Sunday, September 18, 2016

Student Agency: Moving From Talk to Action

When I reflect back on what we were able to accomplish at New Milford High School, I am overtaken by a great sense of pride. We were able to transform the learning culture of a traditional school and in the process got results while becoming an example that others emulated. This was achieved during a time of tumultuous change as the education reform movement was just gaining steam. Even when doubt entered out minds, which it always does when change is involved, we persevered as a school community thanks to a unified vision that we could better serve our students.  

In a sense, all of our major changes really started when we began involving our students in the process. This was also the reason, in my opinion, as to why change became sustainable.  More often than not change is orchestrated and directed at the adult level. There is often a great deal of talk about how many changes are being spearheaded for the betterment of students, but rarely are the students themselves asked for their input or unique ideas.  Schools need to work for our students, as they are our number one stakeholder and ultimate boss. 

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If we are to improve learning and ultimately school-based outcomes student agency needs to be a real element of school culture. Student agency is about empowering kids to own their learning (and school) through greater autonomy. It is driven by choice, voice, and advocacy.  We learned a great deal about student agency during our school transformation. Below are a few practical tips to make student agency a reality in your classroom, school, or district:

  • Develop pedagogically sound learning activities with standards-aligned assessments and allow students to select the right tool for the task to demonstrate conceptual mastery 
  • Allow students to co-create rules and expectations.
  • Provide avenues for students to provide honest feedback on school culture. I held monthly meetings with all members of school government across all grade levels giving them an open forum to provide improvement ideas. We also set up an Edmodo group to continue the conversation. The key, however, was the follow-up and implementation on some of the ideas suggested. Tools like TodaysMeet and Mentimeter can also be used to gather perception data from kids 
  • Implement portfolios as a means of authentic assessment 
  • When hiring new teachers and administrators have kids on the interview committee
  • As policies that impact students are created or updated (i.e. BYOD, 1;1, grading, homework, technology purchases, space renovations, etc.) provide a forum for kids to give feedback 
  • Integrate personalized and personal learning pathways such as blended and virtual
  • Have protocols established for students to suggest new courses and extra-curricular activities
  • Implement Academies or Smaller Learning Communities (SLC’s)
  • Let students select books for independent reading based on their interests and reading level

Image credit: Jackie Gerstein

Above are some of the ways we increase student agency. What would you add? Please share some of your ideas in the comments below.

Meaningful change must begin with active student involvement. Advocacy, choice, and voice should occur in the classroom as well as the school setting. Relevancy and value on the part of our learners are central elements to success. Let’s move away from the catchy sound bites and clich├ęs and begin to implement real strategies that will better prepare students for an ever-changing world. 

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Governor Christie’s Guide to Destroying a Great Education System #NJED

It breaks my heart to see what is happening in a state that I hold dear to my heart. I might now live in TX, but I was born and raised in NJ.  Both of my parents were public educators; my father an elementary principal in Hackettstown and my mother an elementary teacher in Flemington.  They both touched lives and impacted kids like countless other NJ educators. It takes a special person to consciously make a decision to earn less money while putting in an obscene amount of time outside the working day to help students reach their potential. Educators are, and have been, the cultivators of virtually every other profession. 

My entire public education career as a teacher (Watchung Hills) and principal (New Milford) was spent in the Garden State working in a system that was, and still is, regarded as one of the best in the nation.  This recognition has been validated by state-by-state data comparisons. Historically NJ is typically number one or two.  Students in the state routinely outperform their peers on the SAT, ACT, and NAEP from across the country.  This past year five of the top 100 public schools in America were from NJ.  

Instead of celebrating and strengthening a great public education system, Governor Christie has taken a dumfounding approach with his agenda. Who in their right mind attacks, berates, chastises, and bullies people in a profession who have made the conscious decision to make less money in order to impact kids? Are there some bad teachers and administrators? Of course, just like there are bad lawyers, doctors, accountants, and politicians (hint, hint). However, just like any other profession the amount of bad educators pales in comparison to those who go above and beyond to help kids learn. 

Image credit: Drew Sheneman

Let’s look at some of the ridiculous decisions Governor Christie has made to derail a great education system:

  • Reduced state funding for schools over the years to pay for tax cuts for his rich friends. His latest wisdom is articulated in this article: Chris Christie’s Education Plan Is Shocking: He Wants to Give to the Rich and Take From the Poor. 
  • Eliminated cost of living adjustments (COLA) for all retired educators who gave their all for kids
  • Vetoed a mandatory school recess bill, even though research had shown how important it is to student learning.
  • Pushed forward a few unfunded mandates (Common Core, PARCC) that have taken away precious funds from improving what really matters. Schools had to front the money for quality professional development, curriculum revision, and technology to support these mandates. Years later many states have backed away from PARCC. The once strong 26-member consortium has now dwindled to 7. For all the hoopla, PARCC has told us nothing we didn't already know from previous assessments. To make matters worse, NJ has been the only state to make this a graduation requirement in the near future.
  • Imposed superintendent caps to drive out some of our best leaders. Many states have welcomed them with open arms and pocket books as good leaders are often worth every penny
  • Followed through with a value-added system for evaluating educators, which by the way has no supporting research. He doubled down on this recently by increasing Student Growth Percentile (SGP) scores to 30% of an educator’s overall evaluation.  This latest change was pushed out on Wednesday, August 31, just days before schools welcomed back students. On Monday, a few days later, Education Commissioner David Hespe resigned. A bit shady, huh? In all, the new regulations completely give up on quality teaching and simply shoot for compliance. This was most likely done because people were overburdened with paperwork, but no consideration was given as to the effect of the regulations. The entire SGP issue is a nightmare as in some cases they rely on arbitrary numbers 
  • Refused to fully fund the public pension system that he committed to in 2012 while pushing all the blame for the state’s economic woes on teachers, policemen, firemen, and other public sectors committed to the well being of all.

Instead of developing rational strategies based on sound research to support districts, schools, and educators who need the help the most, Christie has implemented a one-size-fits-all approach that goes against the tenets of good pedagogy. The NJDOE has done his bidding long enough and need to begin to push back against his destruction of public education in NJ. It would also be wise of the NJ State Board of Education to take a hard look at how their rubber stamp on Christie’s education agenda has not a shred of supporting research or evidence of success.

NJ teachers, administrators, and teachers continue to rise in the face of this adversity because that’s what professionals dedicated to kids do. Even in these challenging times, schools have risen above the negative rhetoric to innovate and focus on learning that truly matters. A few years ago I challenged Commissioner Hespe to come to my school and see what learning can and should look like. My call on social media went unanswered, but that didn't stop NJDOE representatives from calling my superintendent and asking him to get his principal (me) under control. This only strengthened my resolve.

Keep doing what’s best for kids, as you, not Governor Christie, know what it is like to actually work in a public school.  You made the conscious decision to be a difference maker as opposed to making more money in another profession. Your work matters and NJ’s success on the national stage speaks for itself. Thank you for all that you do and keep making those of us fellow Garden State educators proud.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

10 Strategies to Improve Instructional Leadership

I still vividly remember my early years as an assistant principal and principal. Instructional leadership was a routine part of the job along with the budget, master schedule, curriculum development, meetings, email, phone calls, and many other duties.  With the evolution of social media yet another responsibility was added to my plate in the form of digital leadership. The position of school administrator really requires one to be a jack-of-all-trades and master of none. This is where many leaders fail to live up to the most important aspect of the position, which is instructional leadership.  

Even though I tried, the frequency of which I observed teachers rarely extended beyond the minimal expectation. Not only was I not in classrooms enough, but also the level of feedback provided through the lens of a narrative report did very little to improve teaching and learning both in and out of the classroom.  If improvement is the ultimate goal, then we as leaders need to put the most focus on elements of our job that impact student learning.  Instructional leaders understand that management is a necessary evil associated with the position, but not something that should come at the expense of improving the learning culture in order to increase achievement. 

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It is easy to just say how one should improve instructional leadership or anything else for that matter. Below I offer ten specific strategies implemented during my time as high school principal that you can begin to adopt now.

Get in Classrooms More

This seem so easy, yet is a constant struggle. Begin by increasing the amount of formal observations conducted each year and commit to a schedule to get them all done. We formally observed each one of our teachers three times a year regardless of experience.  Another successful strategy is to develop an informal walk-through schedule with your leadership team.  I mandated five walks a day for each member of my team and we used a color-coded Google Doc to keep track of where we visited and the specific improvement comments provided to each teacher. 

Streamline Expectations and Eliminate Ineffective Practices

Begin with establishing a common vision and expectations for all teachers. We did this by using the Rigor Relevance Framework.  This will provide all teachers with consistent, concrete elements to focus on when developing lessons. Get rid of the dog and pony show ritual of announced observations. If lesson plans are still collected, ask for them to demonstrate what will be done two weeks into the future. Consider less of a focus on lesson plans and more on assessment. Collect and review assessments two weeks into the future. 

Improve Feedback

Provide at least one suggestion for improvement no matter how good the observation is.  There is no perfect lesson. Suggestions for improvement should always contain clear, practical examples and strategies that a teacher can begin to implement immediately.  Timely feedback is also essential.

Be a Scholar

Being a scholar not only helps you as a leader to improve professional practice, but it also puts you in a position to have better conversations with your teachers about their own improvement. This adds a whole new level of credibility to the post-conference.  I made the point of aligning every point of critical feedback to current research. As you come across research that supports the types of effective pedagogical techniques that you wish to see in your classrooms archive it in a document that you can refer to when writing up observations. I spent each summer as principal reading, researching, curating, and adapting this for use during the school year. It not only saved me time when it came to writing up observations, but also greatly improved my relationship with my staff as the instructional leader. 


Don’t ask your teachers to do anything that you are not willing to do yourself. This is extremely important in terms of technology integration in the classroom and professional learning to improve practice. If a teacher is struggling with his or her assessments don't just say you need to work on building better ones. Either provide an example that you have created or co-create an assessment together. 

Teach a Class 

This can be accomplished regularly during the year or by co-teaching with both struggling and distinguished teachers. During my first couple of years as an administrator I taught a section of high school biology. This is leading by example at it’s best. It also provides a better context for the evolving role of the teacher in the digital age. An instructional leader who walks the walk builds better relationships with staff and in turn will be in a much better position to engage staff in conversations to improve instruction. 

Grow Professionally

Attend at least one conference or workshop a year that is aligned to a major initiative or focus area in your school/district. Try to also read one education book and another related to a different field such as leadership, self-help, or business. So many powerful lessons and ideas can be gleaned once we venture outside the education silo. To compliment traditional means of professional learning, work to create or further develop a Personal Learning Network (PLN).  Social media provides a 24/7 pathway to ideas, strategies, feedback, resources, and support that every educator should take advantage of in the digital age.

Write in Order to Reflect

Like many other connected educators, writing has really enabled me to process my thinking resulting in a more critical reflection of my work in relation to teaching, learning, and leadership.  Our reflections not only assist us with our growth, but can also be catalysts for our staff and others to reflect on their own practice or grow professionally. Having teachers write a brief reflection prior to the post-conference is a great strategy to promote a conversation on improvement that isn't one-sided.

Integrate Portfolios

Portfolios were a requirement for my teachers and complimented our observation process nicely. They provided more clarity and detail on instruction over the entire course of the school year. Portfolios can include learning activities, assessments, unit plans, examples of student work, and other forms of evidence to improve instructional effectiveness. They can also be used to validate good practice.


During the first quarter of each year I co-observed lessons with members of my administrative team. This was invaluable for many reasons. For one we were able to utilize two sets of eyes during the observation, as some things will always be missed when done solo, no matter how much experience you have. This also allowed me to work with my team to help them improve their instructional leadership.  It also helped me improve as every conversation helped me to further reflect on what I saw.

There is nothing more important than ensuring quality learning is taking place in our classrooms. The ten strategies presented can be implemented immediately to improve your instructional leadership. Like all lists there are many great strategies that I missed. With that being said, what would you add to the list?

Sunday, August 28, 2016

A Simple Strategy to Deal With Negative People

Nobody likes change, but some dislike it more than others.  Negative people in every organization can suck the life out of you.  These are the people that constantly undermine you and others who challenge the status quo in order to create a better culture.  Some have been empowered for all the wrong reasons and take advantage of their “sacred cow” status. Others are just miserable professionally and dislike their jobs.  Then there are those people who just live in perpetual fear of moving outside their comfort zones to try something new. Their reasons vary, but naysayers and antagonists seem to put more energy and effort into making our jobs more difficult than helping to improve how business is done.  

One strategy is to avoid negative people, as they will pepper you with numerous problems for every single solution. Even though this can prove to be effective strategy in the short term or when dealing with people on social media, it might not best serve the interests of your district, school, or organization.  Naysayers and antagonists thrive on not being challenged when they complain, especially if you cannot come up with a workable solution in a short period of time. A lack of action on your part only makes them stronger.

The secret to dealing with negative people is to make them part of the solution by not allowing them to continually be part of the problem.  Giving up on these people is not an option. In some cases making them part of the solution can be accomplished through positive encouragement and reinforcement. In certain situations more support in the form of time, resources, professional development, or improved communication can do the trick.  Like you, I am a realist and understand that the positive options above might not result on getting the naysayers and antagonists on your side, whether they want to be or not.  This is where I now share with you a very simple, yet effective strategy to deal with negative people.

If you have never read the No Complaining Rule by Jon Gordon, quickly add it to your reading list. It is a very quick and entertaining read with some powerful ideas on how to tackle negativity in the workplace.  In the book Gordon presents the No Complaining Rule, which is comprised of essentially two components:

  1. Don't complain
  2. If you do complain, present two solutions to solve your problem or issue

After reading this book over the summer in 2012, I began the school year by implementing the No Complaining Rule with my staff.  When doing so I didn’t tell then to stop complaining all together as that is just unrealistic in any organization. However, I did tell them to provide two workable solutions that I would follow-up on.  Therein lies the key to dealing with negative people. As leaders we must create the conditions for staff to be honest and open about professional issues. We must then encourage and sometimes challenge them to share practical solutions to the problem and listen intently.  The final step is to then try our best to embrace and act upon the solutions provided.  If the solution is not practical, try collaborating with the person or people who suggested it in an effort to make it into something that will work. 

So what other strategies work when it comes to dealing with negative people?