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The Instructional Leader this month features two articles by educators in Alma!
Page 1 Using Nearpod to Increase Engagement in Learning
Page 3 Robotics is Real World
The following link opens the publication where you can read about the use of Nearpod and Chromebooks at Alma Intermediate School and the use of robotics at Alma High School.
This publication is usually available only to members of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators, but since we have articles in this issue, we’re able to share with our parents and staff.
It’s exciting to see our teachers sharing the great work they do!
What follows is a letter I wrote to my state legislator a few weeks ago. She listened and was positive in her response and for that I’m grateful. We’ve worked hard to make the best of PARCC testing and to make it as doable as possible for teachers and students. I decided to share the following letter more widely after watching our first three days of PARCC testing.
We intend to see this testing through because much has been invested in training and preparation by students and adults. Completing this task is also our job. Hopefully, this is a learning experience that will help us avoid repeating this type of testing again.
I’ll begin with a disclaimer. I am not a statistician or state policy expert. I am a school principal with ten years of teaching experience prior to becoming a principal. My views on the cost of PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career) are from the school level, observing teachers and students every day in the classroom.
I apologize for stating the following “qualifications,” but want to make it clear that I take education seriously, expecting accountability from students, teachers, and myself. In 2006, I was selected as a National Distinguished Principal representing the state of Arkansas. I’ve completed Phase III of the Arkansas Leadership Academy’s Principal Institute and have served as president of our state’s elementary principal association and more recently, the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators in 2013-14. We, along with the other schools in our district, received rave reviews from the AdvancEd team site visit last year. We embrace accountability!
I recently wrote a short history of assessment in Arkansas for our parents, trying to frame PARCC in positive terms with hopes that we will see changes. After taking students through the Infrastructure PARCC practice, I am now truly appalled at how we are going to assess students in Arkansas. Implementing the Benchmark Exam was a challenge, but doable, and its use has helped us make great gains in Arkansas. I supported the implementation of more rigorous assessments and became deeply involved in working to improve students’ reading, writing and problem solving skills. I see value in the Common Core State Standards and have supported their implementation in spite of occasional pushback from stakeholders. The implementation of PARCC takes us to a sad place in Arkansas schools.
The cost per student for the PARCC is $23.97 plus a small administrative fee according to the PARCC website. The true costs of PARCC are incalculable and depend on many factors at the local school level.
For several years, school districts have made their best guesses on what technology would be needed for PARCC assessments, and millions of dollars have been wasted in some districts. Information from Pearson to district technology specialists has changed over time, causing false starts and inefficient use of funds as districts tried to anticipate and prepare for future needs.
The PARCC is costing our students immense losses in learning content and quality. Schools are trying to teach students specific technology skills simply so they can take the PARCC. These technology skills are not occurring at developmentally appropriate times for students. Many states have been giving computer-based assessments for several years, but these tests did not require students in the third grade to toggle between multiple pages and passages to answer a question. The PARCC requires keyboarding skills that are not appropriate for 8-12-year-old children.
The testing window is costing instructional time in an already short school year. The Performance Based Assessments (PBA) window is March 9 – April 9. It will take four weeks if the weather cooperates, for our school to work through the first round of PARCC due to limited number of computer labs and a desire to avoid exhausting students with all-day testing.
The End of Year (EOY) assessment window is April 27-May 22. It will take our school two uninterrupted weeks to complete this assessment with all of our students. Together, testing will occupy six weeks on our campus if there are no unforeseen interruptions. On any given day, rather than students acquiring technology skills needed for their future, computer labs will be occupied by students taking the PARCC. Long testing windows will cause instructional schedules to be in flux during these weeks, complicating lesson planning and the orderly sequence of instruction.
For a high school principal’s view of PARCC with a focus on instructional disruption I recommend the following: Surely You Can’t Be Serious by Mikkel Storaasli
PARCC Costs in terms of positive school environment:
School personnel are being misused because of PARCC. Our school is grades 3-5, so all grade levels are tested. Our assistant principal and literacy intervention teacher have spent countless hours developing a schedule that allows students to complete the PARCC. Our counselor has spent hours preparing for PARCC administration and training teachers to administer the PARCC. Meeting the psychological and emotional needs of students is more challenging because of the divided attention from all of these staff members.
As principal, I assist with test preparations but a larger amount of my time is dedicated to implementing a new statewide teacher evaluation system currently in its first year. During teacher observations and evaluations I have been focused on trying to provide encouragement for students and teachers facing an unreasonably difficult and developmentally inappropriate high-stakes tests.
Charlotte Danielson’s comment in Education Week about these new assessments is revealing: I’m concerned that we may be headed for a train wreck there. The test items I’ve seen that have been released so far are extremely challenging. If I had to take a test that was entirely comprised of items like that, I’m not sure that I would pass it—and I’ve got a bunch of degrees. So I do worry that in some schools we’ll have 80 percent or some large number of students failing. That’s what I mean by train wreck.
Go to the following link for information on the readability levels of PARCC and why most children will “fail” the PARCC.
Other countries we envy are not administering PARCC-like assessments. They are elevating teacher professionalism and pedagogical skills. Below are a couple of excerpts from Linda Darling-Hammond, summarizing differences between education in the United States and Finland, pointing out that our practices are in almost direct contrast. She begins by describing the challenges of diversity in Finland. We usually hear cries that other countries don’t deal with diversity, but Linda Darling-Hammond argues a different view in “What We Can Learn From Finland’s Successful School Reform.”
Although there was a sizable achievement gap among students in the 1970s, strongly correlated to socio-economic status, this gap has been progressively reduced as a result of curriculum reforms started in the 1980s. By 2006, Finland’s between-school variance on the PISA science scale was only 5 percent, whereas the average between-school variance in other OECD nations was about 33 percent. (Large between-school variation is generally related to social inequality.)
The overall variation in achievement among Finnish students is also smaller than that of nearly all the other OECD countries. This is true despite the fact that immigration from nations with lower levels of education has increased sharply in recent years, and there is more linguistic and cultural diversity for schools to contend with. (Sahlberg, 2009)
In the United States, teacher education is somewhat haphazard and lacking in rigor and relevance. Educators in the U.S. are routinely belittled and disrespected, especially in the absence of their voice where educational policies and practices are concerned. The following summary by Darling-Hammond describes the contrast:
Leaders in Finland attribute the gains to their intensive investments in teacher education—all teachers receive three years of high-quality graduate level preparation completely at state expense—plus a major overhaul of the curriculum and assessment system designed to ensure access to a “thinking curriculum” for all students. A recent analysis of the Finnish system summarized its core principles as follows:
- Resources for those who need them most.
- High standards and supports for special needs.
- Qualified teachers.
- Evaluation of education.
- Balancing decentralization and centralization.” (Laukkanen, 2008, p. 319)
We have been the envy of other countries because of our students’ innovation and creativity. If we continue down our present hyper-assessment path, we will lose the qualities that make us competitive on the world economic and political stage. A first step will be to take a long and serious look at how we assess student learning and move quickly to bring balanced approaches to measuring student growth without forcing out creativity and the joy of learning.
Day three of a backpacking trip in December was cold and wet. It was also the day I found that my old raincoat was no longer waterproof. Early that morning we crossed a swollen Sprits Creek on the Ozark Highlands Trail. I took two photos, packed my camera away in a waterproof stuff sack, and never took it out again for the rest of the day.
That day was not eventful other than that scary early morning creek crossing. We just hunkered down and walked through thirteen miles of cold and constant rain. Being a compulsive photographer, I have 40-50 pictures from every other day yet, my memories of that third day with only two photos are among my most vivid. I would later see that cold day as one of several peak experiences on that thirteen night trip.
Two later events stick out in my memory. The first was a beautiful sunny day when we climbed up the Narrows (sometimes called the “Narrs”). It was like a sidewalk in the sky with sheer bluffs on either side. Views of “skull bluff” and the Buffalo River far below were a thrill to see.
On our next to the last day, we were within the last ten miles of our 180-mile trek when we realized we were off course. We like to say we weren’t lost, just confused for an hour or so. We backtracked and discovered our route with great relief because daylight was growing short. That night we camped in a beautiful cedar grove close to Collier Homestead. This experience of being “lost” and then found formed another peak experience.
On our last day, I walked slowly, not from fatigue but from a desire to make the experience last. We even added a couple of miles that were not part of our original itinerary because we wanted more time on the trail. Every step felt like a special gift. I found myself mentally planning my next trip, already excited about tackling another trail.
The memory of that pleasant last day and those earlier “peak” experiences became a lens through which I viewed the totality of that winter backpacking trip. Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman describes this phenomenon as the “Peak/End Rule.” He explains that each of us has an “experiencing self” and a “remembering self.” Our “experiencing self” lives in the present. Our “remembering self” determines how we interpret experiences based on a few peak events and how the experience ends. The interpretations of our “remembering self” also influence future decisions.
With this “peak/ending rule” in mind, the month of May becomes critical in schools. We sometimes hear phrases like “winding down the year” or “coasting to the end” but these are destructive approaches. These last weeks have a strong impact on how our students remember the totality of this school year and future decisions about learning.
I have very clear memories of my worst teacher. The “peak” experiences in her classroom were periodic emotional outbursts and strong negative messages. There were no community building rituals or end-of-year celebrations. Fortunately her negative impact was somewhat mitigated by good teachers. My fourth grade teacher, Ms. Break, supplied memorable “peak” experiences as she performed oral readings for our class or connected with us as individuals when coaching us on schoolwork. While she had a stern streak, I have only fond memories of her. Years later as an adult, I would greet Ms. Break as if I were still in elementary school, so excited to see my teacher. I remember fourth grade as a good year.
Daniel Kahneman says, “The remembering self is a storyteller. And that really starts with a basic response of our memories – it starts immediately. Our memory tells us stories, that is, what we get to keep from our experiences is a story.” Look for opportunities to create peak and positive ending experiences so the learners in your school will tell themselves positive stories about this year. The results will be students and adults who are excited about continuing their learning this summer and into next year. Students and teachers will remember you favorably, but more importantly, you might shape future decisions about learning that will impact many lives for years to come.
Written for the May issue of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators’ newsletter.
Sometimes what you know can hurt you. During a wilderness first aid course I recently completed, the instructors spent a fair amount of class time debunking ineffective first aid actions and replacing them with evidence based actions and protocols. Many of my assumptions about first aid were wrong and I had a lot of unlearning to do.
The trainers had a habit of saying, “The body counts are in and that’s no longer the right way to treat that emergency.” In other words, new evidence suggests new practices. Will we learn from the evidence and change our practice or continue to do what has been shown not to work? Will the victim of an emergency be helped by our involvement or will we make things worse?
My first session in the Leadership Academy Principals’ Institute was all about unlearning. I’d entered the principalship with some misconceptions about what was important in school leadership. I was overwhelmed when faced with all that I needed to unlearn! This was a painful and sometimes embarrassing process. I describe the leader I was back then by saying, “He looked and acted like a principal. Folks liked him and he cared about the kids but he wasn’t anywhere close to being what the teachers and students needed.” This was hard to admit, but that admission was necessary before growth and new learning could occur.
In last month’s AAEA newsletter, Dr. Abernathy challenged us to think outside of the box and apply for waivers to enable us to implement new and different approaches to helping our students. He challenged us to look at barriers to innovation and apply to have those barriers removed.
As I began to work with teachers on this I found that I needed to unlearn ways of thinking that have become automatic over the last few years. We’ve always said, “We can’t consider looping classes from fourth to fifth grade because of certification issues.” But now the question to ask is, “Why not?” It took effort to suspend judgment long enough to let an idea float for a moment without moving immediately to constraints of present rules, time, or money. As we worked together, we found several innovations that didn’t even require waivers. Thinking in terms of “what if” and “why not” allowed those ideas to present themselves and we look forward to continuing this process.
A great educational leader speaking to our staff a couple of years ago said, “You would be appalled to learn how some children are treated right here in our own state.” Part of what he meant was that some adults who should care the most about children are harsh and cruel in their interactions. He was also referring to poor treatment in the form of ineffective instruction. Evidence has shown that certain teaching methods are ineffective yet we often see these practices continuing. Being stuck in a classroom under an ineffective teacher is the ultimate in cruelty. If the “body counts” are in and the evidence shows that a practice is ineffective, it’s time to make a change!
Changing what we do with students at the point of delivery in the classroom is difficult. Changing teaching practices requires a willingness to unlearn and a deliberate effort to do something in a new way. There will be costs in time, money, and emotions, but the rewards for persistence are great.
When we’re moving toward more effective practices and feel pushback, we must be relentless and keep plugging away. We can work with early adopters and the big middle of our staff to move forward, giving resistors limited attention. If we provide the conditions for change and allow teachers to gain the necessary learning, we’ll reach a tipping point and see acceleration in positive change.
During classroom walkthroughs recently, I enjoyed seeing the results of a challenging change we made in teaching practices over the last four years. If I tried to take teachers back to their previous ways of instruction in this area, they’d run me out of the building, and rightly so. I realized that the change was real and now part of how we do things. Making this change was hard but seeing the benefits to children and adults is rewarding.
When we feel resistance to change, we must ensure that we’re doing the work needed to support that change but, we must not fall into the trap of believing all change must be slow and incremental. Sometimes we must have the courage to say, “ENOUGH! The body counts are in. We’re stopping this practice and beginning to do that practice instead. It’s time to unlearn, relearn, and change!”
Written for the April issue of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators newsletter
Two sixteenth notes followed by two eighth notes. The interval was a perfect fourth, though I didn’t know that at the time. What I did know, at twelve years old, was that I was hooked on that sound. I leaned over to my mother and said, “I want to play those.” I was pointing at the timpani, sometimes called kettledrums. That concert changed the course of my life.
There would be other musical high points along the way, like stepping close to a passing high school band during a parade so I could feel the vibrations of the drums against my chest. Later, as a member of that same high school band, I played timpani with a tingling up my spine as our low brass opened up on the First Suite in E-Flat by Holst. What a sound!
As a senior in high school with a well-developed defense mechanism against showing any emotion, I stood in an All State Choir rehearsal unable to sing for a few seconds as tears welled up in my eyes. The conductor gave me an understanding glance. I’m sure he’d seen other young musicians with similar reactions when immersed in such beautiful sounds for the first time.
Music was where I found everything relevant. It was like a doorway to learning in many areas. In music and the fine arts, I was able to apply learning from other classes in real-world situations. Music teachers provided some individualized learning which allowed me to stay engaged in subjects that I might have otherwise rejected. Music was where I built positive relationships with caring and competent adults. Music was where I formed lasting friendships around collective dedication to shared tasks and goals.
I’m thankful that music grabbed my imagination when it did. My fear is that children who need this opportunity today may miss out because of a narrowing curriculum in response to high-stakes accountability. Rather than narrowing, we need to broaden options while deepening the learning and avoiding the temptation of thinking greater standardization will result in higher standards.
If the fine arts are crowded out in the name of raising standards, we’re losing ground and possibly missing many students who could help us compete where innovation and creativity are needed. P. L. Thomas, Associate Professor of Education at Furman University said, “China seems poised to recognize the failure of standardization, while the US continues to call for more and more standardization. That should be shocking.”
I’m thankful that my parents took me to that concert when I was twelve and that there was an orchestra to hear. I’m thankful that I found an area I wanted to explore deeply; one which would ignite so many other areas of learning. I’m thankful that I work in a school district that recognizes the value of instrumental music, vocal music, theater, technical theater, dance, and the visual arts. I’ve seen the impact of the fine arts on our children and on the fiber of our community.
My hope is that, as we work to equip our children to compete on a national and international stage, we will not narrow the learning in an effort to show better test scores but insist on allowing students to explore the arts and creativity through as many disciplines of learning as possible. We cannot afford to do less!
Thank you to my school music teachers. I could sit down and visit with any of these individuals like old friends.
Rogers Junior High (El Dorado): John Keane and Bob Endel (band) These guys worked with me patiently when I was at my most challenging age. I’m sorry about the firecracker incident…. and the gas heater incident…. and the drum stick/window incident…. and….
El Dorado High School: Hal Cooper (band & music theory) Mr. Cooper made us play a lot better than we deserved to play and he trusted me with some challenging percussion parts. Jim Foxx (choir) Mr. Foxx prepared us well for region choir auditions and made it possible for us to have some great musical experiences. Morris Graham (band) I didn’t have Mr. Graham as director but he gave encouragement to us all. Bob Adams and Dr. Gary Cook (private percussion lessons) Bob Adams taught me drum rudiments and introduced me to George Lawrence Stone’s Stick Control, a book I’d work with for years. I drove to Louisiana Tech each week my senior year for lessons with Dr. Gary Cook. He never worked with me less than an hour even though I was only paying for 30-minute lessons. He also gave me a lot of mallets as we worked together. He was a true musician and master of all things percussion.
Henderson State University:
Wendell Evanson (band and conducting), Mr. Evanson gave us some amazing music. He was relentless in pursuing excellence in all that he did. He was a master with the baton and a great encourager. He seemed to know when you needed a boost.
Doug DeMorrow (percussion), Doug worked on my musicianship and was patient with me. As a student, I was his first senior recital at HSU. Doug would later become quite well known for his beautifully crafted DeMorrow marimbas and other keyboard instruments. He’s a master musician and craftsman.
John Webb was my supervising teacher when it came time to do student teaching (now called internship). John was a great musician and teacher. He was patient with me as a beginning teacher and encouraged me to build relationships with and learn from great music teachers. He was a person of character, someone I could look up to and try to emulate.
Wes Branstine (jazz band and low brass). Dr. Branstine gave me private lessons during the summer after I realized I needed help in teaching brass players. He wouldn’t let me pay him. Curiously, I began to have good low brass sections after those lessons.
Written for the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators March newsletter.
“Aren’t you afraid of the bears?” This is a question I’m often asked. It’s usually followed by, “And what about the snakes?” I’m far from fearless, but bears and snakes do not even make my top five when backpacking.
Here are my wilderness fears in priority order.
2. Heat exhaustion
4. Bee stings or tick bites
5. Falls (especially at creek crossings)
Fear is a good motivator and can keep us out of trouble, but irrational fear can only paralyze. I know someone (an excellent teacher) who will not step foot into the woods because of fear. She is sure that bears and snakes are hiding behind trees, ready to attack. While I’m respectful of bears and don’t sleep with a raw steak in my tent, I would consider it a treat to see an Arkansas black bear at a reasonable distance. I was once enjoying a freshwater spring and noticed a snake a few feet away curled up in the leaves. I decided to move quietly down the trail, but the image of that beautiful copperhead made the hike memorable.
Like my friend’s obsessive fear of wildlife, I think we educators sometimes fear the wrong things. I’d like to retrieve those sleepless nights caused by my irrational fears. Are we ready for Standards Review? What if we worded some ACSIP actions incorrectly? What if I don’t pass Phase II of TESS? I could go on, but you get the idea. Obsessing on these areas didn’t solve anything. In some cases, they distracted me from more important areas that impact students.
As an educator, here are a few legitimate fears I have (in no particular order):
1. Spending time and energy on the wrong things.
2. Overlooking or missing students who are in need.
3. Making a mistake when hiring a new teacher.
4. Failing to help those around me grow professionally and personally.
5. Reaching a point where I’m not learning and growing.
Preparation and planning can make a difference when facing legitimate fears. Want to avoid dehydration in the woods? Pack a water filter and study your map to see where water sources are along your route. Sometimes route adjustments are necessary to avoid water shortages while hiking. The same holds true as an educator. We must prepare and make adjustments based on things that matter.
If I fear spending time and energy on the wrong things, then I should work with my staff so that we base actions on priorities and evidence. I must learn to prune out actions that don’t move students and teachers forward. I should speak up for AAEA legislative positions that help us avoid directives that take away from the essential work of teaching and learning.
If I fear that I might fail to help those around me grow professionally, I should involve staff in preparing their professional learning to ensure that it is relevant to their professional growth plans. We must ensure that adult learning facilitates children’s learning. I can make my teachers’ professional learning a priority and recognize their growth.
Being involved in the AAEA can alleviate my fear of becoming stagnant in my own professional learning. I’m often surprised when I trace an effective action back to its beginning and realize it was based on something I learned while networking with peers through the AAEA, and my two constituent organizations.
We’re all motivated by fear to some extent, and that’s probably healthy. Will we be paralyzed by irrational fear, hunkering down and hoping for the best? If we’re motivated by legitimate fears that will negatively impact students and teachers, then thoughtful actions could reduce those fears and help us all move in positive directions. We might also get a better night’s sleep.
The above was written for the January 2014 issue of The Administrator newsletter published by the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators.
Written for the December 2013 newsletter of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators.
I was sitting next to a wise and experienced superintendent at AAEA in August. During a short conversation he said, “I’m concerned about the principals in our state. With everything that is coming down on them right now, I’m afraid we’re going to see burnout.” This comment caught my attention and privately I thought, “Not me. I’ve never had a problem with burnout.” Funny how those little arrogant thoughts come back to bite you. While I have not experienced serious burnout, I have felt completely overwhelmed and inadequate at times.
You may have experienced taking a drink from a garden hose as a child when the pressure turned out to be greater than expected. You ended up with a nose and throat full of water. As an educator, I feel as if I’m drinking from three firehoses at once. My “big three” are Common Core State Standards (CCSS), Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC), and Teacher Enhancement and Support System (TESS). I thought there was a fourth firehose with LEADS (the principal evaluation system), but I told my superintendent after the training that I downgraded it to the garden hose variety. In light of the “big three,” it just does not rise to the same level.
Two of these “big three” firehoses have the potential to positively impact education in Arkansas if implemented in an intelligent and balanced way. My belief in the benefits of PARCC is on hold for now. Any one of these “big three” should be a focus for 3-4 years to ensure thorough and clear implementation, but that is not an option.
I find great value in Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching, but even the piloting phase of TESS seems rushed and sometimes unclear. I do not see this as the fault of the leaders of TESS, but regret that the law does not provide for a more gradual rollout. It would also have been nice to hear directly (on video or in person) from some of the scorers (those education experts sitting in the corners of video lessons we watched).
On our campus, we’re presently doing walkthroughs, informal (formative) and formal (summative) observations. Going through the process with a novice teacher recently was very rewarding. Her reflections on the lesson observed were specific and insightful. We’ll continue to revisit her Professional Growth Plan and formative observations throughout this school year, but just the formal observation, sorting and scoring evidence, and pre and post conferences occurred over a four-day period and took a number of hours.
With practice, we’ll get faster and this is where a major portion of our time should be spent, but I fear the process will become rushed and less effective as time grows short. To add another challenge to the mix, it is important to maintain positive relationships with teachers as we implement TESS. They are overwhelmed, too.
In general, CCSS and PARCC both warrant much greater volumes of professional development than we have been able to invest. Over the last two years, our teachers have spent approximately 100 hours on CCSS and PARCC, yet we’ve only scratched the surface.
For me, PARCC looms out there like some great unknown. By studying sample items, we get some indication of the type of challenges we’re looking at, but great uncertainties surround the administration and readiness for these assessments. Charlotte Danielson’s comment in Education Week about the new assessments is revealing.
I’m concerned that we may be headed for a train wreck there. The test items I’ve seen that have been released so far are extremely challenging. If I had to take a test that was entirely comprised of items like that, I’m not sure that I would pass it—and I’ve got a bunch of degrees. So I do worry that in some schools we’ll have 80 percent or some large number of students failing. That’s what I mean by train wreck.
Some large strides have been made in the past when we faced difficult issues. I am hopeful that we’ll see new gains in our future as we struggle through the present trials. The task here is to do good work and stay focused on what is important and under our influence. Nothing fights burnout like doing a few things well and having a positive impact on others.
When I feel overwhelmed I like to do the following:
1. Visit the self-contained special education classroom with our most severe special needs students. As I witness the magic of teachers working with students struggling with major physical and mental challenges, my perspective comes back into focus.
2. Sit down at lunch with students and have a conversation. From these visits, I learn what is, or is not, working for them and what they are thinking.
3. Take action! My mother often says, “When in doubt, take a step.” When that nagging sense of being overwhelmed tugs at my mind, I look at my plan and get busy. There is no time for burnout when you are doing work that matters and meets the needs of others.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, you have plenty of company. Gain strength and encouragement from your peers in the AAEA. When you reach the point of frustration, call a trusted educator and express that frustration. I’ve done this on at least two occasions this year and found it very helpful. If you don’t have an action plan for fighting burnout, make one. Keep it simple and focused on where you can make the biggest difference for students and their teachers.
Written for the AAEA Newsletter for October, 2013
While hiking the Ozark Highlands Trail, my buddies and I came across a couple of college students. It was their first time on the trail and one said, “I’m carrying 60-pounds in this pack!” Surprised, I said, “Why?” He seemed a little confused by my response, and I then realized he was expecting me to be impressed but I felt only sympathy.
When we met these two guys on the next day, they were sprawled out in the middle of the trail totally exhausted. I casually mentioned that the forest road we were crossing went straight to Highway 7 where there was cell phone coverage. A few minutes later, I noticed them slumping down that road with their 60-pound packs, wisely cutting their trip short.
Hiking on, I began to think about some of my first outings when I carried about 45-pounds, equivalent to the World Book Encyclopedia volumes A-S. With experience, I found that some items were not essential or could be replaced with lighter items. Over time, my pack weight came down to 25-30 pounds depending on the season. My wife says my obsession with packing light saves money because when she suggests a new piece of equipment, I typically reply it wouldn’t be worth the added weight.
As an educator, I often feel like other people are trying to drop stuff in my pack, especially during legislative sessions. Successful organizations maintain dexterity and the ability to move fast, but our schools often stumble under the weight of requirements that can limit our ability to respond to the needs of students and teachers.
Sometimes, I spread out the items from my pack and try to eliminate what isn’t essential. I like Swiss Army knives and used to carry one. I found that a small single blade knife was all I needed and saved several ounces. It would be nice to have a complete set of cooking pots, but one small well-designed pot will work.
As my pack-weight came down my enjoyment went up. No longer walking head down looking at the trail in front of my nose, I could hold my head up and see the beauty around me. I became more responsive to changes in the terrain and could see land features that helped me keep my bearings. Challenges that would have been insurmountable with a 45-pound load were easily climbed with the lighter pack.
As educators, we have a responsibility to scrutinize everything we do in our schools to be sure our time and resources are benefiting students. Ounces add up. There may be practices we can drop or change. Some essential tasks might be better placed in someone else’s pack. We might develop leadership capacity in our schools by thoughtfully placing important items with others to complement their talents and strengths. “We’ve always done it this way” is not a good rationale for loading a pack or setting priorities.
Earl Schafer, the first person to thru-hike the 2000-mile Appalachian Trail said, “Carry as little as possible but choose that little with care.” It’s important that we, as educators, have the flexibility to pack what we need for our particular schools while avoiding having outside forces load us up with weight that doesn’t serve the needs of our students and teachers. Our involvement in the AAEA is critical to this process. The AAEA’s strength comes from the involvement and collective voices of its membership.
Bring legislators and community leaders into your school. Share your vision, your strengths, and the needs of your students. Share your expertise and make yourself a resource for state leaders as they grapple with matters impacting schools. Use the AAEA to stay informed, and be ready to speak up on issues when needed. These actions will help ensure that we carry what we need while traveling light enough to move our students, teachers, and schools toward success.
Ever had a sinking feeling in your stomach while meeting with a supervisor? I had only been a principal for a couple of years and it was time for me to meet with my then superintendent, Mr. Bob Watson. He spent what felt like two hours working through an evaluation instrument using a 1-7 point scoring scale with 7 as the highest.
I was scoring fairly high on a number of areas and was feeling pretty good until he got to instructional topics. Those scores were lower. Mr. Watson gave good explanations of the instructional leadership needed. He must have seen the despair in my face because he expressed confidence that I would be able to focus on instruction and make it better.
And focus I did! I became obsessive about teaching and learning. I visited with and observed teachers who were masterful in their craft and tried to determine what made them successful. I found myself drawn to principals and school leaders who were focused on instruction. I visited some of their schools and copied their practices as best I could. I started spending lots of time in classrooms.
My reading habits changed as I became more interested in teaching strategies. My secretary at the time often laughed at the titles of my book purchases when they shipped into the office. She thought they must be very boring. It wasn’t long before I heard her telling parents on the phone how important it was to be on time because of missed instruction. My focus on instruction was contagious and was becoming a priority for teachers and even our secretary.
I had a new purpose for my involvement in professional organizations and I eliminated those that didn’t further growth in understanding of teaching and learning. The AAEA (Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators) became a hub for my professional learning. Those were fascinating times of discovery. This often bumpy and uphill path of learning continues through the present but it all goes back to that very difficult conversation my superintendent had with me about my need to improve as an instructional leader.
I recently pulled that early evaluation from my file and was astonished to learn that I hadn’t accurately remembered my scores. As I looked at the form my superintendent held that day I realized that the scores were not nearly as important as the conversation and the on-going support I received to pursue my learning and improve my practice as a principal.
Fast forward a few years and we are now scoring lessons observed with detailed rubrics describing various levels of practice. The rubrics for teachers and administrators are challenging but clear and add observable evidence to levels of performance.
If implemented in an environment of trust, these new methods of evaluation hold the possibility of being catalysts for improving instruction and school leadership. Professional learning and trusting relationships are the essential ingredients. While the scores do matter, the conversations and relationships are where real improvements in practice occur.
On a personal note: Thank you to Bob Watson for being willing to have that “courageous conversation” with me so many years ago. You set me on a positive path of learning that I still find challenging and exciting.
Written for the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators Newsletter, July 2013
Forgive the shameless self-promotion but I wanted to post this so friends, relatives, and especially my mom would have access to it. It is pulled from the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators Newsletter. Michelle spent a good portion of a day visiting our campus and then wrote this feature. I appreciated her positive writeup.
By Michelle Hostetler, Communications Specialists for Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators
When Jim Warnock was hired as an elementary principal in 1993, he knew he needed three things: church pews in each hallway, a notebook, and time in classrooms. He had watched his mentor, Glynn Calahan, use these to become a successful principal who made a difference in the lives of her students. Ms. Calahan had a church pew on each floor of her school where she would sit with her notebook that contained information on her students (test scores, etc.). She would visit with students there praising them for good work and, when needed, encouraging them to do better. Mr. Warnock followed in her footsteps, purchasing old pews from a neighborhood church and proceeded to use the techniques Ms. Calahan used, including spending time in each classroom.
Jim started his career in education as a music teacher. His love of music started in high school where the teachers and students had a strong bond. His teachers’ hands-on approach to instruction was an inspiration to him. He knew that he wanted to go to college for music and he “didn’t think that being a rock star was going to work out” so he went into music education. Music continues to be part of his life as he plays drums in his church orchestra — maybe still working on that rock star dream??
Music isn’t Jim’s only passion. He also enjoys writing and photography. He uses his writing skills to communicate regularly with parents and staff through newsletters and memos. He has also had three articles published in the Urban Magazine, based in Fort Smith. He blogs and posts to a Facebook page for the Lake Alma Trail and the Ozark Highland Trail Association, where he serves as a board member. His love of hiking and the outdoors was evident when asked what he would be doing if not in his current position and his response was “hiking the Appalachian Trail.” Beautiful outdoor pictures line the wall of the hallway outside his office, all which were taken by Jim.
The respect the Alma Intermediate School staff has for Jim was easy to see while visiting the school. And his appreciation of the staff was also visible. He noted that he has an excellent assistant principal, Suzy Ferguson. He knows that he can rely on her to take care of things at school when his out. That allows him to participate in professional organizations such as AAEA, where he is a very active member.
“I would like to be remembered as someone who was committed to his students, teachers, and his family. Someone who continued to learn and grow. I want others to remember me the way I remember one of my mentors, Glynn Calahan. She recognized and reinforced the strengths in others and helped them build on those strengths.” – Jim Warnock
What is your favorite thing about your job?
“Helping facilitate professional growth which then has an impact on students.”
What is the most challenging part of your job?
“Helping teachers navigate change and finding time to have conversations on deep knowledge in teaching and learning.”
What do you enjoy doing in your time off?
“Hiking and photography.”
Advice for someone considering a similar career:
“Look at the reason you want to do it. If you are aspiring to be a principal and you are not excited about teaching, you should probably do something other than education. I also always advise an aspiring principal to check out the superintendent before taking a job. The key to success as a principal is the superintendent you get to work for.” Jim commented that he has had the opportunity to work with three awesome superintendents: Bob Watson, Charles Dyer, and David Woolly.
What is something you are proud of?
“I am proud to know that I am the principal of a school that I wish I could have attended when I was a kid.”
If you weren’t in your current position, what would you be doing?
“Hiking the Appalachian Trail.”
Where do you see yourself in five years?
“Still trying to figure out how to be a good principal.”
“When in doubt, take a step.”
One word to sum you up:
“Jim Warnock represents what a great principal should be. He is first and foremost the instructional leader in his school. The great majority of his day is spent actively engaged with teachers and students in the learning process. And the results show!”
— David Woolly, Alma Superintendent