Tuesday, December 29, 2015

6 Strategies to Start off the New Year with Greater Classroom Engagement

The New Year is here, so what is your plan to get the kids more engaged than ever?  The solution won't be found in that new lesson that you developed or that cool tech-tool that you discovered on Twitter.  The key to better classroom engagement is guaranteeing that each student optimizes every minute of his learning in your room.

Every student's minute counts.  Now, if you are allotted 50 minutes of instruction, and you waste or lose 5 minutes everyday due to poor behavior, disengaged minds or apathetic students, you give up 10% of your instruction every day (See 5 Fixes for the 1st 5 Minutes of Instruction).   I don't know about you, but I don't have 10% of time to give up on any given. Do you?

With that said, I'd like to offer some strategies that you can easily incorporate into your instruction immediately that will reduce your chances of losing valuable minutes of instruction while simultaneously increasing the chances that more students will be engaged in their learning in 2016.

1.  Routines & Procedures 
The best pair of tennis shoes always need to be tied before you go running.  Think of your routines and procedures as the shoes for your instruction.  If you don't tie them tight everyday, you will lose time having to tie and retie them throughout your run.  Spend time each day reviewing how students are expected to independently do everything such as:

  • enter the room & get started in the warm-up activity
  • request to leave the room 
  • sharpen a pencil 
  • retrieve all materials
  • ask for help if they have a problem
  • manage their materials independent of you
If students aren't reminded of the routines and procedures for the classroom on a daily basis, they will rely on their own routines and procedures to learn, and that will generally not lead to maximized engagement.

It must be emphasized that routines and procedures grow in effectiveness with praise and affirmation.  Spend time every day recognizing and thanking kids for doing things right, and the rest of the class will work hard to be praised as well.  What gets celebrated gets accelerated.

2.  Start off the period with Music
Haley Van Sandt was the first teacher that I saw use music consistently to engage kids in learning during the first 5 minutes of instruction without fail every single day.  As soon as the bell rang, Mandisa's "Good Morning" started, and the kids started singing and vibing to the music as they completed their warm-up work and readied themselves for the day's lesson.  Using a familiar song as a regular routine focuses students' thoughts on learning and what they need to do to be prepared for learning.

3. Excellence begins with Expectations
Before you begin any task, it is extremely helpful to set expectations for what you want kids to do.  If it is a normal activity, don't assume that all kids will know or remember the expectations.  Take 15 seconds to remind them of the expectations for that activity, or you'll lose 5 minutes redirecting and correcting off-task behavior (5 minutes = 10% of your instruction).  If it is a new activity, you will need to spend 2-4 minutes describe the learning behaviors necessary for students to complete the activity successfully.  Don't expect excellence.  Set expectations for students to reach excellence.

4. 3 B4 Me
Students can't truly maximize every minute of their learning if the only person they can ask for help is the teacher.  A "3 b4 Me" rule will help students own their learning by expecting them to solve their own problems without you.  Here are just a few places students can go before they go to you for assistance.

  • Anchor charts in the room,
  • Their notes,
  • Their classmates,
  • Google for things they don't know,
  • Dictionary.com for worlds they don't understand,
  • A print out of procedures for logging-in to websites.
In the real world, the most successful people are masters at solving their own problems.  "3 B4 Me" is a real world strategy to empower all kids to solve their own problems, and it keeps you available for the few problems that truly require the expertise that only you, the teacher, can provide.

5. Note-taking
Listening is not a very engaging activity.  In fact it's quite boring, and with every passing minute that students must listen to the teacher's lesson, their engagement decreases considerably.  Engaging lessons from the teacher require students to follow along, copy, imitate and/or summarize what the teacher is presenting. 

Note-taking and summarizing was noted by Marzano (see here) as one of the highest-yield strategies.  All students (K-12) should take notes everyday.  From copying what they teacher is doing in Kindergarten to using graphic organizers or notes with holes to take notes in elementary to using art to take notes in high school, note-taking is a powerful strategy that helps students deepen their learning of the content while you model learning for the kids.  If students aren't taking notes, how will they remember what you taught them?

6. Stop the Q&A and Start the 'Turn and Talk'
When you ask one student a question, the rest of the class disengages from the lesson.  If the goal is to get all students learning at high levels, pose a question and ask the students to turn and talk to their neighbor for 30 seconds.  This gives all students their opportunity to discuss their learning with one another, and there is a greater chance that all students will stay engaged in the lesson.

Why should you drop the Q&A? Well, every time you ask one student a question, the rest of the class is off the hook, and their learning essentially stops while they wait for that student to answer the question.  With turn and talk, every kid's learning keeps going, and you can monitor conversations and then hand pick 1 or 2 kids to share out what they discussed.  There will always be better engagement with turn and talk.

Make 2016 Ring with Engagement
Learning is accelerated with better engagement, and if we want all students to be active learners, we must make certain that all of them are active participants throughout every lesson that we provide.  By creating active learning environments that focus on optimizing every student's engagement, we actually foster each student's independence and autonomy that essentially transform their engagement into empowerment.  Imagine the kind of learning and growth we would see in every kid if we created a classroom where empowerment wasn't the goal, but the constant.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

#Leadership Lessons from Steve Harvey

The 2015 Ms. Universe Pageant will go down as one of the biggest mistakes in the history of mistakes, as there is no doubt that Steve Harvey will always be remembered for naming the wrong person, Ms. Columbia, as the winner of the prestigious event.  In the days following the pageant, Harvey was the target of endless jokes and memes that not only highlighted his mistake.  They glorified it.  What was verified is that leaders live a cruel world where people will make darn sure that your mistakes at least will define you if they don't destroy you.

Here's why leaders should pay close attention...

Immediately following the mistake, Steve Harvey epitomized this quote. 

"Mistakes don't define you; your response to them does." 

Instead of hiding from responsibility and gathering a council of advisors to help him avoid the fallout, Harvey immediately owned his gaffe in front of the entire world to see.  He didn't deflect and the use typical avoidance strategies that high-profile leaders use.  He said, "It was completely my fault".  What a simple, yet courageous statement.  

Leaders must accept the fact that they are going to screw up and make mistakes, and some of the them will be 'really' bad.  What followers appreciate and gravitate toward is not an infallible leader, but a leader who shows he is mortal and capable of messing up from time to time.    People follow courage, not perfection.

Thank you, Steve!

If it weren't for Steve, most people wouldn't have even known there was a Ms. Universe pageant, and they definitely wouldn't have known who won it.  In fact, if his mistake did one good thing, it was show more people that the pageant is still alive and well.  You can be sure that more viewers will definitely pay close attention to the pageant next year.

But the greatest thing that we should all be thankful for is the leadership example that Steve displayed for all of us to emulate.  To make a massive mistake in front of the entire world is one thing, but to face it head-on and overcome the outrage and insults that followed sends a powerful message to all of us that leadership is defined by the courage and conviction that leaders have when they have to admit to the world that they were wrong.  Now how much better off would our world be if our government had more politicians like that? (sorry, had to say it).  The reality is that more organizations and governments deserve completely transparent leaders like Steve.

Thank you, Steve, for the courage that you displayed and for the leadership example that you displayed.  There will come a day when every leader, including myself, will eventually mess up in front of the world and will need a successful example to follow.

Monday, December 21, 2015

The Principal's Ultimate Mission

Student learning is no doubt the goal of every school in America, and as long as I have been a leader, that has been my goal.  I’m pretty sure that is your goal, too, but the illusive question becomes this, what one resource has the greatest impact on guaranteeing that more students succeed.  One can argue that we need better schools while the next person can argue that we need better teachers, but at the end of the day, kids must have access to quality instruction from several highly successful teachers in excellent schools for 13 consecutive years in order to experience the best success.   

Teachers are the only ones who can directly impact learning for every child, but they can only impact learning at higher levels when they work in school environments that actually help them get better at the art and science of teaching kids.   The fact of the matter is this.  We need to stop focusing on making better schools and/or better teachers.  

We need to create better schools that are deeply committed to making teachers better.

For too long, educators have been asking the wrong questions when attempting to solve the age-old dilemma of guaranteeing higher success for all students. Administrators ask questions such as the following.
  • How do we raise scores?
  • How do we get better teachers from the colleges and universities?
  • How do we get better walkthrough observation instruments?
  • How do we get better staff development for our teachers?

These are important questions, but they often lead to misguided decisions, short-term gains, and transactional leadership responses. Sadly, this focus on teaching generally leads to a recycling bin of traditional leadership answers.  If we want to truly make a major impact on student success, we, as leaders, must guide our thinking away from superficial targets and bureaucratic habits disguised as silver bullets.  We must close our minds to the questions of the here and now and focus our thoughts on a new vision for schools.  The questions we should fix our eyes on include the following:
  • ·      Why are we here?
  • ·      What makes a great teacher?
  • ·      How do we help make all teachers successful?

When we find the answers to three questions, we will actually begin to make it our mission to create better schools that in turn help make all teachers better at guaranteeing that all kids learn.  After all, if it is our mission to ensure that all kids to learn, then our leadership mission must focus on guaranteeing that every teacher becomes their very best for all kids.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Ending the "Just a Teacher" Mentality

All great leaders are teaching, and all great teachers are leading.  
Rick DuFour

Whenever I am in a new district or visiting a new part of the world with educators, I always ask this question, "What do you do?", and invariably I get the usually responses.  "I'm a principal."  "I'm a teacher", or "I'm a director".  You get the point.

But that's doesn't answer my question  

Your title doesn't tell me what you do.  It tells me the role of your residence.  The point for asking this question is to see how teachers view the potential in their role. Whenever I hear someone say "I'm just a teacher", or respond like their role isn't very important, I whence just a bit. The "Just a Teacher" response tells me that something or someone in the teacher's culture or in that person's experience has prevented them from seeing the value of their role as something bigger than merely being responsible for teaching kids.

Let's be real for just a minute.  Teachers are more than "Just a Teacher".  In fact the reason that education is becoming more successful every year is because teachers AREN'T just teachers.  They are changing the landscape of education, and as leaders we owe it to teachers to combat the mindset of minuteness by convincing them that they have a greater impact and play a bigger role than they could possibly imagine.  

Ending the Just a Teacher Mentality
Here are a few phrases that you could use with teachers through your daily interactions that could compel them to give up the mentality of "Just a Teacher".
  • You have expertise that I don't have.
  • You possess knowledge that others need.
  • You see things in kids that we can't possibly see.
  • You can influence your peers in ways that I can't
  • You have the potential to lead in ways that others can't.
  • You add tremendous value to our organization.
  • We need you to NOT be just a teacher
  • We need to you to help lead.
  • You ARE a piece of the puzzle.
What if every leader took a few minutes at the start of 2016 to have these kinds of conversations with every teacher?  What kind of place would we create?  What kind of potential would we discover?  What talent would we unleash?  What kind of leadership capacity would we build?  Can you see what would happen?


A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to see the results of this mindset throughout our district.  On a half-day dedicated to professional development, teachers at our high school were asked to lead their very first "TEDI Talks" (Tatum Eagle Digital Innovators).  We had 6 teachers of all levels of tech-expertise share their knowledge and wisdom on how they are embedding technology into their instruction.  The power of these talks inspired their fellow teachers to take risks, embrace their insecurities, and feel affirmed that their knowledge was essential to move the campus in the right direction.  

The beauty in this form of professional learning was that we didn't need to hire a consultant.  Our teachers unleashed what they had deep inside them, and as a result, these leaders are starting a movement where teachers see themselves as teachers and as leaders.  They have talent, knowledge and expertise that can help every person in  the campus improve.

Teachers are leaders of learning because they are the practitioners that can truly reform education.  Our job as district and campus leaders is not to impede their leadership but to tap into it and leverage it for the betterment of the organization.  After all, our moral imperative as leaders is not to improve the organization.  It is to create the conditions where the organization will improve itself, and that'll happen only when teachers see themselves as leaders of learning.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

What Kind of Set is in your Mindset?

I love a good play on words, but this thought has consumed me this week.  I read the article, "There's More to Mindset than Assuming You have It", and it made me  ponder this question.  What kind of set is in my mindset?  Sure, I can espouse the necessity to embrace the research about growth mindset, and I can justify how I and my work are all about growing, but I have to admit that I catch myself sometimes making a statement that more closely mirrors a fixed mindset than one of growth.

So I decided to research the word, set, and here is what I found at dictionary.com  When thinking about the word as a noun, I found it to be a collection of static and inflexible objects that only serve one purpose.  Take for instance a chess set or a set of golf clubs.  Each part of the set is necessary, but the part itself can never be changed. As long as the set remains the same, the game will never change.  In our work, our rhethoric can change all it wants to, but if the mental tools and processes that we use to do our work never change, then our minds are pretty much set; therefore, our work and effectiveness remain the same.

But, when I looked at the definition of set as a verb, my mind started to move.  When we transform our thinking about mindset from a noun to a verb, we move our thought processes around.  We rearrange them into a new particular order.  Our long held beliefs about things become reconditioned as a result of placing them in a new set of parameters.  Our suppositions are put to the test when we apply them in a new context.

You see our mind is a muscle, and when we fail to put it to action in new and unfamiliar situations, it loses its power to create.  When we fail to place it in a new setting, it loses its agility.  If it never receives any pushback to the "way things have always been", it becomes set in its ways.

Mindset is a noun, and it always will be in the English language, but I would challenge you to think of it in a different way.  Every time you say or think of the word, I would encourage you to see it as an attitude of action as opposed to a static state of mind.  After all, our thoughts eventually become our actions.  Let's just hope they become actions of growth rather than a solidifier of the status quo.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

A Gift for the Entire Teaching Profession

If you're reading this, you need to thank a teacher, and if you have a degree, you can thank a teacher for that as well.  One of the most difficult and most thankless jobs in our country is that of the classroom teacher.  The perception, among many who have little to no knowledge or respect for the profession, is that teachers have a cake walk for a job.  They make statements like "all they do is work from 8:00 - 3:30 and have summers off".  This assumption is more than just faulty. It's downright wrong.  People base this inaccurate belief on the fact that they really have no clue what it takes to be a teacher, let alone a successful one. Sure, teachers are with kids during those hours, but I can assure you of one thing. Teachers bust their tails and do a whole lot more work than the average Joe could ever fathom.  Furthermore, there are tons of things that teachers do for kids that no one, including the kids themselves, will ever know.

Since Christmas is around the corner, let's give teachers a well-deserved gift for all that they do. Sure, they will receive gifts from their students and administrators, but I'd like for us to go a step further by doing something that could do more for the profession than any Christmas gift.  We should give them the gift of educating the general public on what it is that teachers actually do. Think about it.  If we had a more educated public, we would have a larger and more supportive group of education advocates than we have right now.  So here are a few things that we can tell our communities about the teaching profession.

THANK You for Choosing to be a TEACHER
Teachers come early, stay late, work through lunch, and give up their conference to work with kids. In fact if you asked a teacher how much time they have to do their job, they would tell you not enough to meet the ever growing needs of kids.

A teacher's lounge is a mythical place.  Most schools have a teachers' "lounge", but you will never find a teacher lounging around on their conference period or at lunch because they are working their tails off getting ready for the next class, participating in a meeting, or helping one of their fellow teachers.  

You can't call your doctor anytime you want, but you probably know how to reach your child's teacher.  Teachers make themselves accessible to their parents via email, phone and even social media. Many parents have direct access to their teachers because teachers want parents to be their partners in the educational process. Additionally, teachers make time to conference with parents at night or any other time when they aren't with students. 

Nights, Weekends and Summers 
If you drive past the school any time, you will see cars parked at the school.  That's because teachers are working in preparation for the next week. Throughout the summer you will see the same thing as teachers are preparing for the next school year. 

No matter how much people berate teachers and the profession as a whole, they continue to kill the world with kindness. When a teacher is slammed on Facebook, the teacher has little choice but to sit quietly as they continue to serve kids selflessly. 

Shirt off their Back 
When a kid is hungry, they have a stash of snacks. No lunch money; no problem. They give kids lunch money if they're out.   And I can't tell you how many times I've seen teachers buy Christmas for one of their students that wasn't going to have a Christmas.  Teachers give everything they have for their kids.

Give Thanks for Educators
To sum it up, I hope you will watch and share this unbelievable video by Rick DuFour.  This will further illustrate what teachers are doing for your kids and for mine, and furthermore it will show why we as a nation must advocate for the profession and continuously make the time and the consistent effort to tell our teachers how truly amazing that they are.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Give Teachers the Gift of Presence

Christmas is around the corner and that means one thing, presents. This month I talked to principals about the importance of No Excuses in November which challenged everyone to push the envelope beyond their comfort zone. But after Thanksgiving, principals must be reminded that December is a leadership tool specifically designed to solidify the changes that have been made this year.  And to do that, we must make time to give thanks for all of the hard work that people are doing.  The reason for that is simple. January will be here before we know it, and we will begin to stretch ourselves again with a New Year's Resolution. December in many ways is the season for giving, not pushing.

What are you giving your teachers for Christmas?

When I ask this question of principals, I get lots of different responses. Most of the responses typically revolve around some sort of gift or an action of appreciation. (Check out my COBLOGGERATION page for ideas) While these things affirm people and their efforts, we must remember that the excitement from receiving a present wanes over time. In other words a tangible present's effect doesn't last for very long.

So what should we give our teachers for Christmas?
Well first off I think that teachers like and deserve presents as well as actions of appreciation. In fact I believe in this so much that I spent every December as a principal showering teachers with presents and appreciation (See The 12 days of Christmas for Teachers). But honestly I think teachers and staff members need something more than presents. 

They need Presence
There are 2 types of presence that leaders should give their teachers. 

Personal Presence
Teachers and students need to see a leader who is present in the moment and has a deep desire to connect with those that he or she leads.  When leaders spend time before break with their staff and students on a personal level, confidence swells and affirmation subconsciously grows.  Principals must make a conscious effort to be overly present with teachers and staff and use this presence to affirm effort and show sincere appreciation. 

Reflective Presence
Leaders mustn't stop with personal presence. They should spend the month reflecting with staff members to identify practices that are successfully contributing to student achievement and processes that are excessively laborious, redundant or monotonous. By being present at this level with the staff, leaders send staff members into the Christmas break with a sense of hope that the new year will be better than ever before. Principals should reflect with staff members about the work of the first semester and determine what they will do more efficiently and effectively in order  to move forward in January. 

A December to Remember
Using the month of December for organizational reflection is critical because the month of January will be here before you know it. In order to help people make their very best New Year's resolution for self-improvement, reflection is more than just necessary. It's critical. Additionally in order for a New Year's resolution to be effective, all staff members must be given the gift of presence from the leader so that staff members can honestly reflect on their current state of effectiveness and determine where they must grow next. 

I hope you make this month a December to remember for your school culture by celebrating your staff with more than the presents of now and give them the presence of mind. 

Sunday, November 22, 2015

5 Leadership Lessons from the Mockingjay

The final chapter to the Hunger Games series came out this week, and it definitely didn't disappoint.  (Don't worry, I won't spoil the ending for you.) As I watched Katniss Everdeen lead the rebellion against the loyalists, I couldn't help but soak in all of the leadership lessons I gained from watching her tireless bravery and consistent courage.   Katniss continuously exposed herself to imminent danger because it was essential to reach her goal of liberating her country.  Mockingjay 2 illustrated 5 leadership qualities that every leader must master if they aspire to lead their organization to the pinnacle of excellence.

Source - Flickr
5 Leadership Lessons from the Mockingjay

Leaders who are willing to sacrifice their own personal success for the betterment of the organization as a whole accomplish the most.

When leaders visibly display their loyalty to both the success of their organization and to the people that compose the organization, they create a culture of trust and commitment.

People don't follow titles, and they don't follow orders.  They follow action, courage, and example.

A leader cannot truly value his organization unless he cares deeply for the people in the organization.

The best leaders finish what they started.  They set a goal and never give up until that goal is attained.

Are the Odds in your Favor?
Leadership is all about influence.  A leader can positively guide his organization into a new and better world or negatively drive it into toxic misery.  When leaders embrace the 5 lessons from the Mockingjay, the odds will not only be in their favor.  The odds will be transformed into inevitable victory.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

3 Exemplars of the Most Excellent People

What is excellence?  How do you know it when you see it?  What does it feel like when it has been accomplished?  See, I think that people mistakenly define excellence as a singular event, a destination, or an unbelievable success, but I don't think that excellence as a place or an event.  I think it is an never-ending dream.  The video below by Mateusz M  instantly hooked my mind to this idea about excellence.  After you watch the video, you will see why.

Excellence is unique, as very few attain it.  It is an addiction that only a few people are crazy enough to crave.  To discover excellence, you must be willing to separate yourself from your comfort zone.  You must go beyond the stability of the status quo and risk everything to find this euphoria called continuous improvement.  In other words, to find excellence, you must embody the Exemplars of Excellence.

The 3 Exemplars of Excellence

If you want to live a life for excellence, you must never accept the false finality in failure, but you must also never find comfort in the stability of success-ifaction (satisfaction with your success).  Unstoppable people pause to reflect on their succession of progress, but they avoid the temptation of basking in complacency because they are driven to continue down their path OF excellence.  After all for unstoppable people, there is no path TO excellence.

Excellence doesn't settle for the subpar standards of 'good enough' or the positive praise when short term goals are accomplished.  Likewise, people in search for excellence don't settle, and they don't lower the bar to give themselves a false sense of security. In fact, they continuously raise the bar.  Now don't mistake unreasonableness for being unwilling to compromise with others, because compromise and consensus are tools that excellent leaders employ to stretch their colleagues and their organization.  After all, stretching yourself relentlessly requires to be just a tad bit unreasonable.

People of excellence are abnormal.  They have unique quirks, and they exhibit uncommon behaviors and habits that most others wouldn't dare.  They believe so deeply in their passion, that they don't care if their actions fail to fit the mold of society, because these folks know that society is full of commonness where true excellence cannot be found.  Society, however, is the starting point where excellence begins and the act of striving for excellence is in taking all the commonness that society has to offer and making it uncommonly better than it ever was.  Furthermore, being uncommon demands an unwavering commitment that automatically forces excellence seekers to avoid looking to others for approval. The core of being uncommon is this tiny inner belief that drives their moral purpose which is all that they need to push them into uncharted territory.

Everybody wants what Few are Willing to Pursue

Excellence is a word that everyone uses to describe their goals, accomplishments, and what they aspire to be, yet few truly attain the purest form of excellence. The reason for that is simple. Excellence requires hard work. Excellence demands tenacity. It requires failure after failure after failure, and most people simply don't have the intestinal fortitude to fall 7 times and get up 8. The essence of excellence comes from within. It is in the heart of every person, but only the truly excellent have the mental courage to master their fears of inadequacy and failure.   They see beyond what they currently are, and visualize what they could become when they commit to accept the risk of what might be. 

Friday, November 6, 2015

3 Tips to Shift your Focus from Teaching to Learning

The bell rings, and that means one of two things. It's time to get to work or its time to move to the next class. But what happens between the bell that starts class and the bell that ends the same class? Even if you don't have bells, you have a definite time when each class begins and when it ends.

Think about the phrase, "Teaching Bell to Bell".  If you have said it or heard it, you know that the focus can only be on one thing, the work done by the teacher. Here's the problem with that phrase.  It is in direct conflict with the whole purpose of education, student learning.  If the focus is mostly on what the teacher does, I can assure you that the variable will always be what students are learning.  Sure, teaching impacts learning, but teaching from bell to bell prevents both teachers and leaders from focusing on learning.  To keep the focus on learning, we must shift our primary and traditional focus from teaching to learning.

3 Tips to Shift your Focus from Teaching to Learning

1.  Less Talk = More Action
The longer that we talk, the less likely kids will listen.  With every minute that we speak, student engagement fades into oblivion because it is much more difficult for kids to actively and cognitively engage in learning; therefore, it is critical to remember that if we truly want the focus to be on learning, then we must always be cognizant of how much our talking or lecturing prevents kids from getting to real work of making meaning of their learning instead of our teaching.

2. Student Work Exceeds Teacher Work
If the focus is on Teaching Bell to Bell, the teacher will always work harder than the students, but if the focus shifts to Learning Bell to Bell, the role of the teacher will transition into more of a facilitator.  When teachers structure time so that students work every minute of the period, it will provide a great opportunity for students to work more and hopefully harder than the teacher.

3. The Responsibility for Learning must be Mutual.
In a Teaching Bell to Bell class, the teacher must always be responsible for leading the learning.  Conversely, in a class with a focus on Learning Bell to Bell, both the teacher and the students share the responsibility for learning and the kids own the responsibility for becoming more proficient in their mastery of the content being taught.

For Whom the Bell Tolls
If your focus has been more on teaching than learning, it can be hard to make the shift, but when our focus successfully and consistently zeroes in on learning, we will eventually see the improvements in learning that we desire.  Initially, it can be a challenge because our natural need for control will force us to believe that rigorous learning can't occur unless we're teaching each student. But if we can create meaningful learning opportunities that kids will gravitate toward, there will be a natural transition from students serving as followers of teaching to leaders of their own learning. If we can shift our talk to action, create relevant learning environments that require meaningful student work and require the responsibility for learning to become a collective responsibility, there will be no reason why teaching would be anyone's focal point.  That would be because teaching would successfully transform itself into the primary purpose, facilitation of learning. 

Friday, October 30, 2015

No Excuse November!

For most of my life, November has been an excuse for me to grow out my beard. No matter the demands from my wife to shave it off, November has been and will always be No Shave November.  Now December...  That's another story for another day. 

Well, I'd like to add a new tradition to No Shave November and I'd like to call it this:

Let's be honest.  We make excuses when the going gets tough, but for the month of November, let's fight the urge to make excuses when things aren't going our way. Let's respond with courage when we would normally rationalize why something can't do accomplished. Below are a list of typical excuses that we could stop making during No Excuse November. 

  • We've never done that.
  • He can't learn.
  • He can't behave.
  • She won't do what we say.
  • They won't help us.
  • He won't listen to us.
  • We can't do that because (insert your excuse). 
  • We've always done it that way. 
  • We don't have enough (money, time, personnel, resources)
  • It's too much work.
  • It'll never work.

Let's Put the NO in November

There are 3 ways that we typically respond to excuses.  

  1. Agree - We verbally agree with the excuse and chime in to make it even more valid.  We do that when we're really fed up.  
  2. No Response - We validate someone else's excuse by saying nothing at all.  When we neither affirm nor confront an excuse, we silently validate that excuse and thus no reply is essentially agreeing that the excuse has merit and acceptable to the organization.
  3. Confront - The third and most courageous response to an excuse is to confront the excuse maker.  
Sure, it can be and is difficult to put someone in their place when they make an excuse.  So here are a few suggestions to courageously yet kindly embrace the No Excuse mindset.
  • Say, "Do you really mean that?"
  • Say, "Tell me why you feel that it couldn't be done."
  • Say, "Let's talk about that some more.  There may be another solution?"
  • Come up with reasons to argue against the excuse.
  • Show them how their excuse of "It'll never work" is false and can work.
Excuses are the defenders of the status quo.  They kill change, and they eviscerate visions.  The only way that excuses will ever be defeated is when more people develop a "No Excuse" mindset, and that starts when we collectively take a stance against making excuses every time something gets hard.  And what better month than November to say No More Excuses.

Monday, October 26, 2015

From Greek to Great: 7 Steps to Eliminate the Ambiguous Organizational Language

Language is the foundation of any culture, and within each educational organization, it has its own unique language. Some words evoke action while others stir up anger. Some words serve as symbols of pride while other symbolize scars of pain and anguish. If you know the words, you know exactly how to act, when to act and in which manner to act.  If you don't know the words, you'll spend most of your time lost not knowing what anything means.  What leaders must remember is that for many new members to a school, the organizaton's language at times can seem more like Greek than anything else.

In every organization that I have ever worked with, not only did I need to learn every new buzzword but I had to also to learn the etymology behind them. The sad thing is that many times, I learned more by bumbling and stumbling through my failures and misconceptions.  Yes, every organization has its own Greek that it speaks, and if you're a new immigrant to a new culture, there's a pretty good chance that you'll be lost every time you hear an unfamiliar word or acronym.

So what? 
Here's the problem.  Failure to accurately speak and understand the organizational lingo leaves people behind. It also causes them to be less equipped to serve students, and that is a huge problem. If the language and buzzwords create high levels of staff stress, that will ultimately be transferred over to the kids. Becoming fluent in a new organziaton's language can take months or even years to develop if supports aren't provided, but even worse, it isolates newcomers and relegates them to a lower class, and that is an even bigger dilemma.

"To not understand the local language is to demonstrate a lower level of usefulness to the culture. (Gruenart, Whitaker. School Culture Rewired. 2015)

Newcomers who are not provided supports to assimilate to the culture and the Greek that it speaks will be unintentionally ostracized. Essentially, not knowing the school's dialect of "Educationese" forces many to talk less, not more.  So the question has to be this. 

Source:  Google Images
How Important is Your Greek?
Well most organizational languages were developed a reason, to help people better communicate, right?  If that's true, then how important is it that all staff members not only know the language but the hidden meanings within the each word?  If it's critical that every person know the language to help move the entire organization forward, then it's important enough for leaders to provide a platform to not only help new staff members to learn the language, but develop an understanding of what those words look like and sound like in practice. 

Now What?   
Below are seven steps that school leaders can take to ensure that new staff learn to speak your Greek fluently. 
1.  Identify your organization's important buzzwords
2.  Define your buzzwords in written, and verbal form. 
3.  For words that represent a process, provide visual examples of that process. 
4.  Provide a platform for staff members to seek translation services if they don't know what a word or concept means. 
5.  Don't assume everyone has the same definition of a common word. Every word has a different meaning depending on the organization that taught them the word. 
6. Don't assume everyone who has been in your organization has the same meaning of he buzzword. Each person's experience also makes a variation of each word's meaning. 
7. Take time to align your language. Tier 1 instruction does not mean the same thing to everyone even if they've worked together for 10 years. 

From Greek to Great
If everyone is confused by the words you use, there's a strong chance your culture is paralyzed. Words are powerful. They invoke action; they inspire excellence. But they also stall progress and instill fear and uncertainty. Leaders must be careful that their organization's language is clear and specific, so that all members know exactly what the goal is and the action steps that they're expected to take to reach the goal. If leaders can speak in a way that limits confusion and creates consistency, the Greek that we speak will become the great that we lead. 

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Boo your School

It's October, and that means one thing. Everyone is exhausted. What? Did you think it was Halloween or something? Yes, everyone has been working very hard since the start of the school year.  Now, we're about a fourth of the way through it, and your teachers and staff need something from you. They need you to:

Boo your School

That's right!  You need to boo your people for all of their hard work. After all they're not expecting you to boo them.  Now before you freak out about this suggestion.  There's a right way and a wrong way to boo your school.  

Wrong way -  Criticize them for not doing their job hard, or continue telling them what they need to do better.

Right Way - Celebrate them with a surprise. See pictures below that my wife used to boo our neighbors.  You can use them if you want to create a tidal wave of people booing one another, or you can modify the card to boo each person yourself with a card and candy directly from you.

Getting booed means someone appreciates you. It means that you are a valued member of the organization.  Booing your people in the right way builds confidence. It affirms their hard work, and it adds value to your people. Halloween is a fun time of year, and school should be fun for the kids as well as for the teachers.  Take time next week to boo your school. Your people will never forget it and they'll definitely thank you for it. 

Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Principal's Excellence Report Card

My post, The Principal's Summer Excellence Checklist was a fan favorite this summer. The idea behind the post was to encourage principals to stop focusing on everything when developing their plan to help their school reach excellence. After all when you focus on everything, you focus on nothing. My goal was to encourage principals and leaders to shift their focus to building the culture and structure that supported teachers who in turn help every child learn. 

Well, report cards are coming out, and they tell the kids how they have done in their learning thus far, but what about you?  Where is your report card? How well are you doing at building the best school for all kids and all staff? To help you determine your effectiveness, I developed a report card based on the Principal's Summer Excellence Checklist. You can use this tool to rate yourself as well as make a personalized plan for improvement based on identifying your strengths and targeting your areas for growth. 

Reflection is the difference between average and exceptional leaders. The more we reflect on our own effectiveness, the more we learn about ourselves, and the better we lead our organization.  I hope you will take a moment and reflect on your abilities as a leader and make a focused plan to lead your campus to excellence.

To make a copy of your very own Excellence Report Card, CLICK HERE

Monday, October 12, 2015

Did I Really Save his Life?

I was shopping in a store with my wife, and ran into a parent of a former student of mine. The student was someone that I really enjoyed having in my class and thought a lot.  We had small talk about what was going on in his life and what he was doing, and I told her to let him know that I was proud of him and that I wish him the best of luck. What she said next blew my mind.

"You saved my child's life." Completely floored by the statement, I humbly replied, "thank you but I don't think I saved his life. I just taught him and helped him be grow in his abilities."  

"No, John. You don't understand. Before you came to his school, he was spiraling downward. You're the one that saw potential in him and made him see potential in himself. You saved his life."  With tears welling up in her eyes, I instantly realized the power that I truly had as a teacher.

This conversation made me accept that I wasn't a teacher.  I was a life-saver, and I was completely oblivious to what I did not only for him but countless other students.  I thought all I was doing was teaching him my content. I believed that all I did was build a relationship with him and make him feel like he was important. I didn't think that I was actually saving his life.

We don't just Teach Kids; We Save lives.

I can't tell you how many times I said and thought this phrase. "I'm just a teacher." What we as a profession must realize is that we save students. We give them hope. We let them know that they're not alone.  We tell kids that they're not forgotten. We show them there's a world beyond their wildest dreams. We influence them to embrace their potential, and we convince them that their past doesn't have to be their future, and the present doesn't have to be forever.  What we tell them, and what we teach them actually transform their lives.  

The most interesting part about teaching or leading a campus is that in most cases we will never know that we saved a life, but we must always approach our work with the belief that what we are doing has the potential to save every student's life. What we do can transform lives. We can take students from their present lot in life and empower them to create a life that they never thought existed.  

I am reminded of the power of our profession by this song by Sidewalk Prophets, "Save My Life". I hope you enjoy it, and I hope you will embrace your daily opportunity to save lives. 

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Enhance your Instruction with Note-Taking AND Note-Drawing

What kids do while we teach them makes a huge difference in whether or not they will retain their newfound knowledge.   Teachers give their best effort to make great teaching the constant, but learning will always be the variable if they don't make a plan to guarantee that students actively retain what they are taught. To ensure that learning remains the constant, educators must continuously ask this guiding question. 

"What are kids doing while we're teaching them?"

Research proves that we retain at most 10% of what we hear, so if kids have nothing to do while they are listening to our instruction, what will they retain?  Chances are that they will retain nothing, and if they do remember what they hear, there's a strong chance that it won't be the most important 10% that they needed to remember.  

If we want to help kids retain what we teach, we must incorporate some form of note taking into our daily lessons. Note-taking is one of the highest yield strategies (SEE HERE for the RESEARCH), but note-taking is often thought of as a skill that's not very condusive to kids who like to doodle and draw.  Well, there are many benefits to all forms of note-taking and all of them help all kids learn more information in virtually every classroom.  See "The Biggest Benefits to Note-taking. But what blew my mind more than the research was this video below. If we want to help our "off-task" doodlers and drawers take meaningful notes and ultimately learn more, we must find a way to incorporate their artistic abilities into note-taking in a manner that works best for them.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

7 Strategies to Save Struggling Teachers

The first 6 weeks of school is coming to an end, so how are your new teachers doing?  How are they feeling?  Where do they feel competent now, and where are they still lost?  If you don't know the answers to these questions, there's a strong chance you don't know your teachers well enough to save them if they're in danger of falling through the cracks.  And let's be honest, if new teachers fall through the cracks, so do their kids.  If you think about your first year as a teacher or your first year at a new school, you can vividly remember the exhaustion that you felt at the end of the first few weeks of school.
Principals shouldn't ignore these facts about new teachers or just chalk them up as a necessary evil that they all have to go through in our first year.  Leaders owe it to their teachers to do something about it. After all the best way to retain new teachers is to make sure we don't kill them.  Most new teachers struggle in the first weeks of school, but they shouldn't have to struggle for the rest of the year. They need campus level supports to help them overcome the stress from the beginning of school. 

7 Strategies to Save Struggling Teachers

1. Mentor

Every new teacher needs a mentor or a buddy, but it's what that mentor does for the teacher that makes the biggest difference. Great mentors take time to visit with their mentee weekly to help them overcome the obstacles from the daily grind. Effective mentors check on their mentee regularly and ensure that they have all the supports they need to succeed. 

2.  PLC 

Being a member of a professional learning community that meets on a regular basis is a good thing, but being a member of a PLC that focuses on helping every teacher grow and improve is a fantastic support.  Every teacher, especially ones that struggle, deserves to be on a PLC that focuses on the adult learning coupled with a mission of guaranteeing that all kids learn. 

3.  Resource Expert

If a teacher is struggling with how to complete day-to-day tasks or how to use resources for learning, they should be provided with tour guide to develop those skills.  Whether it's the gradebook, email, digital textbooks, GAFE, or some other tool that they are expected to master, schools and administrators should provide resource experts to help all teachers when they experience difficulty with these resources and the tasks associated with these tools. 

4.  Lesson Planning Support

Some teachers struggle with planning engaging lessons.  In these situations, struggling teachers should be provided time to plan a week of lessons with a veteran teacher or administrator. This support gives struggling teachers structure and organization so that they can be more efficient with the time they spend planning for instruction.

5. Walk-throughs / Instructional Rounds

Walk-throughs aren't just for administrators.  They are a great strategy to help a struggling teacher in their instructional delivery.  By watching another teacher deliver instruction, they can pick up new ideas to make their lessons pop.  An even better activity than walk-throughs is instructional rounds because the struggling teacher can observe instruction with fellow teachers and discuss the pedagogy as well as the components of instructional effectiveness with their peers.

6. Coteaching

Another great way to learn how to deliver effective instruction is to coteach a lesson with another teacher. By preparing a lesson and teaching with a veteran teacher, a struggling teacher can gain first hand instructional experience in planning and delivery. The most beneficial aspect of coteaching can be found in the opportunity to reflect on the strengths and struggles of the lesson afterward with the coteacher. By working with an excellent teacher from the beginning to the end, struggling teachers learn the unwritten rules in designing powerful lessons.

7. Administrator Time

Probably the greatest support that struggling teachers can receive is time with their administrator. By having regularly scheduled times to visit with the principal, teachers can gain valuable experience and insight of how to make it through the difficulties that they face. The best administrators spend a lot of time serving as a sounding board for teachers as it helps teachers find their own solutions to traditional problems. Additionally, when administrators spend time with struggling teachers, they learn how to lead more effectively, support more efficiently, and respond more precisely.

Saving Struggling teachers Takes All of Us
Every teacher struggles at the beginning of their career and in the beginning of a new position in a new school, but we owe it to them to help them succeed.  We mustn't forget that when a teacher struggles, their students suffer as well, and that isn't just a problem for he struggling teacher. That's a problem for the teacher who will receive those kids in the following year also. If we truly believe in the mission of meeting the needs of all kids, then we must all believe in doing our part to meet the needs of all teachers first. After all, we will meet the needs of all kids when every teacher is properly equipped with the tools and skills to meet their needs first. 

Monday, September 21, 2015

Vocaroo your Kids into Self-Directed Learning

Think of all the ways that kids lose instructional time waiting.  Kids miss instructional time each time they have to leave the classroom to take an oral administration of a test but they also lose valuable time each time they have to wait for the teacher to direct their learning.  But it's even harder to get kids to drive their own learning, especially if kids are conditioned to wait for the adult before they take charge of their learning.

Well have no fear; Vocaroo is here. Vocaroo (CLICK HERE) is a cool tool that will keep kids engaged in learning, but the powerful potential in Vocaroo goes far beyond it's basic use as a digital tool to orally adminster tests.  Below are 5 ways that you can use Vocaroo to enhance your instruction and strengthen student engagement at the same time.

Listen to my short vocaroos below, and if you want to experiment with Vocaroo, click the record and upload voice button.  THE BEST PART about Vocaroo is that it is EASY to USE.  Honestly, I made each 30-45 second Vocaroo in about 2 minutes from start to finish which also includes embedding it into this post.  I hope you will check it out.

Oral Administration of Tests

Record and upload voice >>

Bell Ringers & Exit Tickets

Audio recording >>
Collaborative Learning Groups

Voice Recorder >>

QR Codes for Independent Tasks

Voice Recorder >>

Vocaroo QR Code
Try it out!

Science Fairs (or other student products)

Online recording software >>

How Do You Vocaroo? 
Drop a comment or an idea of how we can use Vocaroo to meet the needs of kids while simultaneously creating an environment that challenges kids to take charge and be self-directed in their learning.