Thursday, February 9, 2017

At the Heart of Collaboration

As a leader I look for opportunities to foster teacher collaboration so that teachers can learn and grow from each other. I learned from my experiences as a teacher, where way too often I worked in isolation and at times it felt like the members of my team were in competition and not collaboration. We didn't trust one another which limited our opportunity to learn from one another. I do believe there is a place for competition in our schools which I will discuss later. However, without collaboration and trust, competition can lead to less sharing, more about me, and more about their being winners and losers which hurts students. 

There is a lot of research on the topic of teacher collaboration and how that collaboration has a positive impact on school culture and student learning. As far back as the early 1980s research demonstrates the importance of teacher collaboration. Teachers in collaborative schools participate in four “critical practices”: (1) talking, (2) watching, (3) planning, and (4) teaching about classroom practice (Little, 1982). Little goes on to describe what these practices look like: teacher “talking” is seen as teachers discussing classroom practices; “watching” is mutual observation that takes place between teachers; “planning” is teachers designing and preparation of curriculum; “teaching about classroom practice” happens when teachers are discussing instructional improvement.

These critical practices can only take place when there is trust built between teachers. Trust takes time and a willingness by teachers to openly share and to be vulnerable. When there is open dialogue, observation, planning, and discussing instructional improvement among the teachers the school becomes a learning organization.  Senge (1990) describes learning organizations as places “where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns on thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free” (p. 3) and it is through this openness to creativity within teacher collaboration that leads to an atmosphere where risk-taking, innovation, and improvement occurs (Louis, et. al, 1994). Isn't this what we want from our schools? We want our schools to be places where their is risk-taking, innovation, improvement and where teachers expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire. As a leader this is the culture that I want to cultivate and foster, but I know that I cannot do it alone. 

In digging into the research on developing a culture of collaboration one of the themes that comes up over and over again is the concept of shared leadership which is a strategy that good principals use to make decisions, empower teacher leaders, and create a culture where collaboration can materialize (Hord & Sommers, 2008; Leonard & Leonard, 2005; Louis, et. al., 1994; Wells & Fuen, 2008). Principals should not be seen as the ones with all the answers in how to improve the schools. Instead leaders need to connect with teachers and create the atmosphere for teachers to be able to connect with one another. Principals should develop teacher leaders and allow them to collaborate with their colleagues. Rosenholtz (1989) describes three different outcomes for when teachers collaborate with teacher leaders  (1) they define a new way of doing things, (2) suggest and inspire ideas and discourse, (3) help others overcome difficult and challenging problems. When we have teachers leading other teachers learning and growing happen for all involved. This is how we get better. This is how we accomplish our goals and live out our mission. We can't do it alone. 

Leaders who venture off on their own end up developing what Hargreaves & Fullan (2012) describe as the “my school” or “my vision”,  and in these cases the management of the school turns into manipulation and collaboration turns into collegiality. In these situation there is a failure to develop a sense of unity and togetherness. I don't believe in the "my school" or "my vision" places that there is an overwhelming sense of belonging or success. A school should have a common mission that is understood by all in the building. This cannot be just the mission of a principal. The understanding of the work happens when there is collaboration and a sense that we are in this together. I think this quote captures the importance of having a collective understanding of a mission and goals. 

If there is any center to the mystery of schools’ success, mediocrity, or failure, it lies deep within the structure of organizational goals; whether or not they exist, how they are defined and manifested, the extent to which they are mutually shared. (Rosenholtz, 1989, p. 13).

Without a shared understanding and responsibility for student learning  it is nearly impossible for a school to be successful. It takes a collective effort through collaboration and a willingness for principals and teachers to grow and improve their practice. As I stated earlier there is a place for competition in schools. A healthy competition really rests with each individual and how they will use that drive, competitiveness, and willingness to get better. Collins (2001) shares the importance of embracing the brutal truth and being relentless on pursuing this truth. School leaders and teachers need to continue to reflect, learn, and seek the truth in how successful they are in meeting the needs of their students. They need to seek the truth about areas they need to grow. They need to seek the truth to determine where they are falling short. The relentless seeking of truth is where that competitive drive lives. The drive to improve and get better. When members of the school have that competitive drive you end up with better leaders, better teachers, and better schools. This competitive drive also opens us up to learning from each other, to collaborate, and to share in the mission of the school. 

I have been fortunate enough to have been a part of two different schools that transformed into highly collaborative environments where teachers had the competitive fire to improve. In the first school I was the student services coordinator and we developed collaborative teams that worked together to participate in those "critical practices" of talking, watching, planning, and teaching about classroom practice. The end result was a dramatic improvement in student achievement. I was the principal of the second school that had a similar transformation. What happened at this school was equally as remarkable. Through the development of collaborative teams and creating a collaborative culture we embraced the brutal truth that our students were not making the growth we expected. The embracing of our truth was a motivating factor for us to make changes with our instructional practices. I don't think this would have been possible if it was not for that competitive drive, the will to get better, and the desire to do something about our truth. Teachers sought out opportunities to learn from each other. They discussed ways to better meet the needs of students. The culture shifted and our goal of having students grow was embraced by everyone.

Collins, J. (2001). Good to great. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishing.
Hargreaves, A. & Fullan, M. (2012). Professional capital: Transforming teaching in every school. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Hord, S. & Sommers, W. (2008). Leading professional learning communities: Voices from research and practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Little, J.W. (1982). Norms of collegiality and experimentation: Workplace conditions of school success. American Educational Research Journal, 19(3), 325-340.
Louis, K. S., Marks, H. M., & Kruse, S. (1994). Teachers' professional community in restructuring schools. Madison, WI: Wisconsin Center for Educational Research, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Rosenholtz, S. (1989). Teacher's workplace: The social organization of schools. New York, NY: Longman.
Senge, P.M. (1990). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. New York, NY: Doubleday.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Creating Culture - A Collaborative Post

A culture of celebration can be created and fostered through celebrating the little things everyday.
  • Allyson (@AllysonApsey)

“Give people high fives just for getting out of bed. Being a person is hard sometimes.” Kid President

As educators, there are things that we can celebrate any day of the week. We love kids, we work to get better every day, we work through challenges, we embrace changes we never asked for, and on and on.

As a principal, my main customers are my staff members. I celebrate them in many ways:

  • Positive feedback for their awesomeness, sharing specifically the amazing things they are doing for kids.
  • Allow the school community to celebrate with us by posting videos on YouTube highlighting strengths. Here is an example:
  • Tweeting out the great things teachers are doing for our kids:

Key to culture of celebration is the consistency and focusing on specific things that contribute to the culture and the success of students. When the school leader celebrates teachers and their successes, teachers will celebrate students and their successes.

Celebrating the little successes every day leads to big successes! Amazing things happen when people feel positive and strong--they celebrate each other, they are willing to take risks, they approach problems with a growth mindset, and there is joy in the air.

Developing relational culture takes time
  • Tim (@Tim_McDermott1)

Developing relational culture takes time. That is why it is important for principals to celebrate the wins as teachers make changes with their instructional practices, the way they collaborate, the way they manage their classrooms, or when they take risks and try something new.  The small wins matter to people (Amabile & Kramer, 2011). They build momentum and keep people moving. A talented principal recognizes these moments and knows when to celebrate and recognize them. DuFour (2015) states, “Effective principals will not wait for monumental accomplishments before celebrating” (p. 242). A culture of celebration and recognition leads to developing further trust amongst the members of a school.  

In my first principalship I wanted to build relationships and create a culture where we would celebrate our learning and our growth. So we instituted a tradition or ceremony of “tossing dogs”, in Batavia we are all Bulldogs so I thought that would be an appropriate stuffed animal to toss.. At every staff meeting teachers could take a small stuffed animal and publicly recognize another staff member and thank them for something they did for another teacher or a student and toss a stuffed dog to them. If a staff member received the dog they were able to keep them. It was really cool to walk into a teacher’s room or a specialist's office and see a small collection of dogs sitting on a shelf or a desk. I also dedicated one staff meeting towards the end of the year where teams would get up and share a celebration from the school year.  The only rule I had was that they couldn’t do a dry and boring Powerpoint. Here is an example of the fourth grade team and their journey of implementing guided math. Teams needed to be creative in the way the wanted to celebrate their journey and growth. The final tradition I started took place at the end of the school year where we would spend time together as a staff honoring those members who were moving schools, retiriing, etc… and then we would do something to recognize and celebrate each other. The first year each person had a piece of construction paper mounted to cardstock that went over their head and hung on their back with a piece of yarn.

Every staff member had a pen and we spent 15 minutes walking around writing personal notes on each other’s paper. It was really great to provide meaningful comments to a teacher and to look around the room to see the same thing being repeated dozens of times.

Amabile, T. & Kramer, S. (2011). The progress principle: Using small wins to ignite joy, engagement, and creativity at work. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.
Dufour, R. (2015). In praise of American educators and how they can become even better. Bloomington, IN: The Solution Tree Press.

  • Jodie (@jodiepierpoint)

Derek Oldfield and Paul Bailey and I were part of a Voxer book study reading Kids Deserve It. Although we were active in the book study group, the three of us often chatted in a separate voxer chat and the idea of spreading positivity throughout schools nationwide was inspired.  We brainstormed and decided we would have a high five challenge, encouraging teachers, staff and principals to give out high fives as well as write letters and make phone calls home.  We promoted our challenge through Twitter using the hashtag #high5challenge.  We were amazed at the responses, videos and pictures that we received from across the United States. Teachers were writing messages on student’s desks, writing positive notes on bracelets, dancing and high fiving in cafeterias!  Looking through the hashtag every night simply brought joy to each of us.  To celebrate the educators we sent out #high5 #KidsMatter bracelets in hopes that although the two week challenge ended that the positivity would continue.  Kids do matter, and celebrating them with such simple ways as high fives and notes home sure does go a long way!

Culture is built over time, through deliberately focusing on celebrations, whether big or small. Spread positivity, celebrate daily, and then bask in the warmth and joy that exudes from the environment. We would love to hear how you have built a culture of celebrations, share with us in the comments or tag us on Twitter!

Monday, January 23, 2017

Overwhelmed by Homework

As a dad you have so many hopes and dreams for your child. You want the best for them and give them as many opportunities as possible to explore and discover their talents and passions. As they grow you support their interests and education. You help them with their reading and math. You work with them on school projects. You beam with pride as you see them succeed. You watch as they move into the older grades in elementary school. You help with homework, especially with math as it gets a little trickier. As they move into middle school the homework increases and you watch as they try and balance homework, friendships, extra curricular activities, and family commitments. You help them with learning how to manage their time. 

I find it hard to believe that our daughter has reached high school. She is a great student and we are so proud of her. We encouraged her to get involved and make the most of her experiences. She started off her freshman year with taking some rigorous classes (Honors Geometry, Honors English II, AP Human Geography, Spanish 2, Honors Biology). She made the JV Dance Team and was asked to choreograph the crosstown game half time dance. We are so proud of her because she is a good student, dancer, daughter, and friend. Proud of her because she works hard and is a diligent student. Proud of her because she has a tremendous amount of grit. 

As the year has progressed we noticed a change. She is often tired and stressed. We chalked that up to the change with being in high school. However, we noticed that she was constantly doing homework and it always seems as if she gets more every night. She would get home from practice, eat a quick dinner, and then off to her room to do 3+ hours of homework every night. We watched as she worked harder and harder to stay above water. And then we saw her drawing. A drawing that gives you a sense of how she feels. How she is being weighed down by the amount of homework she is assigned day after day. 

We saw this picture and our hearts broke. Our hearts broke because this was not the experience we wanted her to have in high school. Sure we knew she would have to work hard to do well in class, but not at the cost of other experiences and opportunities. As parents we are upset as we watch teachers pile on the work without thinking about the impact on students. 

As an educator I see the assignments come home and I get so confused as to how these assignments are helping her grasp key concepts. Instead, the assignments are often worksheets, making flash cards, completing packets, or memorizing vocabulary. I don't understand how these assignments are helping students. 

When I was an elementary school teacher I rarely assigned homework beyond some math practice and reading. I have never been a fan of worksheets or busy work. I would tell the parents of my students that homework should never be a battle at home. If their child was stuck or confused on something to let me know so I could help them in class. 

I watch my daughter experience something totally different as a student and I ask myself how is this possible. How can teachers continue to assign work and not provide students with meaningful feedback on that work? Why are they not thinking of ways to engage students in their learning? What are they hoping to gain by giving students so much work to do at home? Why are they continuing with practices that don't impact student learning? How do they where their students are in regards to the essential questions or learning targets? How do they even know who is doing the homework? 

We need to do a better job as educators. We need to think about what we are requiring of our students  in regards to homework and how that will be meaningful for our students. We need to provide students with actionable feedback about their learning and provide support for them. We need to challenge them, but not by giving them more to do. We need to stop overwhelming them. 

Saturday, January 14, 2017

That's not me...

When I was a teacher I would pride myself in building relationships with my students by eating lunch with them, playing at recess, asking questions about their interests, and attending their plays or  sporting events. I would work hard and was devoted to my students. I thought I was a good teacher. When I would see a teacher that interacted with a student in a negative way I would think that's not me. That's not the way I would treat a student.

And then I would get into a power struggle with a student about finishing their work or complying with our class guidelines. 

Being a dad of two girls is beyond awesome. I love them unconditionally. The day they both were born were two of the greatest days of my life. They make me laugh, they bring me tremendous joy, and I have truly enjoyed watching them grow into young women. In my time as a teacher and administrator I have witnessed thousands of parent-child interactions. When I would see a less than positive interaction between a child and their parent I would think that's never going to be me.  I would never treat my child that way.

And then I remember running behind as we were leaving the house for school. I was angry and frustrated with my youngest for her tardiness and not being ready to go. I felt the need to share my frustration with her as I drove her to school. It was not a positive interaction. 

I am blessed to be married for over 17 years to my best friend. She has been my number one supporter, closest confident, amazing wife, and a wonderful mother to our girls. We have been through a lot since we first got married. Starting with  moving across the country after getting married, both in graduate school while working, raising two kids, building two houses, and the both of us moving into administration. All of these things have brought us closer together. 

 Recently we witnessed two different couples  argue in public.  On the second occasion the argument took place in line at the grocery store and was about buying a box of noodles. The argument concluded with the husband storming off to go to the car and leaving his  wife behind. It was obvious that she was embarrassed and ashamed as she continued to wait in line. I thought to myself I would never do that, that's not me. I would never let an argument get to the point where I storm off.

And then I think about the times that I have argued with Jenna and how I wasn't always the best version of myself in those moments and how easily it would have been to storm off. 

Stephen Covey has this great quote - "We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behavior. Isn't that the truth! We see things in others and often think we wouldn't behave in such a way and yet we often do. 

My #Oneword 2017 is present. I really want to focus on being in the moment so that I can be the best version of myself. I want to take the time to reflect and think about my growth in becoming more present. Blogging has helped me reflect and think about my goals, work, leadership, teaching, friendships, and family. I know that I won't be perfect and that I will miss the mark more often than I would like. However, I do have the responsibility to get better. To learn from my failures. 

Saturday, December 31, 2016


This year my one word is present. I think this is a word that I have been wrestling with for a few years. As a principal, husband, father, and for a number of years a student, I have tried and failed to juggle responsibilities and being fully present at home. I often would be thinking of the next thing I needed to take care of on my list and usually that would be work related or something to do with graduate classes. For most of the my marriage and the lives of my daughters I have been in school (Master's degree in Teaching and Learning, a two year ELL endorsement program, second Master's degree, and finally an Ed.D). I have gotten used to always being pulled in different directions and not always feeling fully present at home or at work. 

While in the Ed.D. program I thought I would focus and work hard to finish in a timely matter so that I could than focus on my family. While I was busy for three years in classes and with the dissertation my girls continued to grow. I realized that they are not little girls anymore.

Aleigh is now a 14 year old freshman and Caitlin is 11 and a 6th grader. I only have three years left with Aleigh before she goes off to college and Caitlin has entered the stage where peer relationships are important to her. I need to be fully present with them so that I can really listen to them. I need to understand their hopes and dreams so I can support them. I don't have the pull of classes or a dissertation to finish to be the reasons to not be present.

This word will challenge me this year, but I honestly believe that this word has been placed on my heart. I look at my girls I am so proud of them and who they are becoming. I just don't want to have any regret that I was not always present when I was with them. 

Monday, November 28, 2016


Thankful is a word we often hear and spend time using during this holiday season. It is a word, that perhaps we should explore so that we have a better understanding of what it means and how being thankful can change your heart and perspective. Merriam-Webster's defines thankful as being glad that something has happened or not happened, that someone or something exists...

In doing a quick Google image search one can find dozens of images that contain quotes on being thankful or the meaning of thankfulness. Here is an example of one such image. 

Inline image 2

In the book Unbroken, author Laura Hillenbrand describes the life of Louis Zamperini whose B-24 bomber crashed in the Pacific Ocean during World War II. Louis, along with three other members of the crew, were adrift on a raft for 47 days before being discovered by a Japanese ship. 

Louis shared a moment of gratitude he had while he was suffering from extreme starvation and dehydration. This short Audible clip gives a brief account of his gratitude. The first time I listened to his story I was amazed at how someone who was lost at sea and little hope for rescue could show gratitude. That someone in his situation could be thankful. 

His story and ability to be thankful for the peaceful ocean and serene skies reminded me of something I heard from Andy Andrews. He was giving advice to someone who was having some struggles and feeling overwhelmed in their situation. His response was for this person to be thankful and show gratitude. He shared that she should not focus her thoughts inward, rather outward. That she can change her perspective and thinking by writing thank you cards, perhaps one or two a day, to those people in her life that had a positive impact on her. This act of giving thanks would change her perspective and outlook about her circumstances.

Jon Gordon, like Andy Andrews, believes that the practice of being thankful can change your perspective. Here are two tips he shares on the practice being thankful:

1. Take a Daily Thank You Walk - I started this practice 15 years ago and it changed my life. Take a simple 10-30 minute walk each day and say out loud what you are thankful for. This will set you up for a positive day.

2. Say Thank You at Work - When Doug Conant was the CEO of Campbell Soup he wrote approximately 30,000 thank you notes to his employees and energized the company in the process. Energize and engage your co-workers and team by letting them know you are grateful for them and their work. Organizations spend billions of dollars collectively on recognition programs but the best and cheapest recognition program of all consists of a sincere THANK YOU. And of course don't forget to say thank you to your clients and customers too.

In Hacking Leadership, Joe Sanfelippo and Tony Sinanis, discuss the importance of writing positive notes to staff members and sending cards to family members. The idea of recognizing the work of teachers and staff members and thanking them for their commitment to their students is a great way to build a positive culture.

Jeff Zoul often mentions the idea of writing two personal notes every day to staff members. This has two impacts. The first is it shows that a leader recognizes the work that a teacher is doing and celebrates that work. The second is it brings joy to the leader who is celebrating the great things that are happening in the building. This act of thankfulness brings such a positive energy and impacts the culture in a huge way. 

This year I am challenging myself to practice habits of giving thanks. To spend time thinking of all the things that I am thankful for and to show appreciation. I am challenging myself to not only give thanks during the holidays, but to continue this practice throughout the school year. It is my desire that this practice of giving thanks will become a habit and eventually become a way of thinking that I will continually embrace. 

It is my sincere hope that you can be thankful for all of the blessings that you have in your life. 

Monday, November 14, 2016

Thank you

When I was a younger student I had a really hard time. I often felt lost and unsure of what was expected. I was that student who needed his shoes tied. Who needed directions stated multiple time. The student who always had that confused look on his face. Having a late August birthday and starting kindergarten as a four year old was not the greatest thing for me. I guess it became pretty clear as the school year progressed that I was not ready for first grade. My teacher and parents made the decision that I would spend half of my day in a developmental first grade class. I ended up with an IEP. Thanks to my mom who saves everything I still have the original IEP. 

I am amazed and thankful that in 1979 there was help and support for a student like me. A student who felt lost and confused. A student who needed more time and more practice. A student who needed someone in their corner. A student who needed a teacher that cared. I can't say thank you enough to Mrs. Peters. If it wasn't for her and early intervention I am not sure I would have been able to close the gap. Her time, patience, and care made such a huge difference. It changed my path. She believed in me. 

Thanks to Mrs. Peters I exited special education and joined my peers in second grade. I was able to move through the rest of my time in school with my peers without any further intervention. I went on to become a teacher, interventionist, student services coordinator.  And now I am a principal. I earned two master's degrees and an EdD. Mrs. Peters along with many other teachers pushed me to become the person I am today. Inspired me to move beyond what I thought I could do. These dedicated teachers made a huge difference. So thank you! Thank you for everything! 

I also want to say thanks to all of the teachers that spend time investing in their students. Thank you for building relationships with your students. Thank you for caring. Thank you for investing your time and effort to make a difference. Thank you for choosing to go the extra mile. Thank your for never giving up. Thank you for being a teacher.