Educational Reform From a Leader’s Perspective

You don’t have to be an educator these days to be involved in a discussion about educational reform.  Everyone has an opinion on what that reform should look like and why it should happen, but most agree that some type of serious reform is necessary.  Fifteen years ago, who would have imagined that people such as George Lucas, Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Matt Damon and others would be so influential in education policy and politics? It is becoming clear that everyone has a stake in the future of education and everyone has a voice.

It is interesting that a building leader is placed in the position of trying to figure out how to implement all of the suggestions that everyone else tends to make.  It is up to the building leader to gather feedback, do the research, talk to the stakeholders and then  determine what is most important and design a successful implementation plan.

Okay, so you’ve got it all figured out.  You know what needs to be done.  How do you do it?  The answer can be quite simple.  You do it together!

Education is such an isolated profession.  Teachers have worked alone in their classrooms.  Principals have worked alone in their buildings.  Reform can not be accomplished in isolation.  The first step to successful reform is to get people working together.  Teachers have to know that they can trust the building principal and that failure is a natural part of change.  It doesn’t really matter what the initiative is that you are trying to move forward, it will move forward faster if everyone is on the same page.  Take time to build that trust and those relationships.  Ultimately, our business is about developing people; the young ones and the not so young ones.

Once you have enough staff members that trust you:

1.  Decide on a common goal.  What do you want your school to look like in 2 years, 5 years, 10 years?  How are you going to get there?

2.  Make a plan.  Your plan has to include common expectations, common training and common vocabulary.

3.  Next, create a sense of urgency.  Why is this goal important right now?

4. Finally, bring on the fun!  Change is hard.  Acknowledge that it is hard and plan intentional fun!

Amazing things are possible when groups of people work together for a common purpose.  Reform can happen.  But it will only happen successfully when the dancers on the dance floor want it to happen and are willing to work hard to make it happen.


A Changing Educational Paradigm

Why do we send our children to school day after day?  What is the purpose of education?  These are huge questions, but they are central to the understanding of the approach that my school takes every day to prepare children to meet the needs of the 21st century.

When I was in elementary school, I was assigned a topic to research, I pulled out the encyclopedia, regurgitated information about my topic into my own words and turned it in for a grade.  My teacher would look at my assignment, grade it for accuracy of literal information and give it back to me with a letter at the top.  I immediately forgot the information that I included on my assignment but I knew that I could always go back to the encyclopedia if I needed that information again.  These days the students could do the same assignment but use Google to research the information. SO WHAT??  What, really, have they learned by this?  Of course it is important to teach students where to find important information and how to put that information into their own words, but is that really ALL we want them to learn; knowledge and skills?

The world seems smaller and smaller everyday.  For example, our kindergarteners video chat with people in China and we can send email to any country and receive a reply in just minutes!  In order for our children to succeed in this technologically advanced global society, they need to be prepared for jobs that don’t currently exist and be able to solve problems that have yet to occur.  That may sound like an impossible task to many, but we don’t think so.  We have to teach our children to do more than remember important information and master basic skills.  We have to teach them how to synthesize and evaluate information.  We need to teach them how to analyze data.  We need to teach them how to solve problems and be leaders.  We can do that through Project Based Learning.

Elementary progress reports should be revised to include 4 new sections: Communication, Collaboration, Creativity and Critical Thinking.  Children should be explicitly taught these skills, practice them and receive feedback on how they are doing.  Teachers should be giving a grade on each of these separately and children should be held accountable for these skills every day at school.  It is time to report out on the skills that children will most need when they enter the workforce.

Teacher Engagement…yes, Teacher!


Have you ever wondered why teachers hold on tight to those lessons that they are most passionate about? You know the ones I’m talking about, those lessons on WWII or Immigration or Butterflies or Dinosaurs. Those lessons that teachers will make “fit” into their changing standards or curriculum. Administrators are often puzzled as to why teachers are so resistant to let these “passion lessons” go and sometimes think it’s because the teachers don’t have the skill or don’t want to work hard enough to plan new lessons on current standards. HOLD ON! There may very well be another reason.

Everyone knows that when a teacher is more enthusiastic about a topic, the students are generally more enthusiastic. When students are more enthusiastic, they are more engaged and therefore learn more. I can’t imagine how many paleontologists we must have out there right now because of the enthusiasm of their first grade teacher! :) Seriously though, do we have worse math scores in the classrooms of elementary teachers that are less enthusiastic about math? I don’t have the data, but I am guessing yes!

If we are going to ultimately increase student engagement, we need to first increase teacher engagement. Teachers must be passionate about their content and the facilitation of learning that they provide for their students. Teachers must have choice and autonomy while still adhering to a common curriculum. Teachers must be celebrated for taking risks. Teachers must be given the opportunity and time to work in teams. Teachers have to have FUN! I believe that all of these things can be achieved by designing a school wide system for concept based learning such as Project Based Learning! Project Based Learning is a framework that will create a culture changing passion for both teachers and students!

School Principal v. NBA Coach

It seems these days that politics are everywhere.  Whether it is professional athletics or school districts, politics have taken a strong hold.  Someone recently made a comment to me about the school principal being much like the NBA coach this season. How true that is!

The school principal’s first concern is for the students and teachers in her building.  The NBA coach’s first concern is for his players on the court.  There is bickering and disagreements between stakeholders in the higher ranks of both organizations, but the principal and coach have to keep their focus on the tasks that are within their control.  Around this country teacher unions and district level officials and school boards are at odds with each other.  The school principal is often in the middle of this situation trying to keep the teachers focused on their job of taking care of the students while being bombarded with “stuff” from the district level that is a result of the tense environment.

Public opinion recently assumes that there are horrible teachers in our schools and that the schools are failing.  We must have higher standards for teachers, they say!  We must be able to get rid of bad teachers, they say!  We must assess our students more so that we have the data to prove that our schools are failing and our teachers are lousy, they say!  Teachers, teachers, teachers.  Does anyone stop to think that the person in charge of hiring the teachers, mentoring the teachers and coaching the bad teachers out of the profession is perhaps the person we should be focusing on?  Why are we picking on the teachers?

Granted, I only have a slim perspective as I only work for one school district in this great big nation, but I have never had a difficult time coaching a teacher out of the profession when it was needed.  I pride myself in knowing instruction and being able to recognize good instruction vs. bad.  I can coach a teacher and provide them with the specific next steps he/she needs to take to move from good to great.  Unfortunately, I’m not sure that all principals can or have done the same.  There is very little staff development for principals, very few conferences for principals, very inconsistent evaluations of principals.

Unlike the NBA where the coach will get fired quickly if he’s not winning enough games, ineffective principals seem to be able to stick around, even when they are the ones with no unions and no contracts.  Don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting that districts should go out and fire all of their principals.  What I am suggesting is that school districts around the country need to focus on their principals.  Ask them what they need.  Spend time in the schools evaluating their effectiveness.  Colorado, I believe, is on the right track with the LEAD principal standards.  I only hope that the implementation of these standards gets the attention and follow through that it needs to make a difference.

What’s happening in YOUR states?


Using the iPad to Increase Principal Productivity

Using the iPad is not just about making your work easier, it is about making your work better.  This year I am using my iPad with Note Taker HD and Dropbox to provide my teachers with specific and timely feedback related to our school mission and goals.  Never before have I been able use one device to document  specific instructional strategies, observe the amount of student engagement and provide graphic and picture representations of what I see to the teacher before I even leave her classroom.  Classroom observations have never been so easy, or so fun.

Check out my new infographic highlighting my favorite Apps that I use in my role as principal.

ipad infographic

I want to be a TRANSFORMATIONAL leader!

Have you heard it? Instructional leader.  Instructional leader.  Make sure you’re an instructional leader.  AHHH!  There is so much talk in the principal world about being an instructional leader, but I don’t want to be an instructional leader!  I want to be a transformational leader!

Being an instructional leader means that you understand instruction and how to improve instruction.  If you are an instructional leader you spend a good portion of your week in the classrooms and planning professional development that will help guide your teachers to their next step.  This also means that you are able to delegate other managerial tasks to other individuals and spend most of your time proactive rather than reactive.  Instructional leadership was a concept that began in the early 1980’s.  Yes, I said 1980’s!  It astounds me that there are still principals that are struggling with this concept.  Of course, I have days that I am reactive and of course there are weeks that I am not in classrooms like I hope to be, but overall I feel that I have a very good understanding of the instructional strengths and next steps of the teachers at my school.

In order to thrive in the 21st century, I must be a transformational leader!  A transformational leader understands instruction.  But that is not all.  A transformational leader is one that causes valuable and positive change and turns followers into leaders.  I don’t want to be the principal who leads a building with great teachers.  I want to be the principal who leads the building who has great leaders!  Teachers who have leadership goals have motivation and a spark for learning that is contagious to their students.  It is that contagious spark that creates a learning environment where students are excited to pursue their own goals.

Many district level leaders are still urging their principals to organize their priorities so that they can be instructional leaders.  In 2011, if a principal is not AT LEAST an instructional leader, they should be looking for another profession.  Our students deserve more!  I say raise the bar.  Be a TRANSFORMATIONAL leader!

Share with me how YOU have been a TRANSFORMATIONAL leader!

Using iPads for classroom Observations

Classroom observation documents tend to be revised from year to year based on the needs of individual buildings and groups of teachers. Because of this, it is critical for evaluators to be knowledgeable of the tools that they can use, and most importantly, revise so that their work is current and relevant each year. Many principals are on the lookout for a perfect observation “tool” or “app” that will instantly tell them what to look for during a classroom observation. The real task is for the evaluator to reflect and be knowledgable about what they need to look for and THEN find a tool that can be customized to fit their needs and make their work easier. With the help of an iPad, I believe I have found just the tool.

Following are the steps that I take to create my observation documents.
1. Download dropbox onto your ipad and then also onto your laptop computer. Dropbox is free, but you must set up an account. It is an app that provides you with a way to share information between your laptop and your ipad.
2. Download a Note Taking app on your iPad that allows you to write on pdf document. I use NoteTaker HD. It is available at the AppStore for $4.99.
3. The next step is to create the document that you would like to use for classroom observations or drop-ins or both. This can be created using any word processing program, but you must be able to save the document in a pdf format.  You are welcome to use the link to access the observation document that I am using this year.  But please remember, the “look fors” that I use in my school may or may not be the same things that you are looking for.  I strongly encourage you to revise it to work for you.

Observation Document


4.  After you create your document you need to save in as a pdf format.  On a mac computer, you need to go to “File” then “Print”, then you will see a pdf button in the lower left corner and you can save your doc as a pdf.  If you need a visual for this you can check out this youtube video. .  When you select “save as” , another box will open where you can name the document and tell your computer where you want to save it.  You want to save this document to your Dropbox.

Now the fun begins…

5.  Go to your ipad and open Dropbox.  Find the document that you just created and in the upper right corner you will see a “push out box” which is just a box that has an arrow pointing out of it.  By clicking this button you will be prompted to open the document in Note Taker HD.

6.  When you open the document in Note Taker HD you will be prompted to name the document.  I suggest that you name it with the name of the teacher who you are observing and the date of the observation.

7.  Note Taker HD allows you to write, type text and add pictures to your documents.  If you are new to Note Taker HD, you may want to view a tutorial.  Here is one that I found on youtube.  Give yourself time to really play around with Note Taker.  It takes a little getting used to, but when you get the hang of it, it’s brilliant!

8. Now, before you leave the classroom.  Use the “output” feature to email your teacher a copy of your notes and then cc: yourself so that you have a copy.  Although it will stay in your Note Taker, you can use the emailed pdf to upload to any evaluation file or program you may be required to use.  For example,  I have to use a program called Halogen and I can upload this pdf directly into the teacher’s file.

Let me know how you like this approach or if you have figured out something you like even better!







Should Teachers Be Experts?

As we study 21st century learning and teaching we have focused heavily on the skills that students will need in order to be successful. Well, what about the teachers?? We are required by law to hire teachers that are considered “highly qualified”. Teachers must show that they have 24 credit hours in the area in which they would like to teach. 24 hours of gaining knowledge in their subject area. Teachers must be the experts, right?

The following are characteristics that we are told are important for a 21st century educator. Take a close look.

The Adaptor– can adapt the curriculum to: emphasize creativity & innovation be inclusive of different learning styles have an authentic purpose
The Visionary– can: see the potential in new technologies and manipulate them to serve their needs integrate the curriculum from multiple subject areas
The Collaborator– : provides activities & tools that promote collaboration between students shares, contributes & plans with a team
The Risk Taker– facilitates learning and: allows students to have control over the direction of the lesson uses the strengths of the digital natives to understand and navigate new products
The Learner– must learn and adapt lessons to fit student interests and changing technologies
The Communicator– is fluent in tools and technologies that enable communication and collaboration knows how to facilitate, stimulate, control, moderate and manage learning.
The Model– The 21st century teacher models: reflection global awareness an integrated curricular view
The Leader– has an action plan for their own growth in 21st century learning that includes goals and objectives

I may have missed it, but did you see “expert” or “keeper of the knowledge” anywhere on this list? Isn’t it important for the teacher to be an expert in their area of study? Of course it is valuable for the teacher to be able to speak intelligently about the subject he is teaching. However, with “knowledge” changing and becoming outdated at amazing rates, it is nearly impossible to stay current. Being the expert is no longer as important as it used to be.

I know that I will be paying particular attention to the above skills when hiring new teachers. In addition, I will be focusing staff development on these areas to address the needs of the teachers who are already in positions in my school.

Please understand that I am speaking from the world of elementary education. I would love to hear comments from secondary educators to see your perspective.

Collaboration. Is it a choice?

I was having a conversation with a group of educators and someone said that some teachers are not as comfortable with collaboration as others and that we shouldn’t hold that against them. I felt myself immediately becoming defensive at this remark. Collaboration is a 21st century skill that teachers are expected to teach and encourage in their classrooms. It can no longer be acceptable for teachers to retreat into their own classrooms and do their own thing. If we accept our students to collaborate we should expect our teachers to collaborate. Of course, some will not know how or immediately see the value so we must guide them toward this understanding. As teacher evaluation is being discussed on a national level, I think that the definition of an effective teacher must include collaboration. What do you think?