“Get Back On Track” Questions for school leaders (and an example)

“Get Back On Track” Questions for school leaders (and an example)

I suffer from good-idea-itis.  I have trouble sorting out the good ideas from the good ideas that are right for my organization.  Can you relate?  When we work with schools, we see a bunch of hugely motivated people often working on the wrong thing.  Or at least the wrong thing for them.  I find that this is a great time to stop and take stock so we don’t spin our wheels all year long and wonder how on earth it happened!

Here are my most helpful “taking stock” questions:

Question 1:  What are you willing to “go big” on?

What is it that is so important, instructionally, that if every teacher improved it just a little bit would make a huge impact on student achievement?

Question 2:  What will you have to do to “go big” on that thing?

  • What will the people need to do?
  • What will you need to do?
  • What will your leadership team have to do?
  • How will teacher teams need to work on this?
  • What materials do you have to get this done?

Question 3: What good ideas will you have to leave behind?

Good ideas WILL need to be left on the table to make room for the really great, important ones.  What are good ideas that you don’t want to give up, but need to, so that you can move forward on the excellent stuff?

_________________________

Here’s an example of what that might look like in real life!

Question 1:  What are you willing to “go big” on?

We are willing to go big on using instructional aides to teach important skills to the most struggling students during language arts instruction for 40 minutes daily instead of pulling students out to work outside of the classroom teacher’s control.

Question 2:  What will you have to do to “go big” on that thing?

  • We will have to look at the data to determine which grades need the most instructional time with aides right now
  • We will have to adjust schedules in all grade levels
  • We will have to stop using aides to cover classes or duties as needed – will need a permanent solutions to how they “fill in”
  • We will have to find co-planning time with aides and classroom teachers
  • We will have to train instructional aides on very specific techniques for intervening on the foundational skills with the lowest performers
  • We will have to design routines for the aide entering the classroom and getting kids to the right spot so we don’t lose instructional time
  • We will plan to reassess this plan every six weeks and make adjustments

Question 3: What good ideas will you have to leave behind?

  • That our new program will solve every problem we currently have in bringing kids to benchmark in LA
  • That lowering class size/group size is our #1 priority and will make the biggest difference
  • That centers are the answer to grouping kids and providing targeted instruction
  • That by isolating students outside of the classroom in small groups makes them focus even more than if they were peeled off within the classroom

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If you found this post helpful, you’ll probably really find this and this helpful, too!

The Q & A Series #5 of 10 | Work Weekends?!

The Q & A Series #5 of 10 | Work Weekends?!

Question: What kind of teaching work do you do on the weekends?

Answer:  Truth be told, I carried work home with me, set it by the front door and then never touched it until I picked it up early Monday morning to cart it back to school!  Note: See #3 in this series for more on this!

If I did take something home to work on during the weekend, I made sure it was something that was creative and mindless…something I could do while I watched TV or chilled out on the coach.  Maybe something that I wouldn’t normally take a ton of time on during the week like prepping an art project, looking online for ideas for an upcoming unit, sorting papers or cleaning up my files.

I just realized really quickly that a teacher who had worked all weekend was a crabbier teacher on Monday.

We need our breaks…and I take breaks pretty seriously!

The Q & A Series #9 of 10 | A Lesson Tanks?!

The Q & A Series #9 of 10 | A Lesson Tanks?!

Question: What do you do when you know a lesson is tanking?

Answer: Well, this happens to all of us for different reasons.  Sometimes a lesson tanks because I haven’t prepped properly, sometimes because I thought they knew something that the needed to know and they really didn’t or…well…because it’s a full freaking moon!  You know how that goes!

I have been given really good advice in my life that totally applies to a tanking lesson: When you’re in a hole, stop digging.

Yep.  When I notice a lesson isn’t going well and my attempts to fix it are falling flat, I just say to the kids something like, “You know what?  We’re having trouble here and we need to start over again.” And then I start over.

Usually the kids look at me like, “Yeah, it wasn’t really going well!”  It’s not a mystery when a lesson is struggling!

I also thinks that hitting that ‘start over’ button is a really good model of resilience.

The Illusion of Equity in Education, Part 1

The Illusion of Equity in Education, Part 1

I am, admittedly, becoming an old lady who really is loving spending time thinking about things.  I remember growing up hearing about people taking weeks and months and years to think about things in order to form their opinion or action on something.  I thought that just sounded plain ol’ BORING.  I mean…just sitting around thinking? Um…no thank you.  I am all about action. (Ha!)

But I find myself more and more distressed and curious about how things are in education.  How, in my opinion, we are just off and running on things that really don’t have anything to do with teaching.

If you’ve heard me talk at all, you know I take shots at trends in education that I really find ridiculous and downright demeaning to our profession.  (You know, things like spending a preponderance of time and resources on flexible seating…)  But one of the things that I am really thinking a lot about and doing some researching on is this concept of equity in education.  It appears to the be the buzzword of the year and, in my opinion, has some veiled something underneath it…it’s a loaded term.

Today I decided to go to the good ol’ YouTube and search “equity in the classroom” and I watched this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wiEKs01ZIho.  It was the first one that popped up in my search, so I decided to watch it even though I don’t know the man in the video and I don’t know of his organization.

He starts off giving a pretty rambling definition of what equity is and I’m already suspect because if something can’t be easily explained then I think it’s a veil for something else.  Confusion where we need clarity is dangerous, I’ve come to see.  And I have encountered a ton of confusion and double-talking and rambling from the “experts” on the subject of equity.  But I digress…

Here is his rough definition:

“The need to focus more directly not simply on equal opportunity.  This is making sure kids have access to schools. Also, focusing outcomes and results.  Most parent practice equity with their own kids by not treating them all the same. Schools should focus on outcomes.”

Um. Ok. Wait…what?

So, to use his analogy, if a parent has two children and one struggles to settle into bedtime and the other doesn’t, their nighttime routines might need to be different.  The easy-to-bed child might need brushing teeth, a story, a kiss and a squeeze and goodnight…maybe a 15 minute process.

The hard-to-settle-into-bed might need a 30-45 minute routine that includes a timer set to keep things moving and a choice of pajama options and TV turned off 30 minutes before bedtime and laying out of the clothes for tomorrow and a full debrief of the day.  The end result or the outcome, is the same: settling down and going to sleep in bed for the night.

Now let’s equate that to a 1st grade teacher: She has two students.  One is highly performing and comes to her class with excellent skills in place. The other student doesn’t have quite the same skills and requires more practice.  So, the teacher does some pre-teaching with the not-as-skilled student before teaching is so she’s primed the pump and given extra repetitions on the skills to boost up the student.  When she teaches the new concept to the whole class, the skilled and not-so-skilled student both learn the concept, but the path to learning the concept has been a bit different.

Is this equity? Because it sounds an awful lot like differentiation.  And haven’t we been doing this for a long time?

Why the need for the word “equity” and its rolling definition when we’re really describing something teachers have been doing for a long time?

I’m left wondering what’s REALLY going on here?

If you’re into things like clarity and simple messaging, then you’ll probably like this and this.

Hard Skills and the Slippery Slope

Hard Skills and the Slippery Slope

Today I am thinking about hard and soft skills in teaching and how I think we’re headed down a very slippery slope.

Let me explain…

I have done professional development and coaching of teachers (and their coaches and leaders) for a decade and a half.  I have seen a lot.  Correction: I have seen it ALL!

Most of my work is with some of the most struggling schools in each state in the U.S. The districts and schools come to me because they aren’t getting the results they want, despite a lot of energy and time spent on the job.  Sometimes people are under-motivated, feeling the results of really bad leadership or they’re just not a good fit for the hard job of being a teacher.

But most of the time, they need help because they can’t pull themselves off of the trajectory toward failure.  They need a lifeline or help or whatever you want to call it.

When I go to schools and I suggest that they try something (like simplifying their morning routine or sorting their kids for reading instruction), the first question they ask is: Okay, how do I do that?

That question right there (How do I do that?) is a question that begs for a HARD SKILL response.  In other words, most teachers are asking to be taught a SKILL to help them improve their performance or that of their students.  Hands down, teachers want to learn to do things.  They don’t just want to talk about them, feel good about talking about them or ruminate on big ideas.

They want answers and solutions.  They’re looking for hard skills that will help them get better results.

Here’s where the slippery slope comes in.

I speak at a lot of conferences and lately I’ve noticed a bunch of sessions (maybe half?) on the conference dockets are about what I would consider SOFT SKILLS.  I see sessions on equity in the classroom, building resilient kids…or my latest favorite buzz word (gag!) student efficacy.  First off (and I promise I won’t go off on a tangent about this!), I don’t even know what those words really mean.  Or more specifically, these words mean things that encompass so many things that they don’t have much meaning at all!

Do I believe in building resilient kids?  Of course I do!

Do I believe in equity in the classroom?  Of course I do!

Do I believe in student efficacy (feeling like they can get the job done)? Of course I do!

But…I don’t believe that resiliency, equity and efficacy (soft skills) are won through soft skill work of the teacher.  I think they’re won through the teacher’s hard skills…the hard skills that the teacher uses each day that ensures that kids master the most important content. (A few examples of hard skills off the top of my head: how to set up a flawless management system, how to redirect students off-task, how to lesson plan for a killer lesson, how to teach vocabulary so that students internalize the words, how to break down your student data and make smart decisions. You get the idea.)

So, I actually think we do a disservice to teachers by getting them pumped up about the soft skills stuff without arming them with the hard skills.  After all, when the conference session is done or the professional development session is over, they are left with this: either they have the skill to do what they need to do tomorrow, or they don’t.

In my 15+ years of doing this work, I have never had a teacher ask me, “How do I build resiliency in my students?” or “How do I create a spirit of equity in my classroom?”  Nope.  The questions are much more practical and skill-focused.  Teachers want to get BETTER at BEING great teachers…not just talking about being better teaches.

There is no amount of pump up, big picture vision or fancy worded conference session that is going to cover for a lack of skill.

Actually, let’s flip that: No pump up, big picture vision or fancy worded conference session can outshine a teacher with excellently honed hard teaching skills.

The sooner we admit that excellent teaching comes down to the teacher being really good at certain things, then the REAL party starts.  Until then, we’re hunting and pecking for superficial fix-its.

And we are better than that.

P.S.  If you liked the vibe of this, then you probably want to check this and this out.

Does a Checklist Really Work? {Behavior Mgmt.}

Does a Checklist Really Work? {Behavior Mgmt.}

I am on a quest to figure out how checklists can simplify and improve the quality of our work in schools.  If you haven’t read my first two installments of this little series, I suggest you do (they’re super quick reads!).  Here’s the 1st.  Here’s the 2nd.

This time I tried my hand at behavior management.  How do we define a series of steps so that we can ensure that behavior management doesn’t dominate instruction?  Also, how do we streamline it across a school so we have similar expectations for kids?  I tried my hand at it here…what do you think?

Checklist for In-Class Behavior Management

1

When a student is misbehaving, kindly ask student to replace with an alternate behavior (“Instead of _____, John, I would like you to do _____.”)

2

If behavior is not immediately corrected, then firmly ask the student to change behavior and add consequence (“John, I have asked you to _____ and you have chosen not to.  I would like you to ____ right now.  I do not want to have to ask you to leave the group!”)

3

If the behavior is changed and no longer an issue, find an immediate way to compliment the student on the changed behavior (“John…thanks so much for doing _____ -really nice job paying close attention.”)

4

If the behavior persists, quietly go over to the student, whisper directions to carry out consequence (Whispering: “John, please come and sit in this desk right now – I will let you know when you are free to join us again.”).  Ignore the student if he acts out or tries to get other kids’ attention

5

Tell the student that he is still responsible for doing the work, just doing the work in a different spot in the room

6

If the student is not behaving in the new spot, give 1-2 calm reminders of what is expected (“Remember John, I’m looking for you to not blurt out and try to distract everyone.  When you can do that, I’ll invite you back to the group, which is my #1 goal.”)

7

If the student is still not responding, then calmly move the student to the next step on the behavior chart (losing recess?)

8

If the student gets to the 4th step on the behavior chart, a note goes home with the student and the note comes to the principal’s office

9

Every new day is a fresh start for every student – we allow students to recover