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!

 

It’s a Process, Not a Technique

By Sarah P. Hylton, M.Ed., SURN

Imagine that you’re observing a class in which the students are working to find text evidence to support opinions they have. After each student locates a piece of evidence, the teacher, Ms. Smith, asks the students to show thumbs up, sideways, or down to indicate how confident they feel that their chosen piece of text evidence effectively proves their opinion. One of the items on your observation checklist is that the teacher effectively uses formative assessment. Would you check that box? Has Ms. Smith used formative assessment? What tells you that she has or hasn’t?

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Formative assessment is a process that involves multiple steps (see the image above). The first step in the process involves eliciting and capturing information about what the students know, believe, or can do and how well. The second step in the process requires the teacher (or student) to analyze the information that has been collected and to make appropriate inferences about the nature and degree of student learning. Finally, the teacher must communicate and use the information that was collected. In other words, the teacher should use the results of the analysis to inform instructional decision making and should share the results by providing feedback to students.

Often, our understanding of formative assessment is limited to the first stage of this process. There are seemingly endless lists of techniques that teachers can use to elicit information from students. You’re probably familiar with a litany of these types of techniques: thumbs up/thumbs down, exit slips, individual dry erase boards, think-pair-share, popsicle sticks, four corners. Often these formative assessment techniques are referred to as formative assessment, but this “name game” results in misconceptions about formative assessment. Using a technique is not formative assessment. In order to truly undertake formative assessment, teachers must engage in the subsequent stages of the process.

Teachers at SURN’s Designing Formative Assessment Workshop engage in conversation about the formative assessment process.

Teachers at SURN’s Designing Formative Assessment Workshop engage in conversation about the formative assessment process.

Returning to our original scenario, Ms. Smith does indeed create an opportunity to elicit and capture information from her students about their thinking, in this case, their degree of confidence in their chosen piece of text evidence. What we aren’t told is what happens next. Imagine that Ms. Smith follows the thumbs up/thumbs down responses with a comment such as “It seems like only two people are feeling really confident that they have found a solid piece of evidence. Let’s all look for another piece of evidence that supports our opinion even better.” Such a comment should reasonably convince us that Ms. Smith is actually engaging in formative assessment. Not only did she take time to elicit and capture information about student thinking, she also took time to analyze that information. We only know this because she then communicates that information with the students and uses it to make an instructional decision.

On the other hand, if Ms. Smith had simply said “Okay, great! Let’s move on to the next chapter,” we could be confident that she has not engaged in formative assessment. Yes, she used a formative assessment technique, but her decision to move forward despite only two students feeling that they had found a good piece of text evidence would indicate that she hasn’t engaged in the process.

Remember: formative assessment is not a technique; it’s a process. To truly engage in formative assessment, teachers must not only elicit and capture information; they must also analyze that information and then communicate and use that information.

Nurturing Curiosity in Our Students and Our Teachers

By Sarah P. Hylton, M.Ed., SURN

We all want students who are inquisitive and engaged, and the 6th annual Joy of Children’s Literacy & Literature Conference on October 5 provided a multitude of ideas and strategies for creating classrooms that capitalize on students’ natural wonder, passion, and curiosity. Breakout sessions on using inquiry learning, teaching with images and dialectical journals, creating games and text sets, and engaging with poetry every day were bookended by keynote speakers Harvey “Smokey” Daniels and Georgia Heard.

Pictured left to right: Associate Dean of Teacher Education and Community Engagement, Dr. Denise Johnson; SURN Director, Dr. Amy Colley; and Keynote Speakers Georgia Heard and Harvey “Smokey” Daniels.

Pictured left to right: Associate Dean of Teacher Education and Community Engagement, Dr. Denise Johnson; SURN Director, Dr. Amy Colley; and Keynote Speakers Georgia Heard and Harvey “Smokey” Daniels.

Smokey Daniels, author of The Curious Classroom, contends that our students are already curious; in fact, they come to us that way. Our task is to tap the power of their amazing and interesting questions by creating classrooms that honor this curiosity. Citing the research on curiosity, creativity, project-based learning, persistence, and genius hour, Daniels offers a “ladder” of ten key strategies for creating a culture of student-directed inquiry:

  1. Demonstrate your own curiosity
  2. Investigate ourselves and our classmates
  3. Capture and honor kids’ questions
  4. Begin the day with soft starts
  5. Check your news feed
  6. Hang out with an expert
  7. Pursue kids’ own questions with mini-inquiries
  8. Address curricular units with mini-inquiries
  9. Lean into a crisis
  10. Learn with partners and pioneers

Although Daniels’s ideas can certainly foster classrooms that engage primarily in inquiry learning, he encourages teachers to start with small commitments of time. Many of his ideas take fewer than fifteen minutes to implement, allowing teachers to start small and to continue as they see the positive results of engaging students in seeking answers to their own (and each other’s) questions.

Daniels also focuses on using images to spark student inquiry, reminding us that “text” can be interpreted broadly. He invites us to move beyond the narrow definition of text as printed words on a page and to understand that in addition to the written word, student wonder can be also be engaged by working with photographs, artwork, cartoons, diagrams, charts, and music.

If Daniels invites students to explore their curiosity by opening their minds, Georgia Heard invites them to do so by opening their hearts. Heard, author of Writing Toward Home, Awakening the Heart, Heart Maps and others, relayed her passion for helping students explore their innate sense of wonder through writing. Working from a simple heart drawn on the page, Heard urges students to explore those people, memories, places, and ideas about which they feel passionate by drawing and doodling images, supplemented by words and phrases for clarification or expansion, that resonate with them. The opportunity to slow down, to ponder their beliefs and ideas, and to commit them to paper creates the foundation upon which students build pieces of writing based on their own natural sense of wonder.

Although Daniels and Heard’s ideas center primarily on creating deeper student learning and engagement, savvy instructional leaders may well consider how to adapt Daniels and Heard’s ideas to promote a learning culture among their faculty.  Given that “today’s students urgently need to see as many thoughtful, curious, resourceful, and critical adults as they can” (Daniels, 2018, p. iii), it is incumbent upon school leaders to promote a school culture where faculty can develop their own curiosity and use it for school improvement. Design Thinking for School Leaders by Gallagher and Thordarson (2018) urges leaders to cultivate wonder intentionally by building empathy through curiosity, by routinely posing questions to all stakeholders, by honoring their creative ideas, and by designing opportunities to challenge the status quo.

Many of Daniels’s suggestions for how to honor and pursue students’ questions can easily be adapted to foster adult learning among faculty. Modeling curiosity, building relationships, honoring everyone’s ideas and questions, providing outside expertise, and engaging in research to satisfy our curiosity all promote a learning culture within our schools. Heard’s ideas, too, find a place in such leadership by inviting faculty to explore what they feel passionate about when it comes to students and teaching and learning.

Communication: The beginning and ending of leadership

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

As a principal, what is your vision? Do staff members know what needs to be done to reach that goal? Do they know how you expect them to reach that goal? More importantly, do they know why this goal is vital to meet? And once they understand the “what,” “how,” and “why,” do you provide them with enough autonomy to get the job done in an effective and timely manner? These are pragmatic issues that principals encounter. Here are a few thoughts I have on how to more effectively address these issues and reach set goals in an authentic and enduring manner.

Collaborative vs. Solitary

Before anything else, engaging stakeholders, such as teachers, parents and community members, in conversations about where we are and why we are there, where we need to go and why we need to go there, and how we are going to get there and why we are traveling the path(s) to get there are pivotal. Notice why is included in each question. Although these conversations may be uncomfortable, the fact that you are seeking and valuing their perceptions increases their commitment and confidence which reduces resistance when it is time to implement. This collection of perspectives helps to pinpoint what needs to be done (the what), action steps needed to deliver (the how), and the reasons for doing it (the why) helps to keep everyone focused.

Telling Your Why

Principals have the best intentions but need to remember that people are not mind readers. That’s why it is important to share your why. Tell your staff and communities why you choose to lead your school, your vision for the school and how you will get it done. Often, principals, especially those new to their school buildings, are met with more resistance due to the lack of communication. People do not give support for what they do not understand or fear. In this case the fear of the unknown. State and live your commitments on a daily basis. You are being watched by all to determine if your why is at the forefront of your actions.

Give Them Space

Early in my administrative career, I discovered that my message of the importance of teachers having autonomy was not demonstrated in my actions. I was dictating the paths to achieve set goals. Staff and teachers became more concerned about meeting my expectations versus completing their work in a quality way.

The lesson I learned was that being too rigid compromises an individual’s ability to perform. There is nothing wrong with giving teachers the flexibility and freedom to interpret change so that they can get the job done in a way that works for them and the school. Remember, when we ask for change teachers are on the front lines. They have the skills and capability of executing in the moment, so let them do it and provide them with resources and support. Doing this gives them a sense of ownership, pride, and a boost in their morale.

 Celebrate

One of the simplest acts of showing gratitude is to celebrate. Celebrate those who contribute to the success. Leaders cannot change an organization alone as it takes an entire team to achieve this goal. When implementing change it is inevitable that we will experience setbacks. However, it remains crucial to celebrate whether it is a big or small victory.

As a principal, I celebrated my staff frequently, especially during testing season. During this intense period, I made sure staff was showered with gifts, food, and other incentives. For example, community partners provided faculty and staff lunch for an entire week. Additionally, the parent-teacher association (PTA) supplied teachers with baskets full of snacks and inspirational quotes. At the end of each school year, awards and trophies were distributed to those individuals who exceeded expectations. Teacher morale, their sense of efficacy, and their commitment strengthened. I was told on many occasions they felt appreciated and valued- two emotions that are sometimes absent in the education system. Let us be honest with ourselves: we all want to experience those feelings on a regular basis and when we do, we are motivated to do more for a cause. Remember to celebrate students and community members, too.

Final Thoughts

If we are not careful, visions and declarations are merely promises. As a leader, your job is to translate those promises into practical, on-the-ground performance through a complex sequence of interactions, on a daily day. It is crucial that you use each interaction as an opportunity to practice the elements listed above. Aim for improvement with each interaction. Commit to developing ever greater clarity and capabilities so that you may become ever more helpful in the moment. So, say what you care about, make it clear what you intend to do, and remain accountable.