Sunday, September 16, 2018

5 Strategies to Create a Culture of Accountability for Growth

In a world where ideas are a dime a dozen and shared openly on social media, it is incumbent upon all of us to critically reflect and determine if it is, in fact, a sound strategy.  Anyone who reads my blog knows that I am a huge proponent of research-influenced practice, evidence, accountability, and efficacy.  During workshops with administrators and teachers, I get to dive deep into these topics and outline the strategies that schools use to improve outcomes. In my opinion, this isn’t even really a debate for anyone that has worked in a school where outcomes were improved.  As any practitioner knows this is not the end or be all, but the reality is that results don’t come from pie in the sky sound bites.  Thus, improvement relies on an honest assessment of where current practice resides and making the necessary changes to move to where we need to be.

Let’s begin with this.  If you are an administrator, do you know what is going on in your classrooms? I for one did not know this for a while until we began to focus on ensuring a Return on Instruction (ROI).  It is hard to fix an issue if you don’t know it exists.  The same could be said about commending and then sharing effective strategies.  We don’t know what we don’t know.  Getting into classrooms more can be one of the most important decisions you make. If you are a teacher or coach, how often do you receive formal feedback on your practice and are given time to work on areas to improve upon? The only way to scale growth is to ensure that accountability structures are in place.  Formal observations are one means to help accomplish this. These differ from walk-throughs, as they are evaluative whereas learning walks are most often non-evaluative.



The primary purpose of an observation is to help teachers, coaches, administrators, and other staff improve through connections to research-based practices, data analysis, good feedback, and reflection. A good observation is all about growth. They became ineffective when used as an “I gotcha” moment or provide no real strategies to improve.  Let me expand on the latter part of the last sentence. There is no perfect lesson, project, teacher, or administrator. Herein lies my crucial point. No matter where an educator is in their career and regardless of experience, there is always room for growth and the majority of educators are more than open to this.  Accountability for this has to be emphasized either through self-efficacy or sound observation techniques. 

Everyone can benefit from good feedback. The question is how do you determine if that feedback has been reflected upon and used to improve practice?  Taking a critical lens to your observation protocols can go a long way to ensuring efficacy by raising the bar across your system. Claims of good and better have merit when supported with actual observations and evidence that this is, in fact, the case.  This is what instructional leadership is all about.  Below are some strategies that I utilized to help create a culture where there was accountability for growth. Please note that not every contact point or conversation has to be evaluative. In the end, though, some people won’t respond to non-evaluative measures. Consistency is key.
  • Get in classrooms more. Regardless of your role, commit to watching the practice of others to inform your own or to provide feedback later. 
  • Make it a priority. Develop a daily schedule that consists of a combination of walk-throughs (non-evaluative) and formal observations (evaluative) and stick to it. We formally observed each staff member unannounced three times a year regardless of experience. This meant I had to not only build time into my schedule to conduct the observations but also to write them up. That’s why I always blocked off the following period after an observation so that I could write it up.
  • Streamline the process as best you can. I created a template for myself and my admin team to use during observations. This allowed each of us to script by standard while also ensuring that the most essential sub-standards were front and center. You can view the template HERE. Note that this template was nowhere near as detailed as the actual tool uses, but it did greatly assist with the write-up process afterward. I also curated a document that had comments ready to go aligned to sound pedagogical practice and research where applicable. 
  • Provide timely and specific feedback, but also make sure to follow-up with more walks and observations to ensure that the feedback was reflected and acted upon. I made it a point to conduct each observation post-conference the very next school day.  
  • Create mechanisms for educators to share work through artifacts and portfolios. You can’t see everything during a walk-through or observation nor can you be everywhere all the time. These can be used to support what you don’t see during observations or to add more context. They can also be integrated as a way to add more substance and authenticity to mid and end of year evaluations. 

Complacency and mediocrity are a choice for many people. So is choosing to get better each day. The choice is yours. Every educator is ultimately accountable to the learners they serve. Thus, there is no real choice in this matter. Accountability should not be feared or frowned upon. It is prevalent in virtually every job sector as a means to improve performance.  When focused on promoting growth, accountability can help to create a culture of excellence while helping all learners achieve success. 


Sunday, September 9, 2018

The Purpose of Content

When I think back to my days as a learner, the content seemed to be at the forefront of every class.  Whether it was disseminated during a lecture in college, through direct instruction in K-12, or at times consumed from a textbook or encyclopedia, it was everywhere.  The more I think about it; content was predominately the focus in every class. Day in and day out a repetitive cycle ensued in most classes where my classmates and I were given information and then tasked with demonstrating what we learned, or in a few cases, constructing new knowledge.  The bottom line is that I, like many other students at the time, did school and never really questioned the means or process. In the end, it was about passing the test plain and simple. 



Now I am not saying that content is not valuable or not needed as a basis to move from low to high-level learning.  It goes without saying that a certain amount of content is required like learning letters and numbers to be able to move to different levels of knowledge construction in language arts and mathematics respectively.  But let’s face it, as learners progress through the system, content, and knowledge for that matter can be easily accessed using a variety of mobile devices.  This then begs the question – how relevant is content really in a knowledge-based economy that continues to evolve exponentially thanks to advances in technology?

When reflecting on the last question in the paragraph above, I think about the following quote from Steve Revington, “Content without purpose is only trivia.” Learners today are not as compliant or conforming as many of us were back in the day nor should they be.  Whether we are talking about authentic or relevant learning, kids inherently want to know what the higher purpose is and who can blame them.  



When content has a purpose and is applied in relevant ways to construct new knowledge, learners will be able to tell you:
  • What they learned
  • Why the learned it
  • How they will use it both in and out of school
A lesson, project, or activity that is relevant and has purpose allows learners to use both the content and their knowledge to tackle real-world problems that have more than one solution. The shift here is key.  Engagement for learning empowers kids to put knowledge to use, not just acquire it for its own sake.  Many yearn for and deserve to use content and acquired knowledge to solve complex, real-world problems and create projects, designs, and other works for use in real-world situations. The value in content relies on how it is applied to develop thinking in a purposeful way further.  

Being a whiz at trivia might help as a contestant on Jeopardy but has little value in the game of life.   The stakes are now higher, which means we must take a critical lens to our work to grow and improve.  Helping our learners find greater purpose is something I think we can all agree on and will benefit them well into the future. 

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Who Should Facilitate Professional Learning?

Have you ever paid money to go and watch a professional sporting event, play, or musical? Your answer is probably a resounding yes.  If you are like me, then you have gone too many times to count and have lost track. What drives you to spend money and attend these events? More than likely you go to watch the athletes compete or artists perform. In some cases, you participated in these activities at a certain level during your lifetime.  Or maybe you are just passionate about and moved by, how the experience makes you feel.  Regardless of your rationale, it is essential to understand that there is so much going on behind the scenes leading up to the culminating event that you pay to watch.   

Let me focus the rest of my point on professional sports. For countless hours each athlete is coached, taught, and guided by numerous individuals who have some direct experience in the sport. These individuals either excelled at some level, whether professional or collegiate, or they are a master teacher when it comes to knowledge, ideas, and strategy as to how to take a group of individuals and help them succeed as a team. The majority of these coaches possess a track record of success and the evidence to back it up.  Why else would these people be employed to coach in the first place?

The kicker here though is that many of these coaches have not played the game in years, even decades.  Take Nick Saban for example.  Currently, he is paid millions of dollars (a little over eleven to be exact) as the head coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide football team.  As the head coach, he ultimately calls the shots while training both players and assistant coaches alike.  He has had unprecedented success developing players and building a football dynasty that others hope to emulate yet has not played a single snap of collegiate football since 1972 when he was on the team at Kent State University. Right after graduating in 1973 he became an assistant coach at Kent State. Approximately 45 years later he is still at it. This begs the question, which we all know the answer. Had not playing the game in decades hindered his ability to help others achieve impressive results?



There is often a debate in physical and virtual spaces about who should facilitate professional learning for educators.  I see and appreciate the points from both sides.  Many people want current practitioners who can directly relate to either the content or responsibilities of the position.  In a perfect world this would be great as well as ideal, but just like it is unrealistic for current players to coach, the same can be said for practicing educators, especially when the research has shown that on-going, job-embedded professional learning is what leads to improved learning outcomes. Quality professional learning takes time and goes well beyond one and done. It involves a critical lens, lack of bias, modeling, and meaningful feedback to drive growth. 

Saban was a smart player who initially played offense but was later moved to defense. He was also part of a championship team during his playing days and has led teams he has coached to six college championships.  The point here is that experience and outcomes matter. That is what all educators expect and deserve when it comes to professional learning.  The key is to find the right consultants to help move you forward.  When investing in any professional learning options do your research!  Below are some questions that might help you with this:

  • How does the organization or consultant’s experience align with our intended outcomes? It is crucial that each have the appropriate experiences to facilitate the work.
  • Does the organization or consultant have evidence of success when it comes to improving outcomes? What criteria make them the best to facilitate the work? Just like I did a Google search on Nick Saban, you can do the same when it comes to companies and consultants. 
  • How can an outsider’s view move us forward by helping us see what we are missing? It is often difficult to move beyond internal bias.  Sometimes a different relationship and lens are needed to move systems forward. This is where outside consultants can help.
  • Is the intended work aligned to research and evidence on what works? In more blunt terms, have they implemented what they are going to train you on? Effective professional learning moves beyond the fluff and broad claims. 

Effective Professional Learning

Important decisions have to be made when it comes to facilitating professional learning whether it is a workshop, keynote, or something more intensive like job-embedded coaching. As goals and outcomes are fleshed out, it is then incumbent to determine who is best to oversee the work, whether it is a practicing educator, in-house personnel, or an outside consultant. The lesson learned from the story of Nick Saban is that it behooves us not just to write someone off because they are not currently in a classroom or working in a school. 

Substance matters. 

Context matters. 

Experience matters. 

Professional learning is and should be an experience, not just an event. Satisfaction lies not only in having a message that resonates but how the work leads to improvements in teaching, learning, and leadership that are supported by a broad base of research and backed up by actual evidence of better outcomes. Don’t be so quick to judge based on someone’s current position. Do your homework and take a critical lens to their body of work to find the best fit to facilitate professional learning. 

Sunday, August 26, 2018

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

In the past, I have written about my journey from digital nomad and detractor to leader. The catalyst for this transformation came in part from Twitter. My experiences in this social space forced me to take a critical lens to my professional practice as well as that of my staff in my school.  Over time my primary use of social media shifted from communicator to learner. It was this shift that got me thinking about how tools could be used to amplify the fantastic work of my teachers, administrators, and students to showcase efficacy in improving school culture. It all comes down to this. If you don’t tell your story, then someone else will. I learned quickly that it was in our best interests to be proactive in this endeavor.

My strategy was to implement a multi-faceted approach that utilized a variety of tools beyond just Twitter and single media sources with the ultimate goal of sharing and engaging more with stakeholders. The digital world allows all educators to become the storyteller-in-chief, something that I first discussed in detail in Digital Leadership years ago.  In both BrandED and Learning Transformed, the concept of building better relationships as a result of improved community engagement was discussed through both a research and innovative practice lens. Along with video, pictures were one of the most potent artifacts that I used to tell our story through greater context. Apparently, there was a reason for this. Take a look at the visuals below, and you will see very quickly why my first inclination was to capture an image and then share using a variety of options.




Each picture provided a more detailed look at how our learners were purposefully using technology to either support or enhance learning.  They also were used to showcase how my staff was effectively integrating innovative practices to improve learning outcomes.  In other cases, images painted a picture of how our students were serving others in the local community and beyond.  Contrary to popular belief, Twitter was not my preferred storytelling tool as a principal.  This designation went to Instagram. With this tool, I could quickly snap a picture, add a caption or context, and then not only share here but also to Twitter and Facebook. Hashtags were used to amplify locally, nationally, and globally. With Instagram having over one billion users it makes perfect sense that this platform should be at the center of all sharing efforts. On a side note, you can check out my Instagram account HERE.

One of the most important decisions I made early on during our digital transformation was to get into classrooms more to conduct observations, walk-throughs, and provide better feedback to my teachers. A commitment to instructional leadership helped pave the way to improving learning outcomes across the school. I quickly seized on the opportunity of being in classrooms more by talking to learners and taking pictures of their work. In a matter of seconds after leaving a room, I was able to share the pictures on social media. Many of these became the catalyst for more detailed blog posts that illustrated how theory and research were being implemented in a way that led to evidence of better results.



Regardless of your position, you can use pictures to showcase the greatness that happens in classrooms, schools, and districts across the globe.  I took pictures of everything, including plaques hanging in our hallways that celebrated impressive accomplishments relating to student achievement. Below is a quick list that can guide your image taking and sharing strategy:
  • Innovative practices: These can be pedagogical or even learning spaces. The key is to add context as to how these practices are leading to improvements in outcomes.
  • Artifacts: As a job-embedded coach I am always taking pictures of student work across all disciplines, assessments, what kids are doing on devices, and any tangible item that illustrates good practice.
  • Student achievement gains: It is important to share all types of success, including this. Plaques, banners, newspaper articles all make for powerful pictures that can be quickly shared.
  • Culture: Everything that falls between, around, or outside classrooms and school that depicts how the needs of the whole child are being met make for compelling pictures. Pep rallies, staff comradery, service projects, internship experiences, capstone projects, and field trips are just a small sampling of what can be shared to illustrate a thriving school culture.
As the title of this post implies, a picture is worth a thousand words and our brain loves them. How good is your current strategy at taking advantage of this?