Confronting Social Disadvantage

Poverty and Education (Part II)

Learning

This is a time of year when many students are preparing to graduate from college and join the work force. It’s a time when the gap between the have’s and the have not’s reveals social disadvantages. Students with social capital research opportunities in their field, apply for jobs, learn to network, prepare for interviews and receive support from their immediate social circle (parents, colleagues of parents, family friends, relatives, etc.). They get feedback to strengthen their resumes and guidance on what the job market wants. Students from backgrounds of poverty and others who are the first in their families to finish college need these opportunities too but may not be able to access them easily.

Are we preparing all students well enough to be successful when the time is right? If we give them a strong academic training, will they have the support structures that will open doors? If and when the doors open, will they have what it takes to step in? Students who live in poverty have many challenges to overcome. Are we doing enough to help them gain the tangible and intangible skills and qualities needed to be successful in college and beyond?

Recently, I shared these thoughts with a wise colleague who agreed that students need more than just a good education – they need to be prepared to seize opportunities when doors open for them. She restated my thoughts very simply.

“When opportunity knocks, will they be ready?” — Zula Barnett, Teacher

At a time when unemployment is an issue, potential employers are complaining about an unprepared workforce. Schools have a dual role – to give students the knowledge base that will allow them to choose a college education and gain the ‘hard skills’ the job market needs, and to help them gain the ‘soft skills’ or intangible qualities that will help them succeed in these settings. Schools need to do three things to level the playing field:

(1) Set a high bar for quality work. This will be an expectation in college and later in the work place, so we need to start early, have high expectations and support students in meeting them. This means no shortcuts. We must ask for quality work and not give kids a pass simply for showing up or putting in the effort. We must show them what high standards look like so they understand our expectations and then support them in reaching that level of quality in their work.

(2) Guide students in being courteous, caring, cheerful, empathetic, pleasant, positive, and hard working. We need to teach them how to present themselves with regard to their appearance, verbal skills and writing skills in contexts of opportunity. We need to give them opportunities to engage in teams.

(3) Build connections within the community so that employers become more intentional about reaching out and bringing opportunities to students from backgrounds of disadvantage. When businesses partner with schools to bring in mentors, tutors and volunteers, relationships are built which can lead to networking opportunities as students grow older.

When I hire new staff I search for soft skills – a positive tone, a cheerful attitude, an interest in connecting with others, an enthusiastic spirit and a sense of humor. These are the intangibles that sway my decision. These qualities lift my team and strengthen its resilience. I can train reasonably competent people in the hard skills they will need to do their jobs well.  I can’t say the same about soft skills which are learned and integrated early in life. In every grade, if we make a concerted effort to model these intangible skills in our own behavior, and expect them from students, I have no doubt that these qualities will become ingrained in the culture of our schools, and spill over into society.

We are coaching kids for the game of life! School is about more than just academics. We must be purposeful about growing the soft skills students will need for the rest of their lives. When opportunity knocks, will our kids be able to step out and compete directly with their privileged peers? I hope we make sure that the answer is a resounding yes.

The Details that Stick in My Mind

Poverty and Education (Part I)

The school bell rang and a new day had started. Fifteen minutes later, a kid came to the clinic writhing in pain. He couldn’t sit, he couldn’t stand, he couldn’t lie down. He clutched his middle and was in absolute agony. We called his mother and she said she would pick him up and take him to the hospital. The minutes ticked by and we wondered where she was. Ten… fifteen… twenty… When she arrived, we learned that she didn’t have a car. She had walked from her home to the school. A staff member drove them to the hospital which happened to be just down the street. We hoped it wasn’t something serious, but were scared that it might be. In less than an hour, mother and son were back at our school. We learned of his ailment – hunger pangs! That night, I told my family about the little boy and we cried at our dinner table. This happened seven years ago, but it plays out in my mind even today in minute detail. I was in an urban school with high poverty and the lessons I learned that year were ones for which I had no reference point.

I grew up in India and am not unfamiliar with poverty, but seeing it in America, the land of plenty, continues to surprise me. In 1989, when I arrived in the US , I had no knowledge of poverty and homelessness in this country. That changed quickly! I remember standing outside an ice-cream shop in Boston when a man walked up and asked my husband for a cigarette. Then he turned to me, pointed to my ice-cream cone and said, “I’ll take one of those too.” He laughed and walked away. I asked my husband if he knew this man and learned that he was quite likely homeless. I was shocked. A few days later, a man begging outside an ATM kiosk said, “Spare a rupee, ma’am.” I gave him a ten dollar bill – probably because of his cheeky grin!

In India, we have the ‘educated unemployed’ – people with college degrees and no jobs. I was naive enough to think that couldn’t happen in the US! You see, in India, you could be Bill Gates and there would be people begging right outside your home. You would encounter slums and see images of poverty every day. In the US, there are freeways and highways that take us away from inner city areas and it’s possible to live your life here and never pass through poverty-stricken neighborhoods.

I was in graduate school at Boston University, studying special education and I remember taking the ‘T’ and then a bus to go to the Boston University Medical Library to read some articles for a paper on Phenylketonuria (PKU). Ah, the inconsequential little details that stick in our minds! Halfway through the trip, I felt like I was entering a different world from the one I lived in. Was I still in Boston? I was stunned to see a landscape completely alien to my year-long experience in Boston. I couldn’t understand how this level of poverty was possible in America. I couldn’t understand how it was that I didn’t know this neighborhood existed even though I thought I had traveled ‘so much’ around Boston. I had just seen tremendous poverty in America and had no reference point in my experiences to understand it.

Years later, I continued to learn about poverty as I worked with students in public schools in Iowa and Indiana. I remember driving to school with my six year-old son. NPR’s Morning Edition kept us company and this time they were broadcasting a piece on poverty. My son, who was apparently listening intently, chimed in from the back seat saying, “But, mummy, there are no poor people in America.” I tried explaining to him that some of my students lived in poor neighborhoods. That afternoon as we drove back home I showed him run-down neighborhoods, homes with tiny yards, boarded-up windows… and he said, “They are not poor. They have houses.” He had seen poverty and slums in India – people with no food, shelter, clothing, no clean drinking water or access to toilets – and in his little mind he had defined poverty through that lens. He had no reference point for poverty in America.

Working in public schools, I  learned about free and reduced lunches, food stamps, homeless shelters and hunger. Eventually, I learned that my heart thrives in an urban school setting. This is the place I call my ‘professional home’. In the school I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I sensed that the cafeteria had a different feel to it. I couldn’t figure out what was different. Eventually, I realized that the kids ate everything that was on their lunch trays. No one was throwing out unopened cartons of milk or cups of fruit. They ate every last bit of broccoli and peas. I had worked in other schools where this was not the case – where good food was simply thrown in the trash. This was different – in a not-so-good way – because I now realized that hunger pangs could easily be an issue for many, many more kids.

A few days before Thanksgiving break, a teacher called me to her classroom. A student had ‘shut down’. He refused to do the work assigned to him. He didn’t disrupt the class but he was certainly non-compliant. I brought him to the office and tried to see what was bothering him. Kind words, caring questions – he refused to respond. He was not disrespectful. He just would not look at me or speak to me. His eyes filled with tears but they didn’t trickle down his cheek. He was bravely holding them back. It broke my heart and I felt helpless. I gave him a few minutes to pull himself together thinking that might help. When I returned, I found he had had crumpled and torn the paper on his desk and it was now littered all around his chair. His head was in his hands and he still refused to talk to me. Just then, a teacher walked by. She said, “Mrs. Balagopal, would you mind if _____ comes and helps me in my classroom? He was in my class last year and he will be fine with me.” I asked him if he wanted to do that, and he nodded quietly. She asked him to go ahead and she stayed back to share a few words. She wanted me to know that I might see students ‘falling apart’ just before breaks – long weekends, holidays and summer vacations. She shared that in school they had access to two meals which were likely their ‘biggest’ meals each day. She had learned that student behavior often worsened when breaks were approaching. In the days ahead, they would not have these meals to rely on. We now know that trauma affects kids in many ways. I would never know the reason why the student shut down, but this teacher taught me a big lesson that day!

Throughout the summer vacation, each year, my school district provides breakfast and lunches to children and they even bring it to some of the apartment complexes in our neighborhoods. Every Friday, my school, and many others provide students with Back Sacks from Gleaners, the local food bank – a bag of food for kids to take home  so they can have access to meals over the weekend. Euphemistically, we call this program the Nutrition Club, so that students don’t feel singled out! The last day of school before winter break was on a Thursday. Our school secretary said that dozens of kids had come to the office all day asking, “Today is Thursday and we don’t have school tomorrow. Will you have the Nutrition Club today?” What, I wondered, would they do after the food was gone in a couple of days? Students new to our school are not shy about asking if we have a Nutrition Club. “We had it in our old school. Can we join it here?” We wish we didn’t have a cap on the number of students who can be in the ‘club’.

These stories, and many, many more stick in my mind. I’m learning to deal with it in America, even though I don’t understand it. Yes, I saw a lot of poverty in India and so this shouldn’t surprise me. However, having lived here for over two decades now, it feels personal because I know these kids. I know their names and some of the stories from their lives. They are now my stories too because for 7 hours a day, 181 days of each school year, these kids belong to me. I want to make a difference in their lives. I know that their lives are complex, and I lack a magic wand, but I have the power of my thoughts, my ideas, my words… and I can reflect on their stories to shape the work I do and that my school does for them each day.

In this and subsequent posts, I hope to share the lessons I’ve learned from the stories that are stuck in my mind. This is not about the research that others have done on the connection between poverty and education. I want to pen my reflections on the lessons I’ve learned along the way and what can make a difference in the educational experiences of these children. In urban schools, we ‘battle’ the effects of poverty on a daily basis and it can wear us down pretty quickly. Imagine how worn out we might be if we were the ones living in poverty! It’s easy to become cynical about the things we see in our schools and the challenges we face. This set of posts aims to bust that cynicism by thinking of what is possible, by framing ideas in terms of what we can do, what we should do and what we would do were these kids our own! I hope you’ll tag along on this journey!

“Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.” — James A. Baldwin

On Letter Grades for Schools…

This week, I was in the Indiana Statehouse to exercise my civic duty. I provided testimony before the Indiana Senate Education Committee on a bill that voids the A-F ratings of school performance and creates room for new and more meaningful designations – a topic that affects every school and district in the state. I was honored to represent the voice of our district and other educators around the state.

Accountability is important. So is helping parents make informed decisions about the best educational options for their children. Doing it clearly, fairly and transparently is critical. What we have currently is a complex formula. The report card is more a label than something that can lead to action. It rolls achievement and growth measures into one letter which makes schools that are making a positive difference look like they are failing schools. Another principal providing testimony at the hearing shared that a visitor to her school, impressed with the learning environment and shocked to learn that the school had an F rating had quipped – “Then ‘F’ must stand for ‘Fabulous’.”

Recently, my school was accredited as an International Baccalaureate World School after three years of rigorous work. Parent involvement is high. We have tremendous socio-economic, ethnic and geographic diversity. As our demographic diversity grew, so did our scores! We hold ourselves accountable, not because of any legislation, but simply because children deserve nothing less.

When parents arrive unannounced for a tour, they often say they can’t believe we have 720 students because the hallways are quiet. They are impressed with how students are engaged with learning in every classroom they visit. They often speak of the warm and welcoming tone they sense in our school. They say they can tell the grown-ups care about the kids, and compliment us on the student work they see showcased throughout our school… and our test scores.

Our students take the state tests in the spring semester. In the end of October, when we were expecting one letter grade from the state, we were quite surprised to receive 3 instead, calculated using different criteria. The state rated us C-C-C for the last three years. In our book, that says nothing has changed. You have not grown. Things are static at your school. A single letter repeated three times put our efforts over the past three years into one tidy little box which implied all those things and hid what we do for children. I couldn’t explain in simple English how the ratings were calculated. The morale of my team was shot. I told them, “Look, no one came and gave us a pat on the back when our scores increased by 10% in just one year, so let’s just get on with our jobs.” Easier said than done. Why is this a problem? Let’s look at it through a different lens.

Let’s say a parent gets their child’s report card from our school and all it has is one letter grade – a C. They are puzzled, and say, “What does this C mean?”  We tell them it’s how their child’s progress is rated at our school. “How did you get to this letter grade?” they ask. We say, “Well, it’s a really complex formula.” If this were true, I would hope those parents would yank their kids out of our school right away and go somewhere else where the teachers could tell them how their children were doing in different academic subjects, the creative arts and social development. If a potential employer saw a college graduate’s transcript with only one letter to indicate his/her qualifications, they would probably look somewhere else to hire a someone whose competence is clearly apparent. It doesn’t make sense anywhere else. Why do we do this to public schools?

If a car dealer took April’s sales figures and gave the sales report to his employees in November, his business wouldn’t run for long. Yet spring data for schools reappears in the end of October as a report card after we are well into the new school year. If I went to a doctor who spoke in complex medical jargon and couldn’t explain what it meant, I would quickly look for a different doctor. Parents experience our school and are unable to connect the dots to see the C grade that we received. There are National Blue Ribbon Schools that have received poor letter grades despite maintaining their high standards. The A-F grades are not timely and not easy to understand either.

Public schools are an incredible resource in America, and yes, they face many challenges. The solution is not to undermine them or do away with them. One hears a lot of verbal bashing of educators – the people who hold the future of the country in their hands. Having made my second home in schools, I have seen incredibly talented educators work very hard to inspire students, partner with parents and provide tremendous instructional programs and supports. Just as we work hard to inspire every child who walks through our doors regardless of the visible and invisible baggage they bring in, we need our elected leaders to support and inspire us to do our best whether we teach children of wealthy parents or the poorest of the poor. That begins with taking data about each school’s performance, analyzing it, and giving it back to us in a way that allows us to do something meaningful with it. There’s nothing in the current letter grade that allows my staff to set goals or determine instructional changes. 

One letter on a school’s report card cannot give parents information that will allow them to compare the performance of multiple schools any more than one letter on a child’s report card can give them information about how their child is doing in multiple subjects. Information about a school’s performance must be provided in a way that is fair and can be explained. Many beautiful gems are trapped behind single letters assigned to schools that don’t say much, but imply a lot. It’s time to do away with the A-F letter grades and share school improvement stories in a way that makes sense. Our kids deserve nothing less.

The bill was passed unanimously and I look forward to seeing how this story unfolds in the months ahead.

(This post is based on testimony I provided at the hearing.)

Learning & Leading

I changed the tag line of my blog today. It used to be… ‘Thoughts About Learning and Growing’. I had those words on the covers of binders, journals and notebooks. It feels like I started just yesterday as a principal, yet all the trials, challenges and successes make me realize that I’ve spent almost a decade as a school leader. Right from the start, I knew I would be learning and growing. I had trained for this role when, as a teacher, I felt my job was on auto-pilot. I was ready for new challenges.

“Leadership is a scary thing. That’s why few people want to stand up to the plate… There are many people who want to be matadors, only to find themselves in the ring with 2,000 pounds of bull bearing down on them, and then discover that what they really wanted was to wear tight pants and hear the crowd roar” — Steve Farber

Oh! I know what that feels like! I said I wanted challenges and they came my way! There are all kinds of issues that crop up on a regular basis. A principal connects with a variety of stakeholders and each group has its own take on what is needed from the school. So the school leader is pulled in different directions while always having to maintain a steady focus on what is important (our goals), and remembering that all of these stakeholders are important to the school.

When I took this job, I had some things that were important – relationships, respect and responsibility, then after some years on the job I added rigor and resilience. These five R’s still ground my work. I’ve always loved a challenge. It gets me into problem-solving mode. Throw something tough at me and I’ll tackle it. Sometimes, it may feel like I have 2000 pounds of bull charging after me, but I always walk away, perhaps not unscathed, but each time having learned how to be a better matador!

“Leadership is a personal quest you undertake, based on mission that troubles your heart.” — Harriet Rubin

Yes, it was a personal quest – to advocate for children and educators. I enjoyed engaging with problems and finding solutions. I was directly involved in making the learning environment more effective. I partnered with my team to streamline our work. Reviewing, reflecting and revising what we did became second nature. At the same time I was starting to learn about leadership. I read books by people in the business world and happily enough, I learned that their work was in sync with my R’s. In addition to learning about curriculum and instruction, I was learning about how other people led their organizations, and their work influenced my role as a leader. I was learning and growing.

Today, the world of education is shifting and changing. I don’t have a problem with standards and accountability, however, now there are regulations that affect what educators do – it feels like we’re working inside a box. Merit pay is now part of our world and the relationships I worked hard to build over the years seem to be disintegrating. I have always seen myself as one among the team, and it feels like that’s changing. Now I am the evaluator whose hand is on the livelihood of the state’s employees! So much for shared leadership and connecting with my team, huh? I still believe in those things. They now see me differently. They see the role, not the person – I am the principal, not a colleague who can partner with them. There is less that I can do directly as a leader on a curricular and instructional level as well. My job is less about charting the course, and more about following the Trip Tik. I can determine the stops along the way but the path is set.

Well, not everything is wrong about this… in many cases, what is determined is good for students. Yet, what drew me to my work – my interest in engaging with challenges and finding solutions to address them – has morphed into something where the solutions are set by others. As someone reminded me, this is how many teachers feel across the country. No doubt, leaders of districts feel hemmed in as well, because what’s happening in the field of education affects them too.

There are days when this gets me down and I have to remind myself to keep my chin up! I wondered one day about the notion of learning and growing… how would growing help me in an arena where I have responsibility without much authority to do more than influence? What was my new challenge now and how could I tackle it?

“When we are doing something we’re passionate about, failure becomes a non-issue… Pursuit of a dream rarely leads to regrets… Too many of those with unrealized aspirations have set them aside due to fear of failure” — Farson and Keyes

It’s a long weekend, thanks to Presidents’ Day, and my thoughts kept me company as I puttered about the house doing the things I don’t get a chance to do on school days. Mulling over the lay of the land in education and seeing how I still fit in it was a helpful exercise. After the required whining (to self) about the things that bug me, I thought about what had not changed. I still love my job as a school principal. I still want to advocate for students and help them see the possibilities that lie ahead. I still love connecting with the people in my ‘school’ life. I still want to partner with my team to meet and exceed our goals. I still thrive on challenges and will always love learning.

I realized that to feel I can contribute in education I now have to redefine how I see my job. It’s no longer sufficient to think that building relationships will be a stepping stone towards partnering with my team in this arena of merit pay. I have to learn how to lead in a new atmosphere where educators feel like they are collectively under fire. It’s now about finding a way to ensure that the people at my school feel challenged to do their best every day and believe they’re getting a fair shake – I need to remember that time is an important variable in this. It’s about maintaining the R’s that ground my work and making them more transparent. It’s about realizing that when I feel boxed in, I have an even more important challenge – leading with my beliefs intact in an atmosphere where what I did before might not work. It’s about finding a way to solidify the trust I have earned over time, which now seems to be on shaky ground because of circumstances over which I have no control.

Therein lies the story of the change in the name of my blog. It now reads: From the Principal’s Pen… Thoughts About Learning and Leading. The learning still comes first. And leading… well it’s a fascinating challenge with new dimensions and I will continue to tackle it!

Giving Kids a Chance

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When I started out as a special education teacher, people often said things like, “That is such a noble thing to do.” “You must be such a patient person.” I loved my job. I was trained for it and gained expertise over time. Noble? I didn’t subscribe to that notion. And as far as being patient, I would respond that I was actually quite impatient when it came to wanting my students to learn and succeed!

Teaching is not an easy job. There is a lot that educators want to accomplish and many hurdles stand in the way of our students as they engage in learning experiences. There are hurdles that educators can control and others that they can influence. Still other hurdles persist stubbornly. There are times when we feel like we’re hitting our heads against the proverbial wall and other times when we would like to wave a magic wand and level the playing field for our students.

School reopened yesterday. I love the spring semester because it’s a time when my team works towards wrapping up the year on a successful note while also beginning to prepare for the next school year. At this point, we are gauging how our students have performed since the fall, and we make important decisions to channel their learning and get them ready for a strong finish. We’re halfway through our school year marathon!

My theme for this semester is going to be “Give the kids a chance!” It’s not about diluting the learning environment for kids… it’s about keeping the bar high but being more thoughtful about them as learners. Where did this come from? Well, I’ve been involved in learning something new over break and as a result, received an important, impromptu orientation to the challenges associated with the concept of ‘learning’.

I’ve always wanted to learn to play the guitar. A month ago, I told my husband that in my next life, I’d like to learn to play this wonderful instrument. In his inimitable style, he asked me what was wrong with this life! So, a couple of weeks ago, I ordered Alfred’s Basic Guitar Method and a few days after it arrived, I bought my very first guitar – a used guitar with a lovely sound. Now, I’m learning to figure out notes on the staff, and saying “ouch” as my fingers experience the joy of developing callouses on the guitar strings! Over the weekend, I found myself putting off practicing… I had remembered the pain from the last time I’d picked up the guitar! Thankfully, I recognized that this avoidance was a temporary phase. I chose to purchase the guitar because I wanted to play it, knowing well that it wouldn’t be easy. I also knew that I would persevere.

When I think of the kids who walk into our school every day, I wonder about their learning experiences. They may not literally develop callouses but they still experience challenges. I found myself wondering if, as adults, we are a little removed from the actual experience of learning. Yes, we continue to learn in many ways and now recognize the joys of small and big gains. But do we remember and understand the angst that often accompanies new learning? A sense of avoidance, feeling of monotony, struggle of repetitive practice, awareness of defeat, the effort to persevere, the challenge of seeing connections and figuring things out, impatience with small gains… all of this and more show up before learners experience success. I’ve forgotten how much easier it was for the younger Subha to understand and figure out geometry vs. chemistry, how writing was so much more enjoyable for me than math. There are things that we have an aptitude for and other things we can master if we sweat over them. Oh, how I hate sweating!

As educators, we know a lot about what works in education, but, do we remember the struggles learners experience along the way? Growing up in India, I learned music for about 15 years. I used to perform on stage and I was pretty good at it. Yet, western musical notations make me feel completely ignorant about music. So much for background knowledge, huh? Not exactly, because background knowledge becomes useful if we can find a way to connect it to the new concepts we are learning. So, I’m working on creating connections to bridge what I knew then with what I am learning now. I know it will work for me because now I know more about how I learn and what works for me in the learning process. It won’t be easy, but I know I will make progress.

As adults we all know how tough change is – changes in curriculum, changes in team members, changes in routine – they can all shake our world, cause high levels of stress and put us in a situation where we have to shift gears and learn. Adults often protest ‘change’. But isn’t change after all simply about learning? Learning to adapt in a situation that is new or different, learning to respond to new circumstances or ideas, learning to deal with the new dynamics within our teams. Change seems tough when we have to ‘change’ what we are used to doing. It requires us to learn something new or respond in a different way than we have in the past. Yet, interestingly enough, we don’t call it a ‘learning’ experience. We use the term ‘change’ as though it is an obstacle that we adults have to work through – something that is done to us.

However, when it comes to the world of our students, we don’t call what they experience ‘change’. We speak about ‘learning’ when they are part of the context, as though it is something natural that they should experience and be able to handle because we have taught them what they need to know. The truth is that it’s not so simple. Kids have to deal with ‘change’ in their learning environment – new subjects, new concepts, new friends, new teachers every year who introduce new routines, new contexts and experiences as well as new struggles that will hopefully translate into success.

Learning does not have to be a negative experience. It’s worth remembering that ‘growing pains’ affect kids well beyond the muscle pain associated with this term. ‘Giving the kids a chance’ is something that has new meaning for me right now. I want my team to continue to push our students to aim higher and excel. I also hope that we will be thoughtful and more purposeful about working to help children experience success more frequently, so that they see learning as more than just a collection of struggles and challenges to avoid. Learning is an incredibly rewarding experience, yet it is also pretty complicated given that students arrive at their learning experiences from different places.

As we move towards the outcomes we seek for the end of the year – students attaining and exceeding the goals we have set for them – it becomes important for us to pause and reflect on how learning experiences do not unfold smoothly and effortlessly for students despite our best efforts. Indeed, our aim does not have to be about making learning ‘easy’. It has to be about making learning meaningful. For me, that happens when educators remember that students experience learning in different ways, and often travel on tough and bumpy roads. Our role is to read their journey and help them keep moving in the right direction until their reach first one destination and then another.

“The learning and knowledge that we have, is, at the most, but little compared with that of which we are ignorant.” — Plato

I hope that my team and I will keep this theme in mind as the high we’re feeling now with batteries recharged after a restful winter break slides into moments when we feel like the climb uphill is getting steeper – when we’re hitting our heads against the wall. It would be useful to pause and recognize what students experience as they engage with learning in our classrooms, and respond sensitively to their experiences before we judge them negatively (as unmotivated, apathetic, careless, inattentive and indifferent). I hope in those moments we will look inward and try to remember how we feel when we are learning something new that doesn’t come easily for us. Perhaps, a sense of empathy will allow us to give a new lease to the learning environment in our classrooms,  stretch our students and help them excel.

Inspired by the Odyssey Initiative

Every January, as I step into a brand new year, I find it rewarding to think back to the previous year and consider things that touched my life and my work. Not unlike the Time ‘Person of the Year’ I find myself considering Subha’s ‘Experience of the Year’, and typically, there are many. There are the ups and downs, joys (our public school recently became an International Baccalaureate World School) and sorrows (a student, parent and staff member passed away last year while other kids battled life-threatening illnesses)… moments that knock us down, moments that help us bounce back and others that lift us up and bring us right back to the entrance to our school with our batteries recharged and our spirits energized. Each experience touched the little world of our school in important ways, helped us learn about each other and the important work we do for children, and sometimes brought us closer together as a school community. I have learned from every one of those experiences and grown a little stronger and more resilient. Here, I want to reflect on one experience that was unexpected, yet incredibly energizing and rewarding.

During the fall semester, a group of educators from the Odyssey Initiative, contacted me to ask about visiting my elementary school in Indiana. Three teachers, Michelle Healy, Brooke Peters and Todd Sutler were on an exciting journey, traveling to schools around the country to study practices that work before working on setting up their own school in Brooklyn, New York. They were accompanied by Nikki Heyman, who is filming their odyssey. I thought their project was wonderful and even before I met them, wished I was on that journey with them! Their mission and core beliefs were simple and insightful. They wanted to observe and document best practices, then adapt them to use in a school they plan to open open in a couple of years. I was eager to meet them.

They impressed me from the start. They had an agenda to maximize what they could accomplish in the few hours that they were at our school. They toured the building, visited a couple of classrooms to observe lessons, met with the teachers and interviewed them, and then met with me for an interview as well. They had a clear focus – like detectives following clues to solve mysteries (such as what constitutes good instruction). They reminded me of avid jigsaw puzzle junkies who can’t resist putting together pictures that look simple but are quite complex – pictures that come together as these puzzle enthusiasts consider nuances that will build the connections to lead them from part to whole. Some connections would be those Aha! moments, others would grow from careful reflection. Michelle, Brooke and Todd were doing this as they engaged with our school.

“The road of life twists and turns and no two directions are ever the same. Yet our lessons come from the journey, not the destination.” — Don Williams, Jr., American Novelist and Poet

I’ve learned that the best teachers are terrific observers of kids and the learning process. They know where they are heading and what they are looking for. They can gauge what is going on, figure out what needs to be done next and shift gears as necessary as they reflect on, revise and refine what they are doing continuously. Perhaps you wondered why I used the term ‘solve mysteries’ above, when I referred to what constitutes good instruction. We know a lot today about good educational practices, but you see, knowing what to do and when to do it are two completely different things. We can have a lot of tools in our tool belt, but we need to use them at the right time and in the right context. It is important to have knowledge of sound instructional strategies and also critical to know when each should be pulled out and used. As such, teaching and reflecting are absolutely inseparable. Kids benefit when educators do this seamlessly. And for all that we talk about high stakes testing and accountability these days as though they are tough pills to swallow, all they are asking for is that educators be reflective practitioners. I’ve always believed that if we teach kids using best practices and teach them how to learn, the tests will take care of themselves. Using best practices however, is not simple. There are nuances to it that are tied to numerous dynamics. However, there are educators in schools who are keeping up with their own professional learning and making this happen day after day for kids.  Brooke, Michelle and Todd are visiting schools around the country, to document how this unfolds and thankfully, not keeping the knowledge to themselves. They are sharing it with the larger educational community. They plan to open a school in 2014, yet the journey is where they are gathering the seeds to sow for their school.

Their visit was interesting. They knew what they wanted to do, they came in with an organized agenda of what they wanted to see, and had thoughtfully constructed questions to make their respondents reflect on the beliefs that drive actions. When they left, I felt like I had been grilled! But, I had learned a little more about my school through their eyes and more about my role as a principal. They had asked some tough and interesting questions. I am someone who likes to let ideas marinade in my head over time. Yes, on a daily basis, I make decisions quickly based on beliefs that ground my work, however responding to questions is a different matter. How does one reflect on the run, one question after another? They had made me dig a little deeper into the why’s  of my work, and the wheels were turning in my head long after they left. Some weeks later, I read the first post they had written about their visit, describing a lesson they had observed in one of our classrooms. It was a beautiful piece – a description of a work of art revealed through the eyes of the viewer – they had translated an hour-long snapshot of the teacher’s craft and revealed aspects that had made it a compelling and meaningful lesson. They showed how the lesson had hooked students into the process of learning.

I’ve always believed in the power of writing as an amazing vehicle to communicate ideas. This team of educators does a masterful job of showcasing their talent through the writing in their blog posts on the Odyssey Initiative’s website – posts that not only document effective instructional practices but are made stronger because of the reflections of the authors.  Their main page showcases featured articles and video clips. To experience their journey, click on the map on their main website and then scroll down to travel with them from one state to the next, from school to school, and educator to educator – to read well-written descriptions and view video clips from their journey. You will be inspired by the teachers and school leaders they’ve met, learn from their experiences, and more importantly (as one of my teachers commented) experience a validation of your beliefs about the best in schooling. You will head back to work with your batteries recharged (as mine are again just from writing this post).

The Odyssey Initiative’s visit was, for me, the highlight of 2012. I must admit, I wish I could have taken a year to travel with them and learn about education in the best way possible, by visiting schools and watching solid teaching and learning in action. On the other hand, their visit became memorable because they impressed me in the few hours I met them as educators who had a sense of purpose about their journey. They were not just visiting schools. They were inquiring into important aspects of schools – how they work and run for kids – in a meaningful and structured manner. They knew what they were looking for and had excellent questions. They were on a journey of learning – after all, learning never ends. They write beautifully about the teaching they have observed and a field I love. Their enthusiasm is infectious and energizing. They reinforced my belief in the power of educators to make a difference – not just for children but for our profession. As much as I look forward to learning about the school they plan to open, I believe they have at least a book or more they can write about their journey. And while a book might not be ready as yet, their website is. I hope you will visit and join them on their journey. I am confident you’ll be hooked! It’s worth going back again and again — I know I will do this to vicariously join them in their travels.

Bon voyage, Michelle, Brooke, Todd and Nikki! 

Y buena suerte…

Learning and Leading

I have found that spending a day learning is a great way to renew my interest and belief in the things that are important to me. It could be a great day of learning when I am inspired by a someone or something (a book, movie, etc.) or perhaps a day when I might disagree with what I’ve heard or read, and learn anyway! Either way, if my brain starts humming, I know something good will come from that experience. Today I attended a conference and spent the entire day learning from a talented educator whose work resonated with me and helped me work through something I’ve been wrestling with recently.

I believe that the most important aspect of my job is to help my team members be the best they can be. I am also a principal in a state where teacher evaluations have been revamped and will soon be linked to their salaries. Naturally, this is new and unnerving for many educators who worry about how this will affect them. Will their evaluators gauge their work fairly? Will they know what they need to work on in a timely manner? They wonder what kind of an impact this system will have on their careers and lives. On the other side of the equation, I believe this system has raised the bar for school leaders with regard to how we conduct evaluations. We must continue to focus on helping teachers be the best they can be, without going into what I call ‘gotcha’ mode. My assistant principal and I have talked a lot about this and tried to communicate to teachers that we’re not interested in doing the punitive ‘gotcha’ thing. We want to partner with them in meaningful ways so that our team continues to gain strength and raise student achievement by doing the things we are charged to do, without being punitive. Yet, we realize that until this school year unfolds and people can gauge our actions, they will only have our words to rely on. Change is not easy. And, when it has the potential to affect our purse-strings negatively, it may cause stress and anxiety, and affect trust between the parties.

In my book, accountability is not a bad word. Increasing student achievement and helping students achieve success at the highest levels is a non-negotiable goal. Advocating for all children to be able to have access to opportunities that will allow them to dream big and aim high is a worthy aim. Preparing them to be able to do whatever they want to do when they grow up is, to me, why schools exist. I want to make sure that these are not diluted in any way for children and by the same token, something in me says helping teachers improve what they do is also about making a difference.

Enter Robyn Jackson, founder of Mindsteps Inc., who has strong beliefs about the core principles that should ground teaching and learning. I had read some of her books over the past year and found her work engaging and inspiring. She had three different presentations at the conference I attended today. I made it a ‘learn from Robyn Jackson’ day, and I am glad I did! What I learned today will allow me to structure the conversations I have with my team and meet the guidelines of the new evaluation system while continuing to honor the beliefs that undergird my work.

She gave a simple and important point as the rationale for her work. If we believe every child can learn and succeed (and we should believe this unequivocally), then by the same token, we should believe that every teacher can teach at the highest levels. Today she shared her belief that every child deserves to be taught by a master teacher and that any teacher can become a master teacher with the right support, guidance and practice. She engaged us with her ideas about how strategic conversations between supervisors and teachers have the potential to help teachers hone their skills and refine their practice.

Why is this valuable to me? If I want my teachers to believe that every child can learn and if I want them to find ways to reach children and help them succeed, then in my role as an instructional leader, I must believe that every teacher deserves the same from me. I have to find ways to support them and help them succeed. I have to find a way to help them be the best they can be and help every child succeed. Just as I don’t want anyone on my staff to give up on kids, I must ensure that my assistant principal and I don’t give up on our teachers. What I like about Robyn Jackson’s book is that it gives us a structured framework to guide the work we do with our team members – to work thoughtfully as we support them in achieving their goals.

An important aspect of her message is about encouraging supervisors to have a series of strategic conversations that support teachers in increasing the effectiveness of instruction. These conversations will likely happen outside the realm of evaluation observations and meetings. However, by engaging in them, supervisors have the opportunity to influence the quality of instructional practices. This is bound to help with bringing ‘no surprises’ during the evaluation. It is how we would want our own work to be evaluated.

I’ve often said that we are collectively responsible for increasing student achievement, and that I want to partner with my staff – “We’re all in this together.” However, in a high-stakes environment, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them see this as just words. Robyn Jackson’s comments about wanting to find a ‘different way’ to supervise her team resonated with me because to her, the other way simply had a punitive ring to it. She reminded us about the reasons why people embrace a career in education and reiterated the idea that we need to consciously structure our schools so that those reasons remain alive even as educators continue their journey, year after year. We want teachers to inspire students. Don’t we as school leaders have a charge to inspire our teachers?

My professor and mentor, Dr. Terrell once said, “Take care of teachers, and they’ll take care of kids.” I remember his words often on the job. Dr. Jackson reminded me today of why I became a principal and helped me renew my commitment to the goal of supporting teachers to be the best they can be. She gave me a road map with her framework for engaging in strategic conversations with teachers. I will still need to figure out which turns to take, whether I will travel quickly on highways, or drive more patiently down country roads, whether I will get to my destination quickly or if the situation warrants a more measured pace. Either way, she has given me a structure to chart a course towards differentiating leadership and supporting team members meaningfully, while holding on tightly to my beliefs. For that I am grateful.