Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Power of Student Voice

Our HS principal often says…“There aren't a lot of businesses where your clients become your products.”  We have the opportunity every single day to influence the lives of people who will take care of us as we get older.  They are the group that we will lean on to move society forward, boost an economy, and invent things that will revolutionize markets.  Yet, in Fall Creek, we don’t ask them what they want, how they want to learn, and how we are doing as educators…until now.  We have asked for parent feedback, community feedback, our administrators get feedback from staff, but the voice of our clients often gets lost in the minutia of the day. The following initiatives are extremely exciting to me, as an administrator, moving forward in our school district:

The Change Conversation
At the beginning of the year we implemented a Professional Growth Model plan that asked teachers to find one area of need or interest and set a particular goal to improve or enhance that area.  One of the components to the goal was a student data piece.  Some chose to work on an academic area and some chose to work on a social area, but all chose to work…which made this administrator extremely happy!  Though I am not in the High School, I have had a number of great conversations with HS teachers regarding their plans and the student data component.  One in particular made me smile.  Our teacher was using exit slips for student comprehension as part of his goal.  When looking at the exit slips he cross referenced how the students perceived his delivery with their scores on assessments for that particular week.  The connection of student voice in how they were taught to their ability to relay information was the start of a great conversation with the teacher.  The impetus stayed away from why they didn't learn a particular skill to what he needed to do differently to ensure they learned a particular skill.  The most important variable is the teacher and the delivery…and this instructor recognized that he was the variable in the change for student achievement.

Student Evaluations of Instruction
The second component that made me feel better about integrating student voice was our HS teacher evaluations done by students.  A few things about this process made me smile…first and foremost; the vast majority of teachers in our building completely embraced the idea.  Although they may have been a bit nervous, they were all eager to see the data from their classes.  As with any data points, the numbers don’t mean anything unless you sit down and reflect on what will be done with said data.  The movement from knowledge to action is clearly key to the process.  Our HS principal had a chance to sit down with staff members, and guide the discussion to look at what things were going well…and why.  The conversation was about the positive aspects of what is going on in the classroom, and when the data wasn't as promising, we tried to break the conversation into pieces to coach a solution to make the teacher feel valued in the process.  Clearly teachers were harder on themselves with the data than administrators could be…we all want to do well and addressing a particular need was discussed after some of the positive things were brought to light.  We all have strengths, and we all have areas to improve, the minute we start feeling like we've arrived, we begin losing ground.

Meetings with Students
The final component that is just in the beginning stages of implementation is holding exit meetings with our seniors.  Last week I had the pleasure to sit down and have lunch with 12 seniors.  We discussed their lives at Fall Creek, what they loved about school, what they didn't love about school, what they would have changed, how they would teach, what they wanted to learn, how it prepared them for life after high school, social media, independent learning….all in 30 minutes…it was awesome!  For our students to sit down with a 38 year old, bald headed crazy man as opposed to having the time with their friends was a tribute to them and the conversation was wonderful.  It made me think… “why aren't we doing this all the time?”  So…we will! 
Students need to have a voice in their education.  We cannot be the sole purveyors of knowledge.  Content is simply not scarce…it can be attained anywhere…and when any question can be answered by asking it into a phone, we need to get beyond content.  Our students should have a say in what and how they learn…I truly appreciate the work at the HS to begin a process where that is routine and not a burden on what we do.  Our clients are our products…let’s make sure they are marketable when they leave…instead of preparing people to work in a new world, let’s prepare them to lead it.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Power of Reflection

I have been an administrator for 8 years…8 years!!!! Time flies and there are times that I want to run back into that bald headed 30 year-old’s office 8 years ago and yell… “Really?!?!  This is how you are going to grow your staff?  Really?”  I think we all do the best we can in the moment and hope that we find growth opportunities for our staff, but I can’t help but believe that groups we started with were not given the same chance.  Reflecting on instructional practice is a clear gateway to the advancement of our staff members, yet we continuously miss the mark on teaching teachers how to reflect.

I believe reflection is one of the most important components in teacher growth.  I have not met many people who feel like we should not reflect on our practice.  However, when I ask people what true reflection means, I get as many answers as people asked.  Self-reflection should be about growth, but if we don’t teach people how to reflect I think we end up on a surface level that inhibits the learning of our staff.

For years, I spent time with teachers asking them about the logistics of their practice.  How was the behavior?  How did you feel like the lesson went?  Would you have changed anything?  The most prevalent answer from all of those meetings was… “I think the lesson was pretty good”.  When we ask teachers to reflect on a lesson, and they know that conversation is going to work its way into a year-end evaluation, we are setting them up to be guarded and cater to the administrator.  If self-reflection is about “self”, then why are we setting up our conversations to have teachers appease the audience rather than inform their practice?

The question that surrounds teacher reflection doesn't really start with the reflection process…it starts with trust.  If we are going to see people grow in their craft, there has to be a culture of trust established within the building.  First and foremost, administrators need to trust that teachers are doing the best they can and are willing to grow themselves throughout the year.  We all know that 2 observations of 30 minutes each often end up in viewing lessons that are not typical of the daily routine.  We, as school leaders, are to blame for that concept…not our teachers.  If the evaluation system lends itself to a dog and pony show for 60 of the 70,000 minutes of instruction in a year then the issue is ours.  We must get beyond teachers only reflecting on practice when we ask them to as part of an evaluation system.

The second component is teachers trusting administrators.  I often tell our staff…take a risk, do something outside of your comfort zone, make something happen.  That being said, not all do because they are afraid failure in risk taking will be noted in an evaluation.  One way to shift that paradigm is to model the environment and ensure that the opinion leaders in the building have support in taking risks.  They need to feel validated in their attempt to try something new. Most importantly, if you say risk taking and failure (if those risks don’t bear fruit) will not be looked at negatively on an evaluation…then you have to follow through.  I would much rather have a staff member take a risk and fail, than continue to teach as they have for years, in a way that they were probably taught as a student, which only worked for a small percentage of people who became teachers.  This simply continues a cycle of worksheets and compliance as opposed to engagement and innovation.

Once those pieces are established, the actual teaching of self-reflection can start.  We are taking the process slowly and using the Danielson Model as a medium for reflection in instructional practice.  We are discussing one Domain (3-Instruction) and allowing teachers to start the self-reflection process with specific practice to improve instruction.  Our walkthrough model will hopefully allow staff members to look at their own practice and reflect on specific instructional components of what they do in the classroom.  The important component is that the self-reflection is for them…not me.  They don’t need to turn anything in, answer a ton of questions that won’t help them in the future, or try to justify why something went well or not in the classroom.  They are the owners of their improvement…we help facilitate that improvement.  I am a huge Jim Knight fan (@jimknight99 on Twitter).  His perspective on self-reflection and a look back, look at, look forward practice is fantastic and one we will use with our staff over the course of the next 18 months.  Teaching the process, having the resources, and most importantly, creating a culture of trust will help us reach the goal of instructional improvement at all levels. 

Side note and shameless plug…if anyone is interested in learning more about how we are using self-reflection to teach the Danielson Model join me for a webinar on February 12th from 4:00-4:30 CST.  Link can be found at