An Overview of Change Theorists: Guiding Ideas on Teacher Leadership and PLC’s

The days of the lone-wolf administrator leading a top-down educational hierarchy are over. Linn (2002) states “Instead of looking to the principal alone for instructional leadership, we need to develop leadership capacity among all members of the school community.” She makes the point that the responsibilities of instructional leadership within a school building are too large to be fulfilled by only one administrator and that models that attempt to have the principal serve as the sole instructional leader drastically underutilize and undervalue the capacity and existing talents of the teachers within a building. Rather, she argues that instructional leadership must move from being hierarchical to becoming more distributed, allowing more voices to be heard to shape better ideas.

These ideas are nothing new, as teachers have been calling to have a stronger voice and more opportunities to provide leadership on instructional leadership for decades. In essence, teachers see a broken system where those furthest removed from the classroom and working with students are making the most impactful decisions about instruction and school leadership. Fullan (1993) suggests that teachers need to become “change agents” in order to maintain a sense that their work is socially meaningful and personally satisfying. He believes that teachers can and should lead without needing to leave the classroom. In this article, he powerfully states “To have any chance of making teaching a noble profession, teachers must combine the mantle of moral purpose with the skills of change agentry.” Fullan (1993) argues, that in order for teachers to become effective change agents, they need to build their own personal visions centered on the theme of examining and re-examining why they became a teacher in the first place.

Sadly, the change-agent revolution Fullan (1993) called for in the nineties never materialized. In fact, Fullan (2002) again calls for a shift to the concept of teacher leaders, suggesting that schools must establish and maintain strong leadership at all levels of the school system. Within this system, Goleman (2002) suggests that teacher leaders must develop proficiency in the areas of self-awareness, self-management, social competence, social awareness, and relationship management. It would seem that the moment of teacher leadership actually becoming an education reality is upon us, at least in Iowa with Iowa Teacher Leader and Compensation System Legislation adopted by the Iowa Legislature in 2013. However, the question, on some level, now becomes how we can create a model of teacher leadership that is sustainable.

Many ideas on how to create a sustainable model of educational leadership exist, including the work of Hargreaves and Fink (2004), suggesting the existence of seven principles of sustainable educational leadership, which includes: (1) sustaining an ongoing culture of learning, (2) planning and preparing for the succession of leaders, (3) identifying and developing the leadership capacity of emerging and aspiring leaders, (4) addressing ongoing and evolving issues related to equity and social justice, (5) taking care of leaders and getting leaders to take care of themselves to minimize turnover, (6) developing diverse leadership capacities among its leaders to avoid stagnation and enable successful adaptation to new challenges, and (7) by engaging assertively within the context of the environment within which it operates.

References

  1. Fullan, M. (1993). Why teachers must become change agents. Educational Leadership, 50(6), 12-17.
  2. Fullan, M. (2002). Leadership and sustainability. Principal Leadership, 3(4), 174-181.
  3. Goleman, D., Boyatzis, R., & McKee, A. (2002). Primal leadership. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
  4. Hargreaves, A. and Fink, D. (2004). The seven principles of sustainable leadership. Educational   Leadership, 61(7), 8-13.
  5. Lambert, L. (2002). A framework for shared leadership. Educational Leadership, 59(8), 37-40.

Seek First to Understand, Then Be Understood.

Paraphrasing Peter Senge’s Laws of Systems Thinking:
     Our problems of today often derive from our solutions of yesterday. Within many organizations, the pressure to “fix” problems overwhelms the discipline required to first study and understand them. Over time, this leads to widening gaps between an organization’s current reality and its desired state. Therefore, while applying familiar, comfortable solutions may create temporary improvements, often these solutions do not fundamentally address the underlying issues creating our recurring problems in the first place.
     The easy way out leads us right back in. As the nature and causes of our systemic challenges evolve over time, so must our solutions evolve with them. We cannot retrofit our old solutions to new problems. When we try to do this, the system pushes back and we discover that our solutions of the past are becoming less and less effective over time and are often accompanied by new, unintended consequences because they aren’t really addressing the root causes of the problem. Therefore, we must seek first to understand.
     Faster is slower. If we can slow ourselves down enough and take the deep dive into the heart of the problem, asking “why” multiple times, we can discover and more thoroughly understand the root causes of our problems. This approach can lead us to develop goals centered around smaller, more targeted, areas of leverage that will yield the most meaningful results. It is these consistent, small, targeted, ordinary changes that, over the long haul, will be the most impactful.
     Great organizations are great not because they enact large, sweeping changes and initiatives, but rather because they use an ongoing, targeted, consistent process to discover, study, and address small gaps before they spiral into much larger problems.
Reference:
Senge, P. M. (1990). The fifth discipline: the art and practice of the learning organization. New York: Doubleday.

Creating More Personalized Learning Experiences for Students: Embedding Differentiated, Standards-Referenced Assessment into the Classroom

The purpose of education is to create a well-informed, skilled, and collaborative citizenry, capable of creating collective solutions to diverse, multifaceted problems and functioning appropriately in a rapidly evolving global society.

Within this system, student achievements must extend well beyond the learning of specific course content. In today’s technologically advanced and connected society, much of the information we use to teach our students can now be easily accessed online using devices already in their pockets. Instead, today’s students must learn how to filter through this abundance of information, determining which information is accurate, reliable, and valid and which information may be biased, have an alternative agenda, and/or be unreliable. This is no easy task, as much of the information out there today is complexly nuanced and not easily sortable into simple, dichotomous categories.

To establish and maintain a truly differentiated classroom, where learning is assessed based on meeting clear standards, and where students “fail forward” with a growth mindset, a clear priority needs to be placed on building relationships. Being an effective teacher is largely about getting your students to buy into your vision and that isn’t likely to happen if the students do not feel supported and appreciated. Teacher dictators don’t last very long. They get burned trying to convince their students to follow them. While students may comply, they will not be fully committed to the teacher or the teacher’s vision. It will be a constant battle for the teacher to get anything done using such an approach. Therefore, it is essential for teachers to demonstrate a genuine interest in the students they serve. Great teachers look out for and take a genuine interest in the students they serve and place these interests above their own self-interest.

Looking out for our students means we must teach our students how to be critical thinkers and how to skeptically embrace information they read and hear. We as educators must be able to see student learning within a broader context of the skills that are really important for students to be successful in the 21st century. The necessity for this extends beyond the awareness that the world has changed or that the world continues to change. We must also understand that the pace of this change is exponentially increasing at a rate unseen in human history before.

Simply, we must no longer sell our students on a false narrative that only learning course-specific content will be a ticket to their future success in careers that may not currently exist. Rather, we must, to the best of our ability, try to anticipate the methods by which our students will need to apply this information and the skills they will need to be successful. For example, many of my chemistry students will not go on to balance chemical equations and solve stoichiometry problems in their adult careers. I am not suggesting that this content is without importance, but rather that the skills built by learning how to balance chemical equations and solve stoichiometry problems (including: problem solving, critical thinking, attention to detail, collaboration, and communication) are perhaps more important that the specific content being learned as the content merely provides the vehicle to develop those universal skills. However, it is the skills students apply to learn the content that are the true drivers of their educational experience.

Essentially, we want our students to be able to use a variety of problem solving strategies, individually and collectively, to arrive at workable solutions and strategies for addressing progressively difficult, authentic, real-world problems.

In my ecology classes, one of the more challenging projects we have our students complete is to design and maintain a fully self-sustaining ecobottle. In this project, students must research, create, and maintain a balanced ecosystem within their sealed bottle. They must consider the roles and contributions of many abiotic (water, air, soil, etc.) and biotic (microorganisms, plants, animals) factors and how those elements work in harmony with one another to sustain a balanced and healthy ecosystem. The project is challenging as students learn about the many interactions that occur and must be balanced for an ecosystem to function properly.

In addition, our students (and teachers) need to become more comfortable with being uncomfortable, understanding that learning is a messy, non-linear process, where failures are necessary in order to learn from our mistakes, grow and get better. Therefore resilience and a “fail forward” mindset are crucial to our long-term success.

How do we then build this mindset? First and foremost, I believe it starts with rethinking our grading practices. I will honestly admit that I have yet to adopt a fully standards-referenced or standards-based grading system in my classes. I am not exactly sure why this hasn’t happened, as I really believe in the idea and concept of basing a student’s grade around their mastery of a learning target or standard. I am also participating in graduate courses at Drake and have really enjoyed the clarity regarding the learning target and in getting ongoing feedback regarding my level of proficiency around this target or standard.

So while my implementation has lagged behind my philosophy, this is perhaps one area I am most excited about as it relates to making the move to Waukee. Simply stated, here are my beliefs regarding how student learning should be assessed. First, I believe that the purpose of grades is to provide communication to the students and parents regarding the student’s level of understanding and mastery of a specific learning outcome, target, objective, and/or standard. The grade also has a secondary purpose of enabling the student to evaluate their level of understanding on an ongoing basis and make the necessary adjustments, as needed, to improve their level of understanding.

Grades should not be based around minutiae details or simple point accumulation, but rather around big ideas and overarching themes. They should expect students to demonstrate evidence of learning in multiple dimensions and capacities. Therefore, practice assignments, homework, attendance, behavior, and class participation should not be figured into a student’s grade.

In addition, grades are merely snapshots of learning at a given moment in time and teachers must embrace the reality that students learn at different paces; therefore, students should be given multiple opportunities to demonstrate mastery of learning through reassessments. It is also the teacher’s responsibility to provide frequent formative assessment opportunities for students and provide targeted, individualized feedback on these formative assessments in order that students can learn and make adjustments to self-correct and remain on a more focused learning pathway

Also, learning for understanding is an important part of any standards-based grading system. It must no longer be ignored that, over time, students may unlearn a standard. Therefore, students should occasionally be assessed on previously learned content to ensure retention of learning of key concepts and ideas in the course. With reassessments possible, this ongoing practice make learning more permanent.

Formative assessments should be designed for the purposes of providing targeted, diagnostic, task-involving feedback that causes thinking and creates a cognitive shift. Summative assessments should weave multiple ideas and standards together to provide a comprehensive evaluation of learning proficiency.

A grade should make clear what the learning targets are and communicate a student’s progress in demonstrating the ability to meet those learning targets. In summary, a grade represents what a student is able to do at the end of the journey, not the route they took to get there.

In addition, it is important for teachers to respect and recognize each student at unique with unique learning needs. Teachers must identify and prioritize opportunities for differentiation in the classroom. I had the opportunity to learn from Rick Wormeli at the ACSD Curriculum Leadership Academy last week and really took a lot away from his day of talking with us about differentiation.

The first key component to create a truly differentiated classroom is for the teacher to be a reflective practitioner. Differentiation requires the teacher to be flexible and manage ambiguity, to avoid the temptation to standardize and establish equilibrium. Instead, Wormeli argued that we should seek compelling disequilibrium, as learning is episodic and inherently “messy”. He suggests we should embrace the chaos and abandon the “one size fits all” factory model of education.

True differentiation is also largely about cultivating a mindset within students that gives them the strategies they need to advocate for their own learning needs, to be intellectually agile, and to navigate situations that are not already differentiated for them.

To differentiate, I believe teachers must delineate between what is equal and what is fair. In a differentiated classroom, fair isn’t always equal, but rather, and more appropriately, what is appropriate to best meet the learning needs of the individual student. Marzano put it best when he said, “No one knows ahead of time how long it takes for a class to learn anything.”

To accomplish this, teachers should view time as flexible and not immutable, adjusting the pacing of learning and delivery of content into differential “chunks” to accommodate the diverse learning needs of our students. Teachers must know in their lesson plan, what came before, where is the student now, and where they will go next based on where they are now. Teachers must also embrace the reality that 90% of differentiation is about what the teacher does prior to a lesson.

It is important that teachers open their practice up to the scrutiny of others. Steve Barkley says that more lessons need to be filmed and that “Teaching should be examined to at least the same level as blocking in football.” Wormeli suggests that for teachers, it is important to “admit that what they are doing is less effective that their ego thinks it is.” Even if we are doing great work, the reward for hard work is more hard work.

In my work as a Lead Teacher, the learning and teaching in my classroom has become much more public. I have worked a great deal with one of our instructional coaches to come into film many lessons. We then “break down the film” and talk about where the true moments of learning occurred and develop strategies together to leverage and expand upon these moments. This experience has made me a much more reflective practitioner and really improved my efficacy as a teacher over the last two years.

Students also have to embrace the value of differentiation and taking different learning journeys than their peers depending on their learning needs. To get students to buy into this, it is vital for the teacher to prioritize building relationships and a sense mutual respect with and among students. We respect our students by not treating them all interchangeably and taking the time to get to know them, their interests, their preferred learning styles, etc.

~Brad Hurst

Using the Modeling Approach in Chemistry: Nurturing a Growth Mindset Through Discovery Learning

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“Good is the enemy of great. And that is one of the key reasons why we have so little that becomes great. We don’t have great schools, principally because we have good schools. We don’t have great government, principally because we have good government. Few people attain great lives, in large part because it is just so easy to settle for a good life.”
― James C. Collins

I love this quote because I believe it embodies much of the approach a person must embrace in order to have a growth mindset. Too often, people are content to be good or just good enough. My high school wrestling coach used to chastise us constantly for being “content to be mediocre”. That has really stuck with me throughout my life. I never want to be mediocre or even “good”. I want to be great. To be great, I must first become good. To become good, I must work hard, fail as I push my limits, learn from my mistakes, and see my failures not as indictments on my abilities, but rather necessary experiences to push my growth.

To facilitate a strong trajectory of growth, I also embrace the concept of “failing forward”. There is no such thing as a perfect teacher and any teacher that believes they are perfect doesn’t have a growth mindset. For me personally, I have come to realize that to really grow as a teacher, I must be willing to step outside my comfort zone, be vulnerable, and make mistakes. This is the only way I will really improve and get better. If not, I will continue to stagnate, others will surpass me in the long run, and it will be too late.

Therefore, I embrace failure as a natural and necessary outcome along the journey to success. With each failure, I try to view it as a learning opportunity, make adjustments, and then try (and likely fail again). Eventually, my persistence will pay off. If I live my whole life this way, I will end up in a much better place than those who consistently played it safe and rested on their past successes instead of sought out ways to continually grow and get better.

As an example of this, last fall, our chemistry team has adopted the American Modeling Teachers Association (AMTA) modeling curriculum. This curriculum deviates from the learning philosophies typically associated with a more traditional chemistry curriculum. Traditional chemistry instruction often prioritizes knowledge of facts and ideas distributed as ideas for students. It also focuses a great deal on packaging skills as rules or procedures the students are told to learn by the instructor. This type of instruction assumes that students will understand the underlying structure and meaning of chemistry without making the implicit explicit.

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Such an experience creates a learning environment where students are heavily dependent on the teacher for new learning. Students are not often provided opportunities to wrestle with and form their own understanding, nor are they forced to confront their own misconceptions. They may systematically miss the point of the learning, develop alternative learning modalities that do not align with that of an actual chemist, and most importantly, do not improve their problem solving skills by watching the teacher solve problems.

I provide this context because I believe our current curriculum has really developed the growth mindset in our students to a much greater extent than before we implemented our curriculum. In our prior model, our brighter students were able to construct simple algorithms to achieve at high levels, but never really had to grapple with the content and confront and truly identify their own learning. They didn’t have to defend this learning and were not prompted to go beyond what was on the test.

This is not unusual. Traditionally, classroom learning is more teacher-centered, passive, textbook-based, and dependent on teacher lectures and demonstrations. In such an environment, students are never really pushed to connect the various learning standards to understand why the learning was important or relevant. They often simply comply by taking the notes, doing the labs take the tests, and moving on with their lives. I taught many years under just such a model. I lectured, worked out problems, answered some questions, and then the class was over. Often, I didn’t have a clear understanding of where my students were at or what they truly understood from the lesson.

Through implementing the modeling curriculum, I have made many changes to my teaching style and expected learning outcomes for our students. Most of all, I have transitioned from being a “sage on the stage” to becoming a “guide on the side.” I now take a more constructivist approach, expecting my students to work cooperatively, actively engage in the learning process, assume a central role in the learning process, and demonstrate their level of learning in class all day every day.

To accomplish this, my students are now expected to construct and use scientific models, or basic units of knowledge, to describe, explain, and predict what will happen throughout various scenarios. These models are not easy to construct, as they incorporate data and observations at the macroscopic level, representations at the sub-macroscopic level, and symbolic representations of particle behavior they are unable to directly observe.

Ultimately, they understand how the behavior of particles shapes the entirety of everything happening in chemistry. This helps my students see science as a way of viewing the world rather than simply a collection of facts, making the learning of science more explicit and coherent and meaningful for all students. As an aside, such models also figure prominently in the Next Generation Science Standards.

To this end, my students have learned to examine matter from the outside in instead of from the inside out. They have learned to trust in the process of thinking like a scientist as opposed to simply accepting content in a textbook or delivered as “fact” by a teacher. To build such an understanding, my students have had to experience frequent minor failures, setbacks, and disappointments, just as an actual scientist would when learning more about the natural world. Even if they don’t all go on to pursue a career in the sciences, I believe this experience of learning how to learn and learning how they learn is really invaluable for any career and in life in general.

Through modeling, my students make frequent mistakes, but have embraced that such mistakes are necessary in order to learn and get better. My role as a teacher has shifted to being more of a facilitator of learning by asking questions, pushing thinking, being diagnostic, and responsive throughout my lessons based upon where each student is. On a daily basis, I have also had to help build and nurture a culture of mutual respect and shared accountability with and among my students to ensure the sustainability of such learning

Clearly, this approach is in stark contrast to how I taught chemistry my first six years, where I acted as more as the keeper of content that my students temporarily learned, regurgitated, and often forgot shortly thereafter. Much like my students, I have had to make mistakes to grow and become a better teacher.

With modeling, my students are expected to learn cooperatively through daily white boarding of conceptual and mathematical problems, small group and whole-class discussions, whiteboard presentations, and lab activities. Because we have mostly shifted the cognitive load onto our students to demonstrate their level of learning daily, they are forced to make constant, adjustments to minor failures in their learning understanding instead of large sweeping adjustments after taking their summative assessments. I know and they know what their level of understanding is, what they need to practice more every day.

In my opinion, that is really the point of having a growth mindset. It’s not as much about bouncing back from catastrophic setbacks as it is an ongoing practice of living ones life and the small, continuous choices we make along to way to get better. These small choices become our habits and our habits become our identity and our reality. If we change the habits, we change the outcome.

This process of learning science is something that I am very passionate about. Over the last 2 years, I have really transitioned a great deal in my philosophy of teaching. I’ve come to realize that just because I taught it doesn’t necessarily mean they learned it. I would often lecture through countless PowerPoint slides, droning on about this or that and the learning was a very passive process for my students. I didn’t truly know where each student was in their level of learning because I was operating on the assumption that students were getting it because they were paying attention, asking occasional questions, etc.

What I have come to realize is that by simply telling kids what to learn, I was simply creating compliant students, but not committed students. The highly motivated students developed algorithms for learning, but only at the surface level. Much of this learning was not retained because the cognitive load was mostly on me as a teacher. Through shifting the cognitive load to my students, I now every single day where all of my students are at in their level of understanding.

I rarely lecture anymore. Instead I facilitate a process of learning and discovery, which is much more challenging. When we whiteboard, students work cooperatively on challenging problems, develop strategies together, present their learning to the class, and are unable to hide or opt out of learning. They are “minds-on” for the entire class. They know what they know and what they need more practice on. They ask better, more targeted questions. As a teacher, I circulate through the room more, interact with my students more, and develop more positive relationships with my students.

In my mind, this is what effective instruction is. Students are at the center of the learning process, are engaged, are communicating with one another, and are sharing ideas with one another. The teacher takes a more peripheral role by asking better, more targeted questions and providing more individualized feedback, respecting that each student’s level of understanding and learning needs is unique and evolving. This has led to much better outcomes for our students and a stronger performance and passion for chemistry among my students.

~Brad Hurst

Thoughts on Special Education and Systems Level Leadership

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How does special education fits within the larger scope of the educational system as a whole? Specifically, how well is special education programming aligned with the philosophy that all students are first and foremost general education students?

Historically, special education special education programming, classes, and services have been separated from general education programming. Consequently, many schools operated separate systems of learning for general education and special education students. Often in education, philosophies evolve much more rapidly than practices. Innovation is challenging because the system is so complex, often burdened with many fragmented constraints placed upon the system by those not working within the system. Therefore, it becomes crucial for our school leaders to critically examine and manage the system to ensure that its practices more closely align with its philosophies.

When I think about alignment, I think about the minimization of redundancy and the maximization of efficiency. For example, why create separate special education students from general education students to learn science, math, English, or social studies? Is there evidence that supports better learning outcomes for special education students in such settings? Even if there is, is it really and apple to apples comparison? Furthermore, why create separate systems for students to learn the same material? Why not leverage the unique expertise of both the special education and content teacher to maximize learning outcomes for all students?

By creating a co-taught class, students can learn from both a content-area expert and a teacher specialized in individualization, personalization, and differentiation strategies. In such an environment, learning becomes much more engaging, meaningful, and authentic for all students. It would also be very easy to measure achievement data of all students in such courses and compare these to achievement data of the same students learning in the previously separated learning system.

Another area that resonated with me is the idea of taking ownership for the learning of all of the students in our building. Too often in schools, teachers are quick to play the blame game. At the secondary level, if scores in reading, math, or science decline, the blame often falls on the corresponding content-area teachers. At the elementary level, if kids can’t read in 3rd grade, the 2nd grade teachers are blamed. If special education students score low, the blame falls on the special education teachers.

In such a system, too much focus is placed on teaching. Apparently, the assumption has become that isolated teaching leads to deep and meaningful learning for students. However, is that the perception of our students? If our students were given even a little more choice and voice over the system they learn in, how would the learning system change?

Consider for a moment what it must be like for our students to learn in such a fragmented system. Over the course of the day, a student may have to acclimate to 8 or more different teachers, expectations, performance criterion, grading scales, etc. Is it any wonder that they often struggle to apply and connect learning from one course to another?

If the purpose of education to create a well-informed, skilled, and collaborative citizenry, capable of creating collective solutions to diverse, multifaceted problems and functioning appropriately in a rapidly evolving global society, how well are we hitting that mark? Do we even know how to measure if we are hitting that mark? Are we just hoping that it will just magically happen? And if this is our goal, or if we have other goals for our students beyond merely learning content, how explicitly have we communicated these to each other as educators? More importantly, how well have we communicated these to our students? Have we provided them with targeted learning opportunities to grow in their capacities to meet these goals?

As educators, we must no longer enable our systems to perpetuate the perception that we do not care about what our students learn outside our classroom. We care deeply. Therefore, our actions must reflect our words. We must take more ownership in teaching the whole child. We must seek to learn from our colleagues outside our departments and grade levels. So many great ideas are being implemented in our buildings and we must all seek to discover them. We must visit each other’s classrooms and we must open our doors for others to visit and learn from us. The students cannot be the only learners in our buildings.  To maximize learning outcomes, we must model the mindset we hope for our students to capture.

By doing so, we would learn more about what our students are learning, enabling us to implement new strategies in our own classrooms more closely aligned to those of our colleagues. We would also discover connections between content areas and grade levels that we could communicate to our students in order to deepen their understanding of what they are learning about.

Ultimately, if we could design a system where teachers were invited and encouraged to visit classrooms outside their content area or grade level once a week or a month, I believe a dramatic cultural shift would occur in our schools. We’d feel more connected to our colleagues and more ownership over our entire learning system. I predict students would achieve at much higher levels and this performance could easily be measured before and after such a system was implemented.

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As an aspiring administrator, it will be vitally important for me to develop a process for managing the system I will be leading. Too often, leaders of educational systems rush to implement the shiny new initiative or next great thing, believing it will lead to dramatic improvements to their system. However, the actual results are frequently underwhelming

Why do so many of our well-intentioned ideas go awry? Why have too many of our veteran teachers adopted a “wait and see” approach in regard to anything new? Surely, they didn’t always hold this opinion. I would like to believe that when they began their careers, they were eager and willing to invest a great deal in new and innovative ideas. However, something must have happened to them along the way, perhaps several times, to disappoint them and create this more pessimistic mindset. What have they learned that the rest of us haven’t?

As administrators, it would be very easy, and completely unproductive, to blame our teachers when initiatives A, B, or C fail to produce the results we intended. A more constructive approach would require us to look first look inward at ourselves and critically examine our own leadership may have caused the idea to underperform or even fail in its implementation.

When the problems emerge, leaders must seek to understand and identify the weaknesses and flaws embedded within the system. In regard to implementing innovative ideas and approaches, this often begins with careful reflection about how the original idea was communicated our stakeholders. Did the change happen to them or with them? This is a clear line of distinction. How much time, effort, and resources did we invest in education and in taking the time to build understanding and consensus among our stakeholders?

As a future administrator, I will need to be mindful of being both efficient and timely, but also inclusive of the voices of my stakeholders. Ideas that are steamrolled over people rarely generate anything more than mild compliance. No initiative can thrive under such conditions. Therefore, true success is only possible when a critical majority of the stakeholders in a system are genuinely committed and determined to ensure that a particular idea becomes successful. This will only happen when people have to believe in and trust their leader. Trust comes from inclusion and mutual respect between the leader and their followers.

Even after doing the hard work to engage stakeholders and enable them to take ownership over an idea and make it their own, it still becomes incumbent upon the leader to carefully manage the system to ensure that good ideas can take hold and prosper. It also requires that a system that is built with the right infrastructure in place. In a school system, this means creating a learner-focused curriculum, instruction, and assessment experience for our students that is aligned, data-informed, built on best practices, and inclusive of all learners. As administrators, building this requires us to wisely invest our resources and time to best support the needs of the teachers and staff in our buildings.  

It is only after taking adequate time to build consensus and create the infrastructure to enable success, that we can than begin lead our systems and have committed followers. In doing so, we also ensure that the good ideas of those we lead, as well as our own, are implemented with greater fidelity. In closing, if we can commit to do the hard work in the beginning, innovative ideas can truly take hold and be sustained, creating the necessary momentum for the innovation needed to best meet the needs of our learners in the 21st century.

~Brad Hurst

My Answers to 21 Common Administrative Interview Questions

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  1. Why are you interested in becoming our next administrator? My advice is really do your research! This is a great opportunity for those selecting their next leader to imagine each person being interviewed in the role. Doing your homework demonstrates your work ethic and passion for the position. To get the information you need, thoroughly check out the district website, looking for the names your district leaders, board members, building leaders, and staff members. Also, be sure to read several months worth of school board minutes to learn more about the district’s current initiatives and future plans. Make sure you also carefully read the job description. Going into the interview, it is crucial that you know what goals and expectations they have for their new administrator. Also, ensure you know the school and community demographics such as: current enrollment, enrollment trends, nature of the community, key businesses in the area, etc. Also do your research on the school. Make sure you know a great deal about the current programming, technology initiatives, graduation requirements, extracurricular activities, TLC program structure, building goals and past performance, school report card, curriculum guide, calendar, and daily schedule. Newsletters and social media are also great places to get information.
  2. What does great teaching look like? Great teaching is learner and learning focused. It taps into the interests, curiosities, and passions of every student. It invests just as much in building relationships as it does in exposing students to the curriculum. It leverages moments of learning to create memorable learning experiences for students. It recognizes that learning is an organic process that is necessarily messy and creative. It focuses on teaching students how to think, not just what to learn. It includes instructional strategies that are more diagnostic and less prescriptive. It is also public and transparent, inviting any others to view it in action.
  3. What ideas do you have to celebrate staff and students? I believe that we should make every effort to celebrate our people, especially those that work hard and have a great attitude, yet rarely receive recognition. We cannot afford to take them for granted. We also need to make every effort to celebrate our diversity and view it as a strength of our school, ensuring that every student and staff member feels included and connected to our building. Among the ways to accomplish this is to establish a building Celebrations and Culture Team, comprised of a diverse group of teachers, associates, students, and parents. This team could develop a monthly focus on a specific quality that staff and students demonstrate that makes our school better. We could then ask students and staff to nominate one another and feature them on a video production or newsletter. This would cost next to nothing, yet mean the world to those people being recognized and inspire others to aspire toward those qualities that make our school great. It would also build a stronger community and create a more positive culture in our building.
  4. What are your strengths as a leader? I believe very strongly in the power of distributed leadership. No one person has a monopoly on great ideas. Instead, more voices shape better ideas. I also believe that a leader cannot be above doing any of the same work they are asking of others. I’ve had to work very hard for anything I’ve accomplished in life and am not afraid to get my hands dirty and work alongside my staff to help support them in getting our work done.  I didn’t rush out of the classroom and into administration. I’ve taught for 11 years and over that time I’ve taken on several challenging teaching assignments, traveled between multiple buildings and classrooms throughout the day, attended countless meetings, and been through several curriculum adoptions. I took the time to become a good teacher first and I believe that this gives more credibility as an instructional leader among the teachers I will be leading.
  5. What are your weaknesses as a leader? Sometimes I have tried to hard in the past to keep everyone happy and focused too much time on trying to please the vocal minority. I had to learn the hard way that not everyone working in education has the same core beliefs or has the same passion that I have and that is perfectly fine. Over time, I’ve learned the best way to lead change in a building was to engage the innovators and early adopters, leveraging their work ethic and passion to build a critical majority of people to keep things moving forward. This doesn’t mean I will not listen to criticism. I just won’t let it paralyze progress. The train is still going to keep moving forward and we are going to keep innovating and getting better. I’ll also keep giving resistant staff continual opportunities and entrance ramps to opt into leadership actively commit to and engage in the work happening in our building. 10408821_10100163209009971_5221878921035108239_n.jpg
  6. What qualities comprise a great leader? I’ve been fortunate to work under many great leaders in my life. Those that were most effective in leading me were those that had a clear leadership compass informed by their core values and beliefs. They were clear about why we were doing what we were doing and how it would make us better and could articulate this vision effectively to others. They also were continually humble about themselves and their abilities, even though all of them clearly knew what they were doing and had a great deal of wisdom we all could learn from. They put the interests of their people ahead of their own self-interests. They created followers not by using the power of their position, but through their contagious passion. They worked hard and challenged us to do likewise, nurturing a climate of possibility that expected more of us than we thought was possible and then provided the support to ensure we were successful.
  7. What are 3 words that describe you? Ambitious. I grew up poor and we worked hard for everything we had. This built a strong work ethic that is an asset that I still use every day. Analytical. I am constantly critically examining my own views on education and best practices. I like figuring out how ideas connect and align, as well as how to do work and processes more efficiently. Passionate. I believe you’d be hard-pressed to identify someone who has been more passionate about education, advocacy, writing, reflection, and continual growth as I have been over my last 11 years as a teacher. Fairly consistently over the course of my career, I have been one of the first, often the first people to arrive to work at my building. Often, I am also one of the last ones to leave and frequently the one of the few people in on the weekend. I say this not because I believe I am better than anyone else, but to illustrate how passionate I am about what I do. My passion wakes me up early in the morning without an alarm clock. I am constantly driven to improve and better my craft, find new ways to reach my students, and do every thing I can to ensure my students are better off for having had me as a teacher.
  8. What is your leaderships style? I am goal-centered, ambitious, and hardworking. I also know I cannot lead effectively from a fortress of solitude. I can accept when my idea is not the best idea in the room. Great ideas can come from anywhere and an idea’s merit does not depend on the person who came up with it or the title after their name. I also believe very strongly in distributed leadership that is inclusive and enables our staff to share in ownership and accountability for creating the best solutions to complex problems. Such and approach shifts the culture in a building from compliance to genuine commitment.
  9. How will you effectively lead in this building? First, I will need to loyally support the vision of my Principal and/or Superintendent. It is my responsibility to help them turn their ideas into action. I also need to ensure our staff have clarity about our aim as a building and district and help manage our system to ensure that our initiatives are in alignment with our mission and vision as a system. Perhaps most importantly, I will need to seek out ways to cultivate and sustain positive relationships with our students, staff, and parents.
  10. How do you respond when an initiative is not going well? First and foremost,one caution would be to have patience and discipline during implementation dips. Too often in education, we abandon new initiatives when they don’t immediately yield marked improvements. Instead, when our results diminish or stagnate, we should first critically examine whether our system is performing as intended or not. A great idea has minimal value if it cannot be successfully implemented. Therefore, we have to be sure to create the conditions for implementation to be successful, ensuring we remove or substantially reduce the barriers that will inhibit its success. This may require us to simplify, prioritize, and align our work. We should also be sure that we are not setting our bar too low. Our students deserve for us to be aspirational; therefore, we should continually set high standards for ourselves that enable us to leapfrog our competition.11071168_10100163209069851_363820420986769368_n.jpg
  11. What ideas do you have to build parent and community engagement? It takes a village to raise a child. Our parents are our students’ first and most important teacher. As administrators, we need to provide our parents with multiple opportunities to provide input on the learning happening in our schools. After all, we are all on the same team and all have the same goal of ensuring that students are successful. One idea I have is to create a Parent Advisory Council that is composed of a diverse subset of parents from. This group could act as an intermediary between our schools and our community. I believe this would be reciprocally beneficial as it would enable our school to provide information and communicate more effectively with parents about various initiatives happening in our schools and explain the rationale for them. It would also enable parents to share ideas of their own, ask questions, and act as true partners in the educational process. I also believe more schools need to critically examine Parent Teacher Conferences. I supect that one of the reasons attendance at conferences is declining in many schools is due to the fact that the nature and scope of conferences hasn’t adequately adapted to our available technologies. Parents rarely just want to meet and confer about a student’s grade, as they already have access to their student’s electronic grade book. Instead, many are seeking context and strategies to support their student’s learning at home. They often come to conferences wondering: What is my child learning? What kind of student is my child in your classroom? How well do they get along with the other students? What is the classroom environment like? What is the teacher’s style and philosophy? How will this class prepare my child for success in the future? How can my child get better? I wonder how well we are answering these questions and why we aren’t adapting to change the scope and focus of conferences to be more student-focused rather than grade focused. Perhaps if our conferences were student led and the student was present, this would occur on a more regular basis.
  12. What is your philosophy regarding student discipline? Every conversation we have with another person represents an opportunity to build or damage a relationship. As administrators, we should proactively seek opportunities to build relationships with our students, especially those that may exhibit problematic behaviors down the road. Our students should not only interact with their principals when they are in trouble. While an office referral should always be a last resort for a teacher as it takes away from learning, I also understand that when a student’s behavior violates rules or policies, an office referral is justified and appropriate. When such behavior occurs, my role as an administrator is not to be evaluator or judge of students, but rather an investigator. I must have a conversation with each student that seeks first to understand the root causes of the behavior manifestation. I will ask the student how they got to this point and how I can support or help them. As administrators, we do not abandon our roles as teachers. After all, the word discipline means “to teach.” The discipline process should not be a socially rewarding experience for students. Rather, it must be a restorative process that, while preserving the dignity of the student, also teaches him or her to take ownership and accept responsibility (and the consequences) for their behavior. Administrators, teachers, and parents must also understand that behavior modification is a process that takes time, as the neural networks of teenagers have had years to become established and learning and assimilating new behavior patterns and responses new takes some time. Therefore, one office referral likely won’t prevent recidivism for every student.
  13. What is your philosophy regarding teacher evaluation? Evaluation of teaching, much like assessment of learning, need not be only a summative process. I would strongly encourage a structured, informal, ongoing rounding/walk-through process in every school. This will develop a culture of collaboration and promote high quality student learning in every classroom. When doing a summative evaluation, the number one question an administrator should ask themselves is: Would I want my child in this teacher’s classroom? For the overwhelming number of our teachers, we would. A great number of our teachers meet or exceed all 8 Iowa teaching standards and are, by all accounts, excellent teachers. For these teachers, the evaluation process is really about growing them in areas most closely related to student growth and achievement. However, not all teachers meet every teacher standard. When this occurs, we must remain mindful that, as administrators, our primary responsibility is to improve education for every student in our building. Our evaluation process must be clear and straightforward. Every evaluation is either satisfactory or unsatisfactory. A teacher either meets the standards or they do not. There is no gray area. When a teacher is not meeting the standard(s), we must communicate this very clearly and directly to the teacher, outlining a process that :
    1. describes the concerns related to specific teaching standards,
    2. outlines a plan for meeting the standard,
    3. establishes timelines, dates, required activities, and responsible parties,
    4. clarifies assessments and indicators of progress,
    5. identifies resources and supports needed,
    6. and schedules a future meeting date
  14. What is the most important issue or challenge in education today? We need to reframe the narrative surrounding public education. There are so many great things happening in our schools and classroom in Iowa and across the nation. We need to do a better job of celebrating and promoting our successes and embrace our roles as “storytellers in chief” for our schools. If we don’t tell our story, others, with much more questionable motives, will tell it for us.
  15. What is your communication style? I’ve always been a bit of an social introvert, preferring to not be the center of attention. I believe this has enabled me to become a very effective listener and understand people on a level that helps me lead effectively. Too often, in our conversations, we listen to respond instead of listening to understand. I have continuously worked to become a better active listener. I also understand that not every conversation will be positive or complimentary. In these conversations, active listening is even more important.11071091_10100163209259471_1748754664334184276_n.jpg
  16. What your experience in using technology in education? Technology represents a significant opportunity to reimagine learning in the classroom. With technology, our students have access to a world of information at their fingertips. As educators, it is our responsibility to facilitate a learning process that enables the technology to be used not only as a substitute to learning previously done on paper. In my previous district, we had a 1:1 iPad initiative. We were the largest school in the state of Iowa with a 1:1 initiative. Prior to giving the devices to our students, our teachers received a great deal of training on how to use the devices to create more engaging and authentic learning experiences for students. We were trained on the different apps available and how to use them in the classrooms. We also created a process that enabled teachers to share ideas with one another on an ongoing basis called “Appy Hour”. I was fortunate to teach in this 1:1 environment for several years and every year we received awards from Apple for our innovative uses of the iPad in the classroom. I was also interviewed by KCCI due to being an early adopter and leader in my building on how to use the iPads to transform learning. Speaking personally, these combined years of experience have enabled me to be able to go into any setting and discuss ways to infuse technology into teaching and learning. I can also provide a great deal of support to help teachers to design, develop, and infuse digital learning experiences that utilize technology with the goal of transforming learning experiences so they result in higher levels of achievement for students.
  17. What is your philosophy on grading? A grading system should first and foremost account for the fact that learning is a messy process unique for every learner. To this end, I believe that timelines can be flexible, yet learning mastery cannot. Segments of our society tend to overvalue the importance of a GPA, specific letter grade, score, or percentage. I believe all grades, scores, or percentages merely represent a snapshot of learning at a given moment in time. That which we have “learned” is never fixed. Over time, it will either be built upon, diminished, or ultimately forgotten. Ideally, a grade should communicate a student’s current level of understanding relative a set of learning standards or targets. A grading system cannot simply be a point accumulation contest. A student should be much more concerned with accumulating learning than points. After all, it is the learning, and not the points, that will actually translate to success beyond high school. Many cautionary tales exist of high school valedictorians that learned to play the “point accumulation game” in very well in high school, yet went on to only marginal success in their careers. To this end, our grading system should take efforts to ensure it is not creating winners and losers. Components like class rank are outdated and only encourage students to focus more on point chasing than deep and meaningful learning. Ultimately, and most importantly, students should have clarity about what they are expected to know and be able to why this learning is important to their success beyond high school. When students have clarity about where they need to be, how to get there, and why it is important to do so, learning becomes an intrinsic process where extrinsic motivators like “points” become less meaningful.10999519_10100163209508971_7754351717673117916_n.jpg
  18. How will you handle teacher complaints? In every conversation, I strive to listen without judgement, yet will also ask for a solution as well. If someone wants resolution on an issue or challenge, they need to have thought about it enough to present ideas or solutions on how the issue can be resolved. In considering their solution, I will also keep my compass focused on what is best for students.
  19. How should student data be used to enhance learning? We cannot afford to wait until the end of the year to determine if our goals have been achieved. Instead, we should be monitoring our performance relative to our goal on an ongoing basis and be willing to make necessary changes along the way as needed. We need to remain objective and let our data tell our story. In this process, transparency is key. We should take joyful accountability for the results our systems produces. We should cascade ongoing performance measures throughout our organization, measuring what matters and ensuring that our measures are aligned to our aim. When analyzing our data, we should triangulate data to identify and verify trends and results. We should also be disaggregating our data into subgroups and tracking cohorts longitudinally to ensure that every student is making one year’s worth of growth. Our way of thinking is also a key driver to our success. As educational leaders, we must have the self-discipline to see the whole picture, identifying interrelationships rather than things, seeing patterns and seeking out root causes rather than static snapshots. Most problems that emerge in schools are systems-problems, not people problems. If we do not invest the time to examine the entire system, our easy solutions will lead right back to the same problems. We must avoid the temptation to enact familiar solutions to repeating problems. Instead we must constantly seek to bring the work of all the adults we serve into alignment. Everyone in our system must be keenly aware of our aim and how all our work connects to and supports this aim. As leaders, we have the responsibility to ensure continual alignment and clarity about our work.
  20. What type of professional learning leads to the best growth for teachers? Ultimately, for any professional learning to be effective, it has to be implemented, not just learned. Implementation of new learning can be an uncomfortable process. Often people prefer to remain in a comfort zone rather than to humble themselves enough to be vulnerable in order to get better. Continually implementing new learning requires staff to have a growth mindset where failures are seen not as impediments, but a necessary part of the growth process. Paradoxically, we all understand and embrace the need for failure in certain areas of our lives. The best gamers in the world fail in new video games constantly. Skateboarders fall off their boards attempting new tricks many times before they are successful. The world’s best basketball players often miss 50% or more of the shots they take. The top baseball players only get hits about 30% of the time. Why doesn’t this mindset translate into our continual growth as educators? Ultimately, I believe we need to help staff have clarity about how their failures serve a purpose and how they will help them and their students get better over time. Professional learning must also be job-embedded and provide teachers with the professional trust and autonomy they need to align their interests and passions with our goals as a school. If we can find a way to give our staff more choice and voice in their professional learning, yet also hold them accountable for sharing their learning with their peers, I have no doubt our school would achieve phenomenal results over time.11070097_10100163209324341_7124195147959940317_n.jpg
  21. Do you have any questions for us? Yes you do! This is perhaps the most important question of all.  Some of my go to questions so far have included:
  • Why do you love _______________ school and the ____________________ community?
  • What are the most significant opportunities and challenges at _______________________ school?
  • What type of qualities are you looking for in your next ____________________________?
  • What are the top priorities you you would want me to address during my first few months as your next _____________________________________?

I hope this was helpful. Hopefully, it will also help me land my first administrative position someday.

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~Brad

Producers and Consumers: Contribute to your Profession

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As I’ve said before, experiences matter a great deal more than years of experience. All educators have a story to tell. Our stories must begin with a critical self-examination of this question: To what extent am I a producer or a consumer? How do I contribute to my profession? I recently engaged in this reflection on my own level of contribution to my profession and this is what I learned when I put it all together.

We are often to close to it, struggling just to accomplish the work that accompanies each new day. When we take a moment to truly reflect, we realize just how far reaching our impact has been and can become. Here is my story:

Classroom Level:

I’ve been a teacher for over 10 years at three different districts with very different stories. In that time, I have served well over 1,500 students in my classrooms. What was my impact? If you go into my classroom, pretty consistently you will find me working directly with my students before and after school, during study halls to support them. You will see that students are motivated and engaged in learning. You will see a community of learners that help, support, and encourage one another. You will see students that are given choice and voice in shaping their learning experiences through passion projects and authentic, hands-on learning experiences. Every so often, I get a handwritten note or email from a former student thanking me for working with challenging them, and helping them discover their passions and potential to pursue them.

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Department Level:

I am in my first year in a new school and district. This has been a great experience for me, as I have had to step out of the spotlight quite a bit and really embracing my role as a new learner. This year has been all about building and cultivating relationships with my colleagues and students, as well as seeking first to understand how our system works here. In my previous position, I was a primary leader in my department, building the master schedule for our science department, creating a schedule that would enable 11 different teachers to work out of 9 different classrooms. I also led and facilitated numerous PLC meetings, as well as coordinating the science supply ordering and delivery process every Spring and Summer.

Building Level:

Over my last two years in my former district, I served as one of seven Lead Teachers in our building as part of our Iowa TLC program. In this role, I served on our Instructional Leadership Team (ILT) and facilitated and led many professional learning experiences for our staff of over 100 teachers. I also led and Facilitated our Culture and Climate Team, as well as several technology trainings for our 1:1 iPad initiative.

District Level:

From 2011 to 2015, I served as a President of my local Education Association. In this role, I met and cultivated relationships with various teachers, administrators, and district leaders. I also built partnerships with parents, and board member as I served on many of the strategic planning and and district planning panels. I also had the privilege to serve as Facilitator of our district’s Superintendent’s Advisory Team, recruiting a diverse set of teachers from together from across the district to engage in an ongoing solution-building processes to build the capacity of our system. Other experiences I had include serving as a member of several committee groups, including our School Improvement Advisory Committee, TLC Grant Writing Team, TLC Review Team, Negotiations Team, Insurance Committee, Calendar Committee, countless hiring teams, and many others.

Beyond District:

This year, I have participated in the Continual Improvement Network at Drake University. This is a network of metro superintendents, principals, and aspiring administrators engaged in ongoing collaborating, capacity building, and idea sharing and has been a great way for me to learn more and build a broader understanding of issues and challenges in educational administration, as well as share ideas and possible solutions for these changes.

Since 2015, I have also served on Drake University’s International Advisory Council, learning from professors, business leaders, and other school leaders across the state and around the world about educational trends, philosophies, approaches, and ideas. I’ve also had the opportunity to visit and learn from other schools in Eagle, Colorado (As part of Johnston’s TLC Grant Writing Team), and the Toronto DSB schools in Canada (as part of the Drake Educational Leadership program). This national and international perspective has made me a much more well-rounded leader.

I also participated in the Teacher Leadership Initiative through the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and the Center for Teaching Quality. Through this year-long experience, I was able to participate in many leadership training modules, engage in learning and collaboration with other aspiring leaders across the country, improve the quality of my writing through online forums and create a capstone project that captured my learning. As part of this experience, I was one of only two Iowans selected to attend CTQ’s Rising Leaders Retreat in North Carolina.

Trainings:

I’ve taken the Level 1 and 2 Cognitive Coaching Trainings through Sue Schirmer at Heartland AEA. I believe this training will be very helpful in my future role as an administrator, enabling me to work with teachers to support them in their cooperative learning.

In this training, I learned that my initial focus should really be on listening very carefully and trying to really create effective paraphrases that target the state of mind and really capture the heart of the issue to drive the thinking of the coachee. As I work more with teachers and begin to coach them more, I understand that much of what is communicated is unsaid, meaning the words used don’t tell the full story. I will devote just as much of the thought and attention other clues and can perhaps learn more from that that from the specific words used.

Also, in my questioning, I need to think about asking questions that honor the existing state of the coachee, but also drive their thinking to look at things differently and really push them to think in ways that they may not have done on their own. In my questioning, I need to think about asking questions that honor the existing state of the coachee, but also drive their thinking to look at things differently and really push them to think in ways that they may not have done on their own. Without this value-added perception by the coachee, the coachee is unlikely to sacrifice their valuable time to seek ongoing coaching conversations with the coachee.

In my eight days of training, I really came to appreciate all the layers that exist within the context of being an effective cognitive coach. Above all else, I will use the piece about not seeking closure for my own sake most of all. I need to put that aside and really focus on what the needs are of my coachee. Also, in coaching the coachee, I will need to ask questions in a way that supposes the best in my coachee and tries to empower them, while also pushing their thinking to a place they would not get on their own.

Perhaps the most valuable training I have received was an Ethics for Educators Training through ISEA. In this training, I really came to appreciate the reality that educators are 24-7 employees and that we must continually model a mindset of professionalism and ethical decision making. I believe administrators should hold themselves to an even high standard in this regard.

This course reviewed and explored the meaning of professional ethics for educators, including the Code of Iowa for Professional Conduct and Ethics as defined by the Iowa Board of Educational Examiners. It was developed in collaboration between the ISEA and the BoEE. The course included the requirements of the Iowa Teaching License, examination of a variety of actual cases that the Board has addressed and a method to use when making decisions. It was very interactive and engaging, as we learned about cyber-bullying, infractions can cause suspension or termination of one’s license, and other legal issues.


 

Don’t be afraid to share your story! You’ve had much more of an impact than you may even realize! 🙂

~Brad Hurst