Student Apathy=Teacher Apathy

So my palms are sweating a bit because I just submitted my first post, Student Apathy=Teacher Apathy,  to LeaderTalk, a blog by school leaders for school leaders. As a contributor, I’ll be writing on the third of each month. I’m in some very good company as a blogger and so felt the anxiety of producing a good post, one that would be up to everyone’s expectations. Dr. Scott McLeod over at Dangerously Irrelevant put it all together.  

It was a different experience from writing here on G-Town Talks. This is my own blog and if readers don’t like what they see, they don’t have to return. This was harder because I realize reader expectations may be different from what I have to offer. And I care about the opinions of the other contributors, they are most of the people I read every day.

So please go check it out and especially look at the posts by the other writers–mine is just one of many voices out there and my colleagues offer thoughts that keep me learning every day.

Hurry Up and Slow Down

Went to read Educational Discourse recently, after a couple of well-written and thoughtful comments on this blog by Principal Kelly. He writes as follows,

Really, we, as educators, live in a world of dichotomy – where one part of our world is moving so quickly it takes our breath away while the other side hardly seems to move at all. There we are, stuck in the middle trying to somehow bring these two together. Some people are doing a fantastic job while others are so overwhelmed that they stick with what they know, which, we are finding, doesn’t fit with our present students which is causing some serious problems.

Just want to mention that I really get that–thank you Kelly for bringing to light something I wasn’t quite grabbing, something which always results in my total lack of patience with progress. (Just ask my boss.) The time spent reading and learning and planning versus the time spent trying to move a system two inches. That’s what makes the problem solving part of our jobs so intriguing–knowing what’s out there and trying to figure out how to bring it in. And what to bring in. And when. And how to pay for it. And convincing those who have decision making ability about the money that our initiative is worthwhile. Intriguing. Challenging. Frustrating. Worth it. 

Teacher’s Rule or Principal’s Rule?

As the high school principal, I feel personally responsible for everything that happens in our building. Everything. So what to do, and I KNOW every principal will relate to this post, when teachers have complaints about school rules?

Let’s use cell phones and MP3 players for an example. (And readers who spend their days in G-Town with me, I’m calling you out–post a comment, tell me what you think.) What should the school rules be in regard to these devices?

A brief history lesson first. When I arrived at G-Town, they were not allowed in school. If you had one, it was taken away and your parent called to pick it up, including school consequences. If you had one stolen, well, you shouldn’t have had it in school in the first place. ANY adult who thinks kids didn’t still have cell phones/MP3 players on their person is in serious denial. Last year, we purchased locks for every locker, told students we have things stolen way too often, insisted they lock their lockers and keep valuables inside. MANY students refused to use the lock (takes too long), items were stolen, same old story. This year, we say students can have phones on their person but may not use them during the school day. MP3 players may be used in the hallways and in study hall. Also, some teachers allow them as students work on art projects or on the computer.

One important thing to consider. Nothing gets teachers hotter faster than the idea of CONSISTENCY. If we have a school rule, everyone needs to enforce it in the same way for all kids. NEVER HAPPENS in my seventeen years, teachers have different tolerance levels for all kinds of behavior. And I know it’s my responsibility to ensure teacher accountability, as a principal I’ve proven I’m not afraid to address personnel issues. I’m also not going to damage a relationship with one of my teachers by taking a disciplinary approach to lack of enforcement of the “cell phone” rule.

Back to my question. A couple of teachers feel that allowing students to carry cell phones and MP3 players is a distraction. They say it’s a hassle to ask kids to remove them when they enter the room, that they always have to ask students to put them away. These are two teachers who I really respect, I listen to them. They are not chronic complainers.

What possible solution is there? Seriously. What options do we have? (And if you follow the news, little lockers built outside of the building isn’t ever happening while I’m here.)A school wide ban on these items? PLEASE (note: sarcasm). A school wide ban isn’t going to stop any kid from bringing these items to school. What are we looking for here? Should we dump progressive discipline and give our most serious consequences for this “offense”?

Let me pretend I’m still a teacher, as it hasn’t been that long–seven years. If it’s my classroom in our school and the rule is no devices out in class–why will I have any trouble enforcing this rule? It’s a simple, no big deal issue for me–just like tardy to class or late homework.

Here’s MY #1 Teacher Ruledo what I ask you to do when I ask you to do it. Reductive consequences–#1 Verbal warning; #2 Phone Call Home; #3 Let’s do lunch, today, my room; #4 You get to stay after with me :-); #5 Referral to the office and so on. Clearly articulated rules consistently applied, by ME. I didn’t make a big deal about it, I tracked it on my homework sheets, no arguments. Almost never got past rule #3. Simple. I should also throw in there that I genuinely respected and cared about my students, including expecting the best from them every day.

I didn’t need a school rule or procedure to say “it’s not ME, it’s the Principal’s Rule”. PLEASE. As the teacher, keep the authority, it will serve you well.

Teachers Gain by Blogging First

Here’s another thing that  struck me about Will Richardson’s post the other day. I guess it was Will’s last question that led me again down a road I’ve been traveling for a few weeks. Will was talking about the emotional side of online learning and he says,

And why we need to teach our kids how to build networks of trusted sources they can turn to themselves for intellectual and emotional support in the process. But how can we do that if we ourselves don’t?

I’m more convinced than ever that it’s a mistake when we ask teachers to blog with students when they haven’t blogged professionally themselves. Therein lies the answer–if teachers see how much they gain through the on-line learning available in this community, they’ll want their students to experience the same thing. However, when our teachers employ blogging as another strategy without “owning it”, they end up using it much as pen and paper activities, just on the blog. And who has it figured out that we’re missing the boat?–our high school students. Teachers who jump into using the blog as a place for students to respond only to them miss the depth and social connections available, BEYOND the teacher. Our kids end up seeing blogging as another teacher thing, not even equating it with what they’re currently doing on their own. Teachers need to blog for their own learning first, then they will fully understand the opportunities available to their students. And they won’t miss a great opportunity.

Teenagers Talking

Go and read The Emotional Side of Self Learning over at Will Richardson’s Weblogg-ed. It’s a great post about how our students cope with the information they gather as self learners online. Will links to Rob Mancabelli at Educational Thinking who says,

At my session on the Changing Role of the Teacher, one of the participants made a remark that I thought a lot about last night. She’s a principal and trained psychologist who has worked with adolescents in private practice for many years. We were chatting about the growing importance of media literacy, i.e. how we can teach our kids to sift through and evaluate the mountain of internet-accessible information. In the middle of this discussion, she wondered aloud about how we can help students deal with the emotional component of having access to all of this information.

But when I asked her to elaborate, her concern was that students were seeking out and locating more and more emotionally packed information on their own time, often by themselves, causing them to come to our schools each day laden with a plethora of undiscussed feelings, questions and ideas.

Well, I’m not a psychologist by any means, but the kids I know aren’t exactly walking around in isolation without anyone to talk to–they have huge support systems among their peers which are often much more important to them than we are. Our kids are also connected to the adults in our building (a benefit of a small school) and in many cases, they’re connected to families at home. So this idea that kids in general have undiscussed feelings about emotionally packed information is escaping me. Our kids talk most things to death, either on-line or in our schools, or when they’re hanging out. They have more of a voice now than ever before.   As a teenager, I certainly read novels that were thought provoking and emotionally charged. Unless a friend had read the same book, the discussion part of it probably didn’t happen. But now, our kids talk to each other, online, constantly. They can send someone to the link of what they’ve read immediately. And they are happy to lead a teacher down a discussion path in the classroom if it’s even remotely connected to the instruction.

If our students are walking around with undiscussed feelings, questions and ideas, I’d guess they weren’t all that ignited by what they saw and read on-line. The point is that with most students little is left undiscussed. However, if students are walking around with feelings, questions and ideas based on what they’re reading and seeing online, I say they call that curiosity and that’s the point. I’m happy when they’re curious about anything and directing their own learning is a dream. The opposite is too often the case where our students don’t want to think, they just want us to tell them what to do. I want thinkers and learners to walk out the door of G-Town. Teachers first.

Are We There Yet?

Yesterday I posted about invitations that are coming my way based on my work on this blog. Miguel, Brian, Chris and Rick all comment in ways that show they get my question. Miguel and Brian mentioned the possibility that this could lead to something else, something bigger, something beyond principal or superintendent.

I don’t think there is anything bigger. For the 25-30 students who we lose as drop outs every year, there’s no job more important than mine (well, there is, but it’s being a supportive parent to them and so far that’s not a paid gig). For all students who continue to struggle with any number of things and need the best possible teachers in the most productive environment, I’m their girl. It’s my responsibility to make our school the best place it can be and I get a huge kick out of the problem solving part of this job. I LOVE to hit on something that could impact our kids–like the scheduling changes and literacy initiative. I love even more to read in the research about a school who’s turned it around and then realize we’re already on the path to doing everything in the articles. And I’m lucky enough to have a terrific faculty and staff who are game for just about anything, because they want our kids to do better too.

I’m learning patience as it takes too long to make a real impact. And I’m learning to stick around, to NOT look at those other opportunities. And the administrative opportunities are abundant in our area, like the superintendency in the nearby school district where I taught for ten years and still bleed a little purple for–didn’t apply. It was a painful decision personally, but if I go in another direction now (and I really like changing it up) G-Town goes through a couple of years of transition which can delay progress even more. And remember the march of another 25-30 kids walking out our doors without diplomas continues every year.

The only other direction I can imagine traveling is one that can impact even greater numbers of kids. But I don’t know what that would be and maybe that’s back to the readers’ comments on the previous post. Perhaps accepting invitations outside of my normal, comfortable work life leads in those directions. Right now I only want to accept those invitations, like working at High School’s New Face next summer, that help me learn new ways to improve me and to improve G-Town. I’m just not sure I should head elsewhere when we haven’t reached our destination–better achievement through a better experience and graduation for every kid in our district.  It just takes so dang long to get there.

Does Blogging Lead to Other Opportunities?

February actually concludes eight months of blogging for me. I’m fairly certain that eight months of any practice cements it as a habit. If only I could incorporate exercise and healthy eating so firmly into my routines.

Something interesting is starting to occur and I’m not sure how to handle it. I’m beginning to receive invitations to participate in things outside of my normal realm. For example, I’ve been invited to present at an upcoming technology conference, to participate in teacher candidate development at a local university, to write monthly on another blog, and to participate in a couple of surveys and studies.  These invitations have all come about because someone noticed me through this blog.

My first instinct is to say “no” to all such requests. I don’t know about all of my administrative colleagues, but my life’s a somewhat delicate balance as it is. Between evening activities for school including meetings, athletic events, concerts and dinners and evening activities with my own children, I can barely get it all in. I’m fiercely protective of the one evening per week I get to swim and the only home cooked meal my family enjoys is at their Omi’s house or provided by a dear friend. How do I fit in additional activities or accept invitations to present? To be really frank, I also hear my husband’s voice asking, “and how much are you getting paid to do that?” to which my answer is always, “nothing, it’s just a good thing to do.”

With at least thirteen years left in my administrative career, I also consider if each accepted invitation will be good for my future. Will it make me a better administrator, adding something to my value as a future superintendent? That’s a good three years away, but everything I learn now should ultimately make me a better leader later.

How and when to accept and how and when to say “no, thank you”?

Headed for the Black and Gold

We’re heading into our February break.  You know, the one I’ve written about before, the one that derails any momentum we may be gaining in the classroom after the week we had for Regents exams at the end of January. The week I am completely against and would prefer didn’t exist. But I’ve said all that before.

I’m taking my vacation days and heading to Pittsburgh until Tuesday. I’m going to stay with my parents who go to bed at 8:00 every night and get up at 5:00 am. This will be a great time to just drop out of everything busy in life. Read. Eat lunch out. Shop. Sleep late. Rent movies. Enjoy doing nothing with people I love.

One thing I won’t be doing is reading and writing on the blog. Since my good friend Lisa freaks out a little if I’m not on here for a spell, thought I should be public about why I won’t be writing. I’d like to tell you it’s a conscious decision to “unplug” but is really happening because my mother’s computer is a dog that already died long ago. They just keep it “stuffed” in the basement. NO WAY I’ll be able to even sign on. That’s okay though, I spend more time talking and listening to them this way. Cheers until March 1,  Readers.

Don’t Blog With Students

It’s a mistake to ask teachers to blog with their students. It causes anxiety and worry about too many things. Teachers may worry that their own writing will be judged. They worry about inappropriate comments and linking to undesirable places and people. They also figure they don’t have anything to say.

That’s why I say “forget blogging with your kids.” Blog for you, for your own learning. Read what everyone out there has to say about education, about students, about NCLB, about techie stuff, about learning. Worry about your own growth first. Look for ideas you can use in your classroom. Learn. When you learn and grow, your students benefit.

Then blog with your kids. But don’t do it just to blog. Do it when a question in the class inspires you. Do it on a topic that inspires your students. Blog with your kids when someone wants to dig deeper. Don’t take a simple, well done pen and paper assignment and turn it into a blog project.

Blog with your kids for the right reasons. Don’t do it poorly just to say you’re blogging as an instructional tool. That’ll just turn all of you off to blogging. Do it for yourself first. Get it right for you. Then you’ll get it right for kids.

True Confessions of a High School Principal

Here’s a straight to the heart honest confession for you. Ready? Half the time I wonder if anything we’re evaluating, planning, changing, adding, and/or eliminating is really going to make a difference. The other half of the time, the time spent reading everything I can get my hands or mouse on, I’m more and more convinced we’re on the right track. Today I came home from a meeting, firmly planted in the second half, the winning half.

We have a Regional Curriculum Council that meets monthly. It’s made up of school leaders from school districts across two BOCES, BOCES leaders, staff developers, and content specialists. We met this morning and I came back to school completely jazzed.

Our literacy initiatives are right in line with what all the research shows will help our kids. And the best part? We decided to head that way based on our own evaluation of our own kids. And we’re right. That feels good.

Scholastic’s Read 180 program was presented at today’s meeting. As I research reading programs, it’s hard to find something for my 9-12 kids. This may be it, if we can find the money. We’re already talking about blocking some of our classes, not all, just some and our ELA AIS and Remedial Reading would be a pair now.

High Schools New Face is happening again next summer and I’ll be able to go and help with the conference. That’s where I met Will Richardson and learned how to do this. And this has been a daily source of professional growth for me, one I wouldn’t give up if I had to.

What else? Our attendance rate is up, our scores are improving, and we’re keeping kids in school (but not necessarily graduating in four years). We have plans for improvement in scheduling with more instructional time and our literacy plan. AIS has been improved dramatically, our community college courses and electives are cooking, and the elementary and middle schools are sending us students who are better prepared every year.

So the next time I sound like I’m back in the first half, worrying that in the end it’ll all amount to nothin’, somebody please tell me to go read this post.