Friday, December 30, 2016

My #OneWord2017: Elevate

My first major decision leading up to each New Year is choosing "One Word" on which to focus over the course of the next 365 days.

Over the years of accepting this challenge, the sources of my inspiration tend to vary. Maybe it's because the month of December historically represents a period that ranges from professional exhaustion to personal decompression. Maybe it's because I am reflecting, growing, and evolving, facing a season of perpetual renewal. Or maybe, it's a combination of factors. Regardless, while narrowing my #OneWord2017 focus poses a significant challenge, this process - the struggle - is it's own reward. You can read my two previous entries here:

Perspective (#OneWord2015)

Stretch (#OneWord2016)

This year's post, while inspired through an extensive level of professional reading, dialogue, synthesis, and integrated application was also inspired deeply by the following (58 second) video clip: Joey's Wedding Speech .

Now I hope you're still reading. If you're a Friends fan, you've likely gone and started binge-watching the series on Netflix in the remaining hours of 2016. If you're not a fan, hang in there, so I can explain how this video clip correlates with my #OneWord2017.


Hearing so much about "giving" and "getting" during the holiday season always gives me pause to consider this in my own life’s work. As a proud connected learner, I've reaped the benefits of the resource sharing that occurs through steady use of tools like Twitter and Voxer. The personal friendships and professional mentorships that've been established and sustained through these communities have made me a better learner and a better leader. Undoubtedly, I have more than benefited (and continue to do so daily) from from all that I get out of these experiences.

But I often wonder: What do I give to these exchanges?

Quite honestly, it doesn't feel like it's quite enough, if ever.

The above quote, resonates deeply. In researching its origin and historical context, according to the International Churchill Society, while it's often attributed to this great historical leader, there is no documented evidence that Churchill ever uttered or wrote these words.

In these unprecedented times, where we must navigate seas of “fake news” and times when post-truth is becoming widely recognized as “the norm”, to learn that Churchill may never have uttered these words...was bothersome and upsetting.

So I started digging around a bit. And while I may still only be scratching the surface of “the truth”, according to information on the International Churchill Center's website, while there is an extensive collection of quotes falsely attributed to Churchill, the following words were spoken by Sir Winston Churchill on October 10, 1908.

"What is the use of living, if not to strive for noble causes and to make this muddled world a better place for those who will live in it after we are gone? How else can we put ourselves in harmonious relation with the great verities and consolations of the infinite and the eternal? And I avow my faith that we are marching towards better days. Humanity will not be cast down. We are going on swinging bravely forward along the grand high road and already behind the distant mountains is the promise of the sun."


And here I am, joking around about Friends episodes.

Sir Winston Churchill’s words from over a Century ago seemed to be waiting to be discovered. In times of uncharted societal landscapes, an ever-shifting political paradigm, and an era yearning for trusted leadership, the value of a timeless pearl of reassurance may not have come at a better time.

To consider how these words apply to our schools, to our responsibilities as educational leaders, and the direct impact of of teachers’ actions on our students' futures. That's a powerful notion.

This brings me to my #OneWord2017: Elevate.

Over the last eight weeks, I’ve been involved in a book discussion, featuring Collaborative Leadership, by Dr. Peter DeWitt. Through active engagement and reflection on DeWitt’s book with a multitude of active, reflective leaders and learners, I came to have a renewed appreciation for the place research can occupy in everyday education; teaching, learning, and leadership. And while our “gut instincts” tend to reinforce our long-held beliefs of "what works" in schools, infusing healthy doses of research-based evidence into conversations and practice will serve to uphold, refute, or open us to consider how our guts tell us about "what works".

As a long-time school teacher, I must admit, there were times when I grew quite comfortable with “going with my gut”. About what works with kids, with parents, and as a member of a learning community. And every now and then, as a veteran school leader, to succumb to my gut instincts over pushing myself further to guarantee a decision is the right one, based on facts and grounded in research.

One item in particular that continues to resonate with me, long after completing the book, is the place that collective teacher efficacy occupies in leading successful schools. For anyone not yet familiar with John Hattie and the effect sizes that impact student learning, .4 is commonly known as the “hinge point”, whereby one year’s worth of focused input will yield an output equivalent to one year’s worth of growth in student learning.

So where does collective teacher efficacy fit into this?

According to DeWitt, who on page 59 cites Bandura (1997), “collective efficacy is defined as “a group’s shared belief in its conjoint capabilities to organize and to execute the courses of action required to produce given levels of attainment” (p. 477). The impact teacher collective efficacy stands to have on student learning is 1.57. When school leaders focus on teacher self-efficacy, establishing a sense of collective efficacy, and a concerted teacher collective efficacy, it will yield achievement results...for students.

How can school leaders elevate teacher collective efficacy?

DeWitt offers significant examples of how this can be done in Collaborative Leadership; a must-read for 2017.

The following three questions, based on ideas presented by DeWitt, will balance what I "give and get" in terms of my own learning, and will challenge me to be a catalyst for teacher collective efficacy in 2017.

How do I weave professional learning into daily dialogue?
Each member of a learning organization has something to contribute and something to gain from learning something new.

How do I co-construct personalized goals with teachers?
Each teacher has a focal point for an area in which each would like to get better, or even, become an expert.

How do I capitalize on time with Faculty to bring focus to professional learning?
Bringing us together makes complementing one another's qualities and supporting one another's success possible.

No doubt, choosing a #OneWord2017 may feel like an important decision this week, but there will  be many more challenging decisions to come in 2017. In these times of elevated stakes, intensifying a focus on teacher collective efficacy will most certainly help me elevate my ability to become a better leader and a better learner...for others.

26 Days of Learning Leadership
Day 1: Accountability
Day 2: BRAVO
Day 5: Evolve
Day 6: Feedback

Sunday, December 11, 2016


“We build too many walls and not enough bridges.”

Sir Isaac Newton

Lately, I'm reflecting on what I'd consider the biggest mistake from my teaching days: the manner in which I chose to perceive feedback. In hindsight, I deeply regret opportunities I've missed, to improve and to grow as an educator. And I think about learning from those mistakes and applying a different mindset, as a school leader.

Thematically, this idea of feedback has been weaved throughout numerous discussions I've had, both in and out of my school community. Given the body of work of Grant Wiggins, Jim Knight, Peter DeWitt, Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey, and John Hattie, feedback matters.

What do we know about why feedback is important?

Feedback has a significant impact on learning.
Hattie's work indicates that the hinge point of .4, yields a year of progress based on a year's input in this area; feedback offered specific to a targeted goal supports an effect size of .75.

Feedback is a complex, but crucial progress loop.
Fisher and Frey present the components of feedback as feed up (clarify the goal), feed back (respond to the evidence), and feed forward (make adjustments and follow-up).

Feedback must be central to the observation process.
According to DeWitt, when a principal is willing to serve as an instructional coach, new learning should be a goal and an intended outcome, for both the teacher being observed and for the principal.

Feedback is goal-oriented.
Knight’s work on instructional coaching begins with a goal that has been co-constructed between teacher and coach, is fed with resources and support, and is focused on improvement.

Feedback is a learning catalyst.
According to the work on feedback as conducted by Wiggins, where the notion that "there is no time to give and use feedback", it’s vital to keep in mind, feedback is that which causes learning.

Undeniably, each of these examples represent the bridges we can build in our schools today.

But not long ago, where there are now bridges, there were once walls.

As a teacher, I was expected to conduct formal observations, as part of fulfilling a contractual obligation. At one point, based on my years in teaching, I was considered a "veteran teacher". One particular day, I was observed by a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed new administrator.

Let’s just say, I had my reservations.

This guy is going to come in and tell me how I was doing as a teacher? Right...

Seriously, come on now. Isn’t there a first-year teacher he can cut his administrative teeth on, instead of this veteran teacher?

This was not a healthy mindset for me to have as a teacher.

So I set to task: I pulled out my latest and greatest, dog and pony show.

I won't forget the exchange he and I had. He came. He saw. He documented. And we scheduled to meet a few days later.

The period before our meeting, he hand-delivered my "write-up": a stack of papers that included his notes on my teaching "performance" and an attached article about the benefits of using "H.O.T.S." (i.e., Higher Order Thinking Skills) which he indicated, I should use when crafting questions in the future.

Our post-observation conference went something like this. We met in  his office. He elaborated on the research supporting H.O.T.S., citing that the level of questions I used was on the knowledge/comprehension end of Bloom's Taxonomy. He referenced the article he provided, and encouraged me to use H.O.T.S. questions in future lessons. Unfortunately, this was where the conversation ended. I signed three copies, kept one, and filed it away with the others. I didn’t read the article and I never thought about it after that day.

In retrospect, all these years later, that is all I remember about this observation. No doubt, there was some potential for growth, and my failure to capitalize on well-intended feedback contributed to this missed learning opportunity. This experience changed how I prepare for and approach these types of encounters, now as a school leader.  

Throughout my 20th Century teaching experience, when we as educators treated observations as "events", it built up walls. A visiting administrator, whom was known in a limited capacity evaluated the teaching that occurred in a block of no more than 45 minutes. The mark of a successful host teacher was that, if the students appeared engaged, productive, and happy, the supervising administrator, in essence crossed the teacher off a list, and there would be no subsequent conversations or classroom visits to follow. Not pushing further, to understand, to seek a deeper understanding. That built walls.

As a self-assured, organized, and creative classroom teacher, why was it that I perceived the mission of being observed to be keeping someone away?

I had A LOT to learn.

As a school leader, I struggle to see how, a visiting administrator didn't make ongoing feedback a priority, and central to our work together.

Today, in my role as a school building leader, I've chosen to shift my approach, carefully considering the following:

  • How I give meaningful feedback.
  • How the feedback I give is processed and put into action.
  • How I synthesize feedback I'm given.
  • How I use feedback, as a perpetual learner and an evolving leader.

I've taken steps to re-commit myself to ensure history doesn't repeat itself.  

In hindsight, there were good days and bad days in my classroom, great lessons, average lessons, and bad lessons. Sometimes this was due to how I prepared, sometimes to how I implemented, and sometimes how I reflected on the relative success...or didn't. And there were certainly points in a good lesson where it became a great lesson, and of course, a good lesson that suddenly went bad. And there was a pivotal point in these lessons when the shift occurred. Regrettably, I didn't stop to consider when this happened and how to capitalize on it in future lessons.

Today, as a veteran school building leader, I strive to avoid acting the way I did as the teacher, making the same mistakes I perceived that administrator had made with me, as one of his teachers. I also make a concerted effort to avoid creating conditions in which "my teachers" feel they are in a position to defend information I am presenting to them about their classroom teaching.

How can school leaders begin to use an instructional coaching mindset to build a bridge for feedback?

1. Make the time.
2. Make it about us - working together - to achieve a goal.
3. Make it about getting better.
4. Make it about removing obstacles and bringing people together.
5. Make it about learning.

I'm not quite there yet. But deciding to build bridges where there were once walls has proven to be a significant first step to make a difference in the impact of feedback, on our students and on our schools.

26 Days of Learning Leadership
Day 1: Accountability
Day 2: BRAVO
Day 5: Evolve