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Career Questions: When a Colleague Is in Trouble

Q:  I teach second grade in a large elementary school.  In my wing there are six sections of second grade and six sections of third. 

A group of us has become concerned about the behavior of one of our colleagues.  You can hear her screaming at the kids, berating them, and being sarcastic.  There is always a student standing outside in the hall for some infraction.  We are concerned for the kids, but we are also concerned for our colleague.  She has never been the warm and fuzzy type, but this behavior is beyond what she was before. 

A friend of hers on staff took it upon herself to talk to her.  As a result, the teacher in question now just closes her door, but you can still hear her yelling at the kids.  I think a group of us should talk to the principal, but I hate to criticize a colleague in front of administration.  What do you suggest?

A:  While your desire to protect is colleague is understandable, your professional obligations to the welfare of students must take precedence. 

Schoolhouse  Your colleague already knows that there is concern among other teachers about how she is managing her classroom.  I suggest that you and another colleague talk to your principal.  There is no need to go in a large group.  Stick to the facts – what you have seen and heard.  It is the principal’s responsibility after you have brought it to her attention to investigate the matter.  Of key importance is that your colleague’s behavior has changed, and that may signal personal issues that need to be addressed.  The time to intervene is now, before things get worse.

Monday, Monday

I loved Rudy Crew’s comment in his interview with Scholastic’s Wayne D”Orio about the plethora of proposals to improve schools.  The question, Crew says, is “What’s this going to mean for a child on Monday morning?”

His comment reminded me of what I looked for in workshops when I was a teacher.  “What am I going to get out of this that I can actually use with my students?” I would ask myself.  Later on, when I was the presenter, I kept this mantra in mind:  “What specifically can I give them that they don’t already know?” Later, I modified the question:  “How can I get them to use what they already know to improve their teaching?”  Because if it doesn’t make a difference for kids on Monday morning, it’s a useless exercise.  Oh, maybe it was fun, and maybe it was a day to dress up and get out of the classroom, but if that’s all it is, you could pay slightly less and still dress up to go out to dinner.  And you could add a nice wine.

So you’ve got to look at some of the latest initiatives and ask yourself what they’re going to mean for kids on Monday morning.  And if you’re honest, you’ll have to say, for the most part, “Nothing.”

Core standards?  A good idea with no real impact.   RttT?  Impact on a relative handful of students is a long way off.  EduJobs? Status quo.  Publishing teachers’ test scores?  Could mean something for a child on Monday, but maybe not a good something.  Turnaround schools?  Remains to be seen.

Reducing class size in the lower grades?  Yes, it makes an impact if the teacher takes advantage of it.  Smaller secondary schools?  Again, yes, if school personnel take advantage of the small size to focus on individual kids.  Every child a reader by the end of second grade?  Yes, yes, and yes.  Challenging kids to think and problem solve rather than prepare for tests?  Yes.

You’ll notice that all if these lower level initiatives depend upon strong, well trained, committed teachers and strong, well trained, committed principals. If we could forget about the politics of education and focus on kids, we actually might make some progress. 


BTW -- As a follow-up to an earlier blog, David Telesca, the Connecticut superintendent placed on administrative leave in August after posting on Facebook about what an easy job he had, has asked his Board to appoint an impartial panel to decide his case.  The board refused.  In the meantime, an interim has been appointed. 







More Light, Less Heat

In what the media is calling “the war” between the LA Times and the teachers’ union over publishing teachers’ test scores, where are the students and their parents?

We've all heard the arguments on both sides.  But here’s what I’m wondering:  As a parent, wouldn’t you want to know how your kid’s teacher prepares kids for tests?  If your child were assigned to a teacher with a history of low test scores, wouldn’t you want to know that?  I have to say, I think I would want that information.

Now, we all know there could be lots of reasons for poor test scores – disruptive students, transient  Test scores  students, poor attendance, overcrowding, etc. etc.  And maybe my child loves her teacher whether that teacher’s scores are outstanding, average, or poor.  Maybe her teacher is kind and imaginative and has made my child feel really good about herself.  But I guess I’d still like to be reassured that compared with the results of other teachers at the same grade level, my child’s teacher is doing the same good job.

I would also guess that any LA teacher who has kids in school might like to have that information as well.  All things being equal, do you want your child in a classroom of kids who make good progress every year or in a classroom of kids who make 4 months’ progress in 10 months’ time?  I know it’s only one measure – but wouldn’t you, as a parent, want to know?

Of course, if you’re a teacher in the system, you might already know who’s good and who’s mediocre.  You might even be able to influence, formally or informally, where your child is placed.  Shouldn’t all parents be able to make the same choices based on similar information?

So I guess if the majority of parents say the Times really shouldn’t publish teachers' test scores, I’d be surprised.  And worried.





What Gets Funded Gets Done

Over 40 states have adopted anti-bullying laws. 

Will it make any difference to the average kid?  Will students in forty-some states now be protected from being slammed into a locker or hassled because of sexual preference or threatened on the internet or excluded from the group?

Probably not. 

New York State is the most recent to adopt anti-bullying measures.  Interestingly, the legislation excludes nonpublic schools (kids in private schools don’t bully one another?) and ignores cyber-bullying, believing that this behavior may be beyond the school’s purview and resources.

Wary of more unfunded mandates, the legislation requires schools to establish guidelines for training and to report serious incidents of bullying or discrimination.  Anti-bullying instruction should be folded into the existing character education requirements.  Some states have provided anti-bullying curriculums.

Spotlighting anti-bullying policies at the state level is a step in the right direction.  And no one wants more unfunded mandates.  But how about a funded one for a change?

Because here’s the deal:  Bullying doesn’t stop until kids are very clear that adults won’t tolerate it.  And adults won’t tolerate it if it is very clear that stopping bullying is an administrative and district priority.

Honestly, in my experience, some teachers and administrators either don’t recognize bullying when they see it or they think it’s just part of school life.  They need to be trained in what bullying looks like, how it can affect kids, how to prevent it, and how to effectively deal with it when it happens.  They need to understand that district expectations are that bullying will be addressed and that teachers will be held responsible for making sure they deal with it.  In addition, parents need to be brought on board so they can appeal for help or can begin to understand that their child is a perpetrator. 

So the legislation is a good thing.  It’s just not enough.

The video is from bullypolice.org

Career Questions: Cellphones for Teachers

Q:  In my middle school/high school, kids aren’t allowed to use cell phones during the day (although we all know they do).  To “set a good example,” our principal has decided that teachers shouldn’t use them either. 

Frankly, most of us consider this a ridiculous ruling.  Phones are available for teacher use in the faculty room or the office, but it’s much more convenient to call a parent, for example, on a cell phone from your own classroom.  And I’ll admit that it’s also more convenient to make appointments or take care of all the other business everyone has to contend with.  How can I convince my principal to move into the age of technology?

A:  You might refer your principal to a survey done by the Pew Research Center last spring.  The survey found that 75% of kids age 12-17 own cell phones.  Twenty-four percent say their schools ban cell phones, but 65% bring them to school anyway and 58% admit to texting in class!  (Nothing's really changed in that department since the 60's -- see below).

I can understand your principal’s concern about teachers and cell phones.  He or she doesn’t want a teacher taking or making calls during class or during any duty period.  While there’s a difference between adults and kids, both have to know when cell phone use is appropriate. 

If your school has a faculty council, cell phone use for teachers (and kids) should be a topic for discussion.  My belief is that even more teachers than kids have cell phones and many teachers will use them anyway if their classroom is empty.  It’s all about discretion and good judgment (maybe you don’t have to wear your cell phone on your belt, for example).  The principal may have made a unilateral ruling, but it will be difficult to enforce either for adults or kids.  

Opening Thoughts

North Carolina Teacher of the Year Cindi Rigsbee’s blog, The Dream Teacher, is well worth reading today as she talks about the opening of school. “If you’re in any way connected to education, you’re beginning to feel a simmering force field of energy about you …” she says. 

She’s right of course.  Education is perhaps the only profession in which you can start fresh every year, building on what you’ve learned, correcting your mistakes.  If you’re not bowled over by the expectations in those young faces on the first day, you need to start thinking of doing something else.  Even the most jaded student hopes that maybe this year will be different; maybe this year there will be a reason to come every day.   You can be that reason.

On a more prosaic note regarding the new school year, Ryan Bretag talks about meetings and how they can eat up valuable instructional planning time.   His Metanoia blog entry, “Take a Vow and Set the Tone,” reprinted in Leadertalk, gives school leaders six guidelines for meetings (don’t ever meet on something that can be handled in a memo, for example). Bretag asks if schools have meetings because they’re necessary of simply because they’re a ritual – a result of the “hierarchy” of schools.

Finally, the Southwestern Autism Research and Resource Center (SARRC) commissioned this little film you might find noteworthy as you begin a new year.

Facebooking the Music

During the recession some administrators lost their jobs because of tight budgets.  But when the economy is not an issue, what else can jeopardize an administrator’s position?

Facebook_icon  Well, you could brag on your Facebook page about how easy your job is like one new Connecticut school superintendent did.  David Telesca of the Windsor Locks district posted on July first that he slept in and then spent some time on the Internet.  “If every day is like this, “ he said, “it’ll be the best job ever.”  His post also included that he had counseled a veteran administrator to retire, ending that information with a smiley face.  His board placed him on administrative leave.  Telesca thinks they’re overreacting.

This $150,000 a year job may not only be the best he’ll have, but the shortest.

Well, lack of judgment is certainly one of the main factors that can jeopardize an administrator’s job.  But it turns out that except for flagrant examples like Telesca’s, it’s not the most frequent reason administrators’ contracts are not renewed according to a study by Stephen Davis. 

Davis surveyed nearly 100 California school superintendents to determine why some principals lost their jobs.  It turns out that interpersonal relationships outweighed everything else.  Inability to get along with others was a bigger problem in superintendents’ eyes than low student achievement, resistance to change, or failure to maintain a safe environment.

I’m not sure how I feel about those survey results.  No one wants to work with a jerk (see Robert Sutton’s book, The No ****** Rule).  On the other hand, sometimes as a leader you have to do things that will not engender affection and appreciation from your staff.

A wise labor relations specialist told me early in my career, “If you have to choose between popularity and respect, choose respect.”  You don’t have to be liked, but you can’t afford to be disliked.  Oh, yeah -- and don’t talk about your day on Facebook.


Labeling Our Youngest and Our Oldest Kids

Is a child’s disability or a child’s giftedness simply a function of his or her age in comparison with peers?

Malcolm Gladwell, in The Outliers, makes a strong case that the children who are considered athletically “gifted” may simply be the ones with earlier birthdays.  In examining a team roster of “all star” soccer players, Gladwell discovered that nearly all of them had one thing in common – they were born in the first few months of the year in a school system with December 1 cut-off date for kindergarten. 

Foodlabels1  So, Gladwell reasons, these kids could be several months to nearly a year older than some of their peers, making them physically bigger, stronger, and more dexterous and coordinated.  As early stand-outs they would have received more attention from their coaches.  And as we well know, just a few months can make a real difference in the 0-5 years.

Now the other side of the spectrum:  a new Michigan State University study suggests that nearly a million kids may have been misdiagnosed with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) because they have fall birthdays.  In fact, the kids who are the youngest in their grades are 60% more likely to be labeled ADHD.  The study suggests that many children diagnosed with ADHD are simply acting their developmental age.  And like their “gifted” peers, they also receive inordinate attention from their teachers, but it’s not always as positive.  A second study out of North Carolina State University came to the same conclusions regarding diagnosis.

The truth is, as an elementary principal, I had to frequently remind teachers that they were not doctors, and consequently not qualified to diagnose a child with ADHD or anything else.  Neither were they to suggest to parents that the child needed to be on Ritalin.  Of course, this was easier for me to say than to enforce.  The studies released yesterday identify 4.5 million children as having been diagnosed with ADHD.  When I think of the side-effects of Ritalin, it makes my head – and my heart – hurt.

Career Questions: Opening Day

Q:  What’s the best thing to do on the first day of school?  I usually spend the time going over the rules and procedures, handing out books, and just getting things organized.  It seems to me that it’s better to just spend the day setting things up.

A:  All of these “maintenance issues” need to be addressed at some point.  Just not the first day.

Think of the first day from the students’ perspective.  A whole day spent going over rules and getting organized?  “BOR-ing!”

Instead, why not hit the ground running with some fun activities that challenge their brains and give them a preview of what could be a great year?  Start a project, give them a problem to solve, read them a short story and talk about it, play a word game,

If you’re a secondary teacher, give them something interesting to do immediately in class – a short written paragraph to be shared, an opinion of a current event, finding the size of the classroom, testing for pH.  They will not be expecting anything like this, so it’s a great way to grab their attention and set the stage for the coming year.  Give them a little homework (probably no one else will) and make sure you check it and use it the next day to establish your expectations.

You only get one first day.  It’s your chance to shine.  Set the tone that this class will be a favorite, one that kids will look forward to.  Maybe they’ll go home and say, “My teacher is crazy.  But in a good way.”

The class rules and regulations need to be shared at some point as needed.  But remember it’s about doing, not about telling.





The Chef In the School Cafeteria

The teenage cashier at the grocery store eyes my fruits and vegetables before scanning them.  “What’s this?” she asks me, holding up an apricot.  I tell her.  “And this?” she asks, pointing to a plastic wrapped Chef-says-okay   bunch of leaves. 

“Basil,” I tell her.

 “I know what this is, “ she says, holding up the radicchio.  “Cabbage.”

It bothers me that a 17-year-old kid has clearly never eaten some of these fruits and vegetables.  OK, radicchio I can understand.  But apricots?

Baltimore Schools Food Service Director Tony Geraci watched second graders eat fresh peaches for the first time in their lives.  “One was rubbing a peach along his face, and I said, ’It’s supposed to feel like that’ “ he said.

Geraci is part of the Department of Agriculture’s Chefs Move to Schools initiative, which so far has attracted 1600 chefs.  The program is part of Michelle Obama’s program to reduce childhood obesity.  The idea is that chefs will “adopt” a school and volunteer their services to improve nutrition and make meals more attractive.

I think the First Lady is on to something.  I was lucky enough to hire a chef to run my district’s food service.  (After years of working in restaurants, he was looking for health insurance and retirement benefits.)  He brought to the job the idea that kids were customers and that food should be appealing and interesting.  As a result, we were suddenly treated to homemade soups and interesting salads.  Fresh fruit was available every day.  He used local produce, varied entrees (Tuesday was no longer hot dog day) and gave kids a variety of choices. 

The kids loved him.  The cafeteria workers did not.  There’s no lollygagging in a real restaurant’s kitchen, and that’s how he ran the school cafeterias.  It didn’t matter to him if most of the kids were on free or reduced lunches; every kid deserved the best he could offer.

After a couple of years working in the schools he went back to the restaurant business.   “Way too much paperwork,” he explained.  “And too many restrictions.”

But while he was there it was a beautiful thing.  So I think the Chefs Move to Schools is a move in the right direction.






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