Commissioner’s Advisory Council

Last week I traveled to Albany as a Cattaraugus County alternate to the NYSCOSS Commissioner’s Advisory Council. What does that mean? On Friday a small group of 20-25 school superintendents from across the State had the opportunity to talk with State Education Officials including Commissioner David Steiner, Deputy Commissioner John King, Ken Slentz, Chuck Szuberla, and David Abrams. For three hours we asked questions and heard answers from the top SED leaders. And I definitely had the sense that they were listening to us as well. It was an extremely rewarding two days for me. In my mind good information is paramount to making the best decisions for the district so every minute was worthwhile.

If you haven’t been paying attention to all of the changes headed our way in regard to teacher and principal evaluation through the APPR process, and you’re a NYS educator, then I suggest you start now. During these two days, we talked about everything from the accountability pieces to state and locally selected assessments to scoring bands to training and capacity.

I’ve written on this blog previously about my own opinions on the general quality of our evaluation system in public education. I’m cautiously optimistic that we will end with a much better system upon the full implementation of the regulations. Principals often write “love letters” to their teachers in the knowledge that the one pre-scheduled visit to the classroom can’t possibly do much to influence what’s happening in the room and because they’ve had little to no training in how to give meaningful feedback. What will come between now and our new SED proposed evaluation system will require a huge cultural shift. Educators are neither accustomed to being evaluated in a meaningful feedback system nor are the principals adequately trained in how to have those conversations. Don’t get me wrong, I believe we have extremely hard working and dedicated administrators in every district in which I’ve worked, but this is not a piece of the work we’ve historically done well enough.

The success of this new evaluation system hinges on the depth of training for principals and the ongoing support as they learn to communicate both expectations and feedback about good instruction to our teachers. Teachers who have been left to figure it out on their own and have seldom been critiqued or offered much feedback in the past may find it difficult to take any kind of constructive feedback. And why wouldn’t they? It’s a huge change in many places and it feels very personal.

When you consider that some principals may never have been good teachers and may have no idea how to really talk about solid instruction with credibility and solid ideas about strategies and content, we’ve got quite a row to hoe. Couple all of that with the fact that the expectations and criteria for being an effective principal may be changing dramatically in some districts–to mid or end career administrators–and the work before us is immense. Most principals are effective building managers, taking care of the 1000+ details that managing a building requires, with little time left for our most fundamental reason for existing—quality instruction. This is through no fault of the principal, I’ve done that job and can tell you first hand that on most days it’s emotionally draining and exhausting, especially if the principal is responsible for all of the discipline. It was certainly my intention on every day to be the instructional leader but on many days it was veritably impossible.

This is the most vital change we can make toward long term school improvement.  As Commissioner Steiner said on Friday and on which I wholeheartedly agree, “The two most important points in all of this are what you teach and how effectively you teach it.”

We can figure out the rest together but it’s truly going to take ongoing training, relationship building, trust and hard work, resources and expertise building. I absolutely believe the only way to make it work is to set clear expectations based on solid research, communicate effectively and learn together. It’s the right thing to do.

Education and Evaluation

Here’s my opinion, for what it’s worth. We truly do NOT dedicate enough time, energy and resources to good evaluation in education. Unlike many other businesses and institutions who devote serious time, money and attention to performance evaluations, we fall short. We just do. We always have. I’ve said countless times that tenure isn’t the reason we keep bad teachers around for years, a failure to do the hard work of evaluation and documentation by administrators is the reason.

This post isn’t going to be about the WHY of this problem. As a school administrator of eleven years, I’m pointing the finger at myself as much as anyone else. Especially as a building principal, there are 100+ reasons/other responsibilities to explain why good performance evaluation gets short shrift. Let’s suffice it to say there’s a general lack of training, time, attention, experience, resources,  and priority. Managing the needs of 600 children and adults in one building + the parents and community members and their questions/concerns=more than a full time job with problems pulling at the principal from every direction.

So here’s where this subject hit me like a ton of bricks today.

We have new regulations coming from the New York State Education Department for principal and teacher evaluation–the draft regulations are out this week and so, as a school superintendent, I’ve been studying the regs, taking notes, forming questions. They’re pretty daunting at first glance. Not insurmountable, of course, but let’s just say, there’s a lot to it. Just the regs for the district plan and the requirements for the training course are a lot to take in, not to mention the timeline. A district plan has to be adopted by September 10, 2011.

So I took a break from studying the new regs to read the news in my Google Reader. My college roommate, Lisa, is an HR Leader who works for a VA Hospital in Minnesota and she writes about leadership, growth and human resources over at Simply Lisa. She’s one of the few resources that I read regularly who isn’t in the field of education. Here’s what her post contained today that struck me:

Minding the details is what I’ll be doing this week as I:

  • Prepare for midterm reviews with my staff,
  • Offer advice on the Intuit Small Business Blog,
  • Welcome an HR Consultative Review team for a 3 day review,
  • Talk with supervisors and about performance management, and
  • Noodle employee relations, administrative investigations, objectivity and HR influence.

It’s not flashy, it’s not sexy, and it’s not Oscar worthy . . . but it is necessary.

Those are all responsibilities designed to give people feedback and training and skills in employee relations. When do we do that in education? At my bi-monthly admin meetings when we talk about how many evals the principals have completed or how our new faculty are doing OR at the four new teacher mentoring sessions we hold per year? We all take a little piece of the HR puzzle and no one person is dedicated to getting this crucial job done right–yet it’s the chance we have to really influence the central purpose of our existence.

We’re where we are in education–with pressures from EVERYWHERE from the federal government with RTTT requirements tied to all of that money, to the state with implementing the requirements, to competition from alternative ways of learning to our public school system, to scrutiny in the press about our results, to parent complaints–because we’ve historically paid too little attention to the performance of our teachers and administrators. The very core of what we do in this little institution with 200+ employees and 1000+ students. We haven’t dedicated enough human or capital resources to all of the responsibilities that Lisa’s HR department (a whole department!) manages every day. Instead, we have ONE building administrator in each of two buildings who’s on his or her own to get the job done. And training in how to do that well, or support then feedback–HA! Where has that been? It’s sporadic in the best of circumstances.

I’m embracing the new regs. As cloudy as they seem right now, we’ve simply got to get better at this evaluation piece. And that’s going to take some serious work and resources. Even for those of us who are already doing this work fairly well, who have the critical conversations with employees and recognize those who are doing excellent work, who see this as the most important feedback we can give—much more training and development of a fair and meaningful system has to happen. Let’s get to it. Those draft regs at least draw attention to the entire evaluation system–something which will help us improve, if we can figure out how to do it well.

Stopping the Onslaught

I lost my balance. As a leader. The past few weeks, since I returned from Albany where we met as superintendents from across NYS, I have not been myself. With one meeting/email/news article right after the next that’s focused on the new governor’s budget, the cuts to education funding, the projected dismal future for education funding, and the inequity across the districts—-I’m bombarded with it all. And I began to think of little else.

That’s not so good. As the leader of a public school system, we handle a multitude of diverse issues every day. I may be talking to the Head Custodian about our cleaning procedures one minute, to a teacher about a class project the next and to the business official about the budget presentation the next. That diversity of thought and problem solving requires that I approach each with a “fresh screen” ready to give it my full attention. Careful listening, clarity of thought and decisiveness are fundamental requirements of the job.

Instead I’ve found myself reacting more strongly to different problems than I normally would–this hasn’t done anyone any good.

I’ve been a bit crippled by fear these last few weeks. What am I afraid of? That I’m missing something. Despite the 9000 times we’ve gone over our entire financial picture and our budget projections (it’s budget season here, if you haven’t guessed) and evaluated every program and expenditure, I’m still second guessing our planning. We are planning not just next year but several years out. Randolph is in solid financial health and I take it as ultimately my responsibility to make sure we stay there.

I’m done obsessing and worrying. We’ve done a solid job of preparing the budget and there is the rest of the organization to attend to. I’ve let the  noise of the media and the doom and gloom leaders suck me in. That’s not what solid leadership is about, is it? It’s definitely about listening, careful consideration and decisiveness. And that needs to be applied to filtering the incoming noise of panic from outside of our doors too. I know it’s bad and that the State needs to balance it’s budget. I know that education is a significant portion of that budget. I know that there are numerous political games being played. I know I’ve done my due diligence in lobbying in Albany and meeting with faculty and staff about the state of the State. I know local and state activism is a part of our responsibility. But it’s a part, not all and I won’t be stopped in my tracks by it. We’ve got too much good going on at RCS in the way of learning with passion, innovation and leadership to miss.

Just Ask, Please!

Something wonderful happened today! It may seem like nothing unusual to you, it may seem like common sense, you may even think it happens all of the time. I can assure you it does not.

Someone in our community heard something that worried him and it ran contrary to what he knew directly from us. Instead of getting upset about it, or repeating what he’d heard, or calling our BOE members, this gentleman contacted me.

Why is this extraordinary? Because it seldom happens. I know I hold the responsibility for communicating what we’re doing to our community, along with our administrative team, faculty and staff. I’ve learned that we have to repeat the message in lots of different ways: in face to face conversations, in the newsletter, on this blog, on our FB Page, linked on the website, letters to parents, and at meetings.

Sometimes, as in this case, an employee or student hears a bit of a conversation or the germ of an idea and then repeats it with additional information added in. Remember that old telephone game from elementary school? The one in which someone tells a message to the first person in class and it’s quietly whispered in the ear of every kid in the class until the last person says what he’s heard? The final message is always drastically different from the original.

So the very best thing happened today. This community member went right to the source and asked me if what he’d heard was true. There was a spark of accuracy in what he’d heard, coupled with a whole flame of inaccuracies.

If you hear something that doesn’t sit well with you or runs contrary to what you’ve thought before or just leads to a question, give us a call. We’ll do the best we can to listen and answer all of your questions, to give you good information and to help you to be well informed. We’re a public institution, it’s our responsibility to be transparent and share information. Please ask us!

What Administrators Need from Teachers

I was asked to participate in a series of blog posts over at Dangerously Irrelevant. Scott McLeod first asked teachers to write about “What Teachers Need from Administrators” and then I was included as part of the subsequent posts on “What Administrators Need from Teachers”.

It occurs to me that I submitted that post for a national audience without sharing it here, on this blog, for our own teachers. So here it is. Would love to hear what you think!

Technical Sergeant Bradley Walters Writes Home

I received an email last week from 1997 RCS graduate Bradley E. Walters. Mr. Walters is now Technical Sergeant Bradley E. Walters and he’s stationed in Kabul, Afghanistan with the United States Air Force.

Why did he write to the RCS school superintendent, someone he’s never met? In Bradley’s words,

I’m motivated to help the children and people of Afghanistan get clothing and school supplies. I recommend that you read the book Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. This book explains, in my opinion, the way to really make an impact on this country; that is, through education. If these children are lucky enough to go to school, they usually are sitting on the ground with virtually no school supplies. These kids desperately need flash cards and books to start learning English. Books at the elementary level are what are really needed.

Randolph has a history of being #1, so hopefully RCS can come through and give these children over here some school supplies and clothes to wear. We will take pictures delivering the donations provided and I will ensure that Randolph sees them.

I have made a personal decision to dedicate my deployment to helping the Afghan people through charitable outreach.  I believe we have an incredible opportunity to make a difference in the lives of the Afghan people. That’s why I have joined Operation Outreach Afghanistan (OO-AFG).  OO-AFG is a Soldier led volunteer organization at a base located in Kabul, Afghanistan.  OO-AFG was founded more than four years ago by a former Soldier serving in AFG.  It has a mission of empowering the Afghan people through humanitarian assistance and medical mentorship.

We would appreciate your support of OO-AFG by donating a gift to the people of Afghanistan.  OO-AFG needs material items like shoes (Ages 0-20); school supplies/book bags, English spelling and grammar books, numbers and spelling flash cards, fleece blankets, first aid kits.  You can ship your gifts to me at Bradley E. Walters, 855 AES, Camp Phoenix, APO, AE 09320.

Let me thank you in advance for your generous support and gifts.  Your contributions will enable us to show the Afghan people the love and compassion that America is known for around the world.  Together we can heal the hearts and minds of the Afghan people!

Please know that as a public school system, we cannot donate items to this effort. However, as individuals we can do much to support Bradley’s efforts. Randolph, I know many of you will have your wheels turning when you read this about what we can do to help. . . please post your ideas and your plans here so that others can contribute to your efforts. For example, I know that our elementary teachers, Mrs. Beaver and Mrs. Kobinski, are collecting books and clothing that they can send. Casual Friday contributions in the future can be used to help pay the costs of shipping the items over—but more help will be needed to pay for this.

Please post here if you’d like to help or contact Mrs. Kobinski or Mrs. Beaver in the elementary and Ms. Carnahan or Ms. Albano in the high schools. Or me!

Admin PLC

You may or may not realize that school administrators and many support staff work during the school breaks. What do we do without students or teachers around? For me, it’s time to catch up on big projects and most important, concentrate on my own learning. I had several projects I wanted to complete this week. I’m taking vacation days and spending time with my family next week. 🙂 I did the requisite paperwork, analyzed and updated several contracts, worked with the admin team two days, and then got down to the business of reading and learning. What’s influencing my thinking this week? Primarily three sources. We read District Leadership That Works by Robert J. Marzano and Timothy Waters and our curriculum coordinator, Tiffany Giannicchi, turned me on to the National Staff Development Council and their resources. As an admin team we worked with our school attorney, Jeff Swiatek, on learning the legalities and best practices in evaluating teachers and particularly, providing them with feedback if help is needed. I’m not sure we ever do that really well, either if the teacher is delivering stellar instruction and has remarkable student achievement or if the teacher is struggling. Our admin team has formed our own Professional Learning Community (PLC) in the same manner that we will ask our teachers to do so for the 2010-2011 school year.  We first sat and thought about what we would most like to learn about, study, improve upon as we work together next year and then we shared. Each of us had the same thought. During my “think” time and before our “share” time, I wrote in my learning journal:

What do I most need our administrators, including me, to do really well? Enhance how we give feedback to teachers and better communicate that student learning is more important than anything else people get hung up on.

I was impressed and pleased when we shared our thoughts (I went last) and found that each of our administrators said that they’d like to learn to give better, more meaningful feedback to our teachers and staff. This concept went hand in hand with what I learned in reading Marzano’s District Leadership That Works when he writes about the articles of Karl Weick,

Relative to the characteristic of interdependent components, he noted that districts and schools are “joined more loosely than is true for other organizations” (p. 673). To illustrate, in tightly coupled systems, a poorly performing individual attracts attention. In response, performance of the individual is brought up to an acceptable level or the individual is replaced since his or her behavior is jeopardizing the effectiveness of the entire system.

As building administrators (and I know because I was one for several years), we end up managing the building, solving problems, taking care of discipline. We get in to see our teachers when we can and we’re sometimes distracted by student behavior when we are in the classrooms. We have to find ways to do this better, to pay more attention, to make this a priority. We know it and we’re setting forth together to learn how to do it well. And you know what, the majority of our teachers and staff are quietly doing a phenomenal job each and every day–it’s only going to enhance motivation and commitment for them when we say, “we see you and we appreciate what you do for our kids every day.” Just one more way we can work together to enhance learning opportunities for our kids, working to make an RCS education the best it can be for every student. Leading to every child learning with passion, innovation and leadership.

Opposing Viewpoints

If you missed the discussion that took place in the comments section of my blog post Resistance to Change, then you missed a good discussion.

A couple of people have stopped me  since that “blog” discussion happened to say things like, “SEE! That’s why I’d never write a blog, you’re too exposed.” or “Are you okay?” and there was a general reaction of some that it was almost scandalous that anyone posted opposing thoughts here.

That’s exactly what’s supposed to happen on the blog. If I only wanted the conversation to go one way, I wouldn’t allow any comments. I’d just keep putting my word out without listening. But here’s the problem with that idea, I’m not always right. None of us is.

I realize I’m very comfortable with debate, argument, discussion, and conflict from studying the learning styles as advanced through Thoughtful Classroom, the work by Richard Strong and Harvey Silver. I’m an “understanding” learner and so one of the ways that I learn and improve my thinking is through analysis and discussion. Just because you disagree with me doesn’t make one of us right and one of us wrong.

It’s through discussion that we can come to better conclusions together. Knowing that I had a teacher who got a very different message than what I intended worried me. I called several people who I know read the blog regularly and were also in attendance at Thursday’s roll out of the Professional Learning Networks. I needed to know if others got the same message he did, “had I totally screwed up? Is that what my message was?” See, I learned that at least one person walked away with something other than my purpose–that’s important to me. And worse, if others read the blog and that comment and thought, “well, that wasn’t what I thought she was saying, but geez, is that what happened?” then I’ve got a bigger problem.

Here’s the thing, those conversations have always taken place in hallways, parking lots and faculty rooms—-but SELDOM with the administration. With the blog, I get to add my voice to the conversation and I also get to hear what some others are thinking. Best case scenario in the conversation on that post? I get to clarify some thinking and I get to learn from the readers who comment. Thank you to Teacher, Matthew K. Tabor, Cody Heaps and Dan Scapelitte for commenting.

I keep saying that we’re better collectively than we are apart–this is another example of that same thing–it applies to me too. I’m better if I know what everyone is thinking. I might not always agree and sometimes I have to take a stand that some won’t like, but we’re all better if it’s done openly and honestly, F2F or on the blog or in an email or whatever—collaborating and communicating strengthens all of us. Everyone doesn’t always get her way but together we make better decisions, especially if we can acknowledge that there’s more than just our individual point of view to consider.

Through our diversity we can come to better learning with passion, innovation and leadership—open minded and kicking the heck out of that status quo. Looking forward to hearing more from you!

What’s happening with the bus garage?

If you thought you’d heard the last of the problems with the mechanics’ bay, think again. I’d like to update everyone on where we are with this issue. It was a year ago in May that our proposition for an addition to the bus garage was defeated at our public vote.

Since that time, we have worked hard to maintain our buses, pass our NYS inspections and of course, to keep our children safe. Brian Hinman and Amos Cowen have done an excellent job of focusing on preparing our buses for NYS inspection and our passing rate has increased significantly. We are carefully considering our preventative maintenance, completing all of the work that we can do in house and working with J&R Auto Repair in Olean for all of the work we can’t do here without a lift. Very recently, J&R has become the site we’ve moved to for our NYS inspections and they are helping us to prepare for those inspections. A huge thank you to Cattaraugus Little Valley district for the time and space they allocated to us over the past year to have our inspections conducted there. The move to J&R allows us more opportunity to have the pre-inspection work done that we can’t get done here.

Do we still need a bus mechanics bay with an approved lift? Yes. It’s more cost effective for our own mechanics to prepare our buses here than to pay to transport them to Olean and then to pay for the work that J&R has to complete that we can’t.

What are we planning to do about it? We committed to study our operation without the lift, comparing the costs of taking the work we can’t do ourselves elsewhere and most important, to improving our NYS inspection passing rate.

We’re also working with a new architectural firm, Habiterra,  on our NYS required 5 year facilities plan. It is our hope that we will work with them to develop an addition that is as affordable as possible to our taxpayers. With all of the cuts the State is making right now, there is still no indication that they will reduce their commitment to capital projects.

Will the proposition for an addition to the bus garage come up again? It’s likely but we have no definite project or time table in place at this time. It is a priority for us in our NYS required 5 year facilities plan. We want to take the time to look at our facilities as a whole and to identify any other items that may need our attention, like the roof we need on part of the high school building or pursuing green initiatives and/or our own fuel source. We also continue to think about our playing fields, our limitations to parking and our maintenance of the beautiful facilities we have now.

A Winning Attitude

We are fortunate in Randolph to celebrate a wide variety of student success, from our Lego Robotics team to our All-State Chorus students to our State Champion football team to our Quiz Bowl winners and many others. One of the most important things that we can do is offer our students a wide variety of experiences and activities so that each kid can find something he’s good at or loves. We inducted a stellar group of students into our National Honor Society last evening, one of the most significant accomplishments our students can achieve.

I’ve been thinking about our NHS Inductees and the happiness I felt for them last night for their well earned success. This morning I watched the video link of Saturday night’s Homecoming Parade after our State Championship win on our RCS Facebook Page and also checked out Channel 7’s news coverage.

The thing that strikes me most is the way our student successes affect us as a community.While working in Gowanda, I was asked by a BOE member why schools like Randolph and Pine Valley do so well on the NYS achievement tests. I remember reflecting on that question and I’m more convinced now than ever that I gave the right response.

Student success on the playing field or in other more academic competitions like Lego Robotics or Quiz Bowl translates into an overall positive and optimistic feeling in a district. Especially a huge success like we experienced this weekend with our State Championship football team. It’s something I wish my own son could experience and it’s hard to explain if you haven’t been there.

While I was teaching at Pine Valley, our boys’ football and baseball teams did really well and our girls’ basketball team won States. That translated into huge pride in our school and who we were as Pine Valley Panthers. I couldn’t imagine teaching anywhere else, I knew my kids were the best there were and besides, they needed me. It was a wonderful ten years. The school was the center of the whole community. We loved our school and I wasn’t afraid to say that or to show my students that I loved them and loved being there.

It’s that way at Randolph too. We are all so proud to be Randolph Cardinals and it permeates everything else that we do. It just gives our kids a winning attitude. They come to believe that they can do anything. And believe it or not, that translates into what they accomplish in the classroom.

It’s a wonderful time to be the superintendent at Randolph Central. I received the best compliment ever from someone at the NHS Ceremony when she said, “this job must agree with you because you look younger than when you started.” You know what? I feel younger too. This is an incredible job in an extremely supportive community and that winning attitude? I’m definitely feeling it too. Think we can do anything together.