Wednesday, December 30, 2015

School Improvement's Missing Piece

I’ve had the pleasure of being an elementary school principal for the past seven years and I have come to realize the missing piece of school improvement is prioritizing our teacher and administrator evaluation.  In order for schools to close gaps in achievement and continually grow, schools must prioritize the teacher and administrator evaluation process—changing it from an act of compliance to the key tool in a school’s improvement efforts.  Hundreds of hours are spent completing the evaluation process, yet very few of those hours lead to improved outcomes for students.  More importantly few of those hours actually lead to changes in teaching practices to better support all learners.

Two years ago I experimented with our evaluation process by encouraging more staff to take on collaborative learning opportunities. Co-teaching, collaborative planning, coaching, and self-directed learning (via Twitter) were some of the methods used and then began to credit these learning opportunities as informal observations.  These opportunities turned the evaluation process into what Fisher and Frey (2015) consider essential for learning to be meaningful, relevant learning.  I began to notice teaching improved when the evaluation became meaningful to those who were participating.  This was a big shift for me and a bigger shift for the teachers in our building.  It takes a lot of professional trust with so much emphasis in schools on testing and accountability. The trust must include a shared sense of ownership that we as adults in a school will collectively do whatever it takes to help all students learn at high levels.  Jim Knight sums this up in Unmistakable Impact when he says, “When we have faith in others, we let go of the notion that we need to control them, tell them what to do, or hold them accountable.” (Knight, p 40., 2011). Letting go of the evaluation process allows learners (both teachers and administrators) to take risk, make mistakes, and learn from those mistakes to accelerate growth. The idea of sharing mistakes as a means of growth and development is nicely demonstrated by the CEO of Etsy and can be found here.

Of all the informal observations I’ve participated in, the ones which have been most valuable have included adults who took risks, learned from each other, and continually evaluated their teaching’s impact on students.  Seeing staff (myself included) struggle to learn and understand new ways of doing things models the growth mindset we all hope to see in our students.  In order for us to see more of this, schools need to recognize this learning and embed this as part of a school’s improvement process and evaluation model.

During the 2014-15 school year, our entire school focused our professional learning on delivering quality mini-lessons.  We took baseline data on our ability to teach mini-lessons, accepted the fact that some staff did a better job at delivering these mini-lessons than others, and worked together to build the school’s capacity to deliver these lessons.  We celebrated our monthly growth and knew exactly what steps we still needed to meet all of the criteria of a quality mini-lesson.  This process instilled professionalism within our building in that every adult—whether it be classroom teacher, special education teacher, speech and language clinician or building principal—was expected to learn to deliver an exemplary mini lesson and we dedicated time to learn how to do this together.

As we quickly approach the mid-year point of our school year and I look at ‘how many more’ evaluations I still have to do, I must remind myself this process must continue to grow every adult in our building, as the adults who teach our students are the key factor in our school’s improvement.  I have to continually evaluate how I craft our evaluation and feedback to ensure the process is meaningful to our staff.  Along with that, I have to be open to feedback from teachers if the time we are investing is not valuable to those who are participating in the process.

Just before the holiday, I had the opportunity to shift roles and be the one evaluated as I delivered guided reading instruction for our kindergarten students.  As principal, this is not something that I do on a daily basis and realize I have a lot to learn to improve my practice.  As I sat at the kidney table, I was the one who was getting immediate feedback, I was the one who was learning new instructional strategies, and I was the one feeling overwhelmed with all that a teacher is expected to do each day.  That being said, this process wasn’t intimidating me because I wasn't worried about ‘the final grade’ of my evaluation.  

That sense of not worrying about ‘not being great at something right now' is a climate that I need to continue to grow.   By doing so, we can turn the evaluation process into a learning process which will impact how our students’ learn.  As I meet with staff for post observations, mid-year meetings, and end-of-year evaluations I have to continually remind myself that a strong evaluation process is a process of learning.  If the time dedicated to the evaluation process just focuses on a ‘final grade or score’ we’ve missed the boat.

So my goal for 2016 is to continue to improve upon my efforts to make the teacher and administrator evaluation process our most important form of school and district improvement.  This will require upfront and honest conversation about what we do and what we are learning as well the sharing of many successes and many more mistakes as we all learn how to improve upon what we do each day to ultimately support our students.

What are your thoughts? How can we make better use of the evaluation process? Continue the conversation by reaching me @davidjhuber on Twitter. Happy New Year!

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

My New Philosophy of Professional Development

My mindset around professional development continues to change and evolve the more I read, research, and learn.  I’m excited to see how my philosophy of professional growth is shifting and I’m excited to learn how I can best integrate this as a shift in practice as an elementary school principal. The last bit of excitement is the realization of the power of teams and collaboration as essential components of accelerated school growth.

When I started my first year as principal I spent a considerable amount of time planning the perfect professional development.  I knew exactly what our staff needed, despite having never met them.  I spent hours crafting a PowerPoint presentation to deliver 'to them' containing the next best fix to public education. The staff sat and listened - for six hours - while I delivered their professional learning. They sat politely, mostly listened, and returned to their classes for the beginning of a new school year. Unfortunately, the time I spent planning had zero impact on the teaching that year and more importantly, had no impact on our students.  The presentation I had developed lacked relevance, collaboration, and ownership from a majority of the intended participants. 

I used to think I needed to plan all professional learning opportunities for the building to which I was assigned, but now I realize that our staff knows best their individual paths for learning.  In order to facilitate meaningful professional development, a school leader must provide time and demonstrate trust to allow a group of educators to craft outstanding learning opportunities. This will enable them to grow and ultimately to improve their impact on students.

Our school improvement efforts last year became very focused where teams were working together learning to continually improve our instruction.  We didn’t attempt to ‘fix’ anyone or anything, we simply took an area of instruction (mini lessons) which we all felt was important for our teaching, learned about effective characteristics of these lessons, recorded ourselves teaching these lessons, talked about what worked during these lessons, and continually self-evaluated our progress.  Every person in our building, whether it be classroom teacher, administrator, speech and language pathologist, or special educator worked and learned together to improve upon our craft.  It was exciting for us to realize, although we all were teaching mini lessons, we were doing it very differently.

In his article What Works Best in Education: The Politics of Collaborative Expertise (https://www.pearson.com/hattie/distractions.html), John Hattie describes a learning community that is based on developing expertise. He calls for an environment which strives to have teachers learning and sharing how to continually become more expert in their practice. He addresses a myth that all teachers are equally effective in meeting student needs, and expresses the need for us as educators to confront this myth in a professional way. This environment, he writes, allows teachers to work together to question their effectiveness, evaluate their impact on their students, and work together so all staff can learn to have a high impact on student achievement.  To achieve this environment requires sustained and meaningful professional development.

This is the type of professional development that I have come to appreciate for myself as I use social media to extend and expand upon my learning.  I learn best when I am invested in a topic, when the topic is relevant to me, and when the topic can make me better at what I do each day. I learn better and improve upon my work as a principal by having a say in the areas that I feel I need to be further developed. I can accomplish my goals when I have the opportunity to set my plan of improvement. I also learn best collaborating with others, having the opportunity to try out what I'm learning, get actionable feedback, and then try it out again.  

This is the type of professional development that our teachers also want, need, and deserve. It's their actions and ability to develop expertise is what will dramatically improve our schools and best support students.  My goal for our school's professional development is to establish a learning environment where teachers are empowered to participate in their learning paths, collaborate with others to improve upon their expertise, and be able to see the positive impact of their learning on our students.

What are your thoughts? What strategies or philosophies of professional development have you found most effective? Continue the conversation by reaching me @davidjhuber on Twitter.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

How We Can Accelerate Digital Leadership

I had the pleasure of reading Digital Leadership by @E_Sheninger , which quickly became my personal vision of technology integration for our elementary school.  Since reading this outstanding resource, I’ve piloted (and now finalized) our official school Facebook page, have expanded the use of Twitter as a tool for professional learning, and am personally attempting my shift from being simply a consumer of digital information to a producer of information willing to share with others. These are a few of my efforts to be a more connected educator which have been a direct result of my learning from Digital Leadership.

Based on my new learning from colleagues and fellow educators on Twitter, I challenged our staff to a ‘flipped staff meeting.’  Staff were given one month to consider, as part of our monthly staff meeting, what they would like to share as an example of their current use of technology with our students as well as its impact on student learning.  Seeing as we are forced to operate schools under continually shrinking budgets, I needed to ensure the money we were spending on technology was impacting the quality of education our students are getting.  I also needed to be sure the technology we were purchasing was being best and fully utilized in all classes for all students.  Living in the 21st century, we as educators now have an obligation to learn to utilize technology meaningfully throughout the day, and this was our chance to share our current knowledge and understanding so we’d know how we can continually improve.  What would come out of this challenge, unbeknownst to me, what the most outstanding form of school improvement and professional development I have experienced as an educator.  

Ripple Effect
After the flipped staff meeting announcement was made, I heard rumbling around the school as to what the meeting was all about.  I reminded all staff the purpose of the meeting (to learn, collaborate, and grow together) and asked that no formal ‘dog and pony show’ presentation be prepared.  I was simply hoping to share some of the great things that I see during individual classroom visits with the rest of our staff.

Within a week of this announcement, three grade levels contacted our K-5 library media specialist for guidance/coaching (I’ll refer to this as professional learning) for different ways they can utilize technology within their classes.  I also saw more staff researching technology tools such as use of apps on Ipads, QR codes, coding, Google Classroom, Remind texting and so much more. This then lead to the creating of activities, such as QR code scavenger hunts and Google Classroom 'projects' which were then shared with other staff members to try with their individual classes.  The staff meeting had yet to begin, but our adult learning and impact on students had already begun. The overall impact - we all (teachers, paraprofessionals, interns, and principal) learned new ways to utilize technology to deliver our curriculum and meaningfully engage our students.

January 7, 2015
For the meeting I invited a few members of our Board of Education to attend to watch with me the remarkable work of our teachers.  I’m appreciative of the two Board of Education members who had the opportunity to join us. The board members were clear they were in attendance to learn with us and to celebrate the great work our staff have been doing. Our staff meeting began and I, as building principal, sat back, relaxed, and took notes.  

Grade levels shared the following:  Individual use of Google Classroom, different sites or apps for assessment, virtual field trips, QR codes, different resources for research, examples of work grade levels were doing with our newly coined ‘tech buddies’ and much more.  Then the magic happened when the individual questions came allowing professional educators (our teachers) the ability to ask their peers about the technology, how it could be integrated within their own grade, and the collaboration which occurred each day since. This  whole experience opened my eyes to the untapped opportunities for school improvement within each of our schools -- as long as we give our teachers the opportunity to share their work.  I used to think it was the principal’s job to plan staff meetings.  I now realize it is the principal’s job to invite and encourage staff to share and celebrate their work and learning as a means of professional growth for an entire staff.
Where We Have Come
In my 15 years in education, I have yet to see a professional development activity have a greater impact and lead to more sustained and meaningful change in practice than this flipped sixty minute staff meeting.  The work our staff have learned to do has lead to exciting improvement in every class in terms of the assignments our kids are doing as well as the engagement with which they complete their assignments.  This work also lead to our school’s participation in Digital Learning Day on March 13, 2015 as well as the evaluation of district technology policy.  For a quick glimpse of the great work of our staff and students, please click here.

The culture of our school is also improving as our ‘tech buddies’ began partnering older elementary students with their younger peers to collaborate, communicate, and create projects incorporating both grades’ Common Core State Standards.  It’s amazing to see teachers step back and let our students teach their peers. In addition, our students are learning to communicate, cooperate, problem solve, and simply learn together in a fun way.  These are all benefits of allowing our staff to share their learning during our January flipped staff meeting.  

If you have a question about how we are expanding our digital leadership, please let me know. It continues to evolve each week and month as we learn new ways to integrate technology into our daily routine.  What I have come to realize is if we want to accelerate the digital leadership within a building, we have to better tap into the resources we currently have which are our teachers. We need to provide time for them collaborate, learn together, engage in social media, and share their new found knowledge. This shared ownership of a school's improvement can move all buildings into 21st century teaching and learning at a much quicker pace.  I’m thankful that I came across Digital Leadership and expanded my professional learning network on Twitter.  I’m more thankful to work with such dedicated and creative teachers who are willing to take risks and give these new forms of technology a try.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Challenge Accepted: We Have to Stop Pretending!

In an effort to become a more connected educator, I began utilizing Twitter as a tool for professional development in 2012.  Over the past 12 months, I've accelerated my use of Twitter and have drastically expanded my professional learning network.  This has been a fun and rewarding learning opportunity, as I am now able to learn with other professionals across the globe.

I was recently challenged by Dr. Chris Longo ( @DrChrisLongo ) to participate in an effort called, "We have to stop pretending."  This challenge asks educators to identify five things we need to stop pretending about the way we see education for all students.

In an effort to improve all schools for all students, here is my list of five things I feel we need to stop pretending:

  1. Professional development must be determined/dictated/planned/delivered by people other than teachers.  What I've found is the most valuable professional development which led to sustained improvement in practice was delivered by teachers to teachers.  It's easy, inexpensive, meaningful, and actually improves schools.
  2. We are currently engaging all families.  We know our kids will do better if families and schools partner in new and creative ways, however, many schools are still reaching out to families similarly to ways they've done ten years prior.  As a school principal, I am continually looking for better ways to engage our families and would love to hear what other schools are doing to develop stronger partnerships leading to increased student achievement and the development of stronger relationships.  Better yet - I'd love to hear from families what can be done to allow them more opportunities to feel invested in their child's school and learning. #letslearntogether
  3. PD three days in August, one day in November, and another half-day or two during the year is really professional development.  I feel the shift needs to focus on professionals (our teachers and administrators) owning their own learning, advocating for time to work collaboratively, and embedding this work into their daily routine.  For example, teachers or administrators engaging in social media for learning, attending EdCamps, or collaboration with colleagues leads to daily growth.  This to me is what causes professionals to truly develop.
  4. We are ready, meaning we all have the requisite skills to truly prepare kids for 21st century learning.  In order for our students to be connected learners they must see frequent modeling by the adults around them.  Using technology for learning, communication, collaboration, and project creation is one way to begin to model the 21st century skills we want our students to develop.  In order for all staff to develop this, they need appropriate and ongoing professional development.  This ties in to #3 above - in that we can't wait for district required or mandated professional development.  Our sense of urgency to improve should be dictated by the kids who sit in our classes every day.
  5. We begin closing gaps when kids arrive in kindergarten.  I used to think that our kids were not our responsibility until they entered school for the first time and I now realize that we need to partner with families, community agencies, doctors' offices, churches, and any other venues which have family ties.  Our ownership for our students begins the day they are born.  How we act upon that ownership will determine the strength of individual partnerships - which in turn determines the strength of each child's school readiness.  If we can articulate a shared vision and support all families in accomplishing that vision - we will reduce the opportunity for gaps in achievement, development, or vocabulary before they begin.

I have passed this same challenge along to the following outstanding educators:
Jeff Veal   @heffrey 
Bethany Hill @bethhill2829
Rachel Murat @APGovME 
Kory Graham @tritonkory
Ben Kitslaar @Ben_educating

So these are the five things I believe we as educators need to openly discuss in our schools and districts.  As we identify exactly where we 'really' are in terms of our adult actions around these five areas, we are better suited to set measurable goals for improvement.  It's been fun to see how my thoughts and feelings about education have shifted pretty dramatically over the past two years.  I thank the folks I work with each day as well as those I learn with through my professional learning network.  Let me know what you think or consider sharing your own list on Twitter using #makeschooldifferent .