Reflections: Starting Year Two as an Administrator

Tomorrow, staff return. Next week, the students. As I prepare for my second year as an administrator (assistant principal at an elementary school), I’ve been looking back on year one. What went well? What didn’t? What do I want to keep doing? What do I need to pay more attention to? Three things came to mind.

1. Being in Classrooms

This went pretty well. I tried to get into as many classrooms as I could each day. Even if just for a minute. Teachers and students got used to me popping in when I was “in the neighborhood.” Some days I got to all of them, other days none. I also tried to use errands as a way to get into classrooms – if I had to go to the gym I’d try to swing by a few classes on my way there/back.

This year, I want to see more. I’d like to try to carve out an hour a day in my calendar (between other less-flexible things) to be in classrooms. I’ll still shoot for every classroom, every day – that has to be the goal.

2. My “Peers”

I had been warned by many that being an administrator is isolating, and I thought I was prepared. By January I realized that I wasn’t quite as prepared as I thought. Sure, I had a few key people to bounce ideas off, but the large peer group I had as a teacher simply didn’t exist anymore. And as things got busy, I neglected my online peers (losing touch with twitter and my blog – which serve as place for reflection and hashing out ideas). And my hour-long commute didn’t help any either.

This year, I need to get back to this blog. And back on Twitter. They are ways for me to reflect as well as connect with other educators. Without the large default peer group I had as a teacher I need to put some directed energy into creating/maintaining one.

3. Exercise

Between the craziness of administration and my hour-long commute exercise took a back seat. I saw it happening, but had a hard time getting my routines back. In February I signed up for a May marathon (not my first, I’ve run many, and I can’t advise running your first marathon in your first year as an administrator). It helped give me a goal and helped me get back into a routine. Marathons are hard enough, I wasn’t about to put myself in a position to start the race unprepared.

Did I get every workout in exactly as planned? No, but I was able to look at my calendar every Sunday night and map out my training for the week. Move a workout here and there, cancel a run all together from time to time. But knowing raceday was coming kept me out on the roads (marathon training isn’t something you can fake or cram in at the end).

This year, I need to take care of myself a little better in the fall. Running is an important part of my routine (physically and mentally) and no one benefits if I neglect it. Looking at my calendar and planning each week of workouts seemed to work.

Looking Forward

I’m looking forward to year two. I know the staff and the school in ways I couldn’t have coming in to year one. I’ve identified some stuff to tweak and some stuff to keep doing. It’s going to go well. And I’ve moved closer to school; I should get close to an hour a day of my life back. That will help in a variety of areas.

Photo credit: Ben Schersten

Google and Schools

Yesterday I had the opportunity do attend a teacher PD day at the Google offices in Cambridge, MA. At the end of the day there was a panel of Googlers and one of the questions was, “what do you like best about working for Google?”

The answers were much what you would expect from a company that is often rated as one of the best places to work. Things like:

  • Great people
  • Being connected to current events
  • A culture of collaboration
  • A job where you get to use your brain every
  • A place where nobody ever says, “I can’t help you, that’s not my job.”

This poses the most obvious question: isn’t this what schools are supposed to be like? 

Seriously, if someone asks your teachers why they like their job shouldn’t this be part of their answer too? And if it’s not, why? And how do you start changing that?

Elementary Homework, Is It Worth It?

Nearly every teacher has some pretty firm thoughts on homework. Most of it is anecdotal though – something like, I had homework and I turned out okay so students today should have the same experience I did. That sounds all well and good (though one could argue that the world is different today so our students’ experience school should also be different), but what does the research say about homework?

origin_2194119780To the Research:

Whenever anyone talks about research on homework it always seems to come back to a meta-analysis done by Harris Cooper in 2006 (he also did one in 1989). If you don’t have practice reading scholarly articles, it’s always tempting to read the abstract in the beginning and call it a day. Harris notes in the abstract:

“…there was generally consistent evidence or a positive influences of homework on achievement.”

Its tempting to just stop there; homework is a good thing. Though in the abstract he also notes that there is “a stronger correlation existed (a) in Grades 7-12 than in K-6 and (b) when students rather than parents reported time on homework.” So, students do a better job of reporting time spent on homework; that makes sense since students are the ones doing the homework. And homework seems to be more effective with older kids.

Sill, we’re left with the impression that homework is good for everyone.

But, the story isn’t over.

If we dig way down into the paper we find correlations for sub-groups. So, with math homework, there is a statistically significant positive correlation; this means that averaged across all grade levels, math homework makes you better at math. With reading this is also true, though to a slightly lesser extent.

It still feels like homework is a good thing for everyone, right?

But, when you separate the data by grade level, things get interesting. For grades 7-12, there is a positive correlation between homework and academic achievement. But for grades K-6, it gets a little murky.

“A significant, though small, negative relationship was found for elementary school students, using fixed-error assumptions, but a non-significant position relationship was found using random-error assumptions.”

What does that mean? It means depending on how you run the data you either get:

  1. Homework correlates with slightly lower academic achievement (small, but big enough that it’s statistically significant), or
  2. Homework correlates with slightly higher academic achievement (but so slight, that it’s not statistically significant – so it doesn’t count).

Yep, I said it (well, Cooper did). Homework in elementary school doesn’t increase academic achievement and might actually decrease it.

origin_12918347633But I Want to Teach My Students Good Study Habits

If you want your students to get in the habit of bringing school-related stuff home every night and bringing it back, that’s fine. I’ve heard many teachers make that argument and in the past I’ve even made it myself. But if that’s your goal, why not send home a piece of paper for parents to date, initial, and send back. You’re still teaching the bring-it-home-and-bring-it-back skill.

But Why Doesn’t Homework Help in Elementary School ?

Harris goes on to note that “younger children are less able … to ignore irrelevant information or stimulation in their environment” and “appear to have less effective study habits.” This shouldn’t be news to anyone who’s worked with young students; elementary students don’t have strong independent study skills when it comes to learning something new – that’s where good teachers come in.

Data Driven Decision Making

So why are we still doing this?

As schools focus more and more on data-driven decision-making (which is a good thing), why aren’t we looking at the data on homework?


Cooper, H., Robinson, C. R., Patel, E. A. “Does Homework Improve Academic Achievement? A Synthesis of Research, 1987-2003.” Review of Educational Research. Vol. 76, No. 1 (2006): pp. 1-62. Print.

photo credit: Cayusa via photopin cc
photo credit: davidmulder61 via photopin cc

Why We Teach

It’s the little things.

She’s in fifth grade now. I had her in third grade. We piloted 1:1 iPads the year she was in my class.

As a fifth grader, she started her year with a Scholastic Extra, Extra, Read All About Me poster (as the fifth graders always do). Her teacher sent me this:

photo (1)

My hero is my 3rd grade teacher Mr. Schersten. He taught me to have fun but do your work at the same time. He also taught us how to sing to his guitar. He is an amazing runner and he is great with ipads. He is the best teacher ever.

To have fun and do your work at the same time. Yea, let’s do that.

It’s the little things.

Is Your School Year Winding Down or Winding Up?

origin_1581482As we head into the final weeks of the school year things start to wind down. Projects are due, and new ones don’t start. We start doing those end-of-year assessments that take us away from our daily and weekly routines. Homework tapers off. We all look forward to the relaxation and routine changes that come with summer vacation. But is this wind down as relaxing for the students as it is for the teachers?

I’ve written before about how students secretly hate vacations, and this certainly applies to summer vacation. For some students, summer is a time of travel and seeing family. For others it mean uncertainty and all-day day care. We all have students who crave the safety and routine that schools provide.

Keep an extra eye on those kids as the year winds down. Those kids look forward to the routine of the Monday morning fluency test in math, the Wednesday reading journal, or the Friday afternoon spelling quiz. Changing your routines may wind those kids up more than anything else. So even if deep down you know your grades are done and that that last week of spelling won’t actually count, consider giving it anyway. That continued routine is exactly what some of your students want (need) in those final weeks. (And you don’t have to tell your students that quiz won’t actually make it into the gradebook.)

photo credit: Ben McLeod via photopin cc

Are You Just a Teacher or a Just Teacher?

origin_497731537Last week I read a blog post by Deborah Mills-Scofield on Switch & Shift called Are You Just a Leader or a Just Leader? Like many of the business leadership blog posts out there, it applies to teaching too. In fact, after reading it, I went back and reread it replacing “leader” with “teacher,” and “people” and “customer” with students. This left me with a great blog post, about management teaching.

Here’s some of the post, through an educator lens:

Being a leader teacher requires taking the right road, not the easy road. Treating our people students fairly requires judgment, subjectivity, and clear communication of expectations and goals on an ongoing basis since the world around us changes all the time. When we treat our people students equally but not fairly, we tell people our students it’s ok to underperform and under contribute undermining the morale of our dedicated and passionate people students and are then surprised when we get mediocre output and outcomes.

What if we modify the culture to recognize people students fairly, based on their work, effort, passion, and results – as individuals and teams? We will be surprised to see the positive difference it will make.

I versus You

…I often ask my corporate educator colleagues if focusing on ‘I’, on themselves, has really gotten them the career satisfaction they sought. As leaders teachers, we need to help our people students focus on the “You” – the customer student, the recipient of our services and products and you the employee. If we honestly ask ourselves who matters more, ‘I’, ourselves or ‘You’ our customers and people students, what is our answer?

A true leader teacher is a servant who leads. So, is the business education about our needs or the needs of ‘others’? Are we really focused on delighting our customers students (to quote my friend Steve Denning), which means we will delight our people students because they are working on meaningful, purposeful solutions to real needs (outcomes) that result revenues and profit (outputs) in learning that can be reinvested in the delighting our customers applied to their lives? Or, are we doing this for the next perk, the accolades from our peers, the prestige from our position? I’m not suggesting total altruism (though that’s not a bad idea!), but I am suggesting we ponder why we’re leading teaching and whom we’re leading teaching – is it about ‘I’ or about ‘You’? Can we really lead teach if it’s about us? Would we want to be led taught by someone who was all about himself? Does our leadership teaching truly reflect our why and who? If someone asked one of our people students who mattered to us, ‘I’ or ‘You’, what would they answer?

As we approach the middle of 2013 spring, ask yourself two questions: do you treat people students equally or fairly (or both) and does your leadership teaching, hence your classroom culture, value ‘You’ over ‘I’?

So, are you a just a teacher or a just teacher?

photo credit: InsideMyShell via photopin cc

A Letter to the Editor: Collegiate Professional Development?

origin_2992013920As an undergraduate sophomore I wrote a (somewhat confrontational) letter to the editor of my college newspaper. Over the past few months it has  to come up more and more so I figured I’d re-release it in the digital age. The letter stemmed out of the frustrating question that many education students find themselves asking, “I spend how much money learning how to teach and spend hours and hours in classes taught by professors who have never had instruction in effective teaching strategies?” Content and pedagogy are not the same.

It was meant to create some uneasiness, be a little indignant, maybe create some conflict. It did. Some (students and professors) loved the letter; others hated it. A teammate of mine had a history professor devote 45 minutes of a 75-minute class to complaining about the letter and it’s author. (Though he never reached out to me – he only complained to his captive audience). Other professors did reach out, always fairly positive. Some asked if the letter was about them (a brave question).

So, here it is.

Dear Editor:

These days it often seems hard to open a newspaper or listen to a news report without running across something about the quality of education in our country.  Or more specifically how it compares to the quality of education in other industrialized nations.  It would seem that as children across the world enter school at the age of 4 or 5, they are at par with each other.  However, as Americans enter middle school we seem to be performing at a lower level than students of other countries.  Following that pattern through high school and college, the gap widens.  So what is going on here?  Well, it would seem that one of two things is happening here: either Americans are genetically less intelligent than the rest of the industrialized world, or we have a problem with the education system in our country.

Well, I don’t believe that Americans are dumb (or at least not inherently dumb), so that makes the issue a systemic one.  So what is happening then?  Even a haphazard observer will notice that in the lower grades, things are working, and that as you approach the 17th year of education (the 4th year of college), things are not working quite so well.  So, then, what is happening in kindergarten and first grade that is not happening in college?  I’ll tell you: teacher education.

In order to be licensed to teach in an elementary classroom, a prospective teacher must complete about 40 credits in the field of education; that is nearly three full time semesters of talking only classes that teach you how to teach.  For junior high and high school, a prospective teacher needs about 30 credits, two semesters, of classes focused on how to teach effectively.  And college?  How much schooling do prospective college professors need, in the subject of teaching, in order to be placed in front of a class?  Zero.  Yes, that’s right, for the $18,615 you paid in tuition this year to go to school, your professors are not required to have any formal education on how to teach a class.  Sure, they need their master’s degree, but in some states you need that to teach at the elementary and secondary school as well (in New York a teacher must receive their master’s degree within five years of when they begin teaching or their license to teach will be revoked).  Moreover, when a person is licensed to teach at an elementary or secondary level, the need to be recertified every so often (every seven years in the state of Vermont).  So not only are these teachers forced to be certified, if they do not continue to educate themselves about the current trends of education, they will no longer be allowed to teach.  

So what this all means is that an 18-year-old, first year student, who has taken one 3-credit education course, who pays money to be here, quite possibly has more idea how to run a classroom than a first year professor with their PhD.  And the professor gets paid.  Granted, there are exceptions; there are wonderful teachers here who just have a knack for teaching.  We all know who those professors are.  But if you have ever sat in a class and wondered to yourself, or whispered to the person sitting next to you, “this is ridiculous, what is this professor doing?”  Well, they just don’t know any better.

So enough is enough, is there a solution?  Sure, hold our college professors to the same standard that we hold our kindergarten teachers.  What does this mean?  That someone sits down with our professors and gives them some instruction on how to run an effective classroom.  I am sure that you would agree that some professors would benefit greatly.

I certainly don’t expect every college in the nation to change its ways, but what if Saint Michael’s did?  What if over the summer the school required each professor to come in for a day or two and learn about effective teaching?  Two days won’t kill any professor, but it may save some students who would really benefit from a higher quality learning environment.  And furthermore, how valuable would it be for Saint Michael’s College to be able to say to prospective students, that our professors (and not the professors or our competing schools) are given some formal education on how to teach effectively.  They’re not just people with PhD’s.  They’re quality teachers.  With nothing to loose, and so much to gain, why are we all still forced to endure the professor(s) who can’t teach?  I don’t know either.

-Ben Schersten

Again, there are some amazing educators out there who haven’t had any formal training in effective instruction. But I still have to ask (nearly 15 years later), what would happen if colleges and universities started having mandatory professional development on instructional practices?

photo credit: tanakawho via photopin cc