Saturday, December 27, 2008

Has your school done its "hiring self-study" yet?

The hiring season is about to begin, and there is no better time than the first weeks after the holiday break is over for schools to undertake what I call the "hiring self-study." This is a chance for the principal actors in the school's hiring process to sit down and do a bit of big-picture pre-reflection on the season to come.

Rather than concentrating on the individual positions to be filled, the hiring self-study should address "essential questions," such as "What kinds of teachers have succeeded here?" and "What are some of the needs of the school community that the hiring season gives us an opportunity to address?" If the school has undertaken exit interviews with departing faculty in the past few years, this is a great time to pull out the data from these and ponder aspects of school culture that have come up in those interviews. (It is to be hoped that this data has been looked at previously, in the broader context of examining school culture.) It's a great time to do some "blue sky" imagining around possibilities that are congruent with strategic aims but not necessarily on the immediate radar--global studies or green initiatives, perhaps, or ramping up a service program. Like curriculum work, hiring is very much about mission and values, and now is the time to consider who these might play out or be furthered by the cohort of new teachers.

It's almost always a good idea to include issues of diversity in this process; the best time to make an internal commitment to certain goals in the process is before the actual recruiting begins. The "self-study" might also include a thoughtful critique of past recruiting campaigns and some brainstorming on better approaches.

It might not be a bad time to review the materials the school uses to recruit, from its "employment at" webpages to the boilerplate text that accompanies print ads to any kind of printed material that relates to working at the school. The idea is to give prospective candidates as accurate and positive a picture as possible of what it is like to be a member of the school community. Perhaps the school could invite its contacts at teacher placement agencies to come to the campus for a sit-down and a tour, as agency workers with a good knowledge of the school can give candidates the most thoughtful and focused guidance as well as understanding key factors in a making a great match.

Similarly, this is the time to determine how the school will handle internal candidacies--timing of postings, whether or not to offer "courtesy interviews," or how to handle any tricky political issues that can be anticipated.

The last thing that should be included in the hiring self-study is a review of the internal process by which candidates will be contacted and brought in for interviews. How will the paperwork flow, who will be making initial contacts, who will be involved in interviews, and what conditions must be met before an offer can be made? I'm a big fan of centralizing the starting point of the process with a single contact person to whom resumes will be sent from agencies or random applicants and who will be the nominal addressee for inquiries based on advertisements or postings; this reduces the chance that good candidates will be lost in the shuffle or otherwise overlooked.

A couple of years back I presented on "Managing the Hiring Process" at the NAIS Annual Conference. Here is the slideshow from that presentation, which covers the whole process from hiring self-study through induction:

Hope this is useful.


Monday, December 22, 2008

A new era for department heads--Part II

If lack of training and lack of engagement with or understanding of the mission are at the center of administrative frustration with department heads, it must also be acknowledged that classroom teachers report a range of their own frustrations with their middle management “leaders.” Departments may or not be collegial environments, meetings may or may not be productive and enjoyable times, and the sense of direction and expectations may be unclear.

In the some unfortunate cases, unhappy or simply confused department leaders may look at the menu of tasks that have been laid upon their departments, measure the list against what they perceive as their own capacities or the “real” agenda of the school, and quietly pass along to department members permission to disregard any grand administrative directives—just do what you have been doing, is the message; all this talk about curriculum or diversity or strategic direction is just window-dressing that we can safely ignore. In the worst case, the department becomes a kind of bastion against change, engaged in a passive-aggressive campaign against administrative initiatives it regards as fluff or even antithetical to the “real” standards and work of the department.

Solutions to these issues, whether they be just poor performance or active resistance, must address all of the problems that underlie them: the making of thoughtful appointments in the first place, lack of leadership skills, lack of understanding of the school’s strategic directions, and a lack of meaningful authority (often exacerbated by the administration’s actual withdrawal of support as the chair’s performance lags).

This is, unfortunately, a comprehensively deficit-based model of department head development, with culpability shared by the school and the chairs. But it is important to set forth a caveat here that the underperforming department chair may actually have tremendous skill and administrative potential. It may even be that she or he is correct in questioning the school’s commitment to the initiatives that have been passed down to his or her department. In this case the academic administration has its own soul-searching to do, a process that may need to move upstream to the level of head and board if the school is indeed guilty—as most schools are at some point—of enunciating grand principles and grand plans but then continuing business more or less as usual. (I believe the node of contact between principle and practice is currently to be found around a body of ideas and practice I call The New Progressivism; I blog about this here.) This is another matter, for another set of entries.

It is important also to note the difference between leadership and management. Leadership, in the context we are addressing, involves the ability to articulate a purpose and to engage others in working toward that purpose. As such, it usually but not always involves certain skills at management, which is the ability to organize and direct people toward a purpose; leadership requires a certain vision that management does not. It would be well for a department chair to be a leader—indeed, that is what schools claim to expect—but it is imperative that a department chair be at least competent as a manager.

In determining fitness for a department chair position, neither older seniority-based systems nor an enthusiasm to anoint a “young Turk” with creativity and energy guarantee ideal results. The qualities of an effective department leader are deep understanding of and passion for educational issues and the success of children, an ability to offer guidance to members on matters of both content and pedagogy, and some basic management skills (that can be learned). Along with these, however, must come a sophisticated comprehension of and positive engagement with the mission and core values of the school, and schools sometimes neglect to dig deeply into and then reflect on internal (and external) candidates’ fitness in this critical area. Senior teachers may have retreated into their own sometimes skeptical or limited view of the school and its work, and less experienced enthusiasts, no matter how brilliant or energetic, may not fully comprehend the full significance or perhaps just the practical limitations of mission and values.

Leadership may or may not be a teachable quality, but there are certainly things that the school can do to invest in helping department chairs become viable and effective managers. There are innumerable professional development opportunities—workshops, multi-day programs, and even whole courses, face-to-face and on-line—with an excellent track record of helping participants learn how to set agendas, conduct meetings, deepen understanding of curriculum and instructional issues, perform meaningful observations, offer useful and professional-quality feedback to teachers, and provide mentorship to other teachers on issues of pedagogy, curriculum, and assessment. A partial list of great resources would have to include the publications and courses offered by Research for Better Teaching, Steve Clem’s "Eloquent Mirrors" workshops on teacher observation and feedback, the Growing Teachers Institute at Colorado Academy, the many workshops offered by ISM, and David Mallery’s sessions, which are less explicitly focused on skill-development than on helping participants learn to reflect on their work and set their own personal agendas for growth and efficacy. Regional independent schools associations, a few individual schools, and of course the Klingenstein Center at Teachers College are also great sources of leadership-development programs suitable for department chairs.

To engage department chairs in the higher-order work of the school, the first and most obvious step is to find ways to involve these people meaningfully in strategic planning and goal-setting. If school-wide initiatives have the aura of secret plans devised by what a old colleague of mine called “the high muckety-mucks,” the psychic distance between the planners and those who must carry out the work will usually be sufficient to guarantee poor implementation. If the planners equally fail to understand the importance of communicating the value of the work to be done—whether in improved programming, increased efficiency, or even more effective branding and marketing—yet another failure factor is built in.

Thus, strategic planning must first and foremost be an inclusive process and one whose products must be fully and clearly promulgated to the entire school community in a manner that demonstrates the potential value of the work to be undertaken in strategic directions. (Good advice on making strategic plans, or strategic directions, into living documents can be found in NAIS’s The Strategic Process.) Ask department heads into the process from the beginning, and not just into the actual development of the plan but into understanding the rationale for the planning itself and the long-term goals of both the planning and implementation processes; in other words, make a space to treat these “middle managers” as leaders in order to help them internalize and take a stake in the school’s loftiest purposes and aspirations. As with any effective planning process, the frame and touchstone for this work must be the mission and values of the school.

Proactive efforts to engage department chairs in serious work should not end with the publication of a strategic plan. They must be both consulted and included regularly and authentically in both the work of advancing the strategic directions and assessing and reflecting on all aspects of their work as leaders in curriculum and instruction. Rather than simply being given regular marching orders or asked into certain discussions as token presences, effective department chairs are able to speak to their work and the work of the school from positions of knowledge of and belief in the aims of this work. This becomes work that they relish doing, because it represents high-level collaboration; because it draws upon their best skills, ideas, and experience; and because they are acknowledged and appreciated for their professional and personal qualities. These qualities can also be enhanced by encouraging department chairs to participate in professional communities, whether as members of organizations like the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) or by participating in discipline-related groups.

Chosen wisely, trained in essential skills, and included and invested in the high-level work of the school, department chairs at their best have no issues around their own authority because they possess both the competence and the confidence to move forward with their work as leaders and managers without the feelings of uncertainty or disengagement that are the root causes of the ineffective work referred to in the beginning of Part I of this essay. They will be better guides and mentors for their teachers, cannier thinkers about curriculum and program, and more circumspect participants in discussions, formal and informal, of the school, its role, its challenges, and its future.


Thursday, December 11, 2008

A new era for department heads--Part I

Wherever academic deans, division heads, assistant heads, and other academic administrators gather, one theme of private discussion is likely to be frustration with department heads. Department chairs, it seems, are everywhere bodies of resistant, petty, disinterested so-called leaders who are in fact unwilling to lead and seemingly immune to anything like new ideas and lofty concepts of professionalism, even if they themselves are fine teachers and the ideas they are being asked to embrace self-evidently good for the school and its students. Why the resistance? Why the seemingly willful rejection of notions of professionalism?

What is troubling is that the answers to these questions are clear and comprehensible, and everyone knows them. Department heads in most schools are in fact being asked to do new work, under new conditions of accountability, with little or no formal training and even less recognition of all the dynamics at work in making their lives challenging. Work that was once securely in the hands of heads of school—who had taken on these challenges willingly and for appropriate rewards—has now devolved onto “academic administrators,” who have in turn passed ever-larger chunks of this work off to department heads whose training and expertise as “managers” has come from—where?

For the most part risen teachers themselves, most academic administrators are depending on on-the-job training for their own growth as managers and supervisors; although there are increasing numbers of workshops and seminars where these people can gain expertise, the numbers suggest the primacy of OJT as the way in which most of such people scramble up the learning curve. While it is entirely logical and organizationally sound that they in turn should enlist department chairs to participate in carrying out the strategic work of the school—including teacher evaluation and curriculum initiatives—the situation becomes one of the fairly competent (even if brilliant and wise) asking the utterly unprepared to share their burdens. Often enough the administrators actually see this as a way of giving a vote of confidence to the department chairs, to enlist them in “big picture” work in a way that is sincerely intended to honor and even reward their expertise and experience.

The department head in our time is perhaps not unjustified in feeling as though the rug has been pulled out from under her or him, just when administrators are sure that asking the chair to “step up” is the most sincere form of compliment. Instead, the chair, once occupying a sinecure that even tenured college professors might have envied, feels threatened and devalued just when her or his superiors believe they are offering changes in responsibility that will lead to an increased sense of competence, authority, and professionalism.

That this quandary seems to be nearly universal in independent schools ought to be a cause for alarm. The issue, I believe, demands serious attention as well as an honest analysis of the issues that underlie the problem. For some reason we have not done a very good job of investigating the sources of the challenge, which seem simple and clear enough when one stops to think about them, and because of this we have not always set about addressing them as intelligently and as effectively as we might.

The “solution” is complex, probably time consuming, and potentially expensive. In the end it involves serious training and in fact some serious examination of schools’ fundamental personnel practices and the ways in which teachers are vetted and primed for leadership roles. It also involves an acknowledgment of the ways in which schools are and are not “businesses” and of the ways in which values must drive the work of educators.

But department heads can be redeemed as “middle managers” and more significantly as real academic leaders. There are ways to bring chairs into common cause with administrators and to infuse their work with possibilities of satisfaction and professionalism of which they had not conceived. All of this work can make schools better and the experiences of their students more rich, more meaningful, and more inspiring.

In a future post we will talk about the solution. In the meantime, readers are invited to share their own thoughts on this issue in our "Comments" section.


Sunday, November 30, 2008

Teachers and Change--Part II

In my previous post I suggested that a part of teachers' notorious reluctance to embrace change in their schools and in their practice comes from having experienced a surfeit of "new ideas" and initiatives that have meant a great deal of professional sound and fury--workshops, seminars, committees, planning sessions, new lingo, new gadgets--but that have in the end signified little in terms of real, substantive school change. There has been a whole lot of stress, in other words, but often very little to show for it.

Not to contradict myself, but I think that in many ways this explanation is too easy, even a cop-out. "We tried this back in 1985, and it didn't work," or "We heard this all before when they told us that [name the practice or idea] was going to change everything, but we're still pretty much doing the same old thing; somehow it just disappeared, or the administration just forgot about it" are too glib, too simple. Sadly, excuses of this nature allow teachers to sell themselves short by positioning themselves as passive-aggressive warriors (!) standing firm against the ill-considered whims of administrators and educational thinkers. At its worst, it's a pathetic stance.

The other day a teacher returning from an exciting presentation by one of the foremost gurus of our time complained to me, "Why don't the administrators ever talk about this stuff when it's over?" It is a fair question, and one that demands an answer if we are to understand the relationship between teachers and change clearly.

Like teachers (which many of them once were), administrators are besieged by good ideas; because their work often requires delving into professional literature and discourse, administrators are probably exposed to even more of them. They, too, have memories of guaranteed paradigm shifts that never happened and painful, fizzled experiments in their classrooms and their schools.

To bring a powerful new idea back into a school and to sustain discussion of it presupposes the presence of a number of relatively unlikely circumstances. One is that there is a critical mass of people within the school that know about and understand the concept to start with. The second is that there exists the likelihood that a groundswell of interest and support will keep the concept moving forward. And finally, the idea, whatever it is, must be consonant with well-understood and agreed-upon ideas of the school's own mission and values; it is especially important that the school's governing body could be conceived of as seeing an organic, natural relationship between the new idea and the ideals and identity of the school.

Another friend suggested to me this week that in the past four decades there have only been a handful of true paradigm shifts with the force to engage (and to frighten, it must be acknowledged) all independent school educators. The first of these is the movement that can be described in most general terms as being about diversity and multiculturalism. The second relates to the whole matter of learning styles and learning differences. The third, just emerging but potentially the grand-daddy of them all, is the impact of technology, in particular "Web 2.0" in all its manifestations, on the way we think about curriculum and the role of schools.

Multicultural education and increasingly diverse educational settings have demanded that an overwhelmingly white independent school population of teachers to think in new ways not just about daily practice and relationships with students but about themselves, and about their role in a society characterized by a history of racism and the granting of unearned privilege to people in certain categories. The challenge of the work for many teachers has been to keep their own understanding evolving as theory becomes more sophisticated in an endless but necessary course of soul-searching and self-education. Those of us who were told in the 70s that "color-blindness" was the key have had to learn that acknowledging and understanding difference is truly the path toward understanding and efficacy, for example, and that becoming that "all-terrain" teacher is hard work that has no end. As even the most conservative of schools took on the challenges of becoming more inclusive and diverse, teachers could not in the end resist this change.

In some schools there has never been an aversion to acknowledging that students' minds come in many flavors, but in many established independent schools teachers have struggled with the notion that some students might learn differently not because they are lazy or stupid but rather because they are wired differently. When issues of learning style or accommodation were first raised in such schools, there was often a sense of disappoint or failure--that somehow that school's "greatness," as reflected in the intellectual quality of its students as measured by traditional standards such as college or next-school lists and standardized test scores, was threatened, or lost. Teachers were often quick to blame the administration or the admission office for "lowering standards," for admitting students whose need for extended-time testing or extra help was a sure sign of their deficiency and the admission office's lazy willingness to "accept anyone" in return for suspect pay-offs--athletic skill, perhaps, or development potential. It has been hard work for leaders in schools undergoing this transformation--or rather, doing the hard but necessary work of understanding the nature of intelligence and the complex business of learning and thinking--to give faculty first the understanding and then the tools for working in "cognitively diverse" classrooms. Of course, classrooms have been cognitively diverse all along, but what was missing was schools' and teachers' commitment to learning how to help ALL students succeed and not being satisfied that a bell-curve grade distribution represented a kind of natural educational morality.

The latest disruption in teachers' working lives seems to be coming from the role that new technologies can play in teaching and learning. The educational blogosphere is abuzz with commentary, for example, on the brilliant and controversial insights of Clayton Christensen and company in their 2008 book Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. Within a very few years, Christensen and his fellow authors say, schools will have moved to learning models in which curriculum and instruction is drawn largely from highly customized online sources. Schools will be very different places, and the role of teachers will be very different, too. Teachers will have to embrace the new paradigm, and there will no longer be places for those who do not or cannot do so.

(I might add that I love what Disrupting Class has to say, as in many ways its thesis and content support the "New Progressivism" ideology that I have espoused for some time, and it suggests how the equally disruptive ideas of Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind can become not just aspects of but the basis for real educational practice. But I digress.)

Here are changes that teachers have largely been unable to ignore or resist, regardless of the nature of the schools in which they might work. When it comes to changes that matter, and that truly benefit students, even the most jaded teachers are likely to come around in time; if they don't or can't, they leave the profession one way or another. I'm not so naive as not to know that readers are thinking of a teacher or two in their own schools who are still unreconstructed on these matters, but for the most part the resisters have either gone or have so marginalized themselves within schools (who should be finding ways to either help or remove them, because they truly are dead weight that harms kids) as to be functionally invisible.

The answer to the original question, Why are teachers so reluctant to change? seems relatively simple, but the power of simple answers is always in their essence. Teachers can and will change when the new ideas and ways they are being asked to embrace are absolutely and fundamentally connected with serving their students in ways that are profoundly better. Change is no harder and no easier for teachers as a group than for any other slice of humanity, which history shows us has been extraordinarily slow to give up such things as slavery, sexism, capital punishment, and war.

The challenge for administrators, educational thinkers, and other would-be agents or cheerleaders of change is to connect the "new" approach, whatever it might be, with fundamental values and fundamental value, and then to work like crazy to see that the message is never lost and that the training, reflection, and professional conversations through which teachers process change in their professions (as they process change in their personal lives by sustained conversation and reflection) never end and are never diverted from the primary purpose of helping teachers accomplish hard things--hard things, yes, but great things!

In the end, ineffective ideas and clearly outmoded ways cannot resist good ideas. Even the best of those "great ideas" that I once pushed so hard but saw being ignored wound up taking root, not because or in the ways I espoused them but rather in better ways, mediated by the daily work and earnest reflection of teachers themselves.

What we cannot forget is that teachers tend to be born optimists who believe in children far more deeply than they believe in schools or educational ideologies. When ideas come along that are good for those children, teachers will, in time, accept, embrace, and then incorporate those ideas, not to please enthusiastic administrators but to serve their students.


Saturday, November 22, 2008

Teachers and Change--Part I

Wherever people who see themselves as innovators or who are indeed designated agents of change gather, there's always talk of how resistant teachers are to change. Whether they are tech people charged with bringing a school full of teachers into the next, or rather the current, millennium, or whether they are administrators filled with the zeal of curriculum or assessment reform, the chatter--some of it not very sympathetic--is about how teachers' reluctance to incorporate new ideas and new ways into their practice is "hurting kids." Why, the question is asked, can't teachers see that the new way will be better, and that in the end it might even make their lives easier?

I spent fifteen years as a teacher-leader and then an administrator working to promote fundamental change in our own faculty, and in my work with other schools change of some sort is almost always at least a subtext of what I might have to say about professional culture or curriculum. I can say with embarrassed assurance that I too have shaken my head and probably banged my fist over the apparent conservatism of my peers as they dragged their feet in implementing great ideas that would indeed have served kids better, improved teaching, and in the end even made their work just a tiny bit easier. I'm not proud of all my past behavior in that regard, and over the years I have tried to think long and hard about change in schools.

Let us be clear: I like change, but what I am trying to do here is think out loud about why so many teachers seem not to. The sad part is that this conversation echoes what so many people in American society at large seem to think about teachers in general: that they, particularly the ones in public schools, are a vast monolith, nice enough in their way as individuals but collectively committed by their politically powerful unions to an hysterical defense of the status quo. Not only do these people have their summers off, but they also refuse to make important changes--i.e., to revert to the ancient practices and rigorous standards that would instantly make our schools what they were 60 years ago. Whichever the type of change teachers are reluctant to make, they're seen as wrong: reject traditional ideas, bad; reject progressive ideas, equally bad.

The careful reader will have noted in the second paragraph above the lethal phrase "great ideas," and therein lies the rub. By the time the average teacher enters the second decade of a career, he or she will have heard or read about so many great ideas about teaching, learning, and curriculum that his or her head ought to be spinning madly. Much has been written about the educational research or its lack, but the sum total of all the breakthrough ideas in education in the past twenty or thirty years, plotted on a continuum of "this way is better than that way" might be close to zero; for every new idea about pedagogy that demonstrates that student-centered teaching is better, along comes a study of the KIPP schools that proves the absolute superiority of direct instruction. My mailbox fills up each month with printed magazines that tout the value of computer-based instruction, but I can read dozens of blogs on line whose theme is worry that printed text is dead and that children are becoming stupider by the day in a digitally driven world. Whole language, or phonics? Math wars, anyone?

While the scholars, gurus, and school administrators with enough time and need to "keep up with the profession" consume their journals and blogs, classroom teachers barely have time to teach their classes, evaluate their students' work, and plan their next set of assignments. Where these tasks are no longer done in isolation for an audience of the teacher and his or her students only, there is the added anxiety of doing in semi-public what teachers long did in private; on-line gradebooks, assignments, and class notes add elements of external review to these aspects of practice, and the slowly evolving trend toward more professional conversations in school forces a new level of intentionality upon teachers' work. For many teachers, even these seemingly innocuous structural changes are difficult enough. Toss in the long-overdue movement toward consistent and thorough teacher evaluation, and it's not too hard to see those elements of change in the landscape of teaching that dismay many teachers when even more "great ideas" appear on the agenda. They know they will be held accountable in the end, but in the beginning they are scarcely able to see what it is that they are supposed to do, much less understand how to do it well. As one frantic teacher once said to me in a meeting, "What's the expectation? What's the expectation?" My expectation was that whatever the great idea was, it would make her work ever so much more simple; getting there would be the easy part. She, on the other hand, wanted to know where "there" was, and it was unfair of me to assume for all that we would know our destination when we saw it just because I was certain that I would.

The educational consultant Jacqueline Smethurst once cautioned the administrators at our school against falling victim to the "tyranny of good ideas"--being seduced by so many of the wonderful ideas that would emerge as we entered a process of curriculum review and development that we would soon be distracted from our main path. Wise leaders will consider this, but experienced teachers understand it instinctively, as it represents what they fear most about institutional change: a headlong and higgledy-piggledy rush toward not one clear goal but a number of obscure ones. At best, the purposes of the work become confused. At worst, all goals are forgotten, with only the unsettling memory of the "initiative" remaining; things might have changed, but to little purpose and in unintended and perhaps even unrecognized ways. Initiatives that have blossomed and then died on the vine are surely the sources of much cynicism and inertia among teachers today.

(In Part II we will look at how schools can effectively manage change and mitigate its deleterious effects on the morale and efficacy of teachers.)


Sunday, November 16, 2008

Job descriptions

Periodically one or another of the independent school teaching listservs and networks will light up with queries about job descriptions. Sometimes these are quite specific; someone at a school will want to know about the title and responsibilities of his or her counterparts at other schools. Occasionally the queries are about structure, accountability, and reporting status.

About once a year, however, the question is more general, relating to the nature of a "full-time job" description--how many classes, how many students, how many hours, how many extracurricular responsibilities? The inquirer may have been commissioned to survey the field, or perhaps he or she is taking it upon himself or herself to find answers.

Those who have been through a full-blown discussion of this at their own schools will recognize in the question a generalized anxiety that goes well beyond "job descriptions." No one asks this question out of idle curiosity; there is almost always something deeper, and more difficult at stake.

Working from a fairly small sample of schools I've worked in, colleagues' schools, and schools where I've been asked to speak about professional culture, my observation is that these discussions grow out of a certain sense or undefined worry that responsibilities and rewards at the school are not evenly distributed. Often, it seems that conversations about these issues arise fairly early in a time of institutional transition: a change of leadership, the announcement of a new initiative, or a sudden economic downturn.

Even the most carefully managed and comprehensible changes in many schools create uncertainty. Whether teachers are inherently skittish and conservative or whether the traditional isolation of classroom teaching creates its own kind of solipsistic anxiety--I tend to favor the latter explanation--teachers, like cubicle dwellers or prairie dogs (the comparison has been around for a while), react to the winds of change by popping their heads up and nervously sniffing the air to assess their own situation vis-a-vis their peers.

Concern in the face of change is not unreasonable. Will the new leaders appreciate me? Will they favor someone else? Will they understand what I do, and why? Will they recognize and reward my work as has been done in the past? Will I be able to adapt and fit into the new kind of work I am being asked to do? Will my position survive in hard times?

What begins as individual concern, however, can snowball into something corrosive in the presence of more serious concerns. Has the previous administration played favorites in a way that is likely to be undone or--worse--sustained by the new arrivals? Are there unspoken rivalries and resentments within the school community--between divisions, or departments, for example--that have people suddenly asking those "will I be valued" questions in terms of "them versus us"? Are there real or imagined systemic inequities that are part of the shared experience of the teaching faculty? Are their programs or positions that don't appear to justify their existence as programmatic "value added"?

The change, whatever its nature, thus creates an environment in which faculties may display some of their least admirable traits: mistrust, self-protection, and resistance. Even with relatively cool and rational teacher-leaders in the vanguard, the pressure to explore "job description" in an atmosphere of fear or mistrust is generally too strong to be resisted, and thus the queries begin.

Of course, the real question at the heart of the matter is, Are all teachers at our school acknowledged and valued equally for the hard work they have been doing, and will equity be a hallmark of the new regime or new system? Corollaries include, Will existing areas of relative unfairness be corrected? and, Is my continued employment, assuming I continue to do all that I am asked to do, going to be assured?

For administrators, these conversations, vexing and acrimonious as they can be, should be regarded as golden opportunities to respond to teachers' concerns proactively. If salaries and their determination have historically been a mystery or a closely guarded secret, there might never be a better time to engage faculty in developing a scale of some sort. If a new administration discovers inequities, a rapid effort to remedy these will be much appreciated. If a new initiative might conceivably have serious repercussions for some teachers, then serious efforts must be made to mitigate these where possible, perhaps through professional development, or at least to make clear the real nature of the issue. If tough times may indeed force cutbacks, make clear the risks and the ways in which staff reductions will be determined.

The trick, I think, is for administrators to help faculties get beyond issues like class loads and minutes spent leading clubs or coaching teams. I like to think that at most schools, and certainly virtually all good and happy ones, there is essentially just one "job description": teachers arrive in the morning, work hard all day in the service of students and the school's mission, and go home in the evening, even when home is a dormitory; dorm work is part of the job description for many independent school teachers, and they are compensated for this work in some way. Good and happy schools make certain that equal contribution is rewarded by equal compensation. (Schools are not rich, and sometimes the coin of the realm in faculty compensation is not take-home cash but rather benefits--housing, insurance, and even time.)

I would observe here that there is a slippery slope for schools in the establishment of compensation programs that use elaborate systems of points or stipends to "reward" teachers. Along with headaches for those charged with managing such systems, they also create and enshrine invidious comparisons. My suspicion is that not a few of such programs were born of "job description" kerfluffles in times of institutional stress or change; whether there is a way to reel them in to be replaced by more globally systems, I do not know, but I think it would be hard, even if the end result would be a more congenial professional culture.

In 2007 NAIS undertook a survey on teacher satisfaction. In the results (available to members here) there is a strong correlation in the areas of both compensation and professional culture that is based on a few basic things that make teachers happy. Key factors, not surprisingly, are
  • Transparency in decision-making
  • Involvement of teachers in both general decision-making and the design of compensation and benefit programs
  • Clear communication within the school, including of course but not limited to that between administration and teachers
  • Visibility of the school's leadership in the professional world of faculty
  • Recognition and appreciation of effective work
  • Opportunities for authentic growth
Administrators focused on creating or maintaining the "good and happy school" to which I have made reference understand these matters, and not just in the abstract. This school will already have in place a clear and consistently applied system of professional evaluation based on clear and well understood standards for effective teaching. It will be clear and consistent in the way that decisions are made and communicated, and there will be great opportunities for all teachers to learn and grow as professionals and as adults. Everyone will appreciate the efforts of everyone else and understand that each colleague, peer and administrator alike, is doing his or her best work, all the time, in a positive and productive atmosphere. It's not about job descriptions, but about the work.


Saturday, November 8, 2008

Taming Families of Fury

Whenever I chat about my work with other school folks, particularly those having anything to with the college search-apply-choose process, I'm afraid that I rather smugly mention that I work in a school where families generally aren't crazy and where they already get the idea of a school matching their kids' needs; therefore, the large part of my role that involves college is not much fraught with angry or unrealistic parents and guardians.

I've been corresponding with a friend at another school who is ready to leave the chalk in the tray and walk away from it all; he calls himself burned out, a term that tears my heart out. Much of his frustration has to do with a steady onslaught of calls and communiques from truly angry parents who have lately been bedeviling his teachers and himself--something new, he says, that has reached an intolerable level. This is a really good guy whose ideas I have listened to and appreciated for 15 years, since the earliest days of something called "E-mail."

It's easy to find reasons to blame the current generation of parents for being entitled, self-absorbed, and over-involved. An article in the New York Times this July on summer camp parents presented a rogues gallery of unapologetically demanding adults who seemed to take delight in pushing camp directors and counselors around to ensure a "perfect" experience for their children: "helicopter parents" piloting Apache gunships. At my friend's genteel boarding school, it is likely that the wonders of email and cell phones have opened up channels of instant communication that are at best a mixed blessing and quite likely a shock to a system accustomed to distant parents and correspondence that proceeds at the stately pace of the U.S. Postal Service.

So the phenomenon is real. But the whole situation raises fundamental questions: Does this have to be? What are the sources of such parental fury? How can schools allay these anxieties and reduce emotionally destructive intrusions into the lives of their teachers and their students? In the most dire cases, how can a school protect its faculty from attack? (I will emphasize that I am presupposing here the absence of any significant or substantial issues of neglect, abuse, or professional failure.)

As I pondered my friend's case, it occurred to me that the answer may lie in institutional identity and mission and how clearly and proudly a school communicates these. In some way that surprises me a bit, it comes down to "brand," one of those marketing words that makes old teachers look for the exits but whose value matters most in situations like my friend's.

Most independent schools have had some ups and downs, and in some ways it's easy for schools in tough times to be over-accommodating to the customers. There's a temptation, possibly encouraged by development offices and anxious boards in hard economic times, for schools to try to present themselves as all things to all people; if admission numbers look shaky, then perhaps a little lowering of standards here and there might be necessary. After all, it's just temporary. A few compromises in the admission office, and a faculty may be teaching a few more kids with learning needs they aren't trained to meet or coping with students whose behavior leaves something to be desired. Morale dips, rumors fly, tempers fray. In the meantime, all students' needs are met less well, and academic and discipline decisions are made in greater haste. Things get a bit raggedy, and good students look on and report home. The spiral may be slow, but its direction is obvious.

I think schools' response must be precisely the opposite, and no school should wait until tough times to formulate it. Trying to be all things to all people is guaranteed to disappoint almost everyone in time. Instead, schools need to define themselves with simplicity and clarity and to be assertive in saying, "Here's who we are, and if you're not really looking for the kind of school we are, please go elsewhere." In an age when almost every other product and service occupies narrowly defined niches, parents and kids are actually likely to be craving schools that present themselves (and their "brands") in precise and even narrow terms.

A few years ago our school started asking applicant families to write a little essay on why they were looking for the kind of school we purport to be, actually giving them a couple of specifics to which they might make reference. The difference in the applicant pool after a couple of years of this is palpable, and it has even become fairly easy to recognize those essays in which a family is just telling us what they think they want us to hear. We also stress our "uniqueness" not only at admission events and accepted-student events but even at Back to School Night, where parents experience in-depth "demos" of a few classes and advisories rather than shuffling from class to class.

There is tremendous importance and value in letting families know as much about the school, its values, and its practices as possible. The essay our parents/guardians file with the application, the relentlessly on-message aspects of our admission and accepted-students events, and the mission-driven focus of our publications, paper and digital, all serve this purpose. (I guess I should add here that we're a progressive school, and proud of it.) Applicant and current families and students know what that means.

I'm not even sure that our whole faculty appreciates the degree to which these events help families understand what we do, probably forestalling any number of querulous emails and phone calls. Crudely put, every bit of authentic branding and mission-focused marketing we do helps "keep parents off our backs" and instead puts them in partnership with us (assuming of course that our practice matches what we preach, which we try like heck to make happen). As our head related to me when I was discussing this with him the other day, "The highest compliment we've ever had from a parent was when one of them told me, 'I don't always agree with what the school does, but I always understand it and why you do it.'" That's a parent whose conversations about his children's learning don't start with verbal attacks on some teacher or administrator.

As I think about my friend and the constant tension between what his school's families think they want in the moment and what they believe the school is giving them instead, it seems clear to me that a big part of the solution for his school--and for all schools--is not to hunker down in defensive agony but to treble their efforts to make clear to families from the moment of inquiry who they are, what they stand for, and what they do.

For my friend and his administrative compadres, this means leaning into the discomfort for a while as they whittle down a tightly focused set of values, ideals, practices, and purposes that is the school's brand. They might also look for opportunities to engage the parents in the mission and work of the school in ways that lessen the teacher-parent schism and at the same time empower the administration and faculty by defining with clarity and strength the work they are doing and the nature of the institution to which they have given their hearts and sweat. They might also ask faculty to consider the powerful role that being on-message might play in helping parents understand and appreciate on both intellectual and emotional levels what the school does.

It will take time and hard work, but after a while people will begin to "get it." Confident, assertive promulgation of the school's values and program philosophy will translate into an increasingly benign and positive climate vis-à-vis parent-faculty relations. The stance of parents and guardians relative to the work of the faculty will shift. Parents will understand what the school stands for and is trying to do and will refrain from panic or anger when they don't understand something or when something doesn't go their kids' or their own way. The cranky phone calls and messages will decrease, the pain will lessen and the old inspiration and fire will return.

I keep reflecting on our Back to School Night, when we invite our families not just to hear about but to experience what it means to be a student at our school--even though those parents and guardians are having supper with their students every night and getting them off to school each morning. How hard the teachers who run those workshops work, but how much easier their efforts make all of our jobs!


Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Cooperating schools?

Met today with the Man Who Knows, and the subject of professional development for independent school teachers came up.

The man is Patrick Bassett, executive director of the National Association of Independent Schools, and we got to talking about the roles that regional associations can play in providing a higher level than present (in many areas) of ongoing professional training for teachers. Although many associations sponsor pre-service or early-stage in-service training for new teachers and a good menu of special programs on specific topics, often aimed at administrators and specialists, there is, arguably, something of a gap in most regions when it comes to offerings for classroom teachers and teacher-leaders.

Back when I was just coming up, as they say, there was something called the New England Teachers Conference, a one-day extravaganza that occurred each spring (as I recall) in some more or less central place. The various state associations of New England cooperated in the planning and execution, which admittedly was a very big deal.

The NETC was a good event, sometimes very good, but in its time it was perhaps too much of a good thing. Many of my more senior colleagues in the 70s and 80s were pretty cynical about such conferences. They made no bones about having little use for "professional development," having no doubt sat through more than their fair share of random workshops--some administrator's enthusiasm of the moment--on topics that felt unrelated to their daily toil in isolated classrooms. For us newbies, there seemed to be so much to learn, and even if no one was discouraging us from trying new things in our classrooms and advisories, no one was much encouraging us to innovate, either. Still a bit hung over from "revolution" of the lates 60s and early 70s, schools weren't quite sure where to go, and it was all many teachers could do to keep students moving forward from day to day; great new ideas just weren't all that welcome.

We've come a long way from that era, and, thanks in no small part to the leadership of NAIS under Pat Bassett, independent schools in the aggregate have something resembling a cohesive agenda for their work. The publications and conferences of NAIS have identified and articulated the great themes our the last decade or so--multiculturalism and social justice, sustainability, technology, globalization--that direct much of our thought and work. Constructivist curriculum innovations that have grown out of the work of Theodore Sizer, Howard Gardner, Grant Wiggins, Heidi Hayes Jacobs, Robert Sternberg, and others have shown us better ways of teaching. (I write about this work, which I have called The New Progressivism, in another blog.)

Above all, the culture of isolation that, in retrospect, tended to be more dispiriting than empowering, has gone. In its place many schools are working to build truly collaborative professional cultures in which teachers talk about teaching--the craft, not just the effort--and learn from one another. Even where this goal is imperfectly realized, the idea has taken root that teachers coming together for professional conversations about their teaching and their students is not a waste of time.

Which brings me back to the idea of ongoing, intentional programs of professional training for teachers. With so many initiatives in common, independent schools ought to be able to develop ways to capitalize on the economies of scale that could be gained from pooling resources toward the professional growth of faculties.

The old NETC model might be an idea whose time has come again; regional associations might consider ways of ramping up their programming for classroom teachers, drawing on the expertise of teachers in member schools where they can and on "outside experts" where needed. The associations have the leadership, the cachet, and the resources to coordinate this work on a fairly large scale, perhaps even in regional "in-service" days when whole faculties from many schools come together for a menu of programs, workshops, and a keynote or two.

On a smaller scale, it seems almost crazy that more schools don't get together with neighbors to do manage at least a few common tasks. The Fairchester Fellows program in New York and Connecticut is a great example of this, providing an ongoing series of programs for new teachers each year. Any school with a few congenial neighbors could fairly easily organize a similar program: a few sessions on subjects of general interest (child or adolescent development or partnering with parents, say) at "orientation time" and then a curriculum of common-interest topics and some convivial dinners throughtout the year.

Another model might be a kind of "weekend university" for independent school teachers, where teachers might come together on occasion as part of a course on a particular theme or topic, and where other parts or even the bulk of the work was done on line. I've toyed with the idea of offering an on-line course or two just on my own; provided under the auspices of a regional association or a group of like-minded schools who could stamp their imprimatur on a "certificate of completion," such courses could be a valuable professional development resource tightly focused on the needs and interests of independent schools.

Much of it comes down to will. We independent schools like to be independent, and in competitive areas, we even tend to shy away from the idea that there might be anything to be learned from our rivals. But teachers have common needs and common issues in their professional and personal lives, and it seems a shame that schools seem to spend so many of their resources on reinventing wheels whose form and elements aren't so different from school to school or region to region. Instead of one expert presenting to 20 teachers twice, why not to 150 teachers once?

So, whether it's to be regional associations or other consortium or delivery models, I'd encourage schools to look hard for ways to come together in the service of offering their faculties opportunities for professional growth. Along the way there might even develop a stronger sense of fraternity among teachers that would be a welcome development in itself.


Friday, October 24, 2008

The All-Terrain Teacher

Things are getting rugged, and change is in the wind.

But a few things are becoming more clear for educators. One obvious fact is that the diversity train has left the station in our society. No matter who becomes the next president, some things in our country and on our continent are changing, and those of us who teach kids had better be ready. I keep hearing predictions as to when "Whites in the U.S. will be a minority"--2020, 2050, it doesn't much matter, because it is the future.

But when will this racial and cultural diversity be manifest everywhere? Not regionally, not city/suburb, not public school/private school, but everywhere we go and everywhere we look and everywhere we live. Sadly, I think they date when this is likely to happen is bit farther off, as the majority has become quite adept at keeping to itself when it's in our (ouch! but yes, it's true) interest to do so.

If independent schools are as committed as most of them say they are to issues of equity and justice, and if they really want to enact the ideals in their missions, they still have some work to do. Lots of our schools are busy doing that work, discovering that the farther along they get, the harder the work becomes. Idealism of any sort requires great courage and great honesty, and humans are frail; when having to open our minds and our hearts to whole new ways of being and knowing, we are often more frail still.

A few years ago a colleague by the name of Nadine Nelson did some amazing work at our school helping us figure out how to be a better school for our students and colleagues from underrepresented groups. She had a term that has stayed with me, the "all-terrain kid." The ATK was the student who would be sufficiently curious, sufficiently self-aware, sufficiently humble, sufficiently informed, and sufficiently brave to be at home in any cultural milieu. Parachute the All-Terrain Kid into any setting, and he or she would be able to present himself or herself with respect and intelligence and to communicate on an authentic level with anyone.

The All-Terrain Kid is an ideal I still hold in my head for our students and for my own children. That's the kid who won't care about a whole lot of things that agitate our society now, and for whom newly evolving communities that truly represent the diversity of our society and our planet will be welcoming, exciting places.

I think schools should be thinking equally hard about developing the All-Terrain Teacher. However one construes "diversity," the ATT has to be able to negotiate it with the integrity, wit, and courage in all of its manifestations. Who is going to teach a generation of All-Terrain Kids, if not a generation of All-Terrain Teachers?

A while back TJX Corporation put together a diversity task force build around what they called the "arenas of diversity." I like the model, and drawing on it I would propose that the training and the work of the All-Terrain Teacher be built around these Five Arenas of Diversity:
  1. Age and generation. We've become cutely adept at naming generations and fractions of generations to differentiate them, but differentiation cannot become segregation. Boomers, Millennials, or whatever--they will represent significant diversity in an aging society paradoxically built around youth culture, and they will need to learn to understand one another and work together. This is especially true in schools, where the (relatively) old and the (relatively) young must come together for the highest of common purposes
  2. Race and culture. Whatever the other dimensions of diversity, these remain at the heart of the matter. Often visible and burdened with a long and terrible history, race matters, and so, broadly construed, does culture, especially in a society dogged by its own identity crisis, as witnessed by the fact that people can seriously ask the question, Is Barack Obama really American? and by a dangerous ambivalence on the issue of immigration.
  3. Gender and sexual orientation. How do we build a society that can guarantee security, respect, and equal opportunity and reward to all people, regardless of gender and sexual identity? Schools are already unsafe places for children who wrestle with these issues, and the achievement gap between boys and girls seems to be growing. These challenges must be addressed, and again, schools are the crucibles in which better practices must be forged.
  4. Class and status. We've been living through an era when income disparities have risen to all-time highs and when "Masters of the Universe" privilege themselves in every conceivable way. At the same time, the "middle class" scarcely knows how to define itself. Teachers and schools are going to have to face difficult issues in this arena.
  5. Ability and wellness. Issues around health care, accessibility, genetic testing, and accommodation of different abilities will continue to grow as genetic science moves forward and as our society ages. How will differences in access to services and support manifest themselves among students and and teachers, and how will schools be able to confidently address these differences? Will schools have to take stands on issues we cannot now even foresee?
The All-Terrain Teacher in the thoughtful school will need to have given enormous intentional consideration to each of these areas. Some schools may choose to opt out of this work, keeping their doors and hearts closed to certain kinds of difference, but the terrain that their students, families, and faculties will be negotiating will change nonetheless. Those who choose not to participate will surely be left far behind.

Like the All-Terrain Kid, the All-Terrain Teacher is an ideal. But the ideal can be fulfilled. It will take more than workshops and seminars, more than "diversity days" and diversity offices. It will have to begin with a systemic acknowledgment within the school that the world is truly changing, and that old modes and orders are going to be giving way to new ones, regardless of anyone's comfort with the change. To do the work will take nerves of steel and a willingness both to try new things and to learn from our blunders as we do.

Perhaps there is a Sixth Arena of Diversity, the arena of change itself. Above all, schools that want to be themselves "all-terrain" will need to master the art of moving forward like a camel in a sandstorm, amid ever-shifting conditions and the ever-present temptation to stop and rest. The goal, a world whose ideals reflect the ideals of the school, is out there right where our words and our hopes have placed it, and if we just keep it in sight, we can make it through the most rugged of times.


Monday, October 20, 2008

O, Canada!

My Canadian sojourn was interesting in all kinds of ways, from some very interesting conversations with Canadian independent school educators (including a couple of American expats now leading great Canadian schools) to the New Brunswick Museum in St. John to the flight home via Montreal over a gorgeous landscape striated by the glaciers and upholstered in green, orange, and red damask foliage. I love flying into the St. Lawrence Valley, where at some point the farmsteads stop being the big squarish lots of the English survey system and become long, narrow plats perpendicular to the river, the farm lots of the French Habitants oriented to give access to the main thoroughfare of the 17th century--the river itself.

This doesn't have much to do with schools except insofar as the landscapes remind us of the occasionally astounding differences between the U.S. and Our Neighbor to the North. I learned a great deal on my visit about the ways that independent education in Canada differs from the American sort.

First of all, provincial policies on certification and licensure make the requirements for teaching different from province to province. Then there is the matter of taxation: many of the things that in the States are regarded as non-taxable (like tuition remission) are in parts of Canada regarded as taxable benefits. In some places this extends to school-supplied housing, even in boarding schools.

Furthermore, scholarships to students have also been taxed, and may still be in some jurisdictions. (Readers, any factual help here?) Hence the tradition of financial aid is different in its nature and extent; the old concern about the wealthy subsidizing the poor is very much alive in some school communities.

Anyone who has messed about with curriculum for a while knows that Canadian educational websites were great sources of rubrics and information on multiple-intelligence teaching when such concepts were barely known in the U.S. Additionally, Canadian schools have been forward-thinking about gender equity for years. One thinks of Canada, rightly or wrongly, as progressive in many ways, which makes the scholarship situation, in particular, seem peculiarly retro. It is also clear that many of the educators who were at the conference I attended are keenly interested in expanding the reach of their schools, and so one suspects that creative ways abound of meeting the challenges of a tax system based on the principles other than those that drive the American one. (Home ownership may The Canadian Dream, for example, but there is no mortgage deduction to make it any easier to attain--a little fact that has helped the Canadian economy avoid certain aspects of the current U.S. meltdown.)

The privileges and protections given to private education in the U.S. grow out of both a revolutionary tradition of separation of church and state and a general willingness of Americans to suppport with tax exemptions the blooming of many ideas in the educational marketplace. (Avoidance of taxes, as we learn from both Sarah Palin and American history--viz. the Boston Tea Party--is the most patriotically American of aspirations.) Simultaneously radically liberal and reactionary in their origins, the tax benefits given to American independent schools allow these schools to aspire to and to accomplish relatively easily things that similar schools in more economically restrictive places--like Canada--must work hard to achieve.

I have even found myself considering whether Canada has some parts of this right. The tax privileges granted to independent schools in the U.S. may support educational diversity and choice (and indirectly they certainly support my own ability to earn a living and to receive an education for my children), but they may also make it a bit too easy for schools to thrive whose purposes are as much elitist as egalitarian. We like to think that our independent schools are engines of social mobility, a curious notion that virtually accuses our public schools of failing to play this role, but we also know that these schools can be helpful in maintaining the status quo. The anti-voucher argument that government subsidies (i.e., tax breaks) to non-public schools make it too easy for educationally savvy families who might otherwise push for improvement to opt out of the public education system holds some water. Of course, a system in which scholarships are taxable actually inflicts a certain punishment on those who opt out; there doesn't seem to be an obvious middle ground short of universal choice, a kind of single-payer education system more European than North American and thereby pretty much out of the question on this side of the Atlantic.

With the U.S. poised to elect a liberal government and Canada having just reaffirmed its commitment to conservative rule, the political polarity of North America may be for a while reversed, and it will be interesting to see how things play out in terms of tax policies and educational systems in both countries. It's quite possible that nothing much will change for independent schools in either place, but for a weekend I was pleased to be part of an exchange of ideas and points of view. It has given me something to think about, on the flight home and beyond.


Friday, October 17, 2008

"Employment At" School Webpages

I’m writing this from Canada, where I will be speaking at the Canadian Association of Independent Schools conference for school heads on the subject of “Building Faculties.” It’s hard not to have been distracted by financial turmoil as I have been putting my presentation together, with grim scenarios of hiring and salary freezes or worse spinning through my head. It’s pretty certain that we’ll see some enrollment reductions, and schools are already figuring out how to tighten their belts. “Holding Faculties Together in Tough Times” may be next year’s topic.

Maybe, in the worst cases, either hiring new teachers won’t be necessary, or maybe there will be so many people in the job market looking for anything that every open teaching job will attract hordes of qualified applicants. But I don’t really think things will necessarily reach that point.

Experience tells me, and I’ll admit that others may have data to contradict me, that tough times may actually mean that excellent teachers become harder to find. This may be because veterans elect to stay where they are or because independent school teaching looks like an economically vulnerable luxury service to young people looking to start careers. What this experience suggests to me, however, is that in a recession schools may find themselves in the ironic position of having to look even harder for teachers.

One point I’m going to make to my audience in Canada is that individual schools’ “employment at” (or “jobs at” or “careers at”) webpages are in need of some sprucing up. No longer is it enough just to list job openings, formal descriptions, and contact information. Hiring webpages need to be thoughtful, appealing, and as specific and informative as possible not just about today’s job postings but also about what it is like to work at the school.

College admission websites are pretty good models here; for a number of years now the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, has used student and admission-office bloggers to give something of the flavor of day to day life at M.I.T., and prospective students can find out anything they want to about just about any university by contacting someone in the admission office. While this level of response to the merely interested may not be feasible for schools’ hiring sites, the up-close-and-personal aspect of blogs written by a couple of teachers and perhaps even students seems like a great way to give candidates a sense of what it means to belong to a school community.

If the school already has blogs, virtual tours, or other interactive and “insider view” materials on its admission or other webpages, the hiring pages need to link directly to these. The same goes for online newspapers or literary magazines, sports pages, and anything else that reveals the school as it is. If the school has some great materials or information to share about teaching in particular, make these easily available for the world to see.

And even if prosperity turns out to be just around the corner, the challenge of attracting the very best teachers will remain. Schools often forget that prospective teachers make up a vital target audience for marketing materials, and, whether the future holds famine or feast, infusing the school’s hiring webpages with real vitality seems like a great way to enhance the recruiting process for relatively little cost.


Monday, October 13, 2008

Tough times: "Professional Development as R&D"

It's been a few too many days since last I posted here, and in the meantime the economic news has gone from bad to worse to worse still; one presumes that sooner or later we'll hit rock bottom so that we can all begin to figure out how we will be living over the next few years.

One large probability is that independent schools will be hit hard by tough times. The New York Times is already writing about the effects on teenagers as families cut back, and for some families it seems likely that the tens of thousands of dollars they have been spending on independent schools will begin to look like an unaffordable luxury. We hope this doesn't happen--that the "valued added" of being taught by admirable faculties is compelling as a reason to stay put--but we would be naive to think that it might not.

In straitened circumstances, schools themselves are likely to be doing some cutting back. But I urge school administrations to take a lesson from the American automobile industry, itself now teetering once again on a brink that has become their position of choice since the 1970s.

American car manufacturers have consistently blown it when it comes to research and development--"R&D," the thing for which America has been most renowned, has been more about marketing for car companies than about improving the quality of their product. In the early 1970s Ford, GM, Chrysler, and AMC (remember them?) were committed to rapid model change with minimal technical improvement even as the rest of the world (= Japan and Europe) had begun to focus on quality, innovation, and economy. Nearly 40 years later, most American car models still lag behind their non-U.S. rivals in quality, reliability, and economy. Last week there was talk of GM and Ford looking at bankruptcy. Coincidence? Of course not.

For independent schools R&D is embedded largely in work each school does in two areas: curriculum development and professional development; the two are clearly interlinked. Great schools develop and keep great faculties by making certain that the best thinking and the most engaging, provocative ideas about curriculum and instruction are a part of the school's daily conversation. These schools go to great lengths to make sure that their faculties are deeply aware of how best practices can be applied in the classroom and how those best practices are evolving in the light of new understandings about teaching and learning.

The great advantage independent schools can have in this area is that they are mission driven, and as such they can be smart and thoughtful about how, when, and whether new practices are incorporated into their school's programs. The mandate schools have to figure out how to be better and then to be so comes not from state legislatures (except in the cases of a couple of states) or Federal agencies but from their understandings of their own purposes. Independent schools, in other words, have the privilege of determining the precise nature of the value they add to the educational experiences of their students.

Schools worried about enrollment or annual giving may feel the need to make some anticipatory cutbacks, but curriculum development and professional development are core activities that sustain the "value added" (and I admit to overusing this annoying term, which smacks of "education as commodity" rather than education as experience) and more importantly the missions of their schools. Schools can only maintain program quality by keeping up the R&D that brings new ideas into classrooms and faculty rooms for mission-informed professional analysis, review, and implementation or rejection. In the great scale of things, the cost of professional memberships and publications and even specialized training for faculty is more than likely to be returned in the future if schools understand that these expenditures are investments to improve what they do and so sustain their position as attractive and worthy educational alternatives for families cautious about their spending.

"Professional development as R&D" ought to be schools' mantra as we enter an era of tough times.


Saturday, October 4, 2008

Teaching standards

On my other blog I was just writing about classroom standards, but there is another set of standards that we've heard both more and less about. The media and the politicians are all in a sweat about "higher standards for teachers," but relatively few schools have gone out of their way to state what these standards are.

In independent schools there has long been a prideful sense that we know good teaching when we see it, and this is probably true. What is harder though, and what may have been doing our students harm over the years, is that many of our schools have not made explicit our standards for good teaching; when teachers have been dismissed or eased out, it has more often been for "cause"--an egregious mistake or act--or because they have been gently counseled out: something in the quality of their work has been deficient, and they are unwelcome. The match is bad, they are told, and they are urged to find greener pastures. In the meantime, some of their only slightly better colleagues stay on, doing work that is just good enough. Everyone may know who these teachers are, but the administration doesn't have the right mechanisms--or perhaps the will, in a culture of benign neglect--to tell these teachers specifically how to improve their practice.

A few years back I sat in a workshop on observing teaching conducted by my friend Steve Clem. On the connection between observation and evaluation, Steve made the wry comment, "Of course your teachers are evaluated against specific standards; all your schools have generated their own Standards for Effective Teaching, right?" A roomful of educational leaders from some of the finest schools in the region (just ask us) looked hard at the floor. By the time I was back at school that afternoon, however, I'd decided that creating such standards at our place would be a worthy and perhaps not so complicated project, and that having them in place might make it a whole lot easier to frame both an evaluation system that was then a work in progress and an increasingly elaborate and intentional professional development program.

The process of generating our standards turned out to be not so hard, and the language of our standards has become the basis for the formal "rubric" part of our evaluation system as well as part of the conceptual framework (that also includes our mission statement) on which our professional development and inividual professional growth efforts are based.

I get to work with a few schools here and there that are interested in professional development, evaluation, and building new and sustaining kinds of professional cultures. The work I do is usually pretty fundamental, and I always leave them with the suggestion that developing standards for effective teaching would be a pretty great next step. It's not that hard, I tell them, but I think for faculties unused to being well and consistently evaluated in their work or treated to engaging and intentional professional development, it looks like a daunting task.

But generating standards for effective teaching in a mission-based, thoughtful school isn't that hard, and I think that any school that needs to explain its own standards, either in the marketplace or within its own walls, ought to make the effort. Teachers who have a clear understanding of what is expected of them are liberated by this clarity, and those who want to grow and improve--and evidence is that most teachers want this very much--can focus on specific and even measurable ways to do this. Schools with clear standards can also help all teachers grow and avoid the tragedy of barely satisfactory teachers who never quite cross the line into "cause" but who yet are never shown how improve--faculty members whose classrooms become limbos not just for these teachers but for their poorly served students.

If you recognized yourself among those educators looking at the floor when the subject of Standards for Effective Teaching was raised, there's never a better time than now to contemplate a process for developing your school's own. Whether you start from scratch or base yours on existing models (the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards has a great deal to say on this), a set of such standards can be a starting point for some great work in the development of great faculties.

It also occurs to me that all kinds of schools can do themselves a big favor in the public eye by developing and publishing their standards for good teaching. They should then make sure that teachers are held to these standards and given opportunities to exceed them so that they best of them become true master teachers who can lead their faculties from within even as they exemplify the school's very best work. When parents, politicians, and pundits are confident that teachers are doing the best work they can be against known benchmarks of real performance rather than externally applied measures that make little or no sense, schools and teachers will be given the support they need and the respect they deserve.


Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Parent-teacher events

It's time for parent conferences, parent evenings, back-to-school nights, and all the rich variety of ways that schools devise to bring families into schools to build important connections and begin essential conversations (as Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot has so aptly called them) between teachers and parent/guardians.

As much as anything, parents and guardians want to be reassured that their children are in good, caring hands and that their children are doing what is necessary to be successful in school. For schools, the time is right to make sure that teachers are confident and comfortable either sitting down with individual parents or standing up to explain what they do to a room full of them.

For new teachers, especially, these events can be nerve-racking, and so it is the job of department and division leaders and mentors to work with new teachers to develop successful approaches or even something like scripts. For class presentations, the teacher should be ready to introduce himself or herself, to discuss the aims of the course, and to model in some way the classroom culture that the students experience. The "Be yourself" advice that is true for a classroom of students is every bit as true when the desks are occupied by curious parents. Some teachers will want to try a class-like exercise, but this should be simple, contained in its aims, and clearly connected with the purposes of the class. As parents we have noticed that these events don't always provide opportunities to establish relationships with our children's classmates' families, and a clever teacher might even integrate some "getting to know you" elements.

For conferences, teachers need to prepare themselves by having anecdotal and specific information about each student; what families want to know most is that a teacher knows and cares about their child. The point is to talk about the child, so the focus should be on aspects of behavior and performance and not just on grades--I always advise keeping the gradebook off to the side, closed but bookmarked, and not in front of me like a sacred text. Teachers should not be afraid to ask questions: "How does the student talk about the class at home?", "What are the student's interests?", and "What are your concerns?" can yield really valuable answers. Above all, the teacher should have some positive things to say, observations of strengths as well as weaknesses. Behavioral concerns should not be whitewashed, but they should be presented based on anecdote and not as labels or judgments. Teachers must be careful about either dragging other students' behavior into the conversation or about shooting themselves in the foot by alluding to general problems in the classroom. Good teachers understand that children of particular ages will have particular foibles and refer to these not as character flaws but as developmental issues to be acknowledged and dealt with as part of helping the student grow up.

Teachers almost always dread events involving parents, but in my experience such things almost always go well; parents genuinely appreciate caring teachers and precise, well-intentioned feedback that they can use to support their children in finding success in school. There are always a few parents who in the course of their children's education will feel the need to launch a zinger question or comment at a teacher, but the best deflection is either a bland "I think that's a great question (because often it is, even if framed unpleasantly), and it's something we think about quite often" or to suggest a separate conversation at a later time. (I once innocently asked such a question of my spouse when I sat as a parent in her classroom, assuming that I had pitched her a beachball that she would hit out of the park, but the way I phrased it so flustered her that I am still ruing that moment six years later.)

The economic turmoil of recent weeks will be having an unsettling effect on families, and so there may be some new symptoms of parental anxiety around the very appropriate but usually unspoken question, "Is the money we are spending on independent school worth it?" The best answer is not so much a specific cost-benefit analysis but rather what I would call a cultural response by the school and all of its teachers. Families are paying the long dollar to have their children challenged, nourished, prepared, and above all cared for as individuals. Parent-teacher events are the ideal opportunities to showcase the depth of the school's collective affection and concern for its students, and above all, teachers should understand this and see this as a primary goal of these occasions.

In troubled times, especially, using family-teacher events for sharing both positive feelings and well-meaning concerns about students can be extremely comforting for both families and faculties. We all found that to be true in September of 2001, and it will be no less so now, and so let us enter the season of such events in a spirit of positive anticipation and mutual support.


Saturday, September 27, 2008

A New "Digital Divide"?

There was some talk on one of the educator listservs this past week about technology and teachers. We've fussed for a decade or more about "technology competency standards" for teachers, with early adopters holding up the highest standards and the rest of the profession wondering a bit anxiously about where it will all go. At times I've been glad that the technology sluggards I know have not sought access to some of these discussions, as talk gets heated and opinions can become intemperate.

Lately the "2.0" revolution has swept through schools; at some point I think the enthusiasm of many of us for the likes of Daniel Pink and our own explorations of new possibilities in technology and communication reached a tipping point (reflecting our fondness for Malcolm Gladwell here, too), and things have begun to develop. Teachers with podcasts, blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, Delicious accounts, Flickr pages, and other presence on Web 2.0 suddenly found themselves not just mainstream, but vindicated in a way. The potential of educational technology in the digital age needed only to become interactive to invite the digital natives we teach into our virtual classrooms and discussions. It looks as though learning really will be different, and potentially much better, as we learn how to realize this potential.

Not surprisingly, those teachers who have not embraced Web 2.0 as part of their pesonal lifestyles are having to play professional catch-up in this new world, and for some of them it is a challenge. This has been the way of teachers, no doubt, since someone suggested giving students individual slates and bits of chalk; that we are all doing something for a living that was done unto us for sixteen or more years in a certain way tends us toward conservatism, perhaps. And most of us were reasonably good at things as they were done unto us, inclining us to the notion that it was a pretty good way, at that.

What I have observed signs of for the past 25 years (since I went into hideous debt to purchase my first desktop computer and printer) has been a kind of fear among the late adopters and Luddites. The world is changing around them, and they either don't want to or don't know how to keep up. The techies (and I have been one of them) have been quick to proclaim their own role in "the future of education." A first this created what was for a long time a subtle separation between those who, say, word-processed their comments in 1985 and those who hand-wrote or typed them. By the early nineties everyone had mastered word-processing and simple spreadsheets at least enough for schools to standardize expectations, but the folks on the cutting edge had already discovered email, and the esoteric secrets of the World-Wide Web, and they were soon to begin leavening their lectures with PowerPoint. That each innovation could cost frugal teachers quite a lot of money out of pocket made the purchase of modems and CompuServe accounts into bold lifestyle choices that must have looked awfully extravagant to more skeptical colleagues.

Now we're in the midst of a new whirlwind, sanctified by speakers and special programs at NAIS conferences and best exemplified by the things we are told our students can already do instinctively with wonderful and expensive gadgets. Get on board, the word seems to be, or get left behind. There has never been a time when the technology enthusiasts among us have been able to feel so superior to those who are not.

But we techies had better take a moment to think about what is going on. What has been an observable but relatively benign rift within faculties for a couple of decades threatens to become a new Digital Divide. No longer separating those who have the economic wherewithal to participate fully in a digital age from those who don't, the new divide severs those whose innate understanding of technology's potential is still "1.0" from the 2.0 crowd. With the future so clearly apparent to many 2.0 dwellers, it is easy to feel justified in considering with scorn those who do not yet share their vision. "2.0 talk" is even becoming a new kind of political correctness; if you aren't sharing it with the world on your Facebook page or your blog, you had better not say it at all. If you are skeptical when you hear all students described as being up to their cerebella in New Technologies, you had best keep such thoughts to yourself.

It's easy to understand the anger, perhaps. We have spent half a century pulling one another forward around issues of diversity and multiculturalism, and these issues lie at the very core of student experience; laggards in these areas are in the wrong profession nowadays. Likewise, for technological true believers, the promise of interactive, pervasive technology is every bit as wonderful as the promise of culturally inclusive teaching, and teachers who can't see that and jump on board may be short-changing their students.

But we've learned a few things from our work on race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation. We know that we need to keep our focus on the kinds of communities we want to create and the kinds of experiences we want our students to have. We know that we have to begin this work by first acknowledging where people are and what frightens and excites them. We know that we must include everyone, and that no one can opt out, either because they don't want to do the work or because they think they know it already. We even admit that we have taken false steps: the color-blindness training teachers received in the '70s was a mistake, and recruiting diverse student bodies was barely a start toward building multicultural school communities.

As the 2.0 revolution moves through schools, the best schools will do their best both to harness and encourage the enthusiasm of the early adopters and to provide strong and comprehensive support for all teachers. It's not just about "tech plans" any more; good schools will build in professional development that encourages experimentation and risk-taking by all teachers--starting where they are and acknowledging their anxieties. Schools will work hard to bridge this new digital divide and to avoid character judgments based on teachers' degrees of technological expertise and enthusiasm.

As this work goes forward, there will be those whose struggle and succeed beyond their wildest dreams and some who will just struggle, and schools will have to work with the latter. There will also be a few who reject or rebel on principle, just as there have always been when the winds of change blow through schools, and these will either have to find new schools or new professions.

I like this technology stuff, and I do think there is an educational revolution at hand. As an old guy, I admit that I'm not as adept at all the new technologies as I might be, and I'm unlikely to be the first to spot a new application for Twitter. But I know that I have colleagues who don't know what Twitter or Jott are, and I still respect them as educators. If it is what we decide to do, I want our schools to help these folks along, not by scolding and harrying them, but by supporting them in their explorations. Teachers want to do the right thing, and we are at last learning to work together as educators rather than as isolated individuals. Just as 2.0 technologies promise to bring people closer together, we need to use learning about these technologies to close the digital divides within faculties.


Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Feedback for new teachers

I just finished writing up a precis of my check-in conversations with all our new faculty, and I am giving ourselves a big pat on the back not only for a program that has so far kept these good people free from huge surprises but also for having done two things pretty thoughtfully and, it appears, well.

The first is hiring. Our main thrust for many years has been to find people who are really well matched in values and skills not just with our subject-matter teaching needs but with our school. The administrators who do this read lots of folders, talk to many, many candidates, and engage in a very intentional process of informed consent with finalists. I'll write more about this at a later time, but in a nutshell we don't shy from telling people what is hard about working at our school--mainly the need to be passionate about and attentive to both students and the craft of teaching--as well as what the rewards are.

The second is a kind of full-court press of support. The new teachers have all been in department meetings and divisional meetings in which the subject is pedagogy and best practices, and they have all been visited by now by both a department head and a division head. These are not formal evaluative observations but rather opportunities for administrators to understand the classroom cultures that are forming and to offer warm feedback and input based on what is observed.

As a school we seem to be moving hopefully toward what I would call an open-door policy, where colleagues and academic administrators are in and out of one another's classrooms all the time, normalizing the "adult in the back of the room" as a friendly part of the landscape of a learning community.

All I can think of is my first years of teaching. In the first school, no administrator or supervisor entered the building where I taught, much less my classroom; my close friend who taught in the classroom next to me was in and out of my classroom, as I was in and out of his. Together we moved by trial and error toward what felt like but may not have been competence. I'm still in the biz, but he left after a year. In my second school a walkabout head poked his face into my room pretty regularly, but only once did I receive direct feedback and only once, in my third year, was I formally observed, in response to a "problem" (which was easily and painlessly solved). The next school was about the same, as was my current school for the first eight or nine years I was here.

Steve Clem, of AISNE and "Eloquent Mirrors" fame, likes to point out that he might have been a much better teacher much earlier in his career if he had received feedback on his work, and I feel this just as acutely. We serve our teachers badly and our students even more badly when we don't do everything we can not just to give teachers the materials they need and goals to meet but also immediate, regaular, and clear feedback on their work that will help them realize their potential as educators as quickly as possible.

It seems quite silly (and worse) in retrospect when schools fail to make an early and positive effort to make sure that the new teachers they are at such pains to hire are both comfortable in their work and given the real, immediate feedback--on curriculum, on classroom management, on professionalism--they need to take their work to the highest level.

So if you are an administrator reading this, check in with your new faculty soon. Drop into their classrooms, find out how things are going, and let them know how you think things are going, based on some real observation. It's never too early to start, but after a while it may be too late.