Building a Learning Culture for Teachers part 2 of 5

The Principal must be the “Lead Learning” in his or her school. We must walk the walk and talk the talk. We must keep the main thing the main thing. We know that the more the teacher learns and practices with guidance and coaching, the better they will be able to help his or teachers help their students to learn and achieve success.

Here are five factors I believe helped build a learning culture at my school:

  1. Provide feedback to teachers and communicate continuously that I value the teaching profession and them as individuals.
  2. Share with teachers my personal growth journey
  3. Provide actionable formative feedback using non-bias and factual statements that highlight strengths and something to think about
  4. Provide resources for teachers to access professional development and collaboration time.
  5. Hire teachers who demonstrate that they are continuous learners.

In this post I will focus on the second factor.  Click the link to read part 1 of 5

Factor 2: Share with teachers my personal growth journey. It is important to share my learning goals and my plan to achieve those goals. I must model the culture I want for my school. Teacher need to see and hear what I am learning, how I go about learning it, and what impact my learning has to improve my ability to serve and support teachers, students, and parents. Teachers need to know that I am continuously learning new things, working to refine existing skills, and that I am on the life-long learning journey along with them.

I need to share how I learn from my mistakes and how I am a better administrator because of the experiences and collaboration I have had with teachers. Teachers need to know that they have a positive impact on my learning. I spend time thanking specific teachers for their specific contribution. One teacher might have shared an article that really helped me think about a situation a new way, or I might watch a teacher teach a lesson and demonstrate a different approach to helping children improve their mastery of an academic standard. Taking time to thank teachers helps communicate I value their work and contribution to our profession on a global and personal level.

Teachers need to know that I value their time. They need to know that time they spend on professional development is important. Therefore, I attend and participate in 90% of the Professional Development that teachers in my school attend. Sometimes I lead the Professional Development, other times I recruit teachers from our school or outside of our school to lead the learning.

I also share the results of my evaluations and feedback surveys that teachers have had the opportunity to provide about my work as a principal. I believe this transparent step breaks down barriers and shows that I am willing to listen to feedback and show teachers how their feedback compares with other teachers feedback about my service. I share what I plan to do to improve in all aspects of my leadership. I ask teachers to do more than provide feedback as a formative/summative appraisal, I ask them to help me in the action plan to improve.

Ultimately being a transparent servant leader who models and conducts professional dialogue with teachers on a continuous basis is key to building the learning culture for teachers.

What are other ways you have model the importance of professional development?  How have you built a learning culture for teachers at your school or district?


Building a Learning Culture for Teachers

Part 1 of 5 – Building a Learning Culture for Teachers

As a principal of an elementary school I am tasked with providing feedback to teachers about instructional and professional practice via the district-adopted teacher appraisal system.

Lots of teachers throughout our country are writing and talking about how disappointed, angry, and humiliated they feel because of the feedback provided to them on their appraisal system. I can honestly say I have not experienced this dissatisfied movement from teachers at my school.

As I reflect back on why teachers across our nation are responding negatively to the feedback, I must wonder to what did I do to help build a culture for learning so that feedback is seen as a growth opportunity and not a “gotcha” moment at my school.  Feedback is seen as an opportunity to learn and improve.

 Here are five factors I believe helped build a learning culture at my school:

  1. Provide feedback to teachers and communicate continuously that I value the teaching profession and them as individuals.
  2. Share with teachers my personal growth journey
  3. Provide actionable formative feedback using non-bias and factual statements that highlight strengths and something to think about
  4. Provide resources for teachers to access professional development and collaboration time.
  5. Hire teachers who demonstrate that they are continuous learners.

In this post I will focus on the first factor.

Provide feedback to teachers and communicate continuously that I value the teaching profession and them as individuals. Spending time to get to know your teacher’s on a personal level and having conversations about their personal interest like how many children they have, knowing the names of their children, know what sports or activities their children participate, learn what hobbies or educational topics the teacher has a passion and interest. As the express goes “People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.”

Beginning on a genuine positive note helps minimize the “He does not like me”, “He is just out to get me” “the only time I see him is during observations” thoughts and feelings. Notice I said minimizes, there are always some people who just don’t like or agree with me.

I read about highly effective leaders. One common trait of highly effective leaders is that they express appreciation. I hardwire into my daily routine to write two thank you notes everyday to different people in my school. Taking time to write hand written notes has had the greatest impact on teacher for building a positive relationship. Along with writing hand written notes, making hospital visits, attending funerals, and sending birthday and get-well cards also are high relationship builders.

During my conversations with teacher I share information about my family and my personal interests. I want our relationship to grow mutually.

Having done these five things has really transformed our school into a learning culture for teachers and myself as an educational leader. The transformation did not occur over night. I have had the privilege to work in the same school for the past seven years. Together we have watched and assisted each other through our triumphs and redo’s. We are a more effective faculty because of the process we participated together.

Leave a comment and let me know your thoughts. Have you found others factors to be key to building a learning culture for teachers? I would love to read about it.

Loyalty and Appreciation from the Surgical Table

This past Friday, I received a panic phone call from my mother telling me that my father currently having emergency surgery to save his life. She did not know a lot of details and was very confused. You need to understand that my mother is Japanese and speaks English well, but when she is stressed her ability to comprehend English diminishes greatly. I told my mother I would pick her up and we would go to the hospital right away.

I informed by Assistant Principal that I had to leave right away, and explained quickly what was happening to my father. As you can imagine, she was very supportive and helped close our school for the weekend.

A few hours later, my father came through his surgery well. He will spend a few weeks at home recovering, but he is expected to make a full recovery. While I am very grateful that my father is on the road to recovery, what touched my heart the most was the response I received from my school family.

I sent an email explaining my father’s situation and told the faculty and staff that if they needed me to call my cell phone. I shared that my schedule was going to be very unpredictable as I will need to take care of my aging parents. So many people responded by email and text messages genuinely offering assistance and placing my father and my family on various prayer chains.

My Director of Elementary Education sent an email to all my principal colleagues sharing the news about my father and I received so many responses from my principal friends as well. My Director assured me that she was willing to help wherever and however was needed.

My Superintendent, made a visit to the hospital the next morning to check on my father and called me personally to make sure if I had any needs he could assist. You need to know that my Superintendent does this for all employees. He makes hospital visits, attends funerals, as well as special events at schools, and various academic, sports competition, art shows, and performances.

I am so Blessed to work in a school and district that people reach out in everyone’s time of need to pitch in and help. It was different for me to receive this out pouring of support and love. Usually, I am the one making hospital visits, phone calls, prayers, and sending hand written notes and cards. This weekend, I was the one in need and the very people I spend each day joyfully serving, did these things for me. Writing about this experience still brings tears to my eyes.

My Superintendent has build his leadership on the premise of Servant Leadership and has created and lived out a vision for our district: To be a place where students want to learn, parents want to send their children, teachers want to teach, and employees want to work.

My loyalty and appreciation for the people in my school and district will forever be strong. I am grateful to serve in a school and district that not only can recite our district’s vision; but also truly live it out.

Never underestimate the difference a kind word, expression of appreciation, a brief visit, a simple phone call can make for people in their time of need. James C. Penney has stated, “It is the service we are not obligated to give that people value the most.”

I love what I do and with whom I serve, but after this weekend, I am even more committed to serve and share the love we have for people.

The Blogging Challenge

I have been convicted as a professional to blog more consistently.  For the past few weeks, each time I participate in various educhats, I see people talking about the need to blog and the benefits of those who have made it a regular part of who they are.

Tonight, I participated in the #educoach chat and was as one participant said “Triple Dog Dared” to accept the challenge to blog regularly.

So we discussed why don’t we blog more often.  For me, I’m an ADHD reflective thinker who has no problems filling words on a page, but how to keep from rambling and getting to wordy is one stumbling block I face.

I believe the main reason I don’t blog frequently is the fear of not writing and expressing my thoughts perfectly.  Then I decided that if I am truly going to work to be a Growth Mindset leader, I have to be willing to move from my imperfect ways and work to more improved ways.  So I begin tonight with this goal: Blog at least once a month and post it on  #educoach.

Thanks to @KathyPerret, @Jbteachr, & @kristinellis for encouraging me and challenging me to move forward with my Growth Mindset journey as I work to blog more regularly.  I appreciate your support, encouragement, and willingness to forgive if a setback or two occurs.

The Educational Snipe Hunt

So many people have written and spoken about the problem(s) with the American educational system.  I believe the problems are simple.

Educators in America have been told to go on a “Snip Hunt.”  For those not familiar with this popular Boy Scout game, unknowing participants are encouraged to go find and capture a “Snipe.”  They would spend hours in the woods lead by a believable and knowledgeable guide to find and capture something that does not exist.  So much time and energy is wasted, all in good fun.  Later the participants would be told they were fooled into believing they were hunting for something that did not exist.  It would be funny to hear stories around the campfire of scouts who would say they think they saw a “snipe”, only to find out later it does not exist.

The problem is when it comes to education, too much time, money, training, & energy are wasted on false solutions and it is not funny.

I believe educators have been lead on these two “snipe hunts.”

Snipe Hunt #1:
We are preparing students for a specific career or job.  Jamie Casap (@jcasap) said it best at FETC (Florida Education Technology Conference), as educators, we are asking students the wrong question.  We ask students “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The real question is “What problem do you want to solve?”  In the YouTube video entitled: Did You Know 3.0 HD (Officially Updated for 2012) the video points out that the top ten in demand jobs during 2012 did not exist in 2004.  We cannot know what jobs we are preparing our students to work and lead. We can only teach them information and skills to adapt to the new world they will live and work.  Having students focus on “What problems they want to solve?” will ultimately lead them to a career they will have a passion to bring about excellence in all that they do.

Snipe Hunt #2:
The focus on teaching Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic should focus on the skills associated with discipline of knowledge.  I believe we need to focus on instilling a love and passion for each of these disciplines of knowledge.  Students will say they don’t like to read, write, or solve math problems.  Wrong!  Students have not found what they like to read and have not been asked to write and solve problems that they can connect any relevance to what they are passionate about. I believe the “Genius Hour” concept will go a long ways in bringing relevance in what we teach students to what the student is passionate about and thinks is important.  Steven Layne the author of Igniting A Passion For Reading, suggested one strategy in which the teacher says, when I read this book, I thought about you.  Why don’t you read it and let me know what you think.  Talk about connecting relevance to reading.  I think we can use this strategy in any subject we teach.  However, we can only do this if we truly know our students and their passions and interests.

Jackie Robinson is quoted to have said, “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”

If we are going to make a positive impact on our students’ lives today and in their future, we have to quit hunting for “snipes.”

What other “snipe hunts” have educators been lead to participate?

Chaos by Design

It’s that time of the year, students seem to be misbehaving more and teachers go home exhausted and frustrated about student behaviors.  Could it be “Spring Fever”, “Test Stress”, or just a natural occurrence this time of the school year?

The truth is, the main reason student misbehaviors seem to increase is because we (employees and students) loose our focus.  We slowly slip away from our school-wide procedures and expectations.  We slowly slip away from classroom procedures and routines.  We slowly start to plan less in details.  We ask a lot less higher order questions that keep students engaged/thinking and we begin asking more lower order questions which are easy and boring.  PBS (Positive Behavior Support Model) provides an anchor for our expectations, rules, procedures, and school/classroom culture.  It provides a path to student engagement by creating a happy and safe learning environment in which people want to come to school everyday to learn and work.  Therefore, people go home happy and feeling accomplished.

Lesson learned from the late Coach Lombardi of the Green Bay Packers:Excerpt from “Marketing” Basics & Fundamentals for Christian Authors & Publishers by J A Heinlein

“Coach Lombardi’s approach to football and leading his players. Vince Lombardi, one of the most successful coaches in the history of football, started every new season with a standard speech to veterans and the rookies alike. He would hold up a football and say, “This is a football!” He would roll it around in his hands and talk about the size and shape of the football, and the many ways that it could be handled on the football field including carrying, passing, kicking.  He would then take the team out onto the football field and say, “This is a football field!” He would describe the measurements of the field, and the rules of the game. He did it every year…”

What can we learn from Coach Lombardi?  We must never underestimate the importance of the basics/fundamentals, whether it is life, work, education, or sports.  Let us go back to the fundamentals with our PBS and review/re-teach our expectations and procedures.  Let’s make a united effort to hold students to the same expectations and let’s support each other in our efforts to enforce and support our behavioral expectations.  Dr. Harry Wong would say “Procedures, procedures, procedures!”  We need to be deliberate and diligent in our efforts to go back to the fundaments.

Let’s end the school year the way we started, excited and energized!

My PLN Story: Why I chose to Blog?

I joined Twitter in January of 2013.  Originally I decide to use Twitter as a communication tool to share school news and educational tips for my school’s parents and employees.  I still have that account running (@MrAlaback).  I will admit that I have not done as good of job keeping the information flowing, but I am committed to provide meaningful and current information to my school’s stakeholders.  I will improve on my use of this tool.

My school and district Technology Coordinators strongly urged my to pursue the powerful benefits of a Personal Learning Network through Twitter and various Blogs for over a year.  I confess that I avoided their encouragement because I felt too overwhelmed as a principal and when I finally joined Twitter I thought I was too new to the Twitter world to take on something like a PLN.

I have always considered myself as a reflective thinker and a successful collaborator.  Each year, I have voluntarily started several book study groups as well as led several learning communities as a teacher, technology coordinator, and school administrator.   All of my past PLNs have been face-to-face encounters with people who are readily available and have the same passion and interest to help each other grow professionally and improve our ability to help our students.

Why then did I hesitate to start a Twitter PLN and/or a Blog?  The answer, I never thought of myself as a writer.  I have been told that I have the gift of oral communication.  That people walk away from my oral presentation inspired and filled with hope and confidence that we can accomplish our vision and goals.  However, I have forever been told that I have poor writing skills.  My teachers and colleagues have said that I am cursed with good ideas and poor writing conventions.  I have used this area of weakness as a crutch for most of my life and as such have avoided written communication as much a possible in all aspects of my life.

During the last week of January 2013, six teachers from my school and I attended the Florida Education Technology Conference in Orlando and I was inundated with the concept of online PLN through the use of Twitter and Blogs.  I decided to muster up the courage to attend a sessions about Twitter as a PLN tool.  Eric Sheninger presented the session the session I attended; I walked away from Eric’s session as a new convert to the online PLN through Twitter.

I came back from the conference excited yet lost on how to start. Fortunately, I am Blessed to have a wonderful Technology Coordinator who helped me begin my online PLN journey.  She shared people and hash tags for me to follow and the rest became intuitive.  I started as most people do, as a PLN “stalker”.  I read everyone’s Twitter feeds and Blogs.  I quickly formed opinions about what people wrote, but thought to myself “Who am I to contribute to talented thinkers’ ideas?”

I decided I would move beyond just  “ReTweet & “Favorite Tweets”” to “Reply to Tweet” and “Tweet” my own thoughts.  I said to myself,” this isn’t so bad”, then several people I followed started to ask if I Blog.  I got spooked, I felt like I was in a game of poker and the people were calling my bluff to see if I was serious about participating in an online PLN.

The next day I struck up a conversation with my Technology Coordinator (who already had her own Blog going) and asked her “What do you think I can talk about in a Blog that other people would find useful, that I’m an expert about that topic, and that I would introduce new ideas to the online community?”  We brainstormed several ideas, but honestly, I did not get inspired.

I came across a book recommendation Tweeted by Sean Junkins to read Professional Learning in the Digital Age: The Educator’s Guide to User-Generated Learning by Kristen Swanson.  I downloaded the book onto my iPad Kindle App and began reading it.  Immediately I found a book that challenged me as a learner and met my “Beginner’s to PLN” needs.

I purchased three copies of the book and shared it with three teacher leaders in my school.  I told them, “I want you to read this book, and let’s talk about what you read and learned.”  Then I told them “After your read the book, you are to find another teacher in our school and challenge them to read the book and discuss it with you.  Then they are to repeat the cycle so this book gets passed around by recommendation of a trusted colleague rather than assigned as a mandated professional development from the school or district administrator.”   I borrowed the idea of book reading recommendations from Steven L. Layne’s book entitled Igniting a Passion for Reading: Successful Strategies For Building Lifetime Readers.  While he referred this strategy as something teachers do for students.  Layne tells teacher to say, “When I read this book, I thought about you and think you will enjoy reading it.”

After reading Kristen Swanson’s book in its entirety, I came to the realization the reason to Blog is to grow professionally through reflective thinking practices and provide an avenue to collaborate with others who are reflecting on the same issues.  To Blog is not to see what “I” can contribute to the online community, rather it is to see what “we” collaboratively contribute to each other’s professional growth and understanding.  The “we” concept helped me see that when I Blog, I don’t Blog in isolation, nor am I alone in trying to grow and development into a better professional and educational practitioner.

To Blog is to expand the number of people who are able to join the learning community that I have grown accustom to leading, even if some start as “stalkers” at some point, we as professionals are driven to do the right thing.  We will reply to each other’s comments and contribute to professional discussions.  Ultimately we will start discussions about topics that we know to be important and have a passion to see improve for the sake of our profession and for our student’s success.

Therefore, regardless of where you are in your PLN journey, I welcome you to my Blog set up for us.  I look forward to what we will be able to share and collaborate in the future.  If you so desire, you can follow me on my PLN Twitter account @BrianAlaback.

In closing, I want to thank the following people who have helped me to secure my online PLN as an important part of who I am as a professional.

  • Christine Baker @CMBPensacola, my school’s technology coordinator and my personal technology trainer, my leadership supporter, and my inspiration to continuously improve as a professional.
  • Eric Sheninger @NMHS_Principal, for your inspiration to join Twitter and Awesome Tweets
  • Sean Junkins @sjunkins, for your awesome Tweets and book recommendations
  • Kristen Swanson @KristenSwanson, who authored the book Professional Learning in the Digital Age: The Educator’s Guide to User-Generated Learning; you have forever changed my PLN for the better, Thank you!
  • Sam Patterson @SamPatue, who was the first to call my bluff and asked if I blog and requested time to collaborate.  I appreciate your Tweets and Blog messages.  We will collaborate soon!
  • Tom Whitby @tomwhitby, for sharing great Tweets and responding to me in a professional and respectful manner as I ventured into participating more actively in Twitter.
  • Todd Whitaker @toddwhitaker, I appreciate your thoughtful Tweets and I plan to read your book Ten Minute Inservice: 40 Quick Training Sessions that Build Teacher Effectiveness; I have it save in my Kindle wish list and will down load it soon.