Saturday, August 1, 2015

Get Out of the Way! (Of Great Teachers)

One of the biggest errors I see new principals make is that they get in the middle of everything! In their newness, full of energy, excitement, and ideas, they want to be smack dab in the middle of everything! Instead of building a strong, solid, and simple framework for teachers to operate within and focusing on the goals and results, they begin to dabble in the action items and steps to reach those goals. I believe whole heartedly that teachers can usually find their own way with the right support and guidance, but muddying up the details isn't support and isn't guidance. It's micromanagement.

As a leader, I view my role in this way:

1. Clarify the vision. Make it as clear as possible. Focus the expectations. Keep it simple.

2. Repeat the vision often. Keep it simple. If you can't say it in one sentence it's probably too much. Support teachers as they work to make the vision a reality. Give them the tools and support needed to meet collective goals. (Don't tell them what to do. This is where many get it wrong. Ask them what they need from you to meet the goals you've collectively set. Focus on their development as people not on monitoring whether or not they've done tasks x, y and , z! )

3. Celebrate their accomplishments. Create a sense of urgency for goals not yet met. Repeat steps 1 and 2.

I believe Fullan is one of the greatest writers on the tight-loose-tight leadership model. The focus is on the development of a strong system, not on a plethora of micro details. When the leader develops an effective system (think picture frame) the details take care of themselves. We can move from putting out fire after fire to refining the system-designing an effective mechanism for teaching and learning as our teachers do hard and challenging work.

When we focus our efforts as leaders on the development of a great system, the details take care of themselves. This is why I believe whole heartedly in the Professional Learning Communities model. The premises are incredibly clear and simple although implementation of it as a system of teaching and learning is incredibly hard. It emphasizes the tight loose tight model. Tight-a strong focus on what kids should know and be able to do. Loose- utilize collective inquiry to develop and refine common formative assessments and analyze the data to inform our teaching. Tight- focus on the learning not teaching. Take a close look at the results to determine who learned what we wanted them to learn. Refine.

Great leaders are skilled at clarifying the vision. They make it so clear that teachers feel confident and purposeful in their work as well as empowered. When teachers reach goals they feel the sense of mastery and professional autonomy that human behavior requires to continually grow and learn. Great leaders celebrate the efforts of teachers.

So my challenge to all principals is simply this: Ask yourself, How clear is your vision? How focused are you in your communication to teachers? Are you sending one clear message? Are you working on the frame, the system, or standing smack dab in the middle of the picture?

If you hear crickets when you ask yourself those questions, get out of the way of... great teachers!

Until next time-be you, be true, be a hope builder.
Latoya
@latoyadixon5

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Quality trumps quantity. Always.

As we enter the upcoming school year, I am reminded that how much we do will never matter if we don't do any of it well. What I know and feel as a leader is that there is no greater task for administrators than to clarify and focus the work of teachers. When teachers are able to articulate the focus of their work in one simple statement, there is a greater potential for us to excel. The quality of our work will be better.

So often in this rewarding, yet challenging field we are tempted to try a little bit of everything. We treat our work like a buffet of great desserts. We can't just choose one. They are all so good we want to have a taste of it all. We end up with a smorgasbord of great strategies. We go to a workshop or attend a professional development and hear of another great strategy and think-We have to do this! As a result, we end up trying to do it all, but rarely doing anything well except for being able to check boxes on a list to say, " Yes! We're doing that!" 

Too often educational leaders miss the mark in the art of simplification. When we simplify and focus the complex work teachers are asked to do, we increase the quality of the work. Our effectiveness is a result of quality work. It is not connected to the quantity of strategies we are pushing teachers to execute. Being able to make the complex simple is a skill that is developed over time. It is not easy and requires a great deal of strategic thought. You must plan with an intention to focus. Just like taking a photograph, the initial picture in the frame isn't focused. It is in the second and third steps, that the picture becomes clearer. It is with the help of lighting and being sure one has the best angle that produces the clearest picture. 

So my goal for the year is quite simple. Focus. Clarify the vision. Recognize that every interesting or neat idea doesn't have to be executed. Forget the checkboxes. Instead of talking about all we are doing, work to be able to say, "Here's what we are focused on and here's what we do well." 
Simply put-quality trumps quantity. Instead of asking yourself are we doing this and this and this, ask yourself what are we doing well? If you hear crickets, adjust the light and the lens and...focus! 

Until next time-be you, be true. Be a hope builder!
Latoya
@latoyadixon5

Friday, July 17, 2015

Our Kids Are #semicolonedu Too!

According to projectsemicolon.com, 
"Project Semicolon (The Semicolon Project) is a faith-based non-profit movement dedicated to presenting hope and love to those who are struggling with depression, suicide, addiction and self-injury. Project Semicolon exists to encourage, love and inspire." You can find more information on their website projectsemicolon.com and/or follow the #semicolonedu hashtag on Twitter to get an idea of what it's all about. 

For far too long, (in my not so humble opinion) schools have ignored the mental health crisis in our schools. While the #semicolonedu hashtag has mostly been about educators sharing their personal struggles with depression and the like, I've longed for a conversation that also focuses on what our students are often struggling with as well. When I began my career as a teacher in 1999, I never considered that any of my students might be struggling with mental illness. Aside from the now ever so common ADD/ADHD, it really did not cross my mind. Despite having an aunt who struggled with mental illness for most of my childhood until her death in early January of my freshmen year in college, I did not even think that any of "my kids" might be depressed or suicidial.
Fast forward to 2014, where I now serve as a middle school co-principal in a Title I school and I find myself having weekly conversations with my colleague and co-principal about the high rates of depression among our students. It's rampant. Guidance counseling has taken on an entirely new dimension. Kids are cutting themselves. They are lonely and depressed. Many are struggling with feeling any sense of self-worth. Our counselors are spending a great deal of time connecting students and their parents to outside mental health agencies for greater assistance. 
This inspires me to push and continue saying we need mental health workers and counselors inside our schools. We can no longer view it as an outside service. The struggles our kids face can't be measured by any state standardized test, but it certainly impacts their achievement when they don't get the help they need and deserve. What will it take for mental health to become a structural part of our educational system just like lunch? It is needed as much as our kids need lunch each and every day.
My aunt was an awesome person. She was incredibly funny and by far the best braider in the family. I miss her dearly. I often wonder if there was ever one educator in her life who thought that perhaps there might be some sort of imbalance. In her memory, I realize that I can be a voice to those who need help and don't know where or who to turn to for help. I can spend time listening to the student who feels hopeless. I can give my attention to the student who is depressed. I can work my hardest to share a little hope with them and try my best to advocate for them in the best way I know how. 
The semicolon project is all of us. Everyone of us knows someone who struggles with anxiety, depression, or the like. Some of us have our own battles with it. We all have the power and responsibility to help the students who we interact with each day as best we can. Our kids are the semicolon project too.
Until next time-be you, be true, be a hope builder!
-Latoya
@latoyadixon5