This School Year, Prioritize Teacher Clarity to Maximize Student Learning

I heard an awesome quote today… “Clarity is the antidote to anxiety.” I can truly attest to the accuracy of this quote. We all want clarity in our lives. Guess what? Students really want clarity as well, especially in school and in class.

In regards to John Hattie’s influences and effect sizes, you can’t focus on any other influences or effects without first addressing teacher clarity. You can’t have effective teacher feedback with students without first addressing teacher clarity. You won’t have solid RtI practices for students without first addressing teacher clarity. Teaching practices such as direct instruction and reciprocal teaching will not be successful for students without first addressing teacher clarity.

Feedback has an effect size of .7. RtI has an effect size of 1.29. Reciprocal teaching has an effect size of .74. Direct instruction has an effect size of .60. Those are all solid effect sizes. However, remember… you must first prioritize teacher clarity (effect size of .8) in order to reap the benefits of any of those teacher practices. Clarity is paramount.

One way to focus on enhancing teacher clarity is through the clear and consistent utilization of Learning Intentions and Success Criteria. Learning Intentions are general statements about what we intend our students to learn. Success Criteria let us know if the desired learning (learning intentions) have been successfully or unsuccessfully achieved. Success Criteria help students understand what their work should include.

Sounds easy enough. And, many think, “I’m already doing this with my ‘learning objectives’/’learning targets’ and ‘I Can’ statements.” I don’t deny this. However, it’s the refinement that’s important. It’s the consistency that’s important. It’s more than simply posting these targets, objectives, or intentions.

In my own practice as an administrator, I’m also going to work to provide clarity from my standpoint as well. This will certainly help teachers, students, parents, and community members.

How do you work to improve and increase teacher clarity?

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The Culmination of Another School Year

Woah! My district has 7 official school days left. But, the end of the school year has been a whirlwind! There are so many events both inside of school and after school! I don’t know if I’m coming or going!

Though the end of the year breeds chaos (organized chaos, mostly!), I always wonder the following at this crazy time:

  • It’s essential that we as teachers and teacher leaders continue learning and developing our craft. For many, summer is the best time for that continued professional development.
    • How do you encourage your staff/team to engage in professional learning during the summer?
  • What are some ways you celebrate the culmination of another school year (both with staff and students)?
    • I’m not saying learning should stop. But, I am saying that it’s essential to look back on the year, dialogue about goals met/not met, celebrate successes, analyze failures or obstacles, and plan for the future.
  • Some teachers take summer very seriously (for good reason). I’ve heard about some in the field of education who don’t check the work email for an entire three months!
    • How do you tactfully connect with your team over the summer (so as to not invade privacy or disturb their time with family)?
  • As leaders, it’s also important for us to take a step back and relax over the summer. I’m not very good at maintaining that work/life balance.
    • How do you disconnect and recharge over the summer?

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Technology Restriction and Confiscation: There Are Better Strategies for Teaching About Being Safe in a Connected World

Last year, I attended a Protecting God’s Children workshop at a Catholic parish up north. These workshops are required if you plan to work with children in any capacity through the church or in parish schools. A group of approximately 20 people were in attendance that evening. The age range in this group was quite large. We had some teenagers, middle-aged people, and some elderly folks.

Obviously, we talked about the importance of maintaining appropriate relationships with all children. We watched videos and read articles about the safety of children within our care. We discussed various scenarios and were quizzed on making appropriate choices while interacting with children. Pretty standard stuff for anyone interested in getting into education or working with children (public or private).

Interestingly, when we started talking about inappropriate online relationships and social media, an intriguing conversation commenced over appropriate technology usage. A woman in the group started saying that her own children wouldn’t experience these types of problems because she restricts their usage by confiscating their technology before they go to bed at night. In addition, she had their passwords to all their devices and their accounts (which she checked regularly). What is more, as a punishment, she would also take away their phones if they ever misbehaved. One or two other parents chimed in and stated they followed a similar protocol in their homes.

I tried to remain cool, calm, and collected. I tried to refrain from entering the conversation. I tried focusing on other things (like the new Star Wars movie that would soon be in theaters). But, if you know me, you know I have a really hard time with this. Thus, I engaged.

I started with an easy question. “Excuse me… do your children have any social media accounts?” Of course, they responded, “Absolutely not!” (that they know of, LOL). I figured this would be their response. I then decided to ask some leading questions that would surely help. “Do you have video game systems or a SMART TV in your home?” They all said yes. I stated that, if so inclined, one could use either a video game system or a SMART TV to surf the web. They responded that the TV was password protected and that, like phones and tablets, video games were confiscated at a certain time. “What if your child has a project to do that requires him/her to use technology past the technology curfew?” They responded that they would supervise their children as they completed online work. I saw where this was going. But, I thought I would try one more inquiry. “What about when your child goes on a sleep over to a friend’s house?” They stated that they knew the parents of every single friend their kids had, and that they trusted those parents.

I thought with my leading questions, these parents would soon see that they would not only become exhausted in their efforts to monitor their child’s online usage/presence, it would be almost impossible to fully monitor ABSOLUTELY everything. I thought they would see that if a child really wanted to, he/she would find a way online (where there’s a will, there’s a way). I was wrong. They continued to wholeheartedly believe that technology restriction and confiscation would keep their children safe from the dangers of the online world.

I’m not saying don’t set boundaries with children when it comes to technology. However, I’m proposing that rather than trying to hide children from the realities of the online world, we focus on teaching our children how to safely and successfully navigate those precarious situations. Just a few tips:

  • Keep yourself and your children informed about the internet and its rapid changes.
  • Teach kids about the different types of online dangers that exist and what to do if they come across any of them.
  • Teach kids how to keep personal information safe and private.
  • Teach kids about passwords.
  • Encourage your child to come to you if he/she encounters a problem.

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The Journal of Small Wins

Woah… What a whirlwind of a week. It’s been pretty crazy. The first week after summer break is always considerably hectic for educators. Besides the general misperception that we’re simply getting our schools in order for the first day, we’re actually doing so much more.  We’re cleaning, planning, organizing, coordinating, moving, meeting, preparing, analyzing, managing, and a plethora of other verbs you can think of. Often times, we engage in these actions all in one day!

That being said, I’ve found it beneficial to physically document successes throughout the day. I call this my “Journal of Small Wins.” It helps remind me that I am having an impact. In fact, research suggests that this practice helps us stay motivated and productive. Of course, there are other things I’d like to be doing/accomplishing. For instance, I’d like to focus more on student and teacher learning. However, at this point, I feel inundated with managerial tasks and putting out fires. Yet, this journal really helps me visualize and recall my whirlwind days so that I can truly reflect on my impact (and areas of my leadership in need of improvement).

As an educator, how do you reflect on your professional practice in light of all of your other responsibilities? Do you have any techniques/strategies that help you analyze your impact?

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Dear Representative Jeanne Ives: We Need to Talk

I apologize for the delay in blog posts. It’s been a while since I’ve written. I’ve been busy this summer! However, I could not ignore an opportunity to write a post focused on Jeanne Ives and her deleterious comments regarding teachers, unions, and the teacher pension system in Illinois.

Her comments have circulated social media for few weeks now (Facebook Link; Youtube Link). I find the following quote most troubling: “I’ll get out my checkbook and I’ll send a property tax bill to my county to pay for bloated administrative salaries in public schools… in public schools where on average, in the state of Illinois, less than half of the students are ready for college… Just over 1/3 are even reading or doing math at grade level… Maybe I should send them more money…”

Undoubtedly, she’s passionate. You can hear it in her voice. I appreciate that. Yet, imagine if she were more passionate about clarity. Before I begin to poke holes in the validity of her claim, I’ll first share the following troubling statistic/fact (allowing me to situate my response): Schools with less than 10% of students from low socioeconomic status backgrounds score as well as or better than the highest achieving nations (Finland, Shanghai, etc.) in the world. In fact, if one were to analyze a data set showing level of achievement and percentage of students from low socioeconomic status backgrounds, one would see an inverse correlation between the two. Therefore, as the percentage of students from low socioeconomic status backgrounds increases, the level of achievement decreases. In no way am I saying that poor students cannot achieve. Quite the opposite, in fact, considering I dedicate my life to showing that they can. I’m simply sharing this information to highlight the importance of not conflating separate issues in education. Are there overpaid administrators in education? Possibly. Yet, it’s important to understand that one issue does not exist as a result of the other. Put plainly, student academic underachievement is not a result of (possible) bloated administrative salaries. When considering student academic achievement (or lack thereof), there are far too many concurrent variables at play (poverty, student/family mobility, etc.) to make a claim that one of those variables is significantly more profound than all the others. One may see her conflation (as I do) as a complete misinterpretation of issues facing educators today. Thus, it would behoove her (and the many politicians like her) to leave education to those who have the knowledge and ability to bring about the necessary changes.

Recently, Jeanne also blasted a teacher on twitter, claiming that “support of unions = chaos in schools.” As you can see in the picture accompanying this post, I responded with a comment to get her thinking and to encourage her to explain to me how unions contribute to chaos in schools, considering that chaos is prevalent in a considerable amount of non-unionized, failing charter schools (I’m still waiting for her to get back to me…). In addition, I always think it’s wise to consider how successful districts or world nations deal with prevalent education issues. For example, Finland works closely with its teacher union in order to best serve its students. Granted, as an administrator, I’ve had many difficult conversations with teachers’ unions and union representatives. However, like Finland, I believe that in order to raise achievement for all students, it’s considerably more propitious to work with unions as opposed to lumping them all together into one picture/broad stroke and developing evil machinations to bring about union demise. Jeanne’s comments really brought me back. Teacher/union blasting was so 2014. I think Diane Ravtich should send her signed copies of her most recent work.

She also made comments about the “state’s pension problem.” This will be short and sweet. If I’m not mistaken, politicians have voted to borrow against teacher pensions for decades. These politicians have never paid back the loan. I’m no financial expert. However, it’s rare in life to get a loan and never have to pay it back (sarcasm). The pension system was never designed to serve as an interest free loan for politicians to use as they see fit.

Of course, it’s truly unfortunate when people who have widespread access to such a large array of people don’t think before they spread misinformation. At the same time, her comments truly demonstrate her lack of understanding. Not that politicians need to be experts in all fields. However, a working knowledge regarding some of the basics would certainly help.

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Education/Teaching: This Profession Isn’t Just a Paycheck, It’s a Purpose.

I had a rather nontraditional start to my career as an educator.  I graduated from Illinois State University with a degree in Mass Communication with an emphasis in Broadcasting.  After graduation, I got a job in a public relations/marketing/advertising agency downtown.  I was so excited to start my post-college life.  I saw myself living downtown and making a living in the business world.  I felt confident that I had a job and that I would soon be making enough money to leave the nest and start my own life.

However, it now occurs to me, I never really thought about my purpose.  I do have to give myself a little credit.  I was only 22.  Finding a purpose in life takes some people their entire lives.  At the age of 22, purpose wasn’t something I was thinking about.  In fact, I hadn’t really thought about my purpose at any point in my life.

Anyways, I started my job interning as an account manager for this PR agency.  The hustle and bustle of the commute and the first day felt exciting.  I was “adulting” and it was kind of cool!  Fast forward about three weeks…  After some time making the commute in the rat race and working in the agency, I began losing interest.  It didn’t feel fun anymore.  I started dreading going to work.  There was nothing invigorating about sitting at a desk, staring at a computer screen, writing emails, and making cold calls all day (of course, not all PR agencies are like this.  However, this was my experience).

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was missing something extremely important.  I was not fulfilling my purpose.  I had no conviction.  I had no passion.  I felt like an easily replaceable cog, just spinning and spinning as the days went by.  I had daydream nightmares of myself getting old still doing the same thing, day in and day out, staring at a computer screen, writing emails, and making cold calls.

The day came for my internship to end, and I was not offered a full-time position in the agency.  This may sound strange, but I felt a small (very small) sense of failure because I was not hired on full-time, but I also felt an extreme sense of relief.  After that internship, I was fairly certain that I wanted nothing to do with the business world, or at least a company that made me feel irrelevant and easily replaceable.  Some may say I didn’t give the business world enough time and should have stuck it out because not all businesses or agencies are like the one in which I worked.  I know that.  Yet, I’m extremely thankful I didn’t stick around.

My mom was a principal around the time that my internship ended.  She told me that I should look into substitute teaching to make some money while I was job searching.  I did.  AND I LOVED IT!  Who loves substitute teaching?  Subbing is notoriously difficult.  Students don’t always treat subs well.  The pay isn’t that good.  I had no insurance/benefits.  I didn’t know much about education at the time so I occasionally felt unprepared.  But, I began to notice something.  I noticed something about myself as I began interacting with students and the school/district community.  I was happy.  I felt a connection with education and with all my students and their families.  I began to feel a sense of purpose.  Because of the connections I was making with students and the school community, I felt like I was making an impact.  My students, (which weren’t really mine at the time because I was only subbing, but still), really helped cultivate this purpose in me.  I began to feel a strong sense of conviction.  I needed to become a teacher in order to help positively change the lives of my students!  So, that’s what I did.

I’m writing this post because I’m currently interviewing candidates for multiple teaching positions in my building for the 2017-2018 school year.  There are hundreds of books on interviewing.  These books delineate types of questions to ask potential candidates.  They highlight nonverbal cues to look for while interviewing candidates.  However, none of the books touch on purpose, or at least they don’t go into depth about it.  One of the things I’m looking for in candidates (among the plethora of other criteria I look for in good teaching candidates) is PURPOSE.  I wish I could define this better (so then I could write that book, lol).  Sometimes, I even wish that purpose was more quantifiable.  I’ve hired teachers in the past who were/are very passionate, and I think this is an aspect of purpose.  Yet, I don’t think it’s the same thing.  It’s hard to describe.  But, as a leader making hiring decisions, sometimes, you just know when someone has/knows his or her purpose.  It comes through in all of their answers and their questions.  It comes through as they describe their day-to-day responsibilities interacting with children.  It becomes apparent when candidates talk about the time they spend with their school communities.  At the end of the day, I’m looking to hire teaching candidates who view this job as their purpose, not just a paycheck.

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School’s Out For Summer! That Doesn’t Mean Learning Should Stop. Help Prevent the “Summer Slide.”

“Summer slide” is the name given to the regression in learning that many students experience over the summer. The achievement damage resulting from a lack of academic activity that occurs during the summer months may go by other names, such as “summer loss,” “summer learning loss,” or “summer learning regression.” The name you give it doesn’t matter. Acknowledging that it exists and then actively doing something about it is what matters.

Every summer, we have students (and often, families of students) regressing because they are not actively involved in some type of worthwhile academic activity over the summer. What is more disheartening, summer slide has been shown to more negatively impact disadvantaged communities. In fact, some researchers decry summer slide as a contributing factor to the widening achievement gap between the rich and the poor.

The education of our students occurs around an agrarian calendar. Almost always has. Knowing that change in education (and changing the education system itself) is very hard, year round schooling is probably not a valid option at this point in time. However, we need not despair! According to many researchers, reading is essential for curtailing summer slide. Some research has shown that reading just six books (“just right books”) may help prevent regression. Other researchers suggest that providing students with opportunities to read something everyday (morning = newspaper; daytime = schedules, magazines, online articles, etc.; night = book, graphic novel) will do the trick. In addition, researchers have found that reading aloud over the summer is extremely important.

Whatever certain researchers may say/suggest, it seems clear that reading over the summer is important and may help prevent summer slide. This sounds like a forgone conclusion. However, as usual, this also sounds easier said than done. As just one example of a barrier that parents lament in response to their role in preventing summer slide, I know parents work over the summer (or have other obligations) and may not be able to partake in a family read aloud or help ensure that their child is reading everyday. However, if preventing summer slide is a priority (which I believe it should be), parents will find a way to help their children prevent learning regression over the summer. I heard a quote today from a fellow administrator/colleague that I really liked. She said (not verbatim), “Show me your calendar or your checkbook (account statement for those of us in the digital age) and I’ll be able to tell you what your priorities are with a fairly significant degree of accuracy.” Point being, if you make it a priority, it will happen.

There are so many community resources out there to help parents in this endeavor. Community libraries are always a huge resource over the summer. Many libraries have camps/programs that are dedicated to preventing summer slide. I’ve also read about “neighborhood read alouds,” where parents team up to help ensure reading is occurring in the community over the summer. I just saw an article about a program that invited kids to the local animal rescue so they could read to the animals (reading aloud). Parents, over the summer it’s up to you. Make it happen!

Have a safe and restful summer break full of reading (or other academic pursuits)!

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What Do We Have Control Over As Educators?

This post is a partial continuation of my most recent post, Considering School Improvement in Underserved/Disadvantaged Areas.

I’ve had the conversation regarding school improvement (especially as it relates to underserved/disadvantaged districts) with so many educators. In fact, after my most recent post, I’ve had multiple educators in my district approach me and thank me for sharing the post and express interest in learning more. Again, I posit that there are aspects of education we can control (or have a better chance of controlling), and think it’s essential that we A) take a look at ourselves and determine if we are honestly doing the “right work” by focusing on the things we CAN control while B) simultaneously acknowledging the copious amount of outside-of-school factors that impact student learning, but not letting those factors define our solutions or plague our thinking/efforts.

This list includes a plethora of aspects in education over which we have NO/VERY MINIMAL CONTROL (not an exhaustive list):

  • Poverty and its various effects
  • Dysfunctional family home lives
  • Lack of parental involvement
  • School segregation/school district redlining/other discriminatory policies
  • Blighted/unsafe school communities and neighborhoods
  • Paucity of school funding
  • For some districts, decrepit schools and facilities
  • Formal schooling is not mandated in Illinois until first grade (6-7 years old)

These are some of the aspects in education I think we CAN CONTROL (or have the most control over) in order to help improve schools in underserved/disadvantaged areas. What am I missing? (feel free to comment!):

  • Teacher quality
  • Administrator quality
  • The support we provide our teachers and administrators
  • The type/quality of the professional development offered
  • Safe/comfortable environment for teachers/administrators to act autonomously/take risks/innovate
  • Level of collaboration between teachers and administrators
  • Building relationships/rapport/respect with the entire school community
  • Instructional practices
  • The hiring process
  • Interventions/servicing students who are experiencing difficulty
  • Curriculum
  • Student engagement
  • Culture building/developing/rebuilding
  • School branding
  • Exercising fiscal responsibility with the funds schools do receive
  • Prioritization of duties/responsibilities

Again, please Comment/Like/Share!  I’d love to know your thoughts!

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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