Sunday, January 12, 2020

Removing the Stigma of Observations

As a teacher, I always dreaded observations early in my career. It wasn’t because I didn’t find them valuable or was torn apart. On the contrary, I found them to be an excellent opportunity to see how I was doing. The science supervisor at the time was extremely diligent in his narrative and always provided both commendations and at least one area where I could improve. My issue was that nerves always took over as I wanted to perform my best. Each observation was fair, and I still had the opportunity to offer my perspective on any areas where I didn’t agree with what my supervisor saw or thought.

When I became a principal, I worked extremely hard to make sure the observation process for my teachers was not only fair but also valuable. Many of my staff routinely commented on how diligent I was in the write-up of each report to capture all aspects of the lesson while offering tangible strategies for improvement. Herein lies the goal of any observation of a teacher or administrator, and that is feedback for growth. Unfortunately, this is not how it is either viewed by some teachers or implemented by administrators.

Many educators downright disregard the entire process as being valuable. I have either read or been challenged by some teachers on social media that they don’t want administrators in their classrooms. If this is the case, then there are probably two issues at play. Either a teacher is not being open to feedback and getting better, or an administrator is not creating a meaningful experience that leads to growth. No matter the reason for animosity, a need for shared ownership to improve the process might be needed.  

Instructional leadership should always be a top priority for any administrator regardless of his or her position. The key is to focus on continually growing in this area while building relationships with teachers in the process. Below are some strategies that can be used by administrators to remove the stigma of observations.
  • Stay the entire lesson.
  • Never make it an “I gotcha” moment.
  • Allow the teacher to align artifacts that show the entire picture. These can be detailed lesson plans, assessments, performance tasks, student work, use of data to improve instruction, modifications for ELL/SPED learners, portfolios, or professional learning opportunities.
  • Align research and pedagogical evidence to recommendations for growth and improvement (see point above).
  • Schedule the post-conference in a timely manner (1-2 days is preferable).
  • During the post-conference, make sure it is a dialogue, not a monologue. Since observations are subjective, it is crucial to be open to changes after engaging in a conversation and looking at the evidence.
  • Ask the right questions to spur reflection.
  • Ensure that some of the feedback can be implemented right away. For areas that need more time, make sure the proper supports in the form of time and professional learning opportunities are made available.
  • Provide opportunities for self-reflection after the post-conference.
  • Integrate observations as one component of a comprehensive evaluation that consists of portfolios and student feedback.
  • Reduce teacher anxiety by routinely visiting classrooms through a non-evaluative walk-through process. This will also make students more comfortable and when a formal observation does take place both groups will be used to seeing the administrator in the classroom and the lesson can more easily go as planned.
Now the strategies above place the burden of responsibility on the back of the administrator to do his or her part to remove the stigma of observations. However, it is equally essential for the teacher to play his or her role. That means being open to feedback, extending an open invite to admin and peers to visit their classroom, eliciting student feedback as a means to grow, and working to implement recommendations that are noted in the final observation report. Only together can teachers and administrators get the process right.

Means of evaluation are a reality in almost every type of job. Education is no different. Observations are the primary component of an annual performance review in schools. Instead of outright discounting or conducting them in ineffective and meaningless ways, let’s work to improve the process. In the end, all, including our learners, will benefit.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

What Could Be

With the beginning of each new year, it seems like everyone on the planet is either talking about or embarking on some type of resolution. I will be the first one to say that this used to be me each and every year. In almost every case, I tried to commit to something health-related like getting to the gym more or eating better. However, as time has passed, I have reflected on this annual tradition and deemed it to be quite silly in the greater scheme of things. Why should it take the passing of each new year to commit to change on both a professional and personal level? As such, I have not made nor pursued any resolution in many years.

An article by Mary Ellen Tribby in the Huffington Post sums up quite nicely why New Year’s resolutions don’t work:
As a matter of fact according to a study by The University of Scranton’s Journal of Clinical Psychology, only 39% of people in their twenties achieve their resolution goals each year.
And the number keeps decreasing with age. By the time you are in your fifties only 14% of people achieve their resolution goals each year. So why is this? Well there are a few reasons:

  • We bite off big chunks that aren’t realistic. Essentially we go from doing nothing to saying we will do everything.
  • We make commitments based on other people’s expectations. We worry too much of what other people are thinking instead of asking ourselves, what will make “me” happy?
  • We don’t have the right mindset. We have not made that internal shift.
Waiting for the new year to embark on an improvement, goal, or innovative idea could very well translate into missed opportunities.
If you don’t ever try something new, then you will never know what could have been.

Growth is an ongoing and never-ending journey. It shouldn’t be aforethought at the beginning of the year, but something that all of us focuses on continuously. Consider what holds you back from setting new goals and reaching them throughout the year. The next logical step is to shift your thinking. By embracing a growth mindset, pursuing something new becomes business as usual as opposed to unusual.

Pursue your passions.

Take calculated risks.

Move outside your comfort zone.

Face your fears head-on.

Focus on the “what ifs” instead of the “yeah buts.”

By focusing on the above, a new mantra of what could be will result. Forget waiting until the year changes to develop a resolution that might not stick and run the risk of pondering what could have been. Instead, invest in yourself consistently by believing in yourself to live in the now. By doing so, you will be more prone to reap the rewards of what could be.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Top Posts of 2019

Well, another year of writing has passed, and it was a big one as 2019 marked ten years since I began my blogging journey. To still be churning out posts on a weekly basis is quite the accomplishment for a guy who never wrote nor intended to write for a public audience. For me, the push I needed came from Ken Royal, who, after hearing what we were doing at New Milford High School and then visiting, stated unequivocally that I had to share our story. Well, after begrudgingly agreeing to pen some guest posts for him, I built up my confidence and launched my blog in March of 2019. After that, the rest is history.

Blogging has certainly changed over the past ten years. Back in the day, a typical post would garner numerous comments. They would also serve as a catalyst for vibrant Twitter conversations. Another change has come in the form of developing unique topics or spins on what is already out in cyberspace. For me, in particular, I have experienced a great deal of difficulty trying to determine what I want to write about in that I want each piece to either add to existing conversations or be an entirely new take. Often ideas pop into my head when I am sleeping, and I immediately wake up to type them into a note file I have on my iPhone. However, the best ideas for blog posts I get come from coaching in schools. Here I get to experience firsthand how many of the ideas that are talked about on social media and at conferences are successfully implemented into practice.

Without further ado, here are my top posts of 2019.

The Pedagogy of Blended Learning

Blended instruction is what the teacher does with technology. Blended learning is where students use tech to have control over path, place, and pace. There should always a focus first and foremost on ensuring that sound pedagogical design serves as a foundation. In this post, I pull on extensive observations and work with schools to identify instructional strategies, essential elements, most successful models, and effective technology solutions that work to create pedagogically sound blended learning experiences.

The Problem with Zeros

To say that this post generated some buzz on Twitter would be quite the understatement. Punishing learners with zeros destroys both morale and a love of learning by digging a hole that many cannot recover from (nor do they have any aspirations to do so). They also create a mirage in terms of what was actually learned. If a grade does not reflect learning, then what’s the point? We owe it to our students to pave a better path forward. 

The Future of Work

Change is not only on our doorstep, but it is about to kick the darn door in. The future of work requires new skills, and it is up to K-12 education to lead the charge in this area. Skills are not enough, in my opinion. Yes, we want learners to have the requisite skills to meet the needs and demands inherent in the 4th Industrial Revolution. More importantly, it is our duty and the role of education to ensure that they are competent. Empowering our learners to think critically and solve real-world problems is paramount.

The Two Most Important Questions to Ask to Determine if Learning is Taking Place

Keep it simple stupid. Are kids thinking? How are kids applying their thinking in relevant ways? This post explores how the Rigor Relevance Framework can be used as a practical way to determine the answers to both of these questions by looking at the level of questioning and the tasks that kids are engaged in. 

Digital Leadership: Leading Change from Where You Are

Leading change is about identifying intended outcomes, applying an innovative lens, and arriving at outcomes in better, more effective ways no matter your position or title. The Pillars of Digital Leadership represents a framework for all educators to initiate and sustain innovative change that aligns with the core work that already serves as the foundation for every school or district learning culture. The premise is to do what we already do better by working smarter, not harder.

Here's to an amazing 2020 everyone. Thanks for all that you do for kids.  

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Mitigating #EdTech Issues in the Classroom

With all the promise that educational technology holds, several pitfalls are always on the minds of educators. The top two issues that commonly come up in my talks with educators are the technology (Internet, hardware, devices, apps) not working or off-task behavior on the part of students.  While there are some serious challenges that can derail any lesson, there are some strategic ways to mitigate them ground in instructional design. Here are some of the most commonly implemented strategies, which I will describe in more detail in this post.
  • Classroom Management
  • Pedagogically sound lessons
  • Monitoring
  • Accountability for learning
  • Feedback
  • Assessment
Classroom Management

It is tough to argue the fact that many learners will quickly go off and remain off task if a classroom is not managed effectively. The key above all else is to build positive relationships with kids. One great way to do this is to co-construct rules with them as well as ramifications if they are not followed or broken. Addressing issues immediately as they arise, re-directing adverse behaviors, and utilizing positive reinforcement at opportune times all aid in creating a classroom conducive to learning.

Pedagogically Sound Lessons

If you are a reader of this blog, then you know that this is one area that I focus on extensively with my writing. Instructional design is one of the best deterrents to off-task behavior. If a student, or adult for that matter, is bored, then we better accept what might happen. It is critical to get kids so immersed in their learning that they don’t think about surfing the web aimlessly, texting their friends, or accessing social media. Sound pedagogy consists of effective instructional strategies that involve all learners, a focus on higher-order thinking skills, scaffolding techniques, construction of new knowledge, and relevant application of thinking. Mitigating edtech related issues rests on authentically engaging as many learners as possible.


If kids are given a task to complete on a device, whether independently, in cooperative groups, or as a part of many different blended learning models, sitting or standing in the same place in the front of the room might lead to unintended consequences. During situations like this is when I commonly observe kids focused on anything but the learning at hand. It is vital to move about the room to not only look at what is on a learner’s screen but to also be in a position to either re-direct any off-task behavior or provide needed guidance. 

Accountability for learning

When I say accountability, I am not talking about grades. I can go on and on about the fact that many grading practices are outdated, ineffective, and do not adequately reflect what a student has learned. What I am referring to are specific strategies that keep kids focused on the task at hand while ensuring that his or her part in the learning process is completed. Some ways to accomplish this include assigning equitable roles to each individual student in a cooperative group, handing in an assignment, developing performance tasks where a product is created, or using digital tools in a way where every student can report out using his/her real name.


Continuous feedback is essential on so many levels. It helps to justify a grade, establishes criteria for improvement, provides motivation for the next assessment, reinforces good work, and serves a catalyst for reflection. Blended learning strategies lend themselves to providing continuous feedback during class time, which in turn helps to keep kids on task. Keep in mind that it doesn’t have to be just a teacher to teacher pathway. Creating opportunities for learners to give each other peer feedback is just as valuable.


I would be remised if I didn’t include this strategy.  Assessment determines whether learning occurred, what learning occurred, and if the learning relates to stated targets, standards, and objectives. For many learners knowing that they will ultimately be assessed based on the activities and tasks they have engaged in increases attentive behavior. A variety of strategies beyond traditional tests can be used, such as performance-based activities, portfolios, and rubrics.

The reality is that no matter how well you implement the above strategies, the chances are that a few students might still go off task.  I am a realist. It is extremely challenging, no matter how great the lesson is, to engage each and every learner. What I do know is that the strategies listed above will help to mitigate common issues that arise when technology is utilized in the classroom. So, what did I miss? Please share any other successful strategies that you have successfully implemented.