Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Trying to scare teachers to death

They've tried.

They've tried really hard.

It seems like there is a conspiracy to scare teachers to death.

In fact, they have tried to scare almost anyone who works for a public school to death.

The dominant narrative is that public schools have failed, students don't learn, and teachers (and other public school employees) are to blame.

Yet, every day teachers and principals and bus drivers and food service workers and tech support staff and preschool teachers show up and do their job.


Because instead of focusing on those people who say public schools don't work, those that work for public schools focus on doing their job. When students are waiting for the bus, they bus driver shows up. When students want to eat, the food service staff provides lunch. When students want to learn, teachers are there to help.

The people who have tried to scare us to death are the people who have never been the teacher, the bus driver, the food service worker. They don't visit our schools. They don't ride our buses. They don't cook our meals. They haven't coached our teams, led our choirs, directed our bands and orchestras.

The student who just threw up - the teacher took care of that. And then continued teaching.

The student who threatened to beat up Jimmy - the bus driver talked him down. And continued driving the bus.

The student who finally aced the exam - the teacher silently celebrated while the student told all her friends about how hard she worked.

There are things that go on every day in a school that only those who work in a school understand and know how to handle. There are reasons to celebrate, reasons to worry, reasons to stand back, and reasons to jump in.

It's not that those who work in public schools aren't scared. It's that those who work for public schools understand that the students in our schools, the children in our communities need what happens in school. So they show up. They do their jobs. They figure out the answers to the problems. They dance when there are reasons to celebrate.

So you might as well give up trying to scare us. We aren't going away. We are going to show up every morning to do our jobs.

And . . . we will do them well.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

My most important job

What is the most important thing I do everyday?

Let me re-phrase that. What is the most important job I am supposed to do everyday?

This summarizes it fairly well.


I am like most of you. I have a lot of "important" things to do each day. I can often inflate my sense of self by listing everything that I should get done each day.

I also depend on others to get a lot of things done. 

In schools there are a lot of things to do every single day.

But the most important thing I should do each day is let the people I care about know that I care about them.

If I do that - everything else will begin to fall in place.

That does not mean that I don't focus on all of those important things. Budgets, teacher evaluations, administrative evaluations, Board of Education relations, policy, student discipline, bus issues, parent complaints, building issues, morale, state assessments, legislative mandates. The list could go on.

I am not supposed to forget those things. I am not supposed to spend my day expressing to others that I care about them and not get my job done.

But in the midst of all those things people should know that they are more important than the job. 

Sometimes I forget that. Sometimes I am sure that I communicate to people that who they are, what they care about, what they want to accomplish in their life is not nearly as important as getting the job done.

And that's not right.

Every one should know that they are important first. Then the job will get done.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Have we created a system that encourages us to be liars?

In an interesting reflection in the New York Times Dr. Sandeep Jauhar says:

The doctor-patient relationship is ideally an intimate partnership 
where information is exchanged openly and honestly. 
That is seldom the reality, however.  

He identifies the variety of lies and deceptions that are either accepted or tolerated:

  1. Lies that patients tell doctor
  2. Lies doctors tell patients
  3. Lies doctors tell themselves
As I read this article I thought about schools. 

Have we created a system that encourages lying?

We have a variety of relationships in education. Student and teacher - clearly the most important relationship. But we also have the parent and teacher, teacher and teacher, teacher and administrator, administrator and Superintendent, Superintendent and the Board of Education, and the district and the community.

For these relationships to flourish, there must be, as Dr. Jauhar suggests, a "partnership where information is exchanged openly and honestly." 

I have been in every one of these relationships. Creating an honest relationship is difficult. In each relationship there comes a point and a time where deception, while not warranted, is considered and often becomes a tool that is used.

Harsh? Too pointed?


A Superintendent is evaluated by the Board of Education. How honest should the Superintendent be? If student achievement is trending down, does the Superintendent identify it clearly or does the Superintendent paint a picture that deflects and shifts responsibility to others - staff, parents, lack of community support?

A parent asks about her child's performance. How honest should the teacher be? The data suggests that the student needs additional focused assistance. Does the teacher make the case or soft-pedal it?

A principal evaluates a teacher. The teacher needs improvement. How honest should the principal be? The principal knows the teacher has had a difficult year. Is the context important?

A teacher grades a test. The student fails. Does the teacher have a conversation with the student? Does the teacher clearly identify her concern? How honest should the teacher be? Does the teacher begin to consider what the parent will say? Does the teacher begin to consider what the principal will say?

Dr. Jauhar concludes his article with these words:

In the end, we all practice a certain amount of self-deception. 

But when it originates in the doctor-patient dyad, 
patients are usually the worst victims.

The same words could be used for the relationships in education. Self-deception hurts us all. but it hurts the students most. 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Data - hammer or flashlight?

Is student achievement data a hammer or a flashlight?

Clearly student achievement data provides information. It identifies student performance on a variety of assessments. We get state assessments like the MEAP. We get national assessments like the NWEA. We even have teacher created assessments.

All provide insight into student performance. But how are we supposed to use the information that these assessments provide?

The obvious answer, to me at least, is that I want student achievement data to be a flashlight. I want to use data to help people see, to light the way, to help illuminate things that otherwise would not be seen.

Using data as a flashlight also lessens data as a threat. People - administrators, students, teachers, parents, and community members - come to see that we are trying to use data to move forward. We are not interested in punishing people. We want to use data to help us find answers.

But data, truthfully, is a hammer. It is a hammer because people personalize it. Results are seen as a direct reflection on them. Teachers see it as a reflection on their teaching. Students see it as a reflection on who they are, not as a chance to take a pulse check. Parents see it as a reflection on them as a person and a referendum on their parenting.

Data is also a hammer because states are mandating that we make judgements about people using data. Data becomes one of the measures that we are required to use in evaluations. We rate teachers effective or ineffective based, in part, on data.

Data used in this way becomes a hammer.

But this must change. Student achievement data must be seen as a flashlight. Data gives information. With information we can see a way forward.

Student achievement data allows us to ask questions. Does the achievement of the students reflect their ability? Why or why not? How does the student achievement data give you insight into your own instructional practice? What is working? What doesn't work?

These questions are asked not to point fingers and assign blame. Instead the questions are asked to guide us. The questions light the way. Helping all of us to improve. A flashlight not a hammer.

Those of us in leadership have to make a conscious and deliberate effort to communicate that we believe data is a flashlight. It provides insight. In our conversations, in our writing, in our off-handed commentary we must make sure that our message is consistent - data is a flashlight.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Let's fire all the third grade teachers!

The Detroit Pistons fired their coach today (Sunday, February 9). Mo Cheeks was hired just last summer. Several months and fifty games later he is done.

Maurice Cheeks
Pistons owner Tom Gores simply said, "Our record does not reflect our talent and we simply need a change."

Results matter. 

Yet, this seems a little premature.

Tom Gores, the owner, fired Cheeks. As it should be. He hired Cheeks. Just last summer, Mr. Gores said, "After spending some time with Maurice, I was very impressed not only with his basketball knowledge but his communication and leadership skills."

Yet, now Mr. Gores clearly is no longer impressed. Mr. Gores did not say anything about Mr. Gores' lack of performance. 

And so it goes. Those that are hired are fired. Those that hire basically say its not their fault. 

Teachers in Michigan know how that feels. 

Michigan's state legislature has created a teacher evaluation system that requires a "student growth" component. It seems that teachers are being blamed.

Let's be clear. It is critically important that our students learn. 

And teachers are hired to teach students. So it would seem natural that if students do not learn we could blame the teachers. After all, "with our talent . . "

But that's not fair. Oh, certainly, teachers need to be able to demonstrate that students are learning. That is their job - to teach.

But those of us who hire, the Superintendents, the Boards of Education, we need to do our part. We need to focus on class size, support, materials, buildings, professional development. 

We are in this together. 

We can't fire all the third grade teachers. It would not be fair. It would not be appropriate. 

Instead, I need to listen to the teachers. What do they need to do their job? What is making their job difficult? How can I help? 

I need to support teachers not fire them.

Mr. Gores can fire Mo Cheeks.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

I don't want to be that guy!

We all have met this guy.

He's unpleasant. He thinks he is more important than everyone else. He thinks he knows more than everyone else. (He probably does - but that is not really the point.)

He puts people down. He rolls his eyes. He doesn't listen.

He's a bully.

He's also a doctor.

Photo by China Daily/Reuters

Read the article "Medical Disrespect."

As I read this article I thought about our schools. Replace doctor for the principal, the teacher, the Superintendent.

Please don't let me be this guy!

These bullying actions can cost lives in a hospital. Surely the outcomes are not that dramatic in schools?

But they are. Teachers hesitate to share their struggles because they are afraid their colleague will not be supportive, that their principal will not listen and the openness will result in a lower evaluation, and that the Superintendent will react harshly.

Student performance suffers because people refuse to be open, honest, collaborative.

The article states,

Disrespect is a threat to patient safety because it inhibits 
collegiality and co-operation essential to teamwork, cuts off communication, undermines morale, and inhibits compliance with and implementation of new practices. 

In my mind this could apply to schools. Disrespect is a threat to student achievement. Collegiality and cooperation disappear. Professional learning communities, central to much of the work that we now do, cannot survive in a disrespectful culture. Communication, morale - central to creating an atmosphere that promotes innovation and learning - are compromised.

Schools, like hospitals, are people-focused cultures. If we are to create a culture that supports student achievement we must create a culture where people are treated humanely, where behavior that is rude or mean or belittling is not tolerated.

We must commit ourselves to creating a culture that treats colleagues and students humanely. If we really are concerned about improving student achievement we can do nothing less.