Because Counting Our Blessings Just Isn't Enough

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The Courage To Teach

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  • The question we most commonly ask is the “what” question-what subjects shall we teach?
  • When the conversation goes a bit deeper, we ask the “how” question-what methods and techniques are required to teach well?
  • Occasionally, when it goes deeper still, we ask the “why” question-for what purpose and to what ends do we teach?
  • But seldom, if ever, do we ask the “who” question-who is the self that teaches? How does the quality of my selfhood form-or deform-the way I relate to my students, my subject, my colleagues, my world? How can educational institutions sustain and deepen the selfhood from which good teaching comes?

Parker Palmer, The Courage To Teach

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Beginning my position as a new Head of School, I opened our first full staff professional learning session with the above quote from educator Parker Palmer. Determined to shift from my voice to our voices as quickly as possible, I moved almost immediately to a learning activity modified from one Palmer describes later in his book.

Imagine a moment when everything was going right for you as a teacher; when your teaching was so good you felt you were born to teach, and you knew you were making a difference for students.

The happy social buzz of first day greetings, which had begun shortly before our learning session as we arrived for a welcome breakfast, continued. The ebullient, celebratory mood of greeting friends and colleagues after a summer apart gently moved deeper, broaching seldom asked questions about qualities of teachers that lie at the heart of learning; transcending curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

After a short time, I invited teachers and staff who wanted to do so to share with the whole group; acknowledging teachers’ humility and reluctance to speak in a manner that might feel like boasting. The stories inspired. Some were about individual students’ triumphs in overcoming challenge or adversity; some about entire classes making remarkable progress; and others about a key attribute of a teacher that positively impacted students year after year. We applauded each and every speaker, beginning our year with appreciation.

We then moved just a bit deeper as Parker Palmer encourages us to do. I asked teachers to focus, not on their own celebratory stories, but on those of their colleagues, identifying the gifts, the personal strengths and qualities within their colleagues, that  bring success.  Colleagues talked about care, the ability to listen, patience, perseverance in the face of challenge, and grounding in enduring values. They spoke, meaningfully and thoughtfully, not about skills or specific knowledge, but rather about qualities that enable teachers to connect and build relationships with students. Intuitively, teachers reached beyond themselves, emphasizing the need to understand our students, equating greatness in teaching to connection with students; as individuals, as a class, and as a school-wide community of learners.

As we concluded the session, I shared with teachers my commitment to being present in classrooms regularly, not to judge, but to engage, learn, appreciate, and support. In time, I plan to offer ongoing non-judgemental feedback to prompt teacher reflection. Yet in the beginning, as teachers at my new school and I get to know each other and develop trusting relationships, I choose to refrain from offering feedback and instead to focus almost exclusively on presence and heartfelt appreciation. As the Head of School of an independent school, in which the format for teacher evaluation is not mandated by a district or the state, I have that freedom. I can take some time, engage with teachers, and collaboratively design a feedback framework emphasizing growth.

In the past I interpreted, or more likely misinterpreted, educational research as indicating that paradoxically praise is  judgmental and disrespectful of teachers’ and students’ abilities to reflect on their own learning; successes and mistakes alike. Teachers opened my eyes; sharing the pain of giving heart and soul and only infrequently, if at all, receiving appreciation from supervisors. I have heard from teachers about how disconcerting it is to feel as if one is “on stage” as a supervisor, even a caring supervisor, observes. Trained to focus on learning from mistakes, teachers often, almost obsessively, analyze what went wrong in a lesson,while glossing over what went right. We frequently see ourselves through intensely critical lenses and imagine those observing us do as well. We too often neglect to celebrate our successes, inadvertently missing out on the potential to build from our strengths.

As Parker Palmer boldly asserts, it takes courage to teach. That courage deserves appreciation.

And so, I reach out to teachers in my own school, and to colleagues more broadly wondering about ways of structuring appreciative, reflective exploration of teaching practice.  If you were able to structure a system of feedback for professionals to promote growth, in lieu of formal evaluation, what process would you use? What components would you include? What would be helpful for you?

Celebrating New Bloggers

Today is the first anniversary of Sharing Our Blessings.

I celebrated, in the past several days, in a way I could not have imagined possible when I wrote my first post: Introduction of a Reluctant Blogger. I celebrated new educational bloggers. I remember my own excitement and gratitude when Edna Sackson (whatedsaid.wordpress.com, @whatedsaid) and Cristina Milos(ateacherswonderings.posterous.com, @surreallyno) commented on my first post. I didn’t imagine that the just one year in the future I would be welcoming new bloggers, not as an “expert” but rather as an accessible role model and guide, providing encouragement, support, and gratitude for the learning and insights these educators are sharing.

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Sunday I commented on new blogs by  Joey Sagel(principaljoey.wordpress.com – What Keeps Your Engine Running,  @principaljoey)  and Rabbi Michael Bitton – Rabbi Mike’s Edtech Blog – How To Blog (rabbimichaelbitton.blogspot.com,  @RabbiMBitton).

In addition, I’ve had the great pleasure of seeing a good number of educators, many of whom at least do not yet blog, reflect recently on blogging on a Community of Practice I am privileged to facilitate YU2.0 (yu20.org). These include: Welcome To Blogging by Chagit AlpertResearch Projects And Blogging by Molly HazanBlogging Concerns by Miriam StrulowiczThe Power Of Blogging – It’s Much More Than The New Persuasive Essay by Rebbeca Penina Simon, and Not All Who Could Should Blog by Rabbi Pollock. I love engaging and learning with the skeptics as well as the committed bloggers.

Why do I blog? I blog because I long to learn with others, contributing what I can, reflecting in order to stretch my thinking.

Happy Birthday Sharing Our Blessings! Looking forward to the learning the coming year can bring!

Walking the Learning Walk

What do six teachers, two members of our educational leadership team, four reflective prompts, two educational foci, one ten minute orientation, five minutes in each of seven classrooms, and one twenty minute debrief equal? A moving professional learning experience!

We set off on our school’s first teacher led learning walk armed with information from a brief orientation along with the following reflective, nonjudgmental statement and question prompts:

I wonder if . . .

What if . . .

I noticed . . .

How might . . .     

Entering classrooms as a group of professional learners, with eyes and ears and minds wide open, we sought insight on two carefully selected foci: student engagement and differentiated instruction. We strove to witness student engagement via levels of participation, attentiveness, observable indicators of a commitment to learning, and focus on task. We looked to recognize differentiated instruction via the range and levels of learning activities and supports available, groupings of students both with the teacher and with peers and independent learning experiences in which students participate.

Our learning walk included not only observations, but also interactions. As possible we spoke with students and teachers in the classrooms we visited, asking them to reflect on their experiences. To students we queried, “How do you know if you do good work in this class?” “If you need help, where can you go?” We refined our questions in response to the specific learning activities we witnessed, asking students to explain their learning and to share and discuss work in their portfolios and notebooks. To teachers we asked questions to help us place our snapshot view of learning into the bigger story of ongoing learning in the classroom.

While we focused our attention primarily on the students, the learning environment was also part of our reflection. We “walked the walls” of the classrooms and hallways to see how visuals speak to learning: what kinds of charts and other visual aides are present and what models of good work are available to students. We explored the physical arrangement of the classroom, wondering about how the organization of space facilitates learning. We examined classroom resources such as libraries, computers and interactive whiteboards, considering whether the arrangement of books facilitates good use by students and how computers and the class interactive whiteboard are used to promote learning. We compared resources from classroom to classroom, pondering whether adequate resources are equally accessible to all students.

After each visit, potent and meaningful, came the heart of the learning walk experience: the hallway huddle. We gathered outside the classroom and crafted thought-provoking, reflective questions and wonderings, aimed not to offer feedback to those visited, but to spark walkers’ thinking about our own teaching and our own students’ learning. Some examples of questions and wonderings included: I wonder how the teachers’ assessment of student learning will be used to guide further learning. I wonder if students in my own class could answer questions about the purpose of instruction. What are alternative ways in which the interactive whiteboard could have been utilized? What if a learning strategist had not been present as a push-in classroom resource during this particular lesson? I noticed lots of interaction between students and teachers and between students and peers. I noticed the teacher asking “what do you think?” questions. How might seating arrangements impact how students seek assistance from each other? How might different layouts of student activity sheets support learning?

As a principal, I listened, awe-struck by our teachers’ insights and their openness to reflection and learning. As if looking into a mirror, rather than observing a peers’ classroom, our wonderings and questions reflected not sage guidance we could offer others, but thoughtful musings on how we could improve our own practice. At first I was quiet, too quiet, taking in classroom experiences through the lens of our teachers, amazed by how much more I can absorb when buttressed by the perspectives of teachers than I can on my own solitary daily classroom walkthroughs.

Our courageous faculty leader, Brandi Minchillo (@MrsMinchillo) reminded me of my role as a participant, gently pointing out to both our Assistant Principal, Ilanit Cury-Hoory (@hoory1) and me that we are allowed to share. I smiled, grateful for the reminder that at times the silence of a leader is welcome and at other times it can be distancing. I jumped into the conversation as an equal, not as a supervisor, in the process gaining understanding into how I can view classrooms more reflectively along with more thoughtful ways I can phrase and communicate what I notice and wonder about on my walkthroughs.

The learning walk ended in my office with a debriefing at which we discussed take-aways and insights. We concurred that we were surprised by how much one can learn from even a five minute visit to a classroom. We remarked on how important it is to utilize prompts to formulate nonjudgmental questions and wonderings. We noted that the learning walk supported us to consider what we can change in our own practice in order to enhance learning. We recognized how enlightening it is to observe classes at each grade level, K-5.

The mandate to be nonjudgmental aside, we indulged ourselves a bit, allowing for celebration of learning occurring in our school. All noted how impressed we are by ways teachers we visited engage students and provide differentiated learning experiences. Perhaps most significant for us was our awareness that in every single classroom we visited, we saw evidence of students becoming independent learners, one of the primary school-wide goals this year associated with our reinvigorated approach to literacy learning. To our delight, we witnessed evidence of independent learning regardless of whether or not we were observing a literacy lesson. We observed teachers transferring pedagogic skill from one curricular area to learning across the disciplines.

We had prepared for the learning walk for months, explaining to teachers in both spoken and written format what would happen. Still, the reality of eight adults entering a classroom can be overwhelming and walkers expressed empathy for those observed, demonstrating sensitivity to the courage required to open the doors of one’s classroom to adult visitors. We agreed that although we were not giving feedback, teachers deserve a thank you e-mail from me.

There are seven more learning walks scheduled throughout the academic year and we plan for each teacher to have the opportunity to be a walker and for each class to be visited. As a start, we visited teachers we perceived would be among the most comfortable and selected as walkers those who had eagerly volunteered. With positive feedback from our learning walk pioneers, we hope our faculty will be reassured and enthusiastic. Our aim in implementing learning walks is to support our efforts at nurturing a self-reflective collaborative culture, breaking down the isolation teachers can experience. Learning walks are one important component of our efforts to transform our school into a learning community in which we focus relentlessly on improving student learning and in which we do so together.

The Greatest Gift of No Office Day

Our principal will be spending the day with us. What do you want her to learn?

Leading a Reading Group on No Office Day with Our Fifth Grade

The potent question, “what do you want our principal to learn?”, posed by one of our teachers to her class at the beginning of my No Office Day with the second grade last week, not only served as a short journal writing prompt for students to begin their day, but also deepened my understanding of No Office Day.

I love No Office Days! I get to spend the entire day, from arrival to dismissal, with one grade. I’ve scheduled six this year, one for each of our grades – kindergarten through fifth. With each No Office Day I celebrate, I gain greater perspective and insight on the tremendous value of the practice.

I’ve written about No Office Day before in a guest post on the PEJE (Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education) blog here as well as on my own school blog, Perspectives From the Principal here and here. I’ve been interviewed on an Eduleadership podcast along with my talented colleagues Jessica Johnson and William King which you can listen to here. And, I’ve been privileged to collaborate creatively with many inspiring educators on No Office Day, some of whom have shared their reflections on our  No Office Day wiki, which was honored as a featured wiki by Wikispaces and described in a guest post I authored for the Wikispaces Blog.

Don’t misunderstand. No Office Days are not the only times I am in classrooms.  I deliberately schedule two hours every day – No Office Hours – during which I escape the gravitational pull of the office: the meetings, the phone calls, the e-mails, the planning, and the communications, making sure I am present where it matters most, among students and teachers. I’m also out of the office other times: leading student council, covering or co-teaching a class for a teacher, participating in assemblies and programs, interacting with students at lunch and recess, and more. Yet, while I strive to spend much time throughout the school, No Office Days are special. I do no supervision or evaluation of teachers on these days. Instead, I participate actively in learning and teaching as a peer. Sometimes I teach a lesson a teacher has planned and sometimes I teach lessons I have designed myself. Sometimes I provide student support – taking on a small group or assisting an individual student. Still other times, I am simply present, participating enthusiastically in whatever the activity.  

OK, I carry my cell phone and ipad with me throughout the day and have responded to texts from my administrative assistant with questions she needs answered in order to support management of the school while I am out and about. I’ve replied to e-mails from parents or members of the educational leadership team that appeared to require a quick response. Some teachers have sought me out during No Office Day when they feel they need immediate direction on a challenge they face. Our Director of Admissions has introduced me to prospective parents while I am in a class on No Office Day.  I’ve even received calls from the nurse at my own children’s schools and have dashed out of the building, dropped one of them off at home, and returned as if there had been no interruption. Life, both professional and personal, happens. But, mostly, on No Office Days I’ve managed to be present for our students and teachers, actively engaged in learning.

So, back to the profound essential question posed by a second grade teacher – Our principal will be spending the day with us. What do you want her to learn?

What students wrote was potent. What they shared was even more powerful.

Second graders wrote that they wanted me to learn about their centers, their class library, tens and ones, math, reading, writing, how we do tefillah (prayer), good things, what we are learning about nonfiction books, and naming stuff (i.e. text features) in nonfiction books like bold words and headings and captions. One particularly curious child astutely wrote, “I wonder what our principal noticed about our class.”

Students have shared with me on No Office Days even more, including the best place on our campus to build a fort, global variations on the Cinderella story, the status of a child’s sister struggling with an illness, insights on Jacob’s ladder described in the book of Genesis (Bereisheet), favorite football teams, how to have fun solving word problems, ways our pets make us laugh, games to play in Hebrew, areas on our campus that suffered erosion after Hurricane Irene, what the shapes of the continents remind us of and how to critique a friend’s writing respectfully.

With each No Office Day I’ve not only learned more, but as the wise second grader quoted previously wondered, I’ve noticed more. I’ve developed greater respect and understanding for the rhythm and nuance of our students’ days. I’ve gained deeper insight into our students’ school experiences, from their perspective, in their terms. I’ve seen school through the eyes of our students. I’ve been transformed from the leader to the learner; paradoxically helping me to become a far more effective educational leader. That transformation from leader to learner to more effective leader has been the greatest gift of No Office Day, making the time devoted simply to being with students and teachers absolutely indispensable.

Introduction of a Reluctant Blogger

My almost sixteen year old daughter and I recently shared a good laugh (deservedly at my expense) remembering the time I told her she was never ever to blog. It must have been about five years ago, which now seems an eternity. Listening to nervous naysayers rather than investigating and learning for myself, I perceived blogs to be personal diaries inappropriately and self-indulgently shared with the world. I openly confess; interacting on the internet frightened me. Web 2.0 was a term I only vaguely understood and I had not yet heard of a “digital footprint” or “digital citizenship”. As an educator and a parent, I was warned by wise experts in the field to teach my students and my children Internet safety. Dutifully, I brought in speakers about internet safety to school. Like so many parents, when I allowed my daughter to  have a Facebook page I reviewed with her my expectations, which included that she never ever accept a friend request from anybody she hadn’t actually met. Be careful, I warned. The advice was heartfelt and appropriate. It’s just that I hadn’t yet recognized my responsibility also to support her, along with my son and my students, to be creative and collaborative.  Sharing, albeit with appropriate caution, is vital.     

In time, I realized how misinformed I had been about blogging and social media, developing the habit of reading the blogs of educational thinkers from around the globe on a daily basis.  I can no longer imagine professional life without interactions with a wide network of individuals writing from the trenches – principals, teachers, instructional coaches, parents and even students.  These reflective musings have become a blessing to me, as I have learned from the successes and also from the mistakes of others willing to share. And so, albeit a reluctant blogger intially, I join in conversation, hoping to reflect, struggle, dream and engage with others exploring ways to nurture our children’s learning and support our children in building character.

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