Instructional Leadership Challenge

As I brainstorm for ways to improve (actually, to initialize) my online presence via discussions and reflections, I have been trolling through my PLN Twitter feeds only to come across a very interesting 21-day program: The Instructional Leadership Challenge. ILC is a free online resource for anyone in a instructional leadership position who may have an impact or influence on other teachers with regard to instructional practices. Naturally, I “clicked here” and found myself starting the program. Here is my day one reflection:

Day How do I facilitate good instruction in my school?

First Truth: IL must be more than holding teachers accountable.
Second Truth: IL is more than simply observations or even “walk-throughs.”

My take on Instructional Leadership might be a bit twisted. To explain this, allow me to introduce you to my leadership role:

I am a middle school head finishing his sophomore year of leadership. My position serves grades 6-8 in a K-12 academic environment. The challenge given to me upon my hiring was to develop a centralized middle school identity. We have incredible teachers, and these classroom leaders had built an incredible learning environment. Imagine many smaller ships traveling together, though not always. My job was to bring us all together, turning many small ships into one, dynamic (and extremely fun) cruise ship. Using our school mission as the vessel, we would travel in the same direction and under the same mission-driven goals.

Ok, so back to the reflection. I see IL as a means to challenge faculty. I see the need for classroom observations both as a motivating tool and as a symbol of my appreciation for the incredible work teachers accomplish every day. Someone once told me that I should be able to observe 10% of the faculty every day. That is a TALL order for someone who is in charge of scheduling, admissions, discipline/remediation, parent meetings, and all those pesky brush fires that pop up throughout the day. But it’s a goal that I want to achieve in my third year as principal.

IL must go far beyond the simple observation or walk-through. My observation plan often includes a pre-observation self-assessment by the teacher, a narrative report on the observation itself, and a post-assessment meeting. This meeting sets challenges while it provides time to brainstorm new and old ideas. As of right now, I do not have a follow-up protocol in place. That is something I need to add.

I see instructional leadership differently than I did two years ago. When I started, I didn’t want to change the way a teacher in my school “did his/her job,” because I wanted to assume they were all doing spectacular work, all of the time. I still believe the latter to be true. However, the moment we stop trying to improve is the moment we need to stop working all together. I believe that is my focal point for IL – I need to facilitate and motivate the overall improvement of the workforce in my school. This is what families expect. Personally speaking, this motivation will help me reach our mission-driven vision. 

Notes from the New Head: Week One in the Books

After one week in a new school, in a new position, working with people I had not even met until a week prior to the school year, it is safe to say that I am entering a trial by fire according to any definition of the phrase. From working with students on academic probation in need of immediate tutoring to developing parent teacher conferences for the first time ever, I am creating and developing programs from the ground floor up.

And I said I wouldn’t be changing anything during year one. To think I could sit back and “observe” for a school year; I laugh at my own idealism. What have I discovered in these past 8 days of classes? The list is growing in real time. Here are a few observations:

I Walked into a Team of Surgeons
There are some FUN teachers here who LOVE their students. All are teachers who are great at their individual jobs but there are some who never had to play for a team. Like a surgeon, each teacher is master of his/her classroom. They have run their personal sandbox with thriving success; yet, there is so much room to grow by stepping out of their room and into a personal learning network…or (again, for some) even attend a conference. The teachers are great instructors, but we have to remember that we are learners first. That is why we love to teach (…because we love to learn). So it will be my job to inspire teachers here to do more. “It’s not what we know; it’s what we do with what we know.” (Will Richardson)

We are a Community in Need of (but Fear) Change
As I took to my desk for the first time, I had many visitors coming into my office to chat about the school they love. And let me be firm: the community here LOVES their school, which is a wonderful characteristic (they have 92% family participation in our Annual Fund…wow!). However, there are some phrases I feared to hear as I entered into a new community with my own ideas:

“Well, let me tell you, we have done something like that in the past, but…”

“I don’t want to tell you how to do your job, but…”

“I know you have your own plans about _________, but just let me tell you…”

I was VERY relieved to hear only remnants of these phrases. Most likely because my job (head of middle school) is new to my school. That’s right: they have never had a full-time head of middle school. It’s been a true delight to get to know the faculty and staff here. They are willing to wade into the deep end of the pool with me…no jumping. And that is fantastic. Considering the new programs I have built into the days ahead, they are surprisingly willing and eager to try something new.

All We do is Win
Listen, boasting has never been a part of my “game,” so I’m not going to start now. However, I am quite humbled at the enormous positivity I have received with the plans I have made in just this first week. In that this position is new, all I do seems to be inventive. But it’s the willingness by the teachers to try something new (as I spoke about before) that makes these new programs look so great. My own creativity appears to know no bounds; however, I am merely duplicating the programs and policies that I have seen work in previous schools. Hopping from one school to the next these past 10 years has finally paid off: I have personal and professional experiences that have aligned perfectly with my new school. They embrace my thoughts and ideas, and I look like the Wizard coming to save the day in the land of Oz. I wouldn’t say my efforts are illusions, but just like the Wizard…there is a lot more behind the curtain.

Traditional, Phenominal Learning
Today I made a couple of “pop-in” observations in some classes. One class I went into was a small, intimate French class. Sixth graders are working with their teacher (who teaches all levels in middle school). They weren’t using technology, and they weren’t reciting verb forms or the week’s vocabulary. They were conversing in French! Sure, there were a lot of responses in English by the students, but they were able to understand and participate…which they all did without hesitation. Boys and girls, speaking with each other and with smiles on their faces. A great sight to see in what I hope is a typical French class. The best part happened after class: the teacher, walking to her next class, stopped by my office and sheepishly knocked on the door.

“Were we being too loud?” she asked.
“No…why do you ask?” I responded.
“Well, do you need to talk to me? I haven’t had anyone visit my classroom before.”
“No,” I said. “I am simply popping in to see how French class is going.”
“Oh, how nice! Come by any time!”

…and another win.

6 Words to Define Me

I am taking a course with the PLP Network called “Educational Leadership in the Digital Age.” I have been through a year-long program with PLP, and I have gained so much in the way I approach my own learning and that of my students. Though I am an educator who very much enjoys the opportunity to inspire my students, the PLP program (called the Connected Learner Experience) I participated in sent my excitement for teaching into overdrive. The PLP program strives to give educators new tools to develop themselves as learners first, encouraging us to rethink our own job descriptions. Rather than become a knowledge delivery service, we search for ways to inspire our students to do more with their knowledge and abilities. As Will Richardson, a founding member of the program, says: “It’s not about what you know, but about what you do with what you know." If your school is looking for a way to take educators into the next century as connected learners, I highly suggest this program.

But now that I have marketed the heck out of the PLP program (you’re welcome), I want to speak about what I am learning right now. After just one week, the instructor has me stretching my way of thinking so that I can mold my leadership position to be one of constant learning. As a new administrator, I come to my role with many ideas, and wonderful models to reference as I build a community and empower the faculty with whom I will work. But there is a bigger, greater mission. I want everyone in the building I direct to want to do more. I want them to do greater things than they imagined. I believe it can be done. Here is a "6-Word Story” I created to describe my thought:


Yes, so the sentence is hijacked from the recent reboot of Star Trek. The admiral tells James Kirk, then just a farm boy from Iowa, that his father saved countless individuals in the few moments he was a ship’s captain (prior to that ship being destroyed). He dares Kirk to do better than his father.

The image is one of the Battleship Texas and the San Jacinto monument, surrounded in a mist of low fog. I saw this picture, and I thought about science meeting engineering, about the known world and what potentially lies behind the fog. I see the strength of man rising above the unknown in a tower to overlook the world around her. This picture tells the story of how we built great things to overcome that which we do not know. We had to do more with the little we understood to open the next door.

As educators, we must inspire others (namely our students) to do more. But I think there is more to this. I think we need our students to know that we have NO IDEA what this challenge entails. In other words, I feel like we need to empower our students to search for what “better” really is…for each one of them. Our job as educators is not to provide them with knowledge, but discover what to do with this knowledge. We need to grant them the gift of self-discovery and possibility.

I dare you to do better.