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What Should We Fear?

Foggy morning on the Ozark Highlands Trail

Foggy morning on the Ozark Highlands Trail

“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.

1. Dehydration

2. Heat exhaustion

3. Hypothermia

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.

Nice place to quench your thirst on the White Rock / Shores Lake Loop Trail

Nice place to quench your thirst on the White Rock / Shores Lake Loop Trail

The above was written for the January 2014 issue of The Administrator newsletter published by the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators.

Burnout?

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.

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