Tuesday, May 5, 2009

What Should Students Learn?

Increasingly, schools are becoming places where students are expected to learn not only the core academics, but life skills, too. Schools are responsible for teaching morals, ethics, tolerance, anger management, cooking skills, child-rearing skills, driving skills, relationship skills, sex education, and much more. With the issue of accountability that accompanies high-stakes testing, teachers and administrators are challenged to find the actual time to accomplish it all, and all the while, the expectations keep rising. Can we do it? It is possible, but school leaders must find a way to educate society in regard to what public education is all about today, and in turn, society has to put its money where its mouth is.

If schools are expected to be real places for real learning, then we have to provide everything that our students and teachers need to get them where we want them to be. The educational role of schools should be focused on teaching students in the core subjects along with teaching them essential life skills. School leaders must realize that with the advent of the 21st century and the fact that many families have both parents in the work force, a school is often the only place where our children learn what they need to know to be productive citizens. The parents and the community at large also have to be willing to fully support schools to create places where learning takes place and success occurs on a regular basis. Alliances must be built.

Parents rely heavily upon schools, and it’s not always because they feel that schools can be trusted to teach their children everything; it’s because parents don’t have the time to do it. They are often both working, and with the divorce rate topping fifty percent in the United States, single parents are running households while holding full-time jobs. If parents aren’t at home, they can’t teach their children. Teaching it all becomes the school’s job. Each decade brings new demands on schools to meet the needs of a changing society and an expanding world economy. The role of education must constantly change depending on the needs of the society it serves.

School leaders, including teacher leaders and administrators, are integral to the growth of their teachers and their students. Their roles revolve around meeting the needs of teachers to increase student learning. If they don’t provide beneficial direct assistance, professional development, group development, curriculum development, and the means for teachers to delve into action research for student improvement, then they have failed (Glickman, Gordon, & Ross-Gordon, 2006). It is their responsibility to their respective schools to build relationships, assess need with purpose, and act (Donaldson, 2006).

What role, then, do parents play in education? The same role that community plays: they must give and do what they can, and then support, support, support. Unfortunately, many schools don’t realize that their parents aren’t as supportive as they could be because the school has failed to inform the community of its purpose. Schools must make every effort to effectively communicate with parents to encourage their involvement at every level of their children’s learning. In other words, it is the school’s responsibility to create interaction with the parents and the community. Positive relationships can be created through newsletters, school Web site information, teacher Web sites with continued homework updates, informational and Open House gatherings for parents, parent/teacher conferences, invitational school involvement, community/business members paired with teachers, parent phone calls and much more.

Particularly, business leaders in the community should be involved in the school system, but, again, it is the school’s responsibility to build these alliances. Local business owners should be encouraged to interact with school children to share their experiences and to build an interest in thinking about careers early. Local community colleges and universities can build alliances with teachers to create college opportunities for students. With some creative thinking, students can benefit from various community and business members by seeing the connection between learning and “real” life.

As an educational leader, I see the 'big picture.' I have the ability to see or make connections. I have been told that I have 'vision.' For me, as a learner, I need to be given the opportunity to find and understand the connections I know that are inherent in every learning opportunity. This was always integral to my teaching; my students needed to see the connections. I disagree with the sentiment, “Things happen for a reason.” Instead, I propose that reason can be found in everything that happens. We have to be able to find the reason. I used this ability recently when interviewing an assistant high school principal who stated that his job is ninety percent discipline and ten percent building maintenance. He expressed his regret at never having (or making) the opportunity to impact instruction more by observing teachers and classrooms. I stated that if he were to observe classrooms and interact with teachers more, he might discover those who need help with behavior management. This might lead to fewer discipline issues. Being purposeful about his presence in classrooms would surely impact student learning. He said, “I never thought of it that way.” I believe we need more 'big vision' thinkers in today’s schools.

How can we develop 'big vision' thinkers among our teachers and educational leaders? One word. Collaboration. I am a collaborator; therefore, I choose to work with people who want to work together to solve problems, think up new ideas, and take risks. I am also a believer in children and in the power of education. I love changing the lives of children for the better, and I must work with individuals who love the same. I am in my perfect work situation when my co-workers have a vision that entails changing the world through our daily work. Most importantly, we all must believe that it is possible.

Donaldson, Gordon A., Jr. (2006). Cultivating Leadership in Schools: Connecting People, Purpose, & Practice. New York: Teachers College Press.

Glickman, Carl D., Gordon, Stephen P., & Ross-Gordon, Jovita M. (2006). SuperVision and Instructional Leadership: A Developmental Approach. New Jersey: Allyn & Bacon.

Maxwell, John C. (1991). The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader: Becoming the Person Others Will Want to Follow. Nashville: Maxwell Motivation, Inc.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Characteristics of an Effective Principal

A few years back when I was still teaching English, I served on a principal interview committee. The day before we began the interviews, I asked my students to list the characteristics that make a good principal. I still have the list. In fact, I keep it tacked to my bulletin board at work.
  • Good attitude
  • Nice
  • Non-discriminatory
  • Real
  • Sense of humor/personality
  • Flexible
  • Honest/fair
  • Well mannered
  • Someone who isn't dumb
  • Involved
  • Belief in students and know their potential
  • Remember what it's like to be a teenager
  • Support students in the extracurricular things
  • Non-judgmental
  • Understanding
  • Young and fun
I was deeply touched when one of my students turned to me and said, "You know Ms. Crandall, you could be a principal. You have all these characteristics." From that moment on, I have sought to embody what my students think makes a good principal. I'm not sure I can always be young, but I am certainly young at heart . . . and I'm trying my best to keep from being dumb.

Who Are Our Veteran Teachers?

At the start of the school year, I purposely front-load all the novice teachers for observations. They're new, and new teachers need immediate support and feedback in regard to teaching, managing student behavior, setting up classroom routines, and planning lessons. Then I work my way through the faculty to finally get to our veteran teachers at the end of the year. I do this because I like to end my year on a positive note. Let me explain.

Some of our veteran teachers have been with us for over thirty years. In my meetings with them of late, I press them to tell me why they continue to do what they do. I've gotten some beautiful answers.

They tell me that high school students make them laugh every day, and this keeps them young. They tell me that they love to make students laugh. They think this makes young people more likely to come to school. They tell me that they are passionate about their subject, and this is really important or else students won't see the need to learn what these teachers want them to learn. They tell me that they love these students as individuals and pray every day that each of them will succeed. They tell me that having students return after they've graduated to stop by to see them is one of the greatest feelings. They tell me that they get up in the morning and feel so lucky that they get to go to school and teach. I'm not making any of this up. It's all real and true.

All, not some, but all of these veteran teachers are teaching outside core areas. In other words, they don't teach math, English, social studies, or science. Many of them taught in the core areas years ago, but now? They're teaching life skills and family planning, drafting, physical education, culinary arts, art, business, finance, keyboarding, work skills, Spanish, French, Latin, and I could go on. Not one of our core area teachers talks the same language. Here's what I hear from them throughout the year.

They tell me that they're tired; there's little time to laugh. They tell me that when students are laughing in the classroom, most likely they're off task. They tell me that students don't come to class, and this keeps teachers angry because, well, how can teachers teach if the students aren't there? They tell me that they're sick of the standardized tests, and then they tell me that they can't teach what they want; they've lost their creativity. They tell me that parents aren't being held accountable and that they really wish students who aren't serious about learning quit and get their GED. And the students who stay? The teachers tell me that they pray they will pass their SOL's. They tell me that they're always surprised when a student who graduated comes back to see them. They tell me that when they get up in the morning, they feel like crying because they know that it's just one more day closer to the SOL test, and they're behind. I'm not making any of this up. It's all real and true.

It's not difficult to understand why certain teachers stay in the field of public education and why other teachers crash, burn, and die. In other words, the correlation between why teachers continue to teach and what they teach is obvious. Our teachers who are invested with teaching what many understand to be the basics, the most important subjects, are unhappy, stressed, disgruntled, and genuinely tired. They feel like they have lost their right to be creative in the classroom, they are assigned students who don't want to be there, and they really believe that students don't see the need for the basics. They feel like they are being held accountable for something that they can't necessarily control. They feel lost in an out-of-control system.

This is the toughest part of my job . . . working with these teachers. What can I offer them? A fresh perspective on a very old lesson? A creative way to reach their students? A shoulder to cry on? I guess each little bit helps. Our core area standardized test scores are progressively going up, but I'm not seeing the change in our teachers that I'd like to see. I'm worried. I'm having a tough time visualizing where all this is going. NCLB. AYP. Are we meeting our students' needs and the needs of our country? What about our teachers' needs? Where and how do these all converge?

Tomorrow, I'm scheduled to meet with our agriculture teacher. He's been with us for thirty-two years. I can't wait. I'll end the day with a positive teacher, one who can't keep from smiling because he loves what he does, day in and day out.