Friday, February 28, 2014

Missions or Motions?

I was having a great chat with a couple of friends from my PLN this past week.  The discussion was centered around finding resources and ideas to begin building a vision. Matt Wachel, a great thinker offered up this question.

Steven Weber then fired back the following at the end of the discussion. 

Steven is a really deep thinker about school improvement and leadership. (You should follow him.) But while Steven's tweet was purely in jest, it made me think...

Do schools have Missions or do they go through the Motions? 

As much as I want to claim my ultimate belief in the power of missions, it doesn't mean that my school's mission is living in every facet of the organization.  Here's what I'm trying to say.  Does every member of every team truly believe in their school's mission statement, or do they go through the motions of simply reciting the mission like it was the Pledge of Allegiance?  If all we do is make a mission, stick it on the wall, say the words every now and then, can we really say we have a mission?  

So the question I pose to all leaders (teachers, you are leaders) is this.  

How do we know if our mission is moving every person forward?

Here are two scenarios to answer that question. 

Schools that go through the motions of having a mission do the following:

  • They have a mission on the wall.
  • They have PLC time built into the schedule. 
  • They may even like one another,

  • Teams engage in activities that are not aligned to or conflict with the mission. 
  • The mission is ignored or worse only referred to in name only. 

In other words these schools go through the motions of being a PLC, but they really don't focus on working together to guarantee learning for all members of the school community (staff and students). 

Now, schools that live out their mission do the following:

  • They go beyond plastering words all over the school and actually refer to their mission to help them make decisions. 
  • They create values that help them define the behaviors that must be exhibited to fulfill the mission. 
  • They confront behaviors and beliefs that conflict with the mission. 
  • They believe professional conflict is essential to fulfill the mission. 
  • They refer to the mission when making critical decisions that will move the campus forward. 

Missions or Motions?

So which applies to you?  Do your school have a mission that is living and breathing, or is your school going through the motions pretending that the mission is real?  Do you have a little bit of both? Sure, it is very possible to have a mission in action in some places while other parts of the organization are going through the motions. Leaders must identify where the motions are in place and find ways to convert motion into mission. 

All schools are in motion, but the most successful schools are in meaningful motion, and that is what it takes to make a mission move a school. 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

6 Steps to Effectively Implement Change

People often rush to make change without making a plan. Here are some important ideas to make change without losing the trust and support of your team.

Communicate the philosophy of why change is important and necessary; then, Collaboratively, have your team define the vision of the organization.

Honor the work that has been done by using data to define your current reality. Be sure to use multiple data points to define where you are because where you are is where your change begins. Data will help identify practices that are effective and need to continue to support the change.

An Action Plan must be developed to define the new strategies and steps necessary to get your team from where you are to where you want to be. Utilize your staff to make your action plan.

Norm staff behaviors so all will agree how they must work together to implement the action plan. Norming your behaviors and actions will build trust and reduce confusion and conflict when problems implementing the change arise.

Goal-Setting defines where the team expects the change to take them along each step of the action plan. Set short term goals that lead toward a long range goal.

Evaluate your progress regularly. Celebrate your victories and make adjustments. If you don't take time to evaluate your progress, you will never know if you are moving closer to your target.

Change is hard because it requires so much commitment and organization. Taking time to plan ahead and then gathering input and support from your fellow staff members will pay huge dividends in the long run. Change can be successful with strong leadership, strong teamwork and a strong plan.

Which L is in your PLC?

School improvement means people improvement, and to make this a reality, a lot of schools are implementing professional learning communities. Administrators believe that if they put everybody in a room together on a regular basis then learning will improve. But here's the deal. Being in a room with a bunch of people makes you no more a PLC than sitting in a garage makes you a car.

PLCs require a lot more than sitting in a room for a set period of time on a regular basis. 

If a school implements professional learning communities without a thorough understanding of what they are and how they successfully function, then that school might as well go ahead and sign off on their plan for failure. Without a thorough understanding of how to create a culture of collaboration and a focus on learning based on relevant results, schools and teams call themselves a PLC, but the L won't stand for learning. 

Which L is in your PLC

The center point of a PLC must be learning, but if the L doesn't represent learning, then a community of professionals can't exist. Here are 4 examples to illustrate my point.

If all people do in a PLC is listen, then they're not really learning.  Listening leads to disengagement which undermines professionalism.  Sure, we have to listen to one another, but if one person does all the talking, and the other people are forced to spend the majority of their time listening, then they're not really a community of learners.  

Complaining kills a PLC, and whining wilts away the will of a team. Teams need to have time to vent, but teams that spend most of their time complaining about their working conditions or the kids transform from a learning community into a lamenting committee. They aren't really focused on learning how to better meet the needs of all kids because they are focused on their own comfort. 

Labor is an important part of a PLC, but this isn't the type of work that I'm talking about. I'm talking about substituting a labor of learning for mindless work that has little impact on kids. Forcing teams to replace learning with  bureaucratic paperwork and forms that don't make a hill of beans difference in the success or failure of a kid is insane.  Converting PLCs into paperwork assembly lines strips away professional dignity. Teams need meaningful work that focuses on getting better not working for the sake of working. 

In some PLCs, people are wasting away. With every meeting, they become duller and more ineffective. The passion for their profession slowly wilts away like a plant desperate for water. Because a toxic environment exists, professionalism dies in a sespool of despair. 

Learning includes Teachers & Leaders

Learning requires multiple people listening, lots of laboring about the right things, and using failure to drive improvement. Taking instructional ideas and figuring out how to make them stronger, more effective, and more efficient is what a PLC does. Systematically identifying kids who are struggling and coming up with surefire ways to make them learn is what a PLC does. 

Learning is not pretty and it's rarely right the first time, but one thing is certain. Every day that a PLC focuses on learning for themselves is one more step closer to each member reaching the pinnacle of their profession. And with each new strategy learned together, a team inches closer to becoming a close-knit community. 

Solving the Leadership Puzzle

We are in constant search for the secret to leadership. The art of leadership never stops puzzling so many of us who take on the role.  We aspire to be the best leader we can be, but the answer of how to be our best is still so illusive.

As I pondered this question, I thought it was best to illustrate my thoughts on leadership by actually making a puzzle for us to solve.  While each of our leadership puzzles look and sound different in every organization due to various people, cultures and circumstances, one thing is constant.  Building and maintaining trust is and will always be the backbone of a true leader.  By connecting ideas to people with purposeful actions, leaders can guide ordinary people to achieve extraordinary feats.

Watch this short video and let me know if you agree.  What other topics help leaders solve the leadership puzzle?

Is It Time for your School to Change Gears?

My jeep is my therapy. The minute I take the tops off, I anticipate the wind blowing through my receding hair line. (The benefits of growing old ;-)). But without putting the jeep in gear, nothing happens. No progress is made. No journey can occur. No wind can blow through my failing hair. 
Isn't school improvement the same?  Every school can put the bus in gear, but some fail to take it out of park.  Others keep it in reverse and then others get stuck in powerlessness of neutral. So what gear is you organization in?

Park is the preservation gear of the status quo. Nothing changes because no movement can occur. Park is a good gear if you want to stop and analyze your current reality, but you really don't want to stay there for long. Organizations stuck in park rely on "the way we've always done it" and the fear of abandoning the comfort familiarity. 

Reverse is the best gear to revert back to your old ways of thinking. If you have actions that are moving people in the wrong direction, reverse is necessary. However, this gear is very common for organizations who use fear tactics to make progress. The problem is that this kind of movement causes retreating instead of proceeding. In a matter of minutes, organizations stuck in reverse kill beliefs and actions that took years to create.  Organizations stuck in reverse take action with no rhyme or reason typically because the action is dictated by the boss. Little is accomplished and that which is accomplished has little effect on the bottom line, kids. 

Neutral frees up organizations to move forward or backward but without the vehicle's power. This gear represents organizations that go with the flow. They rev up the engine of actionless rhetoric but roll whichever way the gravity of least resistance takes them. Sadly, they end up in places that rarely improves the lives of students. Organizations stuck in neutral roll with the initiative or buzz word of the day. They make decisions aligned to the path of least resistance, and little is accomplished because they fail to commit to any initiative long enough to see it through. 

Drive is the gear that gets you to your destination, excellence. Organizations in drive are full of people who are driven by their quest to guarantee success for every child. Being in drive requires all members to engage the transmission of aligned action. Drive is action. It is purposeful progress, and it demands painstaking persistence.   Organizations stuck in drive align all actions to the betterment for all kids. They carefully select a few powerful initiatives and commit to actions that first are doable and second are aligned to their weaknesses. Driven organizations understand that all actions must be sustained by every individual. Collective capacity is the horsepower of organizations in drive. 

What gear is your school in?

No matter what gear you're in, anyone can change gears at anytime.  You shouldn't be stuck in one gear all the time, but you must understand that drive is the only gear that gets you to your destination.  The decision on which gear to put your organization in shouldn't be based on what gear you're currently in, but on where you want your organization to go. Once you guide followers to decide on and commit to kids first and themselves second, everyone will know what gear the school must be in, DRIVE

Sunday, February 16, 2014

If Jamaica can Bobsled, Low-Socio Kids can Compete...

The Jamaica Bobsled Team is nothing short of inspiring to watch.  Think about it.  They lack resources.  They come from a country that doesn't have tons of economic support beating down their door.  Heck, they don't have snow or ice.  There should be no reason why they should be in the mountains, let alone competing in the Winter Olympics.

But they don't know that.

Sure, they don't have years of tradition, prestige, and gold medal excellence like Russia, Switzerland, USA and Canada.  They don't have a world class training facility, and they don't have scores of coaches and contracted service providers to help them win.  There should be no reason why I'm watching them on NBC tonight.

But they don't want to hear that.

Here's the point.  Kids of all sorts of backgrounds, languages and experiences walk in our doors.  Some come from world class homes, and some kids come from homes with no water or electricity.  Kids walk in the door 2 years behind their affluent counterparts due to lack of experiences and vocabulary.  Neglect and abuse plague many kids and mask their potential to compete with their peers.  Lack of financial resources and adequate nutrition negatively impact students' ability to learn.

But we accept this...

Jamaica Bobsledding was nothing until someone believed in the concept of this tropical island competing in a sport it was not prepared for.  It took a lot of hard work and soul-searching for Jamaicans to believe they belonged with their affluent counterparts of the tundra.  It started with one person, a vision and a team, and it resulted in a shattered paradigm and a country transformed.  Now, they are the most recognizable bobsled team at the Olympics.

And we can do this...

Low socio-economic student CAN learn with their affluent counterparts.  We have to stop accepting this paradigm and create a new one that requires us to stop teaching in the one-size-fits-all model.  Kids deserve meaningful differentiation, personalized learning opportunities and targeted responses in the eyes of failure.  All kids can learn as long as they have educators who cannot see barriers and are prepared to do whatever it takes to help kids learn.

If Jamaica can bobsled, low socioeconomic kids can learn with their affluent counterparts.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Tagxedo Spelling

Kids need new ways to practice their spelling words.  I created this video to help both parents and teachers use Tagxedo to make spelling words more fun.  Hope you enjoy.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Leading with Decisiveness not Divisiveness

Organizations cannot move forward without decisions. Choices are always in front of you. Some decisions move your organization forward while others move you backwards. Some decisions unite while others divide. There are times when people connect to the organization while other times people disconnect.

Why is that?

Typically more people connect to a decision when they feel like it benefits the organization as a whole. In times of disconnectedness people feel like they are excluded and that their voice is not heard. Leaders unintentionally divide organizations and don't realize it until it's too late. 

Some leaders are decisive but they don't really care if it divides people because their decisions are aligned to their own beliefs and values. Some leaders are indecisive and as a result divide the organization because they can never figure out which direction to go. And then there are the leaders who are decisive in such a way that strengthens the organization every time they make a decision. 

So which are you?

Indecisive thus Divisive
Indecisive leaders have not identified or have no confidence in their own values. When making a decision they are constantly worried about the ramifications. Who will be mad is often a question asked. Worrying about the boss' approval consumes them. As a result of their floundering in uncertainty, indecisive leaders move their organizations backwards. 

Decisive and Divisive
Confident leaders have no problem making a decision. They know exactly what they want, and they can make a quick decision with little hesitation. The reason for this is simple. All decisions are made based on their own values. The problem with this type of leadership is that self-centered confidence can create collective conflict.  

Decisive and divisive leaders do not consider the ramifications of their verdicts on the organization. Making decisions based on what they think and feel frustrates followers. People see punitive policy rather than purposeful progression. So being unilaterally decisive can be just as detrimental to the organization as being completely indecisive. 

Decisive & United
Leaders who are decisive and unite others are centered around one key issue, values. These leaders not only know what their own personal values are but they know the values of the entire organization. They have no qualms making a decision because they know that every decision either conflicts with or complements organizational values. Uniting others is not a problem in times of solution-seeking. By constantly staying committed to values, leaders use each individual relationship to strengthen organizational values; furthermore, these uniter's empower followers to become leaders and make decisions that also align to the organization's values. 

Be Undivisive in your Decisiveness 
Being decisive takes courage, but being a uniter takes vulnerability. Understanding the minutia of organizational interdependency takes a lot of analysis and self reflection. By constantly committing and recommitting to personal values and organizational values, leaders can always make not only the right decision but the best decision to keep the team moving forward. 

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Work Ratio

Converting curriculum into instruction takes a lot of work. Designing learning from introduction to mastery can be a challenge, and the more diverse learners you have, the more diverse instruction is required. In every classroom a teacher plans for instruction, and we call that teacher work.  Students receive the information and respond to the instruction, student work. Some classrooms have instruction that makes a tremendous impact on students; therefore, the amount of student work is higher than the amount of teacher work. Conversely, in other classes, teachers are working much harder than the students and therefore, the instruction has minimal impact on students. In other words, instruction is negligible.

Why is that?

If you think about the very best teacher you ever had, you can quickly say that the teacher got the very best out of you. His or her effect on you was tremendous. The other thing that made this teacher tremendous may have been her ability to make learning meaningful by designing work that mattered to you. To sum it up, the student work was much greater than the teacher work. 

In a weak classroom, the amount of work on the teacher is always much greater than the amount of work on the student. No matter how hard the teacher teaches, or how much he tries to improve the effectiveness of his work, little will change as long as he ignores the work that students are expected to do. 

In all classrooms the key to learning is engagement. How we engage students in the the work of learning is critical. The focus on learning requires teachers to put the emphasis on increasing student work to a point that it exceeds the amount of teacher work.  To make student work transfer into learning, there exists five conditions that can negatively affect or positively impact the the student to teacher work ratio.

Relational Rituals 
When students enter the classroom, do they know how to interact with the classroom without the teacher's direction?  Do students feel like they are a welcomed member of the classroom?  Do they feel like the classroom procedures are designed specifically to make them more successful in learning?  
If we want students to be successful in the learning process, they have to know that the procedures of the classroom are designed to make them more successful in learning, not to make them more compliant to the teacher's rules.

Is the accountability for student learning  and behavior completely driven by the teacher?
Do students know the areas that they are weak in and areas that they are strong in, or is that completely determined by the teacher?

In a classroom that has a strong effect on students, accountability is shared by the student and by the teacher.  The more that students take personal ownership of their proficiencies and learning, the more they will take purposeful steps to own the work that will improve their learning. 

Time Optimization
Is time monitored closely by the teacher?
Do students have idle time when they complete tasks or assignments?
Are there periods of time where students daydream or get off task during instructional activities. 

Time management is completely dependent on the teacher's ability to perceive which tasks are optimizing time and which tasks are wasting time.   Wasted time will always cause the instructional impact to decrease substantially; therefore, teacher will increase because student work decreases. 

Is the instruction delivered in such a way that students can learn at their own pace and in their own unique modality? 
Are students forced to learn mostly in the same manner, pace and modality?

When the instruction is predominantly in the whole group mode, the student will never exceed the teacher in the work ratio. When the class has to learn content in the same format at the same speed and in the same way, there is no way that students can work harder than the teacher. That is because the teacher has to control the time each activity takes, the speed all students must learn and the method that students are required to learn. Students need individual time to apply their learning in ways that work best for the learner not the teacher. 

This question is pretty simple. Who owns the learning, the student or the teacher?  If the student learning has to move at the same rate as the teacher's instruction, the ownership cannot possibly belong to the student. At the same time if the instruction is not designed in a way to put the student in the driver's seat of how they acquire the learning, there is no way the student can own the learning. Ownership can only occur when the student is able to take the instruction that is provided and be given the opportunity to make meaning in their own unique way. Being able to create useful products and purposeful projects are surefire ways that students can fully possess their learning. 

So what's the Student to Teacher Work Ratio in your Class?

Are you working harder than the kids?  Are you taking more ownership of the learning than the kids are?  Are relationships weakening because the work is mundane to the kids?  Are kids in a position to conform their learning style to your teaching style?  If any of these questions identify with you, it may be time to reexamine the strategies that you are employing.  It may be time to find new ways not to get more work out of the kids but to get more meaningful work out of them. 

Friday, February 7, 2014

5 Challenges from Kindergarteners to all Educators

I did walk-throughs in my kindergarten classrooms last month. All I can say is wow!!! Kids are capable of so much, if we remove the barriers of our own biases. Today's post is in honor of my kindergarten teachers and their awesome students. The strengths that they pull out of kids are a testimony of what every educator must do for all kids.

As I reflect on my own experience, I sometimes stopped student potential simply because of my own biases of what I thought students were capable of.  We all do that from time to time.  We allow our own experiences and failures from teaching kids to limit our expectations for all students.  So here is a little challenge for all of us when we begin to doubt what all students can do.  The kindergartners at our school are doing amazing things, and that is because of the limitless expectations of our teachers.

If kindergartners can...

Write nonstop for 25 minutes using their sight words and letter sound knowledge, then all students have the potential and stamina to concentrate as they create meaningful examples of their learning. 

Present their writing to the class, then any student can stand in front of an audience and share their knowledge and their learning with others. 

Receive constructive feedback from their peers about their writing, then any student can be confident displaying their work for other students to critique. 

Read their writing to their peers, all students can be expected to read and write at high levels every day in every class. 

Help one another make their writing better, then all students can collaborate on their work in an effort to make it better and to learn from one another. 

You can virtually teach everything a kid needs in kindergarten. Sure, content will get more complex over the years, but the idea is this. Kindergartners come with little educational experience. Aside from PK (which does an amazing job preparing kids for Kindergarten), we assume they can do very little. The sad thing is that we believe this mess. Kindergartners come to school with tons of knowledge and absorb everything we throw at them. All kids in grades PK-12 are the same. They come with immense potential, and our job is simple:  create a motivational environment full of wonder and amazement so that kids will demand of themselves to not only meet but exceed their potential. We must challenge and applaud kids when they take risks, share their failures and celebrate their successes with their peers.  We must constantly promote a thirst for new knowledge, and we must model being passionate about learning and life. After all, passion is what kindergartners have when they start school. Our job is to make sure they never lose that passion throughout not only their education but their life. 


Tuesday, February 4, 2014

9 Questions to Optimize your Collaboration

Tick tock tick tock. The second hand never stops as your team collaborates. How your team spends its time defines what your team's core values are. How you expend those precious minutes in collaboration truly defines what your team's focus is.

Are you Maximizing your Collaboration? 

If your team comes together, and all they do is run through a check list of things to teach next week, your focus is on covering the content. If you spend 10 minutes talking about the cuteness of something that someone purchased for their class, you're collaborating about the icing, not the cake. Collaboration is not about talking together; it's about working together. 

Time is the most precious resource a team has at its disposal. Teams must optimize their time by focusing on the most important actions that will impact  student learning. Is your team getting a little unfocused? Are they tired of going through the motions?  If so, then it is time to shake things up a bit. 

Here are some questions you can pose to drive your teams toward meaningful reflection that truly focuses on working together. 

1.  Do all members of your team walk away with a thorough understanding of the content and the plan to ensure that all students learn that content?  

2. Do they know what instruction must look like and sound like to help kids learn the content?

3. Do all members of the team have an aligned understanding of how they will check for understanding in multiple ways throughout the week?

4. Do all members have focused ideas for how to gather data that will inform them of how to change tomorrow's instruction?

5. When kids fail, do all members have a clear plan of action to immediately  respond to failure?

6. When kids continuously fail, is there an opportunity for all members of the team to work together to strengthen interventions in a new and different way that will help students close the gap?

7. Do all members walk away with a plan of action to extend and enrich high achieving students?

8. Do all members have a plan to challenge average students and give them opportunities to apply their learning in new and unique ways?

9. Do all members of the team have a plan to engage the lowest students and have them work independently on a task that will take them to a higher level of learning?

All Members

The reason that every question above starts work with "do all members" is that if any question cannot be answered with a yes, your team has room for growth and should find ways to better collaborate about the given topic.   The other reason that all members are included in the question is because all members must contribute to ensuring that all kids learns. Collaboration requires togetherness, and that means that no member of the team may be excluded from participation. 

Plan of Action
Collaboration requires work, and work cannot happen without a plan. If any of the questions cannot be answered yes because there's no plan of action, then that tells you that it is time to transition from conversation to collaboration. In other words, stop talking about the topic and start developing a plan to make it happen.

Talk is Cheap

Everybody has an opinion, but very few people have a plan to go with that opinion. People can say whatever they want in a meeting, but if they're not walking away with a focused plan of action, they are just wasting their time. In the end we mustn't forget. Conversation isn't collaboration; conversation can only lead to collaboration.