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Just the PiL You Need: Microsoft Partners in Learning Network

Guest post by Wendell B. Sumter:

In the spring of 2012, kindergarten teacher Stephanie Barber and I gave lengthy answers to questions about how our school integrated technology in the classrooms and used it to propel professional development. We then submitted our application to Microsoft to be considered a Microsoft Pathfinder School. At the time, we were very enthused about the possibility of our school being named. We knew that it was a long shot. We were a small rural school in Chester County, South Carolina and a title one school, but we didn’t allow that to deter us from applying for such a great opportunity and honor.

In October 2012, Microsoft named our school a 2012 “Innovative Pathfinder School.” The honor came from The Microsoft Partners in Learning Program, a 10-year, nearly $500 million commitment to transform K12 education around the world by connecting teachers and school leaders in a community of professional development. The program also helps school leaders foster innovative teaching practices and 21st-century learning by providing tools and resources they need to better impact student participation.

Three years ago, when I arrived at Great Falls Elementary, we had a basic computer lab. Some teachers had Promethean whiteboards, and there were two computers in each classroom. Since then, we have increased student access to technology in various ways. Technology doesn’t take the place of authentic teaching; the most important thing to me is that teachers are able to use technology to enhance student achievement.

When we were selected as a Pathfinder School by Microsoft, Mrs. Barber and I had the opportunity to attend Microsoft’s “Partners In Learning Global Forum” in Prague, where administrators convened to share their schools’ tech success stories. We also had the awesome opportunity to form partnerships with other schools and continue professional development with Microsoft’s Virtual University.

We teamed with 11 other schools, including a mentor school from New Zealand, to focus on customizing lessons and training teachers to effectively use technology tools. Through virtual meetings, we continue to brainstorm and share ideas and resources. Collaborating is a big benefit of being a Pathfinder School; I have the ability to say to my colleagues, ‘Did you try this at your school?’ and ‘How did it work?’“

So if you’re looking for a cure to your technology woes; if you’re looking for ways to improve your technology skills or those of your staff; if you’re interested in partnering with other schools across the world; if you’re looking for ways to gain recognition and bring powerful resources and tools to your campus to transform the learning environment through teaching and learning, we have just the PiL you need! Come learn about Microsoft’s Partners in Learning Program and opportunities to be an attendee at the Partners In Learning Global Forum! In this session you will learn about free resources, valuable international networking, and opportunities to become recognized as an Innovative School! Join the network and become an innovative school by visiting www.pil-network.com/schools.

Wendell B. Sumter is Principal of Great Falls Elementary School in South Carolina. Wendell joins Byron Garrett, director of the innovative schools program at Microsoft, to present Partners in Learning! Microsoft Innovative Schools Program on Saturday, February 8 at Ignite ’14 in Dallas. For more information and to register visit www.nasspconference.org.

New Family Tours: Do They Get What They Expect?

Jimmy Casas

Guest post by Jimmy Casas:

I still remember the day I received the phone call offering me the principal position at my current school.  That was twelve years ago!  I can honestly say, like many of you, I have invested my life into our school community in many ways.  Growing up, my parents demanded hard work. They expected it, they modeled it, and they lived it.  They convinced me that hard work was the key to success.  They took immense pride in the fact that what they lacked in education, they made up for it in terms of work ethic.  My father would often holler at me, “You get out of it what you put into it!”

Ironic how the things our parents said to us when we were children often return full circle, not only in our expectations, but in how we behave.  They even get passed down from generation to generation at the expense of our own children sometimes, which I am sure my kids would attest to. His words have hung with me all of my life, sometimes to a fault. Sometimes though, his words move me in a way that makes me proud to be his son because his words make up a part of who I am.

Last week I had the distinct privilege of touring three new families who were trying to decide which school to enroll their children in.  Like the hiring process (of someone wanting to teach in our school), the idea of a family possibly wanting to enroll their student in our school gets me jacked up! It is something I look forward to so much that at times I literally cannot sleep the night before because I cannot wait to get to school the next day and share our school community with them.  I do not apologize for my energy, my passion, or the excitement I share with the families when they visit. I am proud! I am proud of what our school has to offer our students, our staff, our families, and our community.  I once had a visiting superintendent tell me that although the school was a large school, it had a small school feel to it. That was the biggest compliment anyone could have given us because to me it meant that it felt like a caring community. I have never forgotten that comment and to this day aspire to maintain that same feeling in our school.

I am always honored when I am able to take time and showcase our school community.  Here are a few examples of our best and next practices in touring new families:

  1. Schedule the building tours with the principal – In many high schools, this practice is often delegated to a school counselor or other building administrator.   I have always wondered why any principal would not take advantage of the opportunity to be the first person to welcome a new visiting family or more importantly, to spend time getting to know a potential new student.  Think about the message you are sending when you won’t give a new family and student 90 minutes of your time.  Mindset:  Models to student and family they are the most important people walking through our doors every day.
  2. Office secretaries can make or break the deal before a new family ever walks in the door – Don’t ever underestimate the importance of the impact your office secretaries can have on a new family regarding their choice for a new school when they are calling to inquire about a visit/tour.  A positive first impression goes a long way with parents and a negative first impression will quickly decrease the chance of a new family selecting your school ten-fold.  Trust me. I have had many families tell me they crossed off school XYZ because of the way they were treated by the Principal’s secretary.  Mindset:  No student or family who calls or enters the main office is an inconvenience. In fact, they are the purpose of why we are here.  Never forget that.
  3. Tours should be scheduled during the school day – If at all possible, I would encourage you to schedule all visits during the school day.  It is critical for the visiting student and his/her parents to get a feel of the climate in our school and what #BettPride is all about.  This is nearly impossible to simulate without students in the building. I want them to experience first-hand how welcoming our students & staff are to new students.  I want them to see how our school community cares for one another and values the teaching and learning that transpires throughout the building on a daily basis.  Mindset:  Be proud of the school community in which you spend most of your waking hours and deliver your message with passion, purpose and with a humbled spirit.
  4. Spend time getting to know the student – I will often spend the first 15-20 minutes talking to potential new students one on one in my office before a tour in order to learn as much as I can about their talents, strengths and areas of interest.  Two questions I ask new students are, “What part of school do you value most and why?” and “How do you want to be remembered when you leave your high school?”  Mindset:  Want to show students that this is an environment of great expectations that will challenge their inner core and expect them to leave a positive footprint on their school community long after graduation.
  5. Always be yourself – Be sure when giving a tour you conduct yourself in the same manner you would if you were walking the building on a normal day.  In other words, be you.  This is not the time to try and portray a side of you that is not genuine.  By doing so, you will quickly lose the trust of your new family and send the wrong message to your current students and staff. Mindset:  Rather than be disingenuous, use these opportunities to recognize areas for potential growth in your own leadership style and then establish a plan to make a needed change.
  6. Encourage them to visit other schools – Believe it or not, I always encourage new families to visit the surrounding school districts. I emphasize to new parents that there are many good schools in our area to choose from and that it is important for them to contact other schools to schedule visits.  Honestly, I tell them they need to walk into different schools and determine for themselves, which school community “feels right.”  I want a new student (and their parents) to feel good about his/her choice in a new school knowing full well I may lose them, but in the long run it is the best measure of success.  If they do not select us, then it wasn’t the right fit.  Mindset:  I believe the most critical factor in determining the success of any student is the culture and climate of a school.  My attitude going into any meeting with a new family has to be one of quiet confidence and trust that we have cultivated the right culture for kids to be successful and that new families will feel that this is a special place.
  7. Let them ask questions of the students and staff – I always encourage our new families to ask students and staff questions as we tour.  In fact, I will often purposefully distance myself so our students and staff can have an open and honest discussion with new families free from my presence.  In addition, I tell families before we begin the tour that they are welcome to enter any classroom they choose and that our students and staff do not know they will be visiting. Mindset:   I never want to give the impression that I am somehow trying to influence the responses or comments from my students and staff.  I want them to know that what they see is what they get; this is who we are every day.
  8. Show new families where to find your school/district data – At the conclusion of the tour, I always return to the main office to give the student and family time to digest what they have just observed and to provide an opportunity for any follow up questions.  This is also the time I provide families our school profile data information or walk them through on how to access the information from our district/building website.  Mindset:  I want to be transparent with our school data, although I find most families have already accessed it long before ever setting up a visit.
  9. Share your personal information with them – Parents always appreciate when I hand them a business card and take time to inscribe my personal cell phone number on the card and encourage them to contact me day, night or weekend.  I share with them that I recognize that choosing a school can be very stressful on not only their student, but the entire family as well. Mindset:  I want parents to know I care about them and their student and am accessible 24/7 should a need arise sooner than later.  The message I want to send is that being a school principal is not a job, but my life.
  10. Invite them to a school function – One of most positive steps we take to encourage new families to select our school is to invite them to attend an evening event as our special guest.  This is especially true if the event they attend is an event in which the student has a personal interest. This is one area that we added on as part of our practice this year after seeing tremendous results of families selecting our school after attending one of our events.  Giving a new student an opportunity to see and feel what it would be like to be part of a club, group, or team is a powerful way to let them experience the pride and spirit of our school community. Mindset:  Allows students and families to see up front the value we place on our co-curricular activities. We want our students to not only feel connected, but be connected beyond the bell schedule.

I approach every student/family visit with the intention of giving of my time and more importantly, of myself.  I have tremendously high expectations of myself and of my staff when it comes to cultivating a culture that places a significant value on giving of our time to others in a positive and caring way. My mindset is simple; in the words of my father, we as a school community will get out of it what we put into it.

As leaders, we are responsible for raising the bar to exceptionally high levels when it comes to how we want both new and existing families to feel about their school community.  I am honored to be a part of this wonderful community we call Bettendorf and I am extremely proud because I know that although I have invested my life in our school community, I am just a guest like everyone else until the next principal comes along.

So I challenge you to reflect…do your new families get what they expect?

Or do they walk out of your school receiving so much more than they ever expected?

This entry is a cross-post from Jimmy Casas‘s blog. (@casas_jimmy) Principal of Bettendorf High School, will present Building Community Through Social Media on Friday, February 7, 2014 at Ignite ’14 in Dallas.  For more information and to register visit www.nasspconference.org.

Creating the Conditions for School Success

Guest post by Frederick Brown:

“Education research shows that most school variables, considered separately, have at most small effects on learning. The real payoff comes when individual variables combine to reach critical mass. Creating the conditions under which that can occur is the job of the principal.”

This statement serves as a powerful opening to the recently updated and expanded Wallace Foundation Perspective, The School Principal as Leader: Guiding Schools to Better Teaching and Learning. The field has come to depend on Wallace for sharing its learning as it continues a decade-long focus on leadership, and this most recent report doesn’t disappoint.

First, the perspective reminds us what Wallace has identified as the five key practices of effective principals:

•    Shaping a vision of academic success for all students
•    Creating a climate hospitable to education
•    Cultivating leadership in others
•    Improving instruction
•    Managing people, data, and processes to foster school improvement.

The perspective also answers a question rarely addressed in the literature: Why should teachers care about leadership? Linda Darling-Hammond addresses this principal-teacher connection in an interview with Wallace Director of Communications Lucas Held. Her response to the question of how principals and teachers work together to create a collaborative focus on learning is in complete alignment with Learning Forward’s Learning Communities Standard. “The principal functions as a principal teacher who is really focusing on instruction along with [and] by the side of teachers – not top down mandates and edicts,” she says. “When principals are trying to help create such a culture, [they] begin to open the doors and say, ‘Let’s talk about our practice. Let’s show our student work. Let’s go look at each other’s classrooms and see what we’re doing.'” In essence, what she is describing is a leader exhibiting the five key practices (Wallace 5).

During my NASSP session, participants will be delving into the Wallace 5 using a set of tools being developed by Learning Forward that are aligned to The Principal Story film documentary. Video segments from the film will be integrated into these online modules, and all of these free materials will be available for use by principals and those who support their development.

There are also some excellent videos on the Learning Forward website that provide a visual for these principal-led learning teams. While all of these videos show various “learning teams” committing to continuous improvement, collective responsibility, and goal alignment, the videos from Stults Road Elementary in particular show the principal actively engaged as both leader and learner. Like the vast library of Wallace Foundation knowledge products, these Learning Forward videos are free to download and use.

I look forward to joining many of you in Learning Forward’s hometown for the Ignite ’14 conference! Safe travels!

Frederick Brown is director of strategy and development at Learning Forward. Frederick will be presenting The Principal Story on Saturday, February 8 at Ignite ’14. For more information and to register, visit www.nasspconference.org.

The Power of a Chosen PLN

Guest post by Laurie Barron:

Why do I need Twitter? I certainly don’t care about when Lindsay Lohan is back in court, Justin Bieber is in trouble with the paparazzi, or Miley Cyrus is twerking (whatever that may mean). And what is a hashtag? It just didn’t sound like something that was appropriate to be talking about in conjunction with my professional learning.

Imagine my delight upon realizing that I could use Twitter to choose to learn from those I do care about hearing from and use hashtags to follow topics I find professionally rewarding!

I admit it: Twitter was slow to grow on me. I also admit that I now can’t believe how much I have grown as a professional as a result of learning from a customized professional learning network that occurs when and where I want it. (And, if I get bored, I can leave without worrying about that awkward moment that seems so disrespectful when people walk out of a presentation.)

Through my professional learning network on Twitter, I have learned from some of the most effective educational leaders from across the country: leaders who have defied the odds; leaders who have done what many say is not possible; leaders who believe in students whom, unfortunately, many have given up on; leaders who realize that, while students may come from a home that struggles economically, this economic disadvantage does not define a student; leaders who understand that our job as educators is not to judge students for their status in life but instead to ensure that status isn’t an impediment to their education. I have been amazed by people who have challenged me to grow, learn, and stretch myself, all as a result of sharing knowledge with educators from across the nation, most of whom I’ve never even met.

And so, no matter which day of the week you may be reading this, I offer a longer-than-normal #FF for some of those who probably have no idea the impact they have had on my career, Twitter friends and colleagues such as @TrevorLTGreene, @casas_jimmy, @NASSP, @MarkWilsonGA, @SlatonJessica, @NMHS_Principal, @patrickmlarkin, @RickWormeli, @ToddWhitaker, @dpk933, @bcurrie5, @Joe_Mazza, @mwdegner, @BUCSlead, @Jennifer_Hogan, @jackson_carrie, @charlesdumais, @DaisyDyerDuerr, @DruTomlin_AMLE, @blocht574, @d_mulder, and @aschmuhl.

Through the incredible world of Twitter, I have found myself surrounded by people who inspire me, people who help me build relationships, people who have similar goals and aspirations. I am certainly looking forward to NASSP Ignite ’14 to learn with my Twitter PLN in person!

New to Twitter? Jump start your engagement and build your professional learning network by attending the Tweetorial Friday morning, February 7 to start your Ignite ’14 experience. You can also check out this simple guide for educators on Tweeting.

Laurie Barron (@LaurieBarron) is the 2013 MetLife/NASSP National Middle Level Principal of the Year. She will present at the Ignite 2014. For more information and to register visit www.nasspconference.org.