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Comfort With Discomfort

“How many of you are feeling uncomfortable right now?” Heidi Hayes Jacobs asked at her EdJEWcon conference keynote yesterday. I confess. I didn’t raise my hand. When Heidi Hayes Jacobs emphatically shared that we should feel uncomfortable, I wondered, feeling a bit like the child in class who has just gotten the “wrong” answer. Now please don’t misunderstand, I was riveted by Heidi Hayes Jacobs’ presentation. My mind raced with her notion of “strategic upgrade”; not adding to our already overfull plates but shifting learning experiences strategically to more effectively meet the needs of our students today who are processing information differently, in more social, non-linear ways. I was feeling engaged, open, reflective, and interested. I was considering possibilities , reflecting on how better we might serve our students. I was learning and I was loving the opportunity.

And, yet, suddenly, with Heidi Haye’s Jacobs’ challenge to embrace discomfort, I became uncomfortable. I know, the demands are great. I know, our schools are not yet where we want them to be. I know, with all we have accomplished in our schools, it isn’t yet enough. I know, we have tremendous challenges ahead.

For a moment, I felt a heaviness, allowing the grip of fear of failure when the stakes are our children’s futures to overtake me. Yet, only for a moment. For me, embracing discomfort means becoming comfortable with discomfort. When we strive together to address difficult realities the engagement need not be stressful. We are allowed to have fun.

With tremendous respect for Heidi Hayes Jacob, I permitted myself again to relish in her words, to imagine the possibilities they hold for our school, and to find energy, rather than discomfort, in the challenges she poses. I formulated my own essential question, which stood in the background of my learning for the rest of the day: How can we become comfortable with discomfort through the experience of rapid change in our schools?

The two following sessions offered me context – Leading In a culture of Change with Valeri Mitrani, Julie Lambert and Jon Mitzmacher and Upgrade Curriculum and Assessment with Student Blogfolios with Andrea Hernandez. Each of these extraordinary educators supported me to reflect on my essential question.

Valeri Mitrani and Julie Lambert focused on the factors necessary in managing complex change in a system.
No shared vision leads to confusion.
Missing skills leads to anxiety.
Missing incentives leads to resistance.
Missing resources leads to frustration
Missing an action plan leads to a treadmill (working hard with no results).
Missing results leads to inertia.
Confusion, anxiety, resistance, frustration, hard work with no results, and inertia. Now, there is a recipe for discomfort. And, it’s real. We’ve experienced such discomfort. We know it, relate to it, recognize it, and fear it.

It is also a recipe for possibility. Share a vision. Build capacity and skills. Find incentives in focusing on the values based mission of providing together for our learners. Creatively assess and develop resources even in financially trying times. Plan and develop an action plan collaboratively. Celebrate even the small successes.

Jon Mitzmacher then authentically shared in concrete terms ways he is managing complex change at the Martin J. Gottlieb Jewish Day School, speaking of structural choices his school has made.
They got rid of the computer lab and instead pushed technology instruction into the classroom.
They created a school ning as a virtual space for faculty members to collaborate.
They redefined a number of existing positions with a 21st century and instructional coaching thrust.
They transformed faculty meetings with a focus on professional learning.
Jon Mitzmacher, as Head of School, set clear expectations, defining minimum requirements and raising the bar every year.

As Jon spoke, I connected. We as a school are in the process of making similar choices. I felt energized because I recognized the shared vision, skills, incentives, resources, action plan, and celebrations of successes along the way. And, I appreciate Jon’s open acknowledgement of the discomfort that occurred in the process. He recognizes the discomfort without wallowing in it, astutely open for course corrections in an ongoing process of learning.

Andrea Hernandez spoke in the following session with contagious energy about one strategic upgrade at the Martin J Gottleib Jewish Day School: student blogfolios. A term Andrea has created, a blogfolio is a blog + a portfolio. Beginning last year in kindergarten, third and fifth grade; and this year extending to the entire school third through eighth grade, blogfoloios are offering students at the Martin J Gottlieb Jewish Day School a voice with an authentic audience. Started as digital portfolios on a wordpress blog to use primarily for assessment of learning, students were so excited to receive their own blog that they wanted to write. The magic began! Students became bloggers, in Andrea’s words, “learning to create and creating to learn.”

Andrea was honest, open and reflective about the challenges and discomfort; parent concern about safety and privacy, student interest and engagement growing and waning, and skill building with teachers. She was also clear, blogfolios are a tremendous amount of work. And, yet, Andrea did not seem uncomfortable. The reverse, her energy, excitement and passion were palpable as she shared one example of a strategic upgrade – replacing assessment and writing projects previously on paper and handed in to a teacher with blogfolios that can be shared with an authentic audience. Imagine the possibility!

The Purpose of Ed Tech

“It’s not an ed tech conference, it’s a conference on learning and teaching,” Silvia Tolisano (@langwitches) astutely pointed out in the opening keynote of EdJEWcon. In that moment, as in so many magical learning moments in groups, I felt as though Silvia was speaking not merely to the group, but directly to me; gently, caringly, correcting me in order to support my own learning and growth. I had called EdJEWcon an ed tech conference not only once, but just about every time I shared with others where I would be April 29th-May 1st. In that moment, as Silvia defined the purpose of edJEWcon, I understood; I learned; I grew. I was in the presence of teachers skilled in educational technology; but far more significantly, I was in the presence of learners wanting, as Andrea Hernandez (@edtechworkshop) shared in her introduction to the conference, to engage in collaborative co-created learning. With Silvia’s and Andreas’s words, a tone was set for our group of twenty plus individual school teams to become a learning community.   
Our responsibilities are significant. The world of education, reflecting the world in which our students are growing up, is changing rapidly. Silvia Tolisano shared that Generation Alpha, those born around 2010, will arrive at school already having a digital footprint. It will be our responsibility as educators to help them make that digital footprint a positive one. I reflected on what a daunting task we share; focused for me not primarily on technology, although the technology matters, but on character. How can we help our students define their own identities in positive, meaningful ways in a world in which so much that was once private is now transparent, shared, and open? How can we support our students to contribute to community in a world in which the very definition of community is in constant flux? 
In the past several years, I have grown more comfortable with questions that have no immediate answer; relishing in the creative chaos of finding our way together. I also appreciate the calming voices among us who remind us of the substantial gifts we have to guide us. Jon Mitzmacher (@jon_mitzmacher) did not disappoint, joining his voice to the keynote, pointing to the necessary contemporary skills that have ancient grounding and have always  been part of the fabric of Jewish schools: critical thinking, global connection, second language acquisition, and social learning.  The tension in my body eased a bit and I recognized that  while expectations are high,  we share many supports to reach those expectations.  As much as our world is changing, much remains the same: the importance of character, compassion,  and care. Ultimately, our world remains dependent upon the strength of communities of value.  
And so, I add to Silvia Tolisano’s message. EdJEWcon is not an ed tech conference and not even a conference on learning and teaching. EdJEWcon, at least for me, is a conference on creating communities of learning and character in a rapidly changing world.  

On Mindset, New York’s Mayor Bloomberg & Teacher Evaluation


Politically independent, and typically loathe to share my eclectic political perspectives, I will say that there is much I admire about New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg. On education policy though, I’m a skeptic, growing more disillusioned.  Principal of an independent school and humbly reticent about making remarks on public education, I comment on this week’s education news out of sadness; increasingly convinced that to improve our schools, educators can together design and present alternative approaches to evaluating our own effectiveness.

Mayor Bloomberg, as reported in an article in The Wall Street Journal,  declared this past Monday that he wants teachers’ evaluations open for all to see. Why, Mayor Bloomberg? His answer: doing so will “provide pressure to constantly upgrade.”

Pressure to upgrade? Really? Does pressure improve practice?

Stanford University Professor Carol Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2006), would likely disagree. Dweck compellingly describes the differences between fixed and growth mindsets, shared in greater detail in this 2007 article in Stanford Magazine. Dweck explains in Mindset that those with a fixed mindset believe their qualities are carved in stone, thus experiencing great urgency to prove themselves. Alternatively, those with a growth mindset believe basic qualities can be cultivated through effort, inspiring improvement and accomplishment. Not only individuals, but organizations have mindsets, and a culture of judging puts everyone in a fixed mindset. Instead of learning and growing, everybody’s fear of being judged paralyzes, impeding creativity and innovation. Pressure to upgrade? Sounds like a recipe for developing a culture of fear and fixed mindset.

So what’s the alternative? Dweck looks to CEO’s for insight, finding that in stark distinction to fixed-minded CEO’s, growth-minded CEO’s, the type featured by Jim Collins in his book Good to Great (2001), are deeply concerned with mentoring and employee development programs, seeking ways of providing feedback to employees in ways that promote learning and future success.

So, Mayor Bloomberg, why should we evaluate? Not, I would argue, to provide pressure. Instead, I would suggest, to offer support, guidance, and even at times, inspiration. As a principal, I would never be able to share honest reflections with teachers were those conversations, designed to be private, made public. For those teachers in jeopardy of dismissal, I need to be empowered to protect the dignity of professionals who, despite not being a match for our school, have strengths and have made contributions. Nonrenewal of contract is a painful decision, not to be taken lightly, nor publicized. For the majority of teachers, I need to be able to guide honest reflection on strengths and weaknesses, identifying areas for professional growth in a trusting and supportive environment.

So, what should teacher evaluations look like?

There are many possible forms, and like most serious learning resources, evaluation tools need to remain constantly a work in progress. Faculty members at our school are creating our own rubrics to assess excellence based on our school’s Standards for Professional Practice. We plan to use these rubrics for teachers to self-assess and for the educational leadership team to assess as well, leading to conversation on how teachers see their strengths and weakness and how the members of the educational leadership team see teachers’ strengths and weakness. I humbly view the rubrics as an assessment of my own knowledge of faculty in our school, and approach evaluation with trepidation. I understand that learning is complex and multiple measures of student learning and growth matter. I cannot imagine basing 40% of a teacher evaluation on one standardized test as is possible in New York City’s new system, nor for that matter on one formal observation, or indeed on one of anything. Effectiveness, like learning, is complex and requires multiple measures to assess. We must be careful about what we believe we know and cautious about judging skilled professionals or indeed about judging anybody. I wonder constantly how I can avoid acting as “expert”, regardless of the number of measures I amass, and instead function as a coach and a mentor. I question deliberately how I can nurture a growth mindset and facilitate teacher learning – helping good teachers become very good, very good teachers become great, and great teachers become even greater.

Luckily for our students, we are not and will not be required to publish our completed rubrics for all to see; neither will our rubrics be filed away for future reference only if a problem or a possibility for promotion arises. Our evaluation or rather professional learning rubrics will be living guides for our teachers – shaping professional learning goals, supports to achieve our goals, and assessments to recognize progress made. Our evaluations will, at their best, inspire nuanced, impactful, meaningful growth for the benefit of our children, based not on pressure and fear, but rather on joy and dedication. And that, Mayor Bloomberg, is a far more effective path than providing constant pressure to improve our schools.

A Team of Coaches


cc licensed image shared by flickr user ell brown

The past six months co-moderating educoach on twitter with Kathy Perret and Jessica Johnson, interacting with a growing number of wise and creative instructional coaches, principals and teachers, has helped me move a quantum leap forward in my thinking about professional learning in my school. During this time I’ve also been blessed as an educational leader to work with my own instructional coach who has helped me to stretch my thinking and reflect on challenges and successes, nurturing my own professional learning.  Complementing my journey into the potential of instructional coaching I’ve learned along with mentors in our school, trained to coach new teachers by the New Jewish Teachers Project. I’ve begun to immerse myself in literature about instructional coaching, seeking ways to support faculty in my school. The impact for me has been powerful. 

My learning has led to action. I’ve been planning with educational leaders, both administrators and teachers, brainstorming ways of creating a team of instructional coaches for our school. Tomorrow in a blog post on my school blog I’ll be sharing our plans with the school community.

While much is in place, a tremendous amount of planning remains and I feel grateful for the thoughtful collaboration of my educoach colleagues. I share with you in the hopes that you can continue to help me think through ways of designing and supporting a team of instructional coaches.

By transforming existing positions, we are creating a team of seven individuals who will work as instructional coaches. Most have additional responsibilities in the school and over time, by developing the capacity of our teachers, we hope to support our instructional coaches to focus more of their time on enhancing professional learning in our school.

Our Coaching Positions:

Singapore Math Coach: As we implement aSingapore math curriculum in the school, we will benefit from an outside coach providing five days of intensive training for teachers as well as a workshop for parents, alongside a full-time in-house coach to provide ongoing professional learning and training for our teachers and support for our parents. We have had a math enrichment specialist and over time have begun to transform this position into an instructional coach. Our math coach is the “purest” of the instructional coaching roles we have been able to create, focusing almost exclusively on math instructional coaching for our faculty. An additional responsibility will be communicating and partnering with parents to help them become knowledgeable about our math curriculum.

Hebrew Instructional Coach: We are a K-12 dual curriculum Jewish day school and we teach Hebrew language from Kindergarten. For several years, we have had a K-12 Hebrew coordinator who functions as the Hebrew Department Chair in our Middle and High Schools.  This year, in ourLowerSchool where I serve as principal, we have shifted her role from department chair to instructional coach. She spends 1 ½ days per week in theLowerSchool and we hope to extend that to 2 full days weekly next year. During her time in theLowerSchool she functions exclusively as an instructional coach; supporting teachers to develop units and lessons, modeling lessons, observing and providing feedback, developing student assessments and supporting teachers to analyze assessment data, and reflecting with teachers on teaching and learning in their classrooms.

Science Instructional Coach: Our science instructional coach began her position this year, replacing a science enrichment specialist. In the past, students benefitted from supplemental science instruction in our lab most times supporting curriculum but at times stand alone science experiments. Our science instructional coach teaches students as a means of modeling science instruction for our teachers. Lessons occur in our lab, our classrooms and our outdoor labs – walking trails and our vegetable and butterfly gardens. The science instructional coach assists teachers develop science units and lessons and models many lessons. Over time, she will take on additional coaching responsibilities as our teachers gain confidence providing more of the direct science teaching to students.

Educational Technology Instructional Coach: Technology can no longer be relegated to a lab, but must be infused within classroom experiences. An educational technology coach will provide students with a comprehensive technology curriculum, but even more significantly, will support teachers to infuse daily learning experiences with technology in order to enhance and improve the quality of learning at our school. We have had a computer lab teacher and our educational technology coach will continue, for the foreseeable future, to provide direct instruction to students. However, substantial time will be devoted to coaching faculty. Even when providing direct service to students, the educational technology coach will simultaneously be modeling technology learning for our teachers.

Enrichment Instructional Coach: An enrichment coach whose role will be to support teachers to design enrichment experiences for students will join our department of student services. This educator will work directly with students who, based on assessment, demonstrate the need for enrichment or acceleration exceeding grade-level learning. The enrichment specialist will be able to teach students in their classrooms and, as needed, pull students out of class to provide an enriched curriculum. Our enrichment specialist will also serve as a coach to teachers, assisting us to design enrichment experiences that will challenge and nurture the talents and passions of all our students. We have created this position by a redesign of our student services department so that we can manage with one less learning strategist.

Library/Media Specialist-Research, Media and Literacy Instructional Coach: Leading the process of shifting our library into a twenty-first century library/media center is vital to our efforts to prepare our students for success in our rapidly changing media-rich world. We will be welcoming a library/media specialist to our faculty who will support our students to develop research and media literacy skills. Our library and media specialist will also coach our classroom teachers in more skillful integration of research, media, and literacy skills into educational experiences in the classroom.

Literacy and Learning Strategies Instructional Coach: The role of the chairperson of our student services department will shift to focus far more on instructional coaching in literacy and learning strategies. She will work in concert with a number of other faculty leaders highly skilled in literacy instruction to provide our teachers support. While we would very much like to hire a literacy instructional coach, we do not currently have funding for this position and will therefore create a team of faculty leaders, led by the chairperson of our student services department, who will spend much of her time on instructional coaching. 

Instructional Coaching Team:

Our instructional coaches will work together as a coaching team, supporting meaningful professional learning designed to meet the specific needs of our teachers.  We hope that the sum of that instructional coaching team will be greater than the parts and a creative energy and collaborative learning spirit among our coaches will both support their effectiveness and spread throughout our faculty. While in most cases our instructional coaches also have teaching responsibilities with students, we hope to transform that challenge into a benefit, as coaches will speak to colleagues from the trenches, experiencing daily the difficulties and rewards of teaching children during times of rapid change.

In these initial stages of our thinking on creating an instructional coaching team, I turn to colleagues for insight and ideas. How can we prepare our instructional coaches? What challenges can we anticipate and how might we proactively address them? What professional learning will be valuable for our coaches? How might the roles of principal and assistant principal shift in order to enhance the momentum produced by instructional coaching? What other questions should we be asking?

Thanks for your input!

Cross posted at

What Will Be Different in 2020? What Will Be The Same?

What is the one most important thing that will be different in our school in 2020?” This profound question was asked at our headmasters’ tea welcoming parents new to our school.  Referring to a substantial ten year strategic plan, lovingly called Vision 20/20 because its realization is anticipated in 2020, this wise parent put eighteen months of strategic planning and another year of beginning strategic implementation into perspective. My mind raced; arriving at an understanding I had been grasping at, but had been unable articulate without the prompt of a meaningful query. Our strategic planning and implementation, impacting so many aspects of school life so substantially can, in my opinion, be described in its essence in one sentence.

In 2020, our focus will have shifted from teaching to learning.

 To some the answer may sound trivial; to others nonsensical; and to still others mere semantics signifying nothing. To me, the answer shapes a process of cultural change and school reform that has paradoxically been grueling and invigorating, oppressive and freeing, painful and joyous, and perhaps most meaningfully, transforming and eternal. Walking the narrow bridge balancing that which is in the process of being transformed and that which is eternal, I could not with integrity explain my answer to this parent’s question without first posing an additional question. What is the one most significant thing that will remain the same in our school in 2020?

In 2020, we will continue to be guided by the core values of our ancient, enduring Jewish tradition. Regardless of how much we change, our essence will remain the same.

Tradition and change has long been a tenet at the heart of Conservative Judaism, the Movement in which I was trained as a rabbi and with which my school is affiliated. But, I don’t believe I am being defensive of my theological heritage when I state that in today’s educational landscape, healthy schools – Jewish schools regardless of denomination, parochial schools of various religions, independent, public and charter schools – will need to balance all that must change with all that must remain the same. As we experience the tremendous responsibility to prepare students for a future we cannot imagine, in which many perhaps even a majority of our students will one day embark upon careers that do not yet exist, we must remember that values; enduring, eternal values, will continue to ground us, serving as a moral compass to help us navigate our rapidly changing world.

.There is no recipe for change just as there is no recipe for how to keep our core values central to all we do. Remaining the same does not mean mindless adherence to practices that no longer make sense, but rather embracing enduring values that are lived in the reality of our daily experiences. Changing does not mean throwing out all of the old, but rather carefully examining ourselves and our practices. We will have to reconsider curricula, the types of learning experiences we provide, student support models, assessment practices, educational technology and other resources, approaches to school leadership, and more. To be successful, we will have to shine the spotlight on the learner rather than the teacher, making each child the star of his or her own educational experience.  No matter how compelling or riveting a lesson may appear, no matter how interesting or engaging a curriculum may seem, we will have to be honest about how deeply students have understood, made our learning their own, and found a place in which their own curiosity, wonderings, talents and passions can emerge.

What will be different in 2020? What will be the same? Please join in this important dialogue and share your thoughts and reflections.


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