K through 12

The Principal's Dilemma


When I began teaching, there were a couple of things that struck me as being unique to education. The first was the expectation that supplies that those in the corporate world take for granted would need to be provided by me. The second is that my immediate supervisor, my boss, would rarely make an appearance in my classroom.

As long as I kept up the appearance of being able to have good control of my classroom by not writing too many referrals, it would “appear” that I was a “good” teacher.

A good teacher in my first two years of teaching.

As if that thought shouldn’t strike you as ludicrous.

My first two evaluations were rated as satisfactory. No mention of areas that I could improve upon and thus move from a good teacher to a great teacher.

This bothered me because I had come from a different world prior to becoming a teacher. I had worked for two corporations in my career before becoming a teacher. In the evaluations that I received in these positions, there were always areas that were marked in which I excelled and then areas in which there could be improvement. When my boss would go over my evaluation, we would have a good 20 to 30 minute debriefing about the evaluation.

For the most part, my evaluations were good and the conversations I would have with my boss also helped me, I would like to think, become a better employee.

So, how does this relate to teaching?

In a nutshell, many principals simply do not have the time or resources to help the teachers at their school sites become better educators. Just like teachers, they are overworked and the demands on their time too often makes it very difficult for them to help teachers, struggling or not.

It is one of the things that really drives me crazy in the current education debate. I wish that more administrators would start speaking out against the unreasonable demands on their time. I also wish that they would acknowledge that sometimes it’s easier for them to keep a struggling teacher rather than to go through the process of hiring someone new.

Yet, their voices have remained mostly silent in this debate.

Why is that?

Perhaps they fear losing their jobs if they speak out.

In my current role as the leader of my local association, I’ve come to realize that part of the power that I have is the ability to speak to school site administrators and district administrators as an equal. Therefore, when there are issues between a teacher and their principal, I don’t fear the loss of my job. This enables me to advocate for the teacher without fear of retribution.

I also know that while some principals would welcome this discourse regardless of my union protection, there are others who would not. These principals would openly welcome the dismantling of the teachers union and would have no qualms of going after those teachers that they do not see as kowtowing to their vision for their school site, no matter how right or wrong-headed that vision may be!

Furthermore, I have been allowed to have a voice at the table in my own district, although I am aware that sometimes it may not be a welcome voice. I don’t believe that many principals enjoy this same sort of freedom to speak their minds in front of their superiors. It is why it looks to so many of us in classrooms that principals have wholeheartedly embraced the testing culture, pushing for more test prep in lieu of science, history, music or P.E. As one principal stated to me, “they look at me when the test scores don’t rise.”

As districts make more and more cuts to programs and services, more demands are placed on school site administrators. My district has seen the complete elimination of middle school counselors and librarians (one librarian serving the needs of almost 15,000 students) and drastic reductions to our school nurses. Who is expected to pick up the slack? Teachers and school site administrators. So, why are we only hearing from teachers? When it comes to making tough budget decisions and crucial programs such as P.E. and music are up on the chopping block, it would be nice for a principal to speak before the Board about eliminating and/or reducing district benchmark assessments and state testing. It would also be nice to read letters to the editor with a group of principal as signers. I’ve yet to see this in Vallejo & don’t know if it is happening elsewhere.

Instead principals are silent. Perhaps they like this new status quo, where teachers are under the gun for the poor performance of students and they believe that most teachers are bad. Perhaps they want to see the complete dismantling of public education and teachers unions. Perhaps they know that being principal is just a stepping stone to becoming a district administrator or a superintendent. Or perhaps, it is all of the above.

I hope that it is NOT all of the above.

Instead, I hope that their silence is because many principals are caught between wanting to do what is right for children and their teachers and wanting to keep their jobs. They are caught in the middle in positions that are often tenuous based on the whims of district administrators and the school board. If this is the case, then I hope that they will start to collectively raise their voices and start speaking out about the new status quo, where test prep trumps real learning and where the only two subjects that matter is language arts and mathematics.

I know that I would welcome their voice to this conversation.

(This blog post originally appeared on HuffPo on 11/8/2010.)

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Reflection Journal Entry #2

Dimension Referenced: Thinking Inward 

This week I’ve spent a lot of time looking for literature related to my thesis topic, and it has really surprised me how often the information I come across applies to not only my thesis, but also my Emerging Educational Technologies class.  Yes, both deal with innovation and 21st Century education, but I suspect that one of the underlying reasons I am running across so much bleed-through between the topics is that both have a thread of the disruptive, an undercurrent of the revolutionary.

In particular, this week I came across an April 2010 article in Educational Leadership, called “Where Are Our Greenfields?” The following excerpt is in response to the question “What specific roles could the federal government play in encouraging innovation in the education system?” and I think it is a perfect example of this “bleed through” I’m noticing:

We have these large, institutionalized systems that have been doing business premised on the way they did business 50 years ago—in many cases, 100 or more years ago. The district infrastructures look the same. What we’ve done is add layer upon layer of new rules, regulations, and information technology systems, without ever reinventing the old. It’s much like somebody who’s trying to build a new, shiny, eco-friendly skyscraper before clearing away the rubble of the tenement building that has long stood in the same location.

Innovation is an opportunity for people to come in without any of these accumulated routines—to start fresh, taking advantage of the labor force that exists today and new patterns of behavior and new tools of communication and technology to solve problems. But the reality is, up and down school districts and states and the education system, it is very difficult for educators or providers from outside the schools who are trying to solve particular problems to get the resources they need.

So what the federal government could do is address the things that get in the way of these problem solvers. That involves striking away barriers to entry that are both formal, as in law, and informal, as in the way business is done. 

I’m not sure yet if/how I’ll be able to address this topic in my thesis, but perhaps a more important thing to consider is if/how I’ll be able to address this issue [in the future] as an educator.

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Watch on techtasters.tumblr.com

YouTube for Schools has come up with an easy way for teachers to bring educational video into the classroom without having to worry about students getting access to inappropriate content, which is why it has been blocked from use in the classrooms of most school districts across our country. This will be a relief to many teachers who are in need of new media resources to engage learners that will not cost them a penny to include into their lesson plans.

I could also see this becoming a great tool for distance learners as well. The closer we get to schools without walls the better. I am definitely going to inquire about getting this setup at Duke Ellington. I’m sure our academic teachers could use this in our school’s Media Center when giving presentations. I haven’t given it a test run yet, but I wonder if teachers will have access to annotations and YouTube.com/create with all of its third party features.

If you are using or are planning to use YouTube for Schools please share your experience with us. Once I have given it a test I will give you an update on the product. Thanks for reading. Like this kind of content? Subscribe and please share Techtasters with your network.

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Being a Respected (and Effective) Principal from a Teacher's Perspective


Ask any teacher about the principals they have respected over the years. Many would probably tell you that a respected and effective principal is one who looks at the reality of their school site and doesn’t automatically blame the staff for the many ills that may plague that school. Instead of pointing fingers, they seek to work with their staff to come up with solutions. They understand that talking to the teachers who have worked at this school with the students and the community gives most teachers much earned credibility. They also understand that if they want to implement change then they had better make sure that they have credibility as well.

The quickest way to failure for a principal at almost any school site is a principal who is hell bent on making a name for himself/herself and thus, dismisses any ideas from their staff. If a principal tries to implement a program at a school site that the teachers do not agree with or think are silly or unfounded, the teachers will inevitably choose to do what they want once their door is closed.

The other thing that inevitably happens when teachers do not respect their principal is calls to their union automatically increases. In my district, there are over twenty school sites. I routinely hear from only four or five school sites.

The teachers who respect their principals are willing to give them the benefit of doubt. When an issue arises, they know that they can go to their principal and talk to them without fear of retribution. They know that if there is a contract violation, they can have an informal discussion and have it resolved without it going any further in the grievance process.

Those at the handful of sites in which there are routine problems, do not trust their principals to do the right thing. They do not have a relationship built on mutual trust and respect. This lack of trust plays itself out in the numbers of grievances that are filed.

When Districts implement programs, it is the job of the principal to relay this information to their staff. Those who do this successfully do not do this without having a conversation with their staff about the program and including the staff in how best to meet the demands of the District. They will often make it clear to their staff why the program is being implemented and seek input on how best to make the program work based on the composition of their school site.

Not so at school sites where the principal believes they are king or queen of their little fiefdom.

These principals will simply announce at a staff meeting that there is a new program which needs to be implemented because the district says so. They do not engage their staff in any type of conversation and those who ask questions are quickly labeled as not being team-players or trouble-makers.

All of this is not to say that respected principals are pushovers. Many respected principals are able to implement change, even if there is disagreement, because their teachers and other staff trust that they are doing the right thing by their school. Staff and teachers know that this principal is not driven by an overblown ego whose only thought is how they look to the District.

Then there are those who act in a very passive aggressive manner towards their teaching staff. These principals will not listen to any complaints, but will overtly suggest to anyone who listens that this change isn’t their idea at all and will direct all blame towards the District. They will tell their staff that if they want to complain, then maybe they should talk to Mrs. Meanie at the DO. In the meantime, this principal will believe that any pushback is not a result of it being bad for students or the teachers who teach them. Instead, they believe that the majority of their teachers simply are resistant to change and are for the oft cited “status quo." 

When adults cannot act like adults to collaborate and develop a sense of mutual trust and respect, it ultimately undermines the climate of the school. The smaller the school site, the more this seems to impact students. If we want our kids to get along, shouldn’t we as the adults, do the same? One of my biggest frustrations is talking to a principal who has obvious disdain for the teachers he or she leads. If this happened in a classroom, parents would be outraged and would want this teacher removed from the classroom. So why is it okay if a leader of a school site treats their staff in a way that is derisive and disrespectful?

As my students used to always say, "if you want respect, you have to earn it,” something that some principals fail to heed.

If you’re a teacher, what are some qualities that a respected & effective principal need? What are the qualities that you’ve seen in principals that are not respected & effective?

(This blog post by me originally appeared on HuffPo on 1/18/2011.)

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Fresh from the cintiq. Todd here is an ooooold character I used to draw back in middle school that I decided to re-interpret. I’m thinking of doing a painting with this character in it. What do you guys think?

Teaching in a Hard to Staff District


A hard-to-staff district is what they used to call the district that I work in. This, of course, was before the abundance of teachers that can now be found in California and in states across the nation. But even in this time of abundance, we still have a difficult time getting teachers who want to teach in our district. Much of this has to do with our financial reputation, both as a city and a district, as well as being a district that, for some, is a tough place to teach.

About six years ago, a few of my former students came to visit me. They talked to me about being ninth graders, and how for a month they had to sit in the gym for one of their core classes, which was not P.E. There were several classes that still did not have a teacher four to six weeks into the first quarter, so they were cycling through subs. During periods in which there were no subs, kids had to come to the gym – where they learned absolutely nothing.

When I read articles about merit pay and tying test scores to evaluation, the question that is raised for me is if we had a difficult time finding teachers when we had money and there were no strings attached, what makes anyone think that people will be rushing to teach in my district?

The answer is they won’t.

Not when surrounding districts offer more support, more money and better working conditions. I also frankly don’t trust anyone who claims that they will make it financially worth it to anyone willing to teach in my district, as long as they agree to merit pay and/or tying test scores to evaluations.

Once upon a time, many teachers in this district and in other similar districts gave up pay raises in order to secure better benefits, reduced class sizes, prep time, and non-student days that allow teachers to prepare their classes before school starts and tear it down at the end of the school year. Our benefits have been reduced to such an extent that teachers and other staff are now paying anywhere between 30 to 50 percent of costs. Class sizes have gone from 20 to 28 students and will most likely rise to 32 in our K-3 classes. Pay-cut (aka furlough) days are now on the table and again are likely to be implemented if the tax extensions do not make it on the ballot, including our non-student days. While prep hasn’t been done away with at the secondary level, it is virtually non-existent in our K-5 classes.

So all of this to say, why should I expect that the current carrot that is being dangled in the faces of educators will be there when the next economic crisis hits?

The bottom line is that there are exceptional teachers in my district. In a good economy, these teachers would have no problem finding a teaching position in a “better” district. Guess what? Many choose to teach in this district because we believe that ALL kids deserve a quality education with a quality teacher in front of them. Those who couldn’t hack the myriad of challenges would leave on their own to teach in a district without these challenges. Some chose to leave teaching altogether, while others that maybe should not have been granted “permanent status” were given it anyway.

Of course, I understand the reasons why an administrator would give someone “permanent status,” even if this should not be granted. For these administrators, the specter of having to go through the hiring process and still not finding anyone is scary. They would rather go with the dead weight they know than an unknown. They would rather not have to face the possibility of having a classroom cycle through subs for one or two months or more.

For the first time in many years, my district has a chance of competing with other surrounding districts because of the sheer number of applicants looking for jobs. However, what happens when the economy gets better? I know exactly what will happen – we will be back where we started.

(This post  by me originally appeared on HuffPo on March 15, 2011.)

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