Monthly Archives: October 2013

Time and Priority

As a teacher and perfectionist, I never felt that there was enough time to do everything that was needed to address student concerns, to perfect my lessons, get my grading done as quickly as possible, or to be involved in as many coaching and extra curriculars as possible, all activities that are priorities for most educators concerned with student growth and success.  I didn’t fully understand that this feeling would be even more intensified as a new school leader. 

When we feel like there are more important things to accomplish than hours in the day, a big question that new administrators have is how does one prioritize when everything is a priority? What’s the most important to do first? How does one invest the necessary time into what’s important when there are many other “squeaky wheels” attracting your attention?

One of my favorite phrases is “time spent upfront is time saved in the end.” I don’t recall if that is something that someone famous/important said or just me, but it has proven to be true. An administrator can spend 24/7 being “reactive” or “putting out fires;” often, though, some time spent prior to now on that particular issue would have saved us from having to “put out fires.”

For example, as an administrator, you will constantly be helping different members of the school community to solve issues related to student learning. Often times, a parent who is passionate about her child’s learning will contact you, hoping for an immediate action or solution. A mistake that is often made just out of inexperience, being overwhelmed, etc., is to try to solve that issue with the parent right there and then. However, prior to that happening, taking the time to gather all the appropriate information and perspectives, i.e. talking to the student involved and the teacher, is vital to a solution to the problem that will more likely work through the different concerns of each person and provide the solution that’s most likely to be effective and agreeable to everyone. Clearly, this is more time spent initially on the matter. However, if the administrator solves the problem with the parent initially and then finds out additional information from the student or teacher that impacts the situation, more time is spent fixing it and explaining to the parents why there are additional items needed to consider the appropriate course of action. This is just one of many circumstances that require thought prior to a decision being made, whereby that thought or reflection may take more time initially but will save everyone’s time in the future.

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“Flipping” reflection

Many of my #SAVMP mentor peers have ben posting over the past week about reflection in reponse to George Couros’ challenge. Now that we are in the middle of the second month of school, we’ve all gotten very busy. One thing I never expected when I was preparing to be a principal was that there would be such difficulty in finding time to reflect, but that there would be a need for a different type of reflection.

When we typically talk about reflection, we emphasize thinking about decisions we made in our classrooms, in our professional conversations, etc. I would argue that there is an equally important type of reflection when we think about situation PRIOR to them actually happening. In sports, they call this visualization. If you visualize enough times the same body movements used to hit a line drive up the middle, your body will be more likely to perform that function when you get up to bat the next time.

Since I’m “blessed” with a very active brain, I had a recurring visualization when I was a principal about exactly what I would do if I encountered a student or an intruder with a gun in my school. This sounds morbid, but it was just part of my mental practice for being a high school principal. I allowed myself to visualize the body movements I would make towards the potential assailant, the way I would communicate with fellow administrators, etc.

On a less morbid thought, this flipping of reflection can also be considered when preparing for conferences with families, teachers, staff members, board members, students, etc. If one visualizes all the possibilities, the ways one might be misinterpreted or misunderstood, the way I control my own emotions if it’s an emotional situation, etc, then one is more likely to be effective, efficient, and better able to listen to others in these conversations. This can be vital when trying to make good decisions for the best learning environment for each child.

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Meaningful Staff Professional Development

When I prepared to be a principal, I learned in coursework that it was the leader’s job to design PD that was meaningful, engaging, and most of all, worthwhile.  I wasn’t prepared for, though, how difficult of a task that actually was, due partly to some extreme cynicism on the part of teachers.  I’ll tell later how I overcame that, but first, I will recount a couple examples of poor PD which have attributed to teachers’ cynicism and seeming apathy when it comes to PD.

– Outside consultants…… need I say more?  In all honesty, when I was a teacher, PD was a perfect time to get grading oe lesson planning done.  Why?  Because the outside consultants that I experienced had a great power point (or back in the day, overheads) telling teachers some way in which we could improve our teaching by actively engaging students around reading strategies, incorporating math into all curricular areas, etc. But their presentations were FAR from engaging, nor was there application of how these could look in MY classroom or any follow-up.

– This one is even worse.  I entered a large district as a first year HS assistant principal.  As one of the many administrators in the district, I was charged with assisting (i.e. providing PD sessions) for teachers around modifying their instruction to match a new block schedule format (I can still hear the groans).  I had taaught in this format and worked hard to engage the teachers in my activities, and yes, the district was providing training along with a new set of expectations which frankly doesn’t even happen some of the time.  However, I found out during these sessions (as I experienced a little bit of resistance to the PD) from my participants that the year prior to my arrival, the district had conducted some formal focus group PD sessions which were set up to get teachers’ feedback on a few different schedule formats.  However the perception of the teachers as a whole was that the district administration already knew what schedule format to which they were moving before conducting these session, so the session seemed inauthentic and therefor a complete waste of time to the teachers. 

Therefore, one of the first important lessons I learned for creating meaningful PD is if the teachers aren’t going to have a say in either the PD that’s offered or some other change happening, don’t create false pretenses to act like their input is important and could impact the decision.  The second lesson is to make PD meaningful and make it so that good teaching strategies are modeled during the sessions.

However, the most important thing I did learn over the years about PD in schools is that it must be organic, meaning it must arise from within the professionals who are partipating in it.  If the admin aren’t conducting it, they should be participating in it along with the teachers.  We always need to be open to “outside-of-the-box” formats of professional development as well – book studies, lesson studies, differentiated supervision, etc.

Ultimately, though, like almost everything in education, creating meaningful PD comes back to the building administrators developing trusting relationships with the teachers so that 1) the school leaders already know from talking to the teachers and being in their classrooms what support they need, 2) the teachers feel comfortable telling a school leader where he or she needs some support, and 3) the school leaders can conduct effective needs assessment that involves looking at student data holistically along with teaching performance data AND asking teachers in writing what is needed to help them continue to grow as educators.

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