Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Don't "Hope": Design and Implement

With the first day of school less than a week away, I find myself getting tremendously keyed up to meet my new staff, student body, and parent community.  Over the last couple of weeks, staff members have begun to come in to set up their classrooms and prepare their lessons as well as to say hello and welcome me to our new school. Honestly, I have had some butterflies when meeting our faculty:  I know how important first impressions are, and I want to make sure that I talk less and listen more so that I can get to know them.

At the same time that I am starting at a new school, my daughter is starting her K-12 career in kindergarten this year.  I am excited and nervous for her all at the same time.  I hope that she will enjoy going to school. I hope that she will continue to be curious about, well, pretty much everything.  I hope that her teachers will get to know Paige a little bit, and get to know what her interests are and what makes her tick.  I hope that they can start to discover what she knows, and how that prior knowledge can connect to future learning that she is going to do this year and beyond.  I hope that they try to discover what motivates her, and what is demotivating to her.

It sounds like I am hoping for a number of things.

Interestingly, I think there are parallels here for both Paige as a new learner and me as a new administrator to my school.  I hope that my staff will enjoy coming to school and having me learn along side them.  I hope that I get to know a little bit about each of our staff members and find out what interests them.  I hope that I can find out their areas of expertise, and how we can connect this prior learning to where we want to go as a staff.  I hope that I can discover what motivates them, and what is demotivating as well.

Once again, it sounds like I am hoping for a number of things.

But I realize that I can't "hope" for these things to occur with our staff.  If it is important to me, I have to find ways to make this happen.  One of the most useful action phrases I learned when I was studying Instructional Rounds was 'design and implement'.  And in this case with our staff, I need to design and implement a means by which I will get to know our staff and learn the things that work for them.

At the start of each year, while a number of teachers will stop by the office to say 'hey', a number will not.  They will go right by the office to their classroom and get down to the work of getting ready for the upcoming school year--they are busy.  So as much as I already have had many conversations with staff members this week, I need to ensure that I have met with each faculty member in the building, and the sooner the better.  If a face-to-face meeting is important (which to me it is), then I need to slot it in.

As much as I have already sent our faculty a Course Outline Reflection Checklist which will give me a sense of how our staff structures their classes, I also sent out a Google Doc with a schedule so the entire staff books a time with me that is convenient for them.  We need to meet, and I need to make it happen.  And while I truly want these conversations to be open and informal, there are a few things that I want to make sure I ask, such as:

  • What can you tell me about you, the person away from school?  (I love learning where people are from, about their families, whether they have kids, or dogs, or fish, or cars, or whatever...)
  • What's something that you are good at that others might not know? (Fun question)
  • Can you describe some of your strengths as a teacher?  How have these become strengths for you and how can I support them?
  • Can you talk about some areas that you would like to grow as a teacher?  How can I support you?
  • How best do you learn?  What does it look like when you are learning?
  • What are some of the strengths of our school? 
  • What are some of the areas that you would like to see the school grow?  What could that look like?
  • How best can I encourage you?  What does that sound like?
  • What is the best way for me to tell you "no" or give you news/feedback that might be difficult to hear?
The last two questions were adapted from a post I read recently called "Why Encouragement Fails", and I look forward to some of the different answers that I will get as a result.

I'm really excited to meet the teachers and the rest of the staff at our school, and by creating a schedule of one-on-one chats to kick the year off, I can begin to build connections and learn more about our staff, our culture, and our school community.  By designing and implementing a structure to do this, I can take "hope" out of the equation and actually make it happen.  And while we have more than forty teachers and this will take some time , it's so important that I just can't leave learning about our staff to chance.

If you have activities that you use to get to know your staff or have questions that you feel might be important to ask or information that you think is important to solicit, please comment!

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Be Less Helpful

As odd as it sounds, I like this concept.  "Be Less Helpful".  Not to someone who has their arms full of groceries and is trying to fumble with a door handle, of course.  But in learning and education, I think that in more than a few circumstances it might pay off to "be less helpful". 

This morning my power went off.  So rather than drink my oil-barrel sized coffee and eat my gigantic bowl of cereal in front of the TV whilst watching the news like I usually would, I pulled out my phone and looked through a few TED talks.   I found one that was particularly intriguing by Dan Meyer called "Math Class Needs a Makeover", which I am sure most have seen but was new to me (see below).  Within the context of his remedial math class, he spoke about some of the characteristics of his typical math students:

I found these characteristics to be particularly compelling as they could easily have been used to describe me when it came to my math experiences in high school and university.  Oddly, I managed to survive quite well in math, but it was mostly due to the fact that I was quite adept at being able to look at word problems, figure out which bits could fit into a formula that I had memorized prior to a test and feverishly scribbled on the top, and then plug them in--I was 'eager for formula'.

Dan went on to describe the way in which math textbooks typically lay out problems--often times there are bits of data neatly laid out on a table with steps along the side there to guide the student through the problem, or particularly fascinating word problems that really just act as moderately interesting words interspersed between the numbers that the student will need to satisfy the component parts of a formula already given.  Because we do this so often, Meyer contends, students can become expectant of all of the parts of the problem to be laid out for them.  Of course when the pieces are not there, students become frustrated because they are unable to determine these components on their own.  Personally, I agree.

In the parlance of Instructional Rounds, the TASK PREDICTS THE PERFORMANCE.  Should a student be given a series of problems in which each of the variables are given (or at least made reasonably available) to fill out a formula that solves the problem, guess what?  The student will become incredibly adept at decoding the question to find those salient bits and matching them to a formula to spew out an answer, the signficance of which they might have little or no understanding.  This sounds incredibly familiar to me!

Dan Meyer suggests several solutions:

#3, 4 and #5 really resonate with me, not just within the context of a math class, but also when considering student and adult learning in general.  When I reflect upon the idea of task predicting performance, often times when I have worked with my staff and students in the past, I would present a problem and even a few possible solutions that I thought might work.  To utilize my good pal Bill Ferriter's use of Twitter hashtags, I might call myself


Not only was I shutting down any creativity in terms of the solutions that might arise, I was presenting the problem as I saw it and possibly even creating a kind of dependency on the fact that I, Principal of the school, would have a solution that we could all use.  Once again,


On the eve of my going in to my new school, I must be continually cognizant of the fact that
  • most real-life problems don't just have signs on them saying "here is the problem"
  • most answers to those real-life problems aren't just written in a nearby textbook on the pages after the appendix
  • the way to create problem-solvers (students or adults) is not to provide the problem and possible solutions but rather to ask shorter questions and have the problem-solvers synthesize the problems and hypothesize and investigate solutions through a variety of lenses and perspectives.
As much as it is my tendency to want to jump in with what I feel are reasonable options to deal with the issue at hand, sometimes I truly do need to 'be less helpful'!

Check out Dan Meyer's TED talk--I think it's brilliant!