Culture

Positive School Culture: Make It the Principle

Guest post by Lizzie Sider

Lizzie Sider is an 18-year-old singer/songwriter born and raised in Boca Raton, FL. She is also the founder of the bully prevention foundation Nobody Has The Power To Ruin Your Day, through which she has personally visited over 350 schools with her original bully prevention assembly. In her post below, Lizzie offers principals some observations related to the importance of promoting a positive school culture. Lizzie’s endeavor highlights key values all global change ambassadors should possess, including promoting awareness/perspectives and empathetic action. (more…)

Tell us Why #TogetherIsBetter

In education, we rarely achieve success on our own. In fact, as school leaders, we do our best work when we share our goals and empower those around us to get there. (more…)

Celebrate National Principals Month

As we all know, principal leadership is an essential fuel within schools that ultimately determines optimal student and school performance and success. But we also know that principals and the work they do in schools around the country are too often overlooked. (more…)

Fifty Years in the Making

By Stuart A. Singer, author of The Algebra Miracle

At first glance it seemed like an unlikely place for an extended philosophical discussion of education. Then again perhaps it was the perfect setting for teachers, young and old, to gain an appreciation for the potential lifelong impact of their classrooms and consequently the heavy responsibility that possible outcome brings with it.

And to think it was supposed to be simply a 50-year high school reunion.

Oldies but goodies

For the sake of full disclosure I must explain that recently I was dragged by my best friend thousands of miles, kicking and screaming most of the journey, to a gathering of my high school class of 1964. For my buddy this event was just another in a long series of these get-togethers. Of course he had good reasons to relish these meetings—fifty years ago he had been the star of the state championship football team, steady date of the captain of the cheerleading squad and on his way to a scholarship to the University of Virginia. I, the owner of a significantly lower social profile during those same years, was far less motivated to revisit a world in which I perceived I had made scant impact.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I was not a total outcast among the 200 in attendance and that my experiences in the classroom both as a student and teacher would somehow become center stage.

Time does not dull all memories

It was at breakfast on the Sunday after the final gathering and a group of six alums were gathered around a large round table. Richard, now a dentist in Lake Tahoe, posed an interesting question to the assembled group: “Which of your teachers was the most influential in your life?” Without hesitation I answered “My Junior English teacher John Harocopus,” then added, “he was my model in my career especially in terms of classroom management. He was young and not physically imposing but he was passionate about his subject and ran a wonderfully disciplined and demanding class.” I went on to explain that I later adapted many of his methods in my own classroom.

My friend, who in addition to his athletic talents was highly successful academically, quickly joined the conversation. “For me it was Col. Brose. He brought history alive for me and to this day he gave me a strong interest in the subject. He was a great teacher who brought the curriculum alive for everyone in the class.” A former star basketball player seated across the table nodded in agreement with this choice.

And so it went for fifteen minutes, six men all hovering around the age of 68 and five decades removed from public education vividly discussing the profound influence wielded by educators they had encountered when John Kennedy was President. In the midst of the conversation my wife, a retired Biology teacher, leaned over to me and whispered, “More than a little scary what a difference teachers can make. Every person in education should have to listen to something like this.” The proof of this assertion was clearly on display.

And on the flip side

During the course of the reunion not all of the memories were so positive. At the second reception a man approached me and introduced himself by saying, “I don’t know if you remember me but I’m Steve Alsop. We were in eleventh-grade U.S. History together.” Surprisingly once he had given me his name I did, indeed, remember him. “When I saw your name on the list of attendees,” he continued, “I couldn’t wait to ask you if you remembered the time you were asked the question about the British and Colonists in the Revolutionary War.”

My blank look indicated a total lack of recall of an event that occurred in 1962. “I’m afraid I don’t,” I said somewhat sheepishly.

A smile crossed his face. It was apparent that this incident was still an amazingly fresh memory. “So that crazy teacher of ours says to the class, ‘Given all of the circumstances entering into the war, which side had the advantage, the British or the Colonists?’” The grin widened. “Well, everyone was terrified that she would call on them and then she looked at you and said, ‘Stu Singer, what do you think?’ I’ll never forget how you gave a wonderful answer explaining all of the numerous factors favoring the British. It was a compelling argument, an extremely powerful argument. So after you had finished and most of the class was nodding in agreement she says, ‘Now that was very logical, but it just wasn’t the answer I was looking for.’ Steve shook his head and put his hand on my shoulder. “At that point you just looked back at me a few rows away and rolled your eyes. I will never forget that moment.”

While I had no such recollection the implication was clear—this hypocritical and bizarre response by a teacher had left a permanent and obviously negative impression on this individual. The question that went through my mind was “how many other people at this reunion have similar stories?”

During the course of the three days other teachers, some good others not so much, were placed under a similar half-century old microscope. The take-home message for this retired educator was clear. Fifty or more years after the classroom instruction had been completed the palpable impact on many of the students, positive and negative, remained.

It is as important lesson for educators in 2014 as it was in 1964.

Attendance is to school what rebounding is to basketball!

Author’s Note: September is Attendance Awareness Month

Attendance is to school what rebounding is to basketball—it is hard work, requires effort and persistence, and it often goes unrewarded and unrecognized, but schools cannot be successful without it. Improving school attendance is a matter of will. It requires a multi-pronged effort over several years to break the culturally supported cycle. Even the best schools have a significant number of students who are chronically absent.

Good school attendance, particularly in high-needs schools is more about attracting students than about promoting attendance. While having the right attendance laws and procedures in place are important in the short-run. In the long-run, a school must create a safe, orderly, and student-centered school culture that attracted students.

  • Our school had to become a place where students felt wanted and where they wanted to be.
  • We had to be a school in which every student expected to succeed every day.
  • We had to be the kind of school in which each and every student was both known and valued.
  • We had to be the kind of school that students wanted to attend and hated to leave.
  • We had to be a school that had to work to get students to leave the building at the end of the day, not one that had to work to get students to attend.

To be that school, we had to provide a safe, clean, orderly, warm and inviting school environment built on quality relationships. In addition, we had to create a culture of success in which students came to school expecting to succeed while knowing that their teachers would not stand bye and allow them to fail.

We learned from experience that when kids miss school they miss out, and when kids miss out, we all suffer. In our school, attendance, along with school wide literacy, was a priority. We served large numbers of under-resourced students who needed extra support and encouragement in order to attend school on a regular basis.

USA Today reports that research suggests that as many as 7.5 million students miss a month of school each year, raising the likelihood that they’ll fail academically and eventually (more…)

Upping the Price of Teacher Absenteeism

By Stuart A. Singer, Author of The Algebra Miracle

In a recent post, Mel Riddile explained in great detail one of the primary reasons for the academic success of the students at our school—low teacher absenteeism. The conclusion of his post accurately summarized the overall plan:

“We trusted our teachers and treated them like the professionals they were. They trusted us and cared about their students and fellow teachers. They took ownership of the problem and the solution. Our teachers didn’t feel as though they needed to sneak around or feel guilty because they were absent. Many of the substitutes developed a loyalty to the school and would only sub for us. They felt wanted and appreciated. In this scenario everyone wins. We had the lowest teacher absence rate and the highest percentage of class coverage by substitutes and the best pool of quality substitute teachers in our entire school district. Most importantly, we faced a challenge together and we solved another problem by trusting each other and working together.”

The problems inherent in teacher absenteeism are obvious. It is common knowledge that any time a student misses a class it has a highly negative impact on their academic progress. A classroom without its regular teacher is the equivalent of twenty-five students losing a day of instruction multiplied by every period in that day. In addition, as Dr. Riddle points out, the costs in teacher coverage and potential additional administrative discipline issues increases the price exponentially.

The view from the classroom

In his post Dr. Riddile listed a number of important steps that resulted in lowering teacher absenteeism. But there was one that was the most important from the perspective of the classroom instructor: (more…)

Teacher Attendance and School Culture – Revisited

Note: This is an update of an article originally posted on June 3, 2014

“Culture eats strategies for breakfast.”–Peter Drucker

Great schools can be average in some areas, but great schools cannot have a glaring weakness and be considered great. Great schools find a way to solve the problems that stifle or debilitate good schools.

Increased accountability coupled with new, more rigorous standards and more challenging assessments place increased pressure on principals to improve classroom instruction. Maximizing instructional time is a key way to raise student achievement. Teacher absenteeism and the use of substitute teachers, which reduce instructional time, have long been problems faced by every school. Faced with budget shortfalls, many districts have resorted to removing teachers from classrooms during the school day in order to attend professional development sessions. Labor agreements have been structured in a way that encourages teacher absence. States have reduced the number of school days in a school year.

While principals often face district and state policies that actually encourage teacher absenteeism, principals can impact teacher attendance. Like every school problem, the long-term solution lies in the culture—attitudes, beliefs, mindsets, expectations, and relationships—of the school.

In Teacher Absence, Leading Indicators, and Trust, Raegen Miller made some important points regarding teacher attendance pointing to the need to look more closely at school culture:

  • If teachers’ presence in the classroom matters so much, shouldn’t we pay more attention to teachers’ absences?
  • Professional culture in a school can exert a strong influence over the leave-taking behavior of its teachers
  • Forty-five percent of the variation in teacher absence is between schools working under the same district and state parameters.
  • Paying attention to teacher absence gets at the professional culture in schools through the notion of trust, a universal human tension if ever there was one. In particular, theory and evidence point to trust between teachers and management as a moderator of teacher absences.

Teacher Attendance and Student Achievement

Here is the reality. When teachers are absent, students lose valuable instructional time. No matter how qualified they are, substitute teachers do not improve student achievement. “When I was absent I knew that my classes would regress no matter who was the substitute or how well I planned.” – Stuart A. Singer, Author of The Algebra Miracle

A recent study indicates that teacher attendance is an overlooked factor in improving student achievement. “Given the time and attention spent on school programs, new curriculum and strategies to strengthen teacher quality,” the report’s authors wrote, “we may be overlooking one of the most basic, solvable and cost effective reasons why schools may fail to make education progress.”

The study goes on to point out the following:

  • One in six teachers in some of the country’s largest public school districts are out of the classroom at least 18 days, or more than 10 percent of the time, for illness, personal reasons and professional development.
  • Overall teacher attendance rate is 94 percent.
  • Districts spend an average of $1,800 per teacher to cover absences each year.
  • No measurable relationship between teacher absence and the poverty levels of a school’s students
  • No difference in absentee rates among districts with policies meant to encourage attendance, such as paying teachers for unused sick time, and districts without those incentives.

A study by the Columbia University School of Business offers some interesting findings:

  • Substitutes are worse than the regular teacher. “In teaching, the person with whom an absent teacher is replaced is clearly worse in a substantial way. Substitute teachers are less likely to be highly skilled, since otherwise the chances are she would already have found a full-time teaching job. Even if a substitute is highly skilled, there is a start-up cost: just because someone has a degree in math doesn’t mean she can hop in and be a great sixth-grade math teacher.”
  • Students do worse in years when their teacher takes more time off.
  • “When a teacher takes an extended medical leave, it causes a drop in math and English test scores on par with putting a rookie teacher in the place of a teacher with four years of experience for an entire year.”
  • Shorter absences are more detrimental than longer ones. Ten one-day absences over the course of a year were found to lower student scores more than when a teacher missed two consecutive weeks.
  • Incentives for teachers to not be absent don’t work.

A Short Success Story

I received a call from the district’s Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources. He was calling to arrange a time for his staff to visit our high school. Unbeknownst to me, our school had the highest rate of substitute coverage for absent teachers in a district of approximately 270 schools.

In our school, when a teacher was absent, we had substitute coverage approximately 96% of the time. I was shocked to learn that other high schools averaged 65% coverage. In addition, our school had the highest teacher attendance among the almost 30 high schools in the district.

This came as a shock to the district staff because (more…)

School Can Use Some “Pixar Magic”

“Hold lightly to goals and firmly to intentions.” – Pixar co-founder, Ed Cattail

Pixar magic,” is a phrase film critics frequently employ to describe the studio’s impressive track record of box office success–all 14 of its movies have debuted in the top spot at the box office.

In a recent interview, Pixar co-founder, Ed Catmull, discusses his new book, Creativity Inc. , and says ‘reframing the concept of failure is the only sure way to find success.’

The keys to Pixar’s Succcess:

  • Pixar’s success is the product of a deliberate attitude toward creativity and failure.
  • How do you make it safe for people to say what they think or that it’s safe for them to make mistakes/fail?
  • The answer: “Reframe the concept of failure. 
When you start something new, you will make mistakes, and if you don’t make mistakes you’re either copying yourself or copying someone else.”
  • Each failed concept brings the ultimate creation closer!
  • Each idea led them a bit closer to finding the better option.
  • This is key: when experimentation is seen as necessary and productive, not as a frustrating waste of time, people will enjoy their work, even when it is confounding them.”

Key Lessons from Pixar for School Leaders

  • Whether implementing new college- and career-ready standards, introducing new technology, integrating literacy into content areas, implementing new teacher evaluation systems, or employing new performance assessments, all require significant learning and experimentation.
  • Problem: The fear of taking risks and failing and the ensuing reprisals which may follow keeps many of our staff members from trying new things and taking risks.
  • School leaders must create a school culture in which it is okay to make a mistake. I was quoted in one publication “Treat your school as a laboratory. Don’t be afraid of doing something different. If it doesn’t work, go to something else.”
    The following is an excerpt from my colleague, Stuart Singer’s book The Algebra Miracle, on the kind of school culture we created:

“I have two daughters who go to this school and I am thrilled that they do. This faculty approaches education like a laboratory experiment. They try out a hypothesis and then collect the data. If it works, they study it more and try to find ways to make it work better. If it doesn‘t, they try to find out why it failed and either remove it or repair it. It is a never-ending process of evaluation and reevaluation, just as you would if you were trying to perfect any product in a lab.”

  • But how do we do that? Follow Pixar’s lead and “reframe” the concept of failure.
  • Reframing” (a “shift in a person’s mental perspective”) is an important skill for school leaders engaging their staffs in both short- and long-term change initiatives. For example, if teachers believe that literacy is not their responsibility, that they do not have time to teach literacy skills, and that literacy is the job of reading teachers, simply teaching teachers how to use a “close reading” strategy, is doomed to failure unless we can reframe or change our teachers’ mental perspective (mindset) about the need to integrate literacy into their content area. As Simon Sinek advises Start With Why.
  • Compliance Does Not Equal Cooperation – Experience has taught me that without that “shift in perspective” or change in mindset teachers will temporarily comply, but, in the long-run, they will abandon the practice. In other words, a big part of implementing any initiative is aligning existing mindsets to fit the new initiative.
  • Failure is a concept that must be “reframed” if we want to change mindsets and expectations of teachers in relation to assessment and grading as well as the larger issue of student success and failure. Here are some examples of “reframing” failure:

o   There is no failure, only feedback!

o   If you are not failing (making mistakes) you are not learning.

o   As long as you are learning, you are succeeding!

o   The only way to fail in this school is to stop trying, to quit.

o   Failure is permanent. Mistakes are temporary.

o   We learn from mistakes.

o   Each failure only brings us closer to a solution.

o   “If you don’t make mistakes you’re either copying yourself or copying someone else.”

o   People who learn from mistakes learn faster.

o   Feedback is the breakfast of champions!

o   Our school is like a laboratory!

 

Create a Culture That Protects the New

At Pixar, Catmull emphasizes “we are willing to adjust our goals as we learn, striving to get it right, not necessarily to get it right the first time. Because that, to my mind, is the only way to establish something else that is essential to creativity: a culture that protects the new.”

In our school, students would say, “in this school it is hard to fail, because the teachers never give up on you. They won’t let you fail!” I would not hesitate to choose a school whose staff had a growth mindset over a school with a highly-qualified teaching staff.

 

A Dress Code We Can All Live With

by Mel Riddile

As Spring finally arrives, school dress codes are once again front page news. Last year it was “yoga pants.” This year, the controversy revolves around a middle school principal for restricting the wearing of leggings — “popular fashion items that are tight-fitting pants to some, and glorified tights to others”.

No one is immune from the criticisms leveled by the so-called fashion police. Even First Lady, Michelle Obama, has been chastised by the likes of the Washington Post fashion writers, who reminded readers that “none of them (previous first ladies) revealed as much leg as the current first lady.” And that “avoiding the appearance of queenly behavior is politically wise. But it does American culture no favors if a first lady tries so hard to be average that she winds up looking common.”

Some ask “Where Should Schools Set Limits?” In fact, that is the question that many principals are asking. School principals are not fashion experts. They are educators. However, many principals will be forced to become experts on fashion and to enforce student dress code policies, many of which are unenforceable.

Believe me, as a high school principal, the last thing that I wanted to do was worry about dress code policies. The reality of life is that some students will push the envelope and dress so provocatively or inappropriately, often without parent knowledge or approval, that they distract their peers to the point that they disrupt the educational process.

I can remember a prominent legislator confronting me because I had the audacity to send his daughter home to change from her pajamas and slippers into appropriate school attire. I reminded him that, not only did I not discipline his daughter, but that I had personally warned his daughter and her friends not to wear pajamas to school for an upcoming school event.

There are those who argue that the best way to handle the dress code dilemma is to mandate uniforms, such as the blue pants and white shirts worn by Chicago Public Schools students.

Some school systems make a difficult and unpleasant task doable by having policies that are specific enough to be enforceable. In Fairfax County Public Schools (Virginia) student services representatives annually meet with principals and ask for feedback on the current policy. The policy is kept up-to-date, and principals have specific, identifiable behaviors to enforce. The Fairfax County policy is clear and reasonable.

“FCPS respects students’ right to express themselves in the way they dress.  It is important,
however, that their appearance is tasteful and appropriate for a K
12 school setting. 

Clothing and accessories should not:

  Display vulgar, discriminatory, or obscene

language or images

  Promote illegal or violent conduct

  Contain threats or gang symbols

  Promote the unlawful use of weapons,

alcohol, tobacco, drugs, or drug

paraphernalia

  Expose cleavage, private parts, the midriff,

or undergarments, and in the case of pants

the waistband should not fall below the

hips 

  Contain studs

  Be seethrough or sexually provocative

  Include caps or other head coverings unless

required for religious or medical reasons.”

Other school systems take the easy way out and leave the dress code issue totally up to the principal’s judgment. Instead of taking a position, they put the principal on the chopping block. For example, one school system’s policy stated,

“A student’s dress and appearance shall not cause disruption, distract others from the educational process or create a health or safety problem. Students must comply with specific building dress regulations of which students will be given prior notice.”

Upon reading this, I concluded that the local school board was taking the easy way out by passing the buck to the school principal. In addiont, given some of the current attitudes about dress, a student would literally have to run through the hallways naked to cause the kind of disruption that would warrant action by the principal under this policy. Perhaps I am overstating the issue, but there is simply too much subjectivity in the application of this policy to ensure consistent and fair enforcement. In other words, the policy is unenforceable.

That wouldn’t stop a school board member from calling me to complain that my alleged students, who were walking down the street in the middle of the day, were dressed inappropriately. Nor would it stop another official from calling to complain that a constituent objected to the principal’s interpretation of the dress code. Caught in the middle again!

It is the responsibility of the building principal to create a context or culture in which teaching and learning can best take place. A safe, orderly, and organized school environment is minimum expectation. It is essential that the learning environment be free of distractions and disruptions to the learning process and that everyone has a consistent, clear set of expectations regarding appropriate decorum so that teachers can move beyond behavior to a focus on learning.

Carol Dweck on Struggle and Deeper Learning

Students who embrace struggle while learning and solving problems develop skills that others may not. Learn how Expeditionary Learning has incorporated struggle and the growth mindset into their school.

Key Points from the Video:

Growth Mindsets:

  1. relate directly to ‘Deeper Learning’ and Expeditionary Learning
  2. orient the student to a focus on learning not knowing
  3. teach students that taking on challenging tasks helps the brain make new connection and, thus, they get smarter
  4. students embrace challenges because “work hard and get smart”
  5. learn that “easy is a waste of time”
  6. students are proud of tackling and resolving challenging problems
  7. instead of avoiding and covering up mistakes, students embrace them
  8. mistakes motivate and increase student interest
  9. students gain self-confidence by taking on challenges
  10. students develop a sense of purpose and a belief that they can make a difference

See on www.teachingchannel.org