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To Close or Not to Close

As H1N1 makes its ugly way around our country, superintendents are faced with the dilemma:  To close school or not to close school?

The federal government at first recommended closing schools as a last resort.  But the feds don't have a "local constituency" that they see every day.  Last month a local school district decided to take fed's advice and remained open as over a third of the students stayed home either with the flu or as a precaution.  The superintendent, interviewed daily by the local news media, insisted that despite the high number of absences, it was “business as usual” at school.  At a community “Information night” angry parents made it clear that in their opinion, “business as usual” did not include putting their children at risk for H1N1.

It’s a dilemma for superintendents.  On the one hand, closing schools means that no children are receiving an education.  On the other hand, when large numbers of students are absent, teachers often provide study halls or review material already covered rather than continue instruction for just a handful of kids.  This choice is self-defeating, of course, because healthy secondary students who recognize they’ll be treading water may prefer just to stay home anyway.

 Closing school for several days can result in unintended community problems as well. Parents may have to stay home from work. Some children may find themselves home alone.  Children dependent on the meal programs at school may not receive the nutrition they need. 

 Closing school takes the burden off parents regarding whether to send their child to school when there is an outbreak of flu.  Most will be understandably relieved not to have to make the decision even if finding childcare is a problem.

The CDC now says that whether to keep schools open during an outbreak of H1N1 should be a local decision, and its suggested guidelines can be found at http://www.cdc.gov/h1n1flu/schools/technicalreport.htm#dismiss. 

It’s a tough call, but most districts will probably do well to err on the side of caution.



The Compromise

Theodore Sizer died yesterday.  He was one of a handful of writers whose central ideas have stayed with me throughout my career in education.

Horace’s Compromise, published in 1984, describes the tacit agreement between some teachers and their students.  The agreement is basically this:  If the student doesn’t give the teacher a hard time, the teacher won’t bother the student with expectations that he or she will learn much.  I understood that idea immediately as a teacher.  It explained why some of my colleagues never had any discipline problems with their students and were able to read the newspaper during their planning periods.  It also explained why some of my students complained resentfully when I asked them to get their heads up off their desks and pay attention.

 As a principal, I saw the compromise even more clearly except now I felt responsible to do something about it.  It’s not easy to revoke that agreement with some teachers, especially veterans who had negotiated the deal early on and planned to honor it until retirement.  They used the same (unwritten) lesson plans, sat in the back of the room during staff development and waited it out, and exhibited an unhealthy skepticism that all kids could actually learn.  Frankly, I couldn’t change their attitudes, but I could change their behaviors. 

Sizer believed that students needed to be involved in their own education, and the teacher’s role was to guide and mentor.  This is still a tough sell for some teachers, especially during this time of accountability measured by state tests.  If there is an up side to the testing mania, perhaps it’s that it makes the compromise even more untenable.  Then again, you can always blame poor student performance on the test.

I twice had the privilege of hearing Sizer speak, once at a small gathering and another time at a large conference.  Both times he talked about what American education could be.  He, of course, had no idea how his ideas influenced the actions and beliefs of the entire career of an anonymous administrator listening in the audience.






The Care and Feeding of New Teachers


Remember how excited we were about the new teachers we hired last summer?  We liked their enthusiasm, their energy, their optimism.  They are, for the most part, young.  They are more technologically savvy than most of us.  They bring fresh ideas to the classroom, and they seem genuinely to like kids. We are a little concerned about their lack of experience, but there’s only one way to learn to manage a classroom and that’s to do it.  Parents can be tough on new teachers too, but that’s just another thing they have to learn to deal with.

For their part, the first-years are happy to have found a job, especially in this economy.  They are also excited about their incipient careers.  They are thrilled to have their own classroom where they can use the ideas they learned during all those years in college. Maybe they can move into their own apartment now and start paying back their student loans.  Oh, sure, they worry a little bit about classroom management, but they like kids and think kids will like them. 

It is an auspicious beginning for these promising youngsters.  Too bad nationwide half of them will leave the profession within 5 years.

And the rate of teacher attrition in poor schools is 50% higher than it is in wealthier schools according to The National Center for Educational Statistics.  The cost of replacing public school teachers who have dropped out of the profession is estimated at $2.2 billion a year.

So what are we missing here? 

In the MetLife “Survey of the American Teacher” in 2005, new teachers listed classroom management, testing responsibilities, administrative duties, and parents as main sources of daily stress.  In addition, teachers reported a lack of support from administrators as they dealt with these major issues.

The days of throwing new teachers into the water to see if they can swim are long gone.   Studies show that new teachers who are formally mentored have a better chance of surviving the rigors of the first few years in the classroom.  Even higher retention rates are seen when the formal mentoring is accompanied by professional development, administrative support, and formal assessment and feedback.

So hiring new teachers is just the beginning of the process, not the end.  Those first couple of years can be a lonely, frustrating, and even intimidating experience for a new teacher without steady guidance and useful feedback.  Providing that assistance can mean that both administrators and teachers will still be excited and enthusiastic next June.












Why Halloween Spooks Administrators


Halloween was a big holiday in the rural community where I had taken a job as an elementary principal.  Thick artificial cobwebs hung like crepe over porches illuminated by tiny pumpkin lights.  Styrofoam tombstones sprouted in front lawn cemeteries.  Witches and ghouls lounged comfortably on the steps. 

Halloween at school was a community event with an outdoor parade followed by class parties. Students cut out bats, ghosts and pumpkins to decorate the windows.  Everyone – students, teachers, and staff --wore a costume to school on Halloween.  Everyone but me, that is.  As principal it occurred to me that in case of emergency, I would not exhibit the gravitas the situation might warrant dressed as Snow White or Charlie Chaplin.  Teachers, however, came to school as vampires or teabags or rock stars and taught reading and math to diverse classes of mice, chickens, aluminum foil R2D2s, pint-sized WWF wrestlers with inflatable muscles, and girl singers with pudgy bare midriffs.  The real festivities started in the afternoon. 

Meanwhile, at the Legion, some of the regulars thought that, in the spirit of the season, somebody ought to put on the giant gorilla costume the Legion used for special occasions and “surprise” the kids at school.  It wasn’t long before a volunteer donned the costume, jumped into his pickup truck, parked, and entered the school through the loading dock.  His buddies said later that the best part was watching a gorilla drive a truck.

The shrieks of the terrified first graders could be heard all the way to the main office.  By the time I got to their classroom the kids were cowering under their desks while the gorilla jumped around the room, beating his chest and howling.  Even the teachers looked terrified.  Anger made me brave.

“Hey!” I yelled, glad I was dressed as a civilian and not as a princess.  “Stop it! You’re scaring the kids!”  The gorilla froze.  “Take that mask off!” I demanded, my heart pounding.  The gorilla hung his head, and then removed it, revealing a very drunk, very shamefaced father of one of the kids.  The gorilla shambled out.   I called the police and told Quasimodo, the custodian, to lock all the doors, including the overhead at the loading dock.

That afternoon hundreds of parents, relatives, and community members -- some of them in costume -- attended the students’ parade.  Word of the gorilla incident had spread rapidly.  While some parents (especially those who had first graders) thanked me, others felt I had “overreacted.”  “It’s just the boys having a little fun,” one mother chided me. 

Finally, Halloween at school was over and, high on sugar, students piled into the buses to head home for trick or treating that evening.  I slumped in my office chair grateful that the gorilla had gone quietly, but wondering how I had furthered the cause of education that day and whether I had a future in that particular community.

A superintendent friend of mine, concerned as I was about the waste of instructional time at Halloween, decided to do something about it.  Encouraged by a handful of parents, some of whom objected to Halloween celebrations for religious reasons, he decided that students would no longer have parties and parades at school.  Instead, they would have a “Harvest Celebration” after school.  Students would bob for apples and press colored leaves into waxed paper.  I admired his courage.  Parents who attended the board meeting did not.

Community expectations can’t be ignored if you want to survive as a school administrator, and if you’re an outsider, you may be surprised at how warmly parents defend some traditions and how unhappy they are when you deviate from those traditions.  I guess it comes down to whether you can live with the gorilla in the room.





Today's Agenda

Speaking of leadership, what’s on your agenda today?  Maybe observing a teacher, meeting with students, dealing with a discipline problem, checking with the bus garage, calming an irate parent, talking to the superintendent, reviewing test data, dealing with a bus referral, lobbying your local legislator, conferring with the union chief, dropping by the cafeteria.  That should take you to noon.

When you get a spare minute, it’s always interesting and informative to learn what’s happening at the state and national level in education.  Eventually some of it will trickle down to your individual school or district and you’ll have to deal with it in some way. 

For the most part, however, the daily leadership decisions of a school administrator are based on a mixture of school culture, district protocols, union contracts, legal decisions, precedent, time limits, ethics, your own experience … and heart.  Sometimes you have a trusted colleague to bounce things off of and sometimes you have to go with your instinct.  Sometimes you’re sure you’re doing the right thing; other times it’s your best guess.

This blog will be about the challenges and decisions we have on a day-to-day basis as school administrators. It will also be about opportunities we have to lead. Less theory, more practice.  After 10 years of teaching and nearly 25 years as an administrator, I know that leadership is more important than ever in our schools.  And leadership isn’t just the stuff of speeches and newspaper leads; it’s found in the examples set by school administrators across the country as they deal with issues like attendance, achievement, budgets and discipline.  Daily leadership will be the focus of this blog; maybe we can share our ideas and experiences for one another’s benefit.




Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Practical Leadership are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.