Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Turning the Tide

Over the past two years I have seen some dramatic shifts in an effort to transform New Milford High School into a 21st Century institution of teaching and learning.  With a change in mindset and a great deal of support, I have been able to successfully empower my staff to integrate a variety of digital tools, including social media, to engage learners.  The other day USA Today writer Greg Toppo highlighted some of the advances we have made in his article entitled "Social Media Find Place in Classroom."  I'm not going to lie, I was a very proud principal reading this article as it clearly showed me how far we have come in terms of creating a vision for learning and communicating that is more in line with societal shifts.  This vision has now become our reality.
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The problem though is that a large majority of stakeholders throughout the world think that the integration of technology is not essential in the classroom.  Furthermore, the perception out there is that educators and schools who are utilizing 21st Century tools for teaching and learning are doing a disservice to learners.  Here are some of the specific comments from the USA Today article:
  • It is a shame they don't worry more about the kids not knowing how to read or write. Most of the high school grads don't even know their time table.
  • Stupid educators teaching stupid kids, sad.
  • More evidence of the "dumbing-down" of society. Stupid media like USA To-shmay buying into it, of course. Put the cell phones and calculators aways, stay off the waste-o-time websites and GET TO LEARNIN'!
  • Okay, now I have heard it all. Digitally literate is not the same as having literacy skills that are useful for employment or in our greater society. This just encourages illiteracy in the skills that are most important to make these kids productive members of society.
  • Lowering the bar yet again. I would say that they'll pay for it in the long run, however, I'm finding that the employers are dumbing things for the dumber workforce they are getting. And the sad thing is, they'll never know or care what they are ignorant of.
  • Nothing like a digital kid showing up for a hands-on job.  Makes for great humor.

Unfortunately the comments above represent the never-ending battle that passionate educators face across the world who understand the pedagogical significance of effective technology integration.  I know I am preaching to the choir, but it really angers me that people who have no background in education, have never stepped foot in a school on a regular basis, and are so disconnected from the real world, can make assumptions that ultimately inhibit change.  In terms of the context of the USA Today article, social media is NOT replacing anything.  At NMHS we place an emphasis on sound pedagogy, and only after this is ensured technology is integrated.  All one has to do is read THIS POST to see all that NMHS is doing with and without technology in order to provide our students with a quality education.

It is time to turn the tide!  Technology is a tool, just like a blackboard, pencil, paper, or transparency, utilized during the teaching and learning process.  The difference though is that it is a dynamic tool that allows students to communicate, connect, collaborate, and create like never before. It allows teachers to measure and schools to promote.  Schools will become irrelevant unless they evolve and stay in line with societal shifts.  To do so, we must open our eyes and better understand today’s learners.  I am proud to say that my school, and many others, are up to this challenge and will continue to ignore the naysayers.  If you need even more rationale for effective technology integration in schools read this post by Scott McLeod.  George Couros does and exceptional job highlighting some concrete examples of successful technology integration in his post entitled "Tell More Stories."

I hope to expand this post and submit a piece to the Huffington Post.  Please consider providing a counter-argument to the statements above in the comment section.  Let’s collectively send a powerful message about the important role technology and social media play in preparing all students with a blueprint for success.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Framework for Embedded Professional Development

Life-long learning is an essential characteristic found amongst effective educators and something that should be modeled for our students. With so many changes occurring in the field of educational technology, curriculum, pedagogy, and law, it is imperative that educators receive opportunities for growth in their school. Additionally, they should be provided with the knowledge and foundation to develop a Personal Learning Network. This will enable them to learn more according to their diverse interests and passions.

Time seems to a common theme when it comes to lack of teacher participation in after school professional development opportunities. This is completely understandable as many teachers are involved with students after school through athletics, extracurricular activities, and extra help, not to mention grading and getting materials ready for the next day. During a conversation with teacher leaders last year about improving how professional development is offered in a meaningful fashion, a model from the business world was suggested.  This would incorporate training and other professional growth activities embedded within the school day.

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After some thought and discussion with colleagues in NJ, the light bulb went on for me . I quickly realized that the current school schedule presented the perfect solution to make better use of the time available in order to offer meaningful professional development during the day in the form of non-instructional duties (waste of valuable time in my opinion). The plan that my administrative team and I are now developing drastically reduces the amount of non-instructional duties the teachers have, such as lunch, hall, and in-school suspension duty.   It also reduces the periods during the week that staff members will perform those duties that are retained.  This change would then free up virtually every teacher for 48 minutes 2 or 3 times per week depending on the semester.  

The vision then for staff members during this professional growth period will be to create innovative learning activities, develop interdisciplinary projects, and engage in professional development.  At the heart of the professional development piece could be PD 360, which we are currently researching. We are ecstatic about this more effective use of time.  What do you think?  Any feedback and suggestions are greatly appreciated!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Qualities of Effective Principals

Cross-posted at the Huffington Post: Effective Leadership in the Age of Reform.

School improvement efforts rely heavily on quality leadership.   Educational leaders are tasked with establishing a collective vision for school improvement and initiating change to spur innovation, ensure student learning, and increase achievement.  On July 13th I had the pleasure of hearing Dr. James Strong, from the College of William and Mary, deliver a keynote address at the NJ Department of Education Leadership Institute entitled “Qualities of Effective Principals.”  Dr. Strong emphasized that the job of a principal, or school leader for that matter, is about making a difference in the lives of children.  Leading and teaching are challenging work that requires a high level of understanding and patience. 

What do good principals do?  The audience at the leadership institute identified what they perceived to be the top elements.  These included the following items below where I have added some of my personal thoughts:
  • Great communicator: Principals need to be able to communicate what the school is all about.  School leaders don’t always do the best in terms of epitomizing effective communication.  In terms of evaluations, we can’t keep telling teachers that they are doing good work when they are not.  Being a direct communicator is often lost during discussions on teacher performance.
  • Difference maker:  Principals need to be able to keep the focus on important initiatives and culture characteristics that have an impact on student learning and achievement.  They establish accountability measures to hold teachers and students accountable for learning.    Great principals see solutions, not just problems.
  • Risky, but not too risky:  Principals have to be willing to try new things and have a mindset to keep trying until improvement is the end result.  They need a backstop of support that allows them to fail in these efforts.  The most effective decision makers take risks but do not bet the farm or take quantum leaps without knowing the end result.
  • Manage by walking around: Principals that consistently walk around know the students can better identify areas where teachers can improve, and set the tone for practices to be emulated throughout the building.  The human factor is extremely important.  Great principals establish a positive school culture by treating people the way they would like to be treated.  How we smile, say hello, and engage in conversations all are important factors in setting a positive tone.
  • Address problems:  Strong principals will do the hard, dissatisfying work associated with addressing and removing ineffective staff.  This requires addressing problems head-on with a positive attitude. When hiring new staff, principals need to go to great efforts to hire educators that align best with the vision of the school.
  • Cares about students and staff:  Effective principals never give up on kids and their support staff.  They are the epitome of instructional leadership and will show teachers how to become more effective based on evaluative data.
As noted by Dr. Strong, the elements above are important at a personal level.  He then identified the following indicators of principal quality that is supported by research.
  • Instructional leadership: building a vision, establishing a shared leadership model, leading a learning community, using data, and monitoring curriculum & instruction.  The most effective teachers seamlessly use multiple instructional strategies during a lesson and good principals can identify them.
  • School climate: creating a positive culture, establishing high expectations, adhering to a practice of respect.
  • Human resource administration:  hiring quality teachers & other staff, inducting & supporting current staff, providing meaningful opportunities for growth, retaining quality staff, and effectively evaluating teacher performance.
  • Organization management: safety, daily operations, facilities maintenance, and securing & using resources to increase student achievement.
  • Communication and community relations: effective communicator with all stakeholder groups.
  • Professionalism: ethical standards, serves as a role model, models life-long learning.
Now more than ever schools need great leaders.  As the reform movement continues to swell across the country more eyes will be on the principal, as well as other district leaders, and their ability to ensure student learning and increase achievement.  The task now at hand is to develop a plan on how to support principal effectiveness while developing an evaluation tool that will help us do the best job possible for the students that we serve.

For more information in this area check out the resources at NASSP.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Noblest Profession

Cross-posted at the Huffington Post: What is Wrong With This Picture?

All across the country, education is under attack on numerous fronts. No matter where you look, educators are to blame for the economic woes in many states.  This is extremely puzzling to me, as it is well known that this downturn in our economy was a result of misguided, unregulated, or greedy practices of the private sector.  Educators then became the scapegoats as a message of “shared sacrifice” swept the country. 

How this makes sense to anyone is beyond me.   Consider that the average starting teacher salary is $40,000 and may approach $85,000 after 25 years of service, nearing retirement.  So now, as states cry foul about their unprecedented budget gaps, educators are made to look like kings and queens because of their pensions and health benefits.  Isn’t it funny how everyone made fun of educators for choosing a profession that paid so little when the private sector was raking in the cash from the late 90’s through 2006?  Like virtually every educator in our country, I didn’t go into this profession to become wealthy.  I wanted to make a positive difference in the lives of students and hopefully inspire them, like so many of my teachers did me, to be life-long learners and pursuers of dreams.  

Recently NJ was the latest state to pass landmark employee legislation curtailing the collective bargaining rights of state employees, including educators.   It was an extremely sad day for me personally, as I saw my grandmother and parents, retired educators who dedicated themselves to helping all students learn, have their pensions targeted by politicians who have never stepped foot in a classroom.   Is this how we now treat people that made one of the most important decisions of their lives to make less money in the field of education as opposed to more lucrative positions in other lines of work?  How do we not value the work that these retirees did for our schools and children to help catapult our country to such an elite status? 

What concerns me even more is how the work of educators is being devalued to the point that no one will want to pursue one of the most rewarding careers available.  More than ever the field needs passionate individuals who have the drive, patience, and character to work with students that have diverse learning needs.  As the seemingly relentless attacks continue, the incentive to become a part of the noblest profession decreases to a point that might be irreparable. 

One might ask why I refer to education as the noblest profession.  My answer stems from the fact that education is what makes all other professions possible.  Take a minute and think about other career paths – doctors, lawyers, engineers, mechanics, scientists, politicians, entrepreneurs – and ask yourself if any level of education has had a impact on that person’s ability to perform and succeed in those jobs.  I think your answer would be a resounding yes.  It is time for the negative rhetoric, demonizing, and punishment of the education profession to stop.  If anything, we need to work harder to establish education as one of the most esteemed career paths as other countries have done.  We have to treat those people who are, or were, in the classrooms with respect and dignity.  In my opinion, blaming teachers for economic turmoil caused by others will continue to have an adverse effect on the quality of those entering the profession as well as a domino effect on every other profession.  I see something wrong with this picture, do you?