27 September 2011

What makes a good principal good?

On day, while walking out of school, after a particularly tough department chairs' meeting, my principal, after whom the idea of going out in a Blaze of Competence is named, asked if I had ever considered a career in administration. I told her that I had not. She asked why not. I had a simple response. I don't like cleaning up other peoples' messes.

Today, I thought the BlazeBlog might investigate what makes a good principal. I was inspired to write this post by a tweet which led me to this New York Times article. I know that you don't want to read that article. Go ahead and read it anyway, because I want you to know how much I stole from it.

In the interest of full disclosure, I'm going to give you that column's list of the things which make a good principal:

1. A good teacher has been a teacher
2. A good principal feels at home in a cafeteria filled with 800 children eating rubbery scrambled eggs for breakfast.
3. A good principal has her own style.
4. A good principal protects her teachers from the nonsense. 
5. A good principal sets her own high standards.
6. A good principal works with union leaders to carry out her educational agenda, and if she can’t, takes them on. 
7. A good principal knows teachers are only part of what make a school run.
8. A good principal takes money out of her pocket for the school. 
9. A good principal loves and trusts the public schools where she works.
10. A good principal worries in private, ignores the surreal and finds a way to get things done.
11. A good principal has a To Do list several feet long.
12. A good principal leads by example.
The column surely uses one principal as the basis for the entire list, and there are certainly risks in that approach. Also, he doesn't actually quantify how he determined that she was successful. However, I've worked in 5 high schools (6 if you count my student teaching. I wouldn't though, since I was hardly thinking about the principal because I was mostly focusing on survival.) and he seems to have figured out most of the keys to what makes a principal good.

But you don't read the BlazeBlog to see me link to the professionals. (aside: if you want me to run a links column once a week, either email me or post in the comments.) So, here, in a totally derivative fashion, is what your humble host thinks makes a principal good. 

1. A good principal sets clear expectations.
The principal is the captain of the ship that is a school. They need to be the person who sets the goals. They need to set clear goals for all members of the school community. When a principal has clear goals for 1 month, 3 months, 6 months and longer, people know where they are going. These goals can be developed with members of the community and teaching staff, but the principal has to be the person who enunciates them and pushes people towards those goals. 

2. A good principal recognizes effort from all people, not just faculty.
 The principal needs to recognize that while the teachers have the most direct interaction with students are the faculty, students are learning from all of the employees of the school. Students learn about life from janitors, lunch ladies and secretaries. Indeed, I think most people who have worked in schools can agree that the support staff keeps a school running. They make sure the toilets flush, the trash gets taken out, and the hungry mouths are fed. They are the first and last faces most visitors to a building see. Principals have a duty to recognize all of those people as equal partners in the education process. When those people feel appreciated, they will keep working hard, and the school will continue to operate as a team. 

3. A good principal is an umbrella.
Schools are constantly under assault from people who can't teach. Legislators, board members, and community lunatics are constantly flinging rocks on the internet, on the phone, in person. (Ok, they don't actually fling rocks in person. In person they yell.) There is a constant stream of people who think you could/should/must do 95,000 other things. A good principal deflects as much of that as they can. They absorb the abuse so that teachers can focus on teaching, instead of worrying about new legislation or board policies, or, or, or. I'm not trying to say that teachers shouldn't have to deal with problems they have created, because they should have to clean up messes that they made. However, many of the messes teachers end up dealing with aren't self-inflicted. You know what? I misspoke up there in the subheading. A good principal isn't an umbrella. A good principal is a Kevlar vest.

4. A good principal keeps their worries to themselves.
A principal has the hardest job in a school. They are a member of the team, but they often have to be an individual. I think this is hardest when the times get toughest. When the worries of the world, of test scores, of insane parents and stressed out kids piles up on a principal, the temptation is to spill all of those worries out to the staff. I think that all that does is to make the rest of the staff worry about things that they can't change. Perhaps principals need to find some sort of support system to allow them to get their worries out without making their staff's heads hurt. 
5. A good principal is predictable.
One of the things that educators are constantly told is that students need to have a predictable environment for behavior. Schools are no different. They need to be able to predict how a principal will react. They need to know if the principal is going to be enthusiastic about new ideas, how the "boss" will respond to behavior problems. They need to know if they can expect the principal to rant and rave when he shows up to a swimming pool full of jello and goldfish, or if he's going to laugh and put the fish in a tank in the office. It is when people don't know what to expect that students and staff start to take chances, (Going Rouge in mavericky Republican parlance) and that's when schools make the front page for bad reasons.

6. A good principal engages the community.
Schools, when they are at their best, are centers of community. They serve as a gathering place, a rallying point, a home for those seeking one. It is imperative that the leader of that gathering place be engaged in the community outside of their building. Further, in the modern era, schools have to focus more on creating career ready graduates. To do that, schools should be utilizing the business leaders in the community, bringing them in, finding out what they need. The principal should spearhead those efforts. When the principal has been out talking to community leaders, it makes it easier to ask for money, or to diffuse potentially disasterous events. When the principal doesn't engage, the school seems like a foreign place, and community leaders judge it more harshly than they would if they knew the people who lived worked there.

7. A good principal believes in and trusts their staff.
Too often, schools are attacked for what they are or are not doing. A good principal defends their staff because they believe in them. One of the worst things a principal can do when they're new in a building is to not believe in their staff. I think the most damage I've ever seen done by a principal (and admin team in general) was when they entered a building and decided that every problem was caused by "the way we used to do things". For the record, I've been through that twice in ten years. Attacking in this way shows that you don't trust your staff, and that you think they were simply along for the ride with the old boss. Trust in your staff is key to getting them to trust you.

8. A good principal builds relationships.
 I firmly believe that education, at it's root, is about relationships. Kids learn more and better from adults who they believe believe in them. Teachers work better for administrators when they think that those administrators will defend them. Support staff works better and harder for bosses who they think care about them as people. If the principal leads this, and builds a culture of acceptance and positive relationships, the whole school can and will follow. The opposite is also true. If the relationships from the big office feel forced or false, people will no longer give of themselves totally.

9. A good principal provides guidance to young and new staff members.
Schools have a high turnover rate. Some day, perhaps the BlazeBlog will address this problem. At heart today, however, is principals and how they can be good. When dealing with new staff, it is important for a principal to provide support and guidance for new staff members and especially for new teachers. Support doesn't necessarily mean being in the classroom a lot (although they can help by providing lots of informal observations). Support can be an honest and frank discussion. Most of all, they must avoid creating a culture of fear.

10. A good principal stays out of the way.
If the principal is completing number 7 on this list, then they know that they should just let their teachers teach. Too often they can't manage to do this. District officials press down on them, and they press down on their faculty. They think that the best way to improve scores, behavior and reputation is to be heavy handed. Far too often, the end up like Michael Scott. (ok, maybe not like Michael Scott, perhaps more like David Brent.) They think that they are changing things, that since they've had 15 meetings with 30 different people things are changing. They aren't. Teachers will ignore a principal who is all hat and no cattle.

So, to summarize, a good principal sets goals, shields staff from idiocy, helps new staff get the lie of the land, and then gets out of the way. Thanks to all of my bosses who did that.

20 September 2011

This hole isn't deep enough! More digging!

Ok, dear fans of the BlazeBlog, here's a fair warning: This post is basically a poorly researched political rant. So, if you come here for a dose of educational theory or just some insights into my day, you should probably just skip to the end, where I will plop in a short pithy observation about high schools. Until the end, you're getting a screed about Rick Perry.

So grab something and prepare to get angry. At me. Or at Rick Perry. Or at the Tea Party.

Before I delve into my screed, some back story. At the end of the dark days of George Bush's presidency, a legacy of deregulation (thanks, Bill Clinton!) and an attitude of government neglect (thanks, Dick Cheney!) led to a melt-down of the financial sector. Now since the financial sector writes enormous checks to campaigns is vital to American economic stability, the government made numerous "loans" to large international banks. These loans had no strings attached and no rules (thanks, Henry Paulson!) and actually did very little to help fix the problem.

Out of this, a band of fiscal conservatives sprang into action. They called themselves the Tea Party. Aside from giving us one of the greatest collections of terribly spell-checked signs in history they have also introduced some "interesting" political ideas. A return to the gold standard. Outlawing Social Security and Medi-care. Letting people without insurance die. Thinking that Sarah Palin would be a good president.

If we're honest, most of their ideas are far to fringe to really have much impact directly on America. However, their original and oft-repeated (at high volume) message of fiscal conservatism. Most politicians have interpreted this message to mean "cut spending". Since the Tea Party is on the far right of the spectrum, the people catering to them are Republicans. And if we know one thing about Republicans, it's that they hate them some taxes (fun note about that clip: He actually did the fiscally responsible thing and raised taxes). So the Republicans in Congress, and across the country have moved dramatically to the right, and are now demanding that all new spending be off-set by cuts.

Realistically, that shouldn't matter. Shouldn't. But it does because I, and most other teachers, are paid from those funds. Our schools are lit with electricity paid for by tax revenues. I print on paper bought with tax money. When the copier breaks, do you know what kind of money pays the repairman? Tax money. This isn't just true for schools. It's true for all government spending. If you cut it, you cut that money flowing into the private sector. Now, you'll point out that schools don't need increased funding. Then, I'll point out that yes they do, because people do it like they do on the Discovery Chanel, and there are more kids than ever. Now there are even more. You get it. We need more money for schools because there are more kids.

So, we find ourselves in a situation where the economy is stagnant. The Conservative Right's demand for cutting spending is about to make things worse. How? Well, they think that if you just cut taxes, companies will start making and hiring more. I don't know what the reasoning is behind that, and I'm honestly so over the Republicans that I'm not even going to bother to read through the Google results.
What I do know is that by cutting funding to base level government spenders (schools, fire departments, police departments) you're actually hurting private business, because we buy a lot of things from private companies, and now we aren't.

Sure, it sucks that our classes are getting bigger and our checks aren't. It sucks that it takes longer for the fire truck to show up when your house is burning down. It sucks that the police can't really spare the extra manpower to look for your stolen car. But that suck is personal, and Republicans don't care about that. They care about stimulating the economy. You know how? It's a 2 step plan:

1. Cut taxes and spending (again, I'm not sure what this will do)

2. Vote for  this guy.

You know him, you love him, it's the adorable governor of Texas, George W. Bush Mr. Rick Perry! And what is his plan for getting the American economy rolling again? Let's take a look at his webpage, shall we?

Hmm, what did we see?

Perry’s pro-growth agenda, combined with real spending reductions, will lead to a new era of economic growth and the creation of millions of American jobs.
(emphasis mine)
Real. Spending. Reductions. 

Do you know what that meant for teachers in Texas? Well, now some of them get to clean their own classrooms. That's a good solution, since the other one was to lose their jobs, along with thousands of other Texas educators.

(I'm not even going to touch that his entire page for the issue of "jobs" ( which I assume is his economic plan, since his website doesn't have a link for "economy" or "economic issues") consists of only 163 words, of which 7 are "Rick" or "Perry". That's good. 163 words can solve the whole economy. I swear that somewhere Aaron Sorkin is already writing pilots about this)

I can't pretend to know what Rick Perry would do to schools if he were (shudder) elected President. But I do know that in Texas, where he touts his job-creation record, public-sector employees are losing their jobs. And I can figure out that when schools are cutting teaching positions, they have probably cut everywhere else they could and still stay functional. That means millions of dollars no longer going to private companies, which would have had to employ people to service those schools. It also means that those employees aren't spending money. To add insult to injury, those public employees then qualify for unemployment benefits. What pays for those benefits?


Why not just use the tax dollars to pay them to teach? Certainly the unemployment benefit is a much lower cost than full time employment. However, there is benefit to society when the teacher is teaching. When they are getting an aid check and bagging groceries? Not so much.

Anyway, you're tired of reading my poorly reasoned and negligently researched rant, and you're looking for a little bit of giggles to get you through the evening. Here it is:

Freshmen smell terrible. Really really terrible.

So terrible, I'm going to link to Charles Barkley saying terrible in a video. Over and over and over again. 

You're welcome.

19 September 2011

Teamwork? A title in progress

One of the upsides, from a comedy standpoint, of the increasingly influential movement to run schools like businesses is the influx of acronyms. In fact, our esteemed co-founder of the BlazeBlog, Dr. Dick Johncock, has even written on this phenomenon. One of the newest and most powerful buzzwords, which comes to us via the tech sector and the Partnership for 21st Century Skills is "collaboration".

Collaboration has become a massive buzz-word in education today. It's almost as though we've shifted our paradigm from talking about being standards based to being data-driven in professional learning communities.

There are two kinds of collaboration: planned and unplanned. Educators don't talk about that. We talk about library collaboration and parking lot collaboration.

"Library" collaboration is planned and scheduled. Some schools plan it into the day. In fact, a school I used to work at has built what might be the world's worst schedule so that they could build in planned collaboration time. This time can be very useful, provided there is good guidance from the administrators. Many schools have boosted student achievement with the so-called PLC model. PLC is an acronym for "Professional Learning Communities," and many states have begun to mandate PLC time for teachers. In California, every Wednesday is shorter with kids by 30 minutes, and we use that time as a PLC.

So many teachers could become better teachers simply by collaborating with their peers. If they were given the chance to talk, in a relatively open and free forum about what they're doing and what works. The problem is that many administrators fear open time, and think that it would be wasted. Since they are under pressure to prove that they are working to improve scores, they want to prove that the PLC time is being used well. To that end, they (in the BlazeBlog's humble opinion) over structure the time. They have teachers fill out forms, and jump through hoops, and then they say, "Tada! We did PLCs! Hooray! Our test scores are sure to rise!" (or words to that effect).

I currently work at a school that uses PLC somewhat differently. We were given certain tasks, and we do fill out a form so that they can track what we're doing, but they don't give us super-specific tasks. Then, miracle of miracles, they let us be professionals and work on tasks which we think are important. We create common assesments, we write pacing guides, we talk about resources we have, and how we might use them in the classroom. We collaborate.

It isn't perfect. Many people might be forced into PLCs with people who aren't really interested in growth. But, as this New York Times article points out, no profession is populated entirely with high performers. On the whole, I find this type of collaboration, when done in a relatively unstructured way, is pretty useful. 

The second type of collaboration in what yours truly calls "parking-lot" collaboration. I, and many educators I know, find this type of collaboration more cathartic than planned collaboration. I don't know if it's more useful or not, but it often feels like it. Parking-lot collaboration is unplanned. It happens when you run into somebody in the mail room, and your conversation carries over into the parking lot. It's one of those conversations where you're solving the world's problems.

The key to the success of unplanned collaboration is that it is totally open and unsupervised. There are obvious pitfalls with this. On occasion, it descends into a bitch session. However, the openness of it, the lack of accountability provide a framework in which really really creative ideas can pour out. I think that some of the biggest innovations in education probably have their roots in the parking lot.

Further, since informal collaboration takes place outside of the pay structure and contract day, it allows teachers to do something which they are very good at, but which tax-payers tend to oppose. A really good parking-lot collaboration session will require relocation to an establishment where adult beverages can be consumed. Once inhibitions have been sufficiently lubricated, the good ideas really start to fly. In fact, I'm almost certain that this very blog was inspired by a sketch on a napkin in the dark confines of a bar. 

And if nothing else ever gets accomplished because of collaboration (and depending on where it takes place, that may be the case), I hope we can agree that if it helped to create the BlazeBlog, it's a good thing.

Perhaps we can meet sometime, and collaborate on how we could make the BlazeBlog better. You pick the time and place, I'll bring the beer and the ideas.

16 September 2011

Embrace The Job You're Given

Hey there, welcome back to the BlazeBlog.

I would've written something sooner, but I've been hard at work. Tonight, however,  it's Friday night, and we don't have a home game, birthday, bar mitzvah, or Ice-Capades show to go to, so I could knock this out for your reading pleasure. Or for you to used as an "enhanced interrogation technique". Whichever you want.

Recently, I've been struck with massive mood swings. Some days, I'm happy, content, and loving my life. Other days start well, but by the time I get home I'm in full on "I hate teaching" mode. Some Most days I don't want to get out of bed (I would note that this has nothing to do with my mood, and everything to do with the obscenity of the hour, and the effectiveness of my wife as a bed-warmer.)

My wonderful wife has taken the brunt of my anger and frustration, which is unfair to her. Wednesday night, after I had something which approached a melt-down about state testing (another post for another day, but lets just say educational experts are falling all over each other about the recent SAT scores to once again decry the culture of testing), she basically told me to embrace the things that I was worried about and to just teach. 

When you think about it, that's the best advice I think any teacher could get. Sure, we live in a high-stakes testing world. Sure, classes are getting bigger every day, and the money is getting smaller for school. Sure, there is an expectation that every single kid will be engaged and learning at every moment of every day. Sure is easy to look at all of that and think that teaching has lost it's luster, that it just isn't worth it. 

Sure, I have 4 sections of 38 freshmen each. Sure, I don't have a single class that is special, like an AP or elective course. Sure, I don't have a room, or a desk that I don't share with a dorm fridge, or a staff ID. Sure, I still don't know where everything is. Sure would be easy to just stop going in, to throw in the towel, to decry the work as too hard.

Sure, you have the world's worst schedule. Sure, you have a principal (or Decider) who is a bombastic fool. Sure your district is headed to hell, and sold the handbasket. Sure is easy to see all that negative and forget all the positive. 

The solution isn't to give in to the negative, it isn't to quit. The solution is to go back to work. 

I don't mean stroll in and do what you've done before. I don't mean break out last year's lesson plans and do the same things that you did on this day last year. I mean work like it's your first year again. And yes, young grasshopper, I know that I'm asking you to do something hard (which is the same thing Mrs. BlazeBlog asked me to do).

I think you'll do it, if you're not already. You'll do it because you never believed that this would be easy when you signed on the dotted line. You knew what you were in for. I know that it's harder than it's been in a long time, and getting harder, and the reward seems like even less than it was yesterday. 

But the wife knows what she's talking about. You just need to look at the challenge, find a way to solve your problem (I have some great stories about her solving other people's problems), and get to work. You won't think it's fun (I know I didn't), but by facing the problem head on, you will make your teaching better, and that's fun. 

Sure, I don't have fun in the ways I used to (and you don't either). I'm working harder than I have in a long time. But the flip side is that I see kids starting to think, which is something the testing has drummed out of them. And if you've forgotten, seeing a kid actually think is pretty freaking awesome.

Yeah, you have to fight the exhaustion, fight the powers that be, fight the status quote. However,  you have to embrace the situation you're in, because until we reach a tipping point of ignorance, legislatures full of fools will continue to force us to comply with policies that do not help students learn. 

You, dear public school teacher, are the last line of defense. Sure, you could give up, you could drill-and-kill, you could embrace the vocab worksheet, you could go back to the old days of rote memorization. But you're not going to. You care too much. You might be jaded. You might be bitter, but you haven't bolted to sell insurance (or public relations services) yet, which means you want to make a difference (no matter how deeply you've hidden that fact away. 

Embrace the fight. Embrace the job you've been given.

Because a wise man from a famous center of learning, er, Bon Jovi says:  you live for the fight when it's all that you've got.

I'll let you make the jokes about printing tests on "the fight" since it's all that you've got....

05 September 2011

Putting things back in perspective

Recently, I've been a big 'ol bag of complaining. (further proof here and here)(oh, and also, my facebook news feed. That's been pretty brutal recently). I haven't been happy to give up my department chairmanship, to learn a new curriculum, or to not have my own classroom. Though I've tried to see the positive, especially in a county where unemployment hovers near 16%, I have been struggling. 

In a situation like mine, it is too easy to fall into the pit of negativity. Those of you who know me know that I tend to be a *ahem* realist *ahem*. That said, my realism often drifts into negativity. 

So, as you've read, the negativity spirals and feeds itself. Though I tried to find the positive, and often did, my long hours, and nearly constant thought about school conspired to wear me down. I was in a rut, and wasn't enjoying teaching.

And then the unthinkable happened. It is something that happens everyday. It is something that schools are simultaneously prepared for, and utterly unprepared for. 

A student was killed in a car crash.

Suddenly my not having a classroom, the copy codes not working, having a bad were all trivial. A family was without a son and brother. A team was without a member. Classrooms would have an unexpectedly empty seat.  Suddenly there were, as I told my history classes, bigger things to deal with.

This is one of the hardest things any teacher ever has to deal with. How can we possibly be prepared to return to a school which is in grieving? How do we address this in class? Very few (if any) of us have formal training in counseling or grief management. Sure, the school brought in the crisis response team, and the counselors and chaplains did a great job, but this is a situation that can quickly overwhelm that crisis team. Even if it doesn't, young people are apt to struggle with the reality long after the professionals are called to another tragedy. 

In 10 years I've been in schools where this has happened twice. In both of those cases, I didn't know the student. This time it was worse than either of those cases, because the victim was in my 4th hour U.S. History class. No amount of classes can prepare you as a teacher to have a class 20 hours after one of it's members has been unexpectedly and tragically killed. The school psychologist was there for class, sitting in his seat. She let me open class, and then she led a brief discussion about the feelings we were experiencing. We talked. I talked. Tears flowed. No U.S. History was covered. Again, we had more important things to do. 

When I came home Wednesday night, after perhaps the longest teaching day of my career, I felt oddly relieved. This feeling should not have happened. I examined why I felt the way I felt ( a dangerous examination, to be sure) and decided that it was because I had been a teacher. I've been struggling with this. The new classes, the state testing, the discomfort; all of it has been keeping me from being comfortable as a teacher. 

This tragedy gave me an opportunity to not worry about any of that. It gave me an opportunity to teach. The teaching wasn't content, though, it was life. As I told the class towards the end of our discussion, we were learning something that a book couldn't teach. We were learning to mourn. 

And this is, yet again, something that the data/run-schools-like-businesses movement can't understand. What I did last week was far more important than anything in the state standards for U.S. History. Schools don't exist to just teach content. They are places where adults help young people learn how to function in society. Schools teach things that no standardized test can ever measure. That is why kids don't just come to school for rote memorization. That is why we have behavior modification plans. It is why we have tardy policies, and dress codes, and hundreds of other things that are largely not related to content. 

Those that would champion online, or home, or any other number of schools that focus largely on results almost always miss this. The argument should not be primarily about how well every single child learns every single specific fact that the state wants them to learn (although learning is of course an important factor in schools), but rather about how the whole person is made better by the schools. 

If we use that matrix to evaluate schools, classes would get smaller, students would memorize less and learn more, and (I think) American schools would turn out better citizens. They'd score worse on those international tests, but that would be ok, because scoring well on a test isn't an important part of being a successful human.

Learning how to deal with the loss of someone you knew and loved is. And that's what we've been working on this week.