Thursday, November 8, 2012

APB for the love of learning

The question is never too far from my heart and lips.  My mind searches for solutions more often than not. However, a few specific events occurred yesterday that again brought the age-old question up yet again.

Where has the love of learning gone?

At faculty meeting, the 11th-12th grade teachers met to have an open discussion regarding best practices and concerns. Overwhelmingly, the teachers felt defeated and exhausted. They desire to teach and build relationships with the students, but the apathy and lack of concern for things academic zap all their energy. While a few teachers and I attempted to suggest ways to deal with these situations, I still left the meeting frustrated. How can educators reignite the fire for learning when it seems to be completely burnt out?

While these thoughts are stirring in my head, I had several conversations with my 7-year-old daughter. We have had a number of discussions this week about voting and she even made up a "voting game" where all family members need to vote on favorite colors, favorite food, etc. She not only listened to my explanation of the voting process, but she practiced it to see what it was like.

Mackenzie lost a tooth last night. Before going to bed, she set her tooth in a spot on her dresser for the tooth fairy. About 15 minutes after we put her to bed, she was at the top of the steps asking how to spell "fairy" so she could write a note to the tooth fairy. When I went to her room later to check it out, there were 12 questions for the tooth fairy to answer including "what do you do with all our teeth?" and "Can you come to my class?". There were 12 spots listed for the answers and the pencil left right next to the note for ease of use. It wasn't enough for the tooth fairy to simply visit. Mackenzie's curiosity and desire to learn allowed her to investigate and she was lucky enough to get answers.

With these situations occurring within 24 hours, they each meshed in my head to create one question: What occurs that the 17-year-old has lost the curiosity that once existed when he/she was 7?

I do not have the answers, but am filled with more questions. Is America's schooling system promoting the downfall of the love of learning by making each student fit in a predetermined box? Do elements like the Common Core aid or deplete the curiosity in our students in all grades? What can teachers do to rekindle that flame that once existed?

Thursday, September 27, 2012

On the lookout: PD is everywhere!

As an educator, I like to go through my normal life seeing opportunities to learn and grow in my profession. I find Professional Development opportunities everywhere. Let me give you today's example:

I began attending a Spin class at my local gym at 5:45am on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I am not at all the epitome of health, but I am striving to get more healthy and this type of exercise is fun for me. Not only are the frequent members fun to be with, but the instructor, Mary, is a wonderful encouragement.

Watching Mary teach the class this morning reminded me of several qualities needed in a great teacher.

Mary takes the times to build relationships. She knows those of us who are "regulars" and also takes time to get to know each newbie as well. It is more than just knowing our names. I often encounter Mary asking others about their ill family members, their jobs, or their children. These relationships grow over time as they would in the classroom.

Each member of the class is at a different level physically, so Mary differentiates her instruction. This is done in several ways. She offers to assist new members adjust the height of their seat and handlebars, she gives a range of gears so some can cycle with less resistance, and she will often say "if you need to slow things down, go ahead." While pushing us to our physical limit, Mary also reminds us of "proper form" - the basics of cycling. All of these are ways that both newbies and "regulars" are taught and led. When I encounter my students, I need to remember that they all learn differently and are at various levels in their learning. I need to differentiate my instruction to meet their needs.

One element necessary in an exercise class is encouragement. So often we beat up ourselves when we don't feel like we can go any longer. We find other projects to steal our workout time. Mary is consistently encouraging us that we are "worth the effort" and to not "cheat ourselves" by giving up. She not only encourages, but I truly think she believes in each one of us. Each student in my classroom needs encouragement and for me to believe in them and their abilities.

Lastly, Mary presents herself as a participant, not as the expert. Obviously in an exercise class, the instructor participates, but Mary goes above and beyond saying things like "We'll get there together!" If a new person is struggling she empathizes and lets them know she understands and has felt like that in the past. This is a wonderful reminder for teachers to be a life-long learner participating in the process. 

As you go throughout your day, be on the lookout for opportunities to learn and become a better teacher. These experiences are everywhere - maybe even in your daily routine.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Collaborate with grade level teachers

This past Wednesday, we devoted our faculty meeting time to 7th-8th grade teachers.  I e-mailed them prior to the meeting with some questions to consider leading up to the discussion including classroom management techniques, technology integration, and topics we could collaborate on with various disciplines. The discussion went quite well considering it was our first time doing something like this. One goal we had was to keep the discussion focused on the grade levels in general rather than individual students. We certainly didn't want it to become a gripe session.

One excellent discussion topic focused on the need for more critical thinking activities in the middle school. While understanding this is a difficult task, we all admitted it is a serious need as we train our students for high school and beyond. This type of discussion could have been lectured to the teachers or sent in a hasty e-mail. However, by bringing it up in discussion, the ownership of adding critical thinking turned from administration to the teachers. That ownership will assist the teachers as they endeavor to enhance their classes.

Fellow administrators, I encourage this interaction with a group of teachers whether broken up by department, grade level, or teams. We are planning 9th-10th grade and 11th-12th grade meetings in the coming weeks. If you embark on this, let me know how it goes.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

No office day??

My leadership style as a vice principal has always been to be out in the hallways, classrooms, and cafeteria. I am in this role in education because I love teachers and students so I strongly desire to spend my whole day with them.

Now that I've been in school for 10 days, my desk and office space feel very neglected and it shows. Walking in my office you will be greated by piles of paperwork that haven't been touched and instead has been tossed on the desk to "deal with later". With the implementation of an iPad, I am successful in replying to e-mails in a timely fashion as I walk from one classroom to the next. However, due to the paperwork issue, I am beginning to feel the stress.

My solution? I have made an appointment on my calendar this afternoon with myself and my office. My secretary is able to see my calendar as well so I entitled it "locking myself in this office to find my desk.... shhhhh....." For that hour, my door will be locked, blinds closed, and I will not answer the phone or e-mail while I deal with the piles. I need to view this as a one hour chore that needs to get tackled so I can spend the bulk of my time out and about in the school environment.

Fellow administrators who share my philosophy of getting out of your office, do you have any helpful tips regarding getting this paperwork done? I'd love to learn from you!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

What's In A Name?

I hope I am not the only administrator who goes through this. I work with the same students for 180 days, we experience a 10 week summer vacation, and all of a sudden I forget a ton of names. At Open House before this school year started, I was assisting at the check-in table. Students assumed I would remember who they were, but I often forgot or confused one student with another.

Now we are "back in the swing of things" completing day 5 of school. I am working actively to recover my memory of student names. Here are some of my strategies:

1. Introduce myself to new students. I am already familiar with their names so it is simply a matter of connecting the names with faces at this point.

2. In between classes, I am in the hallways. As students pass me, it is like a game of mental gymnastics reminding myself silently of their names. When I find one I can't recall, I refer to last year's yearbook to refresh my memory.

3. I try to greet (by name) as many students as I can throughout the day.This allows the students to know I'm making an attempt.

I was incredibly encouraged this week when a new 7th grader overheard me greeting students and said "Wow. You really know a lot of people."

Why would I focus on this and encourage other school administrators to do the same? Using a student's name indicates that I care enough to know who they are. The name is the first step toward a positive relationship with each student and I look forward to truly knowing as many students as possible.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Week 1 in Review

Our students began classes on Wednesday. I already feel like we never left in June as we are back in full swing.  One of my personal missions this year is to do a little reflection every Friday evening on the good, bad, and ugly from the past week.

I spent a total of 3 hours in my office over the past 3 school days. This is certainly a victory. The addition of an iPad and new wifi access throughout the school building allow me to get e-mails and other communications done while on the go. I was able to visit classrooms, step into the hallway and answer a few e-mails, and then jump into another classroom.

My AP English students will keep me on my toes even more this year. This is the second year I'm back in the classroom once a day to teach AP. I love the interaction and ability to remember what it is to be a teacher. This year's class is very different from last year's (whom I loved dearly) and it is already quite evident that I will be challenged with stepping up my game this year. I view this as a positive experience for me personally as well as professionally.

A veteran staff is a HUGE blessing.   For the first time in a number of years, we have a stable staff. The only new teacher is a long-term sub filling in for a veteran on maternity leave. Working with an experienced staff who already know the school inside and out causes the beginning of the year to be smooth sailing. Last year I was anxiously roaming from one classroom to the next checking on our six new teachers. This year, every room I step into feels like a well-oiled machine.

Calm spirits and creativity are vital tools for every situation. As with any school, situations have come up already that seem "impossible". Classes of 30 students learning geometry in the auditorium, books mistakenly not ordered over the summer, laptops needing a last-minute update from IT, new iPads in an English class, buses from 14 districts attempting to transport our students to and from school. Each situation requires me to remain calm and use the creative problem solving I've practiced time and time again over the past five years in administration. Are all situations worked out? No, but we are making progress.

It's never too early to get some rest. Yes, it is only the end of day three with students, yet I have found myself going to bed by 9:30 or 10:00 and don't apologize for it. There were still tasks to be accomplished, but I value my rest. Rather than spend this entire weekend lesson planning and working, I am going to a spiritual conference tomorrow to rejuvenate myself. I have realized I need to take care of me!!!

How was your first (or second or third) week?

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

As a mom and an educator, I believe September begins the ultimate "most wonderful time of the year"!

I love the idea of a clean slate for teacher and student alike. I enter each year energized after a summer break. I also come back with many ideas I've learned from my Personal Learning Network (PLN) over the summer.
 So, as I begin school with the students this week, I am reminded of my own goals.

1. Focus on relationships. I need to spend time with teachers and students hearing what is working well and what needs to be improved. Some specific ways I propose to do this include eating lunch in the cafeteria with students on Mondays, eating lunch in the teacher's lounge on Tuesdays, and being in the hallways and classrooms as much as possible.

2. Concentrate on communication. I began a weekly blog for our teachers to relay upcoming events on the calendar, reminders, and tips. It is very basic but I trust that will encourage everyone to hang in there with me and read it weekly. I will update it and e-mail a link each Sunday night/Monday morning. This constant communication is important and I love the ability to expose the teachers to blogging and various other tips which are bound to come from my PLN.

3. Balance. I often struggle with balance. I try to be 100% mom, 100% wife, 100% teacher, and 100% vice principal. That adds up to a disaster and most times results in a downturn in my health. I can place great effort towards each of my roles, but I cannot do everything. There needs to be a balance that also includes caring for myself and my health. I plan to continue with visiting the gym three times per week, eating healthy, finding time to relax, and focusing on having fun. When I am healthy and happy, I will succeed much more in all areas of responsibility.

When I look at these goals, I am struck that none of these are necessarily "educational goals". But when you consider my motto of "Students First, Teachers Second", these make sense. I need to develop relationships with these special people, communicate often, and keep myself healthy and balanced so I can meet their needs.