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Traveling Light

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.

Four days of food and shelter in just under 30 pounds.

Four days of food and shelter in just under 30 pounds.

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.

View from mile 43 of the Ozark Highlands Trail

View from mile 43 of the Ozark Highlands Trail

The Worst School Year Ever!

The worst school year ever!  That’s how I remember my last year in elementary school.  I spent a large amount of time digging ruts in the pencil holder of my desk.  I learned that by sharpening my pencil and applying just the right amount of pressure, I could make a rut deeper without breaking the point.  I was experiencing a caustic classroom environment and a burned out teacher.  I’ll call her Ms. S.

I stayed out of Ms. S’s line of sight as much as possible but a classmate named Ricky didn’t have that luxury.  He was a tall, lanky, good-looking kid.  He was outgoing, verbally clever, and an artist. None of these qualities were valued in this classroom and he quickly became the teacher’s “whipping boy.”  If a rule was violated or there was a disruption, it was assumed that Ricky had a part in it.

There is one person I have no memory of from that year…the principal.  I never saw the principal in our classroom.  I can’t remember who the principal was or what she looked like.  I wonder if she had any idea of how we were suffering.  If so, was she afraid to confront bad practices or overwhelmed with other duties?  Did she hope to address instructional issues when she found the time?

How might Ricky’s life have been different if his artistic abilities had been valued and his verbal cleverness developed?  He might have been the team member everyone wanted as we did collaborative projects but he had little value when it came to completing mind-numbing worksheets.  In his early 30s, Ricky died of a lethal combination of drugs and alcohol.  I’m not saying that his year with Ms. S was the reason for this but I do know that caring teachers can change the trajectory of a child’s life.

If she were still alive, Ms. S might be surprised to hear that I learned several lessons from her that impact my professional practice today.  I learned that teachers have the most powerful influence (positive or negative) on student learning.   I learned how important it is to visit classrooms and assess the culture and quality of interactions between teachers and students.   I learned that it’s crucial to let students, teachers, and parents know my beliefs about teaching and learning.  I also learned to watch for students like Ricky to see if their talents are valued and allowed to flourish.

A few months ago I was going through some old photographs at my parents’ home and came across the class photo from that year.   I was shocked at the appearance of Ms. S.  I remembered her as being ugly but she was actually very attractive.  We were all sitting at our desks with artificial smiles pasted across our faces.  I wondered how our lives might have been improved if the principal had been in the classroom often?  How might Ms. S’s life improved if she had been challenged to do better and involved in professional learning with other teachers?  It was a sad year in terms of learning and building relationships.  More tragic is the collective impact of the many years that these bad practices were allowed to continue?

Thankfully teachers like Ms. S are uncommon.  The majority of our teachers want to do the best they can for kids.  Our responsibility as school leaders is to see to it that teachers have the resources needed and the professional knowledge and skills necessary to be successful in their work.  When teachers are doing their best work, classrooms become joyful places where the paths of children’s lives are changed in profound and positive ways, impacting families, communities, and our nation for years to come.

Written for the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators Newsletter for August, 2013

Evaluation Leads to New Learning

Portion of my 2-page principal evaluation instrument from the mid-1990s.

Portion of my 2-page principal evaluation instrument from the mid-1990s

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.

Portion of the new 19-page principal evaluation instrument currently being piloted.

Portion of the new 19-page principal evaluation instrument currently being piloted.

Written for the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators Newsletter, July 2013

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