Category Archives: School Leadership

PD as Glue (How I Learned to Love Meetings)

I have sat through many professional development sessions where I’ve been bored out of my skull. There was the one about gloves and writing a five-paragraph essay that gained me nothing more than a single gardening glove with some sharpie scribbles on it. There were the several sessions where I walked away with a giant binder that I never opened again. After several of these useless meetings, one of my colleagues and I started using the acronym “JJT,” which of course stands for Job Justification Theatre.

There is a little JJT in every PD session, to be sure, but sometimes the PD really did justify the job that was being done, especially when the training happened to be useful for all the staff in the building. Maybe it helped impart a shared vision of expectations or served as a sounding board for staff concerns.  Sometimes we even (gasp!) created the PD ourselves and had staff members run it.

Our building’s approach to PD this year has been wildly different, however. The emphasis, perhaps in reaction the the excess painful PD seat-time of previous years, has swung to individualized PD. Everyone gets what they need, as long as they find it themselves. Gone are the district-wide (insert edu-brand name here) trainings and other randomly generated PD topic sessions. This is the era of do-it-yourself PD.

Which is not a bad thing, unless we all travel our separate ways and never meet again.

And that’s why I’ve learned to love meetings. In meetings I get to chat with staff members from other departments to see what is working for them and what they are thinking about. Sometimes its like what I’m doing and we compare notes. Other times they are off on a radical new path that I need to know more about. But I wouldn’t have known about it by simply following my own interests.

I totally understand that the science department is going to have some different-looking PD from social studies and that those types of trainings will be department-specific to be really useful. I don’t necessarily want to learn about historical criticism.

But there is a place for creating and updating a vision for education that transcends individual topic area departments in a high school. How do we understand how kids learn and how can we adapt instruction accordingly? How do we provide quality feedback on student work? And my recent crusade: how do we assess and grade students in a way that is fair and doesn’t penalize them for the speed (or lack thereof) at which they learn?

These are topics that one person or department cannot simply address in a useful way without bouncing ideas off of the entire building. Believe me, I’ve been reforming grading practices in my classroom for years but those weird ideas have yet to gain much traction with many other faculty here. I’ve had more discussions with folks here on the blog and on Twitter than in my physical reality.

So please, take some time to meet with your faculty and brainstorm on topics that you all need to address as a staff. I’m going to make that my goal. Its time to schedule some meetings.


Down from the mountaintop

Fanboy Ludwig with Neil Shubin at NSTA15

Fanboy Ludwig with Neil Shubin at NSTA15

Ever have one of those “mountaintop” experiences or events that at the time feel so important and life-changing that you wonder if you’ll be the same person on the other side of it? And then did you come down off the mountain and get back in your proverbial or literal car and return to your regular life? I think we’ve all been there a few times, perhaps at summer camp, a mission trip, or the tent revival at the local church.

For me, the latest such mountaintop experience was getting to attend and present at the national NSTA meeting in Chicago this past March. Seeing my name in the program just a few pages away from Neil Shubin and Bill Nye practically qualified me for rock-star status, at least on paper. The conference was amazing, as you’d expect, and I had a wonderful time giving my talk. The folks that came to see me (the mile walk!) were amazing and included a lot of great Twitter friends who stuck around to chat and make connections afterward.

I left NSTA15 feeling like I was on the right track. I’d presented at a national conference and didn’t make a fool of myself.  Many teachers seemed inspired by my ideas. Every talk I went to about the NGSS pointed towards needing new ways to assess student performances of science, which my portfolio-based assessment system clearly does. From all that I saw there, I was on the leading Edge of thinking about new ways to collect, analyze, and share meaningful data about what students know and can do.

I’m not sure what I expected to happen post-conference, but it basically didn’t play out as expected. I didn’t see the major leaders behind NGSS express any interest in portfolio assessments, nor did I hear any encouraging news on that front from Arne Duncan. My Twitter stream continued to be the flood of info that it used to be, but, aside from a few high quality interactions, it felt more stale and repetitive than usual. I was not really greeted as a local hero upon my return to my little town, save for a few close friends. In fact, I have yet to be invited to share my work with the district staff, most of whom know very little about what I do.

Now in all fairness, none of these things would ever realistically have happened. Much of the push for NGSS is linked to companies who want to sell us more tests, so change to new assessment types will be slow on that front. Twitter is a hot mess of the good, the bad, and the ugly even on a good day with amazing connections like I have. My local district was in the middle of incredible political turmoil with a witch hunt targeting the current (now former) superintendent, so a little side-show theater like mine would hardly draw an audience.

Bottom line, I came down off the mountain pretty hard. I did some consulting with a few folks who are trying out portfolios this coming school year (good luck y’all!) but mostly life went right back to normal. Or worse than normal, because I landed back in school during our post-Spring Break testing season, which felt even more onerous and depressing this year. It lasted forever and took instructional technologies out of the classroom for testing purposes. All the visions of classroom-based performance assessments died as I watched students suffer through lame computer-based tests for over a month of the school year. Ah, reality. Thou sucketh.

But as I turn my eyes to the new school year, I don’t plan on giving up on my ideas for replacing our current high-stakes tests, although large systems are hard to budge.  I’ve heard that being a pioneer is hard, lonely work, and there is some truth to that from what I’ve experienced. I can only hope that I’m scouting towards a future that benefits my students (and yours). Stay tuned and keep those ideas coming.

Are you a Master Teacher?


This week I was asked by an administrator if I would like to go observe “some master Science teachers” in one of the big cities here in Colorado. I said yes. I’ll jump at any chance to see other science teachers in action, especially those that are in another school district.

But then I got to wondering about the phrasing of this offer, especially the bit about “master” teachers.

How does one earn the label of Master Teacher? Are these teachers self-identified experts at science teaching or is this a label granted by their administrators? Do their state science test scores blow my students’ scores away so that the state grants this title? What metric are we using here?

Of course, the obvious answer is that these may be National Board Certified folks. That seems to be the only metric that Colorado officially uses to determine if you are a master teacher. The NBCT site claims that “to date, 890 Colorado teachers have achieved National Board Certification.” I guess I find it kind of sad that out of all the teachers to ever teach in Colorado, only 890 of them are master teachers.

The subtext to the offer to visit another school is an interesting one, too. I teach in the only high school in a town of about 8000 people. The master teachers that I would be visiting work in schools in one of the big cities a few hours away. The folks at CDE who made us this offer clearly thought that teachers in the little school districts could benefit from seeing how its done in the cities. But is the teaching and learning that happens in big cities any more masterful than that happening out in the rural schools? Do we not have access to the same academic journals, blogs, and online networks of truly masterful teachers that they do? Shouldn’t they be visiting us instead?

I guess I am obsessing about titles and labels and the rural vs. urban socioeconomic dynamic here since I’ll be presenting at the National Science Teacher’s Association national meeting in Chicago in just a few weeks. I’ll attend sessions led by folks on the National Research Council and Achieve Inc. (the forces behind the NGSS) and surround myself with the high society of the nation’s science educators (and yes some functions at the conference require “evening attire”).

What sort of labels matter when science educators get together? I for one am sorely tempted to only seek out presenters with the label “current teacher” in their bio, because these are the folks who are most obviously trying to do right by their students on a daily basis. Likewise, I strongly suspect that there will be conference attendees who will look for certain credentials or affiliations after my name in the session listing and find them lacking.

In summary, I guess I would have been happier if this offer of a visitation simply asked if we wanted to meet and observe some fellow teachers in another school district. I still would have said yes, but without wondering whether someone was trying to compare my teaching skills with theirs. Who knows, maybe I will get to meet these master teachers and judge for myself. Maybe someday they’ll meet me and do likewise, but I probably still won’t be a Master Teacher, just a darn good one.

Image source:

C is Not for Compliance: Another Grading Reform Story

Like a straight-laced teetotaler at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, I am a horrible ambassador for grading reform.  I am possibly the worst person to try to explain how to change someone else’s classroom into a standards-based learning environment because it was never much of a struggle for me. I saw a need to reform my grading practices and I did it. Most of what I read leading up to the changes I’ve made said that it would be a tough and nasty fight, mistakes would be made, and that I should expect resistance from all the different stakeholders in the system. Mistakes have been made, for sure, but I’d call that “learning what works.” The fights and nastiness have never really materialized, save for a few parents of “A students” who were less than thrilled to suddenly have “B students.”

With that said, I now find myself advocating for SBL/SBG and am being mentioned/linked occasionally here and there, including at my own little high school. My principal has asked me, along with 3 other teachers trying various implementations of SBL, to present the topic at an upcoming faculty meeting.

Here’s my problem: how do I go back and put myself in the mindset of someone who is just now hearing about this “new” standards-based learning/grading stuff and make the case that teachers should make sweeping changes to how they assess and grade students? How do I show how awesome standards-based learning can be for them and their students without seeming to preach that everyone needs to drop what they’re doing and adopt it now, now, now!?

Its probably going to sound preachy no matter what I do, that’s in the eye of the beholder and can’t really be changed on my end, but I think the message will be better received if I focus on describing my journey rather than telling people how to do SBL in their classroom. After all, a science teacher like me sure isn’t going to know much about what standards an English teacher wants to use in their classroom. Best to stick to the why, and not so much the how.

To my mind there are three “why” questions that keep popping up about SBL that teachers will want to hear about. They are interrelated “whys,” but are indeed separate aspects of the reasons lots of people, myself included, are trying out standards-based learning systems.

Q #1: Why use standards-based learning instead of a points-based system?

A1: Because assessment of learning and Assignment of Grades Should be completely separate.

Assessment of learning lets both you and the student know whether they understand the content knowledge and skills that are needed to master a particular course. Grading, however, is a teacher’s judgement call about the relative location of a student’s performance on some scale of “gradations” that has been established for the purposes of comparison.

If we start from a mindset of assessment of learning, then we have to start from an exploration of the standards and performance indicators for students: What is it that I need to assess? What content and performance standards do students need to demonstrate? How will everyone know that they’ve been successful at meeting these learning targets? The observation of performances of specific learning targets helps focus such a system on assessment of student learning and does not necessarily have to lead to a letter grade.

However, if I start from a mindset of assigning points for each assignment, and those points always go into the gradebook to help me determine a student’s grade, then I am not assessing learning, I am grading, right from the start. There is only one measurement that happens when everything students do is worth points, and it is not measurement of learning. Accumulated points measure assignment completion; they measure compliance. Which is fine, if you believe that teaching compliance is the goal your classroom. However, if you are one of the thousands of teachers struggling to write lesson plans that claim to assess the CCSS and NGSS or CAS or whoever’s “S”, just so you know, “S” is for Standards, and “C” is never for compliance. It should be about the learning.

I tackled this issue a while back by reducing point values to almost nothing, a simple binary grading system of 1’s and 0’s for most assignments. It worked to some extent, in that it minimized the point values given to formative assessments that really had no business being included in a final evaluation of a student’s learning. Most points came from tests and quizzes, which were more appropriate assessments of student learning, but still, the signal to noise ratio was pretty terrible for everyone concerned. If you were getting a 78% in my class back then, you only knew that you had to work “harder” or turn in more stuff to move up to a B. That 78% rating didn’t tell students what they were good at, only that they had turned in or “earned” 78% of the points possible. They might not even have to change a thing about their performance in the class if I curved the grades to make them more “realistic.”

Even with points minimized, my students were still at the mercy of the numbers game, portrayed so well in this pic taken from this awesome resource by Thomas Guskey (via Scott McLeod):


Short answer to the question: None of these mathematical tweaks is best. No single one is any more fair than the others. They are all horrible at showing exactly what a student did or did not do to earn those numbers. Does your gradebook look like this? Mine did. It annoyed me, so I ditched it completely (and no, you don’t have to–see the first paragraph of this post).

Q #2: Why allow for multiple chances to prove mastery of a standard?

A2: You don’t have to.

Admit it. You hate the idea of retests, reassessments, and grading the same assignment over and over forever and ever until the end of the semester.

But there is no set rule in the (non-existent) SBL playbook that says that you have to give students every chance in the world to pass a test about one of your standards. Nor is there a rule that says you have to give different assessments for the same standard. In fact, there are no rules about the “right” or “wrong” way to do reassessments in SBL.

A rational person will, however, recognize that the goal of a teacher-student relationship should be to demonstrate learning, and if we are talking about a standards-based classroom, then the learning should correlate to particular learning targets. If a student happens to miss the target or fail to provide evidence for learning that standard, wouldn’t the kind thing to do be to give them another shot at it?

Normal (i.e. non-SBL) teachers have a word for this: its called differentiation. Differentiation happens easily in an SBL system, but too often I hear people bashing SBL for its mushy deadlines and hippy-dippy approach to letting students have one more chance to prove themselves. Honestly, if you are really into training students to be compliant with your one-shot tests and strict deadlines, then maybe this whole differentiation thing isn’t exactly for you anyway. (I’d start working on your grading curve now)

Q #3: Why use standards-based portfolios of student learning?

A3: Because communicating standards-based learning in a report card is awful.

One of the noted failings of SBL is how ironically terrible the communication of student achievement can get. Standards-based report cards are notoriously cryptic if short enough for human consumption (STD3.1.1a = P) and horrendously long if written so that anyone other than a curriculum specialist can understand it (Learn and Understand Biology-Related Terminology, Concepts, Representations, and Models: Biomolecules: Understand the structure and function of important biomolecules such as carbohydrates, lipids, and proteins). Furthermore, SBL-based grade reporting usually requires tweaks of existing online gradebook programs and parent info portals, often with confusing and inconsistent results. I’ve seen those kinds of report cards. They are not helpful.

Instead, why not give parents something to see that demonstrates their kids’ achievements in your class. Show them the actual work that demonstrates that their child can analyze data, communicate well, or work in collaborative groups for the betterment of all. Show off your student’s work, sorted by standard. This communicates both your standards and the efforts that students have put in to meet those standards.

Also, portfolios give students a guide to what they need to accomplish while in your classroom. A blank portfolio delivered to them at the beginning of the year is the gauntlet that you throw down to challenge them: “I dare you to fill this in with proof that you can learn how to do all these things.” Its one more tool that helps hand off the burden of learning to the student.

Alt A3: You don’t have to.

Standards-based learning is just that: a system of activities and assessments centered around defined learning goals rather than accumulation of points for a grade. Each and every way that teachers use to keep track of learning by standards will work, even without portfolios. Make a spreadsheet. Use your existing grade book, just change the headers on your columns. Even if you use (gasp) numerical representations of learning, a.k.a points, to keep track of achievement in individual standards, you’re still ahead of where you and your students were back when they were counting up how many points they needed for an A and you were wondering how far to curve the latest exam to make the class average a 75%.

My new least-favorite educational acronym: GVC (Guaranteed and Viable Curriculum)


I don’t know if this is happening in your school district, but around here we’ve been talking a lot about our Guaranteed and Viable Curriculum (GVC) project. Teachers have been working very hard under the tutelage of curriculum specialists to develop a GVC that spans all grade levels in our district using a common format. We’ve been told that without GVC teachers don’t know what to teach and students can end up with big gaps in their knowledge when they move between teachers, grade levels, or schools. Sounds great! But…

First, let’s agree on some definitions (lifted from

1. Something that assures a particular outcome or condition: Lack of interest is a guarantee of failure.
2. a. A promise or an assurance, especially one given in writing, that attests to the quality or durability of a product or service. b. A pledge that something will be performed in a specified manner.
1. Capable of living, developing, or germinating under favorable conditions.
2. Capable of living outside the uterus. Used of a fetus or newborn.
3. Capable of success or continuing effectiveness; practicable.
1. All the courses of study offered by an educational institution.
2. A group of related courses, often in a special field of study.

If we explain what GVC means to parents using these definitions we might get the following statement:

“We, the staff of (insert your school district name here), pledge to deliver an effective educational course of study, (insert curriculum project/vendor name here), to your children. These curriculum documents will be followed by your child’s teacher in order to guarantee that your child (insert the purpose of education here). You will be able to view these curriculum documents at (insert hyperlink here) to see exactly what your child is currently learning about.”

Perfect! We’ve just created something to put on the district’s webpage that will tell parents all about what their students will be learning. Or have we?

We can easily fill in most of the blanks in this statement, district name, fancy curriculum project name, and website where all the goodies are posted, but how about that one in the middle: insert the purpose of education here. How are we going to express that?

Let me throw out some options for what to write there:

“These curriculum documents will be followed by your child’s teacher in order to guarantee that your child

…can help America compete in the global economy.”

…can score proficient or advanced on the state exam.”

…gains entry into the college of their choice.”

…becomes a productive member of society.”

…gets the same education as everyone else.”

…learns critical thinking and problem-solving skills.”

Discuss among yourselves (or add a comment to this post): Which option (and I’m sure there are others) appeals to you? Why do we send kids to school? What is the purpose of our curriculum documents in light of this goal? Which of the above choices would the leadership of your district emphasize?

I recently saw this email from our curriculum consultant about the timing and placement of our curriculum units:

“I noticed in the 8th Grade Science Curriculum Map that all of the Earth Systems Science standards are located in 4th Quarter.  Please note that on the Colorado 8th Grade Science Assessment Frameworks, 34% of the total score points will be awarded from the Earth Systems Science Standards (see attached frameworks).

Please have your science teachers take another look at the La Junta 8th Grade Science Curriculum Map.  It appears, from what I can gather from the timing of the assessment, that all of the 8th Grade Science Standards will need to be taught by the end-of-third-quarter in order to be fully prepared for the 8th Grade Science Assessment. That will leave 4th quarter available for more extensive application or cross-content integration and/or preparation for 9th grade science.

There is a similar concern with mapping the 7th Grade Social Studies Standards in order to be prepared for the Colorado 7th Grade Social Studies Assessment.”

Just in case you missed it, the email says that our 7th and 8th grade teachers, and by extension everyone else in the district, have to cover all their required course content in the first three quarters of the school year.  The fourth quarter can be used for “more extensive application or cross-content integration” or preparation for the next level. An extreme interpretation of this email would be that 4th quarter curriculum doesn’t matter, since its after the test. The unavoidable conclusion from this email is that the curriculum should be designed to create the greatest possible chance of success on the state test.

Thanks to this set of instructions about my department’s curriculum, I can now accurately craft the message that our curriculum sends to parents. Here we go:

“We, the staff of East Otero School District, pledge to deliver an effective educational course of study, the La Junta Public Schools Curriculum, to your children. These curriculum documents will be followed by your child’s teacher in order to guarantee that your child can score proficient or advanced on the state exam. You will be able to view these curriculum documents at to see exactly what your child is currently learning about.”

Bummer. Talk about a missed opportunity. We could have made our curriculum about teaching kids skills that they’ll need when they leave our classrooms. We could have focused on making sure that we teach kids how to think for themselves and make informed decisions later in life.

Maybe we’ll work on that during 4th quarter.

Virtual Conference on Core Values: An open letter to my colleagues

What follows is my submission to the Virtual Conference on Core Values. I write this in the hope that it will lead to thoughtful discussions with my colleagues, wherever they may be.

How do I help transform our school from a collection of glassy-eyed, bored teenagers to a community of learners?

This is the question I’ve asked myself lately, and it shouts out my core values pretty well. I want our school to be a place where students support each other rather than engaging in the petty social posturing so common in the rest of their lives. I want them to be so engaged in learning that they forget to be students. I need them to show the world that there are brilliant, creative minds at work in our school.

If you poke around the archives of my blog you will see that I have experimented with technology, assessment, and blogging in my high school science classroom. I’m at a point where I have revamped my instructional strategies (mostly web-based via laptops), my grading system (now standards-based), and my assessments (now using blog-based portfolios). All these changes have been made with the goal of having students take charge of their learning. I want kids to know how to find the information they want to learn about, collaborate with people everywhere, and share what they’ve learned with their family, community, and each other. I want them to have the freedom to explore what they are interested in, but to also simultaneously encounter core concepts so that they are grounded in a shared body of knowledge with learners around the world.

What I need now is to extend my experimentation to the rest of the school day, and for that I’m going to need the help of my school community, particularly that of my fellow teachers and administrators. I’m increasingly convinced that a community of learners will never develop and thrive within our current 7 period, 50 minutes per class, regimented and controlled school day. A traditional schedule such as ours works if our focus is on the need to control and corral students through a prescribed set of learning activities. It works well for babysitting and making sure students are exactly where we want them to be.  If, on the other hand, we become convinced that student ownership of their educational experience is necessary for creating a community of learners, then we need to re-imagine the structure of our school day to allow for student independence and choice.

I know that there are many of you who will push back against altering the schedule of the school day as we know it. I get that. One of the things I love about teaching is the routine. Summer screws me up sometimes, since my routine is thrown off-kilter until I return to school in August. But we can’t let our favorite routines stand in the way of what may be best for our students.

Why would a different schedule be best for our students? Let me first describe an option that I’ve been thinking about, an alternative to the traditional 7-period day: Open Door Core Courses.

Imagine for a moment that we block out a chunk of time, say from 8 to noon in which students would be “attending” their core classes. On paper (or the electronic equivalent) each students’ schedule might not look too different from what it does now, maybe 1st period language arts, 2nd period science, 3rd period math, and 4th period social studies. The specific subject-area content would change by grade level, of course (Am. History for Juniors or Government for Seniors, Biology or Physical Science, etc.). What would be different, however, is WHERE students would be at any given moment. Rather than force “seat time” in each classroom, we could allow students to float between the four core disciplines based on their needs for that particular day. If they know they need help with a project in math, they go see the math teacher for a block of time. If they need to catch a lecture in science, they go to their science classroom. If they need help with a web tool or publishing to their blog, they go to someone that they know can help them. If they need to just sit down and read an article or write a paper, they can do it wherever they feel most comfortable.  Such a schedule would allow students access to the experts that they need WHEN they need them and give them choices about which learning spaces they want to be in for particular tasks.

What would this look like in practice? Chaos? Maybe, but it might look like students hanging out in our library couches and common spaces but still getting their coursework done. It might look like classrooms empty at one moment and full of activity the next. It might look like teachers reexamining their need to lecture students in order to “teach” content. It could lead to content-area teachers  functioning as a team to decide together when to meet face to face with students in certain classrooms for whole-group discussions and collaboration. It could lead to more creative uses of “class time”, particularly during those afternoon hours of the school day that could be left less structured for independent projects and electives.

Why would changing the school schedule to an open door format be best for students? Simply put, students do not learn efficiently when plugged into a desk for an entire day. Don’t believe me? Just think about your last class period of the day. Is it your most well-behaved class? Are those the students who perform the best on your tests and/or are the most creative? If you give students a choice of where to work in your classroom, do they choose the desk, the couch, or the floor? Mine prefer the floor, but I bet if I bought some beanbags and game chairs they would be fighting over them. The point is, the more choices we can give to students about where, when, how, and from whom they learn, the more individualized and engaging their educational experience will be.

I’ll leave you with a challenge. Check out some of the resources that led me to this point in my thinking about classroom schedules and learning spaces and post a comment or two about what you find there in relation to what I’ve discussed. First, read about some of the necessary characteristics of The Third Teacher, the space in which students study and interact with each other. Next, check out some of the talks that Shawn Cornally has been giving lately. In particular, I recommend his TEDx talk and his podcast with Dr. Tae on American Reason. Lastly, I’ll point you to this article (.pdf) that analyzes why Apple Stores may have the design elements needed to create the best learning spaces in our schools. EDIT: One more excellent bit of reading is “When we stop teaching, they start learning” by Robert Pepper.

Building a true community of learners will not be successful with just one teacher holed up in their classroom doing neat things. All staff, administration, and, most importantly, students need to be involved in the planning and implementation of the deliberate steps that we need to take together to change how our school operates. Let’s get to work!



Should teachers be forced to use Standards-Based Grading?

Superman pushing kid off cliff

We seem to be at a critical moment in education with regards to widespread adoption of  Standards Based Grading (SBG). The #sbar edublogger crowd is doing a great job proselytizing to the masses and winning converts to grading reform. There was even a session on standards-based grading at the recent Educon at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia. Its not that SBG is brand new, but it does seem to be on the upswing of late, gaining potential to be the latest trend (fad?) in education.

I have some concerns, however, as we move forward with a wide-scale roll-out of SBG. One of these concerns is whether SBG means the same thing to everyone and whether we are sometimes talking past each other about ideas that could really help students achieve their goals.

For example, my school district is in the process of district-wide leadership training that hopes to address, at least in part, our low-performing status and high poverty levels. As part of this training, the out-of-district facilitators often mention “standards-based teaching and learning” in their discussions as a goal for our district, although our sessions have not yet focused on what this means exactly. It will be interesting to see how everyone on the leadership team reconciles their different ideas of what it means to be “standards-based” in some of our future conversations. Are we just talking learning cycle stuff here? I think most teachers would claim to have been “standards-based” in how they teach for a while now. Most have lesson plans they can point to that are linked to state and/or national standards. If not curriculum standards, are we talking “standards-based grading?”  That will be new to most teachers, many of whom are teaching “standards” but not using standards for assessment.

Let’s assume that eventually we have a discussion as a leadership team about this issue of “standards” and decide that “standards-based teaching and learning” is pretty much the same as SBG/SBAR and that having standards-based assessment systems is a good thing for our district. Assuming we decide such a thing, should a small body of leaders in a district get to tell every other teacher how to run their classrooms?

As a practitioner (experimenter?) of SBG in my classroom, I cringe at the thought of a system like mine being forced on other teachers. Yes, students would probably benefit from the new system, if it were carried out in the correct spirit, but that’s sort of the hang-up, isn’t it? How does anything that’s forced upon us ever get carried out in the correct spirit? I can remember hating  books that my English teachers assigned to me simply because I was being made to read them. When I read many of the same books later of my own free will, I enjoyed them a lot. Something about being made to do things pisses us off, at least the more cantankerous amongst us.

I guess I’m worried that decisions will be made that somehow make teachers convert to SBG and so a system that, for me, has been incredibly liberating and positive will be made into a hammer for inflicting the “best practices” upon other teachers. I’d love, instead, to continue doing what I have been all year: helping students, tinkering with my system, and spreading the word to other interested teachers as to how things might work for them in a SBG system. I get it that administrators and leadership team facilitators might love to see widespread sweeping changes to revolutionize instruction in a district, but I’d hate to push everyone to do something they didn’t believe in. It will be far better to let the climate of the school be changed from within by example, rather than by executive order.

What makes a good principal?

This post has been rumbling around in my head for a few days, but was pushed along lately by a conversation with my colleague Justin Miller (@boundstaffpress) who was thinking along very similar lines.

What has us worked up these days, besides the impending merger of our high school with the town’s middle school, is that our current principal, Bud Ozzello, is leaving for a job with the statewide activities and athletics organization, CHSAA. Its a great move for him, but most of the staff will be sorry to see him go.  That alone should tell you that he was doing something right at our school.

So what does Bud do that makes him a great principal? I’m not going to throw out any test scores to prove how well he was doing; that’s a job for someone else who thinks that tests can measure this sort of thing. I will, however, mention two traits that I think helped Bud become a great principal.

First of all, Bud is always approachable during the school day.  His office door is usually open, except when he has some private meeting to conduct.  Even if he is on the phone with his door open, he recognizes when staff members come to the office to talk and often invites them in until the call is done. Although he has a busy schedule, he makes time for important conversations or arranges later meetings to talk more in depth if his schedule does not allow for complete resolution of an issue. In short, communication between administration and teaching staff is welcomed and even promoted by Bud’s conduct as a principal.

More importantly, I think most staff members at our high school feel that their concerns are being heard and acted upon.  We know that he pays attention to our concerns and ideas since he returns emails and IM’s with thoughtful comments or invitations for further discussion.  This year, for example, Bud has been very supportive of staff initiatives in a variety of areas including reforming our grading systems, trying 1:1 technology solutions, and providing some of our own professional development through sharing of best practices and resources.  I can’t say that he endorses every idea to come across his desk, but he clearly values the conversations that he has with his staff and sometimes acts on their recommendations.

Am I presenting a picture of the guy that is too idealized and sappy? Probably. Some of my fellow teachers can set the record straight in the comments, if they dare. But overall, in my 11 years of teaching, Bud is one of the few administrators that I will be sorry to lose.

So for all of you budding (and current) administrators, my advice to you is, like Bud, to cultivate open, collegial relationships with your staff rather than assuming a ‘my way or the highway’ philosophy of administration.  There are teachers in every building who have ideas about how to help students learn and are itching to try new things in the classroom. I recommend that you identify those teacher leaders and put them to work for you as experimentalists in the classroom, testing out their ideas and sharing the results. It will make your job easier and their classrooms will be stronger for it.