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Posted by on in Leadership

Mention the word, “leader,” and many people conjure up an image of a larger-than-life character who seemingly single-handedly transforms their organization for the better. A leader, as many also erroneously believe, is determined by having a title or position of importance. John Maxwell said, “Leadership is influence, nothing more and nothing less.” Teachers all over the world, regularly lead positive changes in their classrooms, schools, districts, and beyond without fanfare, recognition and often without a formal title or position. They lead because their colleagues respect and trust them. Their leadership begins from the heart. Their passion for reaching and teaching young people and love for what they do is evident. Extraordinary teachers are leaders because they inspire and motivate others to be and do their best. How they lead is multifaceted and is only limited by their creativity.

Unfortunately, too many teachers fail to identify themselves as leaders. Many educators share the mindset that leadership is for a “talented” few. This limiting belief stifles the potential of teachers that could otherwise make a larger impact on student learning and achievement. The inclination to think about “my class, my students” or even “my team”  prevents teachers from developing a greater vision. Instead of viewing themselves as leaders that accept not only the responsibility of their class but also the responsibility of all students; they see themselves as “just teachers” and limit their potential impact. Their talents and abilities largely remain an untapped resource that could enrich the lives of many more people.

The paradigm shift from “my” to “our” is subtle but powerful. When this shift happens, when teachers start to view themselves as leaders who are empowered to inspire positive changes not only in the lives of “their students” but in “all students,” they are motivated by an even higher purpose. “Every child, every day” takes on a whole new significance.

Every teacher can and must lead if they care about kids. Not all will become outstanding leaders, but everyone can improve. Leadership skills can be learned. What teachers will soon realize is that they are already leading! They need only to expand their circle of influence beyond their classroom walls.

There are as many ways that teachers can lead as there are teachers. Here are eight ways that teachers can make an even more significant impact on student learning and success. 

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Posted by on in General

parent teacher conference

And with a broken wing
She still sings
She keeps an eye on the sky
With a broken wing
She carries her dreams
Man you ought to see her fly

Martina McBride

Confession: I have a love/hate relationship with the first parent, student, teacher conferences of the year. Ninety-nine percent of the time, these meetings come and go without incident, and I genuinely enjoy the conversations that I have with parents. It is rewarding to celebrate their child’s progress and to set new goals. However, occasionally preparing for those first conferences is a little more stressful than usual as I anticipate some difficult conversations. I've usually had several discussions with more difficult parents, but I never quite know what to expect. Even one or two upset parents can feel like a full-scale attack. It’s hard not to take criticism personally. It’s hard not to fall into the trap of “we against them.” It’s hard to listen, understand their point of view, and to learn from the feedback. Criticism hurts us deeply because we are so passionate about education and our students. After the recent conferences that I had this year, I feel like a bird with a wounded wing. I’ve cried. I’ve rationalized my thinking and played the blame game. But mostly, I’ve done a lot of reflecting.

Over the span of my career, I’ve worked with some of the most amazing parents! The last five years have been more than I could ever dream of as a teacher. Parents were in my classroom every day, and I felt like we were indeed partners with common goals. They were engaged and often empowered as we made instructional decisions together. The timing couldn’t have been better. I was trying many new things, and the parents thoroughly trusted and supported me. But, I changed schools and went to an entirely different community. Problems started to develop because I failed to build strong relationships with my new parents. I didn’t bank enough trust but continued to implement practices that were entirely new. I thought my reputation would follow me and I didn't put in the work. I failed to build from the ground up. I made assumptions. And so now, I have to back up, slow down, and hopefully, develop some credibility and move forward. I think I’ve learned some things that can help other teachers and leaders.

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Posted by on in General

pool

I nearly drowned as a second grader! A couple of the other kids had their arms around our coach as she walked closer to the deep end of the pool. I followed closely behind her. But before I knew it, I could no longer bob up and down and touch the bottom of the pool with my toes. I panicked and tried desperately to keep my head above water. At the moment before I knew my life was about to end, I looked up into the stands and saw my mom motioning to me to put my head down and swim. “Swim, Sandy!” she yelled. I looked to the side of the pool, and my coach was doing the same thing. No one was running to save me! “Swim, Sandy!” their blended voices hollered. It wasn’t the most graceful American crawl, I’m sure. But, I did make it to the side of the pool and am still alive to tell the story. 

I’ve often thought about this experience when I’ve faced changes and challenges throughout my career. When I start to feel a little overwhelmed or some self-doubt, I hear the voices in my head saying, “Swim, Sandy!” I know then that I need to FOCUS and swim! It isn’t always pretty getting to the side for a breather, but I make it. My coaches don’t jump in and rescue me, but I know they’re on the side cheering me on because they believe that I’ll be successful. As a result, I have a stronger sense of self-efficacy. There is a need for some basic knowledge, but the application of what I’ve learned is up to me. 

“Jumping into the deep end of the pool” can be a little scary, but it’s also where we’ll experience the most growth. Being in the deep end of the pool forces us to leave our comfort zones and apply our new learning. While many educators heed the advice of starting small when it comes to change, I’ve always jumped in and have swum for my life. It's even been a joke that I'll figure things out as I'm doggy paddling. I’ve grown very comfortable with being uncomfortable. Making mistakes and learning from those mistakes is part of who I am. It’s part of my creative spirit. Although I can envision where I need to go and want to be, I don’t always know the “how-to’s, ” and that’s where there’s risk-taking. It’s often through play, experimentation, and collaborating with others that the best ideas come about and benefit kids.

Regardless of whether educators jump in the deep end of the pool or start at the shallow end, the point is to move forward and start making the changes that our kids deserve. It seems that our profession is the only one where those who remain stagnant are allowed to keep their jobs. We would never go to a doctor or dentist who was not current with the most updated medical practices. We would never board a plane of an untrained pilot and seek advice from a lawyer who did not know the current laws. Businesses that don't continually change and adapt go out of business. Yet, educators who have children's lives on the line, continue to hold onto old mindsets and traditions. 

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Posted by on in Leadership

 

Frustrated

Over the span of my career, I’ve worked with outstanding principals, very poor principals, and all of those in between. Leadership in a school makes a difference! Arne Duncan, the former U.S. Secretary of Education, said, “There are no good schools without good principals. It just doesn’t exist. And where you have great principals, good teachers come, and they stay, they work hard, and they grow.” With the wrong leader, good teachers leave, mediocre ones stay and gradually (or not so gradually) the school declines. The Wallace Foundation and other researchers have found that principal leadership impacts student learning and the impact is much larger than previously thought. Leaders shape a vision of academic success for all students based on high expectations, create a positive, safe climate, cultivate leadership in others, improve instruction, and have organizational management skills. Effective instructional leaders influence others to keep the focus on students and student learning. 

The task of creating and maintaining a high-quality school that students deserve is a large one. Effective principals leverage teacher leaders but ultimately acknowledge that the responsibility of the school climate rests with the principal. Less effective principals are unaware or dismissive of their overall responsibility as an instructional leader. They also often lack interpersonal intelligence skills and are unable to discern how they come across to people. As a result, teacher leaders are often left shaking their heads in disbelief about the actions and decisions of the principal. Gradually, the school climate begins to decline because of hiring choices and lack of leadership. The philosophy of the principal is to stay below the radar, and he does “just enough” to get by, “just enough” not to draw the attention of superiors, or “just enough” not to anger too many parents. Good teachers leave the school out of frustration. Student learning is at risk. 

How can teacher leaders, who for a variety of reasons can’t or choose not to leave the school, still grow as a leader, provide a quality education for the students that attend there, and influence others to keep the focus on student learning? What can teacher leaders do if they feel like they’re leading with their hands tied behind their back? 

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Posted by on in General

teaching

Educators everywhere immerse themselves into the work of impacting young lives because they love kids! Teaching is no ordinary job, and it takes an extraordinary teacher to overcome the many obstacles that children face. It takes an exceptional school leader to create a culture where children and adults have high expectations and can learn in a positive, safe, environment. I believe, like many others, that teaching and working with kids is a calling. We are called to serve the youngest population, to provide an education where young people are taught to rise above mediocrity and to think for themselves, to collaboratively problem solve and make the world better. We are called upon to teach students how to be leaders, readers, learners for a lifetime and changers of the status quo. The challenge is great, and the responsibility is immense, but educators everywhere accept the challenge and in the words of Marva Collins, “Make the poor student good and the good student great with no excuses in between.” Teaching is not for the faint of heart. It requires hard work, dedication, and unceasingly love.     

It is not uncommon for school administrators and teachers to work long hours, weekends, and holidays preparing their lessons and learning how to improve their practice. It’s not uncommon for teachers to have sleepless nights worrying about students, to purchase granola bars so kids can have something on their stomach, or to spend extra hours away from their own families to attend extracurricular activities. It’s not uncommon because those who enter the teaching field know that “the pay” is knowing they can have a positive impact. Administrators and teachers know the negative public perception of schools, and yet they dig in and serve their students and communities day in and day out. They know that their talents are gifts to be shared with their students. Educators not only believe but know that they can make a difference!     

Great educators refuse to let students fail! They teach children that difficult doesn’t mean impossible. Mistakes are opportunities to learn and stepping stones to success. Children learn about having a growth mindset and how to overcome challenges. Teachers give students hope and a belief in themselves. Michelangelo said, “Inside is an angel trying to get out” about a piece of marble. Teachers know that every child has something wonderful and special inside. They know that every child can learn. And they know that they cannot meet every child’s needs alone. The challenge is too great! Great educators know that it takes collaboration and a commitment to action that will ensure that every child succeeds. Their focus is the learning of each student. They roll up their sleeves and delve into the work!     

In those rare moments of disappointment and despair, great educators are inspired to further the work. They know that just one more time, one more attempt might make a connection and difference for a child. First, it’s the work and then the inspiration. Thomas Edison did not give up on his vision. He learned hundreds of ways not to make a lightbulb. It was only after hours of focused work that his team was inspired and found a way. And the “miracle” was light.   

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