Aug 05

Thoughts for a New Administrator: Time

[I’m headed into my ninth year for working on SLA – one planning year, and this is the school’s eighth year. And while there is still a ton to learn about doing this job well, I thought that I might be reaching a point where the lessons I have learned might have something to offer to new administrators. Thus, this piece.]

There are a lot of challenges to moving from the teaching life to the administrative life. Some, I remember trying to anticipate – the idea of managing adults being the obvious one. But some I didn’t really think as much about – managing time. The rhythms of the life of a principal are very different from those of a teacher’s, both day-to-day and over time.

On the daily level, there’s the realization that your life is not dictated by the class schedule the same way everyone else’s is. And that takes getting used to. As a teacher, your professional life is based around your class schedule. As a principal, while it is important to be in the hallways during the change of classes, you get to choose when you do your walk-throughs, when you answer emails, and there’s no guarantee that your meetings will fit neatly into the class structure – in fact, there’s a pretty good chance they won’t.

For me, that meant learning a kind of time management discipline that wasn’t as necessary when I was in the classroom. I had to learn to budget my time during the day in a very different way. Goal setting and holding myself to deadlines meant that I didn’t waste time, and keeping track of what class periods I chose to be in classrooms meant that I got to see the school at different times. And for me, budgeting out lunch periods so that I could spend time with students and teachers as they needed me became really important.

On the larger level, a principal’s hardest times of the year aren’t always in line with a teacher’s. The end of the marking period grading crush was always hard for me, but as a principal, the weeks after report cards come out are more busy than the weeks before they come out. This meant that I had to make sure I paid attention to the energy levels of the folks around me, understanding that teachers and students often got tired at different times than I did. It meant learning how the administrative rhythm of the school went so that I could plan my own life accordingly. I’ve learned to block out almost every night of June for school, as there’s always some end of year event that I as the principal have to be at.

The best advice I’d give to a new administrator about time is to be aware of it. A principal’s life is unstructured, but very busy. Planning that time out, and being thoughtful about how to manage your time can mean the difference between being a pro-active leader or a reactive one.


Sep 23

We Should Be Better Because We Are Together

Much of the conversation around education reform has focused so much on how do we get better teachers, get rid of bad teachers, etc… that it powerfully misses the forest for the trees. While, yes, there are some bad teachers, and yes, it is important how to figure out – from a policy perspective – how to recruit more amazing folks into the profession, the conversation is framed in such a way as to miss a major point of what is needed to create healthier, better schools.

In so many schools, teachers are working in isolation or if they are collaborating, it is departmental online. Schools are not, as a whole, places where we make it easy for people to thrive. It is almost a meritocracy of Herculean proportions where people succeed despite the system, not because of it.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I walk around SLA. We have had a very stable faculty, and it is amazing to watch teachers who have been at SLA for a bunch of years and be able to reflect on the growth and change they have gone through during their tenure. And what I really believe is that all of the adults at SLA are better because we are there together. And, of course, that has incredible, powerful effect on what students can do.

And it’s funny, because so many visitors who come to SLA say something to the effect of “What you do is possible because you have such incredible teachers.” And yes. That is true. Unequivocally. But we also have incredible teachers because of what we do. And that’s really important. There are teachers at SLA who may not have stayed in the profession had it not been for the work they do at our school. There are teachers who would have been (and were) frustrated at other schools. There are teachers who would not have had the chance to grow and fail. And all of them are amazing people and educators who I am thankful to work with everyday.

And this is every bit as true for me as well. I don’t think I would have necessarily been a good or effective principal in a different environment. I’d like to think that I’ve made some good choices that enabled SLA to maximize the chance we got to do something unique and powerful, but in the end, the work of everyone at SLA in believing in and filling out the day-to-day details of our dream has made me a much better principal than I would have been somewhere else.

And I say this because I still believe that one of the worst things about American education in 2012 is how much human potential we squander at every level – teacher and student. So here are some thoughts about how we’ve managed to create a system at SLA where we have been able to grow together as a faculty:

  • Create a common language of teaching and learning: We have a laser focus on our core values of inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation and reflection. We have the grade wide themes. We have evolved in our use of UbD such that we now have tailored it be even more reflective of the way we teach. We continue to have a school-wide rubric that creates a language of assessment. And we have spent the past three years developing standards-based language that we are working to leverage more and more deeply. Each of the things have deepened our ability to be successful in our classrooms as kids progress in their understanding of what it means to be in an SLA classroom, but also, each of these things are workshopped and developed as a faculty, so that we learn from each other.
  • Evolve carefully: How we do those things — and plenty of other structures as well — have changed over time, but all of them have (hopefully) evolved along a sensible path. We try very hard not to make sudden and jarring shifts in the way we work at SLA. That has allowed us to keep getting better at what we do without having to tear down huge swaths of what we do. I am always a little incredulous when I hear schools talk about initiative after initiative that represent fundamental shifts for teachers and students. I couldn’t live with that kind of instability.
  • Teach and learn transparently: Whether it is EduCon or our PLCs or our blogs or how the Advisory system creates shared responsibility, we really try to do what we do out in the open. So we learn from each other all the time. We also share what we pick up from other places all the time. It has created a culture of learning at SLA that keeps making us better. The transparency has also increased the level of collaboration and dialed down the level of competition among faculty – again, something we also deliberately work to do with students as well. Teachers at SLA don’t hide their best work, afraid that a colleague will “steal” it. Folks are deeply, deeply generous with their work, and that has incredible benefit for sharer and share-ee.
  • We still work to build consensus, even when it’s hard: It isn’t easy to get there, but we still work to build consensus around our big ideas. This really does allow us to acknowledge concerns and fears and unintended consequences and therefore evolve slowly and smartly. That’s important, as we don’t really move forward with half-baked ideas all that often. (And I think I could be very guilty of doing that in another situation.)
  • We share the load. Everyone at SLA works hard on something outside of their teaching responsibility. Whether it is a committee chair or coordinating events, everyone at SLA has a distributed piece of the leadership load. That gives people a sense of the whole beyond their own classroom which has helped all of us keep our eye on the big prize.

There are probably more things that have allowed us to grow together, but all of these things are systemized at SLA in such a way that our growth as a school hasn’t been accidental. With each day, I am more and more convinced that it is possible to have a sensible structure to progressive education that allows everyone – students and teachers and administrators to healthily grow better together. It is this idea that I would like to see gain more traction as we talk about how we want to evolve our educational system as a nation.

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Location:Elk Fork Rd,Hazard,United States

Sep 22

The Paperless Principal

Jethro Jones (@JethroJones) has a new iBook out called The Paperless Principal. Jethro asked me to take a look at it, and as he is someone in my PLN, it really was my pleasure to give it a read. And I’m the better for it.

This book is not a pedagogy book at all. It is simply a wonderful way to think about managing the (often crushing) document (e-doc and old-fashioned paper doc) flow of being a principal. The book came at a perfect time for me, because I am not doing a great job of managing my paper flow, and my goal of ending every day with a clean desk is just not happening right now. I was just talking with a teacher at SLA about how I was feeling a little overwhelmed by life right now, and how I was struggling to find more efficiencies in my work and life flow. Sometimes, the right email pops up in your inbox at just the right time.

The general theory of the book is that, with all documents, once we have determined if it doesn’t go straight to the recycling bin, we must capture, process and use everything in such a way that save us time. That may not be a particularly revolutionary idea, but what makes Jones’ book really interesting is that he documents his process for doing so and how he has used various pieces of software to automate as much as that process as possible. For example, he introduced me to two pieces of software called Hazel and Text Expander that both seem like they could play a profound role in saving me a couple of hours a week – and these days, every hour saved is key. For other people, his description of how he uses DropBox may be the thing that is revolutionary. (I can second DropBox – I love it.)

But the book is not just about how he uses the tools themselves. He documents his organizational processes and how the tools both serve and enhance that process. What was cool for me was reading about his workflow and realizing that it isn’t mine at all, but that there still were a bunch of places where I could take his work and adapt and apply it to mine. (And Jethro would argue that’s exactly what I should do with the book, I think. He writes about how a principal first needs to make a system work for him/her.)

Now I consider myself a reasonably organized principal. I’ve written about how I use to-do lists and various tools to simplify my existence, and I already have a pretty robust electronic filing system, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t some wonderful takeaways for me – for example, I want to play with Hazel to see if I can take the weekly email of principal updates from the district and automatically parse and file the memos into relevant folders.

One concern that I have for readers other than myself is that I do wonder just how tech-savvy you have to be to use all the tools Jethro describes. I’m pretty techie, as most folks know, and there were a few parts where I was wondering how steep my learning curve was going to be. I think part of my problem is that I read the book on a plane where I couldn’t download and play with the tools. Also, I hope that Jethro’s website has the HowTo’s and such needed to make this easier. What I would recommend for any principal (or teacher) who wanted to use Hazel, for example, is to play with it a lot with some files and folders that were not essential, as if you are not familiar with logical commands and creating rules, you could cause yourself some headaches if you started immediately with essential files.

Overall, this is the kind of book that a principal who has dipped their toe into the world of using digital tools to manage the administrative side of the work already should definitely read. If you, like me, have already created your own systems for digitally managing much of the work, you will still find a great deal in this book to make you re-examine your workflow. It is a short but vital read for anyone who has looked at either their desk or their Desktop and felt completely overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information in front of them.

[As an addendum, the inspiration for the book itself came from David Sparks’ iBook Paperless and Jethro’s book has convinced me that should be my next read.]

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