About this blog Subscribe to this blog

Give the Kids a Fresh Start

Every year at this time the middle school principal asked the elementary principals to send him a list of sixth graders who had had disciplinary issues over the past year.

Every year I refused.

His argument was that he could get a jump on behavior if he already knew who the kids were who were likely to cause problems.  My argument was that every kid deserves a clean slate when he or she begins a new year, particularly in a new school. 

Super-8-movie Kids change; people change.  I didn’t want the cards already stacked against these youngsters before they even entered middle school.  Eventually I took to destroying my discipline records for the sixth graders at the end of June on the off-chance that the middle school principal might report my lack of cooperation to the superintendent and I would be ordered to comply.  This way I could plead ignorance and I’d have another year to figure out how to protect the kids so they could have a fresh start.

Teachers need to be careful not to already color the next teacher’s perception of students coming into his or her class next year.  Don’t get me wrong; it’s appropriate and helpful for teachers to share academic issues with the next teacher.  Next year’s teacher can hit the ground running if she knows that Jack is a superior math student and needs to be challenged or that Stephanie made gains last year in reading but still doesn’t understand root words.  And every teacher should read her students' IEPs.  No excuses.

What’s not helpful or even ethical is to pass along comments like “Michael is smart but lazy” or “Keisha is a whiner about grades.”   Worst of all are the characterizations of an entire class as the “worst group of kids I’ve even taught” or “not even a couple of bright lights.”  I am not making up these comments; I’ve heard them.  One characterization I particularly dislike is describing a kid as “sneaky.”

I have sat in on lots of middle and high school group conferences with parents about their son or daughter.  Sometimes there is consensus about the child’s progress and behavior.  Other times, you’d think that no teacher had the same kid.  In English, he’s the first to volunteer and a strong writer.  In history, he’s a disruption with his jokes.  In Spanish he just doesn’t even try.  In art, he’s one of the best students the teacher has ever seen.  A child connects or doesn’t connect with a teacher or subject, so we can’t assume that what we see in our class is what everyone sees.  Sometimes it’s us.

So we say good-bye to our students this year, knowing next year will be a fresh start for them … and for us.  That’s what’s so great about school – you get to start over every year.  We want to be sure every kid gets an equal chance to succeed next year.

BTW:  If you love middle schoolers (like I do), go see Super 8. 



Career Questions: School Administration

Tingley-021 color Q:  I’m interested in becoming a principal.  How do I decide if that’s a good career path for me?

A:  First of all, you need to think about why you might be interested in administration.  There are lots of reasons teachers choose to make the move.  Some feel that they would like the challenge of working with curriculum, budget, personnel, discipline, etc.  Others feel that they would like to have a greater say in what happens in a school.  Still others think that they might be able to do a better job than some administrators they’ve met!

Whatever your reason, think also about whether administration is a good fit for you.  In most cases you will no longer have summers and school vacations off.  You will have evening assignments like concerts or sports events.  Your day will be longer than a teacher’s day, and you are never really “off duty.”  You will not see a big raise in your pay at the beginning; in fact, because you will work more hours you may actually make less per hour than you did as a teacher.  And one cautionary note:  If you don’t like teaching, you will not like Mug administration either because it has a strong teaching component.

I recommend two ways to determine if administration is right for you.  First of all, if you are comfortable doing so, tell your principal that you’re thinking about administration and ask if there is some leadership activity you could take on at school.  Secondly, check out the nearest college’s education administration program and talk to someone on staff about time and cost. 

For many years, one of the graduate courses I taught was the introductory course to school administration.  At the end of the course, some students were convinced that this was the career path they wanted; others decided that while it was interesting, they would prefer to remain in the classroom.

Good luck.  We need great teachers, but we also need great administrators!


Career Questions: My Opinion Matters

Q:  Sometimes I feel like a pushover in our grade-level meetings.  Decisions are usually made by a couple of people with strong opinions, and I often feel like I’m not being heard.  How can I make my opinion count?

A:  Teachers in general like to be collegial.  However, feeling that your ideas don’t matter can lead to resentment and even anger rather than collegiality. This is a truism that applies to grade level meetings, faculty meetings, or meetings in general.  No one likes to feel that what he or she thinks isn't important.

First take a look at how you present your own ideas.  Some people have great ideas, but they present them in a questioning, almost apologetic way.  You need to be straightforward and succinct:

Meetings-count Ineffective:   “I kind of think maybe we should share playground supervision?  Instead of one person doing it all winter and another person doing it in the spring?”

Effective:  “We need to alternate playground supervision weekly because everyone should get some good weather and some bad weather.”

Another strategy is to voice your idea or opinion early in the meeting rather than always being reactive to someone else’s idea.  And be a little tenacious; don’t abandon your ideas if challenged and be sure you have reasons to support your ideas.  Look for ways to compromise.

Sometimes people in meetings just assume that everyone is in agreement because no on speaks up.  Protect against the “steamroller effect” by interrupting the flow and saying politely, “I’m not sure if I agree with that.”

Finally, if all else fails, screw up your courage and say the following at the meeting:  “Sometimes I feel as if not all opinions are heard, and I think that’s important.”  This is what I call “delivering the message.”  The important thing here isn’t the response to your statement, but that you’ve said it.  It’s a shot fired over the bow.

My guess is that you need to be a little more forceful.  You owe it to yourself and you owe it to your students to have your ideas heard.


Career Questions: New School

Tingley-021 color This has been a tumultuous year nationally in education, but on the home front, in our local schools, many teachers have simply continued the daily activities of helping kids learn, working with colleagues, and planning for next year.  We’re going to end the month with a few career questions as teachers reflect on the past year and prepare over the summer for next fall.

Q:  I’ve been teaching for ten years.  Next fall I’ll be starting out at a new school, and believe it or not, I’m feeling a little nervous.  How can I start out on the right foot?

A:  Even for a veteran, starting fresh in a new school will present some challenges … and some opportunities.  Here are some quick tips:

1) Learn the new school’s protocols as quickly as possible.  If you are in a new school in the same district, many protocols will be the same (calendar, schedule, grading system, programs, etc.), but some may be different (discipline procedures, expectations, working in teams,
for example).  Make friends with the office secretaries.  If you are starting in a new district, be sure you have all your new books and materials to review over the summer.

2) Get to know your colleagues by having lunch in the faculty room, not in your classroom, or joining faculty social outings.  Volunteer for
one committee or extra assignment (but not more than one or two because you need to focus on adapting to the change).

3) Refuse to criticize your former school or its leadership.  If changing schools was your choice (as opposed to the result of staff cuts), remain noncommittal about your reasons for leaving your former school.  Say something like, “I just felt it was time for a change” or “I’m Fresh-start only 10 miles from home instead of 30” or “I’ve always wanted to work with a team of teachers” rather than “My last principal was an idiot.”  Keep your own counsel at the beginning until you get to know people better.

4) By the same token, if you had a great experience in your last school, take care not to continually point out how things there were a lot better – discipline, administrative support, schedule, etc.  Maybe all these things were better, but no one in your new school wants to hear it.  I once worked with an administrator who started every sentence with, “In my old school ….”  It wasn’t long before we all wished he were back in his old school.

Starting fresh in a new school can be a little challenging, but it can also be a real opportunity for growth and renewal.  With ten years’ experience, you will have a lot to offer your new school.  One thing doesn’t change, and it’s the most important thing – what happens in the classroom.  Good teaching strategies and a strong rapport with your students can quickly establish your reputation in a new environment.  This could be a great year.


  BAM BTW:  As promised, the discussion about today’s parents is live on BAM Radio Network and featured on the Educators Channel: http://www.bamradionetwork.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=category&layout=blog&id=35&Itemid=65.

The World They Created at Central Falls

Central-falls-teachersjpg-c3c2b6342140ee35_large Last December I wondered how long it would take to change the culture at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island.  Under the best of circumstances, I thought, a turnaround would take at least three years, and that would require teachers and administrators working together to change expectations for kids.  But first teachers would have to get past the shock and resentment of being fired and then rehired.  Extra pay for an extended school day was not the magic balm to heal those wounds.  That would take real expertise on the part of the administration, I thought, if it could be accomplished at all.  I recalled what happens when teachers strike:  Some schools never really recover as long as the majority of the teachers who walked out are still on staff.

By May I noted that it appeared that things were worse than ever in Central Falls.  Faculty absenteeism had spiked and some teachers resigned.  Teachers reported unreasonable stress, which, of course, filtered down to the kids.

As the school limps to the end of the school year, it appears that all the strife has been for naught.  Almost 30 teachers have resigned.  Teachers point to a complete lack of trust in their administrators, and the state education commissioner concurs.  “If people aren’t working together, there’s no chance for [transformation] success,” says Deborah Gist.

In an interview a couple of days ago on NPR Gist says that Central Falls may eventually be shut down (which she said months ago) or turned into a charter school.  In the meantime Rhode Island state legislators are wondering what the district did with the $1,000,000 in federal funds it received for the school’s transformation.

I noted in an earlier blog Fordham reseacher David Stuit’s report, “Are Bad Schools Immortal?” Stuit tracked over 2000 low performing schools from 2003-4 to 2008-9.  What he found was that roughly 80% of those schools were still low performing five years later, leading researchers to posit that it might be better to just close those schools from the get go.  And if reform is attempted the way in was in Central Falls, he is right.

What lessons do we take from Central Falls?  Well, here’s one:  Politicians think that schools change by fiat.  They think that we can undo mistakes, initiate lasting change, and reform school cultures in no time flat.  They think that throwing money at a problem takes care of it.  They think that mandating change makes change happen.

They are, of course, wrong.  I don’t quibble with the need for reform; in fact, I agree with a lot of reformers’ ideas.  But let me say again:  Let’s take the time to do it right.  Let’s work together, teachers and administrators.  Let’s set realistic expectations for change.

What happened at Central Falls is a tragedy – or maybe a travesty.



Why Principals Matter

Tingley-021 color “When did we lose sight of the fact that there are kids sitting in classes who are dependent upon … legislators to create policies to ensure an effective education that is based in practice and not in theory?” asks NAASP President Jana Frieler in her Principal’s Policy guest blog post.  “The political rhetoric leaves us as practitioners truly perplexed,” she continues.  “How is it that we are able to take students from different backgrounds, sometimes from families who feud against one another, and sit them next to each other in a class and expect them to get along yet our own politicians cannot seem to do the same?  And we hear that we, as educators, are not doing our jobs?”

I have written about the dearth of principals’ voices in the reform movement and the willingness to let others speak for us whether they are union leaders, teachers, legislators, or politicians.  I recommend that readers take a look at her comments in their entirety.  We need our own spokesperson to repeatedly point out the difference between theory and practice, between talking about the job and actually doing the job.  As I’ve noted many times before, the implementation of many new policies and procedures suggested by politicians will fall to local school administration.  This is why principals need to be involved in initials reform conversations and planning, especially when it comes to supervision and evaluation of staff.

Principal If you are sometimes wondering whether principals make a difference, check out the remarkable turnaround at High Point High School since Rebecca Garcia became acting principal.  Among the most diverse school populations of Prince George’s County in Maryland, 34 different languages are spoken among its immigrant families.  Not long ago truancy and gang violence were prevalent, culminating with a YouTube video in March of a group of students kicking a classmate in the head.  Garcia became acting principal a few days later.

Truancy has dropped from 50 a day to about 2, says Garcia.  Order has been restored.  “If you treat students with respect, if they know you and what the expectations are, then they will rise up to the challenge,” says Garcia, who instituted common sense changes, like adding a fourth lunch period to cut down on the chaos of a crowed cafeteria, to improve the climate.  “Kids are starting to get excited about coming to school,” says a junior girl.

Don’t let all those talking heads fool you.  Practitioners are the heart of improving schools, and principals can make it work.


Dance of the Lemons

It’s that time of year.  School is over or almost over, and school administration is about to embark on the dance of the lemons, which involves moving ineffective teachers or other administrators to new positions in the fall where they can either have a fresh start or do less damage.  Happily I’ve never been invited to the dance but I’ve seen it up close.

I first became aware of the dance as a relatively rookie.  I was teaching middle school and a very veteran teacher took me under her wing.  I was grateful at first until some of my other colleagues began to warn me about her.  Mostly they said that I probably didn’t want to be seen as closely aligned with such a poor teacher – disorganized, disinterested, and generally unpleasant to kids.  I was naïve and consequently skeptical of all the criticism at first until she and I were sent to the state reading conference a couple hundred miles away. 

Lemon_party-7474 It was my first conference, and I was excited about all the keynote speakers and breakout sessions.  On the drive down I asked her what sessions she was going to.  “Ha!” she said.  “I’m not going to anything.  I’m going to get my nails done at the spa, maybe get a massage, and spend a couple of days lying in a lounge chair at the pool.”

“You’re not going to anything?” I was incredulous.  (I said I was a rookie). 

“I’ve been teaching for a long time,” she said.  “They owe me a vacation.”

In the fall she was transferred to another school, her fourth in five years.  That’s how they handled the problem years ago.

And guess what?  That’s how they handle the problem today in lots of schools.  As an administrator, I watched the superintendent shuffle an assistant high school principal to the elementary school.  An elementary principal became sports director.  The sports guy became chair of special education.  Getting to stay where you were that year was the superintendent’s vote of confidence.

Lemons sometimes end up in newly created positions when the dance has stopped and all the chairs are already filled.  Director of community outreach.  On special assignment to write the history of the district (really).  Liaison with the military community.  Parent organizer.

Why the dance of the lemons?  Why doesn’t school leadership face the problem directly and remove ineffective people?  Because it’s too late.  Once the individual has been granted tenure, it’s less costly to do the dance than it is to try to remove him or her.

Another reason to mentor, supervise, and carefully evaluate the beginners.





















Teacher Evaluation: A Rush to Judgment?

Tingley-021 color It seems absolutely reasonable to me that at least part of a teacher’s evaluation should be based on how well her students learned as determined by state or standardized tests.  There are endless parallels to other professions in which competency is determined by outcomes.  What I don’t understand is why lawmakers, both state and federal, insist that changes in teacher evaluation protocols take place immediately if not sooner.  Why not take some time to do it right?  Why risk shoddy implementation that will prove all the naysayers right?

Maryland received $250 million in federal grant monies to build a new model for teacher evaluation that includes test scores.  Recently, according to the Washington Post, the state has asked for a year’s extension to continue to work on the plan.  State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick hopes that the new model won’t be implemented until 2013-14 so that there is time to train school people and field test the new model before complete implementation.  Says Grasmick, “If it rolls out too soon, it won’t be well done, and there will be reactions from teachers that this is a half-baked idea.”

Give that woman a Klondike Bar.

Other states have been working to put the brakes on teacher evaluation reform to keep it from careening into a stone wall of teacher resistance.  The New York States Council of School Superintendents, for example, in a series of white papers, pointed out to the Board of Regents that “assuming a typical fifty hour administrative work week, the evaluation effort [currently proposed] would represent approximately twenty-three full weeks of the forty week school year.”

Klondike bar Steven Sawchuck’s Teacher Beat blog succinctly outlines New York’s challenges, but as a former New York State superintendent, I can see in the offing the same problems schools had with shared decision-making.  The format for teacher evaluation is a subject for collective bargaining in the state.  Teacher unions needed to sign off on a district’s plans for shared decision-making, and guess what?  Some decided that they wouldn’t sign off on the plan because their share wasn’t big enough.  So I’m wondering exactly how the collaboration will work on changes in teacher evaluation.

And here’s another weird twist in New York City:  officials are working to develop even more tests so there will be even more ways to determine if kids are learning. Really?  Really?  This is legitimate reform?

Anyway, the point is that including kids’ progress in a teacher’s evaluation is a good idea, one whose time has come.  But let’s make sure we know what we’re doing before we begin implementation.



What to Do with Those Athletic Awards

It looks like I won’t be wearing my “Tressel for President” t-shirt anytime soon.

Nor will I be dressing up as Tressel for Halloween like I did last year (and I feel particularly bad about that because it’s such an easy costume and I pretty much hate dressing up in costumes).

Tressel And there is absolutely nothing I can say about the situation that hasn’t already been endlessly covered by all the talking heads on ESPN and the writing heads at SI.  Except maybe, “Senator, say it ain’t so.”  But I know it is, and it will be a while before the storm clouds lift over my alma mater.

In the meantime, high schools all over the country will be holding their end-of-the-year sports awards ceremonies this month.  Often more highly attended than the academic awards ceremonies, the sports event is usually held in the evening and, if you’re not careful, can go on for hours, culminating with the awards for the outstanding male and female athletes.  Choosing the outstanding athletes usually isn’t hard unless your outstanding female athlete eliminates herself from receiving the award by getting drunk and throwing up at the prom the week before so you have to give the award to a player that everyone knows is only getting the award because she wasn’t at the pre-prom party.

Sports awards, the plaques and letters and all those other trinkets, are expensive, and you have to wonder if they are worth the 10-second hand off from coach to player at the ceremony.  You also have to wonder what happens to them later.  Are they hung on the wall or shoved under the bed or in a closet somewhere?  Does the artifact matter most to the student or to her parents?  Clearly, in the case of some of the OSU football players, their championship rings could be sold without regret.  And those cool gold trinkets – the little football pants they got for beating Michigan – could be exchanged for awesome tats. 

So a tiny take away for us K-12 folks may be this:  A handshake, a paper certificate, and a “Good job” may be all you need to give our student athletes.  Maybe the buckeye clusters on their helmets were all the college players needed too.










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