Thursday, September 25, 2014

Learning Is A Journey

The other day as my wife and I returned home, our neighbors walked across the street to chat.
"Hey, can you on your principal hat for a second?"  This is of course my favorite introductory question when I'm actually not on the clock.

She went on to explain that at her daughters school they're now 'doing this thing' where if you take a test and get a poor grade, you can re-take it and get a new score.  She didn't think this was a fair practice and was curious as to what I thought.  If you haven't guessed yet, her daughter is highly accelerated and easily scores well on tests and assignments without much remediation.

I explained to our neighbor that not only did I agree with this procedure, but that I held the same expectation in regards to testing/grading at my own building.  If you've had one of these debates, you can probably predict the sequence of the conversation.  "This isn't fair to kids who work hard the first time... not every kid deserves a trophy... this isn't how the 'real world' works... this isn't  teaching responsibility..." and then after dismissing all of these claims with logic, "Well,  I STILL don't like it!"

I wasn't upset by this exchange.  I'm used it as an advocate for practices which embrace learning as the target v. ranking/sorting children.  This was just another reminder of how much effort is necessary to properly educate parents on best practice.

This was an random conversation that took place in my driveway.  I've presented this same sort of thinking to passionate educated teachers in an organized pre-thought out manner and still had (many) people leave upset with what they were hearing.  Changing long held mindsets doesn't happen in a single outing.  People need time to reflect on what they've learned, privately explore their own biases, ask questions/clarification, see examples, and experiment on their own.  Immediately rejecting new thinking does NOT necessarily make the listeners dumb, ignorant, or stubborn (stubborn thinkers are valuable to have around...).

It's frustrating to give a strong, impassioned presentation to a group and watch the audience leave pissed off rather than cheering for you like the President at the State of the Union address.  That's just not how strong leadership usually works.  Changing outdated thinking is a constant obligation of school leadership.  The messages need to be heard regularly over time, and we should be realistic in our pace of change.  Some people will never change their thinking, and many who do will never acknowledge your guidance in the journey.  If you're waiting for that moment of "okay, YOU were right" you're missing the point.      

I'm confident my neighbor will understand eventually.  She's intelligent and just needs to see that other children learning and feeling good about themselves doesn't take anything away from her daughter or make her any less special in her giftnedness.  She'll eventually see how much less anxiety comes with that moment when her daughter scores poorly on a test, and can re-take it (this will of course happen eventually...).  Or maybe she won't.  But there would no chance of changing thinking if the leadership of the school district made decisions based off the initial reactions to new information.  The same is true when we work with our staffs or students.  Learning is a journey- not a moment.    

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Screw Data.

I'm really hoping that we're close to another pendulum swing in education.

The obsessive reliance on data in regards to decision making in schools and classrooms has exceeded it's value.  Just as teachers and principals have cried out that test scores aren't a measure of their effectiveness as educators- the same rule applies to learners as well.

What we're currently doing is the equivalent of looking at only a batters home run statistics to determine who the best baseball players are.  Learning is not, no matter how much we try, like money.  It can't be easily quantified, nor can it provide fast evidence of effectiveness or lack thereof.

I don't care what measure you're using.  None of them can account for the kid who walked away from drugs because of something a teacher said.  None of them can determine if a kid has stayed in school only because he feels safe with this teacher. None of them measure the blossoming of creativity, kindness, courage or collaboration (all 21st C. skills...) which teachers routinely foster.  And none of them can predict entirely if a child will or will not be successful in life.  However, most of the time, what they DO tell us, after loads of cost, time, and anxiety, is what any decent teacher already knew.  "He reads slowly?  Holy Shit!  I would have never known that despite teaching him for months!  I'm so glad we interupted several days of learning to lab test seven year olds!  Thank you AIMSweb!"

The data craze has numbed classrooms, and killed many spirits.  It's been great though for consultants and authors of educational books as we can now endlessly debate what 'rigor' or 'high standards' actually mean when determining cut scores and services for children.

Teachers should be encouraged to trust their instincts, embrace their passions while teaching.  I'm not in any way an advocate for drill & kill, endless memorization, or hours of homework.  Education has progressed and improved.  Data does have a place in our schools and classrooms.  However, 'data to inform decision making' should NOT effectively equate to "data to remove all use of the human brain.'  

Thursday, August 7, 2014

School Registration Blues

Our school district has recently adopted an online registration procedure.  It is super simple and totally convenient for all parties involved.  In past years we've dealt with the consistent problem of families being on vacations during the designated registration periods.  Being unable to add them to the count until they return from Disney has the potential to impact hiring/recall of teachers who are anxious begin preparing for school.  Online registration essentially solves this headache.  It saves secretaries tons of data entry, and it is also far more 'green' as we are making less copies and printing less documents.  Everyone wins right?

Perhaps.  But as I go through registration, which now consists of only unique cases (families without computer access, residency question marks, second language families who need translation, etc.) being 'in person,' something feels missing.  Ultimately, it's the same thing we've given up in nearly every area we've moved to Internet based- relationships.

I miss seeing all the children and their families come in after being separated for months.  The look of excitement on the children's faces reminds me of why I entered the profession.  I got to catch up with parents and hear their hopes and concerns for the new school year.  I got hear about little league games and swim meets.  We got to know and create an immediate personal connection with new families and students. But no longer.  It was a ritual coming back together for our school, and now it's gone.

I get it.  It's 2014.  Hell, we're probably way late to the game on this one.  We'd look disorganized and out of touch with time if we continued to force families to stand in a slow line to accomplish what they could do in minutes from the comfort of their home.  Many parents (sadly) have no interest in having a relationship with me or anyone else at the school.

Still, teaching children is about relationships before all other things.  As a profession, we need to constantly evaluate the decisions we make and how they impact our ability to form quality relationships.  When we lose something like in-person registration, one of the few times every parent has to come to the school, we need to brain storm alternatives to get that valuable in-person contact.  I'd love to hear what other schools are doing to preserve their relationships in the on-line era.   

Friday, June 13, 2014

Stay At Home Mom

A note had gone home inviting parents to an end of the year event at our school.  Steven was a messy first grader who frequently lost such correspondence between it being given to him and his arrival at home.  He was also a little sneaky and thought he was more clever than he in fact was.  His teacher of course was aware of this.

"Steven, did you give your mother the note about parents night?"

"Oh, she's not coming" replied Steven casually.

"Steven- did you, or did you not, give your mom that note?" his teacher pushed.

Steven, becoming a little short, pushed back. "Okay!  I didn't give her the note, because I KNOW she's not coming!"

"Sweetie, how you know for sure your mom is not coming to an event she may not even know is happening?"

"Because" Steven confidently began, "I heard her tell someone last week that she's a stay at home mom!"

Monday, March 24, 2014

The High Cost Of Hygiene

Thomas was a mess of a little boy.  Besides being 'a picker' and spending more time in the nurses office with nose bleeds than in the classroom, he also had horrible hygiene.  Over the years different teachers had tried to talk to his mother about his shabby appearance, curious body aroma, uncombed hair, his frequent nose picking (and the after effort snack), and effect this had on his ability to make friends.  These pleas fell on deaf ears.  

Now in 6th grade, with a full face of acne, and recognizing the girls (and boys...) aren't interested in him, Thomas asked his teacher how he could get rid of all the pimples on his face.

"Well let me ask you Thomas, how often do you take a shower?"

"Every two or three days."

"Don't you think you should be taking a shower every single night?"

Thomas laughed hysterically.  "Ha!  We've got better things to spend our money than water!"

Friday, February 28, 2014

One Nation Under God?

While doing my rounds, I stopped into the kindergarten room (always an adventurous visit) to see what was going on.  On that particular day, I was wearing a tie with an American Flag on it (the US Olympic hockey team had a big game that day).

One excited little girl quickly blurts out, "Oooo, I love your tie Mr. Anonymousprincipalperson!"

"Thanks! Children, does anyone know why I'm wearing an American Flag tie today?"

Every hand in the room, instantly, goes up.  Anyone who has ever been in a kindergarten classroom can confirm the previous statement.

I picked out a little boy sitting nicely with his hand raised.  "Because President's Day was a few days ago?"

I was actually pretty impressed with this answer from a 5 year old.  "Great answer!  I never thought of that!  But there's another I'm wearing an American Flag tie.  Who else has a guess?"  Every hand, including the kid who's already answered, shoots back up.

I pick another little boy sitting patiently.

"Because you belief in Jesus?!"


Thursday, February 13, 2014

My Father Would Be Rolling Over In His Tomb...

Recently one of our second graders was shocked to learn that school was indeed in session on Valentine's Day.

Student#1: We have school on Valentine's Day!?  But everybody celebrates Valentine's Day.  We get President's Day off, but have school on Valentine's Day!  Nobody celebrates President's Day. That's crazy!

Student#2:  Valentine's Day is one of those made up holidays.

Student#1: Ohhh yeah.  Like Easter.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Fahrenheit -451, The Temperature At Which Schools Close

It's been a long winter for those on the East coast, the plains, and the Midwest in the United States.  My Twitter feed has been constantly filled up with posts about temperature (or the dashboard thermometer 'selfie' proving it's real damn cold where your at) and massive snow fall.  Many schools have been cancelled due to these circumstances.  However, many have not.

This is an impossible position for superintendents.  Cancelling school creates a ripple effect of other issues- most notably day care concerns.  While the occasional unexpected day off may be welcomed by some teachers, the extension of the school year later on is rarely popular.

Still I find it odd that in a country where New York has a limit on the size of soda you can buy, where seat belts & helmets must be worn by law, where most states have enacted smoking bans/limits of some sort, where metal detectors & cops are standard in school buildings, and where school districts are held to strict dietary cafeteria regulations- all in the name of safety and health, that superintendents are left to have to arbitrarily decide at what negative wind chill it's too low for a six year old to walk to and stand at a bus stop (is -25 degrees wind chill too low?  -30?).   How many inches of snow and freezing ice are unwise to send school buses (and staff) out on?

In weather as frigid as it's been this month in many parts of the country, frost bite can set in in under 10 minutes.  Is it more likely that one of our students DOES have a gun or DOESN'T have a pair of gloves?  Do our laws and procedures reflect the answer to that question?

I know, I know- we all walked to school in much colder temperature (uphill, both ways, barefoot...), kids are soft these days, blah blah blah.  Perhaps there's some truth there as well.  But when a five year old loses her fingers because his bus is late or a bus slides off an icy road, I can assure that 'meeting the demands of the Common Core' will be a very distant afterthought.

Some winters are tougher than others.  The number of days in question can probably be counted on one hand over the course of several years.  But on those days, I would urge leaders and policy makers to show the same concern for safety as we do when it comes to so many other areas.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Winter Break Revelations

We returned to school this week after our nondenominational winter pause.  The return of students after break reminds me of when my daughter spends the weekend at grandmas- all rules, guideline, and procedures, no matter how basic, need to be refreshed, re-modeled, and practiced.

Students are also super excited to share what they did over their respective breaks.  One of our third graders piped up right away on Monday.  "My auntie had to go to the hospital!"  The teachers showed concern and asked why (always a dangerous invitation with little ones...), and the child revealed her aunt had a baby over break.

Those who work with elementary students (particularly young ones) know that this exchange now invited 25 other children to raise their hands (or simply blurt out) anything that had to do with hospitals, doctors, babies, aunts, winter break, or anything else for that matter.

Little Xavier struck first.  "Yeah, we had to take to my sister to the hospital too."  The teacher was pretty much obligated to show the same concern and again inquire what had happened.

"Awww, she partied too hard and shook it till she broke it."

Having had all of this little boy's sisters, the teacher wisely elected to inquire no further.