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5 Lessons for New Leaders

Finding a new routine following a job change can be extremely unsettling. Despite my best intentions, I found little time for posting online during my first four months in administration.

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However, the holidays approaching always seems to prompt self-reflection for me. Something about the close of the calendar year triggers part of our human character to look back and consider the ups and downs of the last year.

In that spirit of self-reflection, here are 5 things I’ve learned about administration since becoming an Assistant Principal:

1. Play chess instead of checkers.

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Chess is a game for thinkers, while checkers is a game for opportunists. Just because an avenue for movement opens up doesn’t always mean that it’s the best option. Slow down. Breathe. Take time to consider all of the angles.

Good administration doesn’t need to be reactionary in order to be effective. That does not in any way suggest that there is not a time and place for swift, decisive action. However, it does mean that you have to constantly keep in mind the long game. Pacing yourself and learning to see the whole board is crucial. Not everything needs to be a crisis, nor is “King Me!” the appropriate objective. Planning for achievement requires time and patience.

2. It’s all about the relationships.

One of the reasons change takes the patience of a chess player is because relationships are at the core of school culture. Nothing is going to rankle everyone more than a new leader who barges in trying to change everything all at once. Transitional periods in educational leadership need to be about learning how the pieces move on the board and building the relationships needed to move those pieces. Very few important administrative accomplishments will be achieved in the front of the room at a faculty meeting. The groundwork needs to be laid in a thousand small conversations and built up until it acquires critical mass.images

Of course, this means developing a lot of skill in time management so you can get out of the office! Getting out there helps you build the relationships and develop a better sense of how the community operates. If you move the needle on public opinion first, then actions you take will be perceived as an appropriate response rather than hasty and disconnected from the school culture.

3. Find a mentor.

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When you first arrive to a new leadership role, you are effectively walking into an active minefield with no ideas where the mines are located. Without some guidance and support, you are virtually guaranteed to accidentally step into trouble and lack a proper response when you do. Having a mentor is probably one of the most mature and responsible things you can do as a new leader. We all need someone to talk to about the issues we face. Someone who can provide objective input can help light the way for your to navigate difficult situations.

A word of caution. Please note the word “objective” relative to input. It is hard and nearly impossible for co-workers, bosses, or spouses/significant others, or family members to be objective. Some of my best mentors are former bosses from past jobs. They know me well enough to point out my areas of growth and challenge without feeling the pressure to evaluate my performance relative to the good of the school. Most of them have been where I’ve am today and run into the exact situations I am encountering now.

4. Leave it at the office.

Having a mentor frees up your family and friends to actually be the support network they ought to be for you. Spouses and children don’t need to be witnesses to the effect job stress has on you. Finding an outlet for that stress (hobbies, exercise, spirituality, chores, etc.) should be considered a required part of the job for administrators. Poor stress management can be a real killer for your personal relationships.

I also make some rules for myself about doing work from home. There will always be occasions where a need might arise to do work from home, but I try to avoid it. Likewise, not every email is an emergency demanding an instant response. Some people work well writing late-night or weekend emails, but if that isn’t you then you need to set some limitations for yourself! When you receive a weekend or evening email that doesn’t require an immediate response, consider leaving it for your next morning at the office computer.

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If you are seen to be constantly available, then you start to set an expectation in the mind of those with whom you communicate that a response from you will always come on-demand 24-7-365.

It’s not about ignoring the job, it’s about balance. Making time for your home life is critical to long-term happiness and success.

5. Make time for reflection.

Once more – slow down. Breathe. Even a few minutes a day reflecting and reviewing immediate past action is a tremendously beneficial practice for leaders at all levels. Find a regular time that is best for you and stick to it.

For me, I have found getting to the office early (when it is quiet) is good for catching up on emails, but I also take a few minutes to just close the door and enjoy the silence. It doesn’t last too long, but it does help center me for the day ahead. Morning workouts and spiritual exercises can also fill this need. I highly suggest that you also fit in some collaborative social media when you can so you can take advantage of your PLN!

rear-view-mirrorThe last has definitely been an area of challenge for me these past few months and I have started reorganizing my new routine to bring this back into my life. It is a major goal in the year ahead to routinely take a step back just reflect on where I’ve been, where I am, and where I’m going. Whenever I do, I always return to my work refreshed and more focused on our ongoing mission of boosting student achievement!

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Quo Vadis?

I am returning to my blog after a somewhat extended absence.  Neglecting the blog was not something with which I had hoped to contend, but it became a necessity in the last couple of months as I went through a career change.  After ten years of teaching, I am making the move into administration and leaving my school for a new job.

I am excited and also a bit nervous about the changes I am experiencing, and all of that is probably appropriate.  I have been reflecting a good bit over the past several weeks, and the moments my life has given me to do that have been ample.  My last graduating class, my last class period of students, parting ways with colleagues, packing up my classroom – all of these events have put me in quite the reflective mood of late.  It has been a good exercise, to think back on the last ten years and contemplate all of the work that has been done.  What have I accomplished?  What would I do differently if given the chance?

Then there’s the forward-looking question… Quo Vadis?  For those without a taste for Latin – “Where are you going?”  This phrase is traditionally attributed by Christians to St. Peter.  The story goes that Peter was struggling in his early days as a missionary in Rome.  The issues he found himself dealing with in the capital city were so overwhelming that he had begun to doubt whether or not he was up to the task.  At a given point, anticipating not only resistance but the possibility of death, he resolved to give up the entire enterprise and he was on the road leaving the city when he had an amazing vision.  Jesus, whom in the Gospels Peter had last seen not only resurrected but also ascending bodily into heaven, was walking on the road INTO Rome, just as Peter was fleeing the same.  Knowing that he would find only suffering and probably crucifixion in Rome, the question was posed by Peter to Christ – Quo Vadis?  Where are you going?  Christ’s response was that he was headed to Rome to be crucified again.  Tradition tells us that this response gave Peter the courage he needed to turn around, return to Rome, and ultimately embrace the uncertain future that awaited him.

Changing career paths has been an extraordinary opportunity for me to reconsider my purpose in life and to rededicate myself to a personal sense of mission, much as the vision on the road leaving Rome was for Peter.  I have wondered aloud and silently about the implications of changing something about my life that is so intertwined with my sense of identity.  After all, if I am not a teacher, then who am I??  My conclusion is that I may have traded my classroom for an office, but I remain an educator.  I also remain committed to a vision of facilitating the growth and achievement of young people.  I have not always succeeded in that mission, and will likely have future stumbles, but the power of reflective moments like these are important sources of strength to muster up the courage to soldier on in the face of difficulty.

I would suggest that the question to the entire field of education is the same – Quo Vadis?  Where are you going?  Teachers and professional educators have struggled of late in the face of growing scrutiny and morphing trends, as well as shifting budget priorities.  What will be the response of our profession to the challenges that we face?  Will it be Peter’s initial impulse to retreat from the mission ahead, or will it be to renew and redouble our focus, using this moment to propel us forward into what awaits?

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Flipping Without Flopping

Without question, the most talked-about educational innovation to go mainstream recently has been the “flipped” classroom. For the uninitiated, this term broadly refers to the practice of delivering content to students electronically for independent consumption, while the classroom becomes a place for completing assignments and getting help. The surging popularity of the Khan Academy has been the most notable examples of this method.

The benefits are clear – students get more opportunities for guidance and help during the class periods, and the videos they watch are typically more engaging than a textbook. Yet, there have been some problems identified with the approach as well – especially when the application has varied from classroom to classroom. One major criticism of the flipped classroom (also known as reverse instruction) is that it highlights the digital divide. [I’ve mentioned this topic in a previous post.]  Students without independent access to the Internet from home could find themselves at a severe disadvantage when a classroom completely flips. Additionally, many see the method as a way for teachers to avoid having to actually teach the whole class. The pros and cons of flipped teaching (taken from the pro side) are summarized nicely here.

There are many valid points on both sides of this debate, although I tend to take the conversation at-large as being a good thing. When was the last time we had educators this passionate about methodology? Surely this is net positive!

I recently conducted my first major experiment in flipping my classroom, to see for myself whether or not this method was worth trying on a larger scale. I had my opportunity because the technology in my school had finally caught up to providing me the necessary tools, and a week-long professional opportunity out-of-town gave me the excuse to implement the plan. I conducted my flipped classroom roll-out in two phases:

Phase One: Introduction

I think a CMS (course-management system) is a good idea for a flipped classroom. Having a communication hub to center everything around becomes pretty essential. Prensky was right in his assessment of Digital Natives – yes, today’s students process their thinking about technology differently than those of us from the print age do. However, many of us overlearned the lessons of Prensky and assume too much out of students today. Just because they are more wired when they get to us doesn’t mean that they automatically know how to operate every web tool that we throw at them! They still need to get introduced to new tool and be given time to work with it a bit before deploying it fully. A CMS provides an easy “sandbox” for students to get acclimated to the tech before accountability kicks in.

I settled on Edmodo as a CMS due to its pricetag (free!) and its design, which is stylistically similar to Facebook and therefore appealing to most students. The seamless integration with Google Docs is another huge bonus! I took my classes in the computer lab for a day and rolled them through the sign-up process and a tutorial on how to use the various features. Fortunately, we have been using a lot of Web 2.0 tools in class all year so it was not too laborious getting the students all signed up. I also made it a point to contact parents and send home a form letter with the parent Edmodo code included. Once I was done, I had created an instructional space outside of my classroom where content could be shared.

Phase Two: Implementation

Developing the habits of mind when it comes to sharing took a few weeks! I slowly started rolling out links and Google Docs through Edmodo, and encouraging students to use the digital dropbox feature for turning in assignments. Once we got Edmodo down, I started to experiment with YouTube. Now I recognize many schools block YouTube, but there are many other sites out there for sharing video content, so don’t fret! The bottom line is that by sharing an RSS feed through your CMS, it’s a snap to start podcasting your direct instruction content to students! I started creating “learning modules” for student consumption at home and it was a great success! Edmodo provides easy sharing of attachments, and combining a reading, a video of yours truly, and a written assignment as a package was beyond simple. Check out this example on William Blake where I blended a documentary film, a VoiceThread, and a YouTube clip. The writing assignment extended into the next day where I was able to provide help in person.

The final test came when I was absent from class for a week while conducting an evaluation of another school. I flipped my sub plans for the week and let the proctor run the learning modules in the class. After years of trying, I finally learned how to bi-locate! Pre-recording my lessons and flipping the sub plans was probably the most ambitious tech move I’ve ever attempted. There were a lot of bugs in the system, but the overall benefits to my students, and the impact that it had on my professional development were more than worth the effort it took to orchestrate the whole plan. I have never had a better return rate on my assignments, and the scores on those assessments showed a significant bump! Take it from someone who has been a skeptic – flipping your classroom doesn’t have to be a total flop! Give it a try!

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Keepin’ the Faith

I firmly believe that when the history of this age is written, that this time will be considered pivotal in the course of American education.  A host of political, technological, and societal forces are all converging to reshape the entire landscape of what happens in schools across this country.  In turbulent times such as these, it’s critical for those of us who believe in the value of education to reflect on why we are in this business.  What are your non-negotiables in education?  What drives you to keep heading back to the classroom or the office every day?  And, more than anything else, what do you hold onto in the midst of the maelstrom?  Does your reason inform your decision-making or are you a creature of faith?

Or perhaps you find yourself somewhere in the middle.  I know I do.  Most of us got into this job out of some sense of idealism.  We were going to change the world, right?  And then, after you realized that your teacher training didn’t prepare you, you went into survival mode and fumbled your way into a routine that worked for you.  If you got past the “crisis” period of years 1-5, maybe you started getting into more professional development and learning from some colleagues in the field.  Usually, this is when an educator often hits “the wall.”  You begin to realize that the variables affecting your classroom practice are not limited to you and the students.  Of course there’s parents and administrators as well, but the larger context starts to creep into your view in years 6 through 10 and the dawning realization comes to you that the variables with the greatest impact on your day to day are often completely beyond your influence and control.

This can be a moment of severe disillusionment for a young educator, when your ideals and your reality have a head-on collision. It’s not surprising that economic factors start to become paramount at this time in the lives of many teachers, because they are really just reevaluating the whole package.  “Is all of this worth it?” becomes a popular refrain, and for schools that have a large population of teachers in this mental space, morale can a major, major issue.  Your faith and hope in “the system” are being challenged by your cognitive reason that perceives obstacles in your way to getting the job done “right.”  How many fights have you gotten into with peers or superiors over what you believed was best for the students, only to come away disheartened by the result of the confrontation?  And do you let your heart or your head guide you in the perception of the outcome?

The idea that education and the pursuit of knowledge might not be a religion, but it is an article of faith.  And faith can be tested!  These are the days that try educators’ faith – and we respond to the challenge of this moment in history will have massive repercussions that will echo for generations to come.  Policy is getting written on testing, assessment, teacher evaluation, textbooks, charter schools, vouchers, balancing technology with curricular content, NCLB, Common Core, and the very role of government in public square.  And so much more.

Too often we as educators disengage from the conversation or settle for a defensive posture.  We as a profession need to do more.  We need to provide real policy alternatives to the ones getting thrown around that we see as a mismatch for our ideals.  Maybe your faith has been challenged by what you’ve seen and encountered so far.  Yet this moment of crisis is also one of great promise!  Square your shoulders and muster your willpower – figuring out the best way to handle the issues of the day will require all of us to be at the top of our game.  And we still need you with us.

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Cycle of Learning, Part I: The Age of Discovery

One of my most prized possessions is a compass that my father gave me for my 18th birthday. It was his compass from his time in the Scouts as a young boy and he wanted me to have it as I became an adult so that I would never get “lost.” It was a touching father-son moment and I’ve never forgotten it.

Great educators are a compass for their students, helping to direct them through their “Age of Discovery,” and hopefully to avoid getting lost. For many students today, however, finding their way through a dense sea of information is a challenging prospect. This is why I propose that the Cycle of Learning begins with Discovery and the 21st Century skill of curating. Navigating the oceans of adolescence can be difficult enough without complicating matters from the rising tide of media overload. It never ceases to amaze me how comfortable students seem midst the chaos.

Our students are flooded with information on a daily basis – how will they determine what merits attention and what can be dismissed? The ability to discern valuable from invaluable content is a critical one for the 21st Century. This responsible content consumption is the essence of curating, and it is a fundamental tool needed in the new information economy. Is it the only tool? Of course not! There will always be a place for more traditional practices for the development of content knowledge. Yet a place for this type of learning needs to be found in the classroom, and our pedagogy needs to evolve to match the epistemology of a new Age of Discovery.

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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Internet

The year 2011 was perhaps one of the most humbling years of my life, professionally speaking. I began the year believing that I was quite in command of my office, my classroom practice, and that I was ready for the next step administratively. Then something funny happened. I didn’t get the job I wanted. At the time I was devastated, but in the end it might have been the best thing that ever happened to my career. The rejection forced me to go back to my roots and reinvent my approach to professional development. How can I grow to become an instructional leader that will be effective? That became my mantra. It led me back to the classroom, as I redoubled my efforts to complete a second Master’s Degree, but it also led me to the Internet once again. This was where the humility truly began.

I was so confident in my knowledge and use of educational technology that I thought I had nothing to learn. Unfortunately I had fallen into the complacency trap, and my rude awakening came fast. Something has happened to the web over the last five years. I was a participant in social media networks and was well-aware of what had commonly been labeled “web 2.0,” but I had yet to realize the radical shift that had taken place through blogs and sites like Twitter.

The Internet was being used in a new way. Rather than simple posting of content, the storage space had evolved into a conversation, and the conversation was being conducted in a collaborative fashion. While I slept, the Internet had completely changed! I immediately realized that my arrogance in thinking I knew it all about educational technology was so far off that it was comical. My proficiency in technology skills meant nothing because I lost sight of what was a moving target.

Technology didn’t stop developing in 2005, and neither did the innovation in its applications. In 1992, Francis Fukuyama famously posited that we had reached “the end of history.” Yet I have spent the last five months feeling more in tune with Vaclav Havel’s declaration that “history has accelerated.”

Catching up with the furious growth of concepts that have dominated the blogosphere and Twitterverse has been a maddening and thoroughly humbling experience for me professionally. Most of all, however, it has been an enriching one. I have found the voices of fellow educators to aid and guide me – which was something that I had never experienced before! The old Internet was a very cold, solitary experience – this new Internet is dynamic and very engaging. Ideas get exchanged in an open forum, and I have yet to come away from an #edchat experience where I wasn’t blown away by the great ideas of someone else.

Perhaps the lesson is that complacency is the enemy of progress. To be a quality educator means not resting on one’s laurels. We have to continue to pursue new ideas and new ways of thinking.  This happens best for all of us when we develop a PLN.  This will be an ongoing process for me in 2012, and I’m excited to be back where I belong!

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