Truth Bomb: Every Educator is an Instructional Leader

The next time a teacher says, I am not a leader, my head is going to explode off of my face (not biologically possible, but sentiment is still very real for me).

It’s ironic that we sometimes see leadership in others, but rarely acknowledge our own contributions in similar situations. Particularly, classroom teachers are the most qualified instructional leaders on any campus. We shortsightedly glorify titles, for administrators and “school leaders”, and unknowingly marginalize others within the educational ecosystem; although without ill intent, it’s imperative that we remind educators – particularly teachers – of their instructional leadership qualification.

Recently, as I was speaking with a teacher and I dropped the “instructional leadership” truth bomb into the conversation. She challenged me, which I appreciated, by asking, “how so? In what ways do I show evidence of this competency?” It was so easy to highlight the things that she does as an amazing instructional leader in her particular classroom. Below, I want to highlight what she does and similarly, what other great instructional leaders do everyday in the classroom.

  • They ask students “what can you do with your learning” — gaining good metacognitive feedback on teaching and learning to ensure transferrable outcomes are measurable.
  • They value and embed reflection in all aspects of teaching and learning.
  • They invite students to co-design assessments — understanding that students, by processing the learning outcomes as a designer and a user, will solidify their overall understanding.
  • They use end-of-unit and end-of-semester surveys to strengthen the feedback loop, celebrate successes, and determine next steps.
  • Student feedback is focused on indicators of learning instead of solely on grades — they remind kiddos that the secret to good grades is good learning.
  • They use Enduring Understanding and Guiding Questions to calibrate, measure, and evaluate effective teaching and learning.
  • They empower students to identify what they can do — using language, such as “can do” statements, and standards-based practices to anchor learning and feedback.

Never again shall the Wikipedia definition shape the instructional leader inside or outside of the classroom. ūüôā Every educator is an instructional leader.

What’s the hiring profile?

It’s easy to get stuck in the mad dash to hire for your next job opening. A timeline that starts mid spring stateside is accelerated by almost 100% in international education. What never changes, however, is the hiring profile.

I am a huge fan of Patrick Lencioni; his books usher in groundbreaking approaches within leadership and teamwork. One of my favorite reads, The Ideal Team Player, spotlights three hiring virtues when making the right candidate decision:

Hungry – willing, eager, motivated, focused

Humble – a strong contributor with a for-the-greater-good mindset

(People) Smart – intuitive with a strong interpersonal intelligence

I was ecstatic to hear my School Director reference this book when defining our school’s hiring profile. Finding the “right fit” candidate is a time consuming process, but the investment made up front will eliminate a misfit for the organization down the road.

I am a bit old school in my approach to hiring; the “right fit” is everything. As a public school administrator, I was comfortable with a long-term sub placement until I could find the best candidate for the position. Although much more difficult to delay the candidate selection process in international education, I still believe it’s essential to get it right the first time.

“I can teach you how to teach; I cannot teach you how to love kids and be passionate about what you do!”

Dear Series – Letters to Educators

Years ago, I started a series of letters to educators at different stages of their career. Each year, I added a letter to highlight five things that remained true in that role. As I round six years since the first letter was written, it’s been a nice reflection to remember the impact that each of us within each of our roles has within our profession.

  1. Dear Series: First Year Teacher
  2. Dear Series: Veteran Teacher
  3. Dear Series: First Year Administrator
  4. Dear Series: Veteran Administrator
  5. Dear Series: Future Me – As a Principal (written in 2013)

Check out any of the Dear Series letters above.

Leverage the Grade Junkie’s Motivation

Tis’ the season. It’s around the interim benchmark in our semester and our students become anxious about the numerical representation of their learning that will be recorded in their report card comments. No matter how hard we try to recenter the focus and articulate the narrative of their learning, growth, and progress, students are typically hyper focused on the grade.¬†Let’s face it: students care about it — that 2-3 digit number next to the course name.

I wonder… is that a bad thing?

Student to Me: how can I get a better grade in X class?
Me to the Student: it’s not about the grade; it’s about the learning.¬†
Student to Me: do Colleges, Graduate Programs, Companies ask about my learning or my grades Рespecially those in South Korea?
Me to the Student: Point well received. 
Student to Me: Annnnnnnnnd,¬†if it’s about the learning in the class, can I prove that I have learned the unit now that I actually understand it? No. I cannot because we have grades and everything is finite.¬†

It really was an interesting perspective coming from a soon-to-be post-secondary learner.¬†The world around us values a student’s learning typically when it’s rounded to the nearest decimal place. Grades are important and we, as educators, cannot ignore or devalue the importance of the world’s view of grades. However, we know that in the big picture, it’s imperative that students can do something with the knowledge and skills they have acquired.¬†A student once told me, “what’s the purpose of¬†learning, it you cannot help others with it.”¬†

  • How can we meet our students, who are growing up in a GPA-centric environment, in the middle?
  • How can students get the grades desired and achieve the learning that we want for each of them?
  • How can we leverage the grade junkie’s motivation?

3¬†Strategies¬†To Leverage the Grade Junkie’s Motivation in Your Class

  1. Make the Promise¬†– It’s okay to let the secret out of the bag and remind students that they cannot “go wrong” once they “go right.” I always tell students that the secret to good grades is good learning. I make them a promise that if they focus on the learning (gaps, extension, enrichment, etc.) ¬†and honor the steps in the learning process with fidelity, they will definitively see an increase in their numerical achievement.
  2. Earn the Right To View – Before you show students their grade, make students earn the right to see it. For example, you may have them do a reflection form for their essay to ensure that they have internalized your comments and understand the root cause of their errors/successes. Another example is to have the students complete test corrections before you reveal their grade, which levels the playing field for all learners regardless of their grade on the assessment. Another example may be to have a conference with the student about their progress and achievement before revealing the grade calculation for the assessment.
  3. Walk the Talk – If you do not want students to be hyper focused on grades, do your assessment practices represent growth and mastery, or are your assessment practices trapped in numbers? Is learning a continuum within your course or a snapshot in time? It’s important that our philosophies and beliefs align with our practices. If we ask students to not be hyper focused on grades, we must remove the incentive and pressure that the grade calculations create.

Please share in the comment section or on Twitter: what’s your commitment to leverage the grade junkie’s motivation for good grades?

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Principals…be the curriculum leader they need.

From earning teaching accolades to coordinating lower-level curriculum, I knew that teaching Spanish was my sweet spot. As an administrator, overseeing world language departments has always been an easy partnership with teachers.

What steps do you take when curriculum leadership goes beyond your teaching certification? In what ways do you build expertise in AP English Language or IB Chemistry, or even Physical Education or Performing Arts? After all, as a building-level administrator, it’s essential to support teaching and learning in all areas.

Prior to becoming an administrator, I worked Michelle Kellen, lead associate principal of my previous school, and she shared her answer to these questions, which has always remained with me. “Make time to learn, Anthony. Teachers will generally listen to you because of the position you will hold. They will respect you when they know you actually know your stuff.” The last thing an English teacher expects is for me to be quoting my latest Kelly Gallagher read or a STEM teacher expects is for me to suggest programming tips for using Raspberry Pi models (#ThanksISTEDigest). Similarly, commenting on the strength of individual tone or the collective solf√©ge during the warmups are uncommon feedback for choir teacher observations. These “say whaaaaaaaaat?” moments with teachers validate my commitment to their craft and partnership in teaching and learning for their course(s).

Here are 4 – 5 things that I have found helpful when partnering with teachers and supervising curriculum outside of my certification area — for the first time ever.

  • Understand and make meaning of the adopted standards and learning targets in each course. It’s imperative to know what’s being targeted and why.
  • Ask teachers what they are reading for the summer? …and which of these reads would be most helpful to support the work of the next school year?
  • Meet with your department lead/teacher lead to internalize the learning profile of the department. Understand where your expertise is most helpful and in what areas you should brush up to provide the most meaningful support.
  • Research best practices and resources on the national association website for the subject matter.
  • Be a frequent flyer in those classrooms to help reveal areas of focus and learning for yourself.

Over the years, I have learned that 99% of teachers that I have had the privilege (and I do not take that word lightly) to work with are amazingly dedicated professionals. With or without you, as the administrator, deep learning is going to take place. Our job, as building-level administrators, is to be knowledgable enough to provide feedback, support growth, and help move teaching and learning forward in each course. Over time, the toolkit for each department becomes more coherent and useful.

Dear Series: Veteran Administrator

5 things that I learned as a Veteran Administrator

I struggled the most with the title of this post, because when are you technically a veteran and when is this something that one would want to claim? There is so much to learn in our profession and it’s dangerous to be too comfortable.

However, similar to veteran teachers, there is a real magic about knowing how to manage the unexpected and nurture unpredictable moments into meaningful learning opportunities. At this point, there are only a handful of things that a veteran administrator has not experienced, which actually keeps the job interesting and makes learning that much more exciting. Although I cannot quantify where one’s veteran status begins, I do believe there are qualities needed to keep any experienced administrator relevant in the profession.

Here are five things that I learned within the first six years of senior administrative experience that continue to hold true today:

Know your true north – Many things will keep you busy, but know your priorities. Avoid the quicksand distractions that naturally suck up your time. Focus yourself and your energy on the things that matter; but first, make sure that you know what those priorities are.

Stay connected – Find unique ways to connect with students beyond discipline issues, with staff beyond scheduled observations, and with parents beyond PTO meetings. Keep your ear to the ground to know what’s happening in classrooms, in sports & activities, and within the school community.

#KeepItReal – who are those 2-3 people on your staff that you know will call you out when things are not working well or will seek you out when things are exceptional? These invaluable humans help illuminate our blindspots.

Model next-level learning – Read a book a month. Co-teach and model a lesson with a teacher in need of assistance. Expose yourself to novelties in education and become a functional user of those new tools. Learn from your students. Do whatever it takes to model the learning that we want students and teachers to do each day.

Do fun well – Yes, that’s grammatically correct; and if you are evaluating the grammar, you will probably struggle the most here. Simply put, make sure that school is enjoyable, fun, and a special place for everyone.

Check out the other Dear Series letters here.

The Value of Reflection

Why is reflection always the first to be eliminated in teaching and learning?

Reflection, although emphasized as an essential component in learning, is frequently underutilized for its intended purpose. Often, we cite time constraints as a factor, and the reflection period in learning is removed from teaching, professional learning, and in our personal lives. It’s common to hear (or even say), “we are almost out of time and did not get to the reflection activity for the day.”

How can such a vital piece and core to learning be sacrificed?

If we truly understood and valued the power of reflection in learning, I am sure it would not be the dispensable element in the learning process. This is not to say that we do not think it’s significant – we definitely know its importance and it should not be the first thing to be sacrificed in teaching and learning when the pressures of time constraints arise. The word value, in this context, is action-oriented: intentionally utilizing the reflection process as an essential component of learning.

  • Don’t let time restraints impact the reflection period. Be responsible with others’ learning by designing time to think deeply about content acquisition. 
  • Find an appropriate point to pause the learning of new content to ensure learning is memorialized through reflection.
  • Model the value of reflection in teaching and learning – so that students (learners) can internalize the importance of the purpose.

If we truly want to cement the learning of new content, knowledge, and skills to leave a lasting impact, we must prioritize the importance of reflection – the stabilizer of learning.

Twitter Chats Unhinged: Rejuvenating the Purpose

Twitter Chats of the Past

Twitter chats have become one of the most popular edu-tools and catalysts for change in education. Professional networks, curated resources, realtime information, professional growth are power packed into 140 characters of learning. These events bring like-minded educators from all over the world to share and receive resources pertaining to a variety of educational topics. All good things, right?

My Frustration: What is the current state of Twitter chats?

Although designed with powerful potential, Twitter chats have become knowledge-based learning for educators. Understanding that knowledge-based activities are the foundation of learning, at what¬†point do we increase the depth¬†of learning and of sharing ideas within Twitter chats? ¬†Many Twitter chats ask participants to list, identify, name, or define as a response. Rarely have I encountered a chat that calls for evaluating, creating meaning, constructing new ideas, etc. Benjamin Bloom would not be proud! Almost always a Twitter chat follows a Q1, Q2, A1, A2 format. But why? Why must we limit learning to six questions and six answers? Where is the negotiating of meaning on a Twitter chat? Why can’t a chat mirror¬†the learning continuum – emphasizing that learning does not¬†have a finite end – mimicking¬†what we want to see in classrooms everyday?

The Solution: A genuine approach to planning and learning during Twitter Chats

  1. What do you want participants to understand  years from now?
  2. What are the driving questions to support the big picture (or the Understandings)?
  3. Select a Twitter format to support the purpose. (click on the link here to understand the types of formats)
    • Question & Answer
    • Topic & Conversation
    • Google Doc’ing (Curating Resources)
    • Problem & Solutions
    • Devil’s Advocate
    • EdCamp Style
  4. How will you measure information learned, shared, and applied?

Twitter Chats 2.0

Twitter Chats must move beyond being host-driven to participant-centered.¬†We must design and measure learning in all arenas, including Twitter chats, to an educational best practice standard. Chats each week should be fluid and responsive to the needs of the audience/participants. Why wouldn’t responsive teaching apply¬†to Twitter Chats? The next generation of edu-chats must mirror these best practices – what we know to be true in the classroom. The question is – who will accepted the challenge of changing the Twitter culture?

Twitter Chats Unhinged: Formats to Support Differentiation

In an effort to move beyond the traditional format (Q1, Q2, A1, A2) of Twitter Chats, I’d like to highlight a varied approach to Twitter chats. ¬†I challenge you, as a Twitter chat host, to try something different…something that meets the purpose of your chat…to use a format that promotes a differentiated approach to the question & answer format.

Topic & Conversation
Purpose: To generate dialogue around a specific topic
Instructions: This Twitter Chat format will be “Topic & Conversation”. The moderator will pose a topic to the hashtag and participants will respond directly to other participants using the hashtag. This formats promotes unstructured conversation around a selected topic.

Google Doc’ing
Purpose: To curate a pool of ideas, resources, best practices, etc. around a topic
Instructions: This Twitter Chat format will be “Google Doc’ing” allowing participants to access and edit a Google Doc to support learning. Participants add to the Google Doc to curate appropriate information for the task/request presented. The Google Doc serves as the digital filing cabinet to be accessed regarding needs related to the purpose.

Problem & Solutions
Purpose: To curate a pool of potential solutions to solve an issue/problem
Instructions: This Twitter Chat format will be “Problem & Solutions”¬†allowing participants¬†to interact with each other to generate an assortment of solutions to resolve an issue/problem.

Devil’s Advocate
Purpose: Provides an opportunity to challenge an idea or topic from a variety of viewpoints
Instructions: This Twitter Chat format will be “Devil’s Advocate”, having participants challenge an idea or topic¬† by identifying potential threats and weaknesses that may¬†hinder success. This type of chat allows the topic to be exposed by/from a variety of sources.

EdCamp Style
Purpose: Provides an opportunity for all participants to submit a topic of conversation to the audience/other participants
Instructions: This Twitter Chat format will be “EdCamp Style”,¬†giving participants an open format to have a conversation with other participants about any topic of choice. Usually the topic is a question or a thought that allows for additional elaboration. This participant-driven experience allows everyone to have equally ownership and input in the chat.

Strategies for Designing a Successful Collaborative Experience for Learners

Five Questions to Ponder as Educators:

  • How often do you, as an educator, assign a group project or group work to students?
  • Have you taught your students how to collaborate? …how to learn from each other?
  • Is there an assumption that your students learned collaborative skills the year(s) prior?
  • Is collaboration vital to the learning and to¬†the success of the project, or just a more interesting way to complete¬†the project?
  • How do you assess individual¬†learner growth and achievement in a ¬†group project experience?

Five Principles of Collaborative Experiences:

  • Collaboration is designed to foster a shared experience within the learning process.
  • The focus on collaborative experiences is on what students learn and will do with others.
  • The educator must strategically and purposefully design collaborative elements ¬†into group learning experiences.
  • The educator should always know a student’s individual¬†progress¬†within the learning process and for the product creation.¬†
  • Individualized feedback must be designed into collaborative learning experiences.

The Role of Checkpoints:

In order to assess effectiveness of collaborative design and individual achievement, there must be varied and appropriate benchmarks (checkpoints) throughout all collaborative work assigned:

  • Checkpoints must provide individualized learner feedback frequently.
  • Checkpoints must ensure progress on the process of learning (acquisition, mastery , meaning, content, knowledge, skill development, etc.) — such as peer-editing, daily formative assessments, learning conferences, group share, concept-based presentations, quizzes on learning progress, etc.
  • Checkpoints must ensure progress on the product creation/end result¬†— such as practice performance assessments, product drafts, practice final presentations, rehearsal of knowledge acquired, pre-summative assessment, etc.

Strategies for Designing a Successful Collaborative Experience for Learners

  • Create and design interdependence within the collaborative experience for group members to depend on and draw from each other‚Äôs strengths and skills.
  • Create shared goals that can only be met through collaboration.
  • Assess with rubrics that measure acquisition and mastery, as well as measure individual and group contribution.
  • Create collaborative experiences that compel learners to share critical information and resources.
  • Support collaborative learning with assigned roles and/or social contracts.
  • Emphasize the practicality and future application of strong collaborative skills.
  • Don‚Äôt assume that learners know how to work and collaborate in groups. Devote time specifically to develop teamwork skills – such as how to explain ideas to each other, to listen to alternate ideas and perspectives, reach consensus, delegate responsibilities, and coordinate efforts.
  • Redefine group work for learners. Address prior negative experiences and misconceptions about collaborative work. Help learners start fresh. ¬†
  • Roleplay and reinforce conflict resolution skills during the first few collaborative experiences.
  • The educator never waits until the summative assessment to evaluate progress. There are daily observations that helps identify and clarify learner progress.