Monday, December 22, 2014

Change, Lessons Learned While Leading

If you’ve been around my blog over the last few years, you know my story. I was a High School math teacher, received my Masters in Educational Leadership from the University of Northern Iowa, and became the Principal of a struggling Middle School(identified as a Persistently Lowest Achieving School via NCLB regulations in the fall of 2009, I was hired in spring 2010). The reason I was hired was to lead change, period. My job was to turn around this school where 55% of students were reading at grade level. I’ll share my thoughts on the moral implications of reading at appropriate levels in a later post, but the situation we were in was dire.

In Michael Fullan’s book, Leading in a Culture of Change, he talks about the Moral Purpose of change (that’s chapter 2 of Fullan’s book). I am a firm believer in there needs to be an urgency for change. In my situation, there was an urgency for change. By being identified as a Persistently Lowest Achieving School (PLAS), the community and staff were embarrassed and disappointed of the student achievement in the community. Now, we can debate the effectiveness of NCLB, but it’s tough to debate that it created urgency for change. Many would argue the effectiveness of the changes made, but it made change necessary. The status quo of past practices was no longer allowed. Anyway, our staff and our community had a reason to make some changes. Our staff rallied around the Moral Purpose of providing an education fit for our students.

In Fullan’s fourth chapter, titled Relationships, Relationships, Relationships, he discusses the need for building relationships when leading change. During my first year, I did not force change. I spent so much time building relationships with staff. I wanted to create trust. The changes I had in store necessitated that my staff trust me. What did this look like you ask... Conversations, conversations, and more conversations. I would purposefully seek out teachers during their preps, just to say hello or ask how their day was. I was in classroom, not to catch them doing something wrong, but to praise them for the good things I saw and there were lots of good things! Our staff had to see that I trusted them as professional educators and they had to trust me to lead them and trust that as we made changes, failure along the path would be accepted, learned from and built upon.

We spent time building to the change. We focused our professional development time on quality instructional practices, mostly formative assessment. The real changes came late in year one and into year two. We repurposed time during the day to provide supplemental instruction. We focused on quality teaching. If you are a PLC person, you know the Pyramid Response to Intervention. If 80% of students aren’t meeting expectations, then the core, classroom practices must be improved upon. Along with this focus on improving instructional practices in the core, we also provided supplemental instruction and focused on strategies to meet students were they were. Many students were not reading at grade level. We had to close that gap. We had to do it for our students!

What I have learned along this path we have taken over the past five years is this.... In order to implement changes, the people in the system have to understand why. To change for change sake is a waste. They have to have grasp the Moral Purpose of why the change is necessary. What’s to gain for my students? The people, your staff, have to trust you. In order to build trust, relationships have to be built.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Pen and Paper.....???

I’m in the midst of my fifth year as a building principal. I remember my first year, very well. My eyes were opened to the jobs of the building principal. The time demands, the management, the instructional leadership, the .., the ... (Many, many tasks and jobs I needed to do). I felt that I was a very organized person. I had experience as a teacher and coach with a wife and two children, I felt I knew how to manage my time. I didn’t forget things, I stayed on top of things...

I remember one day very well that first year as a principal. It was a Monday and I was out in the building, visiting with students, stopping in classrooms to see how things were. During this hour or so of time, I was asked a question by one teacher. She needed a student’s schedule to be changed. There was a conflict with another student in her class and it would be better for all parties involved for the students to be separated in classes. An easy fix in our student management system. Then another teacher needed to use the school credit card for supplies for the class turtle, then another teacher needed to take a half day leave for a doctors appointment the next day. I came back to my office, took a phone call from a concerned parent, made another call to central office and then it was lunch time.

Three days later, I received an email from one of my teachers asking what had been done about the students’ schedules. I had said I would take care of it on Monday, however I had totally forgotten about it. With all the decisions I had made during those conversations on Monday, I had spaced it off. I was embarrassed. I let my teacher down...

I learned a lesson, I had to stay better organized. I reflected on the situation and tried to figure out how to resolve the issue. The next day, while I was out in the building, I was approached by a special education teacher who was having some concerns about how accomidations were being made in the general education classroom for a student. We visited about a way to resolve the concern. I then asked the teacher to email me about this to ensure I remembered. Problem solved... I went about this way of staying organized, remembering decisions during the busy times for quite a while. It worked for me.

Last spring, I read a Shifting the Monkey by Todd Whitaker. This book resounded with me. I knew there were many tasks, decisions, things... that I had on my plate that could be handled by someone else, the person who owned it. As I reflected on my own practices, I soon saw that by having someone else email me to remind me of our discussion, decisions, or things for me to follow through on, I was shifting the monkey. I owned the decision. It was my responsibility to follow through. What I needed was a way to organize myself, so in the impromptu conversations, when a decision was made I would remember and follow through.

I consider myself tech savvy. I have a smart phone, an iPad, and a MacBook. There had to be a way for me to stay on top of myself using one of these devices. I tried multiple ways to do this. Google Tasks, Wunderlist, Remember the Milk, and other task management tools. What I found out was none of them totally met my needs. I tried to always have my iPad with me, however I would set it down in a classroom and then leave without picking it up. Each app I tried just didn’t meet all my needs. I use multiple devices, a Moto X phone, an iPad mini, and a Macbook. Universality of use is very important. I don’t like how Google Tasks work on the web and couldn’t find a good app that was easy to use on iPad. Wunderlist was as close as I came to something that worked. However, I have this habit of wanting an inbox of zero, or as small as I can. This carried over to Wunderlist. When I finished with a task, I deleted it. I then didn’t have that good feeling of what I had accomplished. So, what else could I do?

I bought a Moleskin, the 3.5 x 5.5 size. It fits in my back pocket and is durable. I now carry a pen in my pocket all the time. What I found out was the task of writing out what I needed to do has helped me remember. To actually draw a line through the task when it has been completed has been a rewarding experience. I feel that I have accomplished what I needed to do.

So, how do you organize yourself? For me, as a building principal, I needed to come up with a system. My productivity has increased and I have time for the things that are truly important.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014


For most students, teachers, and schools, there is a set amount of time during the school day. Students arrive at school around 8am and leave around 3pm. Time is allotted for lunch, math, literacy, social studies, physical education, science, music, etc. There is usually a time for study hall. Well, really it’s time for students to socialize and do 5-10 minutes of homework. If closing achievement gaps and ensuring student learning are what you want to accomplish, your school day should be filled with time for learning, students working with other students or teachers.

I was selected as Principal of South Tama Middle School, in Toledo, Iowa in the spring of 2010. They had just been identified as a Persistently Lowest Achieving School via the No Child Left Behind legislation in Iowa. I started in July and embarked on a journey to ensure learning for all students. There was a daily schedule created when I began and time was given at the end of the day for a study hall. This time was consistent across all three grade levels. As I met staff, I asked what this time was for? The response was time for homework and also time for students to visit teachers to ask for help on homework. There was also a common response that it was a time teachers dreaded. There was not much structure and many students didn't need the time for homework. Being new, I knew I didn't want to shake the boat too much, however I knew that time would need to be used for something else. Specifically, time for interventions for students.

As the staff and I began to learn together over the next months, we had many a conversation about how we could utilize this time to help students close the achievement gap. I asked the question, can we use this time to provide instruction on prerequisite skills that some students were missing? The response I got was mixed. There were teachers that thought more time was needed for homework. Others, many others, were on board with utilizing this time for interventions. We made the jump. We divided up students based upon student data to provide added learning time for those who were struggling.

The question arose quickly, what do we do for the students who aren't struggling, the good students? We brainstormed and staff stepped up. We had a Family and Consumer Science teacher who teaches students about healthy snacks, then prepares and sells the snacks to students. Health, cooking, and financial literacy in one! A science teacher did a unit in conjunction with the local electrical company on conservation. Our Talented and Gifted teacher used this time to work with his students on extending learning and providing new learning opportunities. Everyone stepped up. We even had a Social Studies teacher who volunteered to take an intervention group for students who struggled with vocabulary.

So, you may ask, how has this worked out? We've refined our instruction and purchased research based intervention curriculum to support both students and teachers. There have been bumps on the road, but there have been some great victories. Staff have taken leadership and really made this time their own. In January of 2014, we were notified that we had been removed from the Persistently Lowest Achieving list. We celebrated our success and the hard work it took to get there, but we keep pressing forward, looking for ways we can provide more support for our students.

What have you done to repurpose time for student learning in your school?

Tuesday, August 19, 2014


Well, It's been a while since I've put words to a blog.... (Is that a new way of saying pen to paper?) Anyway,  a few weeks ago, while outside enjoying the beautiful Iowa summer grilling hamburgers for supper, Kaiser, our four year old, was on his bike. 

He was peddling back and forth in our driveway, making car noises like he was racing. He's figuring out how to go faster, use the brakes, turning, and sharing  the "road" with his sister on her bike. Seeing him really enjoy the freedom of having a bike, being able to go fast and have something of his own really got me thinking... 

Will his school be the same way? Will he feel like he owns his learning, or will it be totally teacher directed? Will he feel the excitement as he learns to put letters together to make words, or figures out what adding 2+2 is, or will it be just another task he's told how to do?

Are we doing this for all of our students? Are we providing environments where students own the learning, where it's okay to make mistakes? Kaiser has taken some falls and skinned his knees.  He doesn't  always want to get back up because it's hard or he's afraid to fall. We continue to encourage him to get up and try again. Is it okay to take risks in your school? Is failure the beginning or the end of learning?

 Kaiser has the bravery to try something new without knowing if he will be successful. Isn't that how you want to view something new:  try it; even if there is a possibility that you may fail, because you will just get back up and try again.   When students and staff have the freedom to take risks, allowed to fail, to learn from their mistakes and really move forward, they will experience success.