Saturday, August 25, 2012

It's About Connections

My job situation is unique - I understand. I work as a teacher/vice principal at a private Christian high school. The entire environment is one of trust, love, and friendship. Teachers, administration, and students are connected much more like family than other schools. I love that aspect. This weekend I've had a few reminders that this connection is what my job is all about.

While quickly stopping at the mall on Saturday, I passed by a perfume store (you know the ones hardly anyone enters) and continued on to my store of choice. On my way back past that perfume store, the store clerk, a former student, was standing outside waiting for me. She saw me pass by the first time and was awaiting my return to say hello. Obviously she could have ignored my presence, but she came out to greet me and we took a few moments to catch up.

Today I had the honor of attending a bridal shower of a former student who I now call a friend. She has gone off to college, graduated, and will soon be married. What a privilege to keep communication with former students who know I care. If we had not made the connection while she was in high school, I would miss out on watching her (and many others with whom I communicate) mature and move on to new phases of life.

As the 2012-2013 school year begins, I walk into it remembering that the most important element is the student body -- and I need to build connections with them. As I get to know them and love them, they will realize I care. Our job does not solely revolve around academics, but it must focus also on the relational aspect. What a privilege.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Reminders as I begin

Today was my first day back in the building full time. The teachers join in the fun officially next week (although many are in organizing and decorating now), and the star players in this place - the students - start on September 5th. I can't wait for the buzz of laughter and excitement in the hallways again. It is dreadfully boring to work in a school during the summer.

So now that I am officially back, I am beginning to put rubber to the road. I need to step out of this theory and philosophy discussion of connected education and move into the practical ways I will use this with my faculty, staff, and students.  With this clean slate and a full bag of thoughts, I am reminded of several truths:

1. Baby steps. I love this quote by Joe Girard, the World's Greatest Salesman: "The elevator to success is out of order. You'll have to use the step at a time." I do not need to incorporate a million ways to be connected or use a ton of tools to engage my students. I need to start small - but keep moving, one step and a time, in order to be successful.

2. Focus on the CONNECTEDNESS - not the tools. This applies to both my teachers and students. I am considering some basic ways to encourage teachers to connect and share best practices with one another that do not involve technology at all. We can ease into technology use after we get a conversation started.

3. No man is an island. I am not traveling this road by myself. I met for lunch with two fellow English teachers who have also been on a "connected educator" journey this summer. We shared ideas but also shared fears and frustrations. It is always helpful to know that we are not experiencing any of this alone. Reach out and talk about it -- the good and the bad.

Here I go! I'm stepping out and trying new ideas all with the goal of engaging and encouraging students to become life-long learners. I look forward to June 2013 when I will reflect on the year and see all that has been accomplished if I remember my ultimate goal and the these reminders.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Practical Ways to Be a Connected Educator in the Classroom

Since the beginning of August, I've been attending webinars, bookclubs, online chats, following educators on twitter, etc. in order to become a more connected educator myself. All along, I've wondered how to go from the discussion of importance of being connected to the actual act of becoming connected.

I only teach one class - AP English Literature. The rest of my day I am a Vice Principal handling various administrative duties. I have found myself for the past few years knowing connectedness is important, and 21st century skills are vital for me and my students, but I have made a million excuses as to why I cannot use these tools in my classroom.

This past week I was encouraged by a few interactions I've had with teachers. I've seen how we can actually use these tools. I can no longer make excuses for my personal classroom.

First, there is a 6th grade teacher in my building, Joanna Lieberman, who just recently became a connected educator. Joanna didn't just stay with the theory of connected but actually has begun to implement it for her upcoming class. She will have her 6th graders blog about the various parts of the world they learn about in World Geography class. The blog she created contains various elements that I've been learning about like a word cloud created in Wordle, a Flag Counter to track where website visitors live, and Joanna clearly expresses the requirements of students as they blog. Check it out at I am so excited for her and, more importantly, her students.

Secondly, I attended an online bookclub last night with PLP regarding the book The Connected Educator by Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach. We started out in a main room with about 70 participants from all over the world to discuss the first chapter of the book. This is a format I am familiar with as I attend webinars and bookchats often. While I receive a ton of information in such a setting, I do not feel the need to raise my virtual hand and speak into the microphone since so many others speak. However, Sheryl then broke us up into small groups of 6-8 teachers to discuss more intimately. I did not have my microphone hooked up and therefore only participated in the smaller discussion via the chat box and my speedy fingers. I felt that I missed out on a major part of the bookclub due to this fact. Afterwards, I began thinking that it would be a wonderful experience to connect my classroom with another somewhere else in the world if I could create that intimate discussion level.

Lastly, I learned from a first grade teacher, Kim. Kim was in my small group during the bookclub chat last night. I don't recall where Kim lives and teaches, but I recall vividly how she contributed and encouraged me. Like me, Kim did not have a microphone, but she shared via the chat box that this past year she had her 1st grade classroom skype with another class in another school. She saw the idea while on twitter and just jumped in to implement it. She often had to use her own personal laptop because the computers at school could not always handle the programs necessary. I began thinking.... if this teacher in 1st grade can hear about an idea on twitter and incorporate it with such young students, I need to be brave enough to simply try a new idea with my 12th graders.

What will I try first? I'm not exactly sure. I believe I will use Edmodo this year in my AP class, but I would also like to find some authors to chat with via skype or other online forums. It is time for the rubber to meet the road and for me to move from theory to practice.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Why I am a Life-Long Learner.... Lessons from my Grandmother

It has been over a week since my last post. In that time, I have done a lot of thinking and reflecting.

My grandmother passed away this week at the age of 82. Whenever someone passes from this life, we as humans reflect on life in general. My grandmother had many lessons to teach me - some, I am sure, shaped who I am today.

Janet had a difficult life to say the least. She was born in January 1930 - right in the midst of the Depression. She was given up by her biological mother at 4 months old due to financial struggles. A family adopted Janet, but at the age of 12, she was taken from that home and placed in an orphanage until she returned to live with her biological family again. From the age of 12 until she married at 17, she moved from her mother's home to aunts, uncles, and grandparents who assisted in raising her. This constant relocating obviously had an affect on her education. Janet rarely stayed in the same school for more than a year. In fact, some academic years found Janet studying at four different schools. The learning gaps were great and frustrations must have been high.  At the age of 17, as a junior in high school, facing another move away from a school, Janet chose to drop out of high school. Soon after, she married my grandfather and started a family.

Reasons abounded for my grandmother to be a poorly educated woman. Her life was difficult, her education was sporadic, and she never finished high school. However, the grandmother I knew was a voracious reader, loved writing, and was very intelligent. I saw a love for learning in my grandmother more than many people who have college degrees. In fact, anyone who knew Janet can confirm she was often found with a book in hand, a letter being written to a pen-pal, or the tv on watching Jeopardy (her favorite show).

During Janet's last days of life, I reflected on my own life and excuses I make.

As an educator, I desire to jump into the 21st century of education and learn all I can. I am developing my PLN, attending webinars, and tweeting and blogging. However, I also make excuses regarding how difficult it will be to implement such learning in my classroom. Then I look at Janet. It was difficult for her to learn anything given her environment, yet in her later years she often read 250+ books each year.

I can say connecting with other educators around the globe is a struggle. Then I look at Janet. She has been keeping pen-pals from all over the world for as long as I've known her. They learned from one another regarding lifestyles, habits, locations, and more. She has even visited pen-pals on occasion. Given the ease of twitter, facebook, blogs, and other technology, connecting can be done easily for us today.

I can complain how colleagues have let me down and I no longer want to communicate with them. Then I look at Janet. She forgave everyone who deeply disappointed her during her difficult life - including her biological mother. I need to forgive those who have offended me and move on to learn from them.

Thank you, dearest Mammy, for the lessons you taught. May I continue on this journey to be a better educator, learner and woman because of you!

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Inspiration from the Olympics and CE12

"If you only do what you know you can do - you never do very much." - Tom Krause

As I sit on my couch on this Sunday evening, laptop open and tv on, I am inspired. The Olympics are on my television right now... diving, track and field, beach volleyball, gymnastics, and more. What makes these athletes so amazing? They are talented, but even more than that, they have spent years - sometimes entire lifetimes - pushing themselves beyond their known limits. They never "only do what they know they can do". They push themselves to the next level, achieve greatness, and then push themselves some more.

As an educator and a member of an educational administration team, I need to live my life that way. I cannot "only do what I know I can do". That limits me and also limits my ability to inspire others including my teaching staff and my students. I would never expect my students to only do what they already know how to do. The entire concept of education is to learn something new and move to a different level- so why wouldn't I want that for myself? 

But, how can I move forward? What is the next step? One specific tactic (and a way I encourage my teachers) is to connect with other educators. Some have been down the education road more than the rest of us and have great wisdom. Other tackle problems differently and we can benefit from their problem solving skills. Connected Educator Month (#ce12) has allowed me to follow various educators and educational leaders on twitter. What have I received from this connectedness so far? I have about 50 blog posts and articles saved in my Pocket account which I will begin to tackle reading this evening. These will expose me to new ways to get things done, teach more effectively, or at the very least get me thinking about education. I value my Personal Learning Network and hope to grow in a way that will inspire others to move beyond what they already know to achieve greatness.

Friday, August 3, 2012

My Wish for Connected Educator Month

For the past six months, I have actively grown my PLN and followed various great educators who encourage connecting on a daily basis. I suppose I could be considered part of the connected education community.  So, when "Connected Educator Month" (CEM) began, I was excited and anticipating all the wonderful learning I would partake in throughout the month. 

I have spent 7 hours in the past three days in webinars and discussions in association with CEM, plus multiple hours following #ce12 on twitter, but I must say I am somewhat disappointed. I feel the majority of ideas shared so far are focused on the concept of building a PLN or sharing very broad, philosophical information rather than the nuts and bolts of how to utilize much of this in the classroom. This appears to be "preaching to the choir" as those who are tweeting about #ce12 are already somewhat connected. Will teachers connect more after CEM? Sure, its possible. However, wouldn't we be better served by balancing the philosophy discussions with the actions needed to move forward? 

August is not only CEM, but also Laurie Halse Anderson's "Write Fifteen Minutes a Day Challenge" Month. While Laurie Halse Anderson has exhibited amazing writing success, she brings this month of challenges down to the level of the average person with or without writing experience. She encourages all to join in the writing challenge (philosophical), and she also provides down-to-earth writing prompts and ideas to get started (action steps). On yesterday's challenge, the following quote was shared:

“When I start writing, I rarely know what I’m writing about. Am I writing about all of those great abstract nouns that you’ve ever heard about — love, integrity, honor, compassion or whatever? The writer’s job is to take those great abstract nouns and turn them into flesh and blood and bones. Then they are real.”
Harry Crews 

So, Connected Educator Month participants, I encourage you to discuss philosophy but also bring those "great abstract nouns" down to action steps for us. Show us how being connected has helped you specifically. Share a story from your school where having students collaborate improved learning. If you are a Project-Based Teacher, give us specific ways you implement that learning in your classroom and the success you observed. Link us with resources that have meant a lot to you in your classroom experiences. We are already members of "the choir", but we want to improve our craft. It reminds me of the famous Chinese proverb: "Give a man a fish and feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." Give us the philosophy but also teach us HOW to implement that thinking specifically for the most benefit to all. 

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Advice for New Administrators

As we continue embarking on Connected Educators Month, I would like to take some time to share what I've learned as a school administrator over the past five years.

When I got out of college, I began teaching English to 10th-12th graders at a private Christian high school. After five years of teaching and leading the English department, I was asked to step into a Vice Principal role. My reaction was still from my teacher mind: "Why on earth do they need another administrator? They don't appear to do any work all day!" However, after significant thinking and praying about it, I took the job. Walking into my first year as an administrator filled me with fear. I had no idea what I was doing.

Fast forward five years and I am here to tell you I love my job. Are there difficulties and frustrations? Absolutely!!! Are there times I disagree with decisions made by the administration team? Certainly! However, I have grown immensely both personally and professionally.

If you are stepping into an administrative role this coming school year, allow me to pass on some treasures I've learned over the past five years.

1. Keep the focus in the proper place. Schools are about the students!!! Teachers, staff, and other adults are secondary. All decisions need to be made with the students' needs in mind.

2. Remember what the life of a teacher entails. Don't ever forget the struggles and frustrations as well as the desires you had while you were a teacher. Teachers cannot understand the role of administrators, but an administrator who forgets the life of a teacher becomes ineffective. I enjoy encouraging teachers and motivating them towards growth. This even requires me sometimes to step in and cover lunch duty so a teacher can go make those last minute copies, find upcoming learning opportunities for your teachers and share with them, write an encouraging note, etc.

3. Paperwork and phone calls are a never-ending part of the job of an administrator. However, during the hours that the teachers and students are in the building, try your best to be out of your office. I actually create appointments in my calendar to go to the cafeteria and eat with the students, meet with teachers in the teacher lounge, walk the halls, and visit classrooms. In order to be the best administrator I can be, I need to build these relationships with these interactions. If I am in my office, I have an open door policy where teachers and students alike know they are always welcome to stop in and chat.

4. Be a life-long learner. Not only will this improve your own skills, but it models what we desire for our students and teachers as well. After I entered administration, I went back to school and received my Masters Degree in Educational Administration. I continue to grow by attending various webinars and developing my Personal Learning Network (PLN). I read many books, articles, blog, etc to see what is going on in education beyond my school's walls. This is vital to me personally and professionally.

5. Be ready to apologize. Unless you know something I don't, we are all human and therefore we make mistakes. Our judgement is not always the best. We often have the best intentions, but our actions and reactions can get in the way. I have found that it is best to dismiss the pride and apologize - whether it be to a fellow administrator, teacher, staff person, student, parent, or community member. Be sincere in the apology and watch the relationships heal and grow over time.

Recommended Reading:
I am a prolific reader. Here are some books that have helped develop my leadership abilities as an administrator.

1. What Great Principals Do Differently: 18 Things That Matter Most by Todd Whitaker. (Also follow him on Twitter @ToddWhitaker. He is a great resource for your PLN) A quick read encouraging Principals to be their best and keep proper perspective.

2. If You Don't Feed the Teachers They Eat the Students: Guide to Success for Administrators and Teachers by Neila A. Connors. This book has specific suggestions on how to encourage teachers and keep them positive.If you do, the students benefit.

3. Looking Forward to Monday Mornings: Ideas for Recognition and Appreciation Activities and Fun Things to Do at Work for Educators by Diane Hodges. This also has specific ways to make the work environment more encouraging and fun for the teachers.

Questions for you: If you are already an administrator, what else can you add to assist our new cohorts in the roles in their schools?  If you are entering a role of administrator, what fears do you have? Perhaps we can assist each other along the path.

Add me to your PLN. Twitter: @monicahawk1