Aug 24

How To Plan Better Professional Development

[Only 16 days until the release of our book, Building School 2.0! Pre-order it today!]

So… after yesterday’s post, several folks asked me to talk about how to make PD better.

There are as many ways to make professional development better as there are ways to make our teaching better… what follows are just a few. The overarching thing to remember is this – we have to be one school. The same set of values that we look for in our classrooms should be what we value in our professional development. With that:

  1. Root professional development in the work teachers do. Asking teachers to do exercises that are not based in the work of the day is inauthentic. For example, if your school wants to do a deep dive into reading across the curriculum, ask teachers to bring their current unit plans and work together to ensure that all readings that students are assigned have reading comprehension activities attached to them. Have teachers work together to study a text like Subjects Matter and apply lessons learned, and then come back together for reflection after the work has been implemented.
  2. Don’t come in with answers – come in with questions. Inquiry-based professional development, where teachers are working to collaborative to solve challenges the school faces is incredibly powerful. We’ve looked at issues of culture, of student performance, of cultural competence as a faculty, where we asked ourselves hard questions and then looked to solve them. You don’t solve hard questions in a single meeting, of course, but a committee of teachers can come up with a powerful lens or frame on a problem, ask challenging questions, and then take the outcomes of the conversation back into committee to then craft next steps. When real problems are taken up by the whole faculty, solutions can come from unexpected places, and often the wisdom of the room will end up solving the problem in ways that a single voice ever could have.
  3. Don’t plan professional development yourself. We have a committee structure at SLA that is fully teacher-led. Committee chairs come together to set broad professional development agendas for the semester, and then the different committees plan professional development in consultation with administration. Everyone has a stake in planning useful PD, because we all sit through each other’s sessions. When we all feel responsible for each other’s learning, people spend the time to make it meaningful.
  4. Prioritize – I’ve seen too many schools and districts that treat every single PD session as an opportunity to present a new idea, as if one two-hour PD session is ever enough to fully learn an educational idea enough to then be amazing at it in the classroom. School faculty should figure out what are the primary goals of the school that year, and then seek to weave those goals through all professional development for the year (or two.) When everything is a priority, nothing is, but when we set a few big goals and then ensure that the overwhelming majority of the professional learning is in service of those goals, amazing things can happen.
  5. Follow-up. If PD happens in a meeting, and then the work isn’t prioritized by administration, it’s a waste of time. If we want teachers to believe in collaborative professional development, then time must be set-aside for implementation and reflection. Otherwise, we’ve created yet another “one-off” professional development session that is easily ignored by those who choose to, and worse, disempowering to those who actually want to see the topic / idea implemented powerfully.

These are a few ideas and values to get you started — there are many more that I encourage people to share in the comments. Simply, in all we do, be thoughtful, collaborative, and empowering when structuring professional learning. When we do that, we can create those values in every classroom – for every student – in our schools.

Aug 22

Professional Development and Collective Wisdom

An old story… a young teacher comes to his first staff meeting where he sees an veteran teacher already sitting down. He sits down next to an older teacher who says to him, “You know… when I die… I hope it’s in a faculty meeting.”

The young teacher says, “Why?”

To which the older teacher replies, “So when I cross over, I won’t know the difference.”

Most educators have been through some terrible staff meetings and professional development sessions where people took turns reading to them, talking at them and maybe giving people the odd moment or two to discuss with the person next to them. And most of the time, educators are forced to sit through meetings and professional development that, pedagogically, would get them written up if they taught that way in their classes.

That’s got to stop.

There’s a simple question we should ask when we bring teachers together:

“Does the structure of this meeting / PD / whatever leverage the collective wisdom of the room?”

And if it doesn’t, we need to ask ourselves some hard questions:

  1. Do we need to be together for this or could this information be disseminated in other ways?
  2. Are we missing the chance for people to learn together and solve the problems as a community?
  3. Who does this meeting really serve?
  4. What are the meta-lessons that the participants are learning about what teaching methods are valued by this meeting?

If we want active classrooms, we have to have active PD.

If we want teachers to create collaborative classrooms, we have to create a collaborative culture in our adult learning and problem solving.

If we want teachers to value the ideas and experiences of our students, then we must value the ideas and experiences of our teachers when they come together to learn.

And if we want our schools to find innovative, powerful solutions to the problems we face, we must all learn to seek out the collective wisdom of the room.

Aug 08

Making Advisory Work

[This post comes out of Friday’s work session with the Innovative Schools network where principals and counselors and teachers and social workers came together to talk about how they care for the children in their schools. It was wonderful to spend the day with caring, committed educators, planning for ways to better care for the children in their charge.]

Lots of schools have Advisory programs, but there are many schools where Advisory is little more than homeroom. For some reason, Advisory – despite being something that many educators will tell you can / should be a great thing – remains an elusive success in too many places. And with the proliferation of education books out there, it’s telling that the quintessential book on Advisory – The Advisory Guide by Poliner and Lieber – is over ten years old.

But done right, Advisory is nothing less than the soul of a school. It is where Noddings’ ideas of the ethic of care can live and breathe in the structure and schedule of a school. Done right, Advisory guarantees that every student in a school will know they are cared for, and that they have an advocate. Done right, Advisory levels the power dynamic between teachers and students that can transform school culture from authoritarian to authoritative. Of all the things SLA does, Advisory strikes me as one of the most important pieces of our culture — and one of the most easily poachable by other schools.

But it has to be nurtured. I think in many schools, working on being a good Advisor doesn’t get the necessary professional development time, and too many teachers (myself included, more often than I care to admit) often plan Advisory last because it’s not an “academic” class. And those two things can combine to kill effective Advisory programs.

And we have to help teachers be good Advisors? There’s nothing about the typical teacher preparation program that does this. Those programs (especially at the secondary level) focus on how to help teachers be great teachers of their content, not great teachers of their children. So how do you plan for care? How do you help teachers become Advisors? What are the big ideas and questions we have to ask if we are to create powerful Advisory programs in schools?

  • How do you develop caring relationships with kids? What does that look like? How do we care for kids? Fundamentally, teachers have to grapple with this question to be good Advisors. One of our teachers at SLA says that he is “School Dad” for his Advisees, which may be one way to start to answer that question. And yes, that answer can look different for different teachers, but we have to be willing to tackle the question to make Advisory successful. Aspects of this question also include helping teachers to be good listeners to kids and helping teachers to understand the different cultures and communities that students come from, and helping them to examine issues of implicit bias so that they can respect and care for all students in a way that doesn’t simply mean that teachers look to impose their own value systems on their students and Advisees.
  • How do you make Advisory class time successful / useful? (Full disclosure here – I don’t think I did this all that well as an Advisor. I was good at the one-to-one with kids, but I don’t think I maximized the time we spent together.) Schools can and should give PD time for Advisors to meet together by grade-group to co-plan, develop themes, share activities, etc… this takes the onus off of the individual teacher to always come up with activities. Also, some of the best Advisors I’ve seen have co-planned some of the class time with the students, which also creates powerful buy-in from students.
  • How do we develop our ability to act as advocates and mediators for our Advisees? One of the core functions of a high-level Advisory is the ability for Advisors to help navigate the spaces when students and teachers come into conflict. In traditional schooling, the power dynamic between students and teachers is such that students can often feel shut down when they have conflict with a teacher. Advisors can level that playing field and help students and teachers build healthier relationships inside the academic classroom by moderating and mediating those hard conversations. Engaging in professional development where teachers role play how to be on both ends of that conversation can prepare teachers to fundamentally change the dynamics of the classroom to create more equitable, healthier schools for everyone.
  • How do we build partnerships with families? Helping advisors work with families is key to a successful Advisory program. Making sure that parents know that Advisors are there for them – as well as their children – is powerful. Helping advisors learn how to talk with families in positive ways that respects the different cultures and communities that families come from is another piece of the work that must go into building a positive Advisory culture.
  • How do you prevent “bunker mentality” between Advisors and Advisees? This one falls under the category of “What is the worst consequence of your best idea?” It can be too easy for Advisors to think they are the only adult who can help an Advisee… and it can be too easy for Advisees to be think that and Advisor is going to keep their secrets for them in unhealthy ways. Advisory professional development can — and should — engage in discussions about what can be dealt with within the context of the Advisor-Advisee relationship and what needs to involve other adults and why. And Advisors need to be open and honest with their kids up front when they say, “I cannot keep things confidential if that would jeopardize your well-being.” Learning how a trusting relationship with students must include other adults is a powerful part of building a healthy Advisory program.

The hard part about all these questions is that there are few concrete answers, and schools (and individual Advisors within schools) will come to different places on how they answer them. But these questions must be engaged in openly, honestly and often for schools to have powerful, transformative Advisory programs. There is no such thing as the “add water and stir” Advisory program. They are as different as the students we teach and the schools we teach in. But, at root, Advisory programs can be living proof of the ethic of care in our schools. They can make sure that we do, indeed, teach the whole child for every child. And they can be, as we strive to make it at SLA, the soul of our schools.


Jul 07

Old Hat, New Hat

[This is a note I just sent to the families of SLA. I present it here – with a more whimsical title that references one of my favorite Dr. Seuss books – to let everyone know what I’ll be up to next school year.]

To the families of Science Leadership Academy,

Science Leadership Academy was founded as a research and development school for the School District. For the past nine years, students and teachers from SLA have worked with hundreds of teachers and principals from the School District and beyond on how to change their practice to be more inquiry-driven and caring educators. Under Dr. Hite’s leadership, the School District of Philadelphia is starting the Innovative Schools Network – a hub for powerful new ideas for schools. As part of this network, dedicated to nurturing new models of education, SLA is well positioned to continue its work as a national leader for creating empowering educational experiences.

Today, Dr. Hite is announcing that my role in the School District of Philadelphia is expanding to oversee the Innovative Schools Network. Beginning August 1, I will serve the students of Philadelphia in a dual capacity – both principal of Science Leadership Academy and Assistant Superintendent of the Innovative Schools Network. And, because there are just so many hours in the day, I am delighted to announce that Aaron Gerwer will join us full-time at SLA as co-principal. Many of you will know Aaron as our principal fellow this past year. It has been a pleasure to see him grow into this new role, and I look forward to partnering with him this coming year.

Working with the students and teachers and families of the Science Leadership Academy continues to be the most rewarding experience of my professional career. The work your children do every day is what inspired the School District of Philadelphia to authorize the foundation of Science Leadership Academy @ Beeber and our upcoming effort, the Science Leadership Academy Middle School.

The work we will now do as part of the Innovative Schools Network is a continuation of the belief in the agency and ability of the students and families of Philadelphia. It is my pleasure to be able to continue to serve as principal of SLA and to now help other school communities serve their students in powerful, modern ways.

Mr. Lehmann

Jun 14

It’s Not Just Kid Behavior

How many times have you heard a colleague say — or said yourself — “That’s just kids?” I’ve probably used some version of that statement a few thousand times in my career as an educator.

It’s a pretty innocuous statement, in fact, it often is a kind statement used to diffuse tension or to ensure that an adult in a school doesn’t overreach to a student’s behavior.

But I worry that it’s subtly not as helpful as we think it is.

I think it may be more powerful to think about student and teacher – kid and adult behavior – on a continuum of human behavior. So much of what we see from students is, as David Perkins might call it, the junior varsity version of adult behaviors. And when we create the space for us to see our students’ behavior as more similar to our own behaviors than we’d like to admit, we can come to a place where we think about the consequences for actions in a far more humanistic way than if we think that “kid behavior” is instead something that we can make kids grow up and out of.

Am I suggesting that there’s no difference between the maturity and actions of a 15-year-old or a eight year old and a forty-year old? No… of course not, but our motivations, our responses to situations, our frequent foibles are often along a continuum where, if we look hard, we can see the adult in the child and vice versa. And that should help us forgive more quickly, seek to punish less frequently, and be willing to understand more deeply.

It’s when that teacher with the Draconian late work policy realizes that the school secretary has to chase him down for his attendance every day.

Or when that teacher who gets so frustrated by the student who always has to be the first one with a comment in a class discussion realizes that she does the same in a faculty meeting.

Or the principal who gets so annoyed with kids being loud at lunch with their friends stops to take a minute and hear the volume of their own laughter at a faculty luncheon.

That’s when we can see behavior is not simply “kid behavior” or “adult behavior,” but rather it is simply human behavior – as awesome and flawed and frustrating as we all can be. And when we see ourselves in our students, when we do not use language — even when it is meant to be kind and understanding — to other our students, we create the conditions by which we can better understand, know and serve the students we teach.

Mar 29

Post for Admins: Question More, Solve Less

At first blush, being an administrator who is a problem solver seems like a uniquely positive trait. There are certainly enough problems in schools that require solving.

But problem-solving isn’t always as important as we think it is.

Sometimes, we can rush to solve the problem in front of us in a way that feels productive but doesn’t really help us to think deeply about what is going on in our schools. Sometimes, quickly solving the problem doesn’t allow us to see root causes. And worse, simply solving the problem in front of you quickly can have unintended consequences.

As frustrating as it can be sometimes, we need to move more slowly when we look at some of the problems in our schools.  More often than not, our schools are better served when leaders don’t merely solve the problem in front of them, but rather take the time to ask questions of a range of folks to get at the real question at hand.

What we need in our schools are more leaders who ask questions of many stakeholders. When problems arise – especially ones that seem like they could be solved by just being a little harsher, a little stricter – we need to ask better questions. And we should listen to the answers.

Just like we ask teachers to do with our students.


Aug 16

Leaders Stand Up

This is a post for Scott McLeod’s #LeadershipDay14. Thanks, as always, Scott, for providing a forum for us to push our thinking.

So, there’s a funny thing that has happened with a bunch of SLA teachers over the years. There are several folks who have come to SLA after spending time at schools with leadership who they felt were sub-standard. And, I think, after eight years, I am comfortable with the idea that, while I still have lots to learn as a leader, I’ve passed the “Doesn’t Suck” test. At least most days. So as a result, several teachers have come to me and had some version of this comment:

“Before I came here, I thought I might want to be a principal, but after watching what you do every day, I don’t want to be a principal anymore.”

And here’s the thing… leadership is hard. It just is. Every year we deal with the financial crisis of the School District of Philadelphia, I know that the teachers, students and parents of SLA are counting on me to figure out how to navigate the challenges we face while keeping the school intact.

Because leaders stand up.

And it gets harder at the next level. I was at an event around advocacy for the district recently, and a reporter asked me what I would do if I were facing what Dr. Hite was facing, and my first reaction was, “I’m thankful it’s him, not me.” He has dealt with financial challenges, and he keeps coming out, being visible, talking about the choices he’s making, and owning them all.

Because leaders stand up.

One of the incredible things about leadership is that it lays you bare for who you are. There are rare moments when I am 100% sure of my course of action, but what I have learned is that I have to listen to a lot of people, consider as many variables as I can, and then take action, even when it’s hard. Even when there isn’t a clear path of action.

Because leaders stand up.

And the thing about it is… if you want to be a leader, you have to learn that while you are always searching for the win-win, there are also moments where you have to make unpopular decisions. It’s lonely. It often sucks. And even the folks who you go to to figure it all out aren’t the ones who have to live with the decision after its done. The people you asked for advice… the folks you sought out… they all have the ability to say, “It wasn’t my decision to make.” And they are right. It was yours. If you listened to bad advice, that’s your fault, not theirs. No one holds the kitchen cabinet accountable. Only you.

Because leaders stand up.

And as educational leaders, when there are challenges that affect our kids, we send a message with our actions and our words. If we are unwilling to act, if we are unwilling to speak, our kids will take notice. But when we listen, when we speak, when we are willing to show our kids we care,  when we make sure our kids know that their issues are our issues,  we can be the educational leaders our kids and our teachers need us to be. And because of that, even if it is hard, even if we don’t feel like we know exactly what to say or do, even if not everyone will like what we do or say, we have to be willing to take the risk to do what we believe to be right.

Because leaders stand up.

Aug 09

Maybe We Could Just Get Better

With the start of the new school, educators around the country – especially those in schools and districts that have been labeled as failing – are learning about the new initiatives that their schools will be undertaking this school year. Many of these initiatives will be mandated – top-down – from an administrator at the school, district or state level. And many of these initiatives will be a sharp turn away from the practices of the past year.

And these new initiatives will be enacted in the name of closing the achievement gap, addressing some data-driven problem that has been identified, or somehow finding some magic bullet to raise test scores.

And many teachers go through this process year after year after year.

And it makes me ask a simple question – what if some of the problems of our school is that we never let people get good at any one thing?

This is not to say that schools should look at challenges and problems they face and address them.

This is not to say that educators should not strive to learn new ideas and new practices.

But when do we let teachers get good at stuff too?

Schools need to grow along healthy pathways. So do the teachers and students than inhabit them. When we commit to a pedagogical plan or a new structure or system, and we say, “Barring epic failure, we’re going to work on this strategy for a few years,” we honor the fact that people can learn and get better at their craft.

There are many pedagogical approaches to education. I have a favorite that I am passionate about – inquiry-based education. I have been lucky enough to work with a group of teachers and students who have dedicated themselves to getting better at that craft. And as a community, we very much have gotten better. I am also lucky enough to have been afforded the space and time to get better. I remember the first year SLA took the PSSAs and our math scores were lower than we expected them to be. I was terrified that my regional superintendent, Marilyn Perez, was going to tell me that we had to abandon our inquiry-driven math plan. I called her with the scores – we had done the calculations by hand from state score sheets, so we had the data before the district had calculated the school-wide results – and she said to me, “Now you have your baseline, and knowing SLA, you and your teachers are already thinking about how to get better at what you do.”

She held us accountable for our performance and listened to our plan on how we were going to get better at what we did… not change pedagogy or approach, but evolve and get better. To this day, if Marilyn were to call and say, “I need a favor…” the answer would be unequivocally yes, because she was willing to work with SLA to give us time to grow along a healthy path that allowed us to evolve, rather than shift gears.

We need to create more spaces for schools to define school-wide structural and pedagogical approaches to education, and then we need to give schools time and space to grow and get better at their craft as a community. In too many schools and districts, September represents a time where teachers and students have to throw out last year’s “Best Practice” in favor of the latest and greatest idea to come out of a policy office somewhere.

Perhaps we are a time where we can admit that our best practices are the ones that we actually get the time to practice.

Sep 03

Thoughts on Leadership: Better v. Different

“Well, it’s not the way I would have done it.”

One of the things that can be difficult about working toward a distributed leadership model is that people do things differently that you would. And yes, that’s also one of the best parts of distributed leadership, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

When I sit down with a teacher or a group of teachers, and they are a point where they have worked on something and now want to get feedback on it, I have to be thoughtful to make sure I look through the lens of the work that has been done, not the work that I would have done if it were me.

And that’s true, not just for administrators, but for everyone involved.

Oftentimes, committees are given the task of taking apart an idea and coming up with potential solutions to problems. Our committees are all open, so that any teacher can join any committee. When we come together as a faculty to examine what a committee has done, we have to be sure to respect the work that was done. I

It is easy to suggest different conclusions than what a group of people have come up with, but different doesn’t always mean better. There are times when a new idea or a new direction really is better than what is being proposed, but more often than not, a new idea is just different.

One of the ways to get around the better v. different challenge is to use critique, rather than brainstorming. When we ask questions of the idea or proposal in front of us, we are able to examine the idea on its merits, not in comparison to the idea in our own head. When we offer honest critique, we give other people’s ideas the airing they need before implementation. And when we allow ourselves to be open to the solutions other people come up with, we honor the work of others and create a more empowered school with truly distributed leadership.

For us to give up our ideas in those moments requires us to understand that there is, oftentimes, not a right or wrong way to do things, but different ways to do things, and that we – whether we are teachers or administrators (or parents or students) – do not have a monopoly on the right way to do things. And as a principal, if I want to empower leadership beyond the walls of my office, I have to understand that will people come up with different answers than mine, and that the honest critique of those ideas by multiple voices will often create answers that are far better.

Aug 14

Thoughts for a New Administrator: Simplify

I’m reading Up the Down Staircase right now, and far too much of it rings true than it should, especially when it comes to the arcane administrative details of the teaching life. And that brings me to tonight’s post – Simplify.

As much as I like to think of being a principal as being the “principal teacher,” there’s a significant portion of the job that is about management. In fact, a 2010 Calder Study suggests that organizational management may create greater change than instructional coaching. And that makes sense. Most of our schools are filled with crufty processes that make the whole add up to less than the sum of its parts. There are binders covered in dust that are filled with forms filled out by various members of the school community. There are legacy processes from forgotten initiatives – to the point where some schools still make teachers do Taylor Time-Studies.

And this isn’t exciting, but one of the things a new administrator can do is come in and simplify the lives of everyone else in the building. When we strip away the processes that are least effective, when we look to create efficiencies so that the things we have to do are easier, we allow teachers to focus on what really matters – the time they spend with students and the time they spend with the students’ work. If we have to ask teachers to take time away from that, we should ensure that we’re doing it for good reason, and we’re making it as easy for teachers to do the task as possible.

Anything we can turn into a Google Form instead of a Word Doc to fill out is a win for teachers. Any time we can link something to our internal faculty site instead of printing it out to be filed away and hunted for later, it’s a win. Any time we make it easier for parents to sign up to volunteer or meet with us, we increase good will. Any time we make the structure of school easier for students to understand, they will have more energy to invest in their learning.

So, here’s a thought for the first meetings with the various stakeholders… ask these questions:

  • For teachers: How can we simply the processes of school so that you can maximize the time you spend on teaching and learning? What do we not need to do? What can we do more easily and efficiently?
  • For parents: How can we make communication between home and school easier? How can we make sure that home and school both get the information we need in a timely fashion?
  • For students: When does the “game” of school get in the way of your learning? How can we make the structure of school more transparent, so that it is easier to focus on learning?

What would you simplify?