About this blog Subscribe to this blog

The Flag Line

Hamburger-stacked  The band was terrific and what the flag line lacked in precision they made up for in gusto.  Dancing while swirling huge flags in time to the music wasn’t easy, especially the flag tossing part. That was definitely tricky, but the girls were swift at picking them up when they dropped them and got right back into the routine.

It was a big band from a big high school in the Midwest and the flag line numbered more than 30 girls.  While they were graceful, it was hard not to notice that better than half of the girls had packed on more than a few extra pounds.  My first thought was that it was terrific  that anyone who wanted to could be part of the flag line.  You didn’t have to be a 110-pound college cheerleader type to participate.  Clearly these girls felt good about themselves and that’s really what matters.

But my second thought was that if these kids were overweight now at 16 with all the energy it took to dance while twirling and tossing flags, what might they look like at 40? Twirling those flags provided plenty of exercise, so I had to wonder a little bit about diet.

But the other day I ate lunch with a group of first graders at a Virginia elementary school, and the choices were grilled chicken breast on a whole wheat bun or a ham and low fat cheese wrap.  French fries were baked, and only a few were offered.  Carrots and tomatoes had been freshly cut.  Drink choices were low fat milk, juice (not juice “drink”) and water.  Dessert was one small cookie and an apple.  No additional snacks were sold and none of the children complained.

Someone in that school district had decided that healthy eating was a habit that could be started at elementary school.  Of course, the children sitting around me who had brought their lunches had PBJ on white bread and bags of potato chips and cookies.  Some even had small cans of soft drinks and candy bars.  I wish all of them could have bought their lunch. 

I know that some say that it’s hard to teach kids good nutrition habits when we can’t control what they eat outside of school.  We can’t control what they read or watch or play either, but that doesn’t mean we abandon all efforts to teach good habits.  Because when some of these little girls join the flag line in 10 years, they won’t be so little.




No Debate, Medicate!

The school psychologist, a friend of mine, had just come from a meeting about a first grader.  In attendance were the child’s parents, the principal, and the child’s teacher.

“She did it again,” the psychologist fumed.  “That teacher.  She finally convinced the parents that the child needed to be on medication.  If it were up to her, half the boys in the class would be on medication.”

The parents had been resistant up to this point, the psychologist said, but the teacher had been adamant at every meeting that the child needed meds.  Prescription_drugs_small  She rarely had anything positive to report about the child’s progress, insisting that he had ADHD and that he was consequently unable to learn. 

“She’s not a doctor, “ the psychologist said.  “She’s not even a psychologist.  It is totally inappropriate for her to be diagnosing and prescribing for a child!”

It certainly wasn’t the first time I had heard a story like this.  Parents are often initially opposed to putting their child on medication, and they may resist the suggestion for quite a while.  In this particular case, the psychologist didn’t deny that the child was easily distracted; she had observed his behavior during her behavioral analysis.  What she wanted was that the teacher try some of strategies she had suggested that might prove effective in keeping the child on task before immediately jumping to meds.  The teacher rejected every suggestion, saying either that it wouldn’t work or that she’s already tried it.  Besides, the teacher added, the psychologist sees kids differently because she can work with them one on one and doesn’t know how hard it is to deal with a child like this in the classroom.

Eventually the parents were worn down by the teacher’s dire predictions of certain student failure and maybe even retention.  The parents had also begun to recognize that unless they complied, their child was not going to have a chance in that teacher’s classroom.

The school psychologist was disgusted.  “Well,” she finally said, “it’s clear that somebody needed to be on meds.  But it’s not the kid.”



Avoiding Drummer Hoff Syndrome

I once worked with a principal who loved kids, understood curriculum, and was the soul of integrity. He did almost everything well except for one thing:  He couldn’t write well.  Luckily, he knew that about himself and had put into place procedures for review before he sent anything out.  He always had at least one other person, maybe two, review his memos and letters for spelling and structure.  I admired him for recognizing a weakness and not being afraid to ask for help.  As a result, all of his materials were well written and professional.

Before computers, administrators’ secretaries typed their memos and letters, making the appropriate corrections.  Now you can bypass that step by simply pushing the “send” button and voila! Your errors are there for all to see.

One of the points I tend to harp on with my graduate students who are aspiring administrators is the importance of error-free writing.  People will judge you by your writing, I tell them, whether it’s fair or not.  I tell them that I’ve seen memos from the principal with red pen corrections (and maybe snarky comments) tacked to faculty room bulletin boards.  I insist that all the papers they hand in be carefully proofread and cleanly written; if not, they are handed back to be rewritten.

Writing well is such an important part of an administrator’s duties that a few years ago I was part of a local college initiative to encourage school leaders to write about their experiences.  We proposed the idea at a state conference of school leaders and it was met with great enthusiasm.  The plan was to host an initial meeting and assign each leader a writing mentor, who would help see the writing piece through to publication.

The initial meeting drew over 20 participants, school administrators with stories to tell.  The plan was to talk the story through, and then to meet again in a couple of months to review drafts.

HOFF018  What happened is this:  The leaders did have great stories to tell.  What they didn’t have was the patience to revise, which is about 80% of the writing process.  Some unfortunately even believed that revision was unnecessary.  In the end only a couple of the school leaders’ work actually was publishable.  I hoped that the rest, like my admirable principal, were having someone else proofread their work -- before, like Drummer Hoff, they fired it off.







Taking Attendance

About that 5.2% rate of teacher absenteeism I wrote about yesterday … I was reminded of a teacher who was of retirement age, but still working.  He had developed a pattern of absences – either Monday or Friday, and for the first few months of school he didn’t have two full weeks of attendance back to back.  I finally called him in, reviewed his attendance record with him, and asked him if he had some problem he wanted to share with me.  His answer was something like this:  “Look, I’ve decided to retire at the end of this year, and I’m going to lose some of the sick days I’ve accumulated.  So it’s only fair that I use them up.”

Teachers got 15 sick/personal days a year, and when a teacher retired, he or she would be paid a set amount for every day not used -- up to 200 days.  He had 230 days, so he intended to take the extra 30 “sick days” during his last year of teaching. I was dumbfounded.

The decision to pay for unused sick days had been fiercely debated by the board of education several years ago when it came up in contract negotiations.  The board president along with board members who worked in private business was adamantly opposed to paying a “bonus” as were the two board members who were self-employed.  Classroom  Sick days are a benefit to be used if you need them, not a right, they said.  Board members who worked in the public sector supported the idea as an entitlement they were used to themselves.

In the end, paying for unused sick days became part of the contract settlement package, mainly because surrounding districts had already agreed to the idea and this district was among the last hold-outs.  Non-instructional staff got the same benefit.  Of note is that in the employee attendance records I reviewed every summer, faculty absences were generally two to three times higher than absences accumulated by the non-instructional staff.

If Carolyn Bucior’s figures are accurate (see yesterday’s blog), does it seem likely that teachers are three times more likely to be sick than other professionals?  Something to think about.   By the way, my response to the retiring teacher was that I expected to see a note from his doctor for every day he was absent or it would be a day without pay.  It was worth a shot.  



The Pinch Hitters

In last Sunday’s New York Times Opinion section, Carolyn Bucior reflects on her two years as a substitute teacher once a week in various schools, grades, and subject areas.  She is writing a “memoir” about her experiences.

Her article describes the problems she’s encountered – lack of sufficient information about specific student needs, poor lesson plans, missing materials.  Some of her suggestions for improvement seem obvious -- teachers should supply seating charts.  Pinch hitter.aspx  Other suggestions would be more difficult to implement than Bucior thinks.  For example, she believes that teachers should be required to call the principal if they are going to be absent because it’s too easy to take a day off if you just have to call a machine. The concept has merit, but the principal has enough to do in the morning without taking phone calls.  And, of course, some teachers just have a spouse or roommate call in because they are “too sick.” Some districts hire a person to take the calls and find the subs, but whether the additional cost is offset by teachers not taking days off is hard to prove.

What really caught my attention, however, is Bucior’s claim that nationwide 5.2 percent of teachers are absent on any given day.  This rate is three times higher than professionals outside of teaching and one and half times as high as teachers in Britain, she says.  “This means that children have substitute teacher for nearly a year of their kindergarten-through-12th grade education,” she concludes.

Not so fast.  If the average school year is 180 days, an unfortunate child in a high absentee school might have a substitute a total of 121 days.  Still, that’s almost 10 days of school or 2 weeks a year.  Bucior notes that no state requires that substitutes have a teaching degree and that 28 states require no more than a high school diploma or GED.  She concludes that parents should realize that “too many teachers are leaving their children’s education in the hands of unskilled, untrained stand-ins.”  Well, yes … but in many areas certified substitutes are simply not available.  And frankly, during flu season a principal might be pretty happy to find a pinch hitter who can just follow the lesson plans and manage the class for a day.  That’s the unfortunate reality.

Bucior has other suggestions for training substitutes, and many of them have merit (but also cost money).  Given her experience, her emphasis is improving substitute teaching.  But I’m looking at the other side of the coin – improving teaching attendance.



Timing is Everything

George_burns The sign was hand-lettered and taped to the wall next to the teachers’ mailboxes in the principal’s office.  It said, “Please don’t disrespect the office staff.  It’s most likely not their fault you are in here.”  The message hung at eye level across from the chairs where student miscreants waited to see the principal.

I was waiting to see the principal myself in my role as the adjunct college supervisor of an administrative intern who was an assistant principal in the district.  Since it was clearly not the secretary’s fault that I was there, I didn’t “disrespect” her.  But as I waited in detention row, I thought about high school discipline and comedy.  As George Burns said, “Timing is everything.” 

High school kids who are sent to the principal’s office may need a period to cool down before they can talk rationally about what just happened.  They may be angry or sullen or even weepy.  Office staff can feel put upon when a kid bursts into their sanctuary and flings himself into a chair.  Often the staff’s first response is something like, “OK, young man, you can just lose the attitude and sit up!”  That directive, of course, is just what the kid expected and is guaranteed to make matters worse.  It’s an invitation to ignore the sign across from his chair.  While it’s true that it’s not the office staff’s fault that he finds himself in their space, their attitude can inflame an already volatile situation.

Instead, staff can be instructed to ignore the initial behavior (assuming the kid isn’t smashing lamps or throwing chairs).  A secretary can say quietly and with the usual respect she shows other adults, “Sam, the principal is on the phone right now but will see you in just a few minutes.”  Calling the student by name and being quietly respectful is not what the student expects.  The staff’s refusal to become emotionally engaged in the student’s issue can have a genuinely calming effect. 

As principal sometimes I would bring the student into my office and then calmly tell him I just needed to step out for a minute and I’d be right back.  Giving the student a little privacy and removing him from public scrutiny saved him from being embarrassed and allowed him to collect himself.  When I returned, we could often talk conversationally about why he was there.  I’m not a screamer – never have been.  And anyway, screaming doesn’t work and makes you look ridiculous.  The penalty didn’t change, but with careful timing and a little respect, it fit the original crime without my having to add a surcharge for “disrespecting” the office staff while waiting to see me.







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