Monday, January 29, 2018

Teaching Principal Revisited

I have been a full time principal for about ten years. A few years back, I took on teaching the sixth grade social studies class at the same time. I wrote a mighty fine blog about it: I was a social studies teacher before becoming a principal. During my first few years in the classroom, I taught sixth grade. Being a teaching principal was a good experience, but proved to be too difficult to try again.

However, since December 4, I have taken on a 75-minute math class. You see, our 4th/5th grade math/science teacher is out on maternity leave, and the longterm sub I hired decided this was not the work for him. I have been unable to find someone to take the rest of the leave. So, we have been cobbling together the instruction for these kids. 

Our interventionist is planning and sometimes teaching the science for both 4th and 5th grades. She works with whatever daily sub we find to make sure the students are still getting some science. One of the special educators had been co-teaching 4th grade math and has taken over the full teaching of that class. That left only 5th grade math. The interventionist wasn’t available as she was busy teaching 7th grade at that time. The special educator had to deliver other services during that slot. That left us no other option but me.

I am loving it. I am learning tons and getting to know this group like no other in the building. I have earned some capital with the elementary teachers as I try to learn how to use Eureka Math (nee EngageNY). Had attended the training in August 2016 and had exposure going back a year or two before that. I thought I understood the program on a superficial level. Well, now that I have taught it for eight weeks, I can say that Eureka is not a script that any untrained person can follow. We need real teachers who understand math and math pedagogy to make sense of the program. We need real teachers who can assess where the kids are. We need real teachers to make real educational decisions.

I’m not sure I fit that description, but with some help and lots of trial and error, I am making it work. That said, I can’t wait for the teacher to return from her leave, and I’ll miss this class at the same time.

cross posted at Connected Principals

Monday, January 15, 2018

They Should Know Better...

They should know better than to:
Talk out of turn,
Argue with each other,
Ignore the rules,
Disrespect adults,
Give up quickly,
Choose so poorly,
(insert your least favorite student behavior here)...
... but they don't. 
They don't know better. Many students struggle to accept authority, think for themselves, or manage their own emotions. Students affected by poverty or the opioid epidemic are not getting many of the basic social-emotional skills they need. They don't arrive at our schools with the Self-Awareness, Self-Management, Social Awareness, Relationship Skills, and Responsible Decision-making that we believe they need to be successful students and members of society (see CASEL,, for loads of info).
They need us, the adults at school, to teach them. Whether we teach them through a formal curriculum (such as Second Step), a classroom approach (such as Responsive Classroom), school wide expectations and celebrations (as included in PBIS), or in the "hidden curriculum" so many of us have always been sure to focus on, it is now a necessary part of many public schools to teach students how to get by in a community. Kindergarten teachers are chuckling now that the rest of us have caught up to them; they've been teaching the "hidden curriculum" for ever. The problem is that kids are starting school with so few of these skills mastered that it takes far more than one year to catch up. We have to teach social-emotional skills through the grades.
Many teachers start their career thinking that they will focus mostly on academic skills. People dream of teaching kids to read in first grade, divide fractions in sixth grade, or recite Shakespeare with high school juniors. When they hit reality and realize that teaching involves tons beyond the content, some teachers run with it. Other teachers start complaining that the students should know better. Well, they don't; it is our job to teach them. When we put in the time to teach Social-Emotional skills, fractions and Shakespeare are not far behind

cross-posted to Connected Principals

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Lunch and Recess, Positive Climate, part 5

At many schools, the cafeteria and the playground are behavior hotspots. It stands to reason that those two places, during lunch and recess, will be the least structured. Less structure leads to bad behavior. Many principals shudder at the prospect of lunch duty and then spend the afternoon dealing with problems from the playground. That used to be me and Wolcott Elementary. Well, the playground used to be tough, the cafeteria has been easy for years.

You see, many years ago, the Wolcott teachers began eating lunch with their students; it was their duty instead of recess. Every day, every class is joined at their table(s) by their teacher or one of the specialists. The adults eat and talk with their students. The benefits are easy to see. The caf is humming but not loud. The adults and students are mostly calm. Small problems between kids get noticed right away and never become big problems. Teachers keep cliques from getting out of hand and loners from being too lonely. The Wolcott Caf is a civil place to eat.

So, while the caf has not generated discipline referrals for a long time, the playground has changed much in the last few years. Five years ago, there were frequent discipline problems that started on the playground. There small fights, arguments, frustrations over sports or friends. The Paraeducators that covered recess felt like the area was too large to supervise well. So, four years ago, we found a way to increase recess supervision by 50% -- we added one monitor to our old schedule of two monitors. This increase made a difference right away as more eyes-on led to earlier intervention.

A couple of years later, we noticed that the remaining discipline problems were mostly from the end of recess line up. The procedure was to line up each class, wait for quiet, then send in the best behaved class. The problems here were many. First, instead of calming down kids while they lined up, many kids fooled around in line, got in trouble, and re-entered the building more escalated. In their effort to get a quiet line, the monitors were also getting more upset (thus making referrals for things like dropping gloves in a puddle or talking too much at recess). The recess committee (the paras, the principal, and the counselor) agreed to stop lining up the kids at the end of recess. After a flawless pilot, we gradually spread this to all grades. Now, at the end of recess, on monitor goes into the driveway to signal that recess is over (and provide crossing guard services). One monitor leads the students into the building, while the third brings up the rear.

This last bit about splitting up the responsibilities of the monitors at the end of recess came out of a great process (in fact, much of our best change came from this as well). The recess monitors meet every week as a committee. We discuss rules, challenging student strategies, playground conditions and more. This year we spend some time carefully defining exactly what our Handbook means by "Active Supervision." Even though most of what we decided was already in place, having it all written out solved a few small problems and will allow new recess monitors to fit in even faster. We plan on including the document we created in next year's Staff Handbook.

These changes: building relationships with the kids, increased supervision, changes to procedures, and clarification of the responsibilies of the adults has led to a school with few recess discipline referrals and a peaceful cafeteria.

(Hmmm...relationships, supervision, procedures, responsibilies. Sounds like I am describing some sort of schoolwide behavior approach.)

Improving climate and student behavior has been a major focus of the last few years at Wolcott Elementary. Now that the fruits of our labor have become apparent, it is time to share what is working. Our positive behavior data looks great, our numbers of discipline cases keeps dropping. There are many factors; this was another one.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Eagle's Nest, Monday Morning Meeting Update, Positive Climate, part 4

Image from Penna Game Commission
Way back in September 2011, I wrote about Wolcott Elementary School embarking on a journey of weekly, all-school meetings. That fifrst meeting, held a few days into the school year was truly just the beginning. Since then, over the last five years, the all-school gathering has become fully integrated into our culture.

Once I showed the teachers the basic structure, I turned over the reigns. Classes started leading the meeting with a variety of curriculum presentations and performances. We started using the Monday Morning Meeting to reinforce the schoolwide expectations as part of our PBIS implementation. At every meeting, we celebrate birthdays and share the Wes Awards for student of the week in each class and the staff. We even introduce new students or staff to the whole community.

Years ago, a staff member, with student input, created a song, "Eye of the Eagle" (to the tune of Eye of the Tiger). We still sing it every once in a while at our weekly meeting. A couple of years later, we renamed the meeting, "Eagle's Nest" to tie it into the whole system of building school culture. Thankfully, Eagle's Nest has remained fully part of that culture. Recently, we had a snow day on the day we were to return from a vacation. When we did resume classes, the entire school community showed up for the meeting without being prompted.

Eagle's Nest, the whole school gathering, has been an important piece of our improved school culture. 

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Trust Your Boots

It was a hot, humid June 17, 2000, group hike in New Hampshire's White Mountains. We were on the exposed ledge of the Welch-Dickey trail. For you non-hikers, exposed ledge means that instead of hiking in the woods on dirt, we were walking up bare rock - granite. Normally, this is no problem, but the humidity was high and the rock was wet. 

Wet rock, when covered in algae or lichen, is very slippery. The granite on Welch-Dickey had nothing growing on it. Even wet, this rock still had plenty of grip to it. 

Most of us hiked up the ledge with no problem. One hiker, a woman whose name I can no longer recall, was struggling. She felt like she would slip on the wet rock with every step. She began to slow down and lean closer to the rock. She eventually put her hands on the rock and tried to walk on all fours. It was slow going.

My buddy Erik and I tried to help the hiker, by alternating between physical assistance and words of encouragement. At one point, I tried to reason with her that the rock was not as slippery as she might be thinking. I told her that the treads of her boots were good rubber and would hold. I told her that she could trust her boots. 

"Trust your boots," I kept telling her. "Trust your boots."

My encouragement didn't really work. We helped her get up the trail by taking her arm and sometimes even supporting her foot. She made it up, and eventually down, the mountain. The rest of the hike was not too memorable.

The words, however, have become something of a mantra to me. Trust your boots. Trust. Your. Boots. Erik and I joked about the phrase. I started using it on other hikes. I even made a sign that still hangs on my office wall. Trust Your Boots.

I'm not really a footwear fanatic, although I do love a good piece of vibram. The words, Trust Your Boots, have come to mean much more to me than just hiking advice. Trust your boots means to trust your preparation, trust your materials, your supplies, your colleagues, and sometimes your boots. Trust your boots has come to mean that it is ok to take a risk and carry on. Everything will be ok if only we just trust our boots.

So, I keep the saying on my office wall. Occasionally, a teacher or student will ask about it. Usually, I skip the story and ask what they think it means. Usually, I come around and tell them what these words mean to me. I get things going, build systems, teach procedures, delegate some decisions and then let it unfold around me. I trust my boots.

So, go out there and Trust Your Boots. 

Cross posted to Connected Principals.