In Appreciation of the Assistant Principal

By Jamon H. Flowers, M.Ed., SURN

“You never really know a man until you understand things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

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Dear School Administrators and Teachers:

For several years I walked around in the “skin” of an assistant principal. I am very familiar with the challenges you face, the hours you dedicate to your school, the loyalty you pledge to your principal, and the joy you experience watching students succeed. As a teacher, I distinctly remember thinking about the life of an assistant principal as being stress-free. I formulated a judgment that their administrator duties and responsibilities compared to my teacher work were notably less. At that moment I believed that an assistant principal could use the restroom at their leisure, leave paperwork for the next day, eat lunch uninterrupted, and build relationships with students and parents quickly. I was wrong – what a difference perspective makes!

More than just a “right-hand man or woman” employed to take the excess workload from a public-school principal, the assistant principal is a vital component of a school’s success. They are responsible for handling administrative, disciplinary, and logistical tasks, along with planning activities and monitoring and reporting on the status of the school, its student body, and staff. In some schools, the assistant principal may count teacher or substitute among their list of job roles as well. With that said, assistant principals are the backbone in school building administration.

As an assistant principal, there were moments of uncertainty and worry that I did not make the best decisions. The long hours of supervising sporting events, participating in parent-teacher conferences, attending trainings, conducting home visits, advising students, counseling teachers, etc. did not create a stress-free life.

Although unintentional, the assistant principal job is sometimes unappreciated. This week the nation celebrates the sacrifices and contributions assistant principals make to the American education system. I was fortunate to have strong assistant principals and acknowledge that my success as a principal relied heavily on their shoulders. They were my foundation. Teachers, before you submit that discipline referral or complain about a consequence from a discipline referral, and principals, before you add another task to their already endless list, I challenge you to reflect and try to “understand things from their point of view.” This week and beyond I encourage all principals and teachers to consider the efforts of their assistant principals and share their gratitude for all that they do to support students, teachers, parents and communities.

Educationally yours,

Jamon

Recruiting and Re-recruiting

By Jamon H. Flowers, M.Ed., SURN

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A top priority for school administrators is to ensure the academic, emotional, and physical safety of students.  Not far behind are recruiting and staffing their schools with the best teachers for their students. We are at the beginning of the hiring season where many administrators join forces with their human resource department to attend job fairs, sift through applications, and conduct interviews, all based on the “intent” of current staff members and expected enrollment.  This process can be daunting and taxing, but, this season provides you an opportunity to revisit the mission and vision of your school to determine the characteristics, talents, and skills needed in order to promote achievement and build capacity.

As you work to recruit teachers, remember these things:

Invite others into the interview room

The interviewing process should not be conducted by administration alone but with a variety of stakeholders. It is important to remember that potential teammates and students are the people who will interact with this individual more frequently, so their presence and voice should be included. A strong interviewing team represents the school and its community. Throughout my tenure as an administrator interview team members included:

  • An assistant principal (preferably over the grade level or subject)
  • A core teacher from the grade level or content
  • An elective teacher
  • A staff member
  • A parent/guardian
  • A community member
  • A representative of the student body (this member was included mostly on the secondary levels)

Conversation v. Interview

Participating in an interview is a high anxiety event and can take a toll physically and mentally on the candidate. Let us not forget, we all have been in their shoes, and we know people’s reactions to interviewing varies.

After introductions, I attempted to make the candidate feel a little more at ease by saying, “We all have been in your shoes, and we encourage you to relax as much as possible. If you need a question repeated, please ask. Let us begin our conversation.” This approach created a warm and welcoming environment that set the stage for a candidate to display their personality and educational beliefs. Do not misinterpret me; this conversation should not mimic the same conversation we might have at a local bar, but it creates space for both parties to learn more about each other and hopefully helps the candidate feel more comfortable with answering and asking questions.

What is their added-value?

Beware of sacrificing your vision of the ideal candidate in an attempt to fill your roster. The campaign to recruit teachers, especially teachers of color and males, is an on-going need. Generally speaking, there is a need for more teachers, especially in specific disciplines and geographical areas. The need is complex and critical, yet I urge you not to sacrifice your students’ education or your vision for learning as the urgency to fill positions grows; rather, I suggest you be extremely intentional about who you are hiring. I learned this valuable lesson as an assistant principal. I worked with a principal who conducted added-value audits of her assistant principals, teachers and staff members. Although testing results were a component in the model, other components included being a team player, coachable, having strong content knowledge, and relationship builder. In other words, she made the audit holistic, which provided information that could be used to have a better sense of their strengths and areas for growth. When you think about recruiting an individual to your staff, think about them holistically.  Ask yourself, what is this individual adding to the cultures and climate of the school? What can this individual add to this community that you do not already have or cannot create with the current staff?

Re-recruiting teachers

Re-recruiting teachers is a key to teacher retention. While you are recruiting new teachers, do not neglect your current faculty and staff. During this time in the school year, teachers need a reminder that their presence and expertise is much appreciated. It is important to thank and celebrate your current staff.  Remember, they have been with you since the beginning of the school year, if not longer. They have worked hard to meet your expectations as well as the students’ needs. Also, make sure you are taking care of their needs. How have you helped them reach their goals? What professional development opportunities have you offered them? How have you recognized your teachers’ contributions?

Looking in the mirror

Often, we focus on what the candidate has to offer the school’s culture, but I challenge you to think about what can you offer the candidate. Ask yourself, why would the ideal teacher want to work at this school? In addition to reviewing your mission and vision statements, revisit your brand. What is the message your website is conveying? Is the website updated or does it still have your welcome back message posted? Are teachers’ pages updated? These are the sorts of methods candidates, community members, and others use to evaluate your school.

Best of luck and happy recruiting!

 

Healthy Relations Create Equity

By Jamon H. Flowers, M.Ed., SURN

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As a principal, highlights in my day were visiting classrooms, interacting with students, and witnessing learning and teaching. By far, my students across grade levels were fortunate to have some great teachers and if I ever had to select the most effective teacher I worked with, indisputably, I could not. Although different in their approach, but sharing the same beliefs about students, these teachers did whatever it took to ensure students received a quality education. They made sure that students were present and engaged. They never allowed their students to fail; this task was easier said than done.  Like most teachers, it was not unusual to find these teachers staying after school to provide extra help, spending their Saturday mornings conducting tutorials in the local library, and communicating with parents on a regular basis. In my previous school, these behaviors were demonstrated by a majority of teachers, at different degrees respectably. However, there were several teachers in particular that received the most accolades from students, parents, and community members. What made these specific teachers so effective and highly requested among students and parents? In my quest to supporting my hypothesis, I visited a kindergarten classroom taught by Mrs. Kaufman, perhaps one of my favorite kindergarten teachers.

Daily, she worked hard to ensure that her students received the best education. This dedication meant never giving up on her students or parents. Throughout the school year, she remained sincere in her teaching style, yet brutally honest in her academic diagnoses, but she would always end those conversations with “we will get them there.” Her classroom was full of energy and love, yet there was a noticeable distinction. Easily to discern to a naïve individual would be race; Mrs. Kaufman was White and her students were Black. While accurate and an essential factor in the equation, race was not the most notable distinction. It was the healthy relationships she had with the students.

The much-needed campaign to recruit teachers of color is germane to the advancement of all students, and vital to building a better narrative for students in education. Some research suggests that teachers of color are likely to be more effective in producing positive academic and behavioral outcomes for same-race students. However, it is not a requirement to have a shared race, background, or experience in order to connect. Mrs. Kaufman’s success illustrates how building a relationship, setting expectations, and working to keep your students engaged are key to creating a conducive learning environment.

While there’s been an increase in the racial diversity in the public school teacher workforce, it is still dominated by white (82 percent), female teachers (76 percent). Local and state agencies struggle with recruiting and retaining teachers, especially teachers of color, for many reasons, and this problem will not be solved quickly. Yet, we are making great strides as programs, such as Call Me MISTER, work tirelessly to help increase the 2 percent of Black males teachers in American schools. More urgently, school districts should focus their efforts on trying to improve the quality of instruction for students of color now.

One necessary part of that work: schools must examine and reform their disciplinary policies and practices. Black students, boys especially, continue to be referred for discipline or suspended from school at alarmingly disproportionate rates. This means that these students become less engaged in their coursework or school as a whole. The instructional time they lose affects their academic progress. State and local educational agencies must work to reduce these referral disparities — and classroom teachers and school building administrators must be at the forefront of this work, increasing their efforts to build healthier relationships with students.

Although administrators are vital key players, teachers play the most critical role in engaging students in learning. Joint efforts among principals, teachers, and students can collaboratively develop effective interventions targeted on improving teachers and schools’ discipline practices — exploring their beliefs and raising expectations for students of color. A clear focus on building relationships with students — much like Mrs. Kaufman did — is likely to reduce biases teachers might hold and increase student engagement in the classroom and the learning process.

Being culturally responsive and sensitive are critical to these efforts, regardless of the race of the teacher or the student. Do not misinterpret me; a teacher’s race matters when teaching students of color, and so does a teacher’s ability to build relationships.

 

The 5 Cs across the Disciplines

By Sarah P. Hylton, SURN

The Profile of a Virginia Graduate is a framework aimed at preparing our students to be life ready citizens. Positioned as part of the VDOE’s Standards of Accreditation, the Profile is the response to an essential question: “What knowledge, skills, and dispositions should a Virginia high school graduate possess?”

Focused on the four pillars of Content Knowledge, Workplace Skills, Community Engagement/Civic Responsibility, and Career Exploration, the Profile insists that creative thinking, critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and citizenship – which we commonly refer to as the 5Cs – be incorporated into learning experiences in every classroom, pre-K through 12.

The 5Cs are not the purview of secondary teachers only (a common misconception given the reference to graduation in the name), nor are they intended to reside primarily in one discipline or another. Rather, this focus on the 5 Cs obliges all teachers to develop a common understanding of these skills and attributes and to understand how the 5 Cs exist across the standards and goals of the various academic disciplines.

Creating opportunities to build teachers’ capacity to incorporate these skills is the work of all school leaders. As each division considers how it will begin to implement the Profile, consider having teachers review the strands and/or goals of the various disciplines to determine where the 5Cs are mentioned in the standards of their own discipline as well as in others. Such a task should provide a good starting point for teachers to develop operational definitions of this language and will give them insight into how they are working in tandem with their colleagues to ensure that all students are developing these critical skills. Because reading, discussing, and writing with purpose in every discipline is fundamental to developing the 5Cs, further faculty conversations might center on how to offer instruction rich in these opportunities.

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EPPL Goes to Washington

By Sarah P. Hylton, SURN

EPPL students take part in a policy field trip to Washington, D.C.

EPPL students take part in a policy field trip to Washington, D.C.

At SURN’s Board Meeting on Wednesday, Dr. Mike DiPaola promoted William and Mary’s EPPL cohort and its goal to develop capable school leaders. The EPPL acronym stands for educational policy, planning, and leadership, and students in the program take courses in each of these areas, ultimately synthesizing those classroom experiences during comprehensive examinations. The natural extension, of course, is how these areas will interact in their professional lives as school leaders. Students in the program are reminded often of the necessity of leaders being conscious of the policy process in order to be able to engage positively and intentionally in that process.

Students currently doing policy coursework, including SURN Graduate Assistants Jamon Flowers and Sarah Hylton, took part in a policy field trip to Washington, D.C. on October 27, 2017. The trip, organized by Dr. Pamela Eddy, provided us with the opportunity to meet with K12 and higher education interest groups and with congressional education legislative aids and staff. We were reminded of how critical it is for school leaders to envision themselves as policy actors and to foster relationships with a broad swath of individuals and organizations. Those we spoke to urged us as school leaders to know our own narrative and to use it to shape our policy goals and aspirations. Faithful commitment to the organization’s best interests framed consistently and positively serves schools leaders well as they navigate policy issues at the local, state, and even federal levels.

SURN ESL Workshop Featured in School of Education News Release

SURN Workshop Featured in School of Education News Release:

by Julie Tucker | March 8, 2017

“The faloopious scaringas tringled quaransically to the barton.” This sentence, projected on a conference room screen, welcomed 65 middle- and high-school teachers from across Virginia to “ESL101,” a workshop at the William & Mary School of Education last week.

The group of educators, led by Katherine Barko-Alva, clinical assistant professor of TESOL, puzzled out possible meanings by analyzing the sentence structure and using the visual cue offered by an accompanying photograph. A consensus quickly emerged about a grumpy cat holding tight to a treat he did not want to share.

“Every sentence has layers upon layers of meanings,” said Barko-Alva. “The beauty of ESL is when you bring content and academic language together for the purpose of classroom instruction.”

The workshop, offered through the William & Mary School-University Research Network (SURN), was geared toward teachers with English language learners in their classrooms and offered strategies to help them meet the needs of those students.

The need for this type of training for teachers is huge. “When I ask superintendents what kind of professional development opportunities they need for their teachers, ESL training is almost always at the top of the list,” said Amy Colley, executive director of SURN.

Luckily for Colley, the William & Mary School of Education brought Barko-Alva onto the faculty last fall, and she enthusiastically agreed to collaborate on a series of workshops for elementary and secondary public school teachers from across the state.

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Dr. Katherine Barko-Alva speaks to an attentive group of teachers at the ESL 101 Workshop.

For Barko-Alva, teaching ESL is a passion born from personal experience. She arrived in the United States from Peru with her family at age 15. And though well-prepared by her schools in Peru and ready for college study, she spoke only a smattering of English.

She recounted one memorable experience in a pre-calculus class when she was given a math problem about baseball. “I knew how to do the math, but the language of baseball — bases, runs, strikes, walks — was totally foreign to me.” Language, she added, depends entirely on context, and every content area has its own specific register. The challenge for the ESL teacher is to navigate the disconnects between content and academic language.

It takes anywhere from one to three years to gain the language skills needed for day-to-day social interactions. Cognitive academic language proficiency — the ability to read, write, analyze and evaluate subject-area academic content — can take up to 10 years.

A year and a half after arriving in the U.S., Barko-Alva enrolled as a freshman at the University of Florida. She’s now a leading voice in ESL education, advocating for students like her who arrive in this country with little or no English but who deserve a full and engaging education.

Public schools in Virginia serve somewhere around 100,000 English learner students. And while these students are guaranteed equal access to grade-level materials and content under federal law, the resources, structures and policies supporting these students vary greatly among districts and schools.

“Our focus for the workshop was to offer specific strategies that teachers could take back to their classrooms and put to use right away,” said Colley. “These are techniques that every teacher can use, regardless of how much experience they have working with ELLs.”

The workshop was co-facilitated by Joy Martin ’02, M.Ed. ’08, who is a reading intervention teacher for Norfolk Public Schools and adjunct faculty member at W&M. For the past six years, Martin has led W&M’s Summer ESL Institute, which allows students to add an ESL endorsement to their teaching degree. Students who pursue the ESL-dual endorsement program graduate prepared to teach English language learners as content-area teachers and as ESL teachers. “And that is what our ELLs need to acquire English and succeed in school — teachers with the knowledge and skills to teach academic language and literacy,” said Martin.

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Joy Martin directs teachers at the ESL 101 Workshop.

Working within the limitations of a one-day workshop, participants at ESL101 got a primer on ESL foundations, but the main focus was on actionable techniques for the classroom.

Martin and Barko-Alva led the group through interactive exercises to conquer oral language production, such as the “jigsaw,” a group activity in which each student becomes an expert in one aspect of a topic and then teaches fellow group members. Another, “think-pair-share,” allows ELLs to practice language with a native speaker before being asked to speak in front of the class. These strategies also ensure that all students have equal opportunities for producing language in the classroom.

Kathy Smartwood, a kindergarten teacher from Yorktown, VA who attended one of the workshops, recognizes the value of having English-language learners in her classroom — to her, it’s a unique opportunity for cross-cultural exchange, rather than an obstruction to learning. “All of my students, regardless of their ability to speak English, should feel confident socially and academically.”

140 teachers from 29 school divisions and the Department of Juvenile Justice participated in the workshops, representing seven of the eight regions in Virginia. “It was a great opportunity to reach out to content-area teachers, who are the front line of support for English language learners,” said Barko-Alva. “We have a lot of work to do to improve outcomes for these students in Virginia, but we have amazing teachers.”