Sunday, December 18, 2011

Don't Fear the Website

A couple weeks ago, a reporter from KCRG-TV in Cedar Rapids asked me to comment on a new website aimed at helping students report bullying and harassment at school. The website is sponsored by the Eychaner Foundation, which sponsors Iowa's Matthew Shepard Scholarship, as well as a minority scholarship for high school students in DeKalb, Illinois. I wrote about the organization and its founder, Rich Eychaner, in The Principal's Challenge. In addition to contributing more than a million dollars for scholarships in the last ten-plus years, Eychaner and his foundation have contributed mightily to civil rights and tolerance in Iowa and beyond.

Before the interview, I needed to get familiar with how the website works. After a kid makes a report, the school receives an email and letter through the postal service with the report. The website also includes the foundation's privacy policy and how they handle the information.

As a former principal, I first thought about how the information would be used. I immediately knew that some would see the website as a potential "gotcha game" that might be misused to label districts. I know what it feels like to be saddled with one more (tough) thing to do and to feel like you're getting peppered from all sides.

Last summer, Iowa Department of Education Director Jason Glass asserted that bullying data reported by Iowa districts is "unbelievably low." His comments no doubt offended a whole lot of educators who feel constantly under siege by state and federal mandates, media scrutiny, and politicians who've been convinced that running schools more like a business (whatever that means) or more testing will save America. No doubt it felt like piling on.

And yet national surveys suggest that bullying and harassment are real problems.

Hudson Superintendent Tony Voss noted in his blog last June that if the numbers reported to the state are low, it isn't because schools are letting harassers run wild, at least not in his district. He suggested it's more likely that incidents are under-reported by students. I think he's right in a lot of cases. I think there are a lot of kids who just take it. Maybe they're not sure who to tell. Maybe they're not sure how. Maybe they don't think it will make any difference.

I think most administrators in Iowa are like Voss. They mean business when it comes to school culture and climate. Like all responsible leaders, when they know something is wrong, they act to correct it. So what about the clunkers with an outdated, boys will be boys attitude toward bullying or who lack the courage or know how to address it? Well, we've got a law that prohibits bullying and harassment related to 17 criteria, a new level of attention being given to reporting, and a new way for kids to let their schools know.

So here's my take:
  • Bullying is not some powder puff issue or a weird mutation of political correctness. It's real and it matters.
  • Jason Glass may be right. The numbers may be low.
  • I think Hudson Superintendent Voss is right that kids may not be reporting what's really going on.
  • That may partially because some kids aren't sure how they should go about reporting it and/or to whom. 
  • After fighting for the Safe Schools Law and investing more than a million dollars in scholarships, it's clear that the Eychaner Foundation's interest is in supporting students, not trashing school districts or people who work in them. 
That's why the website is a good thing. Let's not get hung up on how schools find out about harassment. Let's make sure schools do find out and that they respond accordingly. Let them decide if they want to walk into the principal's office or log on.

We've got similar websites and toll free numbers devoted to everything from helping the DNR catch somebody poaching a turkey, anti-terrorism tips for the FBI, and money saving suggestions to the Iowa Legislature. This may feel like one more thing to administrators who are already spread thin. But if a hotline is a decent way to collect tips on bagging turkeys out of season, this website is a reasonable way to help kids feel comfortable, safe, valued and listened to at school.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Who's up for a little test?

The latest post on the Washington Post's Answer Sheet blog is a must read. In the post, longtime teacher, administrator, curriculum designer and author, Marion Brady describes a friend who did something bold. He volunteered to take the standardized tests his state requires of 10th graders and announce his score publicly.

His scores were unimpressive. He guessed 10 of 60 math questions correctly and had a 62% on the reading test. It might appear that our failing education system includes not only the slouching high school kids in your town, but also this guy, who is has a big house in a good part of town, a condo in the Caribbean, influential friends and lots of frequent flyer miles.  Two masters degrees. Somehow he has managed to overcome his stark deficits in mathematics and reading and still help oversee a company with 22,000 employees and a multi-billion dollar budget.

So what gives? Are the tests garbage? Probably. Did he forget some of the things that the tests measure? For sure. Are those things important beyond politicians' insatiable desire to show themselves as education reformers and the Testing Industrial Complex's desire to profit from know nothing students and ineffective educators? Hmmm.

 My friend and colleague Dr. Tim Gilson (@pantherprof on Twitter) told me this afternoon that the best professional development session he led in 13 years as principal happened the day he asked teachers to take the standardized tests that were routinely required of students. Apparently, their inability to answer a lot of the questions produced lively discussion about things like their preparation, rigor, and the test's difficulty. Their value also came up.

So, maybe we ought to ask our education policy makers to take this guy's lead. In Iowa, Governor Branstad has released an education reform plan that has generated a lot of discussion. It borrows heavily from Florida and talks a lot about testing.

The Governor attended a private law school (Drake University), served as a university president (Des Moines University), and was Iowa's longest serving governor, even before coming back for this current term. Those are no small feats. Politics aside, he is certainly successful, intelligent. Surely he would fare better than the guy with the condo in the Caribbean...right?

Wouldn't it be interesting if everyone decrying our rotten school system and the importance of more testing would give the tests a shot? Governor, are you up for it?

Better yet, why not pass them out at the next meeting of the Governor's Association? Invite the state superintendents/directors of education to take them. Arne Duncan. Throw some professors in. School board members. Factory workers. Wall Street execs. Moms. Pharmaceutical sales people. Teachers. Small business owners. Trump. Members of Congress, though that group would certainly need to be closely monitored for cheating. Instead of bake sales, political speak and photo ops, A national "Let's See What the Hell These Tests Are Really About Day."

If that happened, we might be starting a meaningful conversation about testing, knowledge and what matters. Until that happens, more of the same spin, posturing, and BS.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Empathy, Impact & Perspective

A couple of years ago, we revised the curriculum in our principalship program. One of our many goals was to get our future leaders out of their comfort zones and broaden their perspective around issues like culture and poverty. We know many school people are "good at" school because it is a middle class endeavor. Among other things, requiring field-based internship experiences in a non-profit/social service setting seemed like a good way to begin broadening our future leaders' experiences.

Yesterday I read a reflection written by an excellent student, Tracy Kelly, an elementary teacher from Woodbine, IA  who had completed her non-profit internship experience at a food bank. She described how, the evening before, the furnace in their house had gone on the fritz and she had recently hit a deer (on the way home from class, of course). These frustrations added to the every day stress of a teacher, wife and mother.

She described a couple of teenage boys who seemed a little hesitant to allow her to help load their pickup.She didn't understand why until she saw their sleeping items under the truck's topper. The truck was their home. She wrote about the insight and perspective she found when it hit her:

          " boo-hoo is someone else's dream. I have the means to fix what's broken."

She went on to describe what she sees as the principal's role in understanding poverty in unexpected places and all its disguises. Se described how she intends to extend her school into becoming a community of support that is fully vested with donors, non-profit agencies, churches, and school clubs to pick up the slack and serve children and families. And how, as principal, she can make a difference.

We certainly could have required her to write a paper or produce a PowerPoint presentation on poverty in her community. But I'm willing to bet we hit the mark when she figured out why the two boys didn't want her looking in the back of the truck.

It is beyond gratifying to play a small part in providing future school leaders with learning experiences like these that stick...and that help expand their empathy and awareness outside the walls of school.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Anything Goes: On Broadway...and Wall Street

I've shared my view that Michelle Bachmann is somewhere between a lightweight phony and a crazy woman with some degree of access to power. And I wouldn't walk ten yards to hear her misstate history, insult gay and lesbian people, or butcher science. But I ran across a story in The Des Moines Register  about some tough questions that were posed to her in northwest Iowa, which has become her political Alamo.

A fellow named Ken Barker, a retired teacher whom I've never met told her he has noticed "that every politician is owned by someone." He wondered who will own Bachmann in the increasingly unlikely event that she makes it to the White House. I don't know how much Mr. Barker and I would agree on, given his presence at a Bachmann rally, but his question is spot-on. Kudos to him for asking it. We ought to be asking the same of every candidate, especially since the United States Supreme Court ruled that corporations can flood political campaigns that support their interests with money.

And I'm not being purely partisan here. CNN reported that President Obama's top contributor in 2008 was Goldman Sachs. Wonder how hard he and Tim Geitner will be battling Wall Street, other than in speeches. And the fox guards the hen house. More or less.

This guest editorial by Graham Gillette in the Des Moines Register gets it about right. Party leaders on both sides seem be inept and incapable of leadership and reason and/or have been bought and sold by the fat cats who give them their marching orders. And the rest of us are being played. By both sides.

Over the weekend tourist Sandra Fox, 69, of Baton Rouge, LA got caught up in an Occupy Wall Street protest while on her way to see "Anything Goes" on Broadway. The Associated Press quoted her as saying, "I think it's horrible what they're doing. These people need to go get jobs."

Well, see Sandra, that's the thing. Those scary protesters in masks...They're mad because they can't find a job. They do need to get jobs. They want to get jobs. They want their government to be responsible and responsive. They're worried that, like Mr. Barker at the Bachmann rally, politicians on both sides represent money, power, and reelection first, and their constituents' interests last, if at all. Their wound up because they're pretty sure GM, Goldman Sachs, ExxonMobil, Lockheed-Martin, and the insurance  and pharmaceutical companies are running this thing. And they're right.

And so, Sandra, Broadway isn't the only place you can see "Anything Goes." It's been running on Wall Street for quite a while now. And that's a lot of the problem.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Ten Steps, circa 1997, Revisited

Many years ago, my aunt, Kathy Sorbe gave me Pat Riley's book The Winner Within. I was an old school Celtics fan, so reading about Riles and the Lakers was a stretch for me. But there's a lot of good stuff in there, particularly The Disease of Me. Check it out and self-diagnose.

A few years later, I wasn't surprised when Rick Pitino came out with a book with an uncomfortably similar cover, entitled Success is a Choice. Jeez, Rick, do you have to pose on the cover just like Riles? Though I was never nor will I will be a Pitino fan (especially after the was-it-rape-or-consensual-sex-in-the-restaurant-train-wreck a couple years ago...) Nobody's perfect and let those who are cast the first stone, but seriously. And this guy is mentoring young college men. Big contract.

Still, even a broken clock and a morally bankrupt multimillionaire coach are right two times a day. Pitino's Steps to Success got me thinking. I was coaching at the time, adapted them a bit and added some corresponding steps to failure. I found the whole list today in a file drawer, when, of course, I was looking for something else.

10 Steps to Success, adapted from Rick Pitino

1. Thrive on Pressure
2. Establish Good Habits
3. Master the Art of Communication
4. Build Self-Esteem
5. Always Be Positive
6. Learn From Adversity
7. Learn From Role Models
8. Be Ferociously Persistent
9. Set Demanding Goals
10. Survive Success

10 Steps to Failure

1. Complain
2. Worry
3. Settle
4. Be Afraid
5. Close Your Mind
6. Learn to Be Lazy
7. Isolate Yourself
8. Blame Someone Else
9. Go Through The Motions
10. Say You Don't Care

Any suggestions for amendments to either list?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Looking Forward Feels Good

I spent a couple hours at my son's junior high mini-school night. Parents are invited to spend ten minutes in each of their child's classes. A couple (ok, a few) times before, I've complained that these opportunities often miss the mark because they often focus on things like the classroom rules, how many kids are out for what sport, what day Pizza Hut comes, and what's "covered" rather than the bigger picture things like what the teacher wants my kid to learn this year.

Last night was refreshing, and not just because the building is nearing the completion of a major and much-needed face lift. It was refreshing because a number of the teachers talked about things like:

  • How some professional development opportunities have helped the math teacher reflect on the emphasis she was putting on points and that perhaps more of her attention needed to go to what the students are actually learning;
  • How the famous (or infamous, depending upon whom you ask) bug collection unit, a staple for years, has been altered to become a more collaborative venture across seventh and eighth grades (When our daughter attended the school, she paid her brother to collect the bugs. Once that was done, that was it. Not much discussion of the bugs themselves, their habitat, life cycles...just grab 'em,. gas 'em, and pin 'em in a nice looking cake box and get it safely to school);
  • How other teachers' professional development experiences are leading them to more focus on differentiation of a number of projects, assignments and experiences;
  • How the industrial technology teacher allows the students to have a bit of choice with the gumball machines they build. "If it will fit within the general pattern and we can come up with a way to make it work, we're gonna try it," he said.
All this came in the building led by the principal who intervened during the magic markers for extra credit debacle I described last year.

The school has always been a good one. I suppose part of my job as a parent is to want it to be better. Maybe that's magnified by my job as a professor. Maybe, just maybe, that makes me almost impossible to please. 

But I'm convinced my good feelings weren't just the result of a tired old building with some new floor tiles and air conditioning. They were the result of a good school with a much needed makeover in bricks and mortar, as well as outlook and craft. I was in a building last night that is looking forward. And it felt good.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


A recurring thought here, revisiting an earlier post.

 In the Winter of 2007 I listen to then-presidential candidate Joe Biden on our campus. Actually, I showed up a little late and ran in to the Senator, who was looking for the men's room in Lang Hall. I like to say that we're down.

Even with his enthusiastically-reported gaffes and misstatements, I've always liked the VP's unvarnished style. I dig that, bluster and all. I could probably benefit from being more direct. Reading Jules Whitcover's excellent biography of the VP gave quite a bit of insight into his scrappy, Scranton, working class demeanor, not to mention rebuilding his life after the death of his wife and daughter in a traffic accident.

Thought it is not original to him and lots of others have said it too, he said, "Don't tell me what your priorities are. Show me your budget and I'll figure it out for myself." Love that. We could adapt that statement in many ways...Show me your calendar, principals. Show me your weekends, parents. Show me your practice plan, coaches.

So this morning's NPR story about California's brought the often bitter taste of that wisdom back to life. $70,000 per year to house California's most hardened criminals. The Orange County Register reported that the state spent just under $10K per student in 2007-2008.

What a sad commentary. As I've said before, throwing money at a problem is not automatically going to fix it and I'm all for safe streets. That said, I'm willing to bet some educators in Oakland (or wherever) could make a dent in a few things--like, say, student learning--with that kind of bank behind them.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Frank Diskin: As Good As They Come

In the spring of 1993, I was a year out of college and trying to come up with a suitable answer to "What do you want to do with your life?" I was a new husband and college graduate with the ever-marketable sociology degree working for the Missouri Department of Mental Health in Kansas City. A few months ago, I described here how I knew I needed a change.

I had some work to do in order to become a teacher and coach. First and foremost, I needed to complete a number of classes to earn my certification to teach. One spring day, I walked into Mason-Halpin Fieldhouse on the campus of Rockhurst College (now University). I asked the secretary if Frank Diskin, the Director of Athletics and men's basketball coach was available. He was.

I sat down in Coach Diskin's office and explained a bit of my history and that I now wanted to teach and coach. Told a bit about my good fortune of having played for Eldon Miller at UNI. Talked a bit about my new wife and growing up in Winterset, Iowa. I closed with a rather jumbled statement about how I'd be happy to volunteer as an assistant coach of some sort if Coach Diskin needed any help, having no idea how my cold call had been received.

Coach Diskin leaned back in his black vinyl chair and said with a Southeast Kansas twang, "If you'd like to take the classes here and help us, I'll pay for it." I was stunned by his generosity and the directness of his response. Who offers that to a stranger? Impressed though I was, I had no idea that I'd had my initial contact with one of the finest men I'd ever know.

Over the next year and a half, I served as an assistant for "Coach D," usually taking the wheel of one of two rented Ford Econoline vans as we rolled across the Midwest. To say that I benefited more than he and the Rockhurst Hawks did is a gross understatement. Man, did I learn, and man did we have fun. I can't tell you the final record of the team, but I can tell:

  • How on a trip to play against College of the Ozarks, Coach explained how people in the Ozarks used to measure distances in "sees." Something about getting to the furthest hill one could see represented a distance of "one see."
  • How when considering a "big new job" I should bear in mind that if the guy before me wasn't successful, it probably was not because he wasn't working hard. Be careful.
  • How he meant what he said about loyalty, promising me in that initial conversation that he'd help me any way he could if I was loyal and worked hard, but that if I was not, he would also make sure I didn't get a job.
  • How the kid from New York City he recruited to St. Mary of the Plains College thought the big animals along the Kansas Turnpike were dogs, not cows. Never seen one before.
The Southeast Kansas Catholic and the young guy with the sociology degree had some great conversations while the players slept in the back of the van. Abortion. Rebounding. War. Why don't kids practice the fundamentals? God. Poverty. Pressure defense. And man, could he sing the hell out of any Johnny Cash song. The 20 year old players in the back of the van would pretend to sleep, snicker, and roll their eyes. When one of the players would tease him about how well he sang Ring of Fire, he'd say something like, "By God, I'm glad someone around here's got a little class and recognizes good music." 

A friend of Frank's was a friend for life. He was a prolific forwarder of those emails that want you to call your mother, thank a veteran, or remember the old days. Phone calls picked up right where we left off months before. Always asked lots of questions...How's your grandpa? Are you coaching your son's team? Keep him out of that AAU bullshit. He was a firm handshake, say what you mean and mean what you say guy.  He told me on one of our road trips that he went to mass every day because he was so weak. It blew me away because I didn't know anyone stronger.

Perhaps his most memorable quote was "The next effort is the most important one." What's done is done. Good or bad, the play that just happened is history. Get to the next one. Hearing the news that Coach D died yesterday in a whitewater rafting accident while vacationing with his family near Estes Park, CO stopped me in my tracks.

Getting to the next effort is going to be tough for a whole lot of people. We have lost a champion in every sense of the word. But we have also learned from and been loved by one of the very best. And, we'll honor him by getting to that next effort, tough as it is.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Prisons, Priorities & Power

On some of my more cynical days (there are plenty of them), I have remarked that some factory workers have more freedom and control over their time than a lot of teachers. Similarly, many schools feel more like ultra-controlled environments than places of learning. For example, what's with the heavy handed prohibition of snacks or water bottles at school. I'm willing to bet just about all of the adults in the building have a Diet Mountain Dew and bag of M and M's in their desk drawer. I know, I know, someone will put some Smirnoff in the Aquafina bottle...But in my experience, they're probably going to make a run at that anyway. I digress.

My buddy confirmed that I am not alone in this view, after he attended his son's freshman orientation in suburban St. Louis last fall. After languishing through an extensive and all-encompassing presentation of the school's rules, policies, procedures and penalties for infractions, he asked me if most opening meetings for new freshmen and their parents had such a Checkpoint Charlie feel to them. He used the word prison. Then he asked me if I ever teach principals how to give a decent speech. Both are damn good questions. My answers were "maybe" and "kind of."

A future school leader forwarded this letter to the editor to me last week. It was written by a superintendent in Michigan and has subsequently made the rounds in cyberspace. I like it...attention getting, against the grain, and forces an uncomfortable conversation about priorities. The old adage "Instead of telling me your priorities, let me see your budget and I'll figure them out for myself" comes to mind. What these numbers reveal is not encouraging.

On a semi-related point, a colleague at UNI writes a weekly opinion column in the Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier. I'm usually on the other side of the issues he raises, but he nails a good portion of it.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Compromise, Paul Simon, Great Students and Good Movies

The frequency of my blogging has really suffered in the last few months. That doesn't mean I'm without thoughts. Among them:

What is a reasonable next step with the legislators I had asked about their views on recalling Iowa Supreme Court Justices? I've blogged about it a couple of times (see Nadasuals and An Email I Sent...). Disappointing, but I guess there never was much of a chance of hearing from them.

Next, a Facebook friend asked today if I am a habitual political poster. I suspect he would like to have a political free Facebook zone. I had shared a link to GOP presidential hopeful and former pizza executive Herman Cain's assertion that compromise is ruining the country. I posted, "The latest act in the GOP Presidential Comedy Hour, Herman Cain, says compromise is killing the country. Actually, it is rigidity and lack of compromise, That, and Godfather's Pizza."

Come on, the  Godfather's thing is funny. Besides, it's my page. Block me.

Beyond that, I'm no political scientist, but I remember the phrase "reach across the aisle." Guys as diverse as Ted Kennedy, Jack Danforth, Alan Simpson...reasonable, pragmatic people who would work to find something both sides could live with to move the country forward. I know I'm going all idealistic here. Apparently it was about governing rather than the constant election cycle. Compromise, collaboration, and reason are now vice. At least they are in the pizza industry.

One of my daughter's 9th grade classes is apparently far behind where the teacher had hoped to be with a couple of weeks left in the school year. The solution seems to be a chapter and test every couple of days. Not sure that's likely to do a lot for her interest in Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics education I keep hearing so much about. It will, however, yield some numbers in the grade book and a familiar conversation about coverage.

Why do we do so many things that run contrary to our own stated efforts toward engagement, accessing prior knowledge and opening doors to learning and future application? Pretty sure what she'll remember from the next two weeks is not found in the standards and benchmarks. It is, however, found in Paul  Simon's classic Kodachrome.

Who can't identify with that?

When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school
It's a wonder I can think at all
And though my life of education hasn't hurt me none
I can read the writing on the wall.

And that was 1973. How far haven't we come?

On a profoundly more positive and uplifting note, I enjoyed a fun couple hours in my class of future principals last night. Students shared school leadership lessons they had learned form feature films. They dug into We Were Soldiers, Elizabeth, Glengarry Glen Ross and Hotel Rwanda. And the lessons flowed like free refills at Godfather's Pizza...visibility, credibility, passion, mission, relationship building, sabotage, setbacks, standards. They did a fabulous job of making connections to school leadership. Next week, we turn our attention to some other films they've analyzed: Nixon, Milk, Citizen Kane and Twelve Angry Men.

It reminds me of how fortunate I am to work with such passionate, creative students intent on making a difference. I think I'll ask them about the role of compromise and for their take on the test frenzy above.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

What's for Sale, Part Two

The dad emailed the teacher to see if the information, as presented to him, was correct. It was. He then raised his concerns as politely as he could in an email: that the transaction seemed to take the focus off of learning and put it onto a purchase; that he knew from experience that teaching high school is tough, especially with 160 students a day, and that timely feedback and reteaching were essential; and that it was unwise and unfair to ask kids who could not afford the markers to self identify.

The teacher responded with an equally polite email that thanked the dad for being comfortable enough to raise his concerns. He appreciated the teacher acknowledging this, because several years before with a different child, the dad experienced firsthand the level of trust a parent must have in a teacher to raise an issue while being fully confident that doing so would not somehow negatively impact his child(ren). In that situation, sadly, the dad lacked such trust, felt as though he sold out, and took it up with the principal instead of the teacher.

Regarding the current issue, the teacher explained that many students seemed to grasp the concept when it was reviewed orally and felt frustrated that they had missed similar questions on the test, though the dad wished his daughter had been as convincing about the review and reteaching the teacher described. The teacher also explained that a different form of extra credit had been offered for students who might choose or need another option.

Again, as politely as he could, the dad typed out a response, thanking the teacher for the clarification, still expressing concern at the prospect of purchasing markers (or anything) for extra credit. At about the same time, he sent an email to the new principal of the building, advising him of his communication with the teacher, knowing that administrators like to be in the know. The principal quickly thanked him for the information. Then the dad saved his draft response to the teacher while considering whether to also address three words that were misspelled in the teacher's correspondence.

On one hand, he thought, pointing out the errors was a sure-fire way to be labeled an attack dog, nitpicker, and teacher-basher...some kind of condescending parent intent on playing gotcha. On the other, it felt like something he was bound to do as a fellow educator, knowing that many critics of education would lick their lips at the prospect of possessing smoking gun evidence of a "failing education system" and teachers who send error-laden messages to parents. Names of shrill acquaintances who would certainly arrive early to create a spectacle at the next school board meeting came to mind. And so, he made reference to the spelling errors, expressing his wish not to come across as a know it all or condescending sage, and hit send.

He was relieved when the teacher responded by thanking him for the heads up. He was surprised when, a couple of minutes later, a second email arrived from the teacher expressing the hope that people intent on criticism would have understanding for the many people who were raised in environments in which more than one language was spoken. The dad found himself nodding his head, reminded of friends who were raised in such rich environments--certainly a valid point. At the same time, he found himself thinking about how the spell check button works effectively at locations across the globe and for people fortunate enough to speak multiple languages.

A few days later, the dad and his wife both received a call from the principal explaining that the school planned to reimburse all those who had purchased markers and that he wanted to be sure that the school's practice supported high quality instruction and learning. The two had a pleasant conversation in which the dad thanked the principal for his follow through and leadership and again expressed his hope that raising the issues did not brand him as a teacher-basher or know it all.

As he hung up the phone, he remembered how principals' jobs (and indeed lives, sometimes) are often overtaken by things that should never have happened in the first place. He thought of how he had never been much of a fan of the old adage that said we have little control over what happens to us, but lots of control over how we respond. He never liked the adage much, maybe because it held so true when he had been a principal.

Finally, he thought of his conversation with the new principal, who had been working to catch up on a Saturday afternoon. Although the issue was one that should never have come up and probably felt like a management headache, it showed something important--that this guy is serious about instructional leadership. Nice. It reminded him of a point he often tried to make with aspiring principals: That, although management and leadership are different functions for principals, the two don't have to be mutually exclusive.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

What's for Sale?

Daughter: Dad, you remember that test we took in my (second language) class?
Dad: Yeah, I think so. Which one?

Daughter:  Right before break.
Dad: Oh, that one. Well, kinda, but it was quite a while ago.

Daughter: Yeah, well, we just got them back last week. And nobody did very well and because it was so long ago, it's going on this semester's grade. So we were all asking if we could do some extra credit but we know (the teacher) doesn't do that.
Dad: Yes, well, how bad did you do?

Daughter (ignoring the question about the test grade): Well, (the teacher) said we can bring in some magic markers for extra credit. One point per marker, with a max of twenty.
Dad: (sigh) So, you bombed the test that was six or seven weeks ago and have moved on. Now the solution is to buy markers for the class. No reviewing or figuring out what you did wrong?

Daughter: Um, well, not really I guess. I don't remember a lot of it now anyway. But mom and I are going to run some errands and pick them up. The markers, I mean. Bye.

As the car pulls out of the driveway, the dad reflects. He remembers how, as a teacher and administrator himself, stories that students often told had little resemblance to actual events. He also knows that his daughter is a pretty credible witness on school matters. Maybe she's a budding psychologist or sociologist...or teacher. Maybe she just hears lots of talk about schools. Whatever the case, she's pretty tuned into the vibe she gets about her school and teachers...their priorities, enthusiasm, and relationships with students...who's a serious teacher, who's there to just to coach, who pushes, who inspires, who suffocates.

And then cynicism takes over.

It's really just about the grade book. Take the test, record a grade and move on. Forget reteaching, clarifying, revisiting or addressing what students missed. Scaffolding and the building blocks of learning...Zip. Go join the ranks of those who took ___ years of ___ but remember almost nothing about it. In this case, just get the grade and credit, hoping to not need to use that second language to communicate with someone who speaks it.

Should he just run to Dollar General and pick up the cheapest set he can find? If the story is accurate, from a purely economic standpoint, this is clearly the way to go: Cheap markers, maximum number of possible extra credit points. Cost effective. Run it like a business.

But then, the sociologist in him starts to wonder what might be the potential payoffs of sending a better set of markers to school? Say, a really nice set of Sharpies. The ones with the snapping case. Our family is serious about our child's studies. And the extra credit. Enjoy the Sharpies and let us know if we can do (buy?) anything else.

Or better yet, since it's a second language class, how about a nice imported set? Maybe some Staedtlers. That would show an awareness of globalization and that the family takes education so seriously that dad was willing to pop for a really nice set. Even if the daughter couldn't go beyond the maximum number of extra credit points, surely there might be some kind of payoff down the road, a good message to send.

Or the ultimate: Maybe the daughter uses the nice imported markers to produce an interdisciplinary art project that reads "Markers? Are you kidding me?" in the language being studied.

Then he remembers that his daughter said the markers were to be new and still in the package, so the project is out.

He wonders what else is for sale.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

State of the School Address

Most who know me are aware that I'm a political junkie. That means I'm often wanting to watch Meet the Press (or whatever) when someone else in the house would rather see a rerun of Glee or the DVR of Ellen. Or anything.

Catching part of last night's State of the Union address by POTUS and the accompanying flood of interpretation, assessment, response, spin, and commentary could keep a guy busy for days. Mark Penn said POTUS came up short. Howard Fineman said it was like the 70's song "Love Train." Regardless of your political leanings, there is a review and interpretation that suits you.

That got me thinking: What if principals regularly gave the same kind of address? Perhaps the dog days of January and February would be a good time. I wonder what messages they would try to convey?

Would we sound the alarm that we're failing? Or point to the things that are right with our system?

Would we lament the kids we're losing? Or highlight the differences we're making?

Look at test scores and how we compare to Sri Lanka? Or note the number of international students and parents who want their kids to experience an American-style education?

Would we talk about collaboration and working together, regardless of our differences? Or draw a line in the media center (or wherever the speech was being delivered) sand?

Or would we forgo all of those issues in favor of calling attention to more local, immediate issues? Talk about the elephant in the corner? Or share some feel good stories from kindergarten and the basketball team?

Regardless of direction, I think it might be a good idea. Get us talking. Debating. Mix up the seating arrangement like Congress did last night. Some feel good with some substance. Some accolades with some challenges.

Maybe we should be doing this...A State of the School address.

What's the state of yours? Principals, what would you want to say? Others, what would you want to hear?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Avoiding a Teacher: Great Motivation?

I've had quite a few discussions over the years with parents, armchair coaches (and real ones), and other people about motivation, and specifically how fear and avoidance are or are not effective motivators. And it seems everyone has a different opinion on whether motivation from something like fear or avoidance is a good or bad thing.

At the beginning of the year, my sixth grader announced that he was going to work like crazy so he could have the opportunity to take a test the district uses to make placements in a seventh grade core subject area. I didn't think much of it at the time, because, well, he's a sixth grader and thus says lots of things. Earlier this week, he crowed that the teacher told him he had indeed qualified for the test. He would be placed in one of the more advanced classes. The only remaining question was which one. Mission accomplished (though we refrained from hanging a banner).

Interesting point: the subject area for which he did all this work is his least favorite. From that initial day in August when he announced his plan, the goal was simple: Qualify for one of the advanced sections in order to avoid a particular teacher. He'd heard his older sibling and wanted no part of it.

So that's got me thinking about a lot of things, including what motivates different people, the state of professional development for teachers, instructional leadership from administrators, not to mention how some teachers and their performance (for better or worse) become legendary (or infamous). I guess it's more than a little bit bass ackwards for all of this work to be for the sole purpose of avoiding a particular teacher, but hey, he got what he wanted. And he also prevented his parents from scheduling that dreaded meeting in which they  firmly but politely announce that they do not intend for their child to be in that class. And that got me thinking back to sitting on the principal's side of the desk when parents made the same firm but polite announcement to me.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Boz: 25 years Ahead of His Time?

I was a kid in the 1980s watching a ton of college sports on tv.  Oklahoma football seemed unstoppable. I attended an Iowa State vs. Oklahoma game in Ames once. Though I don't remember the score, I can say with certainty that the Sooner Schooner was on the field way more than the inept Cyclone offense. Even today, I can name the Boomer Sooner Fight Song in four notes because I heard it so many times that day.

I remember OU's Brian Bosworth strutting around  t-shirt that read "National Communists Against Athletes" at the '87 Orange Bowl. On one hand, I couldn't stop watching the guy. On the other, I was not the kind of high school athlete who was going to upset convention or create a ruckus. Maybe that's why I was so drawn to watching to see what The Boz was going to do next.

Then this morning, I heard Sports Illustrated columnist Frank Deford's piece on NPR. Deford pulls no punches and gets right to it, starting off with the assertion that "The NCAA can fairly be called cynical and calculating and just plain stupid, but the latest of this year's many scandals primarily shows that big-time college football just doesn't work any longer with a model developed for a 19th century culture." He goes on to point out the abject hypocrisy, posing, posturing, and absurd hair splitting the NCAA has shown in its attempts to "handle" the Cam Newton/Auburn-gate and Ohio State football players who sold some of their gear.

I haven't followed either that closely, and am not a college football expert. For that, please contact my friend and colleague Dr. David Else. But let's get real. Does anyone really think that Heisman Trophy Winner and stratospheric athlete Cam Newton didn't know that his dad was soliciting money for him to go to Mississippi State? Call me crazy but I've argued lots of times that "kids know more than we give them credit for." If the average third grader can sense that mom and dad are having money troubles or may be getting a divorce or that he's getting an X-Box for Christmas, it seems to me that Cam might have had some inkling of what was up. Hello.

Of course, pay for play is against the rules and we could have a long discussion about whether Newton and his family are entitled to a share of the millions of dollars that have and will flow to Auburn University as a result of his talent. But for now, it is illegal and up to the NCAA to enforce... the rules. Or something like that. Ah-hem.

And then there's the Buckeyes hocking some jerseys and a ring or two. We can and should seriously question their business sense if their stuff really went for tatoos. I'm pretty sure I could have negotiated for something better than a tat, but then I don't recall my Converse Weapons being that hot back in the day. Hell, my college teammates and I didn't even like them.

Is the NCAA saying that the stuff is theirs unless they decide to sell it, at which point it is no longer theirs? And if they choose to sell the sort-of-theirs property they'll be in trouble, but not so much trouble as to miss the Sugar Bowl? Naw, just a few games next year, including the first two against Akron and Toledo.

Near the end of his commentary, Deford throws the NCAA in with the Soviet Union, writing "You know what the NCAA looks like now? Like the Soviet Union as it struggled to maintain communism in a changing world that wouldn't tolerate its outdated nonsense any longer." And it's hard to disagree.

By God, maybe The Boz was right back in '87. The dude was ahead of his time.