Parental Involvement – How do we reach them?

When I was preparing to work as a school leader (back in the early 2000’s), I never could have imagined beyond my wildest dreams that we would be working in between the technological and face-to-face spaces that we are each day with students, parents, employees, and the greater community.  Any of us preparing for this work before a couple years ago have really had to play catch-up in learning quickly about these environments and their intersection.

Let’s face it, though.  Some conversations and news need to be delivered through a phone call or face-to-face conversation (individual students’ academic and emotional progress, for example).  I think, though, there are lots of ways that technology can enhance the relationships with families.  I had a blog as a high school principal where I would highlight academic, athletics and other accomplishments of students periodically.  I know of a local superintendent who uses twitter to also highlight great things about his district, but he also uses it to highlight educational issues that impact the district and the community as a whole.  I’m starting to see lots of districts use twitter as a place to post schedule changes, announcements, highlights, etc.

By utilizing these tools, it can also keep us in touch with what the community members and students are saying…. a window into our customer service, so to speak.  In addition, the school can become a training ground for other adults in the building or community to learn more about these media to have a more accurate understanding of the world our children experience.

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Critical Conversations – Cause No Unnecessary Pain

Many school leaders entered education as idealist teachers, like most everyone else.  Through luck, desire, circumstance, hard work, or likely a combination of those, some have the opportunity to serve their schools as formal leaders of the building.  Along with this awesome opportunity to assist teachers in doing that vital work, the leader has to start to understand how and when it’s necessary to have the “critical conversations” with other professionals.  This can be really challenging, as many school leaders I know (myself included) struggle with conflict and feel uncomfortable when we have to confront our teachers about certain instructional practices or behavior.  During my preparation for being a principal, I don’t recall learning in great detail how to handle these situations.  It’s a real learning-by-doing skill to effectively and humanely confront other professionals.

Discovering a theoretical framework, though, helped me in learning when and how to have these conversations.  Nel Noddings, a wonderful educator and prolific writer on the ethics of care in education once stated that any grown-up, in thinking about a decision related to the education and well-being of a child should ask “Is this necessary?”  as all educators should aim to, “cause no unnecessary pain, separation or helplessness.”  This became a simple litmus test for me as a school leader.  If unnecessary pain, separation or helplessness were happening to any student in my school, then it was my job to have the necessary critical conversation to end that.  Period.

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Being a Respected Instructional Leader

Credibility as an instructional leader is paramount.  While I don’t discourage professionals who’ve held non-instructional positions in schools from beginning principal preparation programs, I am very clear with them that they will have to work harder to build that credibility amoung teachers.  Let’s face it: if you haven’t been there, done that, then you don’t have the credibility.

Even sometimes when you have been a very respected teacher in one setting, if you become a school leader, you have a lot of work to do in building that credibility as an instructional leader.  I wasn’t prepared during my own principal preparation for how much I would really be challenged by some veteran teachers to prove myself as a good teacher.

Context is important here too.  I had my first assistant principal position, at a high school, when I was 30 years old, AND I had to work very hard to make myself appear even that old due to my baby face.  Top that off with being a new entitity in a large county school district, and there you have the recipe for some initial complications.  The next part of the context that’s important was that at the time, this district was starting to look at the correlation (or lackthereof) between course grades and standardized test scores.  In addition, there was concern at the state level where I was working about the perceived overinflation of teacher evaluation scores.  Sound familiar??  This was almost 10 years ago.

As someone who worked very hard as a teacher to always make sure my students were engaged in meaningful work, I ended up having some interesting evaluations of teachers that first semester as an assistant principal.  I distinctly remember having one of my reports challenged to the building principal, as this teacher had never earned anything but the highest ratings on the observation tool of the time.  (A student was sleeping in class and remained so for quite some time without intervention or concern expressed by the teacher).  I certainly wasn’t wrong in my assessment of the various instructional concerns revolving around that incident, but over time and context (I ended up as a school leader in the building where I once served as a teacher, and that was a lot easier as far as the credibility piece), but I learned what might be valuable tips by trial and error.

1) When given the opportunity to plan and implement professional development, do it.  And don’t just deliver a lecture every time.  Be the example of good instruction, every single time.

2) Outside of formal observations, get into classrooms.  Often.  Follow-up with the teachers about what you saw.  It demonstrates engagement in their practice and in pedagogy in general.  Even better, you can participate like the students.  I used to visit a Math teacher and take her tests, challenging the students to beat my score.  These are great opportunities to continue to have on-going conversations with teachers AND students about what’s going on in class.

3) Most of all, remember that no matter which observation/evaluation tool is used, the same clinical observation steps continue to apply.

– Talk to the teacher before the lesson.  Find out what’s been troubling them in the classroom.  Offer to observe for that in addition to “filling out the form.”

– Observe.  My opinion is that it shouldn’t need to be announced.  (I realize the new evaluation systems across the country make this a concern for some).  Take good notes, especially watching THE STUDENTS.  Are they actively involved in learning activities?  What evidence tells you this?  Talk to a couple students about what their learning.

-Talk to the teacher after the lesson.  Ask their reflection on the lesson (often they will identify their areas of “growth” before you have to do so).  Offer your praise where appropriate.  Discuss areas of growth and how you as a leader can offer support, guidance, and perhaps thoughts from when you taught.

My experience was that over time, through doing some of the things I mentioned above helped me build credibility as an instructional leader.

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What’s School For & What Does That Mean for Professional Development

In a powerful TEDx talk, Seth Godin asked “What is school for?”  (Click on this link to view; it’s sure to stretch your mind: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sXpbONjV1Jc).  As I was preparing to be a school leader and even acting in the role my first year or so, I don’t think I recognized how important it was to explore this question as a school entity to make sure that everyone in a building had a pretty clear understanding of it collectively.  Without a collective answer to this question, how can students know what’s expected?  How can faculty and staff help them reach the nebulous and inconsistent target?

Godin points out that “What school is for,” is changing rapidly.  No longer do we need to model schools after factories, because so few students’ paths will take them to work in factories anymore.  No longer is it important to receive or produce “1 size fits all” products (graduates). 

One could certainly argue, perhaps rightfully so, that the reform movement, with the emphasis on standardized testing and school personnel being evaluated primarily on the results, is creating a more incongruous set of experiences for students by enforcing such strict adherence to certain guidelines on one hand and asking teachers to be innovative and project-based on the other hand.

Godin discussed some implications for professional development, as many others of my #SAVMP colleagues have also done in their recent posts.  I agree that it’s vital to help teachers understand the use of technology to enhance lessons and the use of data to inform instruction, in a way that meets the individual teacher’s needs.  No longer relevant is the model of professional development of having “expert” speakers coming into schools as maybe it once was.  As school leaders, having relationships to know what’s needed by the staff members of your building is necessary.  This can take the form of surveying them.  It also takes the form of just being in classrooms and knowing what’s happening and knowing your in-building experts on certain topics who can assist peers with during professional development time.  What’s additionally important is the leader being transparent in knowing what they don’t know, and being willing to share and announce their own growth (and blunders).

One such example of this sticks in my memory, because I’ve had colleagues from my last K-12 position remind me of it from time to time.  Apparently, according to others, this particular PD session was relevant to many people and made a lasting impression.  I had recently dealt with a situation that required some individual attention paid to a particular staff member in reference to working with ELL students.  In the process of talking to students in our ESL program, I discovered a trend of these particular students feeling very disenfranchised and unwanted due to certain actions (probably inadvertent, but still concerning) from multiple staff members and teachers in the building.

In order to address the issue, during a faculty meeting, I shared a story about myself as a teacher, when I had been extremely insensitive to one of my first ever ELL students.  In being willing to be transparent about my own weaknesses and mistakes, I was also able to reach some faculty members who perhaps wouldn’t have heard the message as clearly had I simply told them more tips about working with ELL students.

Transparency and openness in a leader, plus her continued example of professional learning, provide the exemplar for the rest of the teachers, staff and then students.  This helps the personnel of school buildings and communities jointly answer the question, “What’s school for?”

 

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Parents – Being Proactive

This week’s suggested post for the #SAVMP program relates to parents and all the ways that school leaders work to involve them. The research is clear; parental involvement has been correlated with student achievement in many circumstances. Originally, as a high school teacher, I was used to struggling with getting parents involved in my classes. By holding students accountable, I ended up calling parents a great deal. One parent said to me on the phone one time,” I’m tired of your phone calls. ‘Johnny’s’ work WILL be done from now on.” I never had to call them again 🙂

As a new administrator, I never imagined some of the challenges that I would face in regards to getting in contact with parents and having them involved in their students’ school lives, etc. By year 4 (in my 2nd administrative position), I finally had a lightbulb go off in reference to being proactive in working with “frequent flyers” (students who earned repeated discipline referrals) and their families.

In this 4th year of being in administrative roles, I returned to a school where I once taught. Upon my starting in July, I was presented with the lengthy list of frequent flyers from the year before. I was determined that this would be a different year for these students and their families. So, instead of waiting for that first contact with the parent to be because of the first discipline referral I was proactive and called in the summer. I said something like this to each parent:

“Hello, I’m your student’s new principal. I’m calling many different families to introduce myself and find out how I can serve you this coming school year. I understand that ____________________ had a tough year last year, but since we all want to support your student, I know there are ways in which we can work together to help prevent problems before they start.”

While not every on of those students stayed off the “frequent flyer” list, being proactive with parents and developing relationships with them prior to the student getting in trouble did, on an anecdotal level, make it so the student didn’t make that list often and/or that student earned better learning consequences for those actions from teacher/parent teams which served to help students make better choices in the future.

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Management As A Principal

When I was preparing to be a school leader, I had hoped that I would be able to lead in a way that meant I wasn’t like a “manager.”  That word connotes some less than savory images, especially when one hopes to lead organizations in a way that inherently recognizes and supports the leadership within all staff members dependent on specific tasks and overall job.  However, I wasn’t truly expecting the many ways in which I had to balance being a “leader” with being a “manager”.  What I learned over time was that being a good manager complemented collaborative leadership and also allowed teachers to do what they do best with fewer distractions.  Managing my own schedule as a school administrator was a way in which I could attend to management tasks but also work within my own vision framework and be that instructional leader that is so vital.

I can think of one example specifically.  I tried to rarely spend time in my office, even when I was in administrative positions where I had to manage student discipline.  If one lets it happen, it can be very easy to get into a pattern of dealing with discipline 24/7, calling students out of class to the office to talk about discipline infractions.  Fundamentally, I had severe reservations dealing this way with students and their disciplinary infractions.  Most of all, it went against my vision of being proactive, spending time in classrooms with students and teachers.  In managing my time and the discipline referrals, I carried a clipboard.  Every morning (as it was my norm to be in the building by 6am) I would strategically plan my walk through observations for the day to correspond to certain students I also needed to see in reference to a discipline issue.  (*a side note to this would be that this only works with certain kids and certain types of infractions AND the administrator doing this needs to have built the relationships with students and teachers where they understand you will often be present in classrooms).  Students missed less class time when I went to them, which supported my philosophy on keeping students in the classrooms as much as possible and the idea that the learning is paramount to anything else happening in a school.  Also, my (or any administrator’s) presences and visibility automatically helps to prevent issues before they become major problems. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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