Two Practices I Encourage You to Change in Your Elementary School

Changing traditional thinking and practices in our school system isn’t always easy.  In my 20 years in elementary education, I’ve stumbled across two practices that I think would help students and staff if they were changed.

For some background, I worked for 10 years in a PreK-1st-grade building, four years in a 2nd-3rd-grade building, four years in a 4th-5th building, and the last two in a building that houses students in grades 3rd-5th. The first of these two things is more suited to upper elementary while the second I believe applies to all elementary schools.

download-1.jpg

 1. Traditional practicePlacing a student on a class list and leaving them in that class for the next nine months no matter what. I know that we all have great practices in place when developing class lists. So much time, effort, and thought goes into creating balanced class lists. We code students based on behavior, academics, and other needs. We consider personality matches between student and teacher. Hours and hours of thought and our very best work goes into class lists. Having said that, is it really possible we bat 100% on those predictions? Is it possible there might be a better match for a student than the one we hypothesized in the spring? We certainly know that a new mix of kids can lead to students displaying different behaviors than the previous year. That doesn’t even take into account move in students and how they impact the classroom dynamic.

1. My thinkingBe willing to make changes! Just because you put a student’s name next to a teacher’s name last May shouldn’t mean the student HAS TO stay in that classroom for nine months. We sometimes fear the impact on the student and the stigma of moving classrooms. When doing so, we underestimate the resilience of kids. We underestimate that the fresh start might be exactly what THEY want. One possibility is to transparently share with parents that your school will be looking at class lists in October and again at the holiday break to see if adjustments need to be made. What stops you from having a student spend 1/4 of the year in each of the four classrooms in the grade if change is a positive for them? In my experience, exploring a move only applies to 5-10% of students in any given grade. But if we can improve the school year for a handful of children, isn’t it worth it?  In my experience, when we have been able to get the student, parent, current teacher, and new teacher all on board with the move, we have had really positive results.

download.jpg

2. Traditional practiceKeeping teachers in the same grade level even if the chemistry within the grade level isn’t great. I get that we aren’t big on change in education. I know the merits of learning a curriculum inside and out and how that positively impacts the instruction delivered. There was a time where teachers could shut their door and teach. That time is over. Collaboration is better and more frequent than at any time in the history of education. Because of that, the chemistry, collaboration, and working relationship within a grade level must be better than it’s ever been.

2. My thinking Be willing to move your staff around to find the right mix. First and foremost, I’m not talking about moving teachers against their wishes. I’m not talking about moving ineffective or minimally effective teachers. I’m talking about teachers who could be even better when on a team that fits their needs. I think the business world has this right.  People are moved to new desks, different teams, various departments, relatively often. We can learn from that. I encourage principals to look at the strengths of their individuals, the mix of their teams, and be willing to make changes that will allow grade levels to be better than they’ve ever been before. 

download-2.jpg

10 Ways Principals Need to Support Teachers

I am now 9 years removed from the classroom. I am very aware of that amount of time and the impact it can have on a building principal. Some of the most common errors I believe that building principals make, myself included, stem from times when they are out of touch with what is really happening in the classroom. If a principal is asking a teacher to put up learning targets, essential questions, and success criteria, along with shaking every student’s hand, monitoring the hallways, checking their email, responding to parent phone calls, and having a “hook” ready between each class period or subject, I’d suggest they may be out of touch.

How do I best combat that? I talk to teachers. Lots of teachers. I listen. During the school year, I try to get the pulse of our staff consistently. I work to create a culture where teachers can come to me and say, “Andy, that’s asking too much” or “that’s not realistic.” Not to whine or complain, and not all the time, but when they truly feel like it doesn’t make sense. In the summer, I have friends who are still teachers all across the state. I listen to them. I ask about their celebrations and challenges. That allows me to reflect and make sure I’m in tune with what life is like in the trenches for a teacher in 2018. download.jpg

All of that leads me to this list. As with every blog post I’ve ever written, there are items on this list that I feel like I’m really good at and there are also major growth areas. I’m sure my staff could identify them quickly! There are many aspects to being a principal, but supporting staff in a way that allows them to be their best, ranks very high on the list. If I’m doing these 10 things, I’m well on my way to doing just that.

1. Become an expert at the teacher evaluation processIt’s the #1 complaint I hear from teachers. It must be a collaborative growth model. If it’s to check a box, or based on 2-3 classroom stops a year, or provides summative and not formative feedback, it’s not going to go well. Make sure teachers see it as worthwhile time spent to reflect, collaborate, and improve their practice.

2. Build the why togetherIt’s not about my vision alone. It’s about our vision, a shared vision. Whether it’s a mission statement or not is irrelevant. Make sure your focus is clear and work done directly aligns to it.

3. Handle discipline collaboratively. I will NEVER understand the model of kid does something wrong, the teacher sends them to the office, the principal assigns punishment, life goes on. Speak to the people who know that child best, their parents and the teacher. Don’t be in a huge hurry. Coming up with the best restorative practices and/or clear consequences is what is most important. Using more than one brain when doing so has helped me in many ways.

4. No job is too small or too big for the principal – Be willing to do just about anything when the situation calls for you to do it. There is no real job description for the principal position. You must make the really tough, big decisions.  In addition, you might need to clean puke, wipe tables, give a hug, pick up trash on the playground, whatever it takes. Model for everyone that it’s “we” when it comes to all components that help run the school

5. Give grace / Don’t sweat the small stuff – Your teacher has been early to school for 140 straight days. They are late for understandable circumstances. Don’t write them up. Teachers are people. They make mistakes. Have open and honest conversations about how you can help. 1 teacher responds to an email inappropriately. Don’t fire off an email to the entire staff about the appropriate use of email. Have a conversation with that staff member. Give grace, remember the big picture, build trust, support people.images.jpg

6. Family first. Always – Don’t just say it. Live it. Make sure that your staff WANTS you to take care of the needs of their family first. That allows them to be the best employee possible. Don’t make them feel guilty for leaving on Friday at 4:00. Encourage that healthy balance between school and home which decreases teacher burnout.

7. Be transparent about your weaknesses/mistakes. In addition, share your plan to do something about it – Show that you are human. When you make a mistake, own it. If there is a part of your practice that is not what it needs to be, share that. But also let people know of your plan of action to make that better. 

8. Provide valuable PD – #2 complain behind the teacher evaluation process that I get from teachers is that PD is not impactful on their practice. You aren’t just the instructional leader, you are the lead instructor and facilitator. The learning experience you provide should match what you expect teachers to provide for students. Engagement, relevance, collaboration, thinking, application. That simple.

9. Treat everyone with respect, in every situation, every day – That includes the parent or student who is “F-bombing” you. When you set that example for others in your building, it’s an easy one to follow. Every parent, student, staff member, or guest who walks into your school is one that you can show respect towards.  

10. Be the loudest cheerleader for positives happening in individual classrooms, grade levels, and the entire school – This allows you to “have people’s back.” Remarkable things are happening in each classroom, each day. Scream those from the mountaintop in whatever way you can. George Couros puts nails it when he puts it this way:

download.jpg

Well, there’s my 10. As I reflect, I think I am on the right track in 5 of them. At least 2 I’m brutally average and 3 I really need to do a better job of. Supporting your staff in whatever way they need it, which allows them to be their best, directly impacts students every day.