s No Longer A Matter Of “If”, But “When”…

I think about challenging the status quo and innovative strides in education in the context of our current reality regarding technology and automation. I don’t mean to sound like a conspiracy theorist or a doom and gloom preacher. However, being as prescient as possible, many have predicted what awaits students when they leave school in the next decade and beyond, and I can’t stop thinking about it. Some of it is scary. The notion that robots will be taking over may be somewhat farfetched. Yet, the reality is, many of the occupations we know of today will change and some will be completely automated. That being said, major shifts in the education system may be needed to prepare students to work seriously with technology. We continually hear of the push concerning the preparation of students to succeed in the 21st century, but for many, school looks a lot like it did 10, 20, 30, 40, and even 50 years ago. We can’t sit around and deny that it will happen. It’s already happening. It may take longer than some futurists predict. But, it will happen. Innovative strides in education must occur. We must remain current. I’m not advocating for teachers, administrators, or schools to abandon things we know work. However, we may need to broaden our scope when considering the notion of preparing students to survive and thrive in a world that is rapidly changing and shows no signs of slowing down.

Thoughts?  Feel free to comment/share/and follow!

Idealistic vs. Realistic Expectations Regarding Standardized Testing

I read an interesting blog post the other day regarding the controversial practice of using standardized test scores to determine school/teacher effectiveness and success. If you’ve read anything from Diane Ravitch, you’ve probably heard similar notions before. And, of course, whenever PISA results are released, people/schools/countries are clamoring to compare themselves. Also, for my school, PARCC testing begins next week.

I completely agree with Ravitch and other educators who suggest that there are faults within a system that puts too much emphasis on standardized measures and indicators for determining success. It’s impossible to glean all information simply from a school’s standardized test scores.

Idealistically, there’d be no standardized measures used to judge the effectiveness of teachers and schools. These tests don’t accurately demonstrate all that schools and students can do. There is so much more beyond test scores. We’ve all heard the stories about students who were bad test takers, but turn out to be successful later as lifelong learners. The success of these individuals is often attributed to skills/knowledge/abilities/etc. that can’t be measured (or aren’t measured easily). As Eisner said, “Not everything that matters can be measured, and not everything that is measured matters.” I remember reading that line and then discussing it in my doctoral coursework. It was empowering.

However, realistically, that’s not the current state of education in which we all serve. My superintendent requires deliverables. Our locally elected school board wants to see numbers, and good numbers at that (or at least numbers trending in the positive direction). When my superintendent feels the pressure to put up good numbers for the school board, he then requires the school principals to do what they must in order to achieve those numbers. The principals then work with their staff towards achieving and/or maintaining those numbers. Teachers then work with students and their parents to bring this goal to fruition. It’s like a top-down funnel that continually perpetuates the focus on standardized achievement scores.

Like many have said, this systematic change requires brave educators and change agents to step up/rise up against the system. We’ve seen some brave educators do such things, and often lose their employment as a result. We’ve seen parents and students “opt out” of standardized tests. For some parents, there were consequences for such actions. Realistically, we operate in a system that requires compliance regarding standardized achievement scores.

I’m not commenting on whether this is right or wrong. I’m just stating the truth. Yet, I do wonder what would happen if we took a different approach. Much of what I’ve read and researched proposes that the educators or parents/students within the system make the changes. I completely see the validity in that approach. I’m simply wondering if there is some way we can also educate our locally elected school board members (who serve the community) regarding the issues associated with high stakes, standardized measures of success? An approach like this may have been attempted before. If so, I’d like to learn more about it. But, what would this approach look like? Could students serve as the channels through which information regarding standardized achievement tests is shared with school board members? So many questions.

Of course, this type of adjustment on the part of the school board could have potential economic implications. These scores are used as indicators of how well a school is doing. Realtors use this information to determine if certain areas are “good” areas for homeowners. For many realtors, “the schools are good” is a major selling point. You don’t ever really hear them say, “this school is one of the most creative schools around,” or “this school’s approach to project-based learning is terrific!” Realtors aren’t educators, so it may be unrealistic to expect them to know these things. But, as the school board looks out for the best of the community, they want schools that perform well. At this point in time, performing well means obtaining high scores on standardized achievement tests. It’s a vicious cycle. Can it ever be broken or changed?

Welcome!

Welcome!

What is the purpose of education? What approaches to teaching result in the most learning? What types of teacher evaluation systems truly benefit the teacher, and subsequently, the school community? What are the tried and true safety protocols that maximize the safety of the school community? What type of educational programming will ensure the inculcation of 21st century learning skills? Is there a classroom management system that best suits an entire school building or community? With a packed curricular schedule, what’s the best way to ensure social emotional learning is occurring in the classroom/school? These highly debatable questions can’t be tackled with one, clear, definitive answer. To me, that’s one of the reasons why it’s so important to talk about them.

I’m J.R. Entsminger. I serve as an educational administrator in Chicago Heights, Illinois. Before serving as an administrator, I was a junior high reading/Language Arts teacher.

Interests:

  • Current educational trends
  • STEM education
  • Cognitive neuroscience
  • Leadership
  • Writing
  • Reading (Graphic novels are my favorite!)
  • Researching
  • Music/The Arts
  • Remodeling/Updating my home
  • Social Media
  • Fitness
  • Food

I love talking and learning about education. Read my posts, comment if you have suggestions/answers/ideas, and let’s dialogue about how to best serve our most precious assets: children.