We've all been there. It's an infamous juggle between what is right and what should be, or better yet what we know we should do for our students and what is supposed to match the status quo. It often takes years to see the results we hope to produce in the midst of measures that we struggle to assess. What we do as educators makes an impact; the principles we stand for in our school and classrooms matter to the students we lead daily.
It was a warm summer afternoon when the phone rang and the job was offered: assistant principal of Happy Valley Middle School. My mind had wandered for days after the interview, with thoughts rang-ing from skepticism to optimism. I entered the Ed.S. Program to get this job after all, but when and where the work would pay off was still up in the air. In a three-minute phone call I had received the news that the responsibility was mine and my role as an educator had changed.
Excitement and anxiety combined for a tumultuous feeling of the unknown. I was ready to make the move and couldn't feel more confident and prepared even though I had never stepped foot in the building. I was ready, and no one could convince me otherwise.
It didn't take long to figure out how much work there was to do. I buried myself in my new responsibilities and how I was going to make them my own. I filtered through every piece of the workload and wanted to make everything better than it had ever been before. I quickly made the job about me, and I wanted to send the message that I was serious and ready to make a difference. I knew everyone's first name, last name, role, room number, and their favorite gum flavor during the first staff meeting. Preparation was my mojo, and I was sure that if I had it all together I couldn't go wrong.
Just when things seemed to be falling into place, it all changed again.
In the same summer on a different afternoon another phone call came from the same familiar voice. There was no doubt this one had a different feeling about it. "We would like to offer you the job as principal of Happy Valley Middle School."
In a perfect world, I would have had three to five years of experience and an office with my family pic-tures gracing the walls. In reality, I was still in search of a desk and had just finished the first coat of fresh paint on my cinderblock surroundings. My role and responsibilities were changing again, and the first day of school was only a few days away. To be exact, it was Friday and school started on Monday.
I stood in the cafeteria at 5:30 on Monday morning while searching for the light switch and fumbling through a mob of keys to get into the main office. My wife had collected my best tie and jacket the night before so I could at least look the part. In less than two hours there would be 450 middle school students and 30 professional faculty members arriving at the building expecting to see someone else leading the school other than me.
Sitting at my second desk and second office for the summer gave me an unsettled feeling of the un-known, but the clock was ticking and sooner than later school would happen.
I'll never forget that day. I suddenly realized that even though I needed to be important, I didn't have to be. Even if I wanted to be, I couldn't. The longstanding principles of the teachers that were already there trumped the new principal, and without them it would have been a disaster. The blessings of a tremendous staff carried our school through a time when it arguably should have stumbled.
So here we are four years later, absorbing changes and improving old practices like everyone else. Our data rolls in and we make adjustments for each year based on what the data tells us. Student learning is our top priority, but there are plenty of roadblocks and juggling that goes along with it.
If I could have painted a picture of what my journey would have been it would be the farthest from my reality. The bottom line is that people matter, and the right team is a powerful thing. I was lucky to inherit a group of teachers that are in it for what matters most: student impact. Data will lead us, students will be our priority, and we will work for each other rather than against.
If you are a teacher reading this, realize your importance and how much of an impact you make not only on students in your classroom but on everyone around you. Principals are important people, but the business of learning happens under the watchful eye of teachers just like you. Just like at Happy Valley Middle School, our principles will for sure stand the test of time, even if the principal doesn't.
Jonathan Minton is principal of Happy Valley Middle School, Elizabethton, Tennessee.
Published May 2017.
Implementing Disney principles in middle schools.
From theme parks to movies, the Walt Disney Company is world-renowned for the high caliber of its customer experience. And, while many perceive how well they do what they do to be Disney "magic," it's not magic at all! Rather it is the result of two things: (1) Intentional, focused leadership, and (2) Systems architected to produce consistently positive experiences that take root in both your mind and heart. Having studied how Disney "does Disney," I'd like to highlight two distinct, yet related, insights relevant to architecting high-quality middle level education: The Importance of Values and Vision and The Art of Storytelling.
Values and Vision
At its core, Disney is more than a theme park, company, or brand. Rather, Disney is a promise. It promises the highest levels of entertainment, quality experience, and attention to detail. While many companies promise similar marks of excellence, the reason that Disney is so successful is that it fulfills this promise on a regular basis, day-in and day-out.
How does Disney consistently deliver such high level experiences? It does so by having a clearly defined set of values and visions that both guide and focus its decision-making.
Disney defines values as the central and unchanging reason for being; they are the North Star that allows one to chart every decision. Having values centers decision-making and allows for taking appropriately aligned risks. Because values are timeless, they must be vigorously protected from both external threat and insidious internal decay.
For example, in our school, we decided that "Our Core Values" (the reason our school exists) are to provide a safe, happy, and healthy learning environment. When we investigate a new idea, program, speaker, or assembly, we ask: "Does it make us a safer, happier, and healthier learning environment?" Using your values as a guide to explore innovation helps streamline operations and remain focused during the decision-making process.
Vision is how you operationalize your values in today's political, social, and financial realities. Vision requires forethought and conversation as well as planning and preparation to ensure that today's activities are aligned to and fully support your timeless values.
At the start of each academic year, we have the chance to reconvene, collaborate, and envision ways we might better align our practices with our values. During this process each spring, I meet with the building leadership team to discuss ways we might become a safer, happier, and healthier learning environment during the upcoming year.
For example, we have witnessed significant changes and challenges concerning the issue of safety over the past years. From cyberbullying to intruder threats, the timeless value of safety means something drastically new in today's reality. We discussed ways to keep students safe, and we considered a range of topics that included building access procedures and the curriculum. We needed to make changes to our vision of what it means to be safe in today's world to better align with our core value of safety.
The Art of Storytelling
From our youngest days, listening to stories is how we learned about the world, others, and ourselves. From fairy tales to nursery rhymes, stories are among our first teachers because good stories are great teachers. The reverse is true as well: great teachers are good storytellers because they have the ability to tell a story that captures a student's attention, heart, and imagination. Good stories told by great storytellers encourage you to wonder, consider multiple perspectives, and ask questions.
For Disney—and for us—great storytelling provides a valuable entity: engagement. If you can "hook" students, families, and a community with the story of your school, class, or lesson, they are captured by it and, in turn, want to become a part of telling and living that story.
The Walt Disney Company is in the business of storytelling, but how does it consistently tell great stories that become classics and engage millions of people? It accomplishes this by paying attention.
Disney has realized that every decision and every detail, no matter how small, tells a part of the story. They pay attention to every detail of every decision they make. They realize that people are continually watching, listening, and looking for cues about what is important, what is acceptable, and what is valued.
Think of the attention to detail, to cleanliness, and to customer service that is found in a Disney park. For the guests of Disney, cleanliness and customer service tell a story: you are valuable and important, and we are glad you are here!
What story are you telling? If a stranger were to walk into your classroom and look around, what would they learn about you and the students? How is the room arranged? What kinds of furniture are in the room? What is displayed on the walls? How is the seating arranged? Where do you situate yourself while teaching? By noticing these things, the stranger would likely be able to tell a lot about how you view yourself and your students. This is because each of these decisions tells a story.
If good education is good storytelling, then it is important that we look at the story we tell each and every day. Does the story you are telling align with your values and vision?
Disney has learned that telling a powerful story is the key to building engagement. By using clearly defined values and a relevant vision as the engine to drive your story, your words and actions remain aligned to your goals.
By focusing on the two core ideals of values and vision, your school can become a truly magical place as well!
Mark Mambretti is the principal at East Aurora Middle School in East Aurora, New York.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, April 2017.
As a central office administrator, I valued time in schools talking informally with students. One year I went to a school every Tuesday to assist with student supervision while teachers met in professional groups. This was a wonderful time for me because I could sit with students and have informal conversations. Several groups of students got to know me well as I would consistently go over and speak to their groups.
During one particular morning I asked my typical questions such as, "How does it feel to be in your second year at the middle school?" and "What would make your eighth grade better?" or "Do you feel like you have enough supports to achieve?" One student stepped forward and boldly said, "Dr. W, if you really want to know what it's like to be a student you would have to be in my shoes for a day. Until then you really won't understand."
I left that conversation that day but the student's challenge stuck with me. As I began to reflect on the suggestion posed to me, I began to think that getting to know the experience of my students by being in their "shoes for a day" would be an interesting learning experience. What could I learn about the students' perspectives by experiencing school from their vantage points? Would I be able to decipher student voice about ways to improve schools by understanding school from their view? As my mind continued to wonder, I decided to act on the student's suggestion by shadowing a student for an entire school day.
As I began to share my idea with colleagues and mentors, I realized that our schools are experienced differently by our diverse student population. That expanded my idea to shadowing multiple students with diverse backgrounds for a day. Over the course of five weeks I scheduled one full day per week dedicated to shadowing a student for an entire day.
I wanted to follow students with these profiles: an average performing student, a gifted or high ability student, an English as a new language student, a student who struggles with appropriate behavior, and a student enrolled in the career center program. I asked the building principal to select students who fit these profiles and obtained parent permission to shadow the student. I wanted to experience the entire day with the student, including riding the bus, if that was the student's mode of transportation.
Once parent permission was obtained, I sent a letter to each teacher on the student's schedule. I wanted to inform them that I would be in their classrooms on the designated date and that I was assuming the role of a student. Teachers were given guidance to treat me like a student and that I was to fully participate in the class.
In addition, I would not intervene or provide instructional supports to students as I typically would during classroom visits. Teachers shared that they were excited about my experiment and they found it fascinating that I was so interested in students that I would actually take time out of my busy schedule to do this.
In my efforts to fit in as a student, I wore jeans and a school spirit t-shirt during my shadow days. I also wore a name tag that stated I was a student for the day and—for the first time in decades—I carried a backpack. I followed all student rules, which included turning off my cell phone and leaving it in my backpack. Observing this rule was a tough challenge!
The Hard Way Lessons: High Behavior Referral Student
One student I shadowed had many office referrals for inappropriate behavior on the bus. When I first met Jay (a pseudonym), his body language communicated that he was not thrilled about me shadowing him. After several uncomfortable minutes of me trying to connect, he turned to me and said, "Are you just going to report all this to my counselor?" I was stunned by his question, yet responded by saying that I did not even know his counselor and that I wanted to learn from him and his daily school experiences.
During his first period class, he soon began to act in opposition of teacher expectations. The teacher became frustrated, and we were sent to the office after Jay uttered an inappropriate verbal response. In the hallway, I asked him, "What do we do now?" He began to make faces at students in other classrooms as we walked toward the office.
It took us nearly 20 minutes to get to the office after playing in the hallway. No administrator was available when we arrived so I took the opportunity to try to engage him in conversation. Jay did not share much information, yet did make several remarks about how adults just don't care about him.
As the day progressed, I continued to ask him questions but changed my approach. Instead of asking him "why" questions I used "what" questions. These types of questions encouraged him to talk more. By lunch time he was helping me navigate through the lunch line and advised me where to sit.
His friends teased him by saying, "I bet you are on perfect behavior today with her." He replied, "Her has a name and it is Dr. W and she ain't here to make sure I'm good. She actually wants to see what school is like here from a student and I was the one chosen to show her." I sat down and quietly smiled inside as this was the first sign that he didn't despise this process.
We continued throughout the day and he began to make comments to me such as "I'm expected to be bad." He also began to ask me questions about what I do as an administrator and where I went to middle school.
Toward the end of the day, he leaned over to me in class and said, "Dr. W, can I tell you a secret?" My administrator hat immediately went on and I shared the standard line with him that I would have to share if he told me that he is going to hurt himself or someone else. He said, "No, Dr. W, ain't nothin like that. Nobody has ever asked me what I want to do, but I want to be a paleontologist." The teacher reprimanded his behavior because he was talking in class. We didn't get another chance to talk until the period was over and we were in the hallway.
When I asked him about his goal, he shared the job descriptions of paleontologists as well as the school requirements needed. I was amazed by his knowledge of the profession. We did make a connection that day because he was joking with me by the time we got to the bus to head home.
I followed up with Jay because he captured my heart and left me intrigued. We talked about his career goal and if his current path was going to get him there. After conversations and involving his guardian, we set up a plan for the entire grading period.
He set goals to improve his grades and reduce the number of times he was referred to the office for inappropriate behavior. We also talked about a reward for when he achieved his goals. He thought for several minutes, turned to look me in the eyes, and said, "If I meet these goals I want to meet a paleontologist. Make that happen Dr. W."
I had no idea how I was going to find a paleontologist in the city, but I knew I had to find one because the look in his eyes told me he was going to meet his goals. Jay worked hard during the grading period and met his goals, and I found a resident paleontologist. During fall break, Jay and I visited the paleontologist. It was a day he will always remember. At the end of the day, the paleontologist said to me, "I am not sure what the story is with this kid, but he is very bright."
This experience prompted me to shadow many students to continue my development as a leader and learner. The following are excerpt summaries of my learning from each experience.
Middle of the Road: Average Academic Student
- Average can mean you disappear academically, you are not the highest performing student and not the lowest needing extra support.
- Being an average student doesn't mean your social situation at school is also average.
- High performers get accolades and low performers get remediation supports.
- Average performing students still need to be pushed academically to stretch themselves.
High Flyer Lessons: High Academic Ability Student
- Expectation pressures to "be the best" can have harmful effects.
- High academic ability students may not have opportunities to express or enact ideas.
- While high academic ability students excel in some areas, there are also areas in which they need to develop.
- It is important to recognize students' dispositions and character, not just their academic abilities.
Alternative Pathway Lessons: Career Center Student
- They have found an interest and a passion in their career choice.
- Lessons incorporating hands-on learning in the career center need to be included in all classes because they encourage high levels of student engagement.
- Earning a certificate of completion and college credit serves as a source of motivation for successful course completion.
- Provide students with college information connected to their career paths.
Cultural Exchange Lessons: Level 1 ENL Student
- Shadowing a refugee student from Burma, who spoke little to no English, was a memorable experience. Indeed, I learned much from her during our time together.
- Social time with other students who speak their native language is very important.
- Place students who do not speak English in groups with peers who do speak English.
- Find ways to showcase and represent all of the students' cultures in the school buildings and classrooms.
- Food, similar to language, is a cultural difference.
- English language learners may not always understand what is being said, yet they are able to translate dispositions and attitudes of peers and staff members.
Nikki Woodson, Ph.D., is superintendent of schools for the Metropolitan School District of Washington Township in Indianapolis, Indiana. She is a member of the AMLE Leadership Institute faculty, serves on the board of governors for International Baccalaureate, and is a co-founder of Change Makers International.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, April 2017.
Many people have a misconception that administrators are the only definitive leaders in a school, and while they do hold degrees in leadership, they do not hold sole possession of the trait itself. Rather, in effective middle level schools, everyone is a leader. This is also true for successful restaurants. While there is either a licensed chef or head cook in the kitchen, an effective restaurant has sustained growth when the sous chefs, line cooks, dishwashers, servers, hostesses, and patrons are part of the process of advancement and change.
Similarly, when properly supported and encouraged, every teacher, student, parent or guardian, and stakeholder has the capacity to sharpen their leadership skills and acumen in order to contribute to the creation of a great school.
Relying on the perspectives of a few may make it easier and quicker to create solutions and take action, yet more thoughtful decisions and actions are likely to result when we involve all members of the school community.
How does your middle level school define leadership? How does it identify and support future leaders? How does it ensure that leaders are a reflection of the school's learning community?
In the critical middle grades, effective leadership is a dynamic endeavor built and experienced by a collaborative of people. That is why—according to This We Believe—an amazing middle level school is propelled by "a shared vision developed by all stakeholders [that] guides every decision" (p. 27).
For this particular characteristic, the culinary connection is grounded in food science. Laughlin and Miodownik (2012), scientists at University College London, found that food tastes different depending on the kind of utensil one uses. They revealed that eating with spoons made of different metals (e.g., silver, tin, copper, zinc) affects how people experience and taste food.
They contend this happens because every metal has an "electrode potential" that reacts uniquely in the mouth. This discovery amounts to some pretty tasty research, but how does it relate to our work in the critical middle level?
As a middle school teacher and administrator, I have worked in schools that had vision statements mounted on plaques in the main office and laminated on posters in the hallways. However, these documents were typically crafted by selected leaders for the school to give direction to students and stakeholders instead of being developed "by all."
There is a tremendous difference between a vision statement written for all and a vision statement developed by all. Just as Laughlin and Miodownik's finding that a utensil's metal affects the taste of food, a school's vision that is developed by all takes into consideration the ideas and educational palates of every stakeholder. Otherwise, we run the risk of merely posting laminated signs containing the ideals created by a few, which may leave an empty or bad taste in the mouths of many stakeholders. Therefore, it is essential to ensure that everyone has a seat at the table and a voice in the process of vision development.
Here are some questions to consider when developing, revising, or revisiting your school vision statement:
- Why are you revisiting your school's vision statement? What are the goals?
- How and when are you involving all stakeholders in the vision process?
- How will the vision process you use give equal access, voice, and weight to all stakeholders?
- How will the revised vision statement be celebrated in the entire learning community?
- Are there other school programs and initiatives that need their own vision statements?
Dru Tomlin, Ph.D., is director of middle level services for AMLE.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, April 2017.
A great schedule helps both students and teachers grow and learn
Having worked as a middle school administrator and math teacher in school operations in several states and multiple schools for many years, I have seen my share of middle school schedules. As a presenter and workshop attendee, I love to ask dedicated middle school educators about what creative measures they take with their schedules to help students learn and demonstrate learning at higher levels as well as help teachers continue to grow.
The middle school schedule is a true opportunity. With some flexibility and vision building we can do many things without sacrificing core team time:
- Create time for every middle schooler to meet with every teacher and engage in problem-based or project-based learning
- Build opportunities for accelerated or passion-based learning
- Build time for students to meet
- Flex opportunities to receive academic support
- Ensure that these hard years are countered with strategic and impactful support from teachers
My professional learning and work experience has been around the middle school concept as opposed to the junior high school model. One of the major differences on the teacher side, which has the biggest impact on students, is building up and supporting core teams. Protecting time for a core group of teachers who teach a certain number of students to talk about student interventions, curriculum planning, and community building goes a long way to help students through growth experiences that are at times difficult, challenging, new, and exciting.
Supporting core teams is where the difference is made. Nothing is more important than wrapping support around a student.
However, I don't want my predilection towards middle schools to drive this talk. There are some incredibly creative things that can be done with the junior high schedule, especially with exploratory classes. For this share, I do want to highlight some of my specific experiences with the middle school schedule that have helped promote and accelerate our dives into innovative and change practices:
Enhanced Professional Development
After a vision for change has been set and communicated to stakeholders, it's imperative to build up capacity in teachers and staff who have to implement. At West Rowan Middle, we set aside every Tuesday for professional development. It is either whole group, which focuses on large school-wide or district initiatives, or teachers choose from a menu of options they submit. This personalized approach allows teachers to fill specific gaps they may have or want to improve on. We make every effort to implement professional development for areas we know are upcoming and critical. Our teachers expect this every Tuesday.
Creating and protecting time for teams and grade level departments to create, implement, and refine instructional plans is essential. If we want teachers to produce the best, we have to inspire and empower them to do so. That involves creating and protecting time for core teams to talk about their student, plan PBLs or interdisciplinary units, and build community with students. Establishing meeting norms helps make these meetings productive. Our teachers know that on certain days nothing happens but curriculum planning. Administration doesn't push for meetings and we do our very best to protect that time from outside needs. If we want to see extraordinary instruction, we have to dedicate and protect time for teachers to be extraordinary.
Digital Tools for Scheduling
A good friend of mine created "edcamp every day" for his middle school. Glenn Robbins (@Glennr1809) created a bold vision that would empower students to dive into some personal passions for a time set aside every day. To help organize this he used Google Classroom for sign ups and organization. At West Rowan Middle, we have created a 40-minute flex period that we use for various reasons including enrichment, clubs, special group meetings, academic support, sports exploration, and a host of other things. We use SignUpGenius to keep organized. Because our school can have multiple focuses going on at the same time, different from Glenn's edcamp model, we used a different tool. Create your vision first then choose your digital tool to match.
We can do so much more with our middle school schedule than just make sure students get math, reading, and PE. Our middle schoolers need opportunities to explore and develop passions. We help our teachers get better when we keep them current on strategies and implementations. A great vision helps set the school on a great course and the schedule is an important part of seeing it realized.
Derek McCoy is the principal of West Rowan Middle School in Salisbury, North Carolina and a 2014 Digital Principal of the Year.
Published April 2017.
Administrators' advice for districtwide leadership.
When we think of the work that goes into helping schools thrive and be the centers of achievement and support for our students, we often think of the exceptional work of the people with direct, daily contact with students. We can't say enough about the hard work that teachers, teacher assistants, and administrators engage in to ensure our schools are safe, creative learning environments that facilitate the development of students. Logically, parents and the public see this group as the beginning and end of educating students.
Educators working in schools know that the successes and growth of schools does not happen from the great work of teachers and administrators alone. There must be strategic, intentional planning to support the ongoing development of staff skills to support student growth and help schools that reflect the needs of communities and future workforces.
We have worked together since Derek joined the Rowan-Salisbury Schools middle school administrative team in July of 2015. As executive director of middle grades education, Tina's role is to develop relationships with all middle school administrators and teachers. She keeps a keen eye on the faculties and programs at all schools, becomes well versed on their workings and culture, and promotes them in strategic planning and directed dialogue. Part of the strategic focus for the Rowan-Salisbury Schools is to provide leadership and support for all three expressions, Tina's responsibilities and contributions help to ensure that all students and staff are developing and growing.
We have engaged in thoughtful discussions about what makes our support structure unique. Our strategies that help support middle schools in their individual and collective efforts for student, teacher, and school success include:
It is important to respect the fact that every school has a unique culture and history, each with a leader that brings different perspectives, strengths, and weaknesses.
But an often overlooked fact is that leaders new to a building inherit all the history including past personnel decisions, student successes and tragedies, and community experiences. All of these elements play a role in shaping the identity and operational structures and processes of the school.
It has been invaluable to have district level support that approaches each opportunity with a unique, separate viewpoint, and have distinct conversations with school leaders or teachers to help guide them to often unconsidered outcomes. As an experienced principal new to the district, Derek's conversations with Tina involve a small part of how he develops an understanding of the school's history (e.g., previous administrative decisions, staff positions, programming decisions).
Applying wide-scale solutions and strategies irrespective of school input, culture, and history is counterproductive. Tina communicates these growth talks to our superintendent to ensure that our district strategic plan is followed and protected.
Promoting Informal Communication Among School Leaders
Creating opportunities for students to collaborate and create new knowledge with each other is essential. Informal conversations can be as impactful as formal, arranged conversations. Informal conversations give us the opportunity to make our professional conversations less threatening and encourage a more genuine openness to the real problems and concerns that need to be addressed.
The seven middle school principals in Rowan-Salisbury School District create opportunities to get to know each other and build good, collaborative relationships. This can be done during after hours dinner, after a district principals meeting, or when visiting each other's schools to conduct walk throughs and value shares. Tina often encourages small and whole group conversations around specific topics to help us explore and utilize our diverse strengths.
Speaking a Common Language
The district leadership team has guided the administrators, teachers, parents, and community through a healthy process of establishing a focused strategic plan. As a result of this planning, all work at the district and school level is aligned to these goals.
We also spent time focusing on our instructional practices and developing a common understanding around what we call the RSS mindset. This mindset is inclusive of professional learning communities, problem–based learning experiences, blended learning, rigor, balanced literacy, guided instruction, and data utilization. In addition, this mindset is focused on our instructional expectations of creating a collaborative, connected, relevant, and personalized learning experience for each student.
Educators have an awesome responsibility and opportunity to transform the teaching and learning processes. We do not have to be bound by restrictions from a system built on concepts from more than 100 years ago. To do this at a high level demands us to trust our colleagues, to collaborate in a safe environment, and to support each other with passion and compassion.
Developing relationships is the key to this high level work. Because relationship-building takes time and effort, leaders often develop surface level acquaintances when relationships with more depth are required for trust to develop.
It is important that Tina, as the executive director for middle schools, knows the principals she works with and learns about their strengths, areas of improvement, and skill sets. It is also important that she knows the teachers and their instructional approaches. Spending time in schools and working alongside the principals creates a culture of trust and yields successful problem-solving experiences, as well as forward thinking processes.
Professional Development with Students in Mind
Understanding the social, emotional, and cognitive needs of students in our schools is an outcome consideration for all educators. We plan initiatives and resource acquisitions with this in mind.
At the middle school level, our discussions focus heavily on student engagement and developmental appropriateness. The frequent conversations amongst the principals, Tina, and other curriculum support personnel center on identifying middle school students' learning needs and the goals we set and monitor throughout implementation. This year, we implemented a districtwide rollout of Achieve3000, a web-based program focused on raising lexile scores of all students in our district. Our training is extensive and ongoing. We plan monitoring efforts and talks with our teachers and regularly talk about best practices. We also have a districtwide incentive for students who reach their reading goals.
Principals rely on objective viewpoints from central office personnel to help with data talks and direct conversations about the true program intent. This is one example of our process to review the data, use the information, and develop prescriptive professional development.
The middle school principals in our district rely on Tina and other central office personnel to help maintain the clarity of vision and drive we need to make sure we are serving students.
Derek McCoy is the principal of West Rowan Middle School in Salisbury, North Carolina.
Tina Mashburn is the exective director of middle grades education for the Rowan–Salibury school sytem in Salisbury, North Carolina.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, February 2017.
Four questions to consider when communicating with parents
Schools and school systems have to work hard to balance the needs of creating student-centered learning environments, leading efforts to shift teacher mindsets and skills, and understanding and implementing efforts to prepare students to be productive contributors to society.
New initiatives come from multiple sources: the federal government, district offices, and building leaders. While all stakeholders have the best intentions, these efforts can compound work and frustrate teachers who have to implement them on a daily basis.
We devote significant energy to helping teachers and students know and understand these new initiatives. We educate staff members about these requirements during professional development experiences, revised faculty meetings, and informal conversations.
While we have the benefit of hands-on time with staff, with parents, our opportunities for communication are limited to the resources of outreach we use and the number of opportunities we create for parents to visit our building.
Digital tools make outreach messaging convenient and potentially powerful. Tools like Remind, blogging, and social media help make connections meaningful, reach groups through creative means, and provide real-world examples of our accomplishments.
Though digital tools can be a consistent and frequent means of communicating, face-to-face communication is even more critical. We have to do our best to ensure that our face-to-face time is impactful. These four guiding questions can help you introducing new educational initiatives to parents:
How can a new initiative be presented in a way a parent (or guardian) will understand? We should communicate with parents in plain language. Parents are often intimidated by educational lexicon, similar to when you visit the doctor and she explains what afflicts you using medical vocabulary. Try to eliminate the education jargon or be clear in your explanation of the educational jargon
Why is the initiative important? Parents are more likely to buy into a new initiative if they have a concrete understanding of the initiative. Help parents understand the benefits or rationale for the new initiative. The most practical means of accomplishing this is to provide real-world examples of the relevance of the initiative. For example, if there is a new 1:1 rollout in your school, be sure to show pictures of students appropriately using the devices and tie in why this is important for their future in the workforce.
What does class look like today? Being able to see a new initiative in action can be a powerful strategy when teaching parents about the initiative. Provide examples of what the initiative looks like in a classroom. For example, upload a model lesson to YouTube and annotate the important things about the lesson that stand out. Create ways in which parents can experience the new initiative during activity nights for specific content areas (e.g., Algebra Night, STEM Night, Technology Night). Schools can readily create simulations for parents to experience a day in a middle school English/Language Arts class
How can social media/digital tools be used to illustrate a new initiative? This is your opportunity to be more transparent in your efforts to connect with parents. Parents are using social media more to connect and stay informed. Showcase evidence of the success your school is having with digital tools. As you visit classrooms capture images and video to communicate the needs and rationale for the program or change—choose your language carefully—and how it is changing learning and teaching in the school. Messages to your community should be purposefully succinct, but offer a picture and a descriptive caption to help them know that your efforts are deliberate and making progress.
Derek McCoy is the principal of West Rowan Middle School in Salisbury, North Carolina and a 2014 Digital Principal of the Year.
Norman Edwards is assistant principal of Blake High School, Silver Spring, Maryland.
The following is an excerpt from the newly released book titled Is It Working in Your Middle School? I highly encourage any middle level educator to access the book and use it as tool for ensuring the success of any program, strategy, or initiative that your middle school is implementing. Continuous improvement in our middle schools is essential.
I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.
—Leonardo Da Vinci
Middle level education is critical to the success of a child's development and progress. Some call it the "critical middle" due to the importance of this time in a child's development. With increased accountability and expectations, most middle schools have implemented programs and initiatives to support achievement and overall development of the middle level child. If 100 middle school educators were asked to make a list of the programs and initiatives that they have implemented at their schools, they could probably easily create that list. Although some of the lists would be long and others short, every educator would likely be able to develop a list. However, if we asked the same 100 middle school educators what the effectiveness was of those programs and initiatives after implementation, the percentage of those able to answer likely would drop significantly.
Planning for and deciding on improvement programs and initiatives is fairly easy if a school strives to understand the root cause of failure to meet targeted standards. Deployment of those plans is more difficult, and measuring the effectiveness of the deployment is usually overlooked. In many middle schools, the district, state, or federal government mandates the initiative or program. The program title or implementation area alone is not necessarily as important as the process to review improvements with fidelity and determine the program's effectiveness. Middle school educators know how to monitor the progress of students when they implement a particular individualized instructional strategy—they use a variety of tracking tools, professional learning community meetings, and various tiers of support to specifically monitor the students' progress. Educators should follow the same improvement process to monitor system progress of programs implemented in schools. Think of the difference between a football coach watching the scoreboard during a game hoping that the score will change and coaches who constantly monitor the blocking, tackling, and other efforts during a game. Rather than implanting a new program and hoping it will improve achievement, educators must continually and effectively monitor the progress of the programs they implement.
The purpose of this personalized system is to provide school administrators and teachers the process and tools needed to ensure continuous improvement of student learning. This system will not give specific instructional strategies or programs for schools to implement. Each school must determine the instructional practices that will have the greatest impact on teaching and learning based on research and experience. The focus of this workbook is on continuous improvement and accountability. The objective is to provide schools with a system to identify improvements and support areas of growth that can be applied to any initiative, strategy, or program that has been implemented.
This book will guide you through a system of planning, implementation, and evaluation of programs step-by-step. Although designed to be used by middle level educators, the same system or framework works for any grade level or school. Each chapter has the same format. First, an idea or background information is shared so it can be discussed for educator learning and professional growth. This is followed by a Case Study example from a middle school. Finally, and most important, the Personalized Reflection section is your opportunity to personalize the learning and conduct your own program evaluation as you progress through the book.
Teachers, departments, school improvement committees, administrators, and central office administrators can benefit from suggestions in this book. Certainly there is power in teamwork as group thinking yields deeper reflections, but individual teachers can use the framework described in this book to determine the effectiveness of programs or strategies they have implemented in their classrooms, too.
This book is unique because it offers perspectives from both educational and business project management experts, yielding a value-added process of evaluating school programs. Dr. Woodson's educational expertise and Mr. Frakes' quality assurance expertise have combined to develop a framework that educators in any school setting can use to raise student achievement levels. They have shown that the very actions non-educational organizations have used to ensure quality and become successful, when applied with fidelity, can work in schools, too.
The book is not laden with technical language or hard-to-grasp concepts. In reality, you will notice processes and actions that are familiar to you; there is data gathering, problem solving, and formative and summative assessment to name a few. Achieving success using quality assurance principles is about discipline—putting in time and effort to
Determine root causes of problems rather than treating symptoms
Set clear and measurable goals
Interpret data/draw conclusions
Create plans with specific, measurable actions
Monitor progress and provide support where needed
- Hold individuals accountable for implementation
As you can see, these reflect actions you routinely perform as educators accountable for student achievement. The aim of this book is to provide you with tools for each step of the process to make your goal setting, strategizing, data collecting, and ultimately communicating to staff about how to focus on what will make a difference in their students' performance—to help them narrow in on what matters.
I hope you embark on this important journey of continuous improvement through the tools available in this book. Please visit the AMLE website for more details: www.amle.org/books/woodson.
Nikki Woodson, Ph.D., is superintendent of schools for the Metropolitan school district of Washington Township in Indianapolis, Indiana. She is a member of the AMLE Leadership Institute faculty, serves on the board of governors for International Baccalaureate, and is a co-founder of Change Makers International.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, November 2016.
A day in the life of an interim assistant principal.
Eleven years. That is the number of years I taught seventh grade before even thinking about delving into administration. The thought of moving my home base out of the classroom and into the office had always given me a similar reaction to that of eating one of my least favorite foods. However, a myriad of events occurred that created an assistant principal opening in my building.
Teaching is difficult, and I know there are many areas of my practice in which I need to improve. For me, this is what makes teaching so exciting—it is an art that is never perfected. This assistant principal opening sparked an interest in me because it was a way to "test the waters" of administration without making a permanent commitment that took me away from teaching.
From day one, what struck me the most was how people reacted to me. Simply having a different title made everyone (students, teachers, parents, secretaries, etc.) react to me differently than they had more than over a decade. I was deemed an expert without being tested; the real test would come in the months to follow.
As a teacher, each day was filled with new experiences yet my class schedule remained the same. I knew how the day would progress (basically) before I even went to work. As an administrator, this is not always the case.
While I had a set schedule (passing time between classes, cafeteria duty, etc.) the activities of the day would determine how my time was spent. Some days I spent hours as Nancy Drew investigating who flushed the teddy bear in the toilet or as Dr. Phil counseling a group of "Mean Girls" on the error of their ways. Other days, however, how I spent my time was completely in my control- this is what I believe separates excellent administrators from average or ineffective ones. Do they choose to make their office "home base" and wait for issues to come to them? Or do they roam the school to interact with students and staff in an effort to form relationships? A teacher does not have the luxury of simply closing her office door and hiding if she doesn't feel well or is tired, and an effective administrator shouldn't either.
One unforeseen benefit of my different role as an administrator took place during my interactions with fellow teachers, many of whom I had worked with for a decade. Acting as an administrator allowed me to view another side of them that had not previously been visible. Many times I was able to hear the good things going on in our middle school and the kindness teachers had shown directly from students. The young adolescents who came in my office were more than willing to have a frank conversation about how their school year and classes were going at any given moment. It became apparent to me which teachers were the most passionate about their jobs and their students. On the flip side, it also became glaringly obvious which teachers were frustrated, tired, and showing up each day simply to collect a paycheck. This forced me to reflect upon my practice and my interactions with students. This also helped me realize that, as teachers, we sometimes do not understand administrators' actions due to a lack of communication, access to information, or limited viewpoints.
As any seasoned middle school teacher knows, taking yourself (or life) too seriously with this age group will not get you very far. This holds true not only for teachers, but administrators as well. Due to the serious nature of what I dealt with at times—from CPS visits and paperwork to bullying and angry parents to name a few—I felt a strong urge to control every aspect of the day. No surprises seemed like the best possible scenario to me. Quiet lunches meant no drama. Two people near the air hockey table meant no flying pucks. One trip to the lunch line. Walking feet … you get the point.
I soon realized that by controlling every aspect of the school I would be taking away the very parts of working with middle schoolers that I loved the most – the unpredictability, humor, and numerous opportunities to help develop young adolescents. While they may look more grown up than they act at times, middle schoolers are continually questioning, observing, and finding their place in the world around them. A dictatorship would not successfully foster learning both in and out of the classroom. At the end of my tenure, as I was getting pies thrown in my face by sixth graders who met their goals, I believe I fully learned this lesson.
When the school year concluded I returned to a position as a teacher, but I know that I am a much better one because of those eight months. At some point I might decide that administration is for me and pursue opportunities as they present themselves or I might stay might stay in the classroom for the rest of my career. Either way, I encourage anyone who is presented with an opportunity to "try out" administration to do so because the value of such an experience cannot be quantified. Whatever position we hold, it is our responsibility to ensure that each student attends a safe, caring, innovative, and challenging middle school where they can make mistakes, learn from others, and continually grow.
Sarah Taylor is a mathematics intervention teacher of grades 6-8 for Comstock Public Schools in Michigan.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, October 2016.
Practices to support teachers.
"What's the point, Mrs. Adams?" asked Brian.
I will never forget the confused yet honest look on my 8th grade student's face when he asked me this question after I had concluded my riveting lecture about the causes of the Civil War.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
Brian again repeated, "What's the point … of our lesson?"
To be honest, his question both irritated and baffled me, as I wasn't sure how to answer it. I shrugged and told him the point was for him to know the information because it would be on the test.
It was 20 years ago and I was in my second year of teaching 8th grade Core, a three-period Humanities block of reading, English, and U.S. History in California. I began my teaching career for the same reason many other educators do – I wanted to inspire and teach students to reach their fullest potentials. The only problem was that I had shelves of textbooks filled with educational theory but still a nearly empty toolkit with which to accomplish my goal.
"What's the point, Mrs. Adams?"
To this day, Brian's provocative yet earnest question lingers in my mind. However, his question provided the impetus that pushed me to seek wisdom from Instructional Leaders (ILs) and examine and build my instructional philosophy and repertoire.
Teacher leadership comes in many forms and among the most influential in promoting student success and positive school culture are those educators who serve as Instructional Leaders. It has been said that great leaders do not set out to be leaders, they set out to make a difference; and that is particularly true when it comes to ILs.
Studies show that student achievement is directly related to the effectiveness of the classroom teacher but the million-dollar question is, "How does a teacher become effective?"
The golden rule in any leadership position is to develop and nurture positive relationships. Perhaps Ghandi said it best, "I suppose leadership at one time meant muscles, but today it means getting along with people." People do not want to collaborate with someone who is negative, confrontational, or critical, and successful ILs quickly learn that principle. First and foremost, they work to establish positive relationships with colleagues so learning and growth are possible.
Instructional Leaders also provide clarity, support, and resources for teachers to identify "the point" in our instruction and in our students' learning, thereby increasing effective teaching.
Since I have had the privilege of working with many skilled ILs, I know there are several habits they have in common that cultivate an environment that is conducive to learning, reflection, and growth for both students and teachers.
Habit #1—Instructional Leaders Understand Neuroscience
The young brain is very different from the mature brain and we see examples of it all the time in the learning environment. When Jeremiah makes a bad choice and we ask him why he made that choice, he almost always responds with a shoulder shrug and an, "I don't know."
The brain develops from the stem forward, with the last area of the brain to activate called the Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC). The PFC, otherwise known as the Executive Functioning Center, is in charge of processing cause and effect, impulse control, attention span, organizational skills, and emotional stability.
Experts believe the PFC fully activates in the female around 20 years old. The male PFC often takes a little longer, fully activating in the mid-twenties. This has serious implications for educators as we sometimes place the same expectations on the young brain that we have for the mature brain, which sets our students up for failure.
The good news is that we can accelerate healthy brain development and help students develop the skills they need for success. When we provide students explicit instruction in literacy, communication and critical thinking strategies, reflection, social-emotional learning, and growth mindset, the neural connections in the PFC increase.
Instructional Leaders are knowledgeable in neuroscience and they provide professional development opportunities and resources to ensure routines, expectations, learning experiences, and assignments are developmentally appropriate, while simultaneously fostering healthy brain development.
Habit #2—Instructional Leaders Are Connected Lead Learners
As society changes, student and teacher needs change. From Standards Based Report Cards to PBL to 1:1 deployment, education is an evolving entity. It is imperative that educators evolve as well. To remain current, effective ILs model and demonstrate the importance of continued learning.
Instructional Leaders are often involved in one or more professional education organizations, such as AMLE, and are also connected to other educators via social media, such as Twitter. They may also facilitate staff book studies, Tech Tuesdays, webinars, and collaborative analysis of student work. These opportunities provide continued growth, collaboration, and networking with others in and outside our districts and maximize our resources and learning capacity.
Habit #3—Instructional Leaders Support Content AND Comprehension Instruction
Instructional Leaders know that effective teaching is not rocket science … it is far more complicated.
Making school relevant to our students requires that we teach students both content AND comprehension. Many educators have heard a teacher lament, "I don't have time to teach comprehension because I'm too busy covering math standards." If a teacher believes his only role is to cover content, the teacher is doing a disservice to his students because authentic learning requires comprehension.
An IL's expertise and instructional resources are invaluable in helping others develop the knowledge and skills needed to increase student achievement and independence.
For example, an IL may provide training and resources in how to teach note-taking, analysis, or supporting a claim with evidence. A few strategies that I am often asked to share are PDP Cornell Notes, Somebody Wanted But So, Close Reading, Episodic Notes and Exit Tickets. All of these strategies work well across the content areas and with all skill levels. More importantly, when students are explicitly taught how to use strategies, they develop competence and confidence and retain the comprehension strategies, resulting in more self-reliance and less teacher dependence.
Effective teaching and learning requires competence, confidence, and comprehension. Instructional leaders provide the support in which to meet those goals.
Habit #4—Instructional Leaders STOP, Collaborate and Listen
Instructional leader develop instructional leadership capacity in others by investing the time and effort to meet with novices and veterans to clarify what is needed for success to occur. They also provide the resources and support in order to encourage continual growth.
Habit #5—Instructional Leaders Promote Peer Coaching & Observation Opportunities
An effective way to evaluate and develop our skill sets is to participate in peer coaching. Unlike evaluative observations performed by administration, peer coaching focuses on colleagues observing each other a few times per year and analyzing data to encourage reflection and growth.
Peer coaches do not act as evaluators; they simply observe a lesson and collect data based on what the observed teacher requests. For example, Mrs. Smith has an instructional goal of incorporating more multi-leveled questions and 50-50 teacher/student talk time in class. She asks her colleague to serve as a peer coach to observe her class and collect data on levels of questioning used and the percentage of time both she and her students spend discussing the content. The peer coach will observe and collect that data and then give it to the observed teacher so she can reflect and make adjustments in order to meet her goals.
This peer coaching structure is not a formal observation that is evaluative or punitive; it is a collegial way to collect classroom data to determine if an instructional goal is being met. Instructional leaders provide the support to facilitate this learning opportunity.
Habit #6—Instructional Leaders Encourage Growth Mindset through Reflection
In her book Mindset, Carol Dweck shares the importance of developing a growth mindset in our students by reflecting on mistakes and persevering to make adjustments to increase success.
Instructional Leaders foster a growth mindset in colleagues by modeling and practicing reflection. Some valuable reflection questions include:
What was the content objective of the lesson?
What was the critical thinking objective for the lesson?
Were the objectives met? If so, what did students do throughout the lesson to meet those objectives?
What changes would you make to the lesson? Why these changes?
What are your teaching strengths and what would you like to improve?
How do you differentiate to meet the needs of both struggling and advanced students?
How do you promote positive relationships with students and colleagues?
- How do you encourage students to learn from mistakes?
Instructional Leaders encourage the development of a growth mindset by helping colleagues to reflect on what works and what does not and then use that data to guide their thinking and instruction.
Habit #7—Instructional Leaders Adjust Support Based on Need
In her book, The Instructional Leader's Guide to Strategic Conversations with Teachers, author Robyn Jackson categorizes the four types of teachers as:
high will/high skill
high will/low skill
low will/high skill
low will/low skill
Just as we wouldn't use the same approach for each student, based on a teacher's will/skill level, an IL coaches a teacher to develop goals and provide the proper support based on the educator's needs.
For example, a high will/low skill teacher is often a new(er) teacher who has the desire to increase student proficiency yet may lack the knowledge or skills to do so at such an early stage in his/her career.
An IL crafts a personalized plan that includes learning experiences, training, and mentoring to help this teacher move into the high will/high skill range. Realizing the need to differentiate, an IL adjusts support based on a teacher's will and skill levels to increase teacher effectiveness.
After working with skilled Instructional Leaders, I better understand what my role is as a teacher. I am not a gatekeeper of information but a conduit who promotes content comprehension through critical thinking, debate, analysis, role-playing, synthesis, and reflection.
Upon reflection, I would teach my Civil War lesson from 20 years ago differently, and I would also answer Brian's question differently. Instead of lecturing about the causes of the war, I would have students read, write, act out, listen, draw, view, and speak about it and then provide them assessment choices to demonstrate their knowledge. I would begin by clarifying both the content and critical thinking objectives so that students understood "the point" of the learning experience. Most important, I would involve them in the experience itself and not relegate them to being passive bystanders to my "sage on the stage" delivery.
Instructional Leaders use many (or all) of these 7 Habits to provide resources, promote collaboration, encourage reflection, and support opportunities that cultivate instructional expertise, which positively influences student and teacher learning and effectiveness.
How many of these habits do you have?
Julie Adams is an NBCT and Educator of the Year who specializes in neuroscience, content area literacy, critical thinking, instructional leadership, and digital literacy trainings. Her most recent book is titled,
Game Changers—7 Instructional Practices that Catapult Student Achievement.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, October 2016.