Lessons

Lessons we learn come from many places.  Both professionally and personally, they appear when we least expect them. For the most part, my lessons seem to take hold when I am really present; when I am truly paying attention to what is happening around me. I am sure that I have missed many of the “lessons” in my life by just not noticing.  Thankfully, I have learned to be more aware and to recognize that I can learn from so many people in many situations.  This past week, I had one of those moments. In a single conversation, I had a valuable lesson about the work that I do in school improvement. I think it was one that I knew before but it became crystal clear to me this week.   It created a spark and inspired me to tell you about it.  So, this twentieth school improvement blog is dedicated to Julie Ortego and the lesson she taught me this week…

1989… that is the year my youngest daughter was born.  Why am I telling you this?  Because that is also the year that Ms. Ortego was born. IMG_9177 I am amazed by this generation.  They are willing to work and willing to learn. And, willing to teach others as young as her students and as old as me.  She was my teacher this week…

Julie is a second year teacher at Northside High School in Lafayette, Louisiana.  Northside is a high needs school and both students and staff are working hard to improve the current reality.  Julie teachs biology and other sciences and she works with other teachers as part of a collaborative team. But, that is not what I want to write to you about. What I really appreciate about Julie is her willingness to learn and improve as a teacher.  She would be the first to tell you that she struggled her first year; to the point of wanting to resign on several occasions (and just for a minute I flashed back to my first years of teaching when I carried around a letter of resignation for weeks).  She even admits that she still thinks about it and considers other professions.  And, Julie is not alone.

We know that there is a very high number of beginning teachers who leave the profession, year one and two especially, but as high as in their fifth year.  We also know that ninety percent of teacher demand is not because of increased student enrollment, it is because of teachers quitting. Yes, some retire but mostly teachers leave because they are dissatisfied with their work. Every principal reading this knows how hard it is to staff a school over and over again with teachers who are highly effective in the classroom. And this pattern of over and over again happens more in high poverty areas where students need consistent effective instruction. In fact, students in high needs schools are four times more likely to be taught by uncertified teachers.  So, how do we keep the Julies in these schools?

Well, first of all, they have to be willing to do the work.  Anyone who has taught in a school with extremely high needs knows that it takes a great deal of commitment and dedication to meet the needs of the students.  So, a work ethic is job one in my opinion.  Now, if the will is there, how do we improve the skill?  That is exactly what Julie figured out in year two.  She was more than willing to do the work and learn and she readily admitted that she needed to be a more effective teacher.

In year one, Julie started out with high expectations but soon fell in to a common pattern…lowering her expectations because it didn’t seem like the students could do the work. This is a common pattern that I see in low performing schools.  In conversation with Julie, she admits that the lowering of her expectations last year led to a struggle with classroom management.  The students were bored,  not engaged and started to show this in very negative ways. The job became more difficult and she did not feel that she was able to meet the needs of her students. It was overwhelming.

Over the summer, Julie had an opportunity to observe a leader who had very effective skills with students.  She noticed that the students responded to high expectations as long as the leader was taking the time to get to know the students and build relationships.  Julie went back to the drawing board for this year and started over.  She worked hard to build trusting, respectful relationships with her students and she maintained high expectations for them.  She worked with an instructional facilitator, accepted feedback from her administration and was willing to try new strategies.  When I talked to her this week she was full of enthusiasm for how far she has grown in her profession.  I asked her what her evidence was that she was being more effective and she replied,  “her students are more successful academically, they are asking more questions, they want to learn and they even stay for tutoring!” Oh, and the big aha moment we had… they are no longer skipping her classes!

Julie also benefits from working with a caring, committed school administration and has the support of a collaborative team.  All of this is important to a beginning teacher. It removes the feeling of isolation… of having to figure things out by themselves.  Teaching is a very challenging profession and the last thing we want in our schools is for teachers to fall through the cracks when support, learning and encouragement is needed.  Dylan William is one of my favorite education experts. In his book, Leadership for Teacher Learning (1916) he states, “improving the quality of teachers can be done in two ways: by replacement and by improvement.  We can replace existing teachers with better ones and we can improve the teachers who are already working in our schools.”  If the will is there and the work ethic, I say we support learning and improvement with the teachers, like Julie, already in our schools.  Northside students deserve and need Julie and others like her.

Julie’s lesson with me this week was about this… improvement is improvement. Julie might not be completely happy with her classroom management and lesson designs yet but she sure knows that she is more effective in meeting the needs of her students this year then last year.  So, we celebrate…celebrate the small wins… recognize that fewer students skipping  class is a really good thing.  Celebrate when five more students are able to master a skill or concept than the last time you checked.  Be really happy with growth… it may not be the final outcome we have but it is where we have to start. In every school there is a Julie.  A teacher who goes to work each and every day wanting to do their best.  How do we, collectively, take care of the Julies? What does it take to ensure success?  Keeping these young teachers in our profession matters. Helping them improve has to be a priority.  Thank you Julie.  I appreciate you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Community

This one is difficult to write.  As the title suggests, it is about community. The building of community – how by connecting with one another, relying on one another and supporting one another, we  create interdependency. We depend on each other, learn from each other and work together.   As Peter Block describes in his book, Community:  The Structure of Belonging, “We are a community of possibilities, not a community of problems.  Community exists for the sake of belonging and takes its identity from the gifts, generosity, and accountability of its citizens. It is not defined by its fears, its isolation, or its penchant for retribution.” I think when I was growing up, I only understood community to be where I lived… the north side of the river in Fredericton, New Brunswick- the community called Devon.  Through many experiences in the past several years, I have learned the true meaning of community. The coming together of people to create support, problem solve and often, as Block’s quote states, to create possibilities for others- maybe the “possibility of hope”, of better days to come. This is what we have experienced this past week as we learned about the devastating accident involving the Humboldt Broncos.

The Humboldt Broncos play as part of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League (a league for players under the age of 20 years old) in Canada. On their way to play a game last Friday night, their bus collided with a transport truck and sixteen people have died. Humboldt is a small community (population 5800) and obviously, the news of this accident has devastated this town.

As we have seen over the past several years, when tragedy strikes cities the size of Las Vegas and Boston or even as small as Humboldt, a community of support builds. I know that the families of the deceased and the town of Humboldt are experiencing a sense that they are not alone in their grief.  A vigil was held in the town last Sunday night with thousands attending including Prime Minister Trudeau. A GoFundMe campaign set up to benefit the players and families reached its goal of $4 million in two days  and as of Friday night  has totaled over $11 million from more than 126,000 donors. The National Hockey League sent Humboldt Bronco decals to all their teams to consider wearing on their helmets for their playoff games. The Pittsburgh Penguins were the first to state that they would definitely be wearing them and Sidney Crosby signed messages sent to all of the survivors. Many of the NHL teams honored the team in some way during their games last weekend. The New England Patriots sent flowers to a family of a victim when they heard he had been a Patriot fan.  There are many, many other examples of overwhelming support and the one that really touches my heart is the “put your sticks out” campaign.

It all started with one person posting a picture of his porch light on and his hockey stick by the door. His posting said… “leaving it out on the porch tonight… the boys might need it.” During the past few days, hockey sticks have been seen all over Canada and United States, on snow-covered porches with candles, on balconies of high-rise buildings in sunny, warm states, in the poorest of neighborhoods and on wealthy estates. 30594584_1894145210604954_8916195151211134976_o Olympic champions put their very special “winning” sticks out… no one seemed to care what might happen to them. It was all about being part of a community of support.  The true meaning of community is alive and well in the most horrific of circumstances.

So, what does this have to do with school improvement, which is what this nineteenth blog is supposed to be about? When I work in schools, one of the most important roles that I have is to support the work of professional learning communities; teachers collaborating to create the highest levels of learning for students.  Sometimes we have to stop and think about what the three words mean… professional, learning and community.  A group of professionals working and learning together to positively impact student success.  They put their heads together to understand what students need to know and be able to do, how they will know with quality common assessments, what the evidence of learning is from the assessments and most importantly, what they will do next for the students to support learning.

Sometimes, it feels that teachers are working through these steps out of compliance of having to work together and it often just takes time (well, and a lot of work) to get to the real sense of community that will authentically create the best possibilities for the students.  The collective wisdom of the educators is needed at all steps of this process and then the benefits of community are realized. It doesn’t matter if the school is big or small or the number of teachers working together,  it is about interdependence. Each person brings unique qualities, experiences and wisdom to their work and even though they can work independently with students, they are stronger as a collective community in meeting the needs of students. One hockey stick on the porch was impactful but a wave of support was created by  “community” when many others did the same. Educators have this opportunity every day.

I started this blog by saying it is a difficult one for me to write. This is true for many reasons including the obvious overwhelming sadness felt for the families of the victims.   This accident also brought back a wave of emotions for me and sent me right back to the school year 2007-2008 when, as a superintendent, I went to nineteen student funerals.  The school year started off with a tragic accident involving  four boys from one of the high schools in my district. I went to three of their funerals in one day.  I remember thinking that no where in my education training did I learn how to do that.  In January, a high school basketball team from another district (Bathurst High School, the Boys in Red, as they were so lovingly remembered) crashed after they had played a game in our district. Seven players and the wife of the coach were killed in that accident. And, just like Humboldt, “community” prevailed. Sadness, grief, loss and a desperate need to make sense of it all become part of our life but knowing others are with us can make a significant difference to those suffering.

I have learned many lessons over the years and the one that continues to amaze me is this notion of community… it might be where we live but it really is about collective hope and support and figuring things out together. Isn’t that what school improvement should be about? Educators working together to inspire and impact the lives of our students?  Giving hope to one another when we are not sure what to do and supporting students on their learning journey? Of course, in schools, it doesn’t take a tragedy for us to work together. We can create “community” every day.  Thanks for being here with me.  See you next Saturday.

 

 

 

 

Taking it Easy

In January I had the fun experience of visiting Winslow, Arizona and I was able to “stand on the corner” that The Eagles made so famous in their song Taking it Easy!  As my friends, know… I LOVE that band and since I have not been doing much standing for the past month, I am really happy that I had that opportunity.  IMG_8938As I was thinking about this week’s blog and talking with some of my principals, I realize that this is the time of the year that really does not “feel easy” to educators.  There is a sense of urgency about year-end assessments, graduations, meeting expectations, finishing the year and for leaders, planning the next year.  I remember, as a school and district administrator, feeling like I was wearing more hats than I could during the spring season… part of me was in the current year and the rest of me was thinking and planning for what had to happen to get ready for the next year. It was not the time to take it easy.

Student by student/skill by skill… that is what educators are working on in schools that are improving and especially right now.  For example, at Jan’s high school, (which I have told you about over several blogs), collaborative teams of teachers are well aware of the students who still need extra support and more time to master key skills and concepts and they are living an “all hands on deck” mantra to meet their needs.  As much as we educators don’t want to talk about “teaching to the test”, if we are authentically ensuring that students are being given every opportunity to be knowledgeable about what are the essential learnings, they should be well prepared for end of the year assessments.

These assessments are sometimes referred to as the autopsies versus the ongoing assessments (formative assessments) that really are the check ups all year.  As important as these end-of-the-year summative tests are, the real information that educators and students need, is the evidence of what they know or do not know throughout the year.  Great teachers know that by using this information all the time and making adjustments to their instructional practices, they are able to give students timely and immediate support where and when it is needed.  Of course, the student has to know what is expected and what the steps are that will make them successful.  To a student, it should not feel like a moving target.  The bulls-eye should be clearly in sight. So, as important as this time of the year is, it really is an accumulation of great educational practices all year… the right steps have been taken to help ensure student success.  What is happening now should only enhance the learning.

As I write this, I can not help but think of my own circumstance right now.  I have had several “check ups” to determine why I had so much pain and immobility from my left hip and leg.   I have had a forced “take it easy” and I have had to rely on the information and evidence of the assessments to know what possible next steps to take.  As I continue to have support and gain more understanding of my injury, I learn more about what I can and can not do.  The most frustrating times for me have been when I could not see the target…when I didn’t know what was wrong or what I could do to improve the situation.  As the steps were clarified for me, and as I took this to heart and followed the steps, I could start to see progress.  It might not be as quick as I would like but as long as there is an improvement, I can see that I am working on the right work.  Isn’t this how we want students to feel?  Doesn’t it make sense for the steps to success be made very clear to them and for every opportunity to be given to them for them to be responsible for their success? I am pretty sure that the chiropractor and orthopedic specialist that I am seeing are expecting me to do the work necessary to continue to improve and, of course, I need their leadership, guidance and support.  And, I know that a long-term plan of healthy habits will be necessary to prevent this injury again, just like how year-long great instruction and assessment practices really pay off for both educators and students at this time of the year.

So, as I continue to take it easy, I know that this is not the situation that my friends in so many schools are facing.  The sense of urgency, overwhelming exhaustion and the mixed emotions that come with saying good-bye to students who are graduating, moving on to other classes and schools is all part of spring season in schools. Drama and musical productions, art shows, science fairs and end of year sporting events create unending energy and excitement and so many students and educators will feel an overwhelming sense of accomplishment.  Do not let this be lost during this assessment time.  Even though you can not take it easy right now, you can continue to take the steps necessary, follow the plan and support what matters the most- student success. And, you can take a few minutes and consider this wonderful profession that you have chosen.  You make a difference. This eighteenth blog in my series on school improvement is dedicated to you- the educators who I learn from each and every time that I am with you. In my absence, know that I am thinking about you.  Until next Saturday…

 

A Puzzle

A life lesson that we all experience- there are always silver linings even when situations are not what we want or expect.  As I end the fourth week of recovery from a hip injury, I have to admit there have been a few silver linings. I have had more rest and relaxation, I have seen some of my family more and I spent wonderful hours doing the first jigsaw puzzle that I have done in years. Every colorful piece had its appropriate place and if one piece was wrong, the entire puzzle was thrown off. There was a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment as each section came together and a need for patience when there just didn’t seem to be a fit. And, in the end… even though the puzzle was brand new out of the box and stayed in one place the entire time… a piece was missing. So, at this moment, I have a 99.9% completion rate with no control over the final outcome!  I can not find that last piece anywhere (if you look really close in the picture, you might see where it is missing!)  fullsizeoutput_9f5Are you wondering what a jigsaw puzzle has to do with a blog on school improvement? I actually think that it makes a wonderful analogy.  Let’s take a look at the comparisons…

I don’t know if there is a right or wrong way when starting a jigsaw puzzle (I didn’t ask anyone, I opened the box and started) and sometimes that is the best advice that  I can give a school leader. If you want to improve your school, just get started and do something.  Now, I know there is research and proven strategies that should be considered and they will need to be built-in to long-term planning, but just getting at the work is sometimes what has to happen.  Look in the box considering all the pieces that you have to work with and start figuring out where they make the most sense and best fit toward school improvement.  Opening the box and just looking isn’t going to get you anywhere- that is admiring the problem. You see, I could have spent some time just admiring the pieces of my puzzle- sorting them, looking at the themes within the puzzle, organizing them by color, shape, etc. (and this might have made more sense than how I went about it) however, you can not just “look” at the pieces, you have to do something with them. Action versus inaction. Taking steps, even if they are small ones like the hours that I spent looking for one piece of the puzzle, will get you closer to results.

Ok, honestly, I did start with the frame.  I assumed that this was a good first step.  In a school, what pieces would make up the frame?  What forms the foundation that might be the places to start?  As I have mentioned before, we often start with a comprehensive needs assessment to really take a good look at the current reality.  Before you can build the frame, you should know what your school is about.  What evidence do you have of student achievement, attendance, parental involvement, student behaviors, teacher retainment, course selections, graduation rate, instructional practices, teacher collaboration, polices and procedures that are effective, overall satisfaction with your school and other factors that can support the frame for continuous improvement? What happens when some of these things are missing from the box?

It took me a couple of “sits” to recognize that I had to pay closer attention to the details of each piece of the puzzle.  At first, they were just a bunch of pieces but as I spent more time with them, I recognized their unique qualities.  The same thing can be said for all that you have to work with in a school. Every student comes to school with their own edges and curves, bold colors, vibrant images and quiet sides. Each teacher and school leader also creates a special piece to the puzzle.  If left in isolation, these puzzle pieces may be beautiful pieces of art but their real strength comes when they work in community and collaboration with others. The puzzle pieces are interdependent on each other.  The “hole” that I might have in my expertise and wisdom can be complemented by someone else and vice versa. And, I learned, that trying to make pieces fit when the timing was not right was a struggle.  So true with school improvement… it is better to make sure that you build a common understanding of the why of the work rather than to just force the practices.

Now, for my principals reading this, you might find that in this last paragraph I am contradicting what I often tell you… for many people, it might take practice before belief.  If you wait for everyone to come on board as believers in collaborative processes, common assessment practices, sharing instructional strategies, etc. you may be waiting a very long time for things to change.  This isn’t any different from my puzzle this week. I tried to “fit” pieces several times that wouldn’t go but because I kept trying and looking at different ways to create opportunities and above all, stayed patient and true to what I was working towards, I eventually found a way to make the pieces fit.

Lastly, I was super happy to have a picture of what the puzzle was going to look like in front of me.  I have heard from my puzzle friends that you can buy puzzles without a picture… I am pretty sure that I am not ready for that!  And, school improvement needs the same thing.  A vision of what you want to accomplish… what are the goals- short-term and long-term that you are working towards?  How are you communicating and helping others see this picture? If you are the school leader reading this blog, I want you to really think about the picture that you help others see of your vision.  Is it clear?  Can they make out the details? Does it make sense? Do you come back to it often or did you empty the box and put it away? Is it time to get it out again and really look at the desired outcome?

On this weekend filled with the colors of spring, special time with family and friends and the blessing of Easter, I wish you a lovely weekend.  I hope that this seventeenth blog has inspired you to consider the pieces of your puzzle, personally or professionally. Perhaps, you will revisit the pieces that are challenging you and try again to create the picture that you want. I look forward to being with you next Saturday.

March for our Lives

As I submit this blog, I am anxious to follow the high school students (and many of their parents) who will  come together today in Washington to use their collaborative voice for influence as part of the “March for our Lives”.  There are also over 800 events planned worldwide.  With my ongoing hip injury, I will not be walking in an event but want to honor the efforts with this writing.  Beginning in my second blog on December 16, “Starting with the students”, I have consistently gone back to the message of student relationships, the need for conversations with students and the attention that must be paid to the needs of students if we are truly about improving schools.

I have written about some of the conversations that I have had with students who have articulated the disconnect that they feel at school and their own desires to learn, to have a voice and to be understood. I believe this to be a critical factor in our world of education and I also feel that it is frightening to many educators.  Sometimes, we avoid those conversations that are needed and we focus more on the curriculum to be taught, the assessments to be given and the accountability that is ever-present.  In this sixteenth blog on school improvement, let’s look at the mental well-being of our students and how important it is for their voices to be heard.

As I was reflecting on what to write about this week, I read a post from edutopia.org titled, “In High School, the Kids Are Not All Right” by David Tow.  Mr. Tow speaks to the same needs that I have seen in efforts to improve schools… attending to the mental well-being of our students.  He suggests, that many times, we educators have used  a strategy to try to support students that actually works against us… telling them to take some time to get themselves together and to get caught up on their work.  I am sure that I used this strategy myself back in the days of teaching and when I think about it, how was this making a difference for my students? What great changes can be made when we basically tell someone to take time and get themselves together, oh, and while you are at it, get all caught up with everything that has stressed you out.  Thinking about it now, I recognize that this is without support or understanding of what actually caused the concerns in the first place.

The real difference that I made was when I learned to talk to the students and honestly listen to what they needed, what they feared and what their dreams were.  I know that once I knew how to do that, and was not afraid of the student voice, I was much more impactful as an educator.

One of the most challenging conversations that I have in schools is when I have to tell principals and teachers what students have to say about their school.  It is disheartening for many educators to learn that they are not being as successful in meeting the needs of students as they think that they are or that the students are so aware of how bad things are going.  As I have said before, we definitely don’t fool them but unfortunately, we don’t ask them enough about what would be best.  I often suggest to the school leaders and teachers to consider holding regular small group or one on one conversations with students to ask their opinions, advice and seek their understanding.  I see school leaders who take this on and do it regularly, and others, who try it once and never go back to the students. For many reasons, I don’t believe we have given students enough credit to voice their concerns and suggestions. As adults, are we afraid to do this?  What barriers are really coming between us and understanding the students?

Tow writes about five strategies for promoting high schooler’s mental well-being. He suggests that we ask how they are doing… and mean it.  Again, we are talking about authentic conversations taking the time to really listen and understand.  Secondly, he suggests that we actually set times when students can talk to us… almost like office hours… we make ourselves available at specific times that they know about. His third recommendation is to remember basic needs first (Maslow’s).  Academics can not be fixed when students are still without their basic needs being met. Help the students feel safe and grounded first before working on the academics.  Tow’s forth strategy is focused on truly focusing on what is important. Is it necessary for a student behind to catch up on every single thing or what really are the essential learnings?  And lastly, he suggests that we seek support and recommend students to the professionals when needed. As educators, we can not fix everything although, I know many, many who try to do that every single day. In a nutshell, we have to be all about the students…every decision maker, every educator, every person who has the opportunity to impact the life of a student.

The people gathering in Washington this weekend have taken the lead from the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who have been expressing their voice for the past month and hoping that we, the adults, will listen. They know that not all students have mental stability and well-being and they know that more work has to be done to create safe environments for learning. More conversations, more time to be understood, more attention to what their needs really are and adults who can take on the courageous decisions necessary.  For communities, schools and nations to actually put the student first in their decision-making protocols requires bravery, time and now, a sense of urgency.  Feeling safe and having confidence that your opinion and you are valued goes a long way in creating well-being for our schools. It is time.

So, this post is dedicated to all of the students, parents and educators, who this weekend, will try to make a difference in our world.  Their concerns are real. To my good friend, Lissa Pijanowski and her high school daughter, Sadie, who traveled from Georgia to take part in the march, I am so proud of you. IMG_0217.jpeg Travel safe and know that others are listening. Sadie, proudly hold  your sign and know that your voice matters. You are our future.

 

An Empty Seat

During the past couple of weeks, I have been “absent” from most of the things I love to do in my life.  I have a hip injury that has caused me to take a pause; a forced rest and time to reflect. I am that ’empty seat’ on the plane; you know, the one that you secretly hope to happen next to you when someone doesn’t show up for their flight. Just having that extra space on a plane, as anti-social as that sounds, can be a beautiful thing.  This is very different for me. I am usually the one coming down the row at a concert or sports event to climb in to that empty seat beside you that you were hoping would stay vacant.   So, what I thought I should write about in this fifteenth blog about improving schools is just this… being absent.  How absenteeism by students impacts their learning.  Let’s take a look at this issue…

I want to take you back to Jan’s high school.  As she continued to work with her leadership team and look at who is in danger of failing courses and not graduating, one of the first things that we noticed was attendance.  For some of the students, attendance was a non-issue. They are failing and they are attending on a regular basis. These are the students who clearly need more support, remediation and interventions. They are willing to learn and need more time and attention to help them understand. It might be their study skills,their own lack of engagement or our ability to reach them in the classroom, but they are coming everyday so we have to assume that they do want to learn.

The other group of students that Jan’s team finds difficult to plan for are the students who skip classes or full days.  Looking at the “current reality”,  some of the seniors in danger of not graduating are not coming to school much at all.  One student had missed forty days and still was passing some courses, but not all that he needed. Ok, I can hear some of my friends right now saying… don’t we have another problem?  How can it be that you can miss forty days and still be passing at all?  Yes, this does bring us to a different discussion; about instruction and assessments.  Does a student just have to show up to get a grade?  All of these concerns have been discussed by Jan’s team as she continues to drill down in to the data in front of her.

What I appreciate here is that they are facing the brutal facts.  They are looking at the data student by student and figuring out the “why”. Why is a student struggling? What are the patterns of attendance, failures, etc. in specific courses or with specific teachers? And, all of this work has led to some critical discussions about the overall messaging in this school about attendance.  Honestly, as a student or parent, would you understand how important attendance really is?  Who owns the responsibility of student attendance?  Doesn’t everyone have a part in this?

I love this sign at Fox Elementary, “we can’t teach an empty seat”.  For many teachers, this is the current reality.  fullsizeoutput_9efWhen students do not come to school, they miss valuable instruction. In elementary schools, this means foundational reading, writing and math skills and when they miss these basic lessons, they fall further and further behind as they move along in their studies.  Rates for dropping out of school , non-graduating students and incarcerated young adults can usually be predicted by most schools based on attendance and this starts at a very young age.

There is much written about the disadvantages created at a young age when students can not read and it is extremely tough for elementary teachers to work on literacy skills if students are not at school. These same children are often in homes without books or with adults who also struggled with reading.  And, in many cases, the parents of these young children did not have the school experience that you and I did; they did not grow up understanding the value of education and being in school. They know what they know and we have a responsibility to help them understand that this has to be different.  So, how are schools working on this?

A few things that I notice that positively impact attendance include paying attention to it, making sure that others know how important it is and having conversations with students and families about it.  These may seem like simple solutions (and I appreciate all that schools do with many other initiatives) but I could tell you many success stories when attention is given to truly looking at it and dealing with it.  It might be tracked in every school but like any data point, it is only informing decisions when something is done with it.  In elementary schools, for example, young parents need help in understanding the critical importance of getting their child to school, on time, every day.  I have been told by many parents that when they are clearly informed of the importance, they do more to get their children to school.

One of my favorite memories of the past month is the young mom I met in a school hallway… she was in her pajamas and house coat. When she saw me she stopped to explain that she had overslept but was determined to get her first grader to school on time.  She brought him in a few minutes late and told the teacher that it was her doing.  She owned it but also did what she could to get him there. The most interesting part of our conversation was that she also told me that on these days, she used to roll over and go back to sleep. She didn’t bother to get up and take him to school if she already knew that they were late. She doesn’t like getting up in the morning however, the school has taken great steps to help parents understand the importance of attendance and she has taken her responsibility in this with serious intent.

I  remember learning about a “walking school bus” project in another school.  The neighborhood felt unsafe to many of the young children who had to walk themselves to school so grandparents of one child created a “walking bus”, stopping at houses along the way so children could come out and walk with them. This was just what was needed for many of these young families.

I know, in many of our high schools, our students are doing all they can to juggle jobs that support families, take care of siblings and get themselves to school. I see amazing teachers deepen their relationships with these young adults and find flexible and individual ways to support their learning.  There is much to be gained in a conversation that creates two-way understanding of both needs and expectations… this can go a long way in helping a student find the motivation to keep on when things are tough. Sometimes we learn about bullying, safety issues and other concerns that may be the real reasons that students are not attending when we truly listen.

Wishing everyone a wonderful safe and fun St. Patrick’s Day!  With the luck of the Irish behind me I am hoping to “attend” to my life again real soon! See you next Saturday.

 

 

South Dakota

The greatest thing about my work is the amazing people I meet and spend time with in the schools.  Even though the conversations can be challenging and the expectations might be difficult, almost every time, the teachers and school leaders find a way to rise to the occasion and steal my heart.  This describes my trips to Rapid City, South Dakota for the past three years.  First it is about the people and their commitment to making a difference in the lives of students.  I want to tell you about three of the schools that I visited last week…

Let’s start with General Beadle Elementary School. Cary Davis and her staff have welcomed me with open arms.  I appreciate that they accept coaching and are working collaboratively to change the lives of their students. During this visit they were able to show me evidence of student growth and I could see a change in the student conversations as well.  There was more talk about what and why they were learning and many more were engaged in what they were working on then I can remember seeing there before.  It is also a fun place for me to go because they love to tease me about being from Canada. They know I love sports and so they were all ready for me this trip… presenting me with a hockey stick and a silver medal to remind me of the loss of the Canadian women’s hockey team to the US team for the Olympic gold medal. IMG_9071 Of course, they also had to torment me about our lack of medals in curling.  I love mixing fun with the hard work that is needed in these schools so it means a lot to me when I feel so welcome!

My next stop was at Horace Mann Elementary School and what I love about this school is the focus on student writing that is so evident in all classrooms.  Kelly Gorman and her teachers have taken a serious look at the research and effective practices that link reading and writing and they are very focused on increasing every opportunity that they can to increase writing in their school. My favorite memory from being there this time was the conversation with a young man in fifth grade… he was working so hard on his writing and I asked him if I could read what he had written.  He politely replied, “No, I would rather that you didn’t read this story yet. I am still thinking very hard about how it will end and I would prefer that you wait and read it when I finish.” And, he was thinking very hard… most of the students were so focused on their work that they hardly noticed the visitors to their room.  This is what we want to have happening in our classrooms… students doing the thinking and I know that the teachers at Horace Mann are on it!!

Lastly, I want to tell you about Knollwood Elementary School and in this case, mostly I want to introduce you to Shannon Schaefers, the principal.  Every time I do leadership coaching with Shannon, I leave feeling so blessed that I know her and mostly, that the students at Knollwood have her for a principal.  Picture a big heart that cares about children and now multiply that by as many numbers as you can think of and that is Shannon. I have never had a conversation with Shannon that was not focused on her students and her concern for their needs.  She feels personally responsible for their well-being and what happens to every one of them in her school.  As she works to create more shared ownership and leadership in her school, this attitude of students-first will do her well.  She knows that leading a school is complex; it involves the adult community within the school as well as the student community and she is working hard to balance taking care of both.  She has led her teachers in creating collaborative, evidence based teams and is working on improving classroom practice. She knows that there is more to do to have collective commitments around the work needed at the school and she also understands that she will need to continue to build this foundation while at the same time making sure that they are all focused on meeting the needs of students. Shannon also knows that it is important to celebrate successes and find joy in the work of school leadership.

It is a balancing act for school leaders… schools do not close while we figure out what to do next… principals are adjusting as they fly the plane and this can feel overwhelming at times. The great thing about principals like Shannon is that they are willing to learn from each other.  Networking between principals to share ideas and figure things out together is so helpful and Shannon and I were able to do that on this visit (thanks to Kimberly and Yvette!) which I appreciate as her coach.

Lastly, the Rapid City School District is part of this improvement process. They are providing professional learning opportunities for their principals and teachers and most importantly they are creating direction and focus. All of this can only help students and so I feel that the families of Rapid City are fortunate to have this happening in their city.

Rapid City is also a very nice place to visit.  It is close to Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse monuments, with amazing vistas and landscape all around, and the city itself is clean and friendly.  I get to stay in a beautiful, historical “haunted hotel” when I am there and eat bison and very good chocolate. There is beautiful art and jewelry from native American communities and other local artists that will take your breath away. And, did I tell you that the people in South Dakota sort of steal my heart every time I am back?  What more could you want as a road warrior?

Have a great week and I look forward to our time together next Saturday.