Seeing Results

In my world of school improvement, what every principal wants to see, as soon as possible, are improved results. The bottom line is increased student achievement. That is what our work is really about.  And, as I have said before, this work is not linear… it takes a road map of sorts to get around the speed bumps, the detours, the hills and valleys.  It takes courage to tackle the current reality, to face the brutal facts about what is and what is not happening in your school and it takes a hands on approach to get the work done.  fullsizeoutput_35eJust like in this picture, Dr. Watkins, Principal of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in Bibb County, Macon, Georgia is completely focused on the right work. And she is getting results. Here is some of her story…

I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Watkins this past July as she started her journey as the new principal of the school. Right away I knew she had the passion and energy that was needed at this low performing school to really turn it around.  One thing that really struck me in our first conversations was her desire to create collaboration and commitment among her teachers.  She had a vision and seemed to understand right away that she could not do the work by herself.  As I wrote about last week, a “group” of people alone does not create shared ownership.  Developing authentic collaboration takes time and conversation.  And Dr. Watkins knew she had to start here.  From her first conversations with teachers, she intentionally focused on creating deep understanding of the needs of her students and some of the first steps that they would take together to address these needs.  We developed a 30-day/60-day/90-day plan that supported her vision of improving collaboration, instruction and evidence-based decisions to create more learning opportunities for students.  And she stuck with the plan and already is seeing improved results.  Here is what I observed last week at the school…

When I go in to the school (and especially last Friday), I  can see right away that the students are really focused on learning.  Now, in some schools, it is obvious that the teachers are working hard at teaching but that doesn’t always translate to the students working hard at learning.  You see, we often say, that the teachers go home more exhausted then the students at the end of the day.   We want that to change, we want the students to own their learning and know that they have worked hard at this during the day.  And, I saw so many examples of that transition at the school last week.  Teachers were working in small groups with students focused on intentional instruction, they were engaged  and they were able to discuss their learning with others.  (And, I might add that this was after two days off for snow cancellations! Coming from New Brunswick, Canada I am pretty used to being “snowed in” as we like to call it, however, being “snowed in” while in Georgia was a little unexpected!  It does play havoc on the students and adults who try to get back in the swing of things when they return to school so it was especially nice to see the focus last Friday at the school!).

One thing I know is that this focus does not just happen.  Dr. Watkins has intentionally and clearly developed her expectations for what classroom practice should look like.  She started by gathering the teachers in the summer, long before school started, and leading conversations about their current reality and what the school could become.  She knew and acknowledged how stressful it can be to work with students who have great needs and she confirmed that she knew that this “team” could do it.  She committed to supporting the teachers in building collaborative teams, developing a stronger understanding of effective instructional planning and she explained to them that they would become much more evidence-based in their ability to meet the needs of their students.  She would help them see, in their data, what the students needed and how to plan next steps so teachers knew what to do next.

What she asked of them was a collective commitment to believe in the students and this work. She knew that they had to trust her first and to see that they were making a difference with the students.  And, I could really see this developing during the past few months at the school. I remember being there in November in Dr. Watkin’s office and reviewing her most recent student reading data.  She was so excited to see the growth in the students.  She would often jump up to leave the office to go talk to a student or a teacher about the growth that she was seeing… you see, she was celebrating along the way and her enthusiasm and commitment to the students is contagious.  Both the teachers and the students are responding in a positive way.

In this eighth blog, I could not set pen to paper without reflecting on this recent visit to Dr. Watkin’s school. I can see the collaborative sharing of students evolving and the authentic conversations about doing whatever it takes to support student achievement.  The teachers know that these students deserve all that they can give them and they are beginning to see the benefits of this mindset shift. So, I will leave you with a few thoughts- If you are leading a school, is it time to review and reflect on your current reality? Do you have a strong sense of shared ownership in your school? Do you have collective commitments that have been agreed upon by your staff? Would it be a good time to revisit this with your teachers?  If you are reading this as a teacher, what is your personal commitment to working collaboratively with others?  How are you supporting continuous school improvement in your school?  And, most importantly, is student achievement improving?  See you next week when we return to Jan and Willie and catch up with them in their high school.


As I write this week’s blog, I am full of memories of last weekend’s Minnesota Vikings/New Orleans Saints NFL game.  It was a game… right to the very end-it was back and forth with the Vikings scoring a touchdown as the clock marked the final seconds of the game.  (I know it wasn’t the game my school in Lafayette, LA was hoping for but it sure was a great one!). The field-sport-ball-americalevel of sound in the US Bank Stadium reached an all new high and if the Vikings beat the Eagles tomorrow, Super Bowl Sunday will be “super” special for Minnesota.  It would be the first time ever that a team hosting the Super Bowl actually is in it… fingers crossed for all my friends in Minneapolis!
I will be wearing my purple and cheering with all my heart. fullsizeoutput_357But, no matter what happens this weekend, the Vikings played as a team all year, especially last week. They stayed tough and they worked together to get the job done.  They had to win to move on and they accomplished their goal.

So, what does it take to get a win?  Is it “will” or “skill”?  How do you go from “how I play” to “how we play”? Is it about a group of individuals with a ton of talent that guarantees a win?  How do you distinguish between “a group” and “a team”?  Who is the “leader” of the team? Is it the coach or the captain or does the leader rise from the ranks?  In this seventh blog in my school improvement series, let’s look at how a school can create more winning teams…

In Jim Collin’s best seller, Good to Great (2001), he taught us that getting the right people on the bus was a first step in making sure we had the right team.  I am sure, in sports, as in many corporate environments, that is a huge part of management decisions including careful analysis of  who is on the team, who is available, how much money they can spend to bring new people on board, what skills and attitude they will bring to the table and frankly, who shouldn’t be on the bus that is there now.  In some cases, principals have the ability to “pick” their teams but in most schools that I have worked in, staffs come together based on a variety of reasons, including seniority within unions, years of experience within a school or district, hiring and exit procedures and of course, what the schools need for course and content specialities.  On the first day of school every year, leaders gather their “teams” and in many cases, hope for the best.  The intentional, strategic and very specific work of creating a collaborative culture is often left to chance. But not in many schools, leaders, like Wille’s principal Jan, understand the need to develop a strong team and after many false starts she was able to set the foundation for shared ownership of her students. Here is how…

In my world as an educator, collaborative cultures are defined as professional learning communities (now, I say this here because I want my readers who are not in the education business to understand the terminology and I so appreciate that you are reading along with us!). Since 1998, I have been influenced, inspired and mentored by the writings and teachings of Dr. Richard DuFour.  Rick authored (and coauthored) several books with the intention of ensuring that educators deeply understood the how, what and, most importantly, the why… the impact of effective collaborative cultures in schools on student learning.

A professional learning community is defined by three big ideas:  learning, collaboration and getting results.  It requires interdependence of teachers on each other.  And, as Rick would often remind me, that is what really creates the difference between a group and a team.  I might be able to teach my class by myself but in a school with an effective professional learning community culture,  I depend on my peers (and they depend on me) to help me understand what my students need and how I am going to get results.  We all contribute to the thinking and learning to determine what we will do to meet the needs of every student. We share the ownership for students and we work together to ensure that every student is learning at high levels.  Last year, we lost our dear friend, Rick, to cancer. As I wrote about last week with Wayne Hulley’s influence, Rick’s teaching continue to inspire and his legacy lives on.  He spent his life supporting educators in their understanding of why and how we work together to ensure learning… not just teaching but learning and this work continues in his writing, video messages and with those of us who continue to seek continuous school improvement. Picture 2If you have a few minutes, I highly recommend that you watch this video of Rick speaking on Groups vs Teams:

At Willie’s school, Jan had done some work to create a collaborative culture.  As I said earlier, she had a few false starts and she was nervous about having discussions about common purpose, beliefs and values. Jan easily admitted that her first step to build teams within her school didn’t go very well.  She did many things correct- she created time on the schedule for teachers to meet and collaborate, she reviewed some structural expectations, like what an agenda would look like, what the work should be that is discussed and she tried to visit with the teams of teachers on a regular basis. But, what I learned when I visited her school was that teachers were mostly getting together because it was expected of them. They were being polite and compliant. (Well, most were polite… not the team who sat with their backs to each other when they were talking! Just as in business, we have “office politics” in schools as well.) Overall, in the school, teachers were trying but really didn’t understand why this work was important and what the outcome could be as they worked together. There were groups… but not really teams. And, most importantly, the first team, a bigger team, was not created. Jan was trying to do everything by herself. She had not created a shared leadership model and so everything was seen as “her vision, her beliefs, her mission.” And, she was exhausted.

It was time to take a few steps backwards so we could go forward. It was time to build common understanding, as a school, of the foundational elements of collaboration and at Jan’s school we started by working with a small group of teachers to create and guide the deep learning that was needed. This “guiding coalition” worked hard and got us to the next level and over time, more and more teachers understood why they were collaborating.   More about this focus on collective commitments next week! And, Go Vikings Go!!





“Welcome to my school.  I am SO glad that you met my students. They have so many struggles but they are so polite and fun to work with.  I love being principal at this school.”  hopeJan’s enthusiasm, energy and commitment to the school melted my heart.  Here she is, in a very large urban high school, in an area of town with no industry and the highest crime rate in the city.  She is principal of a school, (Willie’s school) that nobody else wanted to take on.  But she is there ready to do the work. Her next statement cemented our relationship; “Karen, I don’t know what to do but I am so willing to learn. I want to fix this school for my kids. ” And this is how our journey started…

Since then, over the past few years, as her school improvement coach,  I have had several difficult conversations with Jan.  Times when it seemed that we were moving backwards and getting off course.  Days when many other priorities were taking a life of their own and my role had to be the voice in her head to bring her back to a focus.  And, some of the time, I didn’t know what to suggest to her for next steps. We had to figure things out together. But, the most memorable conversation that I had with Jan was that very first day.  Helping her see where to start with the cultural shift that was so necessary at the school.

You see, Jan was and still is a “relationship builder”.  She creates every opportunity to have conversations with people and she is a good listener.  To me, this is foundational to leadership work.  Whether it is a CEO of a large corporation, a manager of a restaurant or a school leader, understanding the need to build relationships, trust and respect is job one.  Without this skill in your leadership toolkit, influencing people to change, to follow, to adopt new ways and to work collaboratively towards a common vision is pretty tough to do.   And Jan knew that she was pretty good at this. So, it was a tough for her to hear from me about how her teachers had felt so hopeless about reaching their students.

As I wrote about in the second blog, Jan’s students and teachers were miles apart in their understanding of each other. The students expressed to me, their desire to learn and hoped that teachers would have high expectations of them. They did not want them to give up on them. The teachers, on the other hand, felt hopeless and were struggling with believing in the students’ abilities to learn.  As I talked to Jan I could see that this was bothering her and she wanted to address it.  I think her first instinct was likely just to call a meeting and tell the teachers that things had to be different but as we talked she understood that a cultural change would take more than a “talk from the principal”. We spent some time considering how to build common understanding, with the teachers, about what the school really stood for. What are the beliefs that the staff hold to be true? What shared commitments will guide the work necessary to improve the school? How do we acknowledge the hard work and tireless efforts of the teachers even when they were feeling so hopeless.

In my early days, as a superintendent in Canada, I had the very special privilege of working with an amazing Canadian presenter and educator, Wayne Hulley.  a8b2709f19a42588353234d008f62b6aOver the years, we became good friends. Wayne passed away in 2014 but his lessons live on in my heart, as I know they do in so many Canadian educators.  You see, Wayne believed in people.  He LOVED to tell stories and the most fun we often had when he was presenting at a workshop was when we “guessed”  how many of his Powerpoint slides he would actually use (actually, I might have picked this habit up from him!).  He would be very well prepared, lots of detail and great research, and then he would take us all on a road trip with him.. his stories had us in stitches laughing and at the same 9781932127447_p0_v2_s600x595time, would leave us with a profound message about teaching and learning.  He was often heard saying, “hope is not a strategy” and he would remind all of us that the relationships, respect and trust had to come before the “stuff”.  The titles of his two books, Harbors of Hope and Getting by or Getting Better said it all.  He truly believed in educators and schools.  And, he was always full of positive energy and hope that together, a school staff could accomplish so much.

Jan admitted to me that very first day that they had never, as a staff, come together to think about or talk about the school.  Oh, they had gathered now and then to talk about the discipline issues, scheduling changes and other “operational things” but she said that she really didn’t know how the teachers felt about working in the school or what they collectively would agree to do for her students.  She never really discussed the “hope” she felt for each and every student and what she believed her teachers were capable of doing. And, she was nervous to have this conversation.  She knew she would have “resistors; teachers who really didn’t want any change and would also see this type of conversation to be too “fluffy”.   She knew some of her teachers believed that their job was to teach the curriculum and the students job was to learn it.  It would be a hard sell with some of her staff, she thought,  to help them see that the collective responsibility of the staff was to ensure learning with all students.  Not to assume that learning happens but to be very definite. And this would be a mindset shift.  This would take a very big commitment from her staff to move towards building relationships with students, believing in the students and collectively figuring out what to do next for a student not learning.

So, in this sixth blog in the school improvement series, I want to leave you with some reflections.  How do we describe the world we wish to create within a school?  How would Jan begin to do this with her staff? What is the story, the narrative, that this school wishes to tell?  What conversations, what language will it take to begin to create common understanding of this journey?  How do you clarify and respect each other’s beliefs and build an action plan that is aligned to what is important? How do you get off of the hamster wheel of just doing more and more work and not necessarily focusing on the right work? More about Jan’s next steps next Saturday. Have a great week.

Bridging the Gap

As Willie and his friends explained to me and I shared with you, students know what’s up. Sadly, they know when the school gets a bad reputation.  When the community leaders, the media, the neighbors give up on them. When the teachers have trouble believing in them. Go to a bad school, be bad.  Who really cares? They describe this as a hamster wheel that they can’t seem to get off of and despite wanting to do better, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.   In low achieving schools, this is a tough cycle to break and this is what I want to write about in this fifth school improvement blog. You see,  I have witnessed it changing right before my eyes … it just takes a little attitude adjustment. Well, and a whole lot of work…

Students recognize the “rules” that no one enforces and they know where to hide in the school if they want to create havoc. They know when they are challenged to think and when there are high expectations. They figure out which teachers will let them off easy and who are the teachers that will create learning opportunities that meet their needs and interests.  Willie’s school is a high school.  It doesn’t matter though. The same focus is required at elementary, middle and intermediate schools if we are going to improve learning. cb1Bridging the gap between what teachers believe about the students and their own professional capacity to help low achieving students improve and doing what the students really need is a first step in all schools.  It doesn’t matter where, how big or what the configuration is.  It takes a mindset shift, an attitude adjustment and great effort on everyone’s part to be the change that they aspire to have happen in their schools.  It might look like a short walking bridge across a creek or the long and winding beautiful Confederation Bridge from New Brunswick to Prince Edward Island, Canada.  The gap between beliefs and actions has to be addressed. So why is the building of this “bridge” so hard?

Let’s think about what we all bring to work every day.  As a teacher, for example, what experiences from your past come with you to work?  Did you grow up in a middle-class home?  We know you went on to study after high school or you wouldn’t be a teacher. Did you always know you wanted to teach?  Is it a family pattern?  Was that the expectation for you? What do you value about teaching? Did you grow up hanging out with kids who struggled?  Or were you primarily in a neighborhood school with highly successful adults and students as role models? Were you placed at the school you work in or did you apply to teach there because you really wanted to be in that building and in that community? What do the administrators bring for experiences and beliefs? What are their backgrounds? Is this their first school?  What kind of support are they receiving from the district? From the community?

One of my favorite books that I refer my principals to is Anthony Muhammad’s “Transforming School Culture”.  UnknownDr. Muhammad was a middle school principal and experienced first-hand the enormous task of turning a school from low performing to high performing.  His experiences are well documented in both his writing and his presentations.  Every time I hear him speak or read his work again, I am brought back to the foundational premise that without cultural shifts in schools we will struggle to improve student achievement. When I first met Willie and his friends, my goal was to figure out where to start with his school. What conversations would I have with his principal?  What practices, procedures need to be addressed?   How do we look deeply at beliefs?  What are the relationship patterns?  What do actions and conversations say about the school’s priorities? When they say that they “are all about kids” is it true?  What is the evidence of this as a focus?  How do we, as adults hold the mirror up and reflect on what we are truly about? When someone walks in to your school, what is their first impression? Is there a feeling of order? Safety? Or does it seem to be chaotic?  Are people pleasant and welcoming or do you feel that you are not wanted as a visitor? Do you hear negative talk about students, the community and families or is there a sense of positivity?  At Willie’s school this is where we started.

When I was a principal I learned a great deal from so many others. One great principal who I worked with in New Brunswick, Canada was Carolyn Norman. Under her leadership, Magnetic Hill School became one of the highest performing schools in our province and in 2005, Carolyn was named one of the top twenty-eight exceptional principals in Canada. She Picture1used to say to me, “look after the teachers and they will look after the students”.  Now I know she didn’t just look after the teachers; she did a great job with student, parent and community relationships and she recognized the need to build a strong adult community of caring, trusting and highly skilled professionals in her building.  She provided ongoing support, was very clear and focused in her expectations for her staff, celebrated small and big successes and she modeled what she believed in and “how the school was to be” every day.  Her positive attitude and energy was contagious. At Magnetic Hill, it wasn’t ok not to believe in the students.  It was what was expected.  It didn’t mean that they didn’t struggle and were not challenged to know what to do for each and every student but the value system in the school was “all about students”. To work there, you had to rise to this expectation or it wasn’t the place for you. And, Magnetic Hill School became a school that you wanted to work in and you wanted your child to attend.  Walking in the door, a culture of high expectations was evident.  Teachers collaborated as a community to meet the needs of students and there was a positive energy in the building.  Who wouldn’t want to work there?

And, after my interviews at Willie’s school, I knew I had to bring my lessons from home to Principal Jan. We had to start where Mrs. Norman started.  We had to take care of the cultural issues first.  See you next Saturday when you finally meet Jan, Willie’s principal.



Wow! Is anyone else having trouble believing that it is the end of 2017? With busy lives time sure flies! What did I do this year for fun and adventure? Who did I spend my time with and what did I learn? New Year’s always seems to bring cause for reflection. I am often asked what keeps me on the road. Why do I still want to do this work?  Why all the flights and hotels? The answer is quite simple- the people I meet.

Every single day, I learn from someone.  Sometimes, the lessons come from airplane conversations, for example, the young student from Italy who was coming to North America to find her birth mother and the young man with four children who showed me a hundred pictures of his children if he showed me one!   They were both so passionate and happy to chat. And, of course, “people-watching” in airports can be interesting.  The acts of kindness (and the not so kind things that happen).   I remember driving to the Fort Benning military gate by mistake instead of the exit in to the school I was going to.  It was a good thing that I had my passport with me because the soldier at the gate wasn’t too convinced that I had actually made a mistake. (For my friends back home, you are not likely surprised that I have car stories!)

But, mostly I learn in my schools. From the adults and the students.  As I reflect on the year, I had my share of challenges balanced with lots of laughs with caring educators. I met students who will always be in my hearts.  My little friend Sabrina who gave me a knee hug every time she saw me in her school.  And of course, Willie.  He sure liked to talk when we had the chance.   In this fourth blog in my school improvement series, I want to share a couple of my favorite memories.  Some memories are blurry but some stand out  as “my lessons learned”. Here are a couple…

Picture2 For over three years, I had the pleasure of working at East Gresham Elementary School in Portland, Oregon.  As in all schools that I have worked in, so much of the heavy lifting had to start with the school culture, developing a growth mindset and raising expectations.  Over time, the school developed a theme of “GRIT”… no exceptions no excuses. During my visits there, I watched teachers move from wanting to believe that they could create the right opportunities for students to truly doing it.  They learned to work together and their confidence grew as professionals.  Despite the challenges of working in a high poverty, low performing school, they successfully turned a corner to improvement.

Picture1The highlight of my visits at East Gresham came in January of this year.  I arrived at the school only to learn that they had many snow days. ( I know, snow in Portland? Right?? I could almost swear I was back in NB, Canada!)  They had been closed for about 6 days when I arrived and the teachers and principal, Kimberly Miles were having a conversation about what to expect that morning when the student arrived.  Initially, the teachers were worried about how to catch up. What lessons would the eliminate? How much would the students have forgotten? Where would they need to start?  But, the conversation soon took a different twist. In what condition would we find our students? You see, the homeless rate at that school was close to 30% and the staff recognized right away that many of the students would have been without shelter or food during the time away from school. The school community does an amazing job of providing food to students and families but this support was not available while the school was closed.

16422846_1779622425692765_5013937122723251846_oWithin a few minutes, the teachers made a plan to line up in the front hallway and ” clap every single student in.” Mrs. Miles led the way by going outside and greeting every student as they came to the door (well, in fact, she does this every day). Once inside the door, the students were greeted by all of the teachers lining both sides of the hallway clapping and cheering for them.  The beautiful little faces moved from looks of fear and sadness to smiles and tears.   It was a moment that I will never forget. A culture of relationships while at the same time recognizing that hard work and high expectations would be necessary to move that school is what East is all about.

The Toronto Raptors basketball team have aMNess_BLKT_Grit theme this season, “The North over Everything”. Now, I like that theme (and the team!) but what I really appreciate is that they also have a logo that reads, “GRIT over Given”.  That says it all about my friends at East Gresham. Nothing comes easy but the students and staff have developed a positive hard-working mindset that embraces a very strong collaborative culture of learning. Lesson #1 in 2017- As important as curriculum and our great lesson plans are, let’s make sure we get the relationships right in the first place. And, relationships are not a given.

IMG_8246My last 2017 memory that I want to share with you comes from Morrilton Intermediate School in Morrilton, Arkansas.  I found myself there on Friday, November 10, the day before Veteran’s Day or as we call it in Canada, Remembrance Day.  All of that week, I wore my poppy as I would have had I been working in Canada. When we were almost finished for the day, Principal Tapley asked me if I was going to stay for their Veteran’s Day assembly.  I was so pleased to be asked.  You see, as a Canadian superintendent for 9 years, I attended many Remembrance Day assemblies but I had never experienced a Veteran’s Day assembly.  As we headed to the auditorium, the first thing I saw was a wall of poppies and a copy of  Canadian John McCrae’s poem, “In Flanders Fields”IMG_8446

The students created a very respectful and thoughtful assembly honoring many veterans who attended.  The songs they sung, the stories and poems that they read and told and the very careful demonstration and explanation of how to fold a flag was appreciated by everyone.   And, for the lone Canadian in the room, I felt very much at home.  Despite our two countries’ unique qualities and characteristics, we really have a great deal in common. On November 10, I learned so much  from the students at MIS. They care about the right things.  They are our future.  Lesson #2 in 2017- schools are about students and when given the chance, they can and want to lead.

So, as we begin 2018 together, I wish  you a year of peaceful reflection and renewal.  Embrace every learning opportunity that comes before you.  For the next several weeks, Willie and his school will be how I reflect as I write to you about their experiences as a school that is not settling for “given”. If you are reading the blog, I would love to hear from you and welcome any feedback. Happy New Year and I look forward to our continued journey together in 2018. See you next Saturday.

Why We Teach


A youngster cries as he leaves for home. He likes it better at school. The caring teacher worries about whether her students will have food over the holidays. A young mother breaks down in a principal’s office because of the stress of Christmas and all it entails. Districts like Anglophone East in New Brunswick collect food for those in need (27,000 pounds this year).  The holiday season is bittersweet for educators as they say good-bye to their students. Schools are institutes of learning and much more…

Last week, I visited Fox Elementary School in Columbus, Georgia.  Now, I know this school pretty well. I have been going there for four years.  And, what I saw last week, truly warmed my heart.  It reminded me of why I stayed in education for so many years. This is what I want to tell you about in this third story about school improvement.

You see, this school could easily live day-to-day in survivor mode.  It is in a very tough neighborhood, they have academic challenges and for a long time, they had serious behavior issues as well.  I remember when I first met the teachers four years ago- they told me that they loved their students but it was very difficult to teach them.  Today, they love them and they have figured out how to teach them.

The first thing you will notice if you go visit is the morning greeting. Principal Scarborough is in the center hallway every single morning and greets both staff and students.  Students say hello and what I love the most is that they make eye contact with everyone.  This might seem like a small thing to you but I can tell you, when I first went to Fox, the students did not look at anyone. They looked angry and sad and sure didn’t seem to want to be in school.  The teachers were working in isolation of one another and there really wasn’t a sense of community at the school. And, as Dr. Scarborough often heard me say, no-one was having fun or learning.

Dr. Scarborough took on this school two and a half years ago.  She has worked with her  staff to make sure everyone knows what it means to be a part of the Fox family. This year, they celebrated that the school was taken off of the “at-risk” list of schools in Georgia.  I could write a long list of the changes that they have made in the time that I have known them but what I want to tell you about today is how “loving the students” is so balanced now with “teaching” the students. How learning is what Fox Elementary School is about.  It’s what school improvement is and it is why we teach.

Last week, I saw students smartly dressed in their school uniforms, smiling and ready to learn.  Yes, and this was the week before Christmas.  Now, if you have taught school, you know that there are some weeks that just seem impossible to get anything done … the week before Christmas in an elementary school is definitely one of them. But not at Fox. You see, the staff had fun with a “Thirteen Days before Christmas Calendar”. Every day had a theme and guess what… while fun things were happening, the learning continued.  For example, on December 19th the calendar read “Island of Misfits Day”.  Now, you might be wondering how that is a positive theme for a school. Well, similar to the original story with Rudolph, lessons are learned and good things happen. Let me explain…

rudolph Two things that the teachers understand at Fox is the need to continue to build relationships with students and to professionally grow their own skills. So on “Island of Misfits Day” the teachers all taught a different grade and class. They drew names earlier in the month and had been busy preparing  lessons for a totally different group of students and grade.  I am sure that these teachers had a few other things to do in December. Things that they might rather do with their time than an extra lesson plan. Despite the business of the month and feeling like the new assignment was a “misfit”, the work got done. Some of the teachers said that they were nervous. This was a challenge and most importantly, a way to understand more about their school, the student population and how to continue to grow.  And, the students LOVED it.

Years ago, I watched  well-known educator, Harry Wong present to a very large audience of teachers. He passed out a candle to everyone in the room.  After lighting his he asked the teachers to pass the flame along, lighting one candle at a time.  As the glow spread in the room, Wong talked about the value of education. Of how teachers can be the light for students and what our impact is on each other.  Why, as a school community, we have to work together to create the future and  be interdependent of each other in order to make a difference. He reminded the audience that when we share our knowledge with others our own flame will not go out.  We do not diminish our own sparkle and we make the world brighter for others. This is what is now happening at Fox Elementary School. Teachers are learning together and sharing ownership of all of their students. It is not about my classroom it is about our school. Continuous, focused improvement. One student at a time, one candle at a time.

I know in my second blog I promised to bring you more from Willie’s high school.  We will get there, I promise.   To my friend Aubrey Kirkpatrick, who eighteen years ago had an idea that our school district could help the Food Depot with a “Fill the Bus Campaign”, you continue to inspire a community and share your light. Thank you to Mrs. Weaver at Fox Elementary for sharing her photo (above) of her beautifully decorated classroom door. Hopefully Santa’s hat didn’t catch on fire! To all educators, you know why you teach. And you are appreciated. Have a blessed holiday season.  See you next Saturday.




Starting with the students…


shoe-1433925_960_720Starting with the Students (second blog in the school improvement series)

During one of my very first visits to a school as a school improvement consultant, I met with a group of high school students.  They didn’t know me and I had never met them. We had a great chat about their school. They were thrilled to tell me what they loved and just as excited about what had to change. I mostly remember Willie- he was a junior (11th grade) and loved to talk!  He had a huge grin on his face when he described the teacher who let him lead the US History discussion about World War II. He loved that I was from Canada because he had studied our country in Geography.  And he was so passionate about what needed to improve at the school. He carefully articulated that he wanted a good education because he knew it was his “ticket” out of generational poverty (he even used this term).  His parents wanted it for him too.  He described his home life as challenging but he knew that he was loved and that getting a good education would open the doors that his parents could not access.  His parting statement to me as he left the room has stayed with me for years… “I hope we see you again in our school because I bet you can help us.  Please let the teachers know that I want to learn.” As I left that day I knew I had experienced my first lesson on the road and here is why…

The most telling message from the students was the clarity with which they talked about the teachers in the school who wanted to build relationships and engage them in their learning. They loved being in these classes. They couldn’t contain their excitement, talking all at once and competing for my attention. They mostly described situations that they had hands-on experiences or had choice.  One girl was really interested in aviation and described how she was struggling in Physics classes. The teacher took the time to talk to her and understood that she was “in to airplanes” so she helped her create opportunities to use her love of flying to understand physics. She bubbled over with energy and enthusiasm describing how she was able to interview an aircraft mechanic and remembered everything this professional said to her about the physics behind her work.

The students clearly did not mind being challenged and obviously loved the lessons that were relevant… they could see some connection to daily life.  And, most importantly, they described the teachers and administrators who took the time to get to know them and have a relationship with them. They knew which ones stayed after school for extra help or events, organized clubs and activities  and attended weekend games.  And, as we were finishing the conversation, Willie asked me if I ever thought that teachers gave up on students.  When I probed a bit, the students explained that sometime they felt that some of the teachers in the school didn’t really believe in them. That maybe they expected them to fail because of the situations they came from or just because of the school that they were in.

Interestingly enough, when I interviewed the teachers in that same school, they saw the students in a very different way than I did.  I talked about how much I enjoyed my conversation with them and how fortunate that they were to have such great students to teach.  One teacher was so surprised by my impression of the students that she asked me if I was sure that they were their students.  The students that the teachers described were not interested in learning and misbehaved so much that they couldn’t teach them. They were bored and their parents sure didn’t care. They described the school as a difficult one to work in and couldn’t see how they were going to get out of the cycle of poor student achievement. They knew that the state and district expected them to be better but they were at a loss for how this could happen with these students.  And it was genuine concern and frustration. They really didn’t know what to do. It was obvious to me that they cared and truly believed that the students gave up on themselves.

With both the teachers and students, I sensed their desire to be successful.  The teachers worked hard and wanted what was best for their students.  And the students wanted to be their best.  Obviously, there was a huge disconnect between what the students and the teachers believed about the school and each other. What is the old saying- perception is reality? This was the first time in my very long career that the gap between the adult and student understanding was so apparent to me.  I knew that my work in Willie’s school would start here.

How do we build the bridge when what we perceive to be true becomes reality? Where do we start when mindset and the culture of the organization are creating disparity? What conversations did I need to have with school leaders?  Were they going to be willing to lead the change?  Who would do the heavy lifting?  In Willie’s school, like so many others, school improvement takes on a life of its own.  Too many initiatives, too much focus on programs and so many rules are created that no one remembers why. Structural changes are put in place but not the cultural shift that has to happen.  Changing minds and practices, focusing on beliefs and values and recognizing schools as places that people come together in community to learn and work are part of the dynamics that create a more positive school culture. But, it doesn’t happen over night.  I have learned this the hard way.

As I mentioned in my very first blog, this series will take you on a journey of school improvement, good and bad.   I am a strong believer that educators and students go to school everyday to be successful. This is the mindset that I go to every school with- despite the conditions, the town I find myself in or what my first impression of the school is when I enter the building. I have to in order to do this work. I know now, that there are no short cuts but it is possible to improve no matter what the situation. I have seen remarkable changed happen in the most challenging of conditions and I have watched schools move mountains to keep students in school and be successful!  So, this blog is about the stories and experiences. The adults and the students.  The journey to get better.

The good news is in Willie’s school the principal was all in with the energy and desire to create the changes necessary.  The teachers accepted that a growth mindset was needed.  The students embraced their own learning. It isn’t over and there have been many challenges… two steps forward and five steps back. Thanks for being here with me. See you next Saturday.