Sunday, October 19, 2014

Professional Learning School Leaders Need and Deserve

During my ten years as a school leader, I dreaded professional development days in my district. I am not sure any educator looks forward to these monotonous experiences (developed under the guise of learning!) that are supposed to provide us with new skills and knowledge to do our jobs better. If in-district professional development wasn't bad enough, I also attended my fair share of workshops and conferences that were a complete waste of time. I attended many of these events just to meet the required hours of professional development. The problem here was that the experience focused on hours of time on task, not on the learning itself. More often than not, PD is something that has been done to us rather than something we as educators, want to engage in. These experiences made me and others come to the conclusion that professional development, or “PD,” as it is often referred to, is broken.

The overarching problem stems from the fact that PD is driven by external forces and outside agendas. These forces can come in the form of mandates from the federal and state governments or broad needs defined by the districts we work in. Whatever the case, the end result is rarely an invigorating learning experience, and time is rarely well-spent. It is uncommon to leave PD sessions with applicable ideas and strategies that we can implement immediately to positively change school culture.

The key for me was taking control of my learning and engaging in activities that aligned with my professional passions. I experienced firsthand the value of these learning activities as sustainable change and cultural transformation took hold at my school. My epiphany, so to say, changed my entire outlook on modes of professional development and led to the discovery of a practice area in digital leadership. All resulting learning activities focused on practical pathways that helped me to do what I was already doing better. The best part of this journey was the tangible results that followed.

We need to get at the heart of what embodies great leadership and engage in learning experiences that have professional value to us while honoring our precious time. You can attend all the compulsory PD events imposed by outside pressures or take a different path that will truly make a difference. To begin the process of correcting this pervasive issue, let's agree to move the focus from professional development to professional learning. The next step is to identify the most pressing needs for our schools and districts that align with potential improvements in professional practice. Finally, the time comes to zero in on quality learning experiences that will enhance your leadership skills, supporting you in the construction of new knowledge and the acquisition of dynamic skills to move your organization forward.

My observations of the inherent problems with traditional PD have informed my thinking about my consultancy (Aspire Change EDU) by developing valuable digital leadership learning experiences in response to requests from leaders across the country. The goal is to break the mold of traditional PD. Instead of traditional, sit-and-get training, We provide learning opportunities that are interactive, hands-on, collaborative, relevant to practitioners’ daily roles, designed by innovative practitioners, and packed with practical strategies that can be used immediately.

Our overall goal at Aspire Change EDU is to provide the best support for leaders and aspiring leaders in schools today. Reach out to learn how we might be able to support you. 

Sunday, October 12, 2014

One Day That Changed Everything

I was just like every other principal on the planet prior to becoming connected. My narrow focus was on sustaining a school culture focused on rules, compliance, conformity, and preserving the status quo. The end goal was to make sure standardized test scores increased (or at least didn’t go down) and traditions were preserved.  On the inside everything was great. Students and staff seemed happy while the community was supportive of our efforts.  Each monotonous day began with students arriving at school and then going directly to their first-period class where they sat in desks arranged orderly rows.  After listening to the daily announcements the delivery of instruction began. My compliant students then went through their rigid eight-period day schedule with each class lasting forty-eight minutes.  At the end of each class, an annoying bell would notify everyone in the school that it was time to continue through the repetitive process.  Throw in a few specialized programs, assemblies, and pep rallies that this was basically the schedule we all followed each and every day.

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It is scary to think that the culture I describe above is still prevalent in the majority of schools across the country.  The reality is that school for most students is the polar opposite of the real world. Thus they come to school knowing that they will sit through endless lectures, endure the same lessons that have been delivered year after year, be assigned homework that does nothing to support learning, be given assessments that require little thought because they are easy to grade, and have to succumb to numerous rules that are meant to make sure they conform more than learn.  Getting through the curriculum aligned to Common Core has become the driving force in many schools as pressure is mounting with high stakes testing looming right around the corner. This would have been our reality at my school as well if it weren’t for one moment in time that changed everything.

During my first couple of years as principal, I was in a rut and didn’t know it. I led my school in a way that I was brainwashed into thinking was the only way. Education had become more about schooling than learning. Then it happened. My epiphany came in 2009 when I begrudgingly decided to give Twitter a try to improve communications with my stakeholders. Little did I know that this moment in time would totally redefine my purpose in education. As my behavior shifted from communicator to learner I immediately discovered how blinded I was by a system so entrenched in methodologies and practices designed for a period in time that had long past. I learned how to unlearn and then relearn through conversations I began having with passionate educators across the globe. These conversations empowered me to begin the process of taking my school in a better direction for the sake of my students.  

My connected colleagues provided daily inspiration, support, feedback, resources, ideas, and strategies that I used to grow as an educator and leader. As my fixed mindset evolved into one more focused on growth the seeds for change were planted and began to take root. With a diligent focus on modeling changes to school culture slowly began to be embraced by teachers and students alike.  This was not an easy journey.  During the beginning years, I felt more isolated from my colleagues across my district and state than ever before. They did not see nor care to hear about the inherent value in connected learning.  Excuses often followed as a bunker mentality overshadowed the potential value that lied in using social media to become a better leader and learner. The only thing that kept me going was that once I had experienced the value for myself there was no turning back.  

At this point, I feel the results speak for themselves.  New Milford High School became a globally recognized model for what is possible in education during my tenure as Principal and it all started when I became connected. After that, my role in the transformation process was placing my teachers and students in a position to experience the value for them.  Change became a collaborative and collective process that resulted in a school more focused on learning and one that worked better for kids than adults.  With all the challenges brought about by current education reform efforts, we moved forward with a bold vision for growth and innovation.  Even though learning across all spectrums looked different, achievement rose in virtually every area.  More importantly though was the fact that students appreciated the changes. Had I not become connected I can say with certainty that my school would not have changed.

This post is not meant to preach to the choir. It is my goal that it can be shared with the unconnected in the hopes that they will give connected learning a chance and ultimately reap the endless rewards that follow.  Our job to connect more educators is often fraught with frustration, ridicule, and disrespect, as we appear different. We cannot let this deter our efforts as all students deserve schools that provide them with the skills that our society now demands and expects. Keep pushing forward and thank you for all that you have done for me. 

Thursday, October 2, 2014

School Leadership in the Common Core Era

The following is a guest post by Dr. Andrea Honigsfeld, Dr. Maria G. Dove, and Dr. Audrey Cohan. Check out their book titled Beyond Core Expectations: A Schoolwide Framework for Serving the Not-So-Common Learner published by Corwin.
Leaders who have deeper and more lasting impact provide more comprehensive leadership than focusing just on higher standards. (Michael Fullan, 2002, p. 16)
Prompted by the ongoing overhaul of school systems throughout the country and the rapid institution of new standards and other reforms for school improvement, we have found that many school districts had little time to develop a comprehensive course of action for the instruction of typically developing students, let alone their growing populations of youngsters with diverse academic and linguistic needs. It appears that much of the focus for improvement has been on creating rigorous classroom instruction to increase student achievement measured by the highly contested standardized tests. Nonetheless, we contend that a concentration on the enhancement of teaching skills and strategies is not enough. What we have uncovered in the field from our research, school visits, classroom observations, and assessment of programs, policies, and practices in K–12 public schools that serve the not-so-common learner resulted in our most recent joint publication entitled Beyond Core Expectations: A Schoolwide Framework for Serving the Not-So-Common Learner (Dove, Honigsfeld, & Cohan, 2014). 

Why we have chosen to title this work Beyond Core Expectations is twofold. First, we offer a much-needed framework for the education of diverse learners. This framework not only incorporates recommendations for schoolwide literacy practices, integrated curricula, and broad-based instructional strategies for diverse learners but also integrates ideas for school communities to examine what they collectively value to promote an understanding and respect for the talents and challenges of special student populations. Second, we advocate for the development of an action plan for educating the not-so-common learners that is research-based, achievable, and reaches beyond any current educational reform initiative for school improvement.

Who Are the Not-So-Common Learners?

Public schools are attended by students from various cultural, linguistic, and socio-economic backgrounds, having different assessed levels of cognitive and academic ability. In our attempt to identify these youngsters, we hope to better serve them through our advocacy for a school-wide framework to support their learning needs. As for this, common characteristics and criteria associated with the not-so-common learner include the following:

  • English Learners (ELs). These are students who are either foreign-born immigrants or US-born citizens of immigrant parents, speak a language other than English, and have yet to develop proficient skills (listening, speaking, reading, or writing) in English. 
  • Students with Interrupted or Limited Formal Education (SIFE). A subgroup of English learners, these school-aged youngsters often have significant gaps in their education and, on the average, two years or less schooling than their same age peers.
  • Students with Disabilities. Pupils with special learning needs due to physical and/or mental impairments who require special assistance to meet with academic success.
  • Nonstandard English Speaking Children. Often racially and/or ethnically diverse, these US born students speak a dialect of English in their communities and have yet to acquire standard American English skills. 
  • Children of Poverty. Youngsters under the age of 18 whose families have incomes below the US poverty threshold; approximately 16 million of America’s poor are children who are often malnourished, live in substandard housing, and have unequal access to educational opportunities.
  • Struggling Learners. Students who are not performing at grade level in the core subject matters (Dove & Honigsfeld, 2013, pp. 3-4)

Based on seminal and emerging research, exemplary and promising practices in the field, and our own synthesis of the knowledge base available, we developed a framework to support the instruction of academically and linguistically diverse pupils. The framework includes the following six components:

  1. A shared and inclusive vision and mission—first and foremost established for all students—reached through consensus and setting the groundwork for educational equity for our diverse learners through a shared set of values developed for the teaching special populations of students
  2. School-wide, disciplinary literacy that directly focuses on the teaching of academic language and literacy skills across subject areas so that all students can have access to rigorous content, language, and literacy learning opportunities in the core subject areas
  3. Mapping and alignment of an integrated curriculum to ensure that instructional content and practices for academically and linguistically diverse pupils are consistent with standards and appropriate learning outcomes for all students
  4. Collaborative planning, instruction, and assessment among teams of teachers—content-area, ESL, special education, and literacy, among others—to foster the use of teaching and learning strategies as well as assessment practices to make academic material comprehensible for all learners
  5. Explicit instruction for developing  literacy and language-learning strategies that foster students’ understanding of their own thinking and learning processes while acquiring content information
  6. Student engagement—actively involving students in the learning process—so they may be better prepared to think critically, work both collaboratively and independently, and remain persistent in their endeavors 

With this framework, we continue to advocate for learners with academic and linguistic diversity. We uphold—first and foremost—the need for establishing a shared vision and mission and building a commitment to schoolwide literacy practices. With these two components in place, the curriculum can be mapped and aligned with educational equity and schoolwide literacy in mind. Next, teachers work collaboratively to plan both instruction and assessment using the curriculum maps. Planning leads to the development of explicit strategy instruction that includes guided practice and collaborative student work—which ultimately fosters high levels of student engagement. 


Dove, M. G., & Honigsfeld, A. (2013). Common Core for the not-so-common learner: 
     English language arts strategies grades K-5. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Dove, M. G., Honigsfeld, A., & Cohan, A. (2014). Beyond core expectations: A 
     schoolwide framework for serving the not-so-common learner. Thousand Oaks, CA: 

Fullan, M. (2002). The change leader. Educational Leadership, 59(8), 16-21.