A Sharing Culture

photo credit: overgraeme via photopin cc
photo credit: overgraeme via photopin cc

Teachers Aren’t Meant to be Islands


The ISTE 13 conference in San Antonio is now over.  I wasn’t able to attend this year, although I was amazed with the amount of digital sharing that occured during the conference.  I was able to follow the #iste13 hashtag which provided me with links that were directly associated with conference keynotes, slides, sessions, speaker notes, videos, pictures and a multitude of useful information.  This type of generous sharing should happen in education more frequently.

I’m now reflecting on how schools and teachers share resources with each other.  I’ve experienced sharing through social media and have a variety of experiences sharing ideas/resources in schools.  When comparing schools and social media PLNs, I find differences in the volume and quality of sharing that occurs. I’ve observed teachers that actively share resources with their PLN through social media, but not so much in their school and vice versa.  There may be reasons behind this that are directly associated with how many people are in your PLN compared to the amount of staff in your school.  Regardless, the amount of sharing within a school truly depends on the culture.  Some teachers are very private with their resources and ideas, while others will freely handout their resources to anyone who asks. I believe the reasoning can be partially tracked down to who completes the work and a fear that their resource wouldn’t be used correctly.

Current teacher evaluation systems that include VAM may also play a role. VAM scores seem to be making a splash and are unintentionally causing teacher competition. One byproduct of competition is often isolation, which causes a decrease in sharing as teachers are numerically pinned against each other.  This culture negatively impacts teachers, students and the community.  I believe teachers aren’t meant to work in isolation. One of my newest PLN members, Victoria Olson said, “…we are not intended to be islands, yet many of us are.”  I believe that quote is spot on and applies to educators everywhere.

How do education leaders encourage sharing and collaboration?

I believe every staff member has something that they can share, regardless of their position in a school.  Sharing often brings opportunities to innovate as one idea is built upon another. Sharing also empowers teachers to find additional resources and possible teaching strategies that may help their class.  This sharing may strengthen the trust between teachers and school teams.  It may also encourage teachers to begin to direct their own learning, as Dean Shareski says in his post.  Teacher and administration sharing sessions can benefit many stakeholders and can lead to brainstorming opportunities.  This is not a top-down approach and isn’t necessarily consistently embraced, but it can yield positive results.  Administrators should encourage sharing with colleagues (like this) and incorporate staff sharing moments during scheduled meetings. Sharing shouldn’t be seen as being narcissistic. George Couros expands on this idea in his post.  Sharing your ideas/strengths also validates that we’re all learners attempting to improve our practice.  Having a dialogue about the sharing is essential in the process and may improve teaching practices.   No matter who you are, or what experience you have, there’s always a way to become better at your craft.  Starting off the school year by sharing ideas/resources can help build a solid foundation that encourages additional sharing.   What should be shared?  This depends on the school and leadership.  Here’s a rough idea list:

  • Workshops
  • Conferences
  • Education Journals
  • Education related books
  • Blogs
  • Experiences over the summer
  • RSS feeds
  • Colleagues
  • Teachers

I have respect for administrators that share what they’ve learned when they were teachers.  I believe that sharing these experiences and resources have potential to build a positive rapport between administrators and teachers.  This modeling may help motivate others to share as well. When sharing becomes the norm, administrators can encourage teachers to participate and even lead professional development sessions with their staff.   This type of professional development has many benefits.

How do you promote collaboration and sharing with your staff?

The Power of Education Naysayers

Do we want conformity?
Should conformity be the norm?

More often than not, most schools have a naysayer or a group of naysayers.  A naysayer might not necessarily agree with a school’s initiatives or mandates. These staff members are often perceived as being negative or confrontational.  Naysayers might not participate on district or leadership committees.  They might assert their opinions regarding education funding, history of education, evaluations, response to intervention, student data, status quo,  leadership, initiates, etc.   I feel like most teachers have met a naysayer.  You might even be a self-proclaimed naysayer or skeptic.  Naysayers often feed off one another and their ideas can be contagious.

Regardless of how naysayers are perceived, they have power.  I find that teachers want what’s best for students.  Beyond the overarching goal of wanting what’s best for students, teachers’ philosophies differ.   These opinions can start arguments and can cause disruptions among teams/schools.  Confrontations can cause disruptions if not handled properly by administration. Experiences and opinions should be valued and communicated with candor.  Everyone who is part of the education organization is valued and that should be communicated as well.

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Being labeled a a naysayer doesn’t have to have a negative connotation   You might be called a naysayer if you aren’t a fan of the status quo in a school or district.  Is that bad?  You might disagree, but being a positive change agent in a school might start by being called a naysayer. Naysayers that bring solutions to the table introduce ideas that may encourage others to innovate.  Conforming isn’t always an option when challenging decisions need to be made. Disagreement may bring a different perspective and initiate a positive change in an organization.  Teacher strengths and ideas may often remain hidden until called upon.  Encouraging naysayers to join school leadership teams and become more involved in the decision making process may benefit your school.

Are you a naysayer?

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How Do You Measure School Achievement?

School Achievement


Student achievement is often at the forefront of the minds of school leaders. Achievement, in the form of student data, inundates schools, teachers, and school improvement plans.   Moreover, school improvement plans seem to hiccup when state assessment results are released.  This data is generally looked at in the form of numerical values related to student achievement on state standardized assessments.  If utilized correctly, analyzing student data may be beneficial for a school/district.  Reviewing strengths and concerns may help allocate resources to areas of need.  Regardless of the benefits, some school leaders and teachers often focus on the need to raise test scores in order to receive a positive rating from the state or district.  That pressure can lead to anxiety and fear as student data is now being tied to teacher/principal evaluations.

I believe school achievement can be viewed through a variety of lenses.  Even though the nation doesn’t necessarily measure the traits below,  I feel that they are still valued.

Character

How well does your school emphasize character?  Some schools use programs, such as Character Counts, while others have deployed their own character curriculum. Discussing anti-bullying strategies and positive ways to cope with problems can be contained within this category.  Emphasizing positive character traits can contribute to becoming more responsible in and outside of the classroom.

Reflective Thinking

Are students allowed time to reflect on their own learning?  Students that are given opportunities to review their achievement/behavior/study skills may set appropriate goals to better themselves.  This skill will be used throughout their life. Is goal-setting important in your school?  Can students analyze their own achievement and create appropriate goals?  Setting and achieving goals often brings confidence and focus.   Goal-setting can be emphasized at any grade level.

Creativity

Does your school allow time for students to be creative?  Does your school offer opportunities for students to be curious?  Are student assignments geared to offer one solution or multiple solutions?  I’ve found that curiosity often leads to creative thinking. Creative thinking is difficult to measure, but the value is immense.

Requesting Feedback

Allowing feedback gives opportunities for stakeholders to offer input regarding changes that may benefit the organization.  How the feedback is utilized may possibly advance a classroom/school/district’s vision.  Using the feedback to better an organization shows value.  Data in the form of feedback can be just as valuable as standardized assessment data.

Collaboration

Does your school encourage collaboration?  Collaboration between staff, or collaboration between students?  I would think it might be both.  Is the classroom environment conducive to collaboration?  Working together also encourages students to practice positive character traits.


I understand that not all of the skills above are measurable   Understanding that school achievement goes beyond standardized assessment results is a step in the right direction.

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Overemphasizing Standardized Test Data and Possible Solutions

Standardized Tests and Formative Assessments
Assessment Data

Assessment Data …. If you’re within listening distance of a classroom you’ve probably heard the words.  The words can hold positive as well as negative connotations. Two different types of data are often used in the classroom – summative and formative.  I think this picture helps show the difference between the two.  If used appropriately, formative assessment data (exit card, common assessment, observation, journal, data binder, etc.) can be used to improve student learning.  Many teachers that I’ve met through Twitter utilize formative or local assessments to maximize student learning. I believe that it’s possible to use student achievement data to identify specific strengths/concerns as well as assist teachers in developing interventions (remediation/enrichment) for students.

At times the word is also associated with standardized test scores and accountability. Those words combined might make a few teachers cringe and organizers protest. A school district’s standardized test scores may make news headlines and influence school improvement plans.  The emphasis on standardized testing has caused teachers to allocate more time for test prep.  Some districts begin the test prep process in January, or before, when the test actually occurs in March. That test prep time takes away time from many non-test related subject areas.

I’ve been told that the Common Core will change the standardized testing landscape. I can’t predict the future, but I believe standardized test scores will continue to dominate local and national headlines. It’s been well documented that there’s an overemphasis on standardized test scores in public schools in America.  The emphasis on test scores impacts teacher instruction and will soon influence teacher evaluations.  Is this a good thing?

I’m not advocating for or against standardized assessments, but I believe formative assessments should drive academic differentiation decisions in the classroom. Even though the overemphasis on standardized test scores seems to be the norm, I’m optimistic. Why?  Many influential education leaders are starting to notice the impact of standardized testing on students, teachers, communities, and administrators.  The leaders below are speaking out on the impacts of standardized testing.  Feel free to follow the courageous people below.

  • Joshua Star @mcpssuper is the superintendent of MCPS, a large, diverse, and high performing district in Maryland. He has concerns over the validity of standardized tests and has asked for a moratorium on standardized testing.
  • Diane Ravitch @dianeravitch, is Research Professor of Education at New York University, wrote a blog post about the inequalities of standardized testing here.
  • Larry Ferlazzo @larryferlazzo, an ESL teacher in California, wrote a blog post comparing the difference between being data-informed and data-driven.

Utilizing Teachers’ Strengths to Improve Schools

Utilizing Teachers' Strengths

Utilizing Teachers’ Strengths

During this holiday season I’m reflecting on the topic of school leadership.  School improvement often begins with a vision, but without teacher input or ownership, the vision may become undervalued.  It takes commitment and collaboration from all stakeholders to improve a systematic school organization.  This collaboration requires staff to trust the leadership within a school.  Principals have opportunities to build trust with their staff by ensuring that they don’t underutilize talents within their own school.  Teachers often have skills that aren’t necessarily visible during an introductory handshake.  Every teacher has strengths that they can bring to the bale, although some of the strengths may be challenging to distinguish.  Some of these positive skills could include:  rapport with parents, technology integration, planning with teaching teams, leading through mentoring,  goal setting with students, small group instruction, facilitating guided groups, etc.)

Coordinating Strengths
Coordinating Strengths

Teachers that are underutilized often disengage when asked to be part of school leadership decisions.  I believe that the majority of teachers unconditionally care and want the best for their students.  Unfortunately, teacher underutilization may encourage complacency and a lack of voice during school leadership decisions.  At this point, some teachers find professional development elsewhere, or possibly, employment elsewhere. Retaining effective teachers through utilization of teachers’ strengths is possible. I believe that teachers that feel utilized and valued often have ownership and participate more in school decisions. Teacher ownership helps schools become communities of collaboration.

How do educational leaders utilize teachers’ strengths and encourage teacher leadership?

One way to encourage teachers to utilize their strengths is to use inventories.  Just as teachers survey their students to learn more about them, principals have a unique opportunity to understand their staff better by surveying them.  Being aware of a teacher’s strength will enable a principal to coordinate personell to best meet the needs of a school.  Administrators can create a survey using Google Docs or use a template that best meets their needs.  Surveying staff members can be a proactive step in understanding individual perspectives and skill sets.  Using teacher inventories can lead to staff investment opportunities for school administrators.

What methods do you use to to encourage teacher leadership?

Photo Credit:  D. Castillo & J. Creationz

A New School Year – New Possibilities

Image by:   Scottchan


It’s already been one week into the school year and I’m finding myself reviewing goals for this year.  After spending time on Twitter this summer, specifically following #mathchat,  #elemchat, and #cpchat hashtags, I’ve decided to implement a few ideas this year.  I’ve included two of the ideas below.

Homework ≠ Grades 

I’ve been tackling the issue of the role and value of homework over the past few years. This topic has been debated by educational experts for a number of years.  So why am I so worked up over this?

Many years ago I remember grading every student’s paper (homework, test, quiz, etc.) that crossed my desk.  Most teachers at my school would do this, so I thought I should as well.  I would assign a fraction and percentage for each assignment (example:  14/18).  Homework was a certain percentage of the student’s grade, as well as tests, and other in class assignments. Generally, the homework grade often inflated the overall grade for the student.  This idea made me uncomfortable and made me question the value of homework.  Over the next few years I incorporated exit cards into my instruction and began to research the value of homework.  The more that I’ve researched the topic and value of homework, the more I’m finding that it needs to contribute to the learning process.  Homework shouldn’t be assigned or perceived as busy work. The more that I read over the summer, including @yourkidsteacher‘s post and @alfikohn‘s post, I decided to try something a bit different this year.

Homework is not part of the student’s grade, but it’s still part of the class.  Not giving homework to my students isn’t really an option.  To be proactive, I communicated to the community that I would be giving feedback and not grades on the homework.  In an effort to bring more direct feedback to the students, I decided to use the check / minus method, which I blogged about a while back.  The review checkpoints are a form of an exit card that the students will complete after being taught a specific concept.  The review checkpoints will be given 3 + times per month and would count towards their overall grade.

After reviewing the homework, I give specific feedback on the student’s paper.  I’m planning on having the student review their homework pages and feedback on a regular basis.  The new homework policy is still in the refining process, but I feel as though the students/parents appreciate the feedback and find it more useful than a stagnant 13/15 on the top of their homework sheet.

Special Projects

I’m already planning on a special project for every grading period. My students have created Podcasts, Photostory projects, mathematician biography reports, and hosted a math concept fair in the past.  Some of the projects were better than others, but the students always worked in collaborative groups to complete the projects.  I’d like to incorporate more math projects this year.  I believe that the learning (academic and social) that occurs during math project sessions benefits all students.   When asked, students often list the math projects as one of their favorite activities in math class. This is also a non-traditional method to assess student learning.  I generally use a rubric to assess a special project and it’s part of the student’s grade.

Transforming Professional Development for Teachers

Image by:  David Dominici


I recently was looking for some space in my closet and found a book from my graduate school days.  The book Transformational Leadership & Decision Making in Schools by Brower and Balch fell out of my closet.

After flipping through the some tabbed pages, a few memories emerged.  One of the chapter topics explained how ed. leaders often understand and create effective professional development opportunities for their staff.  Understanding what is considered “effective” is key.  So I ask, what is needed for effective staff development?

Three (non-exhaustive) Ideas for Staff Development:

1.)  Eliminate fear – As discussed in David’s post, teachers shouldn’t feel as though someone will steal or reject their innovative ideas. Competition, although beneficial in some scenarios, may instill in teachers a sense of fear and distrust. Administrators that advocate for their staff members by creating an atmosphere of trust and collaboration often improve student learning over time.  The idea that all of the students in a school are everyone’s responsibility should be prevalent and community building activities indicating that concept should be evident.

2.) Research Based PD – Often, staff development may meet the current needs of the staff, but not necessarily be research based.  Many PD sessions are more “training” focused, rather than “best practice” focused.  This point is explained in more detail in Neil’s post.  Teachers need to be able to understand that the PD sessions, when implemented appropriately will result in an improved organization.

3.) Follow up –  Ask any educator … it’s fulfilling to participate in an effective PD session.  The question that many people have after the session is … Now What? Allowing time for teachers to collaborate and discuss methods to implement ideas will benefit all stakeholders.  Also, it may be important to receive feedback from the audience (teachers) in order to measure the effectiveness of the PD and set goals for planning additional sessions.

Disclaimer (unfortunate but necessary) : The thoughts and opinions expressed in these pages are my own, and not necessarily the opinions of my employers.