What Makes a School Great?

Almost a month has past since the NAIS annual conference, and many of the ideas shared are still present in the back of my mind. The theme of the conference was “Think Big, Think Great,” and outgoing president Pat Bassett asked us to come up with our list of 25 factors that make schools great. His list is quite impressive, and it was hard to come up with 25 of my own. Instead, as I read each one, I began to see some commonalities among them all.

Relationships: Whether the focus is on students, teachers, families, administrators or the greater community, the things that make a great school on Mr. Bassett’s list all depend on forging strong relationships.

Communication: To achieve all those factors, a school needs to have excellent communication among all constituents.

Values: Whatever the values are for a particular school,  a school needs to be purposeful in its endeavors and have that work shaped by its values.

It’s hard to come up with a list of 25, but if you click on the link above and look at Mr. Bassett’s, I think you’ll see these three things woven throughout. Maybe you’ll see more.

Reflecting on Presenting at #NAISAC13

One of the things I love best about learning is sharing that experience with my students. After all, learning is what I ask them to do each day. I learned so much from presenting at the National Association of Independent School’s (NAIS) Annual Conference, and it’s great to share the process with my second graders.

Today, for example, two of my students had to present something to the class. One shared with the class the adventure of her Flat Stanley, and the other presented a book report. It was important to let them know that what I am asking of them isn’t arbitrary, but something their own teacher engaged in last week. I didn’t talk about the topic of the presentation as that wasn’t pertinent to them, but I did briefly talk about the process.

The session at the conference was called “Revolutionize Your Professional Development.”

Description of session from conference program.

Description of session from conference program.

I presented with Kim Sivick, Liz Davis, and Shannon Montague. We all teach in different states, met initially through social media, and all had different reasons for wanting to present on this topic. One thing that we all had in common, though, was that we were passionate about this model of professional development, and wanted others to bring it to their schools.

Kim is a founding member of edcamps and on the edcamp foundation. Liz was instrumental in getting edcampIS to happen and has been involved in many other unconferences. Shannon and I have both helped organize edcamps, and Shannon recently organized PD in her school using the unconference format.

Needless to say, there’s a lot of risk involved when collaborating with four educators from four different parts of the country, but we trusted each other and we trusted the topic.

I remember that we all had this grand idea that we’d run a mini un-conference in order to inform, persuade, and have participants experience the process itself. The beauty of unconferences is that people get to partake in the conversation, not just sit and listen. We wanted to model good teaching practices and move away from the ‘sit and get’ lecture format that large conferences and other professional development workshops tend to favor.

During our first google hangout, about halfway through the meeting, after we had talked about resources, chart paper, and getting people moving out of their seats, we realized that we were possibly headed in the wrong direction. We needed to think about who our main audience was, and what our space would be like.

We all worked on what we thought our strengths were and started there. Liz suggested the framework: “What, So What, Now What.” We worked on our parts and played with google presentation, so that we could collaborate on the same document. Then once we were more or less agreed on our slide deck, we transferred them to Power Point and shared it through our dropbox accounts.

I was happy to give the ‘So What’ part of the presentation as I am a person who will dive head first into anything if there is a clear and meaningful purpose. I can list many reasons why I believe in this format of professional development, but I’m not an expert, so I pulled experts where I could. Daniel Pink for motivation, Carol Dweck for mindset, Roland Barth for collegiality, and Sir Ken Robinson for teacher leadership and bottom-up approaches to things (in which he used the word ‘revolution’). We couldn’t be happier. Just for good measure, I threw in a quote by Albert Camus for people to reflect upon when they were leaving. I knew it might have been a little much, but there are those who love philosophy. Besides, the quote fit, which was what was important.

“Methods of thought which claim to give the lead to our world in the name of revolution have become, in reality, ideologies of consent and not of rebellion.”

I also agreed to try and go through our slide deck and try to give it a uniform look, while respecting the content of my colleagues. I’ll share my thoughts about Power Point in a later post, but all four of us came from the same place, so that was easy.

The four of us met several more times virtually, gave each other feedback, revised, edited, and finally met in person the day before to make our final tweaks.

I have to say, I was anxious. Public speaking is not my strength, but I believe strongly that I  have to push myself to do what I ask my students to do. I also believe that in order to get better at it, I have to do it.

Well, I’m glad I did it. To spread the word of something I believe in, to collaborate with such amazing educators, to push myself to try something new, to have my school recognized, and to learn, I’d do it again in a heartbeat. I’m glad to be back in my classroom, but glad to know when I say to my students, “I know what I’m asking you to do is hard, but it’s rewarding,” I can say so truthfully.

Thanks to Kim and Shannon for uploading our slides.

Moving from Congeniality to Collegiality

I recently read an article, “Getting to No: Building Collegiality in Schools,” by Rob Evans in the most recent issue of Independent School. It draws from his book, Seven Secrets of a Savvy School Leader,”  which I just started to read.

This article resonated with me because it’s the kind of collaboration, collegiality, and work with my fellow teachers that motivates me. For the most part, we do a great job of this at my school, but this article reminds me that we can always do more.

Evans mentions many obstacles including the structural ones, personal ones, and the culture so many schools have where they avoid conflict. From my experience, the culture he refers to in schools is very strong, and while it is changing, I wish it would change more rapidly. Teachers are getting better at conflict: respectfully dissenting and listening to opposing voices. What teachers need to get better at is finding the common ground, figuring out how it meets our school’s mission and strategic plan, taking action, and moving forward. Otherwise we return to the “culture of niceness” and nothing changes.

As Evans states in his article,

“[Students] will need to be self-motivated to keep learning and changing and will also need to be adept at working with people from diverse backgrounds with diverse perspectives. If educators are to help students develop these skills, the argument goes, they themselves must be able to model them both in their teaching and in the ways they think and talk about their work.”

The current Fall 2010 issue of Independent School is titled, The Next Generation: New Leaders, New Thinking. There are some great pieces about developing new leadership in administration. Article, by Reveta Bowers talks about “passing the baton to a new generation of leaders who will lead with skill, knowledge, and heart.”

There are many more articles like that in that vain or ones that offer advice for people seeking leadership roles.

Unfortunately, I love the classroom too much to leave it. Will this change in a few years? Who knows? The traditional options for academic advancement while remaining a classroom teacher are few and far between. There’s the Ph.D route, but I’m not interested in teaching teachers or doing the research, though I’m fascinated by ed. research and love reading about it. There’s also the Ed.D route, but most of those programs are designed for people who want to take on administrative roles. What’s left for teachers is often “trainings” or “workshops” in various programs. As mentioned in the Reeves book, Transforming Professional Development into Student Results, the focus should be on people and practices rather than the programs.

So what’s a classroom teacher, who wants to remain a classroom teacher to do? I’m not sure what the answer to that is yet. One can only sit on so many committees without taking away from their primary role of  being a classroom teacher.

Trying to influence policy changes when you’re not the one who makes those decisions can be  difficult. The subheading of the title to the issue of Independent School contains the words “New Thinking.” Ed. reform or change is hard, especially if you’re one of those people who are comfortable with the saying, “If it aint broke….” Issues in education continue to evolve. We learn more about how kids’ brains work – how memory works. We learn more about certain practices. The world is changing rapidly. I wasn’t taught about sustainability and gardening, but they’re both important things to learn about.

All I know is many of us just want to become better at what we do, and we have to keep learning and practicing in order to do that. Thats purpose and mastery. According to Daniel Pink, in his book, Drive, one also needs a certain amount of autonomy to remain motivated and passionate.

There’s another great article in the Independent School issue about Innovation, titled “Creating a Culture of Innovation Now.” One of the principles listed is: “Innovation, not instant perfection.”

Learning is messy, involves taking risks, and includes failures and successes. This is true whether you’re a second grader, or a classroom teacher trying to grow.