Capitalists and school administrators

Providers of educational training and materials sell products. I understand that. They are businesses.

What I don’t understand is how educational administrators know what to purchase without a definition of what it means to be educated? For example, here is an Education Week advertisement for “The Evolving Role of the School Leader” (a free webinar on March 19, 2015):

The role of the school leader has never been more important or more challenging . . . Successful principals embrace and fully understand the vision and direction of the system, empower staff to collaboratively raise the achievement of all students, and build the instructional focus at every level of the organization.

How do educators know if this webinar is worth their time, if they don’t have a clear definition of what it means to be educated? Without a clear definition, how does anyone know if the webinar is worth their time?

According to the first sentence, school leadership is important and difficult. According to the last sentence, it involves: (1) understanding the system’s mission, (2) empowering staff to raise student achievement (which really means test scores), (3) building an instructional focus into every level of the organization (which really means emphasizing higher test scores).

But there is more to be learned, so administrators should attend the webinar to discover the rest. Providers of training and  materials make money by convincing administrators that their work is difficult AND complicated. In this case, practicing administrators should hear the lessons learned by others who accomplished difficult things in their schools.

So, the advertisement goes on:

Join Phee Simpson, Mike Oliver, and Sue Gendron (moderator) in a discussion of successful school leadership and Q&A centered on the challenges they have faced and the solutions they have implemented in their schools.

I did not attend, but I know what they said. They described difficult situations created by ignorance, intellectual incompetence, weakness, fear of truth, pride and selfishness. Then they described how understanding, imagination, strength, courage, humility and generosity made things better.

In spite of what providers of goods and services tell administrators, leading schools is difficult, but it is not complicated or expensive.

Although I am right, I am irrelevant

Richard Elmore recently edited a book entitled, I used to think, and now I think. Twenty well known educators wrote essays on this topic. I was struck by the ridiculousness of what they used to think, and the common sense of what they now think. In other words, they used to think what they were taught within the social science paradigm for school improvement. Now they simply use common sense and experience, when they look at school improvement.

Here is my personal IUTTANIT:

Like many education professors, I used to believe:

  1. Good teaching cannot be defined, so we describe it in hundreds of ways, hoping aspiring teachers learn something from those descriptions.
  2. Good teaching produces test scores that are better than the ones students would have gotten with less “effective” teaching. (Teaching is an applied social science.)
  3. Teachers should be held accountable for the development of student knowledge and skill. Student test scores are the bottom line.
  4. Our beliefs about education should be based on “research-based” facts and reason because those are the “best” beliefs.

Now that I am wiser, I believe the opposite:

  1. Good teaching can be defined. A definition says what something always is and what it never is. Good teaching always involves understanding, imagination, strong character, courage, humility and generosity. It never involves ignorance, intellectual incompetence, weakness, fear of truth, pride, or selfishness. It is difficult to be a good teacher, but it is not complicated.
  2. Good teaching starts with teacher appreciation for the subject and students. It ends with student appreciation for the lessons and teacher. (Teaching is an art.)
  3. Knowledge and skills are not “measured” by standardized tests. Test results are not points on a ruler, they are like light switches that are either “on” or “off.” Therefore, teachers should be held accountable for modeling and teaching the six virtues that lead to knowledge and skills. They are easy to observe. No standardized tests needed.
  4. Beliefs are based on experiences, not facts and reason. All of us “just believe” many things. An example is those who just believe that “beliefs should be based on facts and reason.”

Nobody believes what I believe. So, although I am right, I am irrelevant.  I love irony.

Teacher and student surprise each other

Guest blog by Stephanie Shaw
Low Incidence Support Teacher, Wake County Public Schools

Last year our district enrolled an autistic student from another state. This student (who I will call John) arrived with an individual education plan (IEP) that described aggressive behaviors and a boy with no communication system. To be specific John would bite and latch on. He had injured staff and students in his previous school district. His program was so restrictive that they provided two behavior assistants. The staff who worked with John wore Kevlar sleeves to limit the damage if John did bite.

Developing a program for John required creativity on the part of our district. We needed to find a classroom and a teacher. We have a team of home/hospital teachers and it was determined that one of them would be John’s teacher. The selected teacher was unhappy and scared about her new assignment.

Our district provided comparable services — 2 extra adult assistants and Kevlar sleeves for all staff. Surprisingly, John made a successful transition. He tried to bite on a few occasions but the staff was prepared and no one was injured. The teacher ably taught John to use a visual communication system, which alleviated some of his frustrations. After 3 months the district was able to remove one of the assistants.

Another surprise was that the teacher became fond of John. She discovered and talked often of his sense of humor and intelligence. Now that he was learning to communicate, he was also able to participate in more academic activities. The teacher enjoyed teaching John far more than she ever thought she would.

This is a good example of a teacher’s courage. Although she was afraid and did not want to teach John she put on her Kevlar sleeves, did what was right and taught him. Along the way she grew to like him, and she successfully taught him to communicate.

At the end of the school year she called me and told me I was right when she didn’t want to teach John and I had said to her, “This is an opportunity for professional growth.”

Teacher earns respect, leads others

Guest Blog by Nathan Kottlowski

Computer Lab Teacher, Cash Elementary School, Kernersville, NC

During the 2008-2009 school year we used Accelerated Reader (AR) to monitor student reading in Grades 1 – 5. In the fall of 2009, however, we discontinued AR because it was out of step with our reading goals. Whole reading became our focus, so reading quizzes were less desirable than assessments of fluency and vocabulary.

Maureen Patti was hired as a third grade teacher in 2008. She had taught 15 years in the private setting and she was very enthusiastic about reading. She was very disappointed that we dropped AR without an alternative. We looked at several replacement programs, but nothing was within our budget and in line with our reading goals.

Ms. Patti’s former school used Reading Naturally, a comprehensive reading program incorporating reading fluency, vocabulary, retell, comprehension, and assessments. She had seen it work in a small, Catholic school, and she felt it could supplement our online computer reading program.

Because I am the technology facilitator, she approached me in the fall of 2009. She wanted me to help her receive permission to purchase a Reading Naturally classroom license for her students. We had to talk to the principal, work through a grant proposal for funds, and get permission from the district office.

In spring, 2010, Read Naturally was installed on four of her classroom computers. In the fall of 2010, it was clear that her students were improving, and the other third grade teachers noticed. With the leadership of Ms. Patti and the support of the principal, we eventually got a school license. But this did not happen until she had grant money in hand and district approval.

In fall, 2011, third and fourth grade students used Read Naturally in both their classrooms and computer labs. All the teachers found that the program improved student reading.

I admire Ms. Patti’s leadership in this endeavor. It took a lot of courage as a new teacher in our school to persist and make this happen for our students. She put in a lot of time and energy to make sure all the paperwork and protocols were properly approved. Her attitude never wavered during the whole process, even when barriers and red tape seemed to get in the way.

I also admire Ms. Patti’s tenacity. She often finds things to help her students grow academically and emotionally. Her students respect her for her caring, but also for her expectations of them. She holds them accountable and they respond. Finally, her work in our school has influenced others, too. The new norm is for teachers to continually search for strategies that will benefit our students.

Community rallies with strength & generosity

Guest blog by Mick Galloway

Assistant Principal, Brevard High School

In 2008 I was asked to chair the Relay for Life fundraiser at our school. Being a coach, father of 3, husband and teacher I was reluctant to commit to another duty. But this cause was personal to me. My mother lost her life to ovarian cancer a couple years before.

Teaching at a small, K-5 school in a rural community, during tough economic times, I knew it would be a challenge to raise funds. I had to engage my students for this event to take-off. Therefore, I allowed the students to come up with an idea of what they would like to see me do if we met our goal for the fundraiser, which I set at $10,000.00.

The students tossed around several ideas and came up with the idea that I had to sleep on the roof of the school, if the $10,000 goal was met. This idea was published throughout the school community.

As funds started rolling in and people became involved, a local business agreed to match what the school raised. Amazingly, this small community rallied behind this cause and we surpassed our goal. We raised the most of any business or organization in our county despite being the smallest of nine schools.

I was humbled by the generosity and compassion of our students, staff and community. True to my word on the night of our May Day festival, I slept on the roof of the school. My principal even agreed to stay with me due to the overwhelming response by our community. We spent all night on that roof talking about education issues, politics and of course sports. We even had parents coming by at 2 am to check on us and bring coffee.

This was one of the most rewarding experiences during my 20 years in education. I learned to never lower my expectations and always aim high no matter what situation we are in.

Humility is the key virtue

Guest blog by John McDaris

Assistant Principal

Like others enrolled in the WCU MSA program, I am pursuing school administration because I want to impact the education of young people beyond my classroom. My classmates’ sharings have given me insights into how I should be growing into this next stage of my educational career.

That said, one of the resources that has had the most profound impact on me is The Six Virtues of the Educated Person. This text offers an alternative model of education that is based on the idea that we ought to emphasize virtue development in schools. And it seems to me that the key virtue is humility.

Lately I have been thinking about this every day. I realize there are many humble administrators, and I am fortunate to work with two of them. They always go above and beyond the call of duty to do whatever it takes for our school to be excellent. They pick up trash, organize events, and perform countless other tasks because they know everything about the school reflects on our students, faculty, staff, and community. Humble administrators do it, not for the glory, but for the benefit of everyone.

The humility I see in my colleagues inspires me every day to do all I can for the school. I would not be able to look at all of this the same way without recognizing the role that humility plays within the framework of the six virtues.

I am grateful to Dr. Hurley for having the courage to write such a different kind of book on education and to share it with us. Every day I see that people who demonstrate these virtues make their schools better. These are the virtues we all should be modeling.


Virtuous rapping

Guest blog by Jennifer Mullis

“I am blessed and highly favored!” is what teachers at my school say when we question why things happen to us. It is our way of saying, “I have no clue, but I’m sure God has a plan for it.”

This year I became “blessed” when a large group of students decided to congregate right outside my classroom door – in the front lobby of the school. This is where they do “rap battles” every morning. This display of imagination is not appreciated by our administration, especially when it gets loud or vulgar. After all, this is not the first thing they want community members to hear upon entering the school.

Many of the rappers are gang members. When rapping battles started happening teachers and the resource officer gathered to be sure a fight was not imminent. Once they realized what was happening, they let it go.

I enjoyed their creative work, so I told them, “Clean it up, and I won’t break it up.”

That was my position until administrators told me I HAD to break it up. I felt I was being asked to squelch the students’ favorite pastime – one in which they were demonstrating high levels of imagination.

When I asked if we could have vulgarity-free Rap Battles during the lunch/free period, I was given a solid, “No.” Administrators feared that this would “feed” the lobby gatherings in the morning.

I understand that rapping sounds “Ghetto” to many people. And when students get loud and whoop and holler, it sounds like they are creating trouble. On the other hand, shouldn’t we encourage it when students exercise imagination as they challenge each other to be strong and courageous in “Rap Battles?” Isn’t their word play something we should encourage?

The vocabulary displayed by these students astounds many teachers. We may think “rapping” students look or act uncouth, but they may be demonstrating imagination, strength and courage.

As all of this played out in the front lobby, I recruited some of the rappers into the Future Business Leaders of America. I wanted them to have the opportunity to use their courage and creativity in ways that could improve their lives after graduation.

Life lessons in PE class

Guest Blog by Dustin Kerley

PE Teacher, Watauga HS, Boone, NC

I started my current job in November, 2009. I had previously been substituting and working in interim positions. I was happy to finally have a permanent position, but I knew that, by starting mid-semester it would be difficult because students had been following a different teacher’s routine since August.

When I received my schedule I learned that I would be teaching Leisure Skills, which is an adaptive PE class for students with disabilities. To say that I was nervous would be an understatement. The principal ensured me that I would have plenty of help with the class. My “help” included several special education assistants and a few “student helpers.” I had eight EC students enrolled in the class and six student helpers.

I was unsure of what activities these students could perform, but I was blown away by the strong character of my student helpers and adult assistants. They stepped in whenever they could help.

Routine is very important for adaptive PE students. I knew that they had been doing certain activities since August, so I was careful not to “rock the boat.” The activities included going to a local pool to swim, and going to our local wellness center to walk and exercise. I was amazed when watching these student helpers assist the other students. They were caring, patient, and understanding.

When we went to the pool the student helpers “jumped right in” to demonstrate techniques and have a little fun too. When we went to the wellness center the helpers led workout routines that made use of multiple pieces of equipment and strategies.

It was rewarding to watch high school student helpers demonstrate imagination and creativity as they related to our special needs students. Watching them demonstrate understanding, humility, and patience taught me how to interact and communicate with all my students.

I continued to teach this class for two more years. I became more comfortable, but I learned to choose student helpers who have generosity and humility, like those who helped me the first semester. Those students not only helped the special needs students, but they also had a huge impact on my life as well.

Six virtues everywhere

Guest blog by Jennifer Buckley

HS Special Education Teacher

Guilford County Schools

I tried to think of when I witnessed the six virtues in my school because I wanted to write about a specific event. Then I realized my colleagues demonstrate the virtues all the time.

We had a faculty meeting last week about test scores, changes to teacher tenure, and the new teacher contracts. I looked around and saw frustration and defeat on the faces of my colleagues. They work hard to provide students with the knowledge and skill needed to be successful; but year after year they get stepped on by the elected officials who are supposed to represent them. Teachers aren’t acknowledged for what they do. Instead, they are penalized as they participate in a flawed system in which they have no say.

Still, day after day these teachers come back to do their best with students. They come back to teach them, nurture them, discipline them, and love them. If that is not strength and courage, what is? Many stay after school, create imaginative lessons, plan curriculum and encourage students on a daily basis. They think and solve problems on the fly, they have to learn how to deal with all kinds of people, being sensitive to a variety of issues and problems. Is that not imagination?

Teachers give of themselves all the time. They buy supplies, food, and clothes for students. The time that it takes to help students, go to meetings, and serve on committees is another act of generosity.

Times are tough for educators right now. There are many reasons they are tempted to leave the profession, but they stay.  The six virtues are represented everyday by the teachers with whom I work.

Teenage generosity

Guest blog by Ryan Chandler

Social Studies Teacher

Jesse C. Carson HS, Rowan-Salisbury Schools, NC

Many adults believe high school students are self-absorbed and care only about themselves. I had a recent experience that shows the other side of adolescence. My story is about student generosity.

At the beginning of November, the mother of one of my students was hospitalized. Not long afterward, she passed away.

Once students heard about the mother’s passing, they told me they wanted to do something for their classmate. I thought it was a wonderful idea.

What happened the next few days blew my mind. I could not have been more proud of this class. For several days they took up collections. They even asked students from their other classes to contribute.

I was amazed at how generous the students were, and I know their classmate appreciated it. This also brought my class closer together as they shared their concern for the well-being of another student. It showed me that high schoolers care about others, too.