Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Power of Parent Engagement

My parents used to make 2 appointments for me at the for the cleaning and one to get the inevitable cavities filled. It was easier to schedule both at the same time knowing they would happen. Needless to say, every time I have walked into a dentist's office since I was a kid is fraught with reminiscent feelings of early morning appointments that ended in 1 side of my face being numb and food tasting like metal for a day. This is not a Seinfeld "Anti-Dentite" rant (I’ll save that for a down month in the summer), but there is a parallel here. Though the work done on my teeth covered the cost of annual Country Club membership dues, and perhaps the purchase of a small island, I would rather focus on the connection to schools.

My guess is that people who worked in that dentist's office don't have the same recollection of my visits. The hope for me is that walking into our school does not feel like a long walk to the dentist chair.  The reality is that everyone had a different experience in school and, like it or not, those experiences shape the attitude that our public has when it walks through the hallways.  I love walking into our school every day, but I have to understand that a number of people do not have that same sense of comfort. Administrators, think about the makeup of your staff.  Likely, the majority of teachers in your building had a relatively good experience in school.  People don’t choose to spend their careers in a place where they had a bad experience. This is why dental school and miniature pony ranch hand were never an option for me!  The experiences that our staff members had in school are not always the same as those of the parents who send their most prized possessions to us every day. 

First Contact
There are feelings in schools…we have all had them.  When visiting other schools I think you can get a pretty good indication of the environment upon entering the building.  The first contact…from secretarial help, to seeing a teacher in the hallway, to a custodian in the entrance can shape the relationships we have with parents.  We need to trust our staff to engage the public when they enter our building.  As leaders in the building it is imperative that we relay the importance of the first contact with parents to our staff members.  When parents enter the building the default feeling can be how they felt as a kid.  If our first contact is welcoming, we can make them feel like they are a part of something bigger than dropping off in the morning and picking up at the end of the day.
There are a number of resources out there for schools looking to engage parents in more inviting manner.  Joe Mazza ( moderates a weekly chat tagged #ptchat on Wednesdays at 9 PM EST.  This has been an outstanding resource for finding a number of ideas to help your staff engage parents.  The questions posed are challenging and stretch the thinking of those involved.  Dr. Marilyn Price-Mitchell ( seems to have unlimited parenting suggestions and #Parenting News Daily has been an amazing resource that I share with our staff often.  Jerry Blumengarten ( has a fantastic Parent Resource page on his website that can be found at  Larry Ferlazzo ( just posted his best parent educational blog posts from 2012…wonderful perspectives from a number of people across the world.  Part 1 found at and Part 2 at

Beyond First Contact, I offer 2 other suggestions…Call and ListenCall…I ask our staff to call parents within three days of the start of the year.  The first call to parents can be short, but has to be positive.  I also ask our administrators to make positive calls (we set the goal at 4 per week) to parents regarding ANYTHING a student is doing well at school.  The power of these calls has been fantastic.  The 4 calls take an hour every week…at the most.  The idea of first contact doesn’t need to be relegated to the physical school building.  If our first contact is positive, regardless of venue, we will be in a better spot. Listen…behind the volume and vigor of parent complaints is a message.  Sometimes we can’t find the message through the tone, but it is there and is always an opportunity to get better.  I am not advocating that we put all suggestions or complaints into action…but we do need to hear where they are coming from and honestly reflect on what we are doing.

Parents come in with a wide range of feelings regarding schools.  Some good, some great, some terrible…and we have to embrace all of those.  I don’t know if a dentist calling me or making me feel welcome when I got to the office would have offset the drilling, needles, and inevitable numbing of the face…but it couldn't hurt!  Sometimes thinking that “it couldn't hurt” is the start we need.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Power of Vision

Add Indianapolis Colt  head coach Chuck Pagano to the list of those who inspire.  All it took for me was 102 seconds.  In that time I was able to see what others have probably known for years…the guy just gets it.  Chuck Pagano is currently undergoing treatment for Leukemia.  A few weeks ago he exited the hospital and headed to the stadium.  He got a chance to see a group he has never coached in a regular season game live up to how he will always lead.  After a big win against the Miami Dolphins, Coach Pagano addressed his team:

Live in Circumstance or Live in Vision

It’s easy to get caught up in circumstance.  The budget doesn’t look like you want it to, you have an angry parent in your office (that happens to be right), and work piles up but you know that getting into classrooms is the right thing to do.  Letting circumstance drive your day never allows for vision to take hold.  There are often times when I feel like I don’t know what my day will look like until I enter the doors.  The road to success is muddled with noses to wipe, shoes to tie, calls to make, courageous conversations to have with staff, and a nap between evening and morning that some like to call “a good night’s sleep”.  As administrators we try to tell our groups to be proactive vs. reactive.  We want to get out in front of a group or a student who may need help down the road.  We offer suggestions and set our environments up for student success.  However, sometimes I feel like I’m just trying to catch up.

Living in circumstance tends to take all of your power away.  Emotionally, it is easy to get lost in the everyday happenings of a school. I have asked all staff members to sit down and identify 3 targets that when done will make them feel like they can walk out the door and be successful at the end of the day. 

Sanfelippo’s 3 Essential Targets

1.       Every Staff Member…Every Day

2.       Follow Through on All Issues

3.       Make a New Kid Connection

If we can look at these three targets at the end of the day and say we fulfilled them we should hold our heads high and feel like the days has been successful.  The crazy thing about education and educators is we don’t have the opportunity to see the fruit of the labor on a daily basis.  The impact we can have on kids may not show up for weeks, months, or years. It may only come up in a conversation once they have moved on.  I can recall countless conversations with kids who I have coached or taught that start with… “Remember when we…”

Living in a vision, both individually and from a team perspective helps us all to stay on track and stay true to what we all believe.  When we live in a vision we are able to deal with circumstance, but not be consumed in it. That vision can lead to a feeling of accomplishment as opposed to being overwhelmed.  Set your essential targets, post them by your desk, and look at them on your way out the door…and never forget that the circumstance you deal with on a daily basis won’t  define you if you let the vision of where you want to go drive your perspective.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Power of Conversation

November’s edition of Educational Leadership is dedicated to teacher evaluation.  The work of Marzano, Danielson, Frontier, and Mielke fueled the discussion about teacher improvement.  Regardless of model, the emphasis of the research was on the conversations with teachers about instructional improvement.  It’s interesting how we talk and talk about conversations, but they tend to be one of the first things that get pushed to the side when the day takes over.  As an administrator, I think the conversation lost its rightful place in the everyday fabric of what our job should entail.  I think the reality of the out of control student, the parent concern, and the paperwork took over the places where conversations should reside.  This year the power of conversation took center stage in our new observation model.
Most school days consist of 6.5 hours of instruction. Multiply that by 180 days and there are potentially 1,170 hours to coach our staff.  However, the model we have worked with in the past placed 2-4 formal observations of 30 minutes each into the fold.  Essentially, we are basing our decision on whether or not teachers are good at their jobs on 2 hours of a 1,170 hour school year, which translates to less than 1% of said school year.  One of my staff members tells a story of when he was doing his student teaching and his cooperating teacher had an “observation lesson” that he taught every year when his principal came into the room.  Historically, the teacher evaluation and observation model didn’t lend itself to coaching teachers to impact their professional growth.  We were “catching” teachers.  Either we caught them doing well for a 30 minute period or we caught them doing poorly for the same period of time.  In many districts this happens every third year!  We need to get away from having a process happen “to” our staff and move to a process that works “with” our staff.
With the help of Paul Mielke, we changed the model this year and the results have led us closer to a place where teacher improvement and overall staff growth is a reality instead of something that we all say needs to improve.  Our framework institutes a number of walkthrough observations, which have become much more popular in schools.  However, I think more of the same doesn’t make any better, it just makes more frequent.  Practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent.  So, adding more observations with no conversation just perpetuates the problem. 

As indicated in the research, the real jewel in this model for me has been the conversations.  We have our staffs at each school configured into 3 groups.  Each group is on a 2 week walkthrough schedule that continues after all groups have cycled through.  During the 2 week session we meet multiple times and discuss what great instruction looks like, specific to a component in Danielson’s model.  We learn through conversation and the discussions we have had over the course of the last 6 weeks have been outstanding.  I see staff members who feel more comfortable in a smaller group setting speaking up and contributing, I hear about conversations happening outside of our meetings between colleagues that focus on teacher growth, and when people stop into my office for a piece of candy inevitably our conversation leads to instruction. Our administration, consisting of three principals, recently went over 200 walkthroughs since the beginning of the year.  We have committed ourselves to 10 walkthroughs for each staff member through the first semester.  Again, the number of observations we take on is only a piece of the puzzle.  Getting into the classroom and focusing on instruction has helped drive the conversation about deliberate practice to improve teacher growth.  Our administration meetings can touch on logistical items and then really dive into how we are coaching exceptional practice.  Our teachers need that…and they deserve it.
I am so proud of my group…something I talk a lot about on this blog.  They are wonderful teachers, but wonderful teachers deserve to grow as well.  Telling someone they are good at their job twice a year never moves them forward.  Everyone needs coaching on some level and this format gives us that opportunity.  The knowledge that their current performance in the classroom is the baseline and the sky is the limit for them is a feeling that is hard to convey in written terms, but is so empowering when I see it everyday.  It is extremely hard to get into classrooms and make time for conversations regarding practice when the everyday minutia of what happens in schools takes over.  However, we owe it to our staff members to be there for them to grow…and that should start with a conversation.