What I Learned from Two Top Schools

What I Learned from Two Top Schools

This week I got the opportunity to travel out of state, to evaluate and learn from two of our nation’s highest performing urban schools. Representing the National Center for Urban School Transformation (NCUST), I was able to get ‘up close and personal’ with these schools, their leaders, the teachers, and the families that put their trust (and their kids) in them.

NCUST exists to improve (and transform) education by identifying, celebrating and studying elementary, middle, and high schools that are among the most effective in the country.  Schools awarded by NCUST are not just good. They are exceptional. These schools are creating school cultures and implementing strategies that are working. Schools are seeing historically under-performing populations of students beat the odds. In these environments, English Learners are proficient at eye-popping levels.  Students who receive free and reduced lunch are out-performing many of their peers.   And ethnic categories are not predictive of assessment scores.

NCUST’s 2016 National Excellence in Urban Education Symposium is just around the corner. And after more than seven years of this work, NCUST released a book detailing best practices.  But there’s nothing like spending a day at one of their award-winning schools. After visiting two schools, on consecutive days, here’s what stands out to me:

1. Everyone feels fortunate to be at their school. Administrators rave about the their “family.” Most teachers have long tenures at the school and many enroll their own children. When talking about her pre-k daughter, one teacher shared, “I know she’ll be successful here. And that’s what I want for her.” Parents share that they “chose” the school, even if it was their neighborhood school by default.

2. School leaders are strong but trusting. Leaders at these effective schools know that teachers excel when they are trusted, challenged, and noticed for their efforts. An Assistant Superintendent of Instruction relayed, “While the ‘what’ [of teaching content] is non-negotiable, the ‘how’ is totally negotiable.” Teachers in these exceptional schools feel that the administrators trust them to meet the needs of their students, without prescriptive approaches. One teacher went so far to say, “Because our administrators trust us, we trust them when they ask us to try something out.” Teachers shared that they were visited quite often by administrators. But the visits were not threatening because administrators communicated a focus beforehand, provided feedback almost immediately, and pushed their staff improve, with great tact.

3. Children aren’t allowed to hide. Texas schools have small class sizes. This, no doubt, increases the chances that teachers will know their students well. But these exceptional schools make purposeful efforts to know their kids, and their skills. They have systematic ways of assessing students and monitoring their progress. They have small groups, inside and outside the classroom, to target student needs. And they keep parents in the loop. In short, students are known well and expected to achieve.

4. Community partnerships are nurtured. One school capitalizes on willing mentors, from a nearby church. Another uses trusted adults to help at pick-up and drop-off. Voting booths crowded the main hallway of one school, serving as a critical “Super Tuesday” community hub. In both places, value-added opportunities are offered to students as a result of the school’s posture and relationship with their communities.

5. Teachers are usually skilled, but always committed. We saw incredible teaching and learning. We saw effective strategies employed that gave students access to curriculum. Admittedly though, we saw a portion of mediocre teachers. But students are still achieving success. I attribute it to the teacher’s commitment. Teachers stayed after school to tutor their students. They naturally and openly collaborated with their colleagues. And they demonstrated a commitment to continual improvement.

6. Data analysis leads to individualized approaches. Student achievement data is taken seriously, analyzed frequently, and used to plan for instruction. Often, teachers form groups of students with similar needs for re-teaching. One grade level utilizes color-coded spreadsheets so that everyone could visualize the progress toward mastery of standards. This grade level ‘just happened’ to see 100% of their students achieve proficiency in math. Another grade level involves students in the tracking of their progress, using Data Folders.

7. Opportunities for enrichment abound. In both settings I observed, students had opportunities for further academic support and enrichment. From Lego clubs to ballroom dancing lessons, student curiosity had room to grow.  Many of these students would not have these kinds of opportunities, absent the school’s offerings.

8. English Learners have low-stakes opportunities to practice language.  The schools I visited had large percentages of English Learners. Amazingly, English Learners at these schools were performing at impressive levels.  I believe these students achieved, in part, because they were afforded low-threat opportunities to practice language skills.  Students often sat in groups.  Their language production was guided by teachers.  And ‘goofs’ weren’t punished with discrete snickering or permanent grades.  These students saw the classroom as a practice field.

Teaching Kids with Alarms Going Off:  Trauma-Equipped Educator Part 2

Teaching Kids with Alarms Going Off: Trauma-Equipped Educator Part 2

Bluuuooop! Bluuuuoooop! Bluuuuuooooop!

One moment I was teaching, pointing out brilliant uses of figurative language in literature. The next moment, I was flustered, confused about the piercing noises. Once I remembered that the fire alarm was indeed scheduled to occur, I was able to locate the emergency backpack, line students up, and get them to their designated safety location.

By the time I got students back into our room, the class’ limitations became apparent. Learning for that period was over. Soon enough, the passing bell rang, desks were straightened, and students filed out.

Fire drills occur roughly once a month in schools across America. But what would it be like if these were daily occurrences at our schools? What if alarms sounded multiple times throughout your school day, often without warning? Would you switch schools? Would you contemplate a career change? At what point would you deem it intolerable?

This is, in fact, how many of our students experience learning in our classrooms. Despite their best efforts, students find that their learning is too frequently disrupted by internal alarms, rooted in childhood trauma. These early life experiences, some of them in-utero, have fundamentally changed their brain make-up and wiring. Working with these children, educators and leaders must work to recognize the look and sound of these alarms. We should also work to understand what sets them off, wherever this is possible.

Despite their best efforts, students find that their learning is too frequently disrupted by internal alarms, rooted in childhood trauma.


What Happens in the Brain
Daniel Siegel, M.D. and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D, in The Whole-Brain Child describe two floors of our brains. The “downstairs” brain is formed at birth and functions for the purposes of survival. The “upstairs” brain isn’t fully formed until the age of twenty-one and is where thinking, decision making, emotional control, empathy, self-understanding, and morality happen. Humans need to access their upstairs brain to engage in deep learning and excel our classrooms.

The amygdala, an almond-sized part of the downstairs brain, is a key player in the limbic system. It functions as a watchdog, sensing possible danger and quickly alerting the body to either fight, run away or freeze. The amygdala pulls the fire alarm of the brain and effectively cuts off the upstairs brain. While this function is critical for human survival, it happens all too frequently for children who have experienced trauma in their lives.

Humans need to access their upstairs brain to engage in deep learning and excel our classrooms.


Impact on Learning
In our classrooms, hardly noticeable interactions or even environmental factors, set off alarms in the bodies of children. Students go from engaged learners to prehistoric dinosaurs, in a moment’s time. In the words of Siegel and Payne Bryson, “…not only is the upstairs under construction, but even the part of it that can function becomes inaccessible during moments of high emotion or stress.” It’s helpful for us to remember that this shift is often outside the control of our students. They are often stressed, anxious and dysregulated for reasons that even they are unaware of.

Students go from engaged learners to prehistoric dinosaurs, in a moment’s time.


Recognition is Key
If we, as educators and leaders, acknowledge that this dynamic is occurring frequently, for students we serve, then we are closer to supporting them. When we recognize fight, flight or freeze responses in our students, we know that self regulation is needed before deep learning can happen.  And if we recognize that, “….kids are often doing the best they can with the brain they have,” then we are that much closer to increasing learning for our kids!

“Kids are often doing the best they can with the brain they have.”

Image by Jim Nix via Flickr.
Beyond Required Reading:  “Between the World and Me”

Beyond Required Reading: “Between the World and Me”

Toni Morrison calls it required reading.  For school leaders, especially those of us in urban settings, I’d even go further.  For the leader, pushing themselves towards cultural competence, I’d go further than that.  And for those of us raising black sons in America, I’d go further still.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me is beyond required reading.   Here’s why:

  1. Your limited perspective will grow.  Chances are, African American students and families are among the diverse population you serve. And like me, perhaps you aren’t African American.  So you are limited in your perspective. Perhaps you never had to navigate mean streets and urban schools.  I didn’t.  But this is where I gladly live and lead now.  Comparing both spaces, Coates shares, “I suffered at the hands of of both [streets and schools] but I resent the schools more.” How could this be? Read on.
  2. You’ll get a nuanced, passionate, unbridled perspective of a black parent.  One reason the book is so compelling, is because it is a letter written by Coates, to his son.  The worries and convictions and conclusions he shares approximate those of parents we likely know and respect. He is adamant, for example, that, “Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. [They] are all we have, and they come to us endangered” (82).  He also goes on to share that black parents, “tell their black boys and black girls to be ‘twice as good’ which is to say, ‘accept half as much'”(90).  I recoil when Coates shares with his son, “You have been cast into a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heels” (107).  While this shouldn’t be, it probably is. And while Coates is one of 40 million black voices in our country*, we, as educators, should still take pause.
  3. You’ll wonder if our structures are too restrictive.  Perhaps our educational structures and approaches are too inflexible and impersonal.  We, myself included, expect our students to behave and fit into our school cultures.  Sure, we prioritize their learning. But many of our students struggle with being quiet, staying glued to their seats, and being led through pre-scripted learning activities. Coates interpreted his K-12 journey the following way,  “To be educated in my Baltimore mostly meant packing an extra number 2 pencil and working quietly.”  He shares, “I was a curious boy, but the schools were not concerned with curiosity.  They were concerned with compliance”(26). We have to wonder how many bright lights are being dimmed by worksheets and uniform classroom expectations.
  4. You’ll be reminded that establishing relevance for learning is critical.  As educators, we have a duty to answer the “why” for our students.  One of my professors, Dr. Douglas Fisher, calls it a justice issue. Students have a right to know why they are learning what they are learning because we will stand in judgement of them down the road. Coates shares a frustration about disconnection between learning and relevance.  “I remember sitting in my seventh-grade French class and not having any idea of why I was there. I did not know any French people, and nothing around me suggested I ever would” (26).  What would our classrooms look like if all students were convinced that their learning had future relevance?
  5. You’ll witness how a thirst to learn can transform a man.   While Coates plodded through his early education, his college experience proved transformational.  At Howard University, which he affectionately calls the Mecca, “The pursuit of knowing was freedom to me, the right to declare your own curiosities and follow them through all manner of books.” Burning questions pushed Coates well beyond required reading.  Writers and thinkers throughout the ages confirmed some beliefs and debunked others. They incited further questioning.  His thirst to learn is clear in the statement, “I was made for the library, not the classroom.”  What if this thirst to learn were adequately engaged in his early educational experience?
  6. You will be a better, more culturally competent, leader.  Cultural competence is a non-negotiable for urban school leaders today.  We lead students and families with unique histories, stories, passions and wounds.  Between the World and Me reminds us that realizing student achievement and meaningfully engaging parents will take a whole lot more than freshly published curriculum and morning ‘Coffee with the Principal’ meetings.  We’re going to have to spend time with families, listen well, and sit with their critiques.  A good start may be to assent that many families, many kids are ‘up against’ more. We should honor student interests, fan the flames of their curiosity, and push for more flexible school structures.  If we dare to make some drastic changes, we are more likely to end up with more brilliant minds, like Ta-Nehisi Coates.

*Statistic cited by Eugene Robinson on Morning Joe on 2/13/2016.

Trauma Took Me to School

Trauma Took Me to School

Raising Traumatized Minds
I didn’t set out to become an expert on childhood trauma. But I did choose to adopt. And this journey, taken together with my wife and children, has led me into deep, deep waters. I’ll be more clear:  Trauma took me to school.

Like all parents, I want the absolute best for my kids. I want to see them thrive. As a loving father, I am charged with guiding and teaching and supporting my kids. For our family, this has required far more than rides to soccer, help on homework and a balanced diet.

Because our children experienced significant, nay horrific, childhood trauma, our supportive efforts look much different. In addition to soccer practice, we’ve kept regular attachment therapy a priority. Along with annual well check-ups at the doctor, we’ve spent time with neuroscientists, interpreting brain maps. In addition to Fruity Pebble multi-vitamins, we’ve had to monitor psychotropic medication. And alongside teaching respect for elders, we’ve worked hard to give our kids skills for self-regulation.

In my own home:

  • My learning around this trauma and kids has approximated graduate level action-research.
  • My kids have functioned as master teachers.
  • Evenings of reading books about childhood trauma and attachment and brain functioning, have felt like cramming for finals.
  • Office hours with clinicians. therapists, and residential treatment staff have given our family hope, and taken us to school.

Impact on Teaching and Learning
And now, I bring this earned perspective and developing expertise to the world of education. Here, scores of children and families face similar challenges. The effects of trauma aren’t isolated to a child’s home experience, of course. Our kids, not just those fostered and adopted, bring trauma into our classrooms.

In fact, two million youth in our country are abused and neglected in our country each year. 1 in 5 children and adolescents suffer from mental illness. Bessel van der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, calls trauma, our most urgent public health issue.

Here’s how it plays out: We know (via the Ace study) that early abuse and neglect disrupts healthy functioning of the physiological systems. It ends up ravaging the physical and mental health of young people. It cripples their ability to function well socially. And it rewires the brain, seriously impairing areas dedicated to pleasure, engagement, control, and trust. With only limited capacity to stay self-regulated, learning in our classrooms suffer.

But van der Kolk reminds us that, “…we [now] have the knowledge necessary to respond effectively” (358).

The Charge
As educators, we have a responsibility to be trauma-informed. Beyond being informed, I believe that our school communities should be trauma-equipped. That is, we should employ practices, that we know to be effective, with kids who have faced early life trauma.

In the words of van der Kolk, “The greatest hope for traumatized, abused, and neglected children is to receive a good education in schools where they are seen and known, where they learn to regulate themselves, and where they can develop a sense of agency” (353).

I want to play a role in helping learning communities like mine accept the challenge to be #trauma-equipped. Will you join me on this journey of preparation and understanding?


Photo by Ian Burt via Flickr.

Six Administrative Moves that Encourage Co-Teaching Brilliance

Six Administrative Moves that Encourage Co-Teaching Brilliance

Administrators have a critical role to play in the setup, support, and celebration of exemplary co-teaching on their campuses.  Here’s why:

When teachers collaborate effectively, students are the real winners!


If we are serious about reaching all students, then we need to set up teachers (and co-teachers) for success.  As administrators, here are some concrete action items you can employ to increase the chances for co-teaching brilliance on your campus!

1. Become a purposeful matchmaker.

As a college basketball coach, a central challenge I faced was putting the right mix of 5 players on the court, at the same time. Decisions weren’t always about talent or seniority. Chemistry and decision-making were critical factors too. As school leaders, we should use a variety of factors before we pair co-teachers together.

2. Crank that master calendar.

The master calendar, at any school, can be a bear. Competing priorities, current staffing, and enrollment demographics can create some serious challenges. I am suggesting that administrators take extra efforts to make the most promising teacher pairings a reality.

3. Prioritize a shared prep period.

In the world of sports, we would never put players on the field/ court together, who have never practiced together. Our teachers deserve the chance to plan together, assess together, and be together (without students). With strategic scheduling, we can make this happen.

4. Consider campus location in classroom assignments.

Location. Location. Location. If shared planning time is limited for co-teachers, we can at least do our best to put them in the same region of campus. When teachers share physical space, they are more likely to share updates about students and function as a team.

5. Host a meet up.

Leading up to the first day of school, administrators map out time for their staff to include professional development, classroom prep, and team building activities. Co-teacher pairings should not come as a surprise on the first day of school. Instead, administrators should roll out the pairings, with some rationale, and even more relational runway. Prospective co-teachers should have the chance to get to know one another, on both personal and professional levels. This might take some prompting from administrators through orchestrated activities. Whatever efforts are taken, the benefit will be apparent. Co-teachers, like parents, work most effectively when they: 1) know one another well 2) take advantage of one another’s strengths and 3) share mutual respect for one another.

6. Check-IN and resource-UP.

Many co-teacher pairings will thrive without much support. We work with passionate and skillful teachers who want the best for kids. But administrators can also expect some challenges to collaboration. As leaders, it is our job to keep a pulse on these partnerships. We should be prepared to help teachers work through conflict and toward better collaboration. And we should always be asking, “What do you need to maximize learning for your students?”

Administrative actions make a marked difference for teachers who are asked to co-teach.  What are “moves” you made this school year to benefit students and support teachers?

Image by Campaign Bootcamp via Flickr.

Getting ‘Set Up’ with a Co-Teacher

Getting ‘Set Up’ with a Co-Teacher

Co-teaching can feel a bit like an arranged marriage at first.
Administrators (like parents) set you up. The partnership is purposeful in nature, namely to support students.  And…it has to work.

He burst into my door, right along with the kids, shortly before the first school bell of the new school year. “You and I are going to be working together this year,” he stated matter-of-factly, hand stretched out to shake. It wasn’t a choice.  Without warning.  Without a runway.  Without fanfare.

Just like that…we became an instructional couple. 

In an honest moment, I knew this was a good thing for my students. I needed the help desperately. Thirteen, of thirty students on my roster, had special needs and formal Individualized Education Plans (IEPs).  This ratio (43%) of students with special needs in a single class, is high by any standard (I’ve since learned that 33% is the upper threshold in our district). Students deserve quality support. To deliver for them, I had to get over some relational awkwardness, territorial tendencies, and inexperience, real fast.

As the lead teacher of record, I had a whole new set of questions to answer in the coming days.

How could this look in our classroom?  Multiple models exist for support of students with special needs in the general education classroom. The University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, highlights five models. Each has its own benefits and challenges associated with it.

  • Team Teaching is a model where teachers share the instructional role, playing off one another in real time.
  • In a One Teach/ One Support model, one of the teachers leads instruction, while the other teacher supports students who need additional help, gathers data, or assists in the management of the classroom.
  • Parallel Teaching happens when a classroom is split into two and both teachers are teaching the same lessons in different parts of the classroom.
  • Station Teaching features both teachers, working in small groups of children who rotate.
  • In an Alternative Teaching format, one teacher works with students in a small group while the other teacher leads whole class instruction. The small group of students in this case are engaged in either remediation or enrichment.

How/ when will we communicate best?
It seems obvious that having a shared prep period would be most advantageous, allowing co-teachers to plan, assess, and reflect together. In a short exchange, we realized that our prep periods do not line up. Big bummer.

How much co-planning will precede the co-teaching?
Since we do not share a prep period, we will need to collaborate before or after school. While effective teachers assume that work exists outside contract hours, some teachers resist collaboration outside traditional school hours. Administrators cannot, by contract, demand it. Uh-oh.

How are other teachers collaborating in a way that maximizes student benefit?
I made a beeline to the most experienced and effective teacher on campus, during my lunch. “You’ve worked with this teacher before. What approach do you guys take in your Math class? What is working for you?” This conversation was helpful, for sure.

But I still had other questions, like:

  • How will I get to know this teacher?
  • Is the co-teacher highly qualified in my content area?
  • What strengths does this teacher come to our classroom with?
  • What will I need to just “get over?”

As an aspiring school leader, I have an additional question that should be answered well.
How can administrators facilitate the cooperation of co-teachers on their campuses?

I intend to take my best shot at this in my next post.

What are your experiences setting up and supporting co-teachers?


Image by Scott Webb via Unsplash.

Foster Youth are Our Kids

Foster Youth are Our Kids

Schools, and by extension school leaders, are now held accountable to serving the educational needs of foster youth.  Under LCFF, the new formulation for for school funding in California, funding is linked to the educational outcomes of high-needs populations.  Foster youth are one of these populations.

75% of youth in the California foster care system are school aged. Statewide, approximately 73,000 youth are supported by the state at any given time (Fricano). This total (20% of nation’s foster youth) is disproportionate, when compared to other states. A court’s reason for removing children from their home varies, from severe physical or emotional abuse to neglect.  Kids from all racial groups and socioeconomic backgrounds, find themselves are affected.

But it shouldn’t take a stack of money to make us work hard for foster youth.  There are other, really compelling, reasons too serve students well. 

1. Foster youth are really ‘up against it.’   Educational outcomes for foster students are demonstratively appalling.  Literature indicates that only half of foster children complete high school, compared with 70% of the general population (Gustavsson & MacEachron 2012).  We also know that less than 2% of foster youth go on to graduate college. These realities should shake us to our bones.

2. Foster youth are literally ‘our kids.’   When a child is removed from their home, they become the responsibility of the state.  As wards of the state, they literally become ‘ours.’  We become the village that is charged with the care, nurture and education of these children. Thanks to a progression of legislative action on behalf of these kids, our ‘village’ now has clearly defined roles and responsibilities.  So that care is coordinated and synergistic, it behooves us to work together.  As educators, we should begin with an awareness of our roles.

3. Our most challenged students deserve the most equipped teachers.  Unfortunately, this is not who students in foster care traditionally get.  More often, foster youth end up in low-performing schools, where teacher turnover is high and inexperienced teachers get their first jobs.  Too often, their teachers are ill-equipped to address their unique needs (Zetlin et al., 20112).  Even at a low-performing school, administrators can work to get these children into classrooms where the most talented and passionate teachers do their work.

4.   School might be their best shot at short term predictability and permanency.  The most recent legislative action, benefiting foster youth in the school setting, emphasizes educational stability.  Specifically, the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act (2008) requires districts to keep students in their school of origin, despite a new living placement.  If the student is transferred to a new school, then school records must be transferred promptly.   While foster youth may experience shuffling of case workers and living placements, school can be a place of relative stability and permanency.  Because constant change can be so destabilizing, we should fight to provide consistency for foster youth in the school environment.

4.  We got into this profession to help.  Every child needs someone to fight for them, to recognize their struggle, and (against all odds) to believe in them.  You won’t be able to fix their family dynamic. You probably won’t become their foster parent.  And you may not even know what they are actually ‘up against.’  But as a teacher or educator, you can play a critical role in the life of a foster youth at your school.   True, we have legal obligations to serve these students well.  Correct, a portion of future school funding will be tied to their acadmic success.  But our primary motivator comes from within.  We got into this profession to help.  We want see high-needs populations thrive.  And we recognize that, above all, foster youth are our kids! 


Photo by Chetan Menaria via Unsplash


5 More Ways to Improve Your Staff Meetings

5 More Ways to Improve Your Staff Meetings

Forward thinking leaders cannot afford to ‘cut and paste’ previous year’s agendas, and expect their staff to be prepared and engaged. Absent intentional and creative approaches to engaging staff, administrators might look up and see staff members sneaking looks at their phones, nodding compliantly with glazed eyes, or ruminating about the end of their summer fun.

I believe all school leaders want time with their staff to be practical, inspirational, and connecting. Too often, however, they are not experienced this way by teachers. Instead, consider these ideas when planning your staff meetings for the upcoming year:

Leave out communication that can be emailed. Much of the business that we bring into staff meetings can be communicated and received more efficiently through emails, memos, and individual conversations. Despite this fact, teacher staff meetings are too often flooded with reminders about textbook checkouts and copy room protocol.   While structures, procedures and upcoming school events are important, we are trading in critical minutes and deflating a group of primed-for-PD educators.

Think about time in small chunks. We know that young students have trouble focusing over long periods of time.  We might need to be reminded that adults have surprisingly short attention spans too.  According to this Fobres article:  “The average adult attention span has plummeted from 12 minutes a decade ago to just 5 minutes now.” This reality has to impact the way we approach and conduct staff meetings.  We should view speaking portions of our meetings as Ted Talks.  They are focused, visually supported, scripted yet naturally delivered, and inspirational.  Beyond a strong beginning, we should strive to break up the time by using different voices, facilitating structured teacher interaction, and even consider multiple learning environments.  In the end, leaders have a responsibility to tailor learning experiences to the limitations of their learners.  Adults, like young people, need extended time to be broken up.

Model effective instructional strategies.
It is one thing for a developing teacher to hear about effective instructional strategies.  It is quite another thing for them to experience the ease of learning, from the perspective of a student, as an effective instructional strategy is employed.  We know, from research on adult learning, that individuals will remember only 20% of what they hear.  They will remember 50% of what they see and hear.  And the percentage increases as they experience it.   If our goal is that teachers ‘try on’ new or powerful modes of instruction, it’s important that we give them multiple vantage points and numerous opportunities.

Elicit laughter. The administrative team may need to dream up a running skit.  The principal may need to recruit a computer savvy teacher to Photoshop teacher heads onto other folks bodies.   Or maybe a ludicrous email, sent by a cranky neighbor could be read aloud.   Whatever it takes, eliciting regular laughter will go a long way towards reinforcing the idea that your school is an exceptional place to work.  Good things happen for kids when teachers believe this.

Feed them. I’m not suggesting that all staff meetings be catered by farm-to-table local restaurants as means of gaining whole staff favor.  Instead, I urge administrators to consider that food is one easy avenue to meet a pressing need of the hurried teacher and to help them focus on content of professional development.   A cooler full of Popsicles at the end of a hot day of teaching can say, “I care.”  Trail mix and chilled bottled water can do the trick.  And an occasional post-meeting splurge- maybe a taco cart- would have tens of teachers doing cartwheels.

Photo Angelica Portales via Flickr

5 Ideas to Improve Your Staff Meetings

5 Ideas to Improve Your Staff Meetings

In advance of opening campus for another school year, school administrators across the nation are analyzing school data, tweeking their master schedules, and preparing for meetings with their teachers.  Because effective instruction is the most predictive variable impacting student achievement, time with teachers is especially critical. Teachers are the most valuable resource our schools possess. It’s the school administrator’s job to stoke and direct the passion for teaching and learning, that resides within them.

The vehicle school leaders have for communicating, focusing, and connecting their staff is traditionally the regular staff meeting.  For most teachers, this avenue is predictable and stale.  I want to offer ideas that may take teachers by surprise, while accomplishing important goals.

  1. Be mission-driven.  One clear role of the educational leader is to cast an inspirational picture of what our schools and classrooms can look like.  It doesn’t have to be long and drawn out.  But it needs to be crystal clear and inviting.  Our teachers are already intrinsically motivated to make a difference for students.  They need to hear how this is going to take place and why their efforts matter specifically.  The best leaders are able to communicate this pressing mission in memorable ways, early in the year
  2. Dedicate a portion of the time to creating community.  Our staff will operate more effectively and with higher levels of satisfaction, if they feel connected to their colleagues.  Without the space, time and prodding to connect with one another, too many of our teachers will end up feeling like they are working on an island.  In these efforts, we are only limited by creative potential.  Whether it be an after school trip to the roller coaster or more brief in-meeting activities, our job is to facilitate numerous opportunities for our staff to connect.  I am aware of one administrative team that fund-raises throughout the year to pay for a swanky (semi-working) weekend at a high-end hotel. Their staff comes back from the weekend energized, and having interacted with all other staff.
  3. Be clear about the time frame, purpose, and expectations for teacher participation.  Many strategies that work with students also work with adult learners.   This is one of them.  We all want to know what we are getting ourselves into.  Structure communicated through meeting agendas, clearly explained purposes. Teachers like to know what to expect.  So they may, even subconsciously, appreciate a ‘heads up’ that, “half of the meeting will involve training in a whole group. The other half of the meeting will require idea generation in smaller groups.”
  4. Let staff draw conclusions from data.  You already looked at the data.  You already know your student’s strengths and weaknesses.  You may already even have plans for addressing the gaps in student performance.  Hold back.  Present the data to your staff.  Then let them draw conclusions.  This maneuver communicates what you believe about your staff: They are sharp. They know students well. And they want to see gains in student achievement.
  5. Allow for teacher choice. As educators, we believe that differentiated instruction is critical to pushing all students forward.  Why don’t we employ the same philosophy, when it comes to moving teachers forward?  Perhaps we should consider offering four teacher trainings every Monday of the month, requiring attendance to at least one session.  Teachers have a sense of the areas that will improve their practice.  If they choose to be there, their levels of engagement while at the training will be higher. Additionally, we need to acknowledge that the master teacher, with more than ten years of experience, has different needs than the first year teacher.  It’s time to think differently about the 1X month staff meeting.

Teachers and time are our most valuable assets.  Let’s use both of them well!

Image by Historias Visuales via Flickr.

Educating More Unaccompanied Minors

Educating More Unaccompanied Minors

Unaccompanied minors are coming again; We can teach them.

Reports indicate that more waves of unaccompanied minors will enter our country in the days ahead. They will also be entering our schools.

While border issues and immigration policies spark passion and incite dialogue and even raise voices, one thing is for sure. We have a moral obligation to teach the students who enroll in our schools.

One can debate whether or not we would flee a country overwhelmed by violence. One can judge parents who would send their children with ‘coyotes’ across borders, through harms way. One can even vote for policies that build higher fences and place more agents at the borders.

But we cannot debate the following: All children have the right to learn. All children can learn. Great educators teach all children in their classes. And our schools can deliver agency, via education, that can improve the lives of students and their families for years to come.

In preparation for slight, and in some cases drastic, shifts in the demographics of our schools, we should prepare.

I assert we can prepare the following ways:
1. Analyze data regarding how we are currently serving English Language Learners. 2. Recalibrate expectations. While we want to see all ELL students progress, one year for each year of instruction, we should remember that it takes 5 years to fully learn a new language.
3. Train teaching staff, making this a focus of Professional Development.
4. Increase support services. We can predict that students fleeing a country of violence will have experienced trauma. Students spending extended time apart from primary caregivers will struggle. And students facing
5. Celebrate the successes of our students. Many of these students will be the first in their families to learn English, to acclimate to American culture, and to attend University. We should celebrate accomplishments along this journey, with and for students.

On days where teaching this demographic of students feels challenging and slow, it may be important to tap into the wellspring of empathy. Because the majority of our families were immigrants to America at one time or another, revisit this time. Ask relatives who that first American student was. Discover how their success led to your own. And know that you play a critical role in the lives of students whom you serve.