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A Local Give Back

I once served on an interview committee for a job that paid substantially more than any of the candidates was currently making and carried greater responsibility and prestige.  So imagine my surprise when one of the candidates told us that the real reason he wanted the job was so that he could “give something back to the community.” Really? I thought.  Really?

Helping-handsBut the truth is, giving back to the community in an authentic way is an important aspect of our jobs.  How to give back?  By generously supporting some of your community’s charities.  By contributing to the local symphony.   By showing up at the United Way breakfast for donors.  By giving blood at the Legion’s blood drive.  By buying whatever your students are selling.  By contributing to your church if you attend one.  By taking part in the Alzheimer’s walk.  By showing up at the Boy Scout pancake breakfast.  By buying Girl Scout cookies.  By joining the serving line at the Salvation Army holiday dinner.  By contributing your community college's capital campaign.

There are plenty of opportunities to give back during the holiday season, but school administrators need to make giving back a yearlong habit.  Even if it’s a modest amount, your support is noted and appreciated by local residents.

The next time you attend a function at which the program lists financial supporters, check to see how many local school administrators’ names appear.  How many are listed as donors in various local agencies’ annual reports?   People read these things, and while they may not notice if your name is absent, they certainly notice if it’s present.

Some administrators feel that they don’t need to contribute to local initiatives because they work long hours in service of the community’s youth.  Yes, we do work long hours for kids.  But we are paid for it, and paid well, and it’s something we’ve chosen to do.  Being known as a good administrator earns the respect of your community.  Being named as a generous financial supporter of community initiatives earns approval as well.



Good Board, Bad Board

I had dinner the other night with three other long-serving superintendents, and one of them talked about how fortunate he was never to have had a “bad board.”  We all knew what he meant:  a bad board was contentious and generally unpleasant.  Votes were always split, some members were grandstanders, and some were snipers.  Some didn’t prepare for the board meeting or came with their own agendas.  The list could go on and on.

Three of us at the table had never had to work with a bad board.  Oh, we all had one or two board members now and then who were difficult to deal with, but never the majority.  Norma was not so lucky. 

“What do you think makes a great board?” I asked.

“Well, I can tell you what doesn’t,” Norma said and laughed.  Her board was notorious for infighting, making outrageous demands, and treating their administrators with little respect. One board member, it appeared, was illiterate, sparking discussions among us at other dinners about whether being able to read should be a requirement for running for the board.

“You know,” Bill said, “Years ago the school board used to be made up of community leaders – business people, professional people, people who had already contributed to the school as sports boosters or band boosters.  They were really interested in having an outstanding school system for all the children in the district.  They saw serving on the board as a service to the community. 

‘It seems that now we get people who have an ax to grind.  Some of them have particular issues to settle with the district like their kid being cut from the basketball team.  And others are members of tax groups.  A lot of these people don’t have kids in school and the only thing they care about is lowering their taxes.”

“I’ve had some of those folks on my board,” Martin said.  “What’s interesting is that they always start out by being really aggressive – like they’re going to uncover savings we’ve never looked at or never thought of.  Then, after a few board meetings, they begin to see how little discretion we actually have over large parts of the budget.”

“That’s right,” agreed Bill.  “A lot of people don’t realize that schools have fixed costs for transportation, special education, debt service, remedial education, energy, health benefits – the list goes on and on.  I remember one board member who was determined to cut costs by cutting sports.  He was astounded to learn when he read the budget that sports constitute only 2% of our budget.”

We drank our coffee and thought a minute.  “At least all your board members can read the budget,” Norma finally said.

The Education of Boys

One of my lurking concerns is the education of boys, especially in elementary school. 

Years ago I worried about the education of girls.  We’ve made great progress over the last 20 years with special thanks to Title IX.  It turns out that equal access to sports results in equal access to academic courses as well, with more girls taking science and math, for example.  We’re not totally there yet in every school, but it’s a far cry from what it was before.

Some fear that girls’ advancement came at the expense of boys.  Of course, in education we’re fond of setting up false dichotomies:  either whole language OR phonics, either pull out OR push in, either vocational OR academic course work.  When common sense would tell you that kids could benefit from an array of educational possibilities, some of us continue to take the purist approach.

But I digress.  While I don’t believe that increasing opportunities for girls came at the expense of boys, I do think that we need to examine gender differences in early learning.  For example, it’s always been interesting to me how important sitting still is to primary teachers.  I’ve seen some classes where sitting still isn’t enough; kids have to sit in a specific way --on their bottoms with their legs crossed.  I never figured out how the way a kid sits improves comprehension, but it seems crucial to some primary teachers.

I’ve always been concerned about the way some teachers reinforced submissive behavior in girls.  “I like the way Keisha is sitting quietly,” or “I like the way Rose raises her hand,” they would say -- and probably still do.  Nobody should be praised for sitting quietly, and it isn’t anything boys aspire to.

With so few male role models at the elementary level, I worry about what boys will think about the value of education.  I worry about the choices of reading materials because typically girls will read more widely than boys.  Girls in general will read books about female and male athletes, for example, but boys in general will rarely read about females.  I wonder if primary teachers think about how their reading choices will appeal to both boys and girls. 

I worry that teachers don’t take into account that boys generally mature more slowly than girls at the primary level, so a lot of their annoying behavior lacks intent.  They’re not trying to be disruptive or inattentive or silly, they just are.

 At any rate, I think what we have here is yet another false dichotomy:  Either we do a good job of educating girls OR we do a good job of educating boys.  As if we can’t focus on more than one thing at a time.



Reality Glee

 I love Glee.  I love Friday Night Lights.  I want to go to there.

Loosely based on public high school experiences, the shows are filled with charismatic teachers, talented kids, unusual administrators, weird parents, and stories that play out in under an hour.

Friday Night Lights is about football in Texas.  Glee is about singing in Ohio.  You never see anyone taking a real class, studying, or doing homework.  It’s all about football or singing.  Oh, occasionally you’ll see kids carrying books in the hall or talking at their lockers, but doing anything inside an academic classroom?  Never.

OK, so neither show reflects what high school actually looks like – the classes, the state tests, the applications for college, the budget cuts.  The lack of joy.  The kids in these shows love what they do and spend most of their time talking about it, preparing for it, practicing it, or competing in it.  They are committed to their activity, proud to be part of it, and working to be the best.  It’s the most important thing the kids do at school – glee club or football.  That’s the reality part.

Whether school people want to admit it or not, lots of kids come to school for the extracurriculars.  They’re fun, they’re interesting, they’re exciting, and they’re a place where kids can excel.  Twenty years from now, it’s what they’ll remember about high school. 

Kids do better in school when they’re playing sports or are involved in music or drama or the school newspaper or whatever else they can do outside of the classroom.  That’s why principals should always try to dissuade parents from taking their child out of sports or other activities as a punishment for poor grades.  Playing sports or marching with the band or singing in the musical may be the only reason the kid stays in school.  And it rarely follows that the kid who is removed from these programs uses the extra time to study.

Some schools have academic eligibility standards for kids to play sports or participate in other extracurriculars.  That’s OK, as long as the student can still practice with the team or sing with the chorus while getting her grades up.  Removing the student from the activity is counterproductive.

Yes, these shows are just TV fantasy.  But I’d like the kids in my school to be a tiny bit as joyful as these kids are about something in their high school lives.  The “extras” we offer at school aren’t really extra.  They’re essential.







But It Was a Holiday Concert

The principal had told the high school music department that he didn’t want any overtly religious music played or sung at the December holiday concert.  He took separation of church and state literally, but more importantly he did not want to hear from any parents whose religious beliefs may have been overlooked.  So he told the music department he did not even want a mixture of tunes representing many beliefs, nor did he wish to hear even ancient music if it had a religious basis.  The only acceptable holiday music, he said, would be of the commercial variety – songs about Santa, reindeer, snow, and chestnuts. 

The music department was incensed.  Why should the principal get to set the program for the music department?  Wasn’t that the music department’s prerogative?  Rather than choosing to be inclusive, he chose to ignore the entire meaning of the holidays! 

So in an act of musical passive resistance, they followed his wishes.

The department scheduled the performance early in December.  There were no holiday decorations and students dressed in black.  There were no religious songs of any type.

Neither were there any songs about Santa, reindeer, snow, or chestnuts.

Instead, the students sang “The Battle of the Green Berets.”  They sang “Eve of Destruction.”  They sang “Blowing in the Wind.”  The band played Buffalo Springfield’s “Something’s Happening Here.” The finale was the band and chorus together performing John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance.”

It was, after all, December 7 -- Pearl Harbor Day.

Basketball Season

Standing at his usual post, the principal could see the student section across the basketball court.  More importantly, the students could see him.

The kids, with few exceptions, were pretty good.  The high school administration spent several years teaching students how to behave at basketball games and other sports events after one student broke the nose of the opposing point guard at the end of a game.  She (yes, she) jumped out of the bleachers and punched the boy as he was heading for the locker room.

For the most part the kids adjusted to the new rules of sportsmanship. They were not draconian by any means, but they did require that students refrain from taunting opposing players or refs.  The kids quit chanting, “Warm up the bus,” if their team was ahead near the end of the game.  They stopped holding up signs that said, “Tech High Sux.”  And they soon figured out that berating the refs was a good way to be escorted out of the gym.

 Getting the adults under control was a much bigger struggle.  An egregious error like chest-butting a ref was an easy decision; the parent was banned for the rest of the season.  The dad who stood up during a time out and announced, “Ref, you have a very small [anatomical term]” bought himself a ticket out for the rest of the season along with the mom who mooned the crowd.  But inside the gym during a hotly contested game, it’s hard to determine exactly who is yelling what. And besides tactfully asking an adult to pipe down, the administrator’s choices are limited.  No principal wants a full-blown confrontation with a parent in the middle of a game.

Before the game starts, the coaches ask the announcer to read the rules of sportsmanship right after everyone sings The Star Spangled Banner.  The rules seem reasonable to everyone until the game starts.  Of course, when the game is over, some adult fans still insist that if we win, the kids played great.  If we lose, the refs were terrible.

It’s a long, hard season, but it gets us through the winter.  Administrators know that  every game can be exciting for one reason or another.  I don’t know where all those fans disappear to when it’s time for spring sports, but baseball, softball, track, and golf don’t seem to attract that same kind of scary enthusiasm.  And that’s OK.

What’s the Point of Homework?

Most teachers will tell you that there are three main reasons to assign homework:

1.  To practice concepts or skills

2.  To use class time more for direct instruction and application

3.  To foster independent work and thought.

As a former English teacher, I know that students need to read outside of class.  In a 42-minute period, students can’t spend 30 minutes every day silently reading.  Or so I thought.

When I first became a principal, I was appalled to see students reading novels aloud in class.  The teacher explained that she was certain that students wouldn’t read the book outside of class, so day after day, as a group, students read The Scarlet Letter aloud for the entire period. It took them months.  It was torture.  It soon ended.

When students prepare outside of class, the class itself can be better spent applying knowledge and reteaching what students may have missed.  Assuming kids won’t do the reading outside of class is a disservice to the kids.  Yes, it’s true that some won’t, but to shortchange all kids by reading aloud for 15 weeks is unconscionable.

Creative homework assignments encourage students to problem solve on their own and think independently.  From research papers to geometry proofs, work outside of class gives kids the opportunity to apply what they’ve learned or to create new learning.  Kids can’t take responsibility for their own learning if they’re never asked to work independently.

 So I believe in homework assigned creatively, usefully, and efficiently.  What I don’t believe in is grading homework.  Here’s why:

1.  Not all kids need to do all homework (unless it’s reading for the next day’s class).  Some kids understand quickly; others need to practice.  Why should a student who can already spell all the words on the list have to write them 5 times each anyway?

2.  Kids who need to practice or prepare outside of class and choose not to will see their choices reflected in their grades anyway.

We talk a lot about individualizing learning for kids, but blanket homework assignments don’t take into account individual student needs.  If a student doesn’t do homework and is failing, he or she should be required to do the extra work outside of class, perhaps after a consultation with the student’s parents or guardians.  Clearly, this student needs more practice.  But if the student already “gets it,” maybe his or her time could be better spent doing something else.

Grading homework is giving an academic grade for effort.  It’s not fair.  Principals need to work with teachers (and perhaps parents and even students) to establish a reasonable homework policy so that students know what to expect.  But first comes the discussion about what the purpose of homework is.

Holiday Humbug

The holiday season is upon us.  What happens in elementary schools during the weeks leading up to winter break?

In many schools students make ornaments for the school or classroom tree.  They cut out candles to tape to the windows.  They practice for the school play and/or holiday concert.  They hold canned food drives, or they collect money for the less fortunate.  They take a field trip to the mall to buy presents with the money they collected.  They watch holiday videos and get ready for holiday parties.  They exchange gifts. 

It can be a whole lot of fun and a small lot of learning.

If the elementary principal is not mindful, students can lose nearly two weeks of instruction in December particularly if all these holiday activities are expected as part of the school’s traditions.  This concern became real to me when a second grade teacher,  explaining why her class was watching a third video in as many days, told me, “You can’t do anything with kids in December anyway.”  This is a philosophy that puts coal in kids’ educational stockings.

The problem isn’t the activities, many of which have an important social value.  The problem is that often little attempt is made to connect these special activities to learning.  For example, rather than just collecting canned goods, kids can figure out how many pounds of food they’ve collected and make a chart.  How many pounds of tomatoes?  How much peanut butter?  Are liquids and solids measured the same way?  Which donations are most nutritious?

If kids watch a holiday video, they can write about it.  They can create their own holiday play. They can make the programs for the play on the computer.  They can write the invitations to their parents or guardians.  And they don’t need to waste an hour of academic time sitting in the auditorium waiting to rehearse their ten minutes on the stage because everyone’s part of the grand finale. 

Principals need to make sure that everyone remembers during the holiday season that fun and learning are not mutually exclusive, and they need to address this issue directly.  It just takes a little more thought and effort so that kids continue to get the gift of an education during the holiday time. 




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