Thursday, March 7, 2019

High Visibility

I pride myself on being visible so that I know what is going on at my school.* 

I stand at the front door or “the intersection” every morning to greet the students (my building has one long hall and one short, therefore, one intersection). I do lunch duty or just eat in the caf most everyday. I go out to recess on a regular basis. I cover the front desk as needed. I say goodbye to every child on their way to the buses each afternoon. Most importantly, though, I visit classrooms on a regular basis. I have been working on this habit for a number of years. Over the last few years, I can finally claim that this is something fully integrated into my practice as a principal. There are many ways to visit classrooms, so I decided to explain my visits to the BCS community. I recently sent this out as part of BCS Dates to Remember, the monthly newsletter:

You may wonder how I know about the hard work and learning that goes on. Well, unlike the principals that I had as a kid, I am rarely in my office for long (those of you trying to get me on the phone can attest to that). Instead, I spend tons of time in classrooms. I make three main kinds of visits to classrooms: 1. Super brief visits to deliver a message or talk to a student; 2. 45-minute long formal observations of the teacher; 3. 5-20-minute-long “Stopped by” visits. I track this last kind of visit with a short email to the teacher on the way out the door. As of February 21, I had conducted and documented 180 “Stopped by” visits. This comes to an average of more than 11 visits per teacher; or more than 16 on average for the full-time classroom teachers.

So, what do I do with all these visits? I give a small amount of feedback after each visit, but the real value is when it comes to decision making. With so much direct knowledge of what goes on in the classroom, I am far better able to make decisions about students, curriculum, staffing, and school-wide initiatives. I can have better conversations with teachers about the learning that I see.  

So, frequent classroom visits are a very important part of being visible. Between giving feedback, building relationships, and making decisions based on real knowledge, visibility is a vital part of being a principal.

*OK, I say that I know what is going on, but I realize that might be an overstatement. I am more visible than most principals, and I still only see the slightest sliver of the teaching and learning that goes on. Let’s say each of my 180 visits lasts ten minutes, that is 3600 minutes. Add in the formal observations at 45-minutes each for an additional 180 minutes, and I am up to 3780 minutes out of 338,100 (7 hours (420 minutes) for 115 days for 7 core subject teachers). That is just a little more than 1% of the learning.

P.S. I do not wear the high visibility vest, but I sometimes think about it.

Cross posted to

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Report Cards at BCS

We just sent home second quarter report cards.

I know that the look and feel of our report card is in transition. We are in the midst of switching to proficiency-based grading and reporting in grades K-8. At the same time, we switched to new gradebook software. We also changed from detailed Habits of Work in the lower grades to the Cross Curricular Proficiencies (CCPs). When combined with initiatives like student-led conferences, these changes are building to a new and improved system that will eventually give much more detailed information about learning and achievement. 

When I read through every report card, I noticed that most students are making steady progress towards achieving the proficiencies (standards) that we’ve set. I am proud of the many students who scored a 3 or 4 on CCPs and on content proficiencies. It is clear that there has been lots of hard work. At our next awards assembly, we will role out the next version of awards for the Cross Curricular Proficiencies along with Perfect Attendance recognition and The Bear Necessities Awards (for consistent behavior that is Safe, Responsible, and Respectful).

Last year, I began my current practice of reading every report card and commenting on each. I first came across this practice at Andrew Middle School in Medford, Massachusetts. My principal there, Ralph Watson, used to take home all 600 (!) middle school report cards each marking period and comment on each. Well, I figure that if Mr. Watson can comment on 600 (!) report cards, I can comment on 107. So, each term, I add my comment for the student and parents. This is just one more way to remind families that the staff at BCS really care about the progress of each child.

Our entire reporting system, and all the changes we are in the middle of, are all about being able to track and report on student progress.

If you have any questions or comments about reporting and report cards at BCS, please email, leave a comment on this blog or Facebook, or just call me at school.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Productivity Update

I have always been interested in improving my productivity;  I blogged about organization skills and tools nine times over the years.

Earlier this school year, I decided to join a Facebook group called Principal Productivity, Becoming a Productive Principal. I have been working on this for my entire principal career. Considering that there are more than 1,200 member of the group, I guess this is a widespread issue. Anyway, to get into the group, I had to write a productivity challenge statement. Here is what i wrote:

"Getting into classrooms and doing the other stuff later while still seeing my children everyday."

Over the past few years, I have gotten increasingly better at getting into classroom (more on that in another blog post). I get most fo the "other stuff" done at some point, and I see my children and spend quality time with them throughout the week. Now, I am not perfect at any of this, and some weeks are far better than others. Over time, I think that I have a decent record due to a bunch of strategies and tools/

To stay organized and be productive, I use a variety of methods.

  • I keep my email inbox empty with liberal use of the snooze feature and with forwarding to a to-do program or Evernote. 
  • I keep an Evernote doc going with next week’s staff email memo so that I can edit it quickly and get it out on Thursday nights.
  • I keep a digital to-do list using Toodledo. The free version does everything I want, and they update frequently. I especially love being able to email items, schedule a future start date, and sync between devices.
  • I also keep a physical to-do folder where I put a sticky on each paper identifying what actions I will need to take with that paper.
  • My secretary/admin assistant passes papers that need my attention in “The Folder.” Most staff have learned that the folder is the best way to get a quick response from me. I look at the folder several times throughout the day and either act of stuff immediately (if it will be quick) or save it for later when the students are gone.
  • I track longterm goals and projects in Evernote because I have been using it for years (there are frequently articles talking about other note apps and why they are better).
  • My google calendars know more about me than anyone in the world - my wife included possibly. I share calendars with my secretary and my wife. This way, my two bosses can always know where I am supposed to be and add appointments for me.

Keeping all this going does take a little bit of time to maintain, and it has been worth it. This year has been one of the smoothest of my career with more documented classroom visits then ever before. I recently made another change so that I am spending longer periods of time in a classroom. I walk in with my to-do folder and my laptop (MacBook Air), then I sit somewhere in the room and work on whatever is pressing (or sometimes I get some old thing done). I stop my work frequently to listen to the classroom chatter and to ask students what they are learning.

All this is to say that time spent planning and organizing helps me to be more productive which helps me spend more time with the things that really matter.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Firing Positive Neurons: Gratitude at BCS

Throughout this school year, the BCS Faculty has been studying Teaching Kids to Thrive: Essential Skills for Success by Debbie Thompson Silver and Dedra A. Stafford as part of our work on improving the social-emotional skills of our students. At a faculty learning time meeting a couple of weeks ago, we discussed the chapter on Gratitude. After a debate about whether gratitude was in fact something that can be taught, we decided to heed the words from page 221, “When we purposefully practice gratitude, we are firing positive neurons.” We agreed that a couple of days later, at DENS (our weekly k-8 advisory groups) we would complete a simple gratitude activity mentioned in the chapter. Each student would write down something at school for which she is grateful. Then, we would post all the papers on a gratitude board in the hall.

Well, I’d forgotten that I was not going to be at school that Friday. Also, I forgot to prepare the activity (oops, too busy for my own good sometimes). Turns out, there were a number of other staff absences so we canceled DENS altogether that day. So, with this reprieve in hand, I put off creating the activity for a few more days. The following Friday, I was saved once again by the huge amount of staff absences this time of year; we canceled DENS again.

Finally, this past week, I remembered to create the papers, clear the bulletin board, and make a sign. The papers are simple: 1/3 of a page with lines, the BCS logo, and the words “At BCS, I am grateful for…” Since I had time before a Board meeting, I wrote a memo with the very simple instructions. Friday morning, I handed out the memo and the papers to all of the DENS staff (all teachers, most paras). They handed the papers back to me later in the day. I hung them in a brick-like pattern at the suggestion of Chloe.

All afternoon, students and staff stopped to look at the gratitude wall. No surprises, but I think the cook got the most mentions.

The kicker to all of this is that this week had been one of the toughest all year in terms of student behavior. The gratitude that we started the day with helped us end this hard week on a high note. I guess that all that positive-neuron-firing really works.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Coach for a Principal

This is likely the second to last post about the Waddington initiative. That said, I have learned so much about myself that it seems likely more ideas will surface in the future.

From February 2017 through October 2017, I was a member of Cohort 1, of the Margaret Waddington Leadership Initiative (MWLI), a collaborative effort of the Center for Creative Leadership and the Vermont Principal's Association. This piece is adapted from the reflective writing I produced about the MWLI.
As part of the MWLI, I was given access to a professional leadership coach. Mel reviewed the survey data about me before our first meeting in North Carolina. He came prepared with ideas about my leadership and some resources to help. These notes reflect my thoughts about each of our sessions.

Live coaching meeting with Mel, Greensboro, NC
After a few minutes chatting about our lives, I expected the first coaching session to address my key leadership challenge about coaching teachers or my difficulty dealing with conflict and direct feedback. Instead, Mel caught me off guard with a discussion of my communication style. I had glossed over these results from the Skillscope 360; Mel had not. He told me that my extroversion might be getting in the way of listening. He suggested that I WAIT (think: Why Am I Talking). He gave me chapter 27 from FYI (Lombardo 2009) “Informing.” He suggested that I practice speaking in shorter sounds bites. I wrote in my notes, “How can I communicate more like USA Today rather than the New York Times?” This is summed up in remedy #4 from FYI.
We did talk about giving feedback towards the end of the session. Mel suggested that I sandwich my SBI-style feedback. Start with a statement that shows transparency of my positive intent and finish with an offer to partner with the teacher to work on the issue. Mel gave me copies of FYI  chapter 12 “Conflict Management” and chapter 13 “Confronting Direct Reports” to review. These are closer to the leadership challenge that I had identified, but we spent very little time on them. The session ended leaving me lots to think about.
Coaching call with Mel, 60-minutes
When Mel and I spoke again in May, I was not focusing much on my growth or improvement. I was knee deep in a million things as the school year was winding down. Our conversation seemed forced and not too helpful for me. Mel advised me to communicate my role in building school culture and to be clear about my priorities. He suggested that I share my core values with the staff. Since I do this every August, I was unsure how this was going to be helpful now. We talked about clarifying norms for the staff, the Rules of Engagement between adults. This sounded good.
I spent a fair amount of time on this call talking about the hiring situation. Three veteran teachers had recently given notice that they would not return. One was a surprise, the other two had been looking for years.
In a follow-up email, Mel sent me a sample of Rules of Engagement from a school that consulted with in the past and wished me well in the hiring.
Coaching call with Mel, 30-minutes
What a difference summer vacation makes. This call was much more productive for me. Of course, I’d had a couple of small family vacations, time away from school, and the second face-to-face Waddington session. We talked a bunch about the opening faculty meeting that was working on at the time. We talked again about keeping things brief, “identify the headline and three or four ideas.” He reminded me that, “the introverts need time to reflect on the documents.” The piece of advice I latched onto was to use short stories to help folks remember the main points. I took this advice to heart when I introduced my User’s Manual with the generator story a few days later.
We talked for a few minutes about managing conflict. Mel sent me a document called Constructive Responses to Conflict to use when confronting poor performers. In this model, there are two main categories: active and passive. Active responses include Perspective Taking, Creating Solutions, Expressing Emotions, and Reaching Out. The passive responses are Reflective Thinking, Delay Responding, and Adapting. The idea here is to use the best response for the situation. I have been working through these ideas throughout the year and trying to remember to think through what kind of response I need to use.
Finally, Mel reminded me of the importance of DAC. Specifically, Mel stressed the approach of affirming the vision (Direction) and connecting the dots for people so that they can see how their efforts tie in to the vision. This will increase a sense of urgency and Commitment. In the run up to the start of the school year, my own sense of urgency and commitment was at much better level, and this call was a good one.
Coaching call with Mel,30-minutes
Our final coaching call was another good one. We reviewed the work we’d done together since March. The key ideas have been: brevity in communication, more transparency helps subordinates feel comfortable, and some ability to be vulnerable and humble are key to effective leadership.
Another important leadership strategy took up the rest of the call. Mel referred to the concept of situational leadership. This is the idea that a leader needs to use different strategies depending on the person being supervised. I wrote in my notes, “A veteran will need some guidance and support while a newbie might need more direction.” This reminds me of the framework for supervision and coaching that Pete Hall (2008) writes about in Building Teachers' Capacity for Success. Situational Leadership and Hall’s book play roles in my approach to coaching that has become central to by Key Leadership Challenge.
After these hours of coaching, I think that the real benefit for me might have come with further sessions. I was just getting started with Mel. In time, I may seek out more opportunities to be coached.

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