Reflections After the Hardest Year

Reflections After the Hardest Year

Colleagues,

Do you feel like this year has been your toughest year in education? If you do, then you are not alone. I have too many days to count this year wondering what has made this year even harder than the last.

As this school year is quickly coming to an end, I have been reflecting on my career, the educational system as a whole, and where children are academically, socially, and emotionally. Each of these components to my work weigh heavily on my heart. In my role as an Assistant Principal, I make decisions that will drive my career forward as a life long learner, make decisions that have the potential to impact thousands of students, and have interactions with dozens of students a week where I see where they are in all areas of learning and growing as young adults. Some days, the job can feel overwhelming due to our current climate, so here are my takeaways as I begin planning for the next school year.

Passion Drives Progress

I recently spoke with a fellow educator and he asked me what is something about me that he would not find on a piece of paper? I thought about this for a minute, all of my accomplishments or ideas you can easily find on documents that I have worked on in the last 10 years. What I decided to share was my passion for education. It is hard to put into words when you are truly passionate about something. When that passion is what you think about first thing in the morning, gets you through the tough days, and occasionally keeps you up at night thinking about how you can do better.

This is how I feel about education. It is my driving passion. I obviously love my children and my husband and they are also a huge reason I do what I do. But outside of my family, what personally motivates me is my passion for education. This includes wanting to find the best ways to nurture the developing minds of children, creating a positive and healthy work environment, and brining in innovative ways to further teaching in the 21st century. I spend my days reading and day dreaming about what more can we do for education in America. Although some days I feel discouraged, more often than not, I feel inspired and ready to face another day.

Trusting Work Places

My husband started his first year in education and I have to be honest, there have been many nights that I have had a smug look on my face when he comes home utterly exhausted and has nothing else to give for that day. I may have said a time or two “Glad you know what I have been talking about for the last 10 years… teaching is exhausting!” We always say that when you come to work you have to leave your baggage at the door and be ready with a smile on your face for your students and coworkers.

This is very emotionally and physically draining and that it is essential that you have a trusting work place, one that has coworkers who are there for you when you are having a rough day to help lift you up. A trusting place that when you need a minute to talk through the hard things, that you can leave knowing you have spoken in confidence. A trusting place that you know that the people around you are there to support you and help you grow as an educator.

There are plenty of negative comments circulating in the news and on social media about teachers and education. Education is under a microscope right now — what books are in the library, what standards are being taught, what curriculum is being used, what is the districts stand on these hot topics… I am hopeful that things will be easier next year, but this job is hard enough. We must support one another and create a safe and trusting environment so that educators have the mental and physical energy to give students their absolute best.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

I knew Maslow was on to something with his hierarchy of needs, but it has become abundantly clear in the last two years that without basic needs, safety, and belonging being met for not only students but teachers, then personal growth and learning cannot take place. Teacher burnout and student discipline are both at an all time high, instead of putting more on teachers and students plates, we need to start with the basics.

What I have seen these past two years is that schools had to pivot within the matter of days from in person teaching to remote teaching. This was unavoidable and a part of being in a global pandemic. What schools would have implemented slowly over the course of years was implemented in days. Since then, we have been adding more and more to teachers with blended learning and constantly changing policies and procedures.

I keep hearing “we have to go back to how things were before COVID” but this is just not a realistic statement. The pandemic changed how we do education, so instead of trying to go back we need to start with the basics in this new style of education— are basic needs being met, are there structures in place that ensure safety and security for all, and does everyone have a sense of belonging and know their role and how to perform it on a day to day basis? Once we can answer those questions, then we can move forward with growth and learning.

Change Takes Time

Ultimately, things are changing in education. Some for the better and some for the worst. I have heard podcast and read blogs saying that education in America is going to have to crash and burn before it gets better. I really hope that is not the case, because there is an entire generation that may not be able to recover if that happens, including my children. Give the process time and continue to push for what is best for students. You can never go wrong if you view your work through the lens of “Is this best for my students?”

Dear First Year Educators

Dear First Year Educators

This past week I had a conversation with a first year teacher and one of his questions was how to know when you are doing too much. This really struck home for me because I am currently in my second year as a school administrator and my husband is in his first year as a middle school ELA teacher. We have struggled to find a work/home life balance.

Here is what I have learned in my nine years in education, you cannot do everything. This is one of the hardest things to realize as an educator, because people get into this profession because they care about children, their content, and doing their best. Acknowledging that something you feel would benefit your students and yet you are not going to do it, it extremely difficult.

So how do you decide when to say no to something? The best answer I can give came from my training with Tina Boogren on Motiving and Inspiring Students. Tina shared that the first thing we must look at in education whether it is as a teacher in a classroom, an administrator in a building, or a superintendent for a school district is Maslow’s Hierachy of Needs.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Basic Needs

According to Maslow’s pyramid we will see that the bottom two levels make up the basic needs- physiological (food, water, shelter, rest…) and safety (security). When sharing this with my first year teacher I said that without those basic needs being met no student can learn. These needs are ones that you cannot say you will deal with later. These are the ones that you address first.

Physiology needs are ones that we should not put on teachers to meet, but we ask teachers to know their students well enough that if those basic needs are not being met then let someone know. Safety needs in the classroom are more than just asking if the room is physically safe (which is still extremely important) but are their procedures in place so the students knows what is expected of them when they come into the room? That security of knowing what to do in the classroom is essential and again, is not something that can be put off. You must establish your procedures, even if you end up tweaking them over time.

I always tell first year teachers that year one is the hardest and it will get better. So naturally, my teacher I visited with was worried because he is adding two new art classes next year and he was not sure how he will manage. The beauty of physiology and safety needs your “have to” for work, is those don’t change every year. You determine what works for you and get better and better each year at implementing them no matter what course you are teaching.

Growth Needs

Now, if we look at the next three tiers on the pyramid we see belonging (relationships, friends, connection), esteem (status, recognition, strength), and self-actualization (achieving full potential), this is where growth takes place. But remember, we cannot have growth without the first two needs being met. These three tiers will change each year as you have different students and how you meet their needs of belonging, esteem, and self-actualization will change, but once you have a firm grasp of implementing physiology and safety needs it will not feel so overwhelming.

So What Can You Do?

A great activity to determine how much time you are spending on each need is to track your time for a whole week and label each activity with which need is being met. The basic needs cannot be put off and must be addressed. These are the needs that no matter the class you are teaching once you have established what works for you then you can replicate with minor tweaks. Basic needs are also things that you can ask for support. If you are spending a lot of time addressing physiological needs then ask a counselor or administrator for help with these issues. If you are spending a lot of time on safety needs then visit with a veteran teacher to get tips and tricks that work well in the classroom. You do not have to find someone who teaches the same content as you, good classroom management looks similar throughout the school.

Once you have learned how to meet the basic needs of your students then creating a sense of belonging should be your focus and priority. Each year this will look different as your students and their needs will be unique, but a sense of belonging should always be a priority. While in your first year in education, it can be a challenge to learn how to make all students belong and establishing authentic connections in the classroom. Do not hesitate to visit with other teachers on how they build relationships and create an inclusive classroom environment.

So, in your first year of education if you put a focus on physiological, safety, and belonging needs of your students then you will be doing a great job. You will figure out what works for you and what works in your classroom. Year two you will get even better and year three even better than that. During this time is when you start to devote more of your time looking at esteem and self-actualization needs in your students.

Just remember, it is a lot and no one expects you to be an expert during your first year. Honestly, no one expects you to know everything at any point in your career. If you ever feel that you have learned everything there is to learn, then you have a fixed mindset which is not a good thing (I will save that for another post). Prioritize the have to haves your first year in the profession and know that the work you are doing will carry over for the rest of your career and that people are always here to help.

Failure- It’s a Good Thing?

Failure- It’s a Good Thing?

I recently reflected and blogged on my first few weeks as an administrator and one of my key points was the fact that I will make mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes, but each person has the choice to let the mistake/failure define who they are or to learn and grow from the experience.

I had the opportunity to participate in a breakout session at the AAEA summer conference and Dr. Gotcher asked the audience to share what failure meant to them. One person shared “Failure is only the next opportunity to succeed.”

This really hit home for me. As we go through this school year, trying to navigate COVID-19, I know there will be moments of failure. I want to choose to view each of those moments as just creating opportunities for success.

Now, saying that you will take your failures and turn them into opportunities is easier said that done. At least that is my personal experience. For this school year I am going to do these follow steps to try and make failures opportunities for success.

Community

Going at this career alone is never a good idea. Find your person that you can process through hard times and help keep perspective on the bigger picture.

Student Focused Vision

When you experience a failure, determine if what you were trying to do would be best for students. If it failed because it ultimately wasn’t what was best for students then walk away. If you still believe it is what is best for students then keep trying and reach out to those around you that can support your vision. As long as we keep our focus on what is best for students we can always turn opportunities into success.

Grace

I have to be willing to give myself grace. I have heard over and over the phrase “Grace before Grades”, but I think we can just say “Grace first”. Everyone will be going through a challenging time whether it is a student juggling school, with remote learning with siblings, while working a full time job to support their family; or parents who are staying up late at night after working all day to try and help their students with homework because their child is having a hard time adjusting to school again; or teachers who are so excited to see and love on their students but are also scared about their health and the health of their families. Grace must come into play for all parts of education this year.

I believe if I filter all of my experiences and reflections through these three steps then I will be able to take my failures and turn them into successes.


First Days on the Job

First Days on the Job

On May 14, 2020, I was hired by the school board of Siloam Springs School District as the new Assistant Principal at the high school. This is a dream job with one of the best administration teams I have had the privilege of knowing.

On July 13, 2020, I started my first official day in my new role. It has been a rollercoaster with many highs and lows in the past three weeks. We are put in impossible situations and have to choose what is best for students and staff- sometimes those do not line up and it makes our job even more challenging.

Over the past three works I have learned so much and wanted to get my thoughts down on paper (blog) to reflect back in years to come.

I am not trying to win a popularity contest.

A few days ago I made the comment, “I don’t think that teacher is going to like me much, but what I am suggesting is best for the students.” My mentor looked at me and said “Brittany, you are not trying to win a popularity contest. You got this job because we trust you and know you will do what is best for students.”

I have to be adaptable.

I also made the comment that I feel like I will be a first year administrator all over again next year when **hopefully** COVID-19 is gone or at least more manageable. The vice principal kindly chuckled and said “It will be something else, that is the job. There will always be something that you are dealing with, you just have to be able to roll with it.”

I will make mistakes.

I made a phone call today, no big deal, just a quick chat. I went and told my boss about it and he said “I would have said that this way… but you already talked to him.” My heart sunk. I felt like I had failed miserably and I was only 14 days into the job. I played it off like no big deal but I have been thinking about it all day. I am writing this hoping I can actually take it to heart- I will make mistakes, and THAT IS OKAY. I have to own them, accept them, learn from them, and move forward.

I need to listen and ask questions.

Clearly these are unprecedented times, so not only am I learning, but so is everyone else. No one has the perfect solution for how to open schools right now. It is times like these that we all need to be able to truly listen to concerns, seek out ideas, and ask questions that get everyone heading in a positive direction.

I know I will learn much more as the years go on, after all, we are all life long learners; but for now I am going to look forward to this next journey and celebrate the start to a new school year.

Three Promises I Make to My Children

Three Promises I Make to My Children

Parenting is tough, like really tough. I had no idea what I was signing up for 12 years ago when my son came into this world. I have made more mistakes than I care to share, but I have also experienced more joy than I thought possible. As time has gone on, I have been able to define my personal goals as a parent.

I tell my children regularly that their are three things that I must do. Every decision that I make can be traced back to these three jobs or promises that I have made to them.

As I look at my role as an educator I can apply these same promises to my students no matter the capacity to which I serve them.

For the sake of clarification- throughout the rest of this blog when I say “my children” or “children” I mean both my biological and students at school.

1. My promise to LOVE and show you love.

Keep in mind, these three promises are in no particular order, they are all equally important.

This first promise is to make sure my children grow up to know what love is, feeling loved, and learn how to appropriately love others.

Choose Love is a popular Social and Emotional Learning Curriculum that is being used around the country. The title says it all, choose love. I want to model this with my children that in all situations you have a choice and I hope they choose love. There will be times when we mess up and that is okay. It does not mean you are a bad person, but you need to own it, learn from it, and do better by choosing love the next time.

2. My promise to PROTECT you.

My daughter is a little dare devil. Throughout her life I cannot tell you how many times I have told her she cannot do something. The conversations goes like this;

“Why not mom? I want to.”

“I know you want to, but you cannot. It’s not safe because…”

As children get older the conversations will change from “you can’t run with scissors, its not safe” to “let’s talk about why you should not vape and how dangerous it is for you.”

Protecting children in a school setting can look different. It can be protecting students physically, such as having crisis plans in place to ensure the safety of all students. But protecting a child is no only from physical harm, but emotional, social, and mental harm as well. Just a few examples are cyber bullying, dealing with struggles of life in and outside of school, and equipping students with the skills needed to survive and thrive after school.

Letting children learn from mistakes is a part of growing up; therefore, make sure you can clearly identify what you are protecting them from and why this is not a good learning opportunity. If you cannot identify those, then you may actually be keeping a child from growing.

Continually reflect.

3. My promise to TEACH you how to be a GOOD HUMAN.

My husband and I say this often to our children- just be a good human. Be kind, be accepting, be generous, be selfless… the list go on.

If you notice, none of those attributes are political. I do not have to impose my beliefs on children to communicate how to be good. If anyone disagrees and thinks that being a good human needs to be addressed cautiously in the classroom, please feel free to write to me so we can start a dialogue.

Every day when I leave for work I tell my children at home “be a good human today.” I have said the same thing to my children at school as well. I hope when children see me they are able learn from my example of what it means to be a good human.

I also recognize that leading by example is not enough. The promise is not “to SHOW you how to be a good human.” It is to “TEACH how to be a good human.” Teaching how to be a good human must be intertwined with the daily learning at school.

Imagine an entire school where every person lived by that phrase- be a good human.


Yes, people make mistakes, but that is the beauty of school. Children get to learn and have loving adults in their lives to help guide them.

One of these promises alone will not do. I have to live by all three when I am parenting at home and as educator at school. If one fails, the overall well-being of the child is at risk.

The Goldilocks Zone

The Goldilocks Zone

In science, the Goldilocks zone refers to an area that is just perfect for human life to inhabit. This means the distance from the closes star is the perfect distance compared to the size of the star so that human life form can be supported. The temperature is not too hot or too cold. In these zones water can exist. There is not a set distance from any star. It depends on the type of the star, how large and strong the star is, and the rotations of planets around the star will shape the Goldilocks zone.

I could not help as my husband was describing this phenomenon to me that it sounded a whole lot like the type of environment we try to create in the classroom. Teachers are trying find the Goldilocks zone for each of their students. The issue that we come across is that teachers are the star in the classroom and are trying to create Goldilocks zones for students that are in varying distances from the star. The teacher (star) is to provide the instructional pedagogy and practices for each student in the room. Teachers have personalities and ways that they teach best. Yet, we ask teachers to be able to change and adapt to the unique needs of every student in the classroom at all times. So the million dollar question is; how do we find the Goldilocks zone for all students?

Learning Targets

Finding the Goldilocks zone requires us to first define exactly what the zone is . For scientist the Goldilocks Zone is a distance from the star that is habitability by humans and a place that water can exist. This is the same with students; developing essential learning targets for each unit that are written in student friendly terms. These learning targets should be developed from the content curriculum and decided on by the collaboration team and vertical alignment. In 7th grade math the team may decide as a whole that every student needs to master scientific notation and make this a learning target. If this collaboration team also meets with 8th and 9th grade math teams they will either determine this is an appropriate learning target or is not necessarily a requirement for 7th graders have mastered to have future success. From there the team can decide if it should be a requirement so that all students are on that zone. Goldilocks zone does not limit extra things, for instance extensions in the classroom to challenge students, but discusses the bare minimum that must be there. That is the role of defining essential standards and learning targets.

Regular Formative Assessments

Scientist have to run several tests on each planet they may feel is in the Goldilocks zone to determine if it meets all of the criteria. In teaching, students should be exposed to regular formative assessments to gauge their understanding and to test where they are at throughout the year.

Specific Research Based Interventions

When a student is failing to meet the grade level standards then we know that we are not in their Goldilocks zone. Therefore, the teacher must adjust and provide appropriate interventions to meet those needs of each student. The regular formative assessments should provide information on exactly what needs are being missed. From that data, the teacher then must look into research and evidence based interventions that work best. Scientist don’t start throwing out random solutions to a problem without having exhausted best practices first.

Ask for Help

The last piece of advise is to not be afraid to ask for help. If you are a new teacher or a teacher who has been doing this for 30 years there is no shame in asking for help if you are struggling to find a student’s Goldilocks zone. There are large teams of scientists working to find inhabitable planets in space, not just one scientist. When asking for help it doesn’t even have to be within your building or your content area. One of the best things about the internet is how it has grown every educators “Personal Learning Network” or PLN. Twitter is a great place to search hashtags or look for educational gurus and search their works. I know I have learned so much through my digital interactions. Whatever can help me reach every child is worth doing.

Good teaching practices are all around us. Resources are available to teachers who want to continue to be a life long learner and to reach all students. Every students’ Goldilocks zone can be and should be found.

Do You PLC?

Do You PLC?

The structure of schools have changed dramatically over the last few decades. In my blog Digital Age in Industrial Education I discuss how schools used to be designed around a factory line style of learning due to the type of jobs that were needed in the industrial period. These factor line jobs are no longer in high demand, therefore our school structure is changing to match how students need to be prepared for the world we live in now. The problem is some traditional parts of school have not kept up with changes as well as others.

With the change in schooling a lot of great evidence based practices have emerged to create the best learning environment for all students. One that I am very interested in and am continuing to learn about is Professional Learning Community (PLC). PLC function off of four driving questions:

  1. What do we expect our students to learn?
  2. How will we know they are learning it?
  3. How will we respond when they do not learn it?
  4. How will we respond if they already learn it?

Arkansas has started an initiative so that all schools use the PLC model within their schools. This requires a lot of planning and dedication by the entire school.

So– does your school PLC?

Expert Principal Interview

For a class assignment in graduate school, I had the opportunity to interview a principal at a model PLC school. Here is a piece of our conversation.

Me: “How do you ensure buy in from your staff as far as PLCs are concerned?”

Expert Principal: “We use the word commitment instead of buy in…”

I remember thinking that was such a strange phrase for the principal to make sure and correct me on. I listened as she explained that everyone had an opportunity to voice any concerns about the new PLC structure that was being implemented at her school. She made sure that all stakeholders where given the why and purpose behind PLC as well as clearing up any confusion: PLC is not an initiative. PLC is a way of structuring a school so that all students learn at high levels.

After this principal interview I went back and asked my professor why he thought she felt the need to make sure I used the word commitment versus buy in. I understood that technically they are different, but I have heard a lot of people use buy in when speaking about PLC. He chuckled which made me feel even more ridiculous, like I was missing some major concept about professional learning communities. Come to find out, I was.

Common Vocabulary

I have talked about common vocabulary in several different situations with my math students. Think of the words slope, rise over run, change in y over change in x, rate of change, constant change of proportionality… When you hear all of these words you know they mean the same thing, but there are certain times you would use rate of change that you would not use rise over run. Let’s take a more broad approach with words such as formative assessment, common formative assessment, summative assessment, common summative assessment, standardized test, high stake assessment… We understand that each of these are assessments used in different situations.  We may not know exactly how to define these– but we (hopefully) know which each of them are if we saw them in front of us.

Now imagine a school with 200 teachers and everyone is using a different word for the same concept, or at least they think they are talking about the same concept. How can you really know if you are talking about the same thing if words have not been clearly defined and communicated?

Back to my principal interview. My professor went on to explain that common vocabulary has to be one of the first things that a school does when implementing PLC. Just as every school should have a common mission and vision that all staff members are working towards, so should every school have common vocabulary for a consistent vision among the whole school. From this common vocabulary, the school can define their mission and goals for the Professional Learning Community.

Team Norms

Envision a school that has defined their common vocabulary and everyone is on the same page as far as the educational language to use and the goals of the PLC. It is time to start meeting together, with different faculty members, with different personalities, with different passions… Conflict can arise quite quickly without clearly defined norms. Educators expect students to abide by classroom norms so that all students can learn. Educators should be held to same standard of creating norms and each person respecting and upholding those norms.

Not every collaborative team will have the same norms just as not every classroom will have the same rules and procedures. Each team must take into account the personalities on the team and what ways to bring out the best collaboration. This allows the team to analyze student data that is driven by the four PLC questions.

A norm that I would suggest is defining roles within each collaborative team. These roles do not have to be set for the year. They can rotate every month or quarter; whichever works best for your team. Having set roles will help PLC time be purposeful and efficient to bring out the best practices from all teachers to achieve student growth.

Collaboration

Schools can spend all day defining education buzz words and creating the best norms for collaborative teams. None of that matters if the school does not foster a culture of collaboration. Collaborating takes time and commitment by the entire school. Everyone, even those who may not be teachers, must work together to provide time for teachers to continually collaborate and answer the four PLC questions defined by DuFour and Marzano.

Building a school with a foundation in PLC is hard work. It is not a one and done, but rather a process that should be reviewed and added to each year. Collaborating begins with prioritizing a common shared time for teams to work together. Once that time has been set aside then teachers must be conscious of that time and how to use it. While at the Solution Tree Conference, Luis Cruz did a session on collaborating versus co-blab-orating. The session centered around a commitment to set and respect norms that allows for the PLC time to be protected from venting and will focus on the four questions centered around student learning.

SMART Goals

When a school starts working on implementing and restructuring the school to be a PLC school it can be daunting. I was given the advice that when I read Richard DuFour’s articles and books on PLCs to remember he wrote most of those books after several years of practice. Starting out, we should not expect to be experts in the world of Professional Learning Communities.

Writing SMART goals may not happen the first year, but is an important part of the foundational work. Creating a culture of collaboration and establishing norms is the basis in which everything else is built. Once those are strongly established, then collaborative teams can begin with goals. Start small and define two to three SMART goals for the year. From there the teams can begin writing common formative assessments. Begin with one a unit, then each year add a new one. After a few years this will organically grow to multiple common formative assessments to track student achievement throughout the school year.

Do You PLC?

So, does your school PLC? I am by no means an expert. I am learning through my mistakes and will continue to grow with the guidance of others. The biggest piece of advice that I can give is be willing to commit 100% to this new structuring of schools. It will be hard work and will demand all hands on deck, but it is well worth it. Professional Learning Communities is not an initiative. Our society is changing, and therefore, so must education.

 

 

The New Problem Solver in Education

The New Problem Solver in Education

As a secondary math teacher I am constantly trying to teach my students how to be problem solvers. When a situation is presented, look for patterns from previous experiences, identify all of the pertinent information, and create a solution. This is a great skill to have and every student that graduates high school should have it mastered.

Once you are in the “real world” I feel that being a problem solver is no longer adequate. Yes, things will inevitably go wrong and people need to know how to fix them quickly and efficiently. What sets leaders apart is not just the ability  to solve problems quickly, but to be able to find the potential problem before it happens and to put actions in place to prevent it from ever happening.

I am quickly learning in my educational leadership classes that there are so many different facets to every potential issue. There will be problems that cannot be avoided. As a educational leader, whether that is as an administrator or teacher leader, it is your job to be able to identify potential problems and determine if there is a prevention that can be put in place. This is why it is best to surround yourself with people who have a range of different abilities. Every problem can look different to the person viewing it, therefore don’t try to tackle them alone. When approaching these issues be consistent with your approach; student impact should always be top priority, but also consider how your solution may affect stakeholders as well.

Building a team to help access problems will help make any educational leader’s life easier. Don’t just have the administration team look at these potential problems. Have teachers, students, parents, and community members examine them as well. These are all people who may be affected by the issue at hand. Education is the future, and everyone should be involved in defining the best way to educate the next generation.

Five Tips for Developing Empathy as a School Leader

Five Tips for Developing Empathy as a School Leader

The definition of empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. In a work environment it is never a good idea to have a group of people where everyone has the same personality and approaches a problem the same way. Having a diverse group of people leads to better problem solving and creative ways to approach the daily routines of any work.

In a school, I feel that it is even more important to have an extremely diverse group of educators because not all children learn in the same. Having teachers that can approach teaching a skill set from different angles will help educate all students.

The difficult part to such a wide range of feelings, opinions, and thoughts in a school is that it can lead to a lot of discourse. It is the job of the administrative team to be able to empathize will all staff and help create the vision and mission of the school. This will lead to a positive culture that people want to work in. Some people are more empathetic than other, but empathy is a skill that can be developed.

In the book Design Thinking for School Leaders by Alyssa Gallagher, the author shares that during a person’s journey to becoming an effective school leader, empathy is king. “Having empathy improves leadership, teaches you to ask the right questions, and enables you to understand others better.” For a school leader, asking the right questions and understanding their staff better will increase the productivity of the entire school through culture and collective responsibility.

Since empathy is a skill, Gallagher gives five tips for how to improve your ability to have empathy as a school leader.

Observation

The power of observation is developing the ability to see what others may overlook. Any person who has been in a certain job for an extended amount of time may create routines in which they function on a day to day basis. Try something new. Go into work one day as a parent would walk into the school. What things do you observe? What might a parent experience as they walk in the front door to attend a conference? You can do this from multiple perspectives; a parent, teacher, student, classified staff… What are the observations that you can make that may regularly be overlooked by yourself and those around you. From there you can begin to understand how people may feel when they enter the school that you lead.

Shadowing

I recently wrote a blog about my opportunity to shadow an administrator for a day. It has been the most influential experience since I have started my journey towards becoming an administrator. It can be hard to truly understand what a teacher, parent, or student is going through until an administrator can walk in their shoes. If a current administrator decides to try shadowing one of the people in their building, they must remember an important element: authenticity. This means that shadowing a student for an hour will not be representative of what their day is like. It needs to be at least half a day, but the most beneficial shadowing experience requires an entire day.

Interviewing for Empathy

Most schools will get their feedback or really any information they need from end users (students, parents, teachers…) through a survey. Surveys are a great tool to gather information from large groups of people, but surveys do not allow for a dialogue or more in-depth answers. Interviewing people in person allows for a conversation that can lead to real discussions and therefore solutions. Asking open ended questions that allow for the end user to really explore their thoughts and needs will paint a more accurate picture of the problem which will in turn lead to a better solution. The most important thing to remember when conducting and empathy interview is to always ask “Why?”. This question can always lead to more understanding for everyone involved.

Empathy Mapping

As stated before, empathy is a skill that must be learned and practiced regularly. In education we do not just tell a child how to do something and expect them to master it immediately without resources. Empathy mapping is a resource to help a person hone in on specific needs for people. This can be done by thinking of four different quadrants: thinking, seeing, doing, and feeling. By looking at these separate sections one can really begin to understand what is motivating the person to act in a certain way.

Vulnerability

People need to view empathy as an exchange. To have empathy you most definitely need to have the skill of listening, but equally important is the skill of taking risks in conversations. Making yourself vulnerable will encourage the other person to open up as well. As an administrator you must learn when to share moments of weakness, because if you overshare then you can appear incompetent. If you never admit fault, then people may doubt your integrity. Balance is the key to most things in life, and this holds true with vulnerability in education.

Do you RTI?

Do you RTI?

Educators become very familiar with  buzzwords each year. The ideas and concepts do not necessarily change, but the words do. Differentiated instruction, growth mindset, rigor, evidence-based… these are just a few of the terms that every educator today hears on a daily basis. Another one that we hear a lot right now is response to intervention, or simply RTI. The problem with buzzwords is that educators can sometimes use them without fully understanding what they mean.

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend a Solution Tree conference in New Orleans. The conference was on RTI (Response to Intervention) and the keynote speakers were; Mike Mattos, Luis Cruz, Nicole Dimich Vagle, and Brian Butler. This was, without a doubt, the best conference I have ever attended. Each session I went to was engaging and purposeful. Sometimes I felt a little overwhelmed because of the amount of knowledge each presenter had to share. Yet, anytime I had a question each one of these renowned educational leaders sat down and patiently worked through my hang ups with me.

I went down to New Orleans with a limited view of RTI. I thought RTI was just pulling students out of class for make up work or reteaching. Maybe it includes some one on one tutoring time. I thought that if our school simply built our schedule around providing this time, then we just needed a little training on best intervention practices and we were good to go.

I was so very wrong.

On the way home my husband asked me “so what is RTI?” This question was met with complete and utter silence. RTI is so much larger than just some interventions and pull outs. It is the way a school approaches education all together. RTI is the mission of the school that says that ALL students learn grade level content or higher. It is the way teachers plan together. It is the way teachers teach and collaborate together. It is the way teachers use data to drive tier 1 and tier 2 instruction. It is the screening process to identify students who have years of educational gaps for tier 3 instruction. It is the way that the entire school comes together to teach academic and behavioral skills to students. All of those pieces are still not a comprehensive explanation of RTI, but it is a start.

Upon returning to work I had a debrief session with my administrator who sent me to this conference. He asked me what my top three recommendations were for the school. This was a tough question, but I knew I was going to be asked this and had spent a lot of time considering my answer.

  1. Teachers have to have a common time to plan together. This is a school wide effort and every teacher has to be involved and committed.
  2. Teachers need to identify their 3-5 essential standards for the grade/content area. These standards are the must haves for all students before they leave that class.
  3. With my specific school functioning on a block schedule, I said we needed to help train teachers on how to use the time they have to provide tier 1 (regular day to day teaching practices) and tier 2 (reteaching for the students who did not understand after the first time) interventions within the schedule. Neither of these interventions should be done with a pull out system where children are missing other classes.

Each school will have different needs, but someone has to start the process. The top three recommendations for any school are the building blocks that will start the restructuring of education that is long overdue. So if you are just starting to have RTI conversations and are looking to make the change here is my advice.

Be patient

Do not expect everything to happen over night. Implementing all of the pieces will take years. RTI is a long and ongoing process, but it is worth the outcome. As an administrator be prepared for push back from your staff who are not seeing immediate results. As an educator understand this is a marathon and not a sprint.

Commitment

I was speaking with a principal at a PLC school and I used the term “teacher buy-in” and she very kindly said that she prefers to use the word “commitment”. One of the core aspects of RTI is collective responsibility among the entire staff. It takes the entire staff committing to the mission so that all students can learn grade level or higher content.

Guiding Coalition

The guiding coalition is the name for the RTI committee responsible for the implementation and guidance of the RTI processes and systems. Each school needs to identify a team of the most qualified people for this committee. This should not be a volunteer based team, but rather the administrators need to identify which people can help run the school-wide RTI system most effectively. This team has to meet regularly. Once a month is not going to be adequate, especially at the beginning of the implementation process. I would recommend weekly as the school is starting the RTI process.

Professional Learning Communities

Having a team of educators to learn from each other on a weekly basis is crucial to RTI and is a non-negotiable. There is not a set schedule that will work for every school. Each school has to commit to making PLC time  a priority and all teachers have to commit to functioning together as a unit. This does not mean that instruction should look the same in each class. Part of PLC discussion is to see how each teacher taught content differently to learn from one another.

Essential Standards

As of right now with the structure of standards in the United States, there are too many standards per grade. Teachers struggle to teach all of them in a school year. As educators, we all know that some students will not master all of the standards each year. To make this feat more manageable, each content team (including SPED and ESL) needs to define 3-5 essential standards that teachers commit to, and that all of their students will master by the end of the school year.

Do not try and do too much your first year. Tier 3 can come later on down the road, so just focus on getting the ground work set for the entire structure. These changes do not have to start at the top. Teachers are the ones working with students every day. Start implementing little changes to reflect RTI and it will catch on. I received the book “Taking Action: A Handbook for RTI at Work” by Austin Buffum, Mike Mattos, and Janet Malone. This is a great resource for anyone who is wanting to learn more. Please email me with any of your stories about implementing RTI, including what has worked and what has not worked, because we are in this together.

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