May 26, 2006

Administrative Awakening?

I recently met with an old friend and former principal who responded to my previous essays on principals and administration with this email note:

Your ideas on administration are right-on. Of course, you would try to do too much, but that's what makes a good educator. You'll never get everything you want, but the goal setting increases the possibility of getting much of it. When you are finally ready to recognize the sacrifice of giving up teaching can mean dividends for other teachers and their students, you'll begin to think about administration. If that day never comes it's perfectly OK. However, the fact you're thinking about these things puts you in danger of acting on them....

He also just happens to be the interim Dean of Education at our local University. I think I'm in real trouble here. So how does it sound, "Cal Administrator Blog"? Not quite as catchy, but maybe...

What really struck me about what he wrote was, "When you are finally ready to recognize the sacrifice of giving up teaching can mean dividends for other teachers and their students, you'll begin to think about administration." Isn't “dividends for other teachers and their students” what I've been writing about? Does taking the next step mean that I have to leave the classroom?

We also spoke about my teaching at the University level. I'd like to be the first face a teacher candidate sees in his or her teacher education program. The one who asks the question, "Are you ready to become a teacher?" And, "Why have you chosen teaching?" Followed up by, "What are your goals in education?" That would scare at least a few of the meek away. I could be like James Naughton in the Paper Chase, "You come in here with a skull full of mush and you leave thinking like a..." teacher.

Am I experiencing an administrative awakening, or something else? Is this simply a "grass is always greener" moment? I don't think so. I must be crazy. Most of the teachers I know and spend time with would never consider a move to administration. Those people are the suits! So why is it nagging at me? Why am I writing about administration? What have the last six months of blog entries really been all about? Is this the natural conclusion?

I am afraid that if I become an administrator that I will spend my days suspending students and attending meetings that have nothing to do with improving the experience students have in the classroom. Well, I guess they might, but not with the direct influence I currently enjoy. My friend described administrators as the “teacher of teachers.” That’s what I want to do, not spend my day on the phone with Johnny’s parents because he’s been a naughty boy, or arguing for more funding because my budget is in the red.

I’ve been investigating credential programs. I haven’t even paid off my Master’s degree yet and here I am considering going further into debt. I’m still paying off my teacher credential loans and that was 12 years ago. I have a few options to consider, but I’ll end up taking the path that gets me to the goal the fastest and with the least amount of time spent away from home. I like online courses (naturally).

The other thing that concerns me about administration is the increased time commitment. Right now I enjoy my afternoons with my baby daughter and being available to attend all of my sons’ baseball games. I’m afraid that I’d have to forfeit some of that personal time to be on campus later, longer, and for more days during the year. The brighter side of that concern is the increased income. The pay scale in my district shows our principal earning 6 figures. That would be nice. But money is not my main motivation, and never has been. If it had, I wouldn’t have chosen education as a career path in the first place.

As far as trying to “do to much,” is concerned, well, I spend a portion of my free time each week writing a blog about teaching that is not widely read or recognized so… I am already trying to “do to much.” Maybe as an administrator my efforts would be put to better and for effective use. Imagine if I required my staff to read my blog entry each week. They’d hate me.

However, I have already considered the first person that I would hire wherever I ended up administrating. She is a substitute teacher here completing her pupil personnel service credential. She was also the Pep Commissioner during her senior year when I was the ASB Advisor. We established an excellent working relationship. She is hard working, dedicated, brilliantly intelligent, and passionate about education. A perfect employee. I wonder how many more like her that I could find to staff my school? Email your resumes to…

Just as I believe that teaching chose me (to the point that that is possible), if I am to become an administrator, the process will be much the same. I had to be convinced to substitute teach, but once I did, I was hooked from the first day. I’ve already performed some quasi-administrative duties at my school. I’ve enjoyed working with my colleagues in leadership positions. I’ve received some positive feedback, and some suggestions for improvement. I’m not yet as excited about administrative leadership as I was about teaching, but that could change.

Often we don’t see ourselves as others see us. I am guiltier of this than most. I am reluctant to change and if it weren’t for my wife, I’m convinced that I would still be stuck somewhere in 1991 (the year that we were married). I rely on the advice and perspective of those around me to help me make the best decisions possible. I’ve been consulting my friends and family seeking their guidance on this decision to make the administrative change. I haven’t made up my mind yet. If you are an administrator, or have ever considering taking the leap, I’d be interested in your observations and experience to help me make this decision.

Please post your comments below.

May 20, 2006

Diplomas Matter?

Earning a high school diploma is a great achievement. It’s one of the challenges that most Americans share and that unite us as a community. From kindergarten to senior year we follow a structured schedule of demanding courses that do more than simply teach us to read, write and add. The diploma at the end of the journey represents a lifetime of accomplishment earned through a rigorous and common course of study and reflects a mature level of preparation for adult life.

There seems to be a philosophical battle between those who recognize the personal and social importance of receiving a high school diploma, and those who understand the intellectual and academic impact of earning a high school diploma. It feels like the personal and social group is winning the war when employers continue to complain about the inadequate job public schools do preparing the work force. It seems like every year we hear about more and more public schools that graduate or promote students into the world without teaching them to read, write and add at the most basic level.

However, California schools today are more focused than ever on rigorous standards and common assessments to make sure that the students do meet at least the most basic levels of proficiency. The current push in California is for all high school students to meet the A-G requirements as determined by the University of California whether or not they plan on attending college. There is additional pressure being applied by California Career Technical Education to teach more vocational education courses that incorporate the standards and better prepare students for the job market. And yet there remains a population of students who either fail to graduate, or instead receive their diplomas without mastering basic skills.

In an effort to ensure the high school diploma maintains its relevance, the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) was recently mandated by the California Department of Education as a requirement for graduation. The CAHSEE is intended to prevent students in California from receiving a high school diploma without first proving that they can indeed read, write and add as assessed on a standardized exit exam.

Last week an Alameda County superior court judge issued an injunction that may remove the requirement for the class of 2006. In an article from the Redlands Daily Facts posted on May 14, 2006, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell said, “The preliminary injunction against California's exit exam denies the vast majority of students in the Class of 2006 the opportunity to graduate with diplomas that certify mastery of essential skills in reading and math, and it's bad news for California students who have worked hard to pass the exit exam."

If diplomas don’t, “certify mastery of essential skills in reading and math,” then what do they certify? Is the high school diploma losing its value? Why isn’t the course work completed over 13 years of study adequately preparing some students at even the most basic level? The CAHSEE graduation requirement promotes it to significance almost equal to the catalog of course work required of students to earn their diploma. The effect is huge. Students still have to earn a predetermined number of credits in a variety of subject areas to graduate, but without the CAHSEE, their course work is insufficient to earn them a diploma.

In recent years, California high schools have focused major class time and resources to preparing all students to pass the CAHSEE test. If a student fails the CAHSEE on their first attempt as a sophomore, their elective course choices in some high schools are restricted to review courses designed to help them pass. Students who fail the CAHSEE on subsequent attempts are put at the front of the scholastic line and given even more resources to help them attain the skills needed to pass the test, and ultimately receive a diploma.

O’Connell also stated, "we do no favors to students who have not mastered basic skills by handing them a diploma," he said. "We can better serve those students by helping them to complete their education. I look forward to appealing the case so that, at the end of the legal day, the exit exam will stand as an important measure of accountability in California schools."

How is it possible that students who “have not mastered basic skills” can still receive a diploma? How large are the cracks and how deep are the chasms these students are falling into? So long as social promotion continues to be a normal and acceptable practice, and students continue to move between districts and campuses without a strong support mechanism to ensure an appropriate transfer and placement, kids will continue to fall behind. Add to that the large immigrant population in California pouring students into the system late in their academic careers and it’s not hard to see why some kids struggle to master basic skills despite our best educational efforts.

Accountability in California schools is crucially important. Measuring accountability by a single standardized exit exam that all students must pass in order to receive a diploma may not be as crucial. The problem is the “all” part of the statement. Of course we need a measurement by which “all” students can be assessed. But isn’t that what their course work already measures? How do we design a single test that equally assess a student who was born and raised in California and spent 13 years in the education system the same way it assesses a student who has just moved here from the Philippines and is just learning English?

Diplomas matter. They are a significant and consequential document, not just a simple symbol of mastery of the most basic skills. This year at graduation when we watch our students walk through the gateway of destiny and out into the world armed with their diplomas we should be confident that they are more than adequately prepared for whatever new challenges await them.
5-25-2006 UPDATE

EXIT EXAM REINSTATED Today, the Supreme Court of California issued a stay in the case of Valenzuela v. O’Connell, regarding the California High School Exit Examination (CAHSEE). The stay reinstates the requirement that public school students pass the CAHSEE in order to graduate from high school.

Please post your comments below.

May 14, 2006

Moments Matter?

Kids need to know we care about them. That it’s important to you that they come to class everyday and give their best effort. By taking a moment to talk to them personally they come to understand that you care not just about their attendance but also about their personal success.

Some people call them “teachable moments.” But that term generally refers to those moments during class when your instruction takes an unscheduled but welcomed turn. While those moments are very important, and can be wonderful affirmations of our efficacy as teachers, the more personal moments we spend with students, when we make a connection between individuals, has an even greater impact.

When I was student teaching high school English my master teacher gave me a great tool for the last six weeks of school. During the first week in May he gave the students a list of vocabulary words, short stories, and essays that they could complete at their own pace without direct instruction (having already occurred). It was an opportunity for the students to work independently while the teacher began to close out the school year. Brilliant.

I’ve used this technique ever since to great success. By the end of the third quarter I am effectively finished with any type of instruction and students are heavily involved in completing both group and individual assignments due in late May and June. At this time of year I am freed up to grade projects, and work more closely with students. Since the format of the day is less teacher-focused and more student-structured, I am able to move around the room checking in with groups and answering individual questions.

More than any other time during the school year, I now have opportunities to develop and refine relationships with the students. These relationships often lead off topic and into the kids’ more personal concerns. For example, one of my students stopped me after school Friday to ask for my guidance concerning a close friend of his involved in drugs. I counseled him the best I could. Another student just bought his first Jeep. I gave him some suggestions as to where to go for service and parts.

These conversations may not be a regular part of the curriculum, but the impact on the students is long lasting. Of course I would never commit an entire hour to Jeep repair, but within the context of a working environment, there should be time allowed for sharing beyond the confines of the class work. Students learn from teachers in obvious and intentional ways as well as ways unseen and unplanned.

My high school Algebra and Geometry teacher was named Bob. Bob loved to tell us stories about his time in the war. We soaked it up like syrup on pancakes. Students learn from us when we share our stories. But storytelling is only one-way communication. Dialogue is a far more effective tool when we pay attention to who they are and are willing to connect at a level they understand.

This year my advanced students are a little nutty. Enthusiastic, exuberant, and fun to spend time with for sure, but they are also a little bit out of control from time to time. One of their assignments is a 5-minute personal project video. One student is recording different dance styles to put to music. He wants to include my dancing in his project. I’m no dancer; but I do feel the “movement of the beat” occasionally. I’m a good sport so I let him record just a few seconds of my moves.

Another thing I have time for at this time of year are letters of recommendation. Taking a moment to write a letter about a student for their college application or personal portfolio is important. I am always shocked, usually in good ways, by the things people write about me. I just don’t see myself the way others do, and neither do our students. A great deal of positive good can be achieved through taking a few moments to write down your observations about a student in a professional format that can be used to expand their horizons. I’ve even written a few letters to vouch for the good character of students facing expulsion. Those letters can sometimes by difficult to phrase correctly. However, taking time to write a short positive letter that helps a reformed student return to school is worth anybody’s time.

I don’t have an office, so like Fonzie in the men’s room, when I need a private moment to speak frankly with a student we have to step outside my classroom. I have had many important, perhaps even life-changing, discussions with kids I felt needed to hear an adult speak honestly with them about their choices. Without judgment or pretense I have shared my perspective and what I hope was useful experience. (I made enough rotten choices in my own life to be an expert.)

It’s in these moments that our job as teacher transcends the cold distance between lecture and desk and takes on an intimacy when lives truly can be changed. Not all teachers are comfortable with sharing their life stories, or taking the time to get to know their students, and that’s fine. But it is the teachers who do put forth the extra effort who will be remembered fondly by their students.

Every morning in the fall a young lady walked into my classroom looking down at the floor, sat at her desk, and would not talk to anyone unless she was forced to. I got into the habit of welcoming her to the classroom every time she walked through the doorway. For the first few weeks she would wait outside for other students to walk in, and then hide behind them so I wouldn’t see her come in. That never worked. Eventually she would show a small smile when she heard me say, “howdy.” At the semester break she was moved into sixth period. A few weeks later she began to say hello to me when she walked into class. Quiet and shy, if anyone else was speaking near me I would miss her greeting. Now, every day she walks into class with a bright smile and makes sure I hear her say, “hello.”

The little moments we take to acknowledge our students matter a lot more than we might think. With all of the standards, and test preparation teachers are required to do today, it’s not easy to take time to communicate to the kids that they are important individuals, not just test takers, worthy of our personal time and attention.

Please post your comments below.

May 07, 2006

Classrooms Matter?

“You’re in a good mood today,” a student remarked.

“Always,” I replied.

“Its a great class,” another responded.

The environments we create in our classrooms matter to our students. Our classrooms are our spaces, our kingdoms, our universes, and when our students enter our dominion they should feel invited, welcome, and comfortable. We’ve all been present in someone’s classroom that felt cold and inhospitable. Most university classrooms are that way: sterile, undecorated, and impersonal. But that’s at the university. College students are self-motivated, focused, and already committed to their education. The students we teach are not. They need more from us then just our assignments and our assessments. Kids need our personal attention, and that starts the moment they pass over the threshold and into our classrooms.

In my classroom I display some artwork, a few posters, notes on the whiteboards, and a bulletin board of important information. The desks are arranged in “pods” of six that work efficiently for both individual and group computer work. I can move around the room and through groups of kids with ease. One wall is full with windows that reveal a huge oak tree, a view of the 1938 theatre building, and a staff parking lot. The room was recently renovated and is now carpeted. I have a fairly reliable air conditioning unit on the roof. The building was constructed in the late 1940’s or early 1950’s and shares the typical architecture of that time. But none of these things that make up this classroom actually make up this classroom. The kids don’t come to this classroom everyday to view the artwork, stare at the oak tree, or enjoy the air conditioning. They come to classroom to enjoy the company of their teacher, and maybe to learn something.

Classrooms are as unique as the teachers that occupy them and should be a direct reflection of the teacher’s personality and educational philosophy. Elementary classrooms are different than middle or high school classrooms. But the same techniques that create warmth in an elementary classroom will work in the high school classroom as well. From posters on the walls, to seating arrangements, to the display of the American Flag, the classroom should be not only a haven for learning, but also a feel-good safety-zone for the children. Positive messages should penetrate the atmosphere coming from the visual decorations as well as the teacher.

Do your students look forward to coming to your class? Not just look forward to the learning the day’s lesson (although that is vitally important), but do they look forward to being in your presence? Sometimes teachers can take advantage of their position because of the captive audience. Kids really don’t have a choice when it comes to enrollment. Sure, a parent can request a teacher or period change, but most of time, once a child becomes your pupil they are stuck in your classroom.

Elective teachers understand this better than most core subject instructors. We live and die by the number of students enrolled in our classes. Next year, for the first time since I began teaching multimedia, I will probably not teach a full six-period day because not enough students signed up for my classes. That is not a symptom of me personally, but of the stringent requirements and prerequisites I have built into my courses to avoid becoming the campus dumping ground. (I’m planning on writing more about that soon.)

Here comes another heretical statement: teachers should entertain their students. Education is not, and should not be competitive. However, because most teachers do not compete for students, many teachers do not work as hard as they should to capture and hold on to the attention of their pupils. I am not suggesting that a course in stand-up comedy should be added to all the already nutty teacher prep programs. But there is nothing wrong with having fun in the classroom while learning is happening. Everyone is more comfortable and at ease when they are laughing and enjoying the moment. We release tension and relax. Add a little laughter to the beginning of a stressful day of testing, or in-depth day of study and you’ll get students who test better and work harder. Plus it’s just more fun.

I’ve already written that I believe school should be fun. That generated a lot of surprising discussion. Some teachers reject that idea that classrooms should be anything other than learning laboratories. That’s fine for some teachers, and some subjects, at some developmental levels, when appropriate. However, I believe that many younger kids (pre-university) need more than a simple empty space if they are going to turn on the light in their heads and open their minds to new information, concepts, and ideas.

Teachers hold the keys to not just the classroom doors, but also the hearts and minds of the students. I good instructor will make even the most mundane subject come alive and seem exciting. I’ve seen it happen. Our Physics classes are packed not because of an innate love for Physics among the student body, but because the Physics teachers are dynamic, passionate, and just plain fun to be around. Kids line up to take one of the toughest courses offered because they want to share the yearlong experience that is Physics at this campus. I hated Physics when I took it in college. I hated it because the teacher failed to make the subject accessible to the students and his classroom environment was impersonal and barren of any personal identity or connection.

We must connect with our students and our classrooms are a good place to start. Mario Cipollini, a professional cyclist from Italy, signed one of the posters on my wall. It caught the eye of a new exchange student from Belgium where cycling is a huge sport (even before Lance Armstrong). As I recall, she was sitting in class on the first day evaluating her situation grimly. Then she saw the poster and brightened up. After class she came to me and commented on the poster. We had made a connection. From that point on she was engaged in the course work and look forwarded to attending the class. I enjoyed our ensuing conversations about cycling.

What kind of a king or queen are you? What does your empire look like? Are your subjects happy with your leadership, or are they preparing for rebellion? These are important questions to consider when teachers prepare to work with kids. We should be focused on making our students’ experiences in our classrooms pleasing, pleasant, and positive.

Please post your comments below.

May 03, 2006

Activities Matter?

School is about more than academics. School is about sharing a common experience when we grow into young adults, learn about the world we live in, and sometimes score a touchdown, win a debate, perform on stage, and for the really lucky, fall in love at Prom. Some teachers think that extracurricular activities like sports, clubs, performing arts, and dances are not an important part of school since they can sometimes distract from the academic experience. I think that an equally important amount of education occurs when students are on campus, but not in the classroom. For some students, extracurricular activities are the reason they come to school everyday.

Think back to your own school days; did you really passionate about Social Studies? Did Spanish class make you rush to school everyday? Maybe for some of us it did. But I think that most high school students find their reasons to come to school outside the regular classroom schedule.

I have some experience in this area as not only a student, but also a teacher and advisor. In middle and high school I was involved in the Drama department. I performed in plays, hung lights, and hung out with my friends in the “cafetorium.” It was the time of my life, and the reason I loved coming to school. I didn’t love my academic class because I struggled so hard to simply survive. I was a fair, but in no way outstanding student, and I hated, really hated subjects like English, foreign language, history, P.E., pretty much everything other than Drama, band, and math. Because of my school experience I never wanted to become a teacher; that happened much, much later.

As a teacher I spent two years advising the Associated Student Body student government group at the high school where I currently work. During that time I worked closely with students and administrators planning and implementing numerous activities for the students on campus. (I even wrote a manual you can download here.) The goal was always to provide a positive experience for the students and to give them an additional reason to come to school. Student should love the school they attend and should be made to feel not only a part of the campus, but also to feel like their presence and the contributions they make to their school are part of the institution’s biology. Most of the time that doesn’t occur naturally in their academic classes. Its not that teachers don’t make students feel welcome, but that the daily focus of class should be on learning, not necessarily campus inclusion. That’s what extracurricular activities are all about.

The students I currently teach are not created from the same mold as the ones who participate in student government. Most of my advanced students would be branded “at risk.” While bright and fun to teach, most are not on their way to university, (however I am proud to say that I have two attending USC in the fall.) These kids need a reason to come to school and they don’t find it in English, Algebra, and Science. They come to school to shoot and edit video, make web site, and create animations. Those types of assignments aren’t (yet) available in most A-G course offerings. I think eventually elective courses like mine will vanish when the type of work students do in my classes becomes a regular part of the general academic curriculum. But for now, electives like multimedia along with football, cheerleading, and choir draw students in and give them a motivation to at least maintain the 2.0 GPA required to participate.

Friday nights in the fall you can find me on the football field. No, not playing, or even coaching, but working with a group of students who videotape the football game for the football coaching staff. Three students shoot from two angles, and one runs back and forth on the sideline getting up-close shots of the players and action. I love contributing my time to the football program because the students I work with love to participate and contribute to the team. We even eat dinner with the players. My students, who might otherwise look forward to party-central come Friday night, instead spend the week talking and thinking about their jobs on the field. The kids even get a small amount of pay from the parent boosters for their work.

My high school is known for more than just the football program. There are numerous elective and after-school student groups that recruit kids into positive experiences that offer them a wide variety of opportunities to shine and grow. From Mock Trial and Academic Olympiad to Speech and Debate to AFJROTC, there is a place for every kind of student to call home, and group to call family.

My lovely wife and I chaperone Prom every year. I love Prom for all that it represents: a celebration of the school year and all of the student’s accomplishments. For four magical hours on Prom night everyone looks great, the kids are on their best behavior (well, most of them) and all of the stress and complications of the school year seem to evaporate. Every year I take a group picture with my senior students. Those photos are some of the treasures I hold on to after another class of students has said goodbye.

Of course academic classes lead more students to higher test scores than do extracurricular activities, but what leads students into those academic classes? What keeps students coming to school everyday? What motivates them to earn good and even great grades? Where do kids find a place to belong? Where do they discover their unique and individual identities? Where do they have the chance to contribute to and become a part of something bigger than themselves? Where do they battle apathy and realize compassion? How do students broaden their collegiate opportunities? Where do we teachers have the most fun spending time with our students? The answer is usually on campus, but not within the boundaries of the six-period day or within the confines of the four walls of the classroom.

If you teach high school and are not involved with a club at lunch, or a sport, or an activity after school, give it a try. Sure it will require more of your time, but it will time well invested into the lives and success of your students. Like the kids, involvement in an extracurricular activity may actually make you look forward to coming to school. The more you enjoy coming to school, the harder you will work, and the more you will improve as a teacher.

Please post your comments below.