Slice of Life #3: Leading and Learning

Slice of LifeToday marks the end of my first year leading the English department at my school. I have been department chair previously, but the circumstances were quite different. In that situation, I led a department with four other teachers, grades 9-12, at a relatively small Jewish school.

My department this year included 14 people teaching grades 6-12 (plus post-graduate students). It was a different challenge to work with so many moving parts and personalities. Sometimes, it was a fun challenge, like a puzzle. Sometimes it was not such a fun challenge. I am still really glad I’m doing it. I like working with teachers, and I really think I have a good idea or two on occasion. Otherwise, I wouldn’t want to do it.

Some of the things I think I do well:

  • Listen. This is hard for some people, but I try to hear what the teachers in my department are saying, good and bad. I think often teachers don’t feel heard. I have not always felt heard in my history as a teacher. And in some places, I felt I was actually not valued. I want teachers to feel their value. Listening to teachers is an important part of valuing them.
  • Share good feedback. When things are working, I let teachers know. If parents pass on compliments, I tell the teachers. I think we are under-appreciated in our profession, so I have always made it a habit, even when I wasn’t chair, to pass on the good things that others say. I had a great opportunity to do that today after a parent told me at graduation what a fine department I led, and how much her daughter had learned from our teachers. She didn’t have to tell me that. I never taught her daughter. But it means a lot to hear, and it should be shared with those who need to hear it, too.
  • Make suggestions and share ideas. I love to plan units and lessons, and I always love to share ideas for approaches I have taken with teaching material. If you have read this blog for a while, you know that I am invested in backward design or UbD, and I am a passionate advocate for using UbD with teachers.

Things I am getting better at:

  • Having difficult conversations. I sometimes have to explain why something isn’t working and that it has to change. I sometimes have to share tough feedback. I sometimes have to help colleagues who might not be working well together. These conversations are hard, and I am a bit of an introvert, and I don’t necessarily feel like I have all the answers all the time. But I am learning how to have these conversations, and honestly, they have gone much better than I anticipated they would (in most cases).
  • Juggling the work. At the end of the year, it was a lot of work planning schedules, navigating the tiredness of my department (teaching is a marathon, not a sprint, and like a marathon, sometimes you have to pull out that burst of speed right at the end when you are exhausted), and engaging in the hiring process for the first time in my role as chair (we didn’t make any hires when I was last chair). I am definitely tired, but I am going to do some things differently next year after learning this year.

Things I need to work on:

  • Directives. To be fair, this was a year of figuring out the state of the department and learning the various intricacies of leading an eclectic group of teachers. I didn’t want to roll out top-down initiatives. That is changing. I have some ideas about writing and reading. The best thing is when the teachers present the very ideas I had themselves. They already have buy-in, and the initiative will be more successful as a result. However, at some point, certain things need to happen, and the students come first. They need to have a high-quality education. The teachers need to be on board with the school’s mission and initiatives.
  • Inviting conversation. I do listen, and I do encourage teachers to talk with me. I do think that not all of them felt they could, to varying degrees (some felt I was completely open, while others might have perceived that I was closed). It is a bit strange that I consider listening a strength even if not everyone felt I was inviting conversation. I can get better at this. I can go to teachers and actively seek them out. I tended not to do that with some teachers.

So having said all that, I think it was a pretty good year. Teaching—it was my best teaching year yet. I felt the design of my classes really hung together well, and my students saw the relevance of what they were learning and connected it to work in other classes and to events in the world. That’s a success.

This summer will be a bit busy. I am going to the Multicultural Teaching Institute next week. At the end of this month, I go to the Kenyon Writer’s Workshop for Teachers. I am presenting a day-long digital storytelling workshop in July. I am going to AP English Literature training in July. In August, I am participating in critical friends training at school. Because I’m teaching AP, I have some light reading to do:

BooksMost of these books are texts for AP. You might be able to see the Newkirk and Kittle on the bottom. Those are professional reading. I also plan to bring in A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley and How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster. I have read some of these books, and even taught them before, but not in a while. Others I have read only but not taught. Others I have not read. I have some work to do this summer. One thing I love about my job: It’s never boring!

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Innovation Takes Good Leadership

LeadershipWhen I was working on my undergrad degree in English Education, one of the texts I was required to read (and which I highly recommend) was Leila Christenbury’s Making the Journey: Being and Becoming a Teacher of English Language Arts. We were asked to write reflection journals as we read, and Christenbury made that very easy because she included journal prompts. I still remember one of the prompts. It asked the reader to think about the relative importance of administration, teachers, and students in a school. At that time, I felt that teachers and students were the keys to a successful school. Outstanding, engaging, dynamic teachers and students eager to learn. I did not see that administration had much importance. I recall that my instructor wrote the comment “Let’s see how you feel about this after you begin teaching.” It stuck in my mind because I knew that the comment meant I was talking about something I didn’t know. She didn’t belittle my opinion. She didn’t tell me how ignorant I was. Her comment was meant to make me remember. I didn’t have to teach for long before I understood what she meant. I do not believe a school can function for long without a good administration. The administration leads from the top. There is no change, no innovation, no organization, no rudder without a good administration.

I have been thinking about the role of administration in innovation, and recently Scott McLeod posted a short blog post that inspired this one. I think some schools invest in technology without offering the professional development teachers need to use it. In addition, some administrators do not change their expectations regarding the use of technologies. If teachers are not expected to adopt new technologies, change and innovation won’t take place. I’m not talking about using tech for the sake of using tech. But I am talking about using tech in ways that make learning easier and more engaging.

One example I’ve been thinking about is Apple’s announcement about iBooks textbooks. I don’t have an iPad, but a colleague demonstrated one of the iBooks textbooks. It’s gorgeous. The color pops off the screen. Embedded content like videos makes the text more interactive. You can take notes and highlight in them. And they cost a fraction of what hardcover textbooks cost at $14.99 or less. Global Equities Research estimates that the production cost for creating an iBooks text is about 80% less than a hardcover text. Let’s say a hardcover book costs $100. Schools often purchase the hardcover books and use them for several years. In Georgia, the textbook adoption cycle is usually seven years. Over seven years, that textbook costs the school between $14 and $15 if the school is on a seven-year adoption cycle. However, the iPad also has a large variety of apps, and iBooks also sells novels. Purchasing iPads is a serious investment for a school to consider, and it should be undertaken after thought and study. Teachers should be supported as they learn to use and to integrate the use of the iPad in the classroom. iPads could potentially transform a school, but in the hands of teachers who don’t know how to use them and aren’t expected to use them, they are nothing more than paperweights.

What I can easily see happening is a school deciding to adopt iPads and then not supporting their use through professional development. If teachers are required to use any tool, and the iPad is just one example, without professional development they will likely take one of two paths: 1) try to learn it on their own the best they can, or 2) give up and not use it. In addition, if there is no expectation regarding the use, the tools become useless as there is little incentive beyond a personal intrinsic motivation to use the tools. Some teachers have a strong motivation to continue learning and improving and using new tools, but others do not. In an ideal world, it wouldn’t matter that the leadership in a school did not expect teachers to grow or didn’t support growth through professional development because the teachers would grow anyway, but what I have learned over time is that teachers need both the support for their growth and the expectation that they will grow as teachers, and that support and expectation needs to come from administrators who have an interest in innovation. Otherwise, it’s just not going to happen.
Creative Commons License photo credit: pedrosimoes7

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