Sunday, November 16, 2014

Finding Our Strengths

We are overwhelmed. Our curriculum is constantly changing. Illinois is broke and can't pay us our pensions. We are constantly adding and not subtracting. Can you believe he replied to all with that email? Our students are really challenging this year. That parent was really difficult to handle. How did he get that position? My colleagues are judgmental. Society doesn't respect what I really do. Well, I guess that perk was taken away. I didn't get that job I put in for. He has no idea what he is doing. What are we going to do with all this data? I've seen this initiative before. We didn't get a raise. My boss plays favorites. I cannot believe she said that. That kid is going nowhere.

We are working really hard. Our curriculum is what is best for kids. I can't worry about my pension now it has nothing to do with my job today. We can tell the story of our success. We evolve for the best. I love my students this year. I enjoy collaborating with others. Most of our parents give us their full support. Our school leader makes great decisions in tough situations. My colleagues are amazing professionals and I don't know where I would be without them. I have the best job in the world. That is something we can do together.  This is really going to help my lesson today. That kid is hilarious. I take most of the summer off. Our school does amazing things.  My students make teaching worthwhile. Our staff is really dedicated. I cannot wait to get started.

There have been times in my short career that I have been both of these people. Relative to the cloud over education today, I think it is easy to get caught up in the negativity that surrounds our profession. But it's still a personal choice how to approach our life's work.

Whenever I feel the urge to buy into the pessimism, I go back to the reasons why I became an educator. Each one of us has strengths in our jobs- the kind of qualities that our colleagues admire and our students are drawn to. In the myriad of different hats we wear, some hats just fit better and play to our strengths.

In my current position, I wear plenty of hats that just don't fit right. I am learning a new job and experiencing the growing pains of a new challenge. In those moments, I try to find my strengths- perhaps the very things that drew me to education in the first place.

One of the programs we have at our high school is a study program after school for freshmen who are failing two or more classes. The freshmen work one on one with student and adult tutors in the hopes of "graduating out" of the hour-long, daily study program. Some students see it as a punishment, but we see it as a support. It's easy to use this time after the school day to make phone calls, write evaluations, and clean up my emails. But after a day of doing a lot of that already, I enjoy spending time working one on one with our most fragile freshmen. I'm confident that I can forge relationships with those kids, and use those relationships to eventually push them personally and academically.

We have to go back to our strengths. 

All of us have them, and all of us went into this line of work with attributes that feed the "positives" of our profession.  As educators, we can wrap our strengths around us and still be successful in challenging our weaknesses. As a thought for those reading and those in #savmp,  here are three questions to think about:

1. What are your strengths as an educator?
2. How can you add to them?
3. Will you let your strengths forge the positives in your daily work?

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Path We Have Chosen

"So how's the new job treating ya?"

Inevitably and understandably, some people have been asking me that question in the last few months. I am fortunate to be working at West Leyden, a school that his given me everything an educator could ask for. I've taught some awesome kids and worked alongside some amazing colleagues and mentors. I've been gifted all the professional development I can handle and recently, the job of Assistant Principal too. Truthfully, I hope I can give half as much to my job as my job has given me.

"But really, are you getting the hang of it?"

I've tried to embrace the vulnerability that comes with honesty in life, because honestly, I am not very good at what I do yet. I've arrived at school for the past 97 days not really leading anything, but trying to learn from decades of leadership experience around me.  I am new. I am inexperienced. And for the most part, I don't know what I am doing. I walk away from conversations second guessing what I said. I've put so many filters through my emails and letters that I've departed from who I want to be as a school leader. I hear the cynics and skeptics. I try really hard to make it through the day, and then get up the next day and do it again.

Hopefully my transparency can connect me to others who have felt the same way at some point in time, not just with their careers but with their lives. I remember bringing my son home from the hospital for the first time with a restless feeling. So what do we do with him now? How can I stop him from crying, and where did we put that pack of diapers again? Luckily for me, I had the help of my wife and together we are erasing the early self-doubts of parenthood one day at a time. I think.

Like becoming a new parent, learning a new job can be really tough, especially as a first year teacher, coach, or administrator. Having worked here for a few years, I'm lucky to have existing relationships with colleagues around me. There is nothing that we cannot do together. Our secretaries, maintenance staff, teachers, and administrators can attest to that- as I've experienced formal and informal mentoring in these first three months. I am grateful for those moments and can only hope that I will add something to their skill set too. We have to build each other up.

"Do you miss teaching?"

Of course. The best part of our jobs is the daily interaction with our kids, just ask anyone who works at a school in the summer. I miss the kids but still try to manufacture interactions with students whenever I can. I'm convinced that teaching five classes for 35 years is the toughest job in education, but I also believe that being a teacher is the most rewarding job in the world. Our kids fill our souls in ways that we cannot quantify -and that, of course, is something I miss.

"Well, you will get the hang of it eventually..."

I know. I just hope I can look back at the totality of these days and find humor in it all. Until then, I appreciate the patience and collegiality of all my peers as I make the journey.

"This is the path we have chosen. We are responsible for modeling what we expect from others, especially when we don't get it right. Let us not be fools when the criticism comes, but take time to reflect and make the necessary changes in order to grow."
-Jimmy Casas. 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Innovation and Inspiration

One of my colleagues and twitter mentors, George Couros (@gcouros) once asked a group of our teachers, "Could you really spend an entire day as a student in your classroom?" I think questions like this really help us reflect on the intentions of our practice as educators. As a teacher, there were days when I was bored with my own lessons by the end of the day. I cannot imagine how my students felt. What are we doing to combat student boredom in our classes- and better yet, how are we fostering an innovative mindset with our teachers?

I am fortunate to spend time evaluating teachers at our school. It helps connect me to kids and affords me the opportunity to watch amazing teachers inspire our students. All our team members collectively look for the highlights of the Danielson model including student engagement, a strong culture for learning, and creative classroom discussion. While these areas provide great insight into the strengths of the classroom teacher, they don't necessarily include an important element of all 21st century classrooms: innovation.

Can we make room on our evaluation models for innovation?

Innovation doesn't necessarily mean engagement. And great teachers could certainly make a case that engagement doesn't always require innovation. 

Yet, innovative teachers are the driving force behind new curriculum changes. These teachers are the risk takers who present their ideas at conferences and lead others in their departments. Moreover, discovery and creation inspires kids- and an inspired student can accomplish anything.

The process of becoming an innovative educator exposes students to underlying skills beyond the context of curriculum or content. Ultimately, innovating involves failure- an important life and career lesson for many of us. Innovation also involves patience. There will be frustrating moments in the journey.

I give credit to all those that try.

A lesson that is well intentioned, managed and assessed plays well with any evaluation model. But a lesson that takes a chance on something innovative and inspiring speaks to the greater intent of the designer, and it's in that intention that we find the true purpose of our instruction...


"Could you spend an entire day as a student in your classroom?"

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

#SAVMP: Our Perspectives

I wanted to post some collective thoughts on the School Administrator Virtual Mentoring Program I have been a part of for the past year. #SAVMP connects current and aspiring administrators from around the world and I was so lucky to even participate in the program. My fellow mentee (@JohnFritzky) and my mentor (@TonySinanis) wanted to contribute a collaborative blog post that summarized our experience learning from each other.

You will find similiar posts to mine on John's blog here:
And on Tony's blog here:
I am looking forward to expanding #savmp within my own school district and am so grateful to the work of George Couros and Amber Teamann to connect us. This was an awesome example of how a PLN can really help us grow together.
1. Why did I sign up for #SAVMP?
Andrew: I was an Assistant Dean and Social Studies teacher in a high school setting  when I first heard about #SAVMP. I knew it was a great opportunity for me to learn and grow as a school leader. I was interested in connecting with people from outside my PLN and outside my district. I think the perspective that the program offered afforded me a great opportunity to learn more about leadership. I did not know what to expect when we first started but I knew that I had absolutely nothing to lose by signing up.

John: I saw a post on Twitter from George Couros about developing a mentorship program for new administrators. At the time I was finishing up my Educational Leadership program and wanted to continue to learn from others, I knew this would be a great way to continue my learning.
Tony: I was entering my ninth year as an elementary level building administrator and for the first time in my career, I genuinely felt like I might have something to offer a new or aspiring educational leader. The possibility of mentoring someone was of interest to me because as an educator I feel it is my responsibility to support and encourage those new to the field - to possibly help them avoid some of the landmines I hit during the early stages of my career and meet with greater levels of success. Also, it was clear to me that being paired with people through a mentoring program meant that I would do a lot of learning myself and that is always a priority for me. The appeal of #SAVMP was that it was using Twitter as the platform for the mentoring experience and that definitely spoke to my interests and made me feel like it would be much more manageable.

2. How did #SAVMP help you learn and grow as an administrator?
Andrew: I am one of those people who claim, “I have never won anything in my life”... until now. I won the lottery by getting Tony Sinanis as my mentor. He immediately reached out to me through twitter and we began learning together right away. He gave me feedback on my blog posts and encouraged me to stretch my thinking as a school leader. I think more than anything, #SAVMP exposed me to a different type of school leader than I have observed in my career. There’s power in learning from someone across the country who works with a different population. There’s agency in a process that encourages sharing of ideas and leadership styles. My interaction with my mentor provided all of that, and more. As I began to interview for different administrative jobs, I scheduled Google Hangouts and phone calls with my mentor. Tony was an amazing asset to have in my corner- always coaching me on the logistics of answering questions but also giving me the confidence I needed to be successful.

John: By taking on a mentor who is completely outside of my own school, district, and state I knew it would allow me a chance to look at education, and leadership through a completely different lense. When I was partnered with Tony Sinanis, I knew I was extremely fortunate. Tony reached out to me and immediately began to develop a relationship with me that went beyond the world of Twitter. Tony invited me to his school to see how his school functions and what a typical day looks like for him. I was immediately blown away. It is easy for someone to state what they believe on Twitter or in a blog post, but it another thing completely to turn those beliefs into reality. That is what Tony Sinanis has done at Cantiague Elementary school in Jericho, New York. We spent the entire day in classrooms and I was treated like a celebrity by the student just because I knew Mr. Sinanis. The students at his school absolutely love him because Tony sees them as children, not test scores. He knows EVERY student’s name and can talk to them about their individual interests. I left Cantiague knowing I had a great of work to do to build these types of relationships at my own school. However, I was comforted by the fact that I had seen a great school in action and if Tony could do it, so could I. Throughout the year I would throw questions at Tony about how he would handle different situations and no matter how busy he was, he was always able to get back to me and give me a piece of advice.

Tony: From my vantage point, it is clear that I learned so much more from Andrew and John than they did from me. Their enthusiasm, passion and willingness to take risks in their current roles was an incredible inspiration for me. They provided me opportunities to dialogue about leadership, the current landscape of public education, pedagogy and a bunch of other topics that I am incredibly passionate about and love discussing. Through our conversations and exchanges - whether through email, Voxer, text, in person, through a GHO, I was able to deliberate with them and broaden my point of view and perspectives, which helped me become a better leader and educator. I have done a lot of research about the idea of social learning and the power of learning through social interactions with other like-minded people and the #SAVMP became just that for me - I was learning something through every interaction I had with John and Andrew and was fortunate to be associated with them. Being that I technically had the title of mentor in this relationship, the highlights for me were the successes that Andrew and John experienced this year - John successfully completing his first year as a building administrator; Andrew securing his first administrative position; John pushing me to participate in national podcasts with our kids; and Andrew becoming a father. These are just some of the highlights and in the end, it is an honor to be associated with these incredible educators who have become friends and mentors for me.  
3. What will this program mean for you going forward?
Andrew: I am so thankful to Amber and George for helping me connect to some great leaders in our field. I would love to continue on as a #SAVMP mentor or mentee to continue learning and blogging. I was not able to answer all of the blog topics every week so I am excited to double back to some of them in the future. I would also like to start a mini-admin mentoring program in my own school district using #SAVMP as a model.

John: I am grateful for the opportunity Amber Teamann and George Courus provided me with, to connect and learn from Tony. I feel as though we have developed a stronger relationship than I could have ever expected when I started this program. Moving forward I feel like I am just as lucky to be connected with Andrew. I was lucky to have Tony as a mentor and hear his words of wisdom, but having Andrew to learn with will be an added bonus that I did not foresee when I started #SAVMP. I can’t wait to schedule an #Edcamp where the three of us can get together face to face for the first time.

Tony: There is no doubt that going forward the #SAVMP experience has left an indelible mark on me - both personally and professionally. First off, a special thank you to George Couros and Amber Teamann for facilitating this experience because once again, they helped push me out of my comfort zone and gave me access to experiences that helped me learn and grow. Second of all, I now have access to two awesome educators from different parts of the country who I can rely on for support, perspective and ideas and that is definitely a critical part of the PLN. Finally, participating in #SAVMP has given me two new friends who make my world a better place - I cannot wait until the next time I get to collaborate with John and Andrew! ROCK ON!

Monday, August 11, 2014

First Days of School

Whether it's your first, last, or something else in-between, the first day of school is something truly special. It keeps us awake the night before and it may wake us up early the next morning.  The uniqueness of day one cannot be understated. And truthfully, for many of us the first day of school can be a really long day.

My goal for tomorrow is to make it the best long day I've ever had.

The first day brings great opportunities to everyone involved. Many of our students are looking for a fresh start after a long summer. For some, especially our freshmen, it's a chance to prove to their "world" they have become someone different- perhaps a better version of themselves. Some of our kids need school as an escape and a safe haven. After all, our space may be the most consistent and comforting place in their lives. Others are ready to wear their best outfit to school or show off their patiently crafted summer tan. There is anxiety in their world- but it's a positive energy that's fun and exciting, until you jam a locker.

Our faculty and staff also have an open door to opportunity. Younger teachers have a chance to hone their craft and solidify their place, their voice, and their passion. Veteran teachers have a chance to innovate and bolster the experienced skill set they have developed over time. There's new initiatives, new state testing, and new faces everywhere. But in reality, when the door shuts the goal remains the same- run through walls for the kids, every one of the kids, because they need us.

Oh, and we will all screw up along the way. Teachers will mispronounce names and students will get lost in the halls. Schedules will be changed and we will find mistakes we made in planning over the summer. There are bound to be parent phone calls and paperwork still missing. This is a familiar place for us as former students and now educators.

Yes, the American public school is alive and well. We aren't the online virtual school of the future, but we sure are connected- connected by commonalities that we have all experienced.

The last "first day" happened just long ago that I am still jittery for tomorrow. The unknown is what makes me nervous, but the opportunity is what brings great excitement and anticipation. What other profession could boast having a day at work like this...every year?

If the eleven-year-old version of myself could hear me now, he would shake his head. But I would have to admit: I cannot wait for school tomorrow.

I have a feeling we are among the first schools to get started. To all those starting now and in the coming weeks, have an awesome first day and an even better school year! #leydenpride

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Numbers Will Never Define Us

For the past 7 years, I have been fortunate to teach at West Leyden High School. West is located in the heart of a very blue collar and diverse town- Northlake, Ilinois. The numbers might suggest that we are an average school. With an median ACT score of 18, public perception probably agrees. But we don't let those numbers define us.

During the last 3 years, I've taught AP US History, a class that is regarded as one of the tougher classes in our curriculum. I've always been obsessed with numbers and judged our collective success or failure on our AP test results. After all, every AP teacher wants their students to perform well on the test and earn college credit. I do not mind bragging about my students' "numbers," because they deserve all the recognition in the world.

Tonight, I shared the test results with some of our students who were dying to find out their "number." One student in particular received a 4 instead of the 5 we both were hoping for. In all honesty, this student deserved a 5 and I was shocked she didn't get it. 4 is a great score, and almost every college in the nation is going to give her 6 credits for it. Even still, these numbers don't really matter that much.

Numbers don't measure the heart and desire of our students. If they did, and if they could, there wouldn't be enough numbers to calculate their unfailing drive for success.


When I first started working at Leyden, the school assigned me a mentor whose job was to orientate me to the school and answer all my questions.  I used to tell Mike that, "I wanted to be him,"  as I respected his place in our community and his incredible rapport with our kids. Mike always responded by saying,

"You don't want to be me, you want to be better than me."

The kids I taught these past three years were better than me - literally. I received a 3 on this test when I was in high school and since I started teaching this class, 63 of the 70 kids who took the test surpassed me. That sort of ceremonious "passing of the torch" has so much power that it brings me to tears. Yet, the true meaning of all this lies in something much deeper.


One of the foundational principles of my class is the phrase, "don't live life in the woulds," that is to say, do not regret any opportunity while in high school...I wish I would have...If I only would have...etc. I think this is a valuable life lesson that I learned, in many cases, the hard way.

I asked my student if she was disappointed with her "4" and her response was, "It may not be the score I really wanted, but I wouldn't change anything about how the year went. I have no regrets."

This is her story. This is the way it was written and she's sticking to it.

Numbers will never tell the story of what kids learn in our classes. These kids went through the fire and came out the other end- not as a number, but as a better version of themselves. The narrative of every school year is riddled with bumps and bruises, highs and lows, and ultimately, the unending hope that our students "took" something from our instruction.

This is our story- forged from the drive to score that "number," the work ethic to read a 1200 page book, and the patience to learn together for 184 class periods. For better or for worse, its a story written with no regrets.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

And Now For the Interview...

Being engulfed by the "selfie" culture that we live in can prevent us from expressing gratitude for what we have. Whether I recognize them or not, there are countless moments during the course of the school year that should make me thankful for my job.  Some of those experiences are annual and stand out more than others- like working the job fair or participating on an interview team.

Everyone has a unique story about how he/she was hired. And we are the lucky ones. There are plenty of job seekers in our field- and plenty of experienced professionals chasing promotions or changes that crowd our job market.

The truth is, there was a time in our careers, when we were scratching and clawing to get to EXACTLY where we are now.

Since graduating from college, I have interviewed for 13 different jobs inside and outside of my district. I received three offers.  I don't claim to be an expert on interviewing. I don't have a monopoly on the ingredients to land a job and my personal statistics prove that!  I have gained, (I think), some perspective on interviewing and I think these 3 things are true:

1. There is no such thing as preparing too much, or too little. 

I think you can play this both ways. For some positions, it's important to anticipate questions and rehearse how you would answer them. Especially if you applying for a position that may be a stretch based on your qualifications. For new teachers, understanding the basics about the district and becoming a "playful pest" to keep your name in the conversation is important.

I know I have been guilty of coming across disingenuous from being over-prepared, over-thinking the questions, and over-selling myself. That's why I think for some candidates, it is important to just talk conversationally. Exude quiet confidence and let your personality shine through. Less is more in some cases. Do some research to show your interest but stay true to yourself. Find a median of preparation that gives you the confidence to shine.

2. Interviewing is not a "results based" entity.

Evaluating the interview's success or failure by the end result isn't necessarily fair. I think you can blow away an interview committee and still not receive a job offer-if you aren't exactly what they are looking for. Sometimes you can answer all the questions perfectly and maybe another candidate was more perfect. You are likely competing against dozens of well qualified candidates. The point is, you never know exactly why they hire who they do. Don't worry about the result. Process the process, and give it your best shot.

3. Que sera, sera.

I am lucky to have learned from some of the greatest mentors a guy could ask for. My #savmp mentor was my coach throughout my last round of interviews. What we worked on may or may not have helped my answers, but it definitely impacted my mindset. Tony Sinanis helped me realize that if you want something bad enough, it will happen...eventually. I've kept every rejection letter and email I have received over the past 8 years. I promise it's not an OCD or acrimonious practice, but merely a reminder that if it's meant to be, it will be. Those jobs were not meant to be. Trusting this idea is the hardest thing to do, especially if you experience a professional disappointment or cannot break through with that first job.

Interviewing is an imperfect science. I suppose there are some wrong answers, but I don't know if there are right ones either. What advice would you give someone who was interviewing for their dream job?

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

History Matters

I picked history because it was the subject I hated the least when I was in high school. I knew I wanted to teach. I knew I loved kids. I knew this was the right profession for me, but picking a subject area was the toughest part of getting started.

Luckily, in what I would consider a common experience for many of us, I fell in love with my subject matter because of a great teacher. It only took 20 years and countless hours of courses, but I knew what I wanted to teach.
Part of the allure of history and social studies, more generally, is how you can teach it. I feel for my math colleagues that are somewhat limited in how they can present their content. In social studies, almost anything goes. While we've been typecast as the "movie show-ers," and the boring story tellers, our discipline becomes more important and more relevant every day, in my opinion. The common core has tied social studies to critical thinking and writing skills that are crucial pieces of communication in life. The 1:1 initiative in many schools has opened so many instructional doors that its hard to keep up. The tech wave that's cresting was made for social studies. 

And while I've recently pushed my students towards current events involving the Donald Sterling tapes or the missing Malaysian airplane saga, I still come back to history. I love the strides social studies has made towards teaching what's really important for kids to know in the 21st century. We've replaced teaching the War of 1812 with the tragedy of September 11th. We talk about the Civil Rights Movement in context of the gay rights and immigration movements of today. We have to bring history to the present day and make it relevant for our students. Kids need those connections, but kids need history too.

I'm wrapping up my final year of teaching Advanced Placement United States History, a course that carries the reputation of being grudgingly difficulty and incredibly tedious. But in studying the highs and lows of our forefathers, I hope my students have felt the weight and importance of our country's past. 

History is rewarding. Dramatic. Restless. Puzzling. Romantic. Inspiring, And in some cases, unfair. 

What a parallel to life. 

Often times, we don't have to look far to find the passion behind what we teach. The importance of our subject matter and its relevance to who we are teaching gives us the answer every time. 

Sunday, April 27, 2014

It Takes a Village...

A screen shot of our GHO on my phone
Today was another day circled on the calendar. Another obligation. Another family function. Another moment that I otherwise take for granted. We are fortunate to have such an amazing support circle and true to form, my son's baptism today was another outpouring of love from our family and friends.

There was something missing though. My sister, who now lives in Italy, is 8 months pregnant and obviously could not fly to be with us today. She and her husband are the godparents. So we did something no one would have dreamed of years ago- we had a Google Hangout and they were were able to see, hear, and share in our special moment. The church could hear them respond when our priest asked them if they were willing to accept responsibly for raising our son in the faith. There's power in that- being 4,651 miles away- yet still, connected.

We are very lucky and very blessed in so many ways. It shouldn't take moments like these to admit that. My son is fortunate to have a village of people raising him. Many of us can probably say the same thing about own own children and families. Unfortunately, for some families, this is far from the case.

I think about my students in times like these. I know for some of our kids, the school is their extended family. Their classmates function as their support circle. Some of their teachers act as mother, father, brother or sister. There's power in that, too.

Maybe it's easier that way. What if we all treat each other like they are a member of our family who is counting on our support. We could recognize that no family is perfect and that all families are different. Members of the family sometimes drift and we could pull them back in.  Other's aren't in the family, but we treat them like the closest of blood relatives. But that's what family is.

School is family- and it takes a village to raise the family's children.

Our school community doesn't ask for this service, we provide it for them. We owe it to our students to be "en loco parentis," and accept them into our circle of support. My personal priorities certainly are shifting these days as I spend a lot more of my free time taking care of my son. But I want to make sure that Diego, Jay, and Stephanie are taken care of- because in a sense- they are family too.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Every Student Deserves a Connection With Their Teacher

Most teachers have a student prototype that makes this job really, really easy. For me, it's a student who does all their homework, asks amazing questions in class, plays sports after school, recites 90's movie lines, and tells me that they want to go to Marquette. When that student walks in my classroom, we already have a relationship and it's gold.

Few students fit that description. Many of my students don't do their homework or enjoy asking questions in class. Most of them could care less about sports or my movie lines. The truth is, the sooner I learned that my students aren't me, the better teacher I became. That's not to say I did all the work, but its more to say, relationships are created and nurtured over time.

I have a student this year that I share very little in common with...

On the first day of school, she visited me in my office to tell me a sob story of why she did not have her summer homework. She was terrified and embarassed. Usually when AP students don't do their summer homework after 11 long weeks to complete it, I'm already raising the red flags.

From that moment, she went about her work quietly and never said a word in class. Her grades on tests were above average and I could see that she was internalizing our system and benefiting from the dilligence to her work. I began to regard her as a serious contender for a 4 or 5 on the AP test, despite knowing all along, that I had invested very little in her success. I hadn't tried hard enough. I did not forge a relationship with this quiet, sweet kid.

A few months ago while grading her notebook, I wrote her a short note apoligizing for not getting to know her better. I told her how impressed I was with her work and how I wanted to be a bigger part of her journey to getting college credit on this exam. I told her I believed in her, because I do. I made sure she read my note. When she did, she shook her head and smiled.

Two weeks later, I was returning tests to my students. As I approched her desk, I looked at her score and was shocked. I handed her the scantron. She looked down and saw her score. It felt like that moment in the movie where the music stops and the audience is left hanging.

She looked up at me with the most amazing smile I've seen. We gave each other a high five and I turned away to avoid welling up in front of my entire class. For the first time all year, she acheived the highest score in the class.

In many cases, we aren't teaching who we are, we are teaching who we aren't.

And while we don't always have a lot in common with our kids, we can create commonalities and value success together. We share in each other's learning and collective success. This particular student of mine has taught me a lot more than I could ever teach her.

Maybe this is a story of neglectful teacher. Perhaps it's a nod to the power of a hand written note. Hopefully as you read this, you feel inspired to reach out to those students who you may not share a lot in common with. Students like her make me realize that if we are uncompromising about anything in our profession, maybe it should be-

Every student deserves a connection with their teacher.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Student Driven Leadership

I recently interviewed with an independent agency whose goal was to find out what kind of leader I am. Through a series of what seemed like 60 questions, we spoke about various topics including handling disputes, navigating resistance, and how to motivate staff towards student achievement. I approached the interview with one goal in mind- keep the focus on the students. That's a very "teacher-y" answer, I know. As a school leader, sometimes its easy to lose that focus the further removed from the classroom we are and the more focused on managing adults we become.

Amber Teamann recently addressed this topic noting most of the decisions we make in schools are geared towards what is best for adults. She posed the following scenarios as evidence:

1. Master schedules are largely based on adult preference.
2. Some teachers will threaten to transfer if they do not get their classroom or schedule they want.
3. Administration will not address average or below average lessons for fear of rocking the boat.
4. Administration will look the other way if a teacher has poor methods but test scores are "fine."

If we look at our schools, we can probably find some evidence of decision making that is best for adults. There is nothing wrong with this. However, it's important that we continue to steer conversations back to what is best for kids. Here are three ways I think we can do it.

1. Support the staff in any way we can.

The moment I experience some sort issue at school, administrators usually respond with, "Let me know if there is anything I can do to help." I appreciate that stance. A supported teacher or staff member has the ability to do what is best for their students. If our ultimate goal is to swing conversations back to what is best for kids, we have to provide the support and the structure to allow the adults to be creative in their own domains.

2. Motivate the staff to be the better versions of themselves.

As a teacher, I believe that successful academic outcomes start with motivated students. Often times, we have to create the energy and drive for our kids. I think the same applies for a school leader working with the staff. Providing positive reinforcement that is both personal and genuine goes a long way in motivating teachers. Teachers deserve credit for incredibly well designed lessons. We should acknowledge our staff when they run through a wall for our kids. We work in a profession of extraordinary effort. Our praise and encouragement of these efforts should be extraordinary too.

3. Manufacture contact with kids whenever we can.

Supporting the initiative of a student driven school starts by listening to the students. Leaders who are in touch with their students can fully understand the pulse and culture of the building. Like a stock, the culture of the building can trend up or down. Its important that school leaders can "hedge" the trend by showing a genuine interest in students' voice. I think this interaction has to happen with student leaders, but also with overlooked groups of students too.

By supporting and motivating staff and keeping a pulse on what students are saying, I think school leaders can continue to shift the pendulum from a focus on their building, to a focus on their students.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Patience, Evaluation, Reflection

In my opinion, the silver screen has experienced a huge renaissance in the last few years. Trying to decide which film I enjoyed the most between Argo, Silver Linings Playbook, The Ides of March, Zero Dark 30, and the Hunger Games is an exercise in futility. Most of those movies, however, are not the type I can watch over and over. Moneyball, the story of a small market baseball team, whose general manager tries to win more by spending less and maximizing his existing talent, is. Moneyball really makes me think.

Recently, I discovered a scene at the end of the movie that provides great insight into our profession and gives us some guidance towards better teaching and leadership. 
When I first started teaching, I wanted to hit home runs everyday. I was blessed with confidence and new ideas from my cooperating teacher, and when I finally got my first job, I was ready to light the world on fire. At the end of that first year, I probably spent more of my time putting out the fires that I created. Even today, I think conscientious and ambitious school leaders want to create groundbreaking changes in our schools. We want to be the ones with the next pioneering idea that changes the game. If Steve Jobs and Bill Gates did it in their fields, maybe we could too.

But in education, the most innovative changes often are enacted with patience, consistent evaluation, and most importantly, reflection.  

Rounding first and heading for second might be something we have never done before. Experimenting with a new lesson can be frightening for a teacher just like presenting a new initiative  might be nerve-racking for an administrator. Even professional development can be intimidating. When I first started using Twitter, I told my wife that this new commitment, "could easily take an hour of my time every day to do it right." Talk about the fear of the unknown

The truth is- we don't have to hit home runs every day. 

Educators who are patient with their students and adapt to the changes in education are exhibiting an important skill in our profession. If we consistently evaluate the effectiveness of our lessons or our initiatives and back it with strong evidence, we can be confident that our ideas are making a difference. Finally, through reflection and conversation, we can humbly assess what needs to change and how we can change it. 

By doing so, we are going to hit plenty of home runs, and not even realize it. 

Monday, January 6, 2014

Don't Live Life in the "Woulds"

I've always felt that a teacher's relationship with their class was unique. The routines, the stories, the laughter, and the lessons are part of a special experience that only the people in that class understand. In the interest of transparency and sharing...

An Open Letter that I'm emailing my students this week...


As you know, we are starting second semester today. As you may not know, we are just 126 days from the National AP US History exam. While we have crossed the halfway point, I'm sorry to say that we are not gearing down. We are gearing up.

As we said at the beginning of the year, you signed up for something different. You signed up for a class that gives you a tremendous opportunity. You are a part of something bigger than just "us." In May, 400,000 students nationwide are going to take this test just like you. Your work, your dedication, and most importantly, "your consistency," will be challenged by some of the best students nationwide, and by the hardest test you can attempt.

On most nights, you will make difficult choices in how to balance your time. I totally understand. I know many of you are extremely committed to your families, extra-curricular activities, and of course, your classwork. I want to give you 3 bits advice before we start second semester:

1. This test rewards consistency.
If you can do your notes well every night..if you can pay attention in class every day...if you can ask questions and challenge me, you, too, will be rewarded. This test is important for your future, but your score will not define you. We want you to earn 4's and 5's. We want you to be able to tell your parents that you just saved 6,000 dollars on your college tuition. But more importantly, we want you to build the habits that allow you to EARN success. Consistent habits help you earn success.

2. Believe in yourself.
Did you know that the median ACT reading score in your class is a 19.8?  That's average by national and state standards. Don't feel bad, all my classes in year's past are the same. Average. Just average.
But you are anything but average. 
If that number meant anything, very few of you would pass the test. 96% of Leyden students have passed this test in the last two years. You are doing everything it takes to be successful. Believe in yourself. I believe in you.

3. Don't live life in the "woulds."
Not the w-o-o-d-s. The w-o-u-l-d-s. I wish I would have... If I only would have... I would have but...
I didn't pass this test in high school. I wish I would have. When you get to college, your test score will matter. You will feel less pressure to finish in four years. You will get to take other classes that feed your passions. But when you get your score in July, you won't think about all that. You will feel pride. You will feel satisfaction. You will feel excited to email me to tell me all about it. What you won't feel is regret. Don't live life in the woulds. Continue to run through a wall for me and I will continue to run through a wall for you.

Welcome back! Let's do this!
Mr. Sharos