Positive connections between students, their teachers, administrators, and their school community lead to academic success and a balanced education. During the school year, most kids spend more time with their school family than they do with their own family. This gives the school family an incredible opportunity to help students grow and learn. To reach their potential, it is integral that children connect to at least one person in their school community. This connection needs to exist within a safe and stable environment providing opportunities for these relationships to strengthen and grow. The middle school leader plays a key role in fostering this these important components of success.
Consider the typical day of an adolescent child. Besides a myriad of changes taking place physically, emotionally and academically, these kids exist in one of the most volatile social worlds imaginable. How often have we looked back on our own middle level years and remembered the struggles? When you pile on the perils of social media and the increasing temptation of drugs and alcohol that our children face today, most of us cannot even imagine reliving those years.
For many of our kids, school is their one true refuge. Imagine being greeted by the soul-crushing energy of a teacher who does not like you or, even worse, an indifferent teacher. These children face chaos at home, in the neighborhood, on the bus, and eventually in our school. Creating a safe, positive environment for kids is critical, especially for these students’ success.
School communities need to gain a firm grasp on how well they really know their students in order to effectively connect with and eventually educate them. An activity called “Do You See Me?” (also known as the “Dot Activity”) provides leaders with a chance to measure not only how many students connect with educators in the school, but also how many staff members each student might see as a resource or support. “Do You See Me” is best done toward the end of the first quarter which gives staff time to get to know their students.
To prepare for this critical activity, we take the student pictures provided digitally by our school photographers at picture day and print out a copy of each student in the entire school. We fit two 5x7 images on one standard letter-size paper. We then tape all of the pages onto paper and hang them in a large area like a gymnasium or library. From there, faculty and staff are given a small variety pack of small circular “dot” stickers (available at any office supply store). Then give the directions below:
After completing the survey, conduct a group discussion with your staff (whole or small group depending on the size of your staff). Use a protocol for the discussion to make sure that everyone has an opportunity to have a voice in the conversation. Some examples of effective discussion protocols include Affinity Mapping, Final Word Protocol, Four Corners, Pinwheel Discussions, and Socratic Seminars. This is an opportunity to focus the conversation on your building goals, vision, or specific issues you are facing at your school. Some guiding questions for these discussions may include:
After the activity ends, be sure to follow-up in the coming days and months. Consider having your guidance counselor(s) collect the student papers that had very few stickers or more superficial stickers. Identify ways to support the students who need more of a connection in your school. Look for commonalities between the students with lots of stickers. Do they have any similar characteristics that could translate into skills to teacher less connected students? In the final analysis, there is no right or wrong way to go about performing “Do You See Me?” As long as the building community has the opportunity to reflect on the relationships they have with students in the building, it’s guaranteed to be a successful exercise. All students need to know that they are more than grades on a report card, more than a discipline form. They need to know they matter.
One word I usually don't use to describe school systems is "agile." Change and action in districts happen at a glacial pace. This can be incredibly frustrating for school leaders (and everyone). Recently, I was listening to an episode of Seth Godin's podcast, "Akimbo," where he discussed the benefits of Critical Path Management. Simply defined, Critical Path Management (CPM) is used to complete projects on time by focusing on key tasks. In his podcast, Godin focused on an important part of CPM that involves "getting out of the way" of personnel completing key tasks.
First and foremost, I would love to see public school entities actually adopt a philosophy of project management. I am personally a fan of CPM because of the intense focus on execution and action. But more importantly, school systems could learn from the "get out of the way" mentality, especially when further steps in the project management chain are on hold waiting for a prior step to be completed. How many times have you been stalled because other departments or parts of your organization hadn't yet completed their portion of a complex project?
In closing, I'd like to adjust the old saying, "Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way." For our purposes, let's go with, "Lead, Follow, AND Get Out of the Way!"
In light of the recent articles highlighting research showing the failure of the standardized testing push in the United States, this look at a recent employer survey shines further light on the disconnect between the "real world" and "what's easy to measure."
As educators, it is our responsibility to prepare students for what comes after the traditional school years. So it would stand to reason that our curriculum would center around current research around the skills needed to be successful in today's economy. And that means we should be collaborating with large companies and employer sects to see what skills they are looking for. We should be researching the shifts and trends in the economy to steer kids in the directions of careers that have potential for robust growth.
But wait. We are not doing any of that. Nope. Instead, we still cling a 100+ year old philosophy that has seen very little upgrading. We all know the reasons why. "Big testing" dictates much of what happens and their products can only measure very basic (and mostly unimportant) things.
So "No Child Left Behind" didn't produce scores of students super prepared for the workforce and we didn't conquer the world in international test scores. This should further empower school leaders at the local level to do what's right for kids. Trust the real research and trust your gut. And guess what? States and Commonwealths are beginning to respond. Take a look at this link:
The choice is ours. Start small. Take a look at the "skills employers want" in the picture attached to the main article. Bring this list into your next set of classroom walkthroughs. Ask yourself, your teachers, and your students, "Does this lesson check off any of these boxes?" If it doesn't, well, let's make some changes.
Dr. Nicholas Indeglio, the 2017 Digital Principal of the Year, shows you the people and organizations in education you should follow to grow your PLN: http://bit.ly/2DlSmvy
Nicholas Indeglio, the 2017 Digital Principal of the Year, shares a quick guide on hashtags and chats to help you connect with other school leaders on Twitter: http://bit.ly/2Fa0rk9
We’ve all been there. A few students make a poor decision and create a situation that needs to be addressed. The only problem is that you don’t know who did it, or there are so many students involved that it would be improbable to discipline them all. So we take the easy way out...we punish everyone. That way we make sure the individual responsible is held accountable.That will send the right message to the school that you do not let anyone get away with violating policy. If you’re going to make an omelette, you have to break a few eggs, right? Here are a few of my favorites. I assure you these are 100% real.
Offense: When the teacher has her back turned, someone shoots a spitball.
Punishment: The entire class has detention unless someone confesses to the offense.
Offense: Students misuse the condiment dispenser making a mess of the area.
Punishment: All condiments are removed from student use.
Offense: A couple of female students use their Ugg boots to conceal phones so they can have them during the day.
Punishment: All Ugg boots are banned because students are not allowed to carry phones.
It happens to adults too…
Offense: Teachers are discovered leaving the school grounds during their duty period to get coffee.
Punishment: All teachers must sign in and out in the main office whenever they leave the grounds.
This practice is what is commonly known as “shotgun discipline.” Rather than go to the source of the problem and address it with them alone, we punish everyone. Why? Maybe because it is easier? Maybe because we want to make sure everyone responsible is punished? I honestly don’t get it.
Let’s take the lunchroom condiment table scenario for example. So someone made a mess. Who is to blame? Not the students. If there had been proper supervision, it would not have happened. By taking away all of the condiments, not only are the kids who used it properly being punished, but the power in the entire situation is being given to those who committed the offense.
How about the teacher situation? So someone left when they weren’t supposed to. Here’s an idea: Take it up with the person who did it. Punishing the entire staff, even with a friendly “reminder email” about school policy being to stay on school grounds during off periods, will fall on deaf ears to the offenders and annoy those who follow the rules.
Here’s an idea: if you do not have the time to properly investigate and find the offender then it probably isn’t worth the trouble. Shotgun discipline is the epitome of laziness. It sends the message to everyone that the person in charge is more interested in making a problem go away than solving it. And what if you can’t solve it? Does that justify potentially punishing innocent people by using a hatchet in place of a scalpel?
These are the types of situations where the educational leadership expert and author Todd Whitaker would say, “What do your best people think?” These are the students, teachers and parents in your school community who are on board with your program. The teachers who support you and your ideas through thick and thin. What would they think about being lumped in with those who rip you in the faculty room? The parents who show up to help at every event: ow would they like being treated the same as the parents complaining on the weekend soccer fields? The students who brighten the halls with their positive attitudes and efforts: why treat them as if they were the problem rather than part of the solution?
The whole idea of “pushing the pendulum” is to take the notion of typical education trends and send them off the tracks. Don’t just let the pendulum continue to swing back and forth waiting for it to head the direction you prefer. Push it. Push it in the direction of what is best for kids.
Perhaps the most misunderstood word in public education is “Accountability.” To one side, it means catching teachers who don’t do their job effectively. To the other, it means having outsiders try to control what and how we teach kids. From my experience as a principal, I would propose that embracing this word in its true form could pay dividends to our students.
From my memory, the earliest existence of educational accountability began with the bipartisan reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 2001, more commonly known as No Child Left Behind. While state testing did predate this act, NCLB gave teeth by providing the ability to not only rate each school’s “Adequate Yearly Progress,” but also impose sanctions on unsuccessful schools. While I doubt that many would call NCLB a success, I would argue that there were some benefits to the act.
Most notably, I believe that the demonstration of growth within various subgroups was a critically necessary component missing in schools. This requirement forced schools to pay attention to many student groups who were often ignored (or worse, brushed under the rug) in the past.
For me, these requirements provided the roots to the benefits of accountability. While I was originally in the camp of those who protested, it was a small workshop with a wonderful speaker who changed my mind. While his full name and background escape me, his message has stuck with me ever since. For the sake of this post, let’s call him “Matthew.”
Matthew spoke at length about the importance of accountability and how educational leaders could embrace these reform efforts to make our schools a better place for children to learn and thrive. It might seem second nature to us now, but fifteen years ago, it was not nearly as common. The audience of principals was completely enthralled with his remarks, taking copious notes, and asking clarifying questions. I was also very interested in what Matthew was saying, however I was struggling with making the connection as to how we could apply it. It was then that a colleague of mine, a more senior and highly respected principal in our district, asked Matthew a question. This principal agreed that our school leaders needed to do more to advance achievement. However, he astutely pointed out that we were a diverse, largely blue collar school district. Many of our students came from unstable households that didn’t have the ability or wherewithal to provide an environment conducive to learning in the home. How are we supposed to improve the standardized tests scores of kids who are frequently absent, hungry, ignored at home, and/or disruptive in the classroom? Without missing a beat, Matthew responded. He moved closer to my colleague and in a soft voice asked, “What about this surprises you each day?”
Everyone was speechless. The entire group had an “a-ha moment” at once. We needed to stop falling in love with our daily problems and start addressing them. Step one was recognizing that we have a problem. Once we got passed the notion that we were one of the most downtrodden, underappreciated, overburdened districts districts in the state, we were able to turn our attention to addressing the areas that we could effect change and figuring out how to minimize the impact of the things outside of our control. For me, this was the beginning of my love affair with accountability.
At the middle level, educators spend a great deal of time talking to students about “preparing for high school.” We give long-term assignments that require research and proper format. Students are told to do their homework because it will not only help you practice the concepts, but it will also teach you about responsibility. While I could likely write an entire blog about the fallacy of this practice, it is the hypocrisy that arises from the result which bothers me the most. Far too often, the same educators who have this mindset of preparation, responsibility, and accountability, also protest when they are asked to do the same. “Do as I say, not as I do.”
Another memory from my early years as a principal was debating with teachers the merit of banning “White Out” in our school. Again, fifteen years ago the world was a different place. For all of you youngsters and hipsters, there used to be a liquid called “White Out,” which came in a bottle roughly the size of a nose spray container. When you unscrewed the cap, it pulled off to reveal a small brush or sponge that dipped into the milky white inky substance. You would use the brush to correct mistakes on paper made in ink. There was no backspace or spell check to fix our mistakes before we did everything digitally.
Anyway, back to the point: a small group of kids in our middle school were using “White Out” to deface property. Some were also inhaling the fumes in an attempt to get high. Because of this, a couple of teachers came to me wanting to ban “White Out” for the students. I rejected the request for reasons too numerous to mention here, but one was because teachers were allowed to have “White Out” in class to fix their mistakes. I asked how we could justify a ban for something that was “so dangerous” when we still allowed it in our school. You would think that I had kicked a puppy by the reaction that reason provoked out of the teachers. “Well I am an adult! I know how to properly use it.” My response, “So do they. But some of them choose not to use it properly.” My point was that if we want our kids to learn and appreciate accountability, then we need to model it. Whether it is “White Out,” water bottles, or smart phones, if kids cannot have them then adults should not have them either. The argument changes faces when you make that point.
So if you aren’t convinced by Matthew’s remarks or by my “White Out” anecdotes, let me try one final argument persuading you to embrace accountability. Think about the power struggles that take place over the course of a day in our schools. Students, parents, taxpayers, teachers, principals, central office staff, and school board members all play a role in various types of interactions taking place that often have implications across the district. As building principals, we are placed in the middle of these struggles, both large and small, more often than any other group. We are the “middle managers of education.” A few months ago, I was talking to a current colleague about just this topic and how much it takes away from what I am trying to accomplish. This fellow principal who I will call “Bob,” had a simple but effective manner for dealing with these situations. Simply stated, he embraces them. Bob gave me an example:
“Let’s say the bus driver shows up to see me and is angry about a couple of students eating lollipops on the bus. She comes in ready for a fight. I could easily try to argue that the lollipops were given out by our office staff when kids are extra helpful and polite. I could go on and on making the case for what we are trying to teach our kids about character and respect. But I don’t. Instead, I look her right in the eyes and tell her that I am shocked and that I will get to the bottom of this right away. She will never see another lollipop on her bus again. Disarmed before even getting a chance to fight, she leaves my office in less than a minute. Then I go and tell my office staff to switch to a jolly ranchers so the driver won’t see the lollipop sticks in the kids’ mouths when they get on the bus. Then I talk to my students about how there should not be candy on the bus. I keep my promise of no more lollipops and I get to allow my office staff to continue praising kids for good behavior. If a couple of kids forget, they at least won’t have the evidence sticking out for the driver to see.”
For me, this is how we should embrace accountability. Let’s disarm the complainers before they even get to our office and show that we are part of the solution. As school leaders, we should be on the front lines carrying the flag of accountability. When we make mistakes, we own them. Show both our teachers and students that we know we are not perfect. If those mistakes require consequences, we accept them proudly. More often than not, we should make ourselves accountable for their mistakes too.
If a teacher is doing an unsatisfactory job, isn’t it the principal’s responsibility to help them grow or to remove them if they do not? If a student violates a rule, shouldn’t we try to see how we could have helped prevent that violation from occurring by clarifying rules or providing more supervision? Whether it is for standardized test scores, student behavior, teacher quality, or if there is enough soap in the bathrooms, everything falls on our shoulders.
In The Godfather Part II, Hyman Roth is trying to explain to a much younger Michael Corleone that he has survived so long in the mob world that most of his friends were either in jail or dead. But then he says to Michael, “This is the business we have chosen.” The same is true for us. We have chosen to be school principals. Accountability is just one of the many facets of the job. We need to understand it, accept it, and embrace it as we strive to make a difference in the lives of our students.