Thursday, November 15, 2012

'Tis the season to give thanks!

I have read, posted, re-read, posted again, and have found relevance in this entry each time I forge through it.  It’s a time for giving thanks and no one sums-up this idea better than Randy.   Thanks, Randy, for allowing me to share it once again.  Enjoy your Thanksgiving Vacation.  Jamie. 

Guest Writing – Randy Burlingame
'Tis the season to give thanks!
            When Jamie first asked me to contribute to his Friday Focus, I wasn't quite sure what I could offer.  But, as the Thanksgiving holiday draws near, I began to think about how it might be nice to give thanks for the many great things that make A.A.K. a special place.

            I am thankful for many things here at A.A.K., and as I reflect upon my lengthy time here, I am most thankful for the people whom I often refer to as my "work family."  Seriously, I spend more time with the people in this building than with my "real" family.  My colleagues are more than just co-workers.  They make me laugh when I need to, listen to my frustrations and complaints, give me support when I need it, and genuinely care about me and my well-being.  This family isn't comprised of only Team 7; it extends throughout the building.  This staff has a good time together, in and out of school.  For this, I am thankful.

            I am also thankful for the community spirit that permeates this building.  Walk down any of A.A.K.'s hallways and it's easy to see that every adult and every student is a part of this community.  Each person's role may be different, but when all of those roles are put together, the sense of community in this building is very evident and very real.  Just ask a member of the Schools-to-Watch team that visited earlier this year or ask a substitute who has experience in other buildings or other districts.  They recognize what many of us may take for granted.  For this community spirit, I am thankful.

            Despite what I may lead many of you to believe, I am also thankful for the students of A.A.K.  Our students are really good kids!  Compare them to students in other districts and our worst troublemaker would look angelic to teachers in other places.  If you have any doubt about this, talk to a substitute who has worked at other districts (some not too far away from us).  Do they frustrate us sometimes?  Absolutely!  But, before screaming at (fill in the blank) next time, remind yourself that you could be teaching in one of these other schools.  For our generally well-behaved and respectful students, I am thankful.

            As the Thanksgiving holiday approaches, let me extend a very heartfelt thanks to all of you for helping to make our work setting a pretty great place to come to every day.  Have a great break, don't eat too much, and enjoy your time with your family and friends.


Thursday, November 8, 2012

Organize for Success

This may not be the traditional blog entry that you’re used to.  It’s not about a different strategy or approach to instruction.  It’s not in regards to activities or confirmation of excellence.  It’s not evidence of an epiphany-type event which I experienced.  It’s a very simple fulminate which many of us may be thinking, but don’t place into words.  It has its base in NCLB and RttT, and now I see and hear about schools where premonitions are coming to fruition.  In education, a main task is to create an environment in which all students have an opportunity to learn.  I feel that the very basics of the system designed to help education are, in fact, working against us.

It begins with the premise of NCLB in that all children must be proficient by a given date.  According to Diane Ravitch (2007), the former US Under Secretary of Education, “No nation or state has ever achieved 100 percent proficiency for all of its students, and to create a system that will eventually label every school a “failure” that is unable to achieve the unattainable is likely to breed resignation and a sense of hopelessness on the part of educators.”  These impressions prevent people and organizations from solving problems and improving their situations.  Described by R.M.Kanter (2004), “When people become resigned to their fate, nothing ever changes.  When people are surrounded by the feeling that they are the victims of uncontrollable forces around them – they drag others down with them, finding the worst in everything, or resisting other people’s ideas but offering none of their own.”  This idea is the antithesis of our mission.  Schools needs to be a place where children can find achievement, view the potential in themselves, and struggle and strive for their best.  It must be the avenue for success.  For this to occur teachers have to continue to be problem-solvers and be invested in each child’s success.  This appears to be the vertex of the issue:  teachers are working in a system where they feel helpless to outside forces, feeling undervalued, while trying to provide the exact opposite environment in their classrooms. 

The antidote to despair is hope, but instilling hope requires more than pleasant affirmations and a sunny disposition.  Hope is not a very effective organizational strategy, but organizations can foster hope, optimism, and collective self-efficacy when they have systems which allow people to experience success.  The organizational structure of a school can allow for success.  Teamwork, clear lines of communication, and common planning time will allow the most desperate of teachers an avenue to achieve.  Using the middle-school model, defined in the Essential Elements, will allow any school or organization to breed the positive attributes which will eventually place the educators in control of their success.  A brilliant teacher will not shine in a flawed system.  However, even average teachers can find brilliance in a well-designed system. 

To conclude my rant, I say that we can only have influence over the circumstances within our reach, which happens to be what occurs in our buildings and districts.  Control over “outside factors” is futile and will lead to utter despair.  Look to the Essential Elements to help lead your decision-making.  No school is too large or too small to implement an organizational structure which will enable educators yearning to find success. 

                                                                                                            Have a great weekend.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Parent-Teacher Conferences

Ill never forget those anxious, nail-biting moments when my par­ents—usually my mom—took off for parent-teacher conferences. I wasn’t always the most diligent of students, so I worried. Would I get in trou­ble for combing my hair in social studies class to im­press the girls? (Yes, I actually had hair at one time.) Would I have to begin my science fair project when she got home? The due date was only a few days from now, and in my opinion I had plenty of time remaining to complete the task. Years later, I prepare for my own childs parent-teacher conferences, and I am still nervous. What if my child isnt doing as well as I hoped? What if they’re socializing too much in class? Will the teacher think I’m a bad parent?  This is what goes through the minds of some parents.
Be positive with people and you’ll get positive results (Blanchard, Lacinak, Tompkins, Ballard, & Blanchard, 2002).
As a former coach, I view parent-teacher conferences like a time-out in a game. It is a brief opportunity in a contest (school year) to praise or redirect performances. Todd Whitaker (2004) is known for stating, “Raise the praise and minimize the criticize.” A confer­ence is not the time to vividly describe and elaborate on every single minor classroom disruption, but if critical feedback is necessary it’s often best delivered with a sandwiching technique.
Great teachers help create magical moments and have the ability to ignore minor errors (Whitaker, 2004).
Here are some additional tips for successful conferences that I found from the Illinois Education Association (2000). I hope you will keep these in mind as you prepare for next week’s conferences:
  1. Prepare an outline. How are you going to budget your minimal time with parents?
  2. Gather student samples for praising and for redirecting.
  3. Anticipate possible parent concerns.
  4. Greet each parent with a handshake and a friendly smile.  (I always stood to greet a parent.)
  5. Ask parents if they have any concerns, and reassure parents that their concerns will be addressed.
  6. Before addressing any concern, describe students’ improve­ments or successes since Interims.
  7. Collaborate when addressing any concern. There should be teacher suggestions as well as parent input. Both parties should agree to this strategy. Suggestions may include more parent in­volvement by having parents sign daily agendas, assign­ments, or tests. This may mean more teacher involvement also, such as signing agendas, checking notebooks or binders, or hav­ing a phone or email contact.
  8. End on a positive note.
It is impossible to praise too much as long as it is authentic (Bissell, 1992).
Conferences have provided me with some of my most rewarding mo­ments in teaching. Just as we appreciate praise for our efforts, parents appre­ciate praise for their efforts and their child’s progress. The school calendar may set aside time for parent-teacher conferences each year. However, I believe great teachers know that parent-teacher conferences are held throughout the entire school year. A great teacher keeps the student, the team, and the parents informed at all times.  Enjoy meeting and getting to know the parents of your students.