Friday, November 6, 2009

THE INTENTIONAL TEACHER--book available at last!

(I apologize to readers of the New Progressive blog for the more-or-less duplicate postings.)

Shameless self-promotion, but I guess that's okay here:

The Intentional Teacher: Forging a Great Career in the Independent School Classroom is at last available. Although the book can be ordered by phone directly from the publisher, Avocus Publishing (800-345-6665; their website is undergoing renovation), the best way to purchase at this point is from Amazon.

The book is intended for aspiring and working teachers as well as for administrators, mentors, and others who hire and support teachers in their schools; I suspect that the latter may be the larger market. There are chapters on
* what it takes to be a teacher
* finding a job
* getting to know students
* classroom management
* planning
* setting standards
* feedback
* working with families
* diversity and equity
* advising and supervising outside the classroom
* coaching
* child and adolescent development
* curriculum and pedagogy
* professional behavior
* the teacher's role in the school
* career paths

There is a resource section for each chapter and a few useful templates--unit design, project planning, daily planning--that should be useful.

The educational philosophy underlying the book is New Progressive in every way; it's about building relationships with students and creating learning experiences in the Understanding by Design/Project Zero mode that are purposeful, engaging, exciting, and challenging. The independent school focus is really about making the most of one's personal and professional capacities in an environment that often calls upon teachers to play many roles in students' lives.

The sticker price is $26.95. Avocus has produced a number of books on independent school issues, and I have to say they have put this one together very nicely.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Change--a new management philosophy?

Like Charlie Brown's sister Sally in the musical, I am developing a new philosophy about change issues. Having recently done yet another survey of the field involving schools that have embarked on "21st-century learning" initiatives, I wonder whether it it might be time for schools to revise some of their strategies for program change.

I'm not talking about slowing down, or scrapping the work. I'm thinking more about the schools where "initiatives," "innovative thinking," "roll-outs," and other language borrowed from the high-tech, financial services, and NGO sectors has taken hold to the point that faculty, students, and families feel as they are being swept along from one of those ultracool, ultrahip Apple product introduction extravaganzas to the next. There has been something of a trend, driven by the steady drumbeat of gurus and strategic planning consultants, toward treating schools as if they are living manifestations of Guy Kawasaki's engaging and seductive blog posts or possibly the bridge of the latest Starship Enterprise as Admiral Kirk and his crew ooh and ah over the capabilities of this latest wonder.

And schools should be those places--where intellectual excitement, incisive analysis, creativity, and extravagantly innovative thinking are taking place, are nourished, and are rewarded. But I'm beginning to think that it might be better--and make those new initiatives take root and bear fruit more quickly--if leaders did a little less ballyhoo-ing and paid a little more attention to connecting schools' traditional values and ways to the "new work" that we have to be all about doing. In other words, don't slow down, but lay off the wild and woolly language; not everyone in the school has read Clayton Christensen or even Daniel Pink. Don't guilt trip or try so hard to out-cool those who aren't as evolved as you are.

In my new thinking about change, whether it involves curriculum and assessment, technology (which is really a set of tools that can be useful in curriculum and assessment), or professional culture in general, it's not about roll-outs or coming up with groovy language to describe the work that schools need to be doing. When the academic administrators show up waving the latest manifesto of the brave new world around, not a few people are going to retreat. It's not that they aren't excited about going forward and doing the right thing, but often enough there is an unintended--and I stress unintended--implication that current ways are obsolete, gone the way of the dodo, stupid, even. We shouldn't be surprised that practitioners of current ways get noodgy at the thought that they are obsolete, dodo-ish, stupid, even.

Instead, schools might be looking for ways to build in the new work in ways that feel at least more organic than roll-outs and to talk about this work in ways that, while it acknowledges Ted Talk smartness, is grounded in the values and the ways in which the school has been steeped all along.

In other words, don't keep talking about the work and how it represents a departure from business as usual. Don't keep throwing out those quotes about how the way school is currently done is criminal, 19th-century, and shortsighted--stupid, even.

Just do the work.

How? The same way we've been launching initiatives and rolling out new programs forever:

1) Assemble an administrative body that shares a vision and is deeply versed in and committed to ways of achieving this vision.

2) Make a plan for bringing the elements of this vision to life in the work and practice of the school. Find some experts, set aside some professional development time, gather the resources that will be needed to make it all work.

3) Build in some accountability structures, and allow no escape or opt-out. You want to create a set of core competencies and grade-level benchmarks? Put the right people in a room, give them time, guidance, sustenance, and above all clear goals--"deliverables," to use the corporate-speak that should only be used sparingly and among friends. Give the people doing the work clear feedback on how their work relates to expectations. Make the work interactive, but make it happen.

You want to have teachers using project-based learning? Devote the next professional day to training people in what this actually is, and how to design worthy projects, and make devising a project-based unit or major activity one of the required goals for this year's evaluation. Give the teachers time and resources--including feedback mechanisms--for doing this work.

Schools have traditionally been places of autonomy for teachers, and they must own the curriculum. But schools that adapt to changing ideas of educational best practice will thrive, and those that stay stuck in one place will not. I believe that schools that push themselves forward through intentional and mandatory institutional work are going to be perceived as more viable and more responsive to 21st-century exigencies than those that allow their teachers to mosey along as an all-volunteer army, some doing exciting, great things and some holding tight to the status quo.

It may be that the best way to engage teachers in participating in this intentional and mandatory work is to make the case for the work in language that echoes the traditional spirit of the school rather than in terms of a launch from Spaceship Earth that must happen because the 21st century (or Daniel Pink) demands it.

Again, don't get me wrong here. The 21st century (and the estimable and right-on Daniel Pink) DO demand that schools find new ways to do things, and fast. But consider eschewing the roll-out or the launch or the references to the Futurist du jour and keep the language and purpose of the work grounded in continuing the great work and program development that have always been hallmarks of the school's commitment to providing an excellent educational experience for its students. Remind faculty and everyone else that the school has always had a responsibility to incorporate new ideas about best practice into its ways; that's how the school has built its fine reputation, and that's how the school aims to keep it. "This is what we do."

This may feel like a little white lie, especially in schools that have been dozing through the curricular, cultural, and technological revolutions of the past three or four decades. But it is never too late to catch up, and dozers actually have the advantage of having made fewer false starts than those that have jumped at every new idea.

Maybe this sounds crazy, or perhaps it's so obvious as to be utterly banal, but for a while, at least, I want to hear less about "21st-century learning" and more about the work that schools are doing help their faculties incorporate the kinds of practices and mores that the 21st century requires, just as they did for the 20th, 19th, 18th, and in a few cases on this continent the 17th centuries.

There really shouldn't be anything so special about this, now, should there?


Monday, August 24, 2009

A Culture of Mentorship

Well, school's not quite ready to start, but I am, and after a tragically long lay-off from this blog it's time to start thinking about how schools can build faculty competencies and do a better job at that thing we are supposed to do. Our new faculty just completed the new-and-improved 3-day Teaching All Kinds of Minds program to hone their differentiation chops, and this afternoon the big work starts: they meet with their department heads to start working on and reviewing their curriculum and lesson plans for the first month of school, followed by three more days of sessions on school culture and procedures. Last week we also handed them their hardcopies of the Teacher's Guide to Life and Work, 2009-10 edition; they have been able to access this through our new teacher wiki (sorry, access for our folks only, but I'll blog about it later) since July.

We focus on making the orientation program into a real immersion into school culture. The program tomorrow starts with an in-depth, anecdotal school tour where we meet administrators and otherwise see the school from the inside out; we even have a session just on the odd lingo our school uses. (QUICK HINT FOR MAKING THE NEW YEAR A SUCCESS FOR NEW TEACHERS: Start making a little glossary of these terms for your own school, and see how quickly you need to add pages.) By the time it's all over, all the new faculty in both divisions will have met a pretty good range of their colleagues as well as people in administrative functions that bear on their work directly and indirectly, and so when full faculty meetings start next week no one will feel like a stranger.

For the past couple of years we have de-emphasized the artificial "here's your mentor/blind date" thing. Great mentorship programs are built from the ground up and cost serious money when you start easing teaching loads for mentors and new folks and trying to schedule common planning time; I'm all for programs like this, but most schools, particularly in a tough economy, can't afford them. Instead, what we have been aiming for is a "CULTURE OF MENTORSHIP," in which department chairs, divisional and departmental colleagues, class deans, and others in a position to do so understand the needs of each new cohort of teachers and pick up the reins constantly to check in, observe, offer feedback, help, support, and guide the new people into the fabric of the faculty's professional life.

Building a culture of mentorship requires that we be especially explicit and intentional about this. Each group that meets--department chairs, deans--needs to be reminded that "it takes a village to make a teacher successful." It turns out that each previous year's new teacher cohort can be helpful here, too, and we debrief with them pretty regularly throughout their first year. Last year our new teachers took a couple of afternoon retreats with a small group of what we call Lead Teachers--teachers who have piloted program ideas and who have become an important in-house professional development resource for all faculty.

The worry, of course, is that a teacher here or an issue there might slip through the cracks, and we have to keep working on how we do this. But I think that overall the model has some real advantages over the old "blind date" model, which sometimes worked out very well but just as often fizzled after the first couple of weeks of school. I think that all the pre-service work that we do really contributes to success, as no teacher enters our building without a really good grounding not only in the professional and educational culture of the school but also in the critical "who's who" questions: Where do I go for help? What can I expect from (that person or that function)? This matters a great deal.

I still hear stories of schools with half-day orientations for new teachers, or where the half-day program is proudly announced to have become a full day. I don't think that is anywhere near enough time or enough exposure to key people and key roles to truly "orient" a new teacher. I worry that one-on-one mentorship programs added to over-short orientations serve more to isolate new teachers or create a sense of urgent dependency than to give them the confidence and basic knowledge they will need to succeed from Day One.

A culture of mentorship is really another term for a professional learning community, and it would be nice to think that all of our schools would be focused on creating this kind of environment and culture for their faculties. In the meantime, we have to work hard to build in the structures (where we can) and the intention (everywhere) to make coming into a new school as seamless and as success-focused as possible.


Monday, May 25, 2009

School year's end approaches. No breathers yet, but maybe soon

It's been a crazy month once again, settling our seniors into their college choices, going through the final edits of The Intentional Teacher: Forging a Great Career in the Independent School Classroom--scheduled for publication some time this summer--and continuing work on the NAIS Financial Sustainability series monographs. (Reminder: If you work at an NAIS member school you can create a member profile to obtain access to all of these, plus some other great resources.)

A couple of lingering wait-list questions remain for the students, but on the whole the year was almost surprisingly good. One suspects that ability to pay may have tinted the waters more than in the past--mostly on the positive side for students--but we don't see wholesale disaster or selling out yet. I'm happy for the kids, who all seem pretty happy with their choices and eager to get on with it. Tough to be a senior in the last weeks of the year, but it's less than two weeks now before commencement; they'll make it.

As for The Intentional Teacher, it's my book on how to become, be, and grow as an independent school teacher. It has chapters on everything from getting hired to classroom management to curriculum design, and--as Billy Mays might say--much, much more. There is also a huge resource section. The book is available for pre-order at Avocus Publishing, 4 White Brook Road, Gilsum, NH 03448--the people who have published a number of books on independent school (and early on, particularly boarding school) topics.

I'm up to fourteen of these NAIS advisories right now, having just completed pieces on independent school-public/charter school partnerships, maintaining calm at the board level in hard times, and when and how to close down an independent school.

The last topic is just terribly sad, and it's possible that some readers here will have experienced it first-hand. The message is to make the decision early and to do it right; I'm watching my spouse's old Girl Scout camp (where she and I worked for a number of summers) go through this--we think; the GS council involved seems to be doing everything too late and in secret--and I can vouch for both the pain and the imperative that this task be done with sensitivity and integrity. Two of the Girl Scout camps at which I worked, including one I loved dearly, have been closed, and I still feel the pain. I've watched a couple of schools face the prospect of closure, and that has been even more tragic.

Anyhow, I think these last three advisories should go online at some point in the next week or two.

All this is to say that I've been a poor provider of content--much less wisdom--here, but there is some light at the end of the tunnel come July (still have a couple of school visits, some more writing, and a college trip to Ireland and the UK with our 17-year-old between now and then), and I plan on stocking up on Admirable Faculty ideas then.

In the meantime, may your school year end well and your plans for a new faculty orientation program include handing out copies of The Intentional Teacher (shameless plug) and perhaps something extra special, like a "Welcome to YourSchool" website. More on this soon.


Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Tough times, but a learning experience

For much of the last few months my "unassigned time"--time not spent working or driving kids around--has been devoted to writing a series of small articles and recording podcasts on financial sustainability issues for independent school leaders. Having covered the ground so far from development to innovation, I have spoken with a number of very thoughtful and knowledgeable people.

What I have heard has been generally quite heartening. Although the economy has struck fear into the hearts of many independent school people, no one yet has extreme horror stories to relate. Yes, there have been some layoffs, salary freezes, and other pretty sharp responses to enrollment concerns (responses that are of course horror stories to teachers left jobless in a tough market), but the wholesale disaster that some people had been predicting last fall seems not to have come to pass.

Is the absence of obvious catastrophe grounds for complacency? I think not. The economy is still wobbly, and whether it will be healed a year from now remains very much an open question. Nonetheless, it seems to me as though many schools have been asking themselves the right questions and taking thoughtful, positive steps to adjust themselves to an uncertain market.

What I have heard over and over is that the model in which our schools just expected an infinite cycle of growth in giving and enrollment is dead--at least until cultural amnesia takes over in a generation or so.

Schools are starting to think about "right-sizing" student bodies and faculties (okay, that's an inexcusable euphemism if it involves reducing faculty numbers other than through attrition) and looking for new ways to bring in revenue. Development offices are working smarter as well as harder, and schools are understanding the marketing isn't just about selling prestige but convincing new audiences that what we do is worthwhile for growing kids in unique and compelling ways.

A few schools seem to have recognized that now is a great time to think about new ways to organize curriculum and program. If the previous way wasn't working optimally, why not try something new? And so they are--grabbing onto Big Ideas in environmental and global education and looking at how to capture even more of the good heat being thrown off by technological innovation.

All in all, it looks as though we're going to make it, most of us, and along the way we may even get significantly better at what we do. We're all a bit chastened, and at least for a while we're not likely to take quite so many things for granted; we're going to become 21st-century versions of our Depression-era grandparents, although we're not likely to give up our iPods, even if we may upgrade a little less frequently.

Happy Spring!


Saturday, March 7, 2009

Ideas in professional development: Twittering an old-time resource

In 1920 Eugene Randolph Smith, head of the Park School of Baltimore, was invited to tell a group of Boston parents about the latest in educational thinking and practice. The parents immediately decided to hire Smith away from Baltimore to build a new school in Boston.

During his 23 years as head of Beaver Country Day School, Smith regularly posted challenging queries and statements for his faculty to discuss and dissect, a model of idea-driven professional development that I love. Late in his life, Smith collected many of these queries and assertions into Some Challenges to Teachers, which was published by Exposition Press in 1963.

In the interest of passing along Smith's challenges, I have created a Twitter account as "Tweetcher" from which I will be tweeting a daily excerpt from Smith's book, compressed into 140 characters where necessary.

So if you Twitter, Tweetcher promises never to clutter your day but to challenge and inspire you in some small way.

A bit more on Eugene R. Smith after the jump.

Smith, a mathematics teacher by training, was a long-time devotee of John Dewey and William Heard Kilpatrick and a fervent progressive. In his years as head of BCDS, Smith was a leading figure in the Progressive Education Association and a major contributor to the Eight-Year Study, which demonstrated the effectiveness of progressive educational methods in preparing students for college. (Unfortunately for the future of progressive education, the study was published just as World War II began, and its lessons were lost in the fog of war and the need for standardized, rigid methods for sorting and training young men and women to build an army and a highly disciplined industrial workforce. See Craig Kridel and Robert Bullough's Stories of the Eight-Year Study: Reexamining Secondary Education in America [State University of New York Press, 2007] for more on the study, its conclusions, and Smith's role.)

Smith also wrote Education Moves Ahead (1924), a summary of progressive educational practice at the time, notable for its foreword by Charles W. Eliot, former president of Harvard--he liked progressive education!

Smith, whose spouse Grace Howard Smith worked by his side as a teacher and administrator throughout his career, left BCDS in 1943. He later taught at Rollins College in Florida. Some Challenges to Teachers, published just a few years before Smith's death, is dedicated to Grace's memory.


Sunday, March 1, 2009

If you can keep your head...

The day of reckoning grows closer, and independent school people are growing ever more anxious. Even where admissions signs point to full enrollments and where annual giving hasn't diminished, the question of what things will look like in April, June, and September gnaws away at administrators and classroom teachers alike. Will there be enough students to fill the school and ensure full employment for the current faculty? Will the "donations" portion of the revenue stream enable the school to stay well above water? What will the yield be? Will there be a sudden, unexpected erosion of current enrollment as parents lose jobs and savings?

It's scary. Most of us don't like being afraid, but we like even less being around other frightened people. Fright breeds fright, and we know all too well the repercussions of mass hysteria and mob mentalities.

Independent school people are for the most part wise and educated in these things, but even the best of intentions and the most mellow sagacity cannot always stave off panic. My concern in all this, a concern that far outweighs whatever immediate anxieties I might have for schools in my own region (and I should state categorically that I am quite confident about my own school's situation), is that ill-considered decisions taken by governing boards and driven by parents might drive the "industry" as a whole several steps backward.

I have previously written of my firm belief that continued, intentional innovation will be the key to survival for schools, but lately I have heard more rumors than I like about schools where panicky communities have suddenly turned on forward-thinking leadership, blaming internal policies and practices for decreasing enrollments and financial predicaments.

Somehow, even when the stock market is plummeting and housing values are tanking, there are people who look not at the situation in their communities and the world but at the school and its leadership as the cause of problems. If the school has lately undertaken new work--in curriculum, in diversity, in technology, in sustainability--these initiatives, untried and unproven in the minds of some, MUST be to blame. Sometimes cranky, change-averse faculty members are even happy to egg parent, graduate, and trustee skeptics on, in the hope of reversing the school's course.

This MAY BE, I admit, a problem of branding and marketing, where perhaps the administration has failed to do all of its homework in communicating to the school community and to the community at large just what it is doing and why. Innovation succeeds most when it's understood in its purposes and methods, and good leadership explains these things well.

But even the best of leadership may have a hard time withstanding a wave of panic that sweeps through a community and causes people to lose heart at a crucial moment. When voices are raised to bring an end to this initiative or that--"We've got to get back to our traditional ways and values!"--holding to the moral high ground may count for little. Fissures may well appear within the school and its constituents that have been dormant for years. At worst, the situation becomes volcanic, and firestorms take their toll.

What are school leaders and their faculties to do?

For one thing, leaders must clearly state--compellingly, often, and in non-educationese--the ways in which whatever new work is under fire support and further the traditional values and mission of the school. For another, faculty should be firmly reminded that the effect of skeptical words to parents and others is multiplied, always negatively; even if they may have the opportunity to dance on the graves of unpopular administrators, they may be doing it in the unemployment line if prospective families take turbulence in the school as a reason not to enroll their children.

Newer schools, especially those that may have been founded as expressions of a particular personality or social belief, will be at greater risk, although the opportunity in this situation is for such schools to come out on the other end of the recession firmly established as institutions rather than points of view; now is the time to demonstrate that their founding ideals and principles have real substance, and that they can stand up in a storm.

Older schools are at an advantage, as I have suggested before, in that they can and really must leverage their reputations and heritage as living proof, if you will, that their institutional decisions are sound and their innovations merely more thoughtful chapters in the long story of their success.

It won't be easy, and some heads will roll. But everyone should be anticipating the first signs of panic and mob mentality and working preemptively to build the case for the forward-looking (I might even say progressive) work that so many independent schools have been doing. It is this work, in every area of school programming, that will continue to differentiate independent schools and that will ensure their viability even if the current recession will do some considerable harm to some of them.

It won't be easy, but if we remain smart and confident (not arrogant, mind you, but thoughtfully and justifiably sure of where we are headed and why), we will, the vast majority of us, survive and even thrive.


Sunday, February 22, 2009

No Man's Land, or The Trench?

These are frightening times in many independent schools, and many of us are in a period of uncertainty that will only end when re-enrollment and admissions yield numbers are posted in April. In some parts of the country the mood is particularly grim, and schools are preparing to make cuts in staff and programs as they scale back in the face of drooping demand. In every school, administrators are going to be looking long and hard at matters of curriculum and instruction and associated issues of faculty size, pay, and professional support programs.

I worry that fear is going to drive many schools to make poor choices about sustaining their teachers. Some staff cuts and small or nonexistent raises seem inevitable here and there, but the mentality that grows around the need to do such things can also be one of retrenchment in other areas: Things are bad, so let's not rock the boat by making any changes. We're known for a particular kind of program, so we'll hunker down and do just that.

Without rolling out any of the cliches about repeating what hasn't worked, let me say that I think that hunkering down is a dangerous idea.

Even if the school can easily point to a vortex of external forces that are causing problems for enrollment and fundraising--"It's not our fault, it's the economy, stupid!"--the duck-and-cover plan is missed opportunity. The school may even have to cut some positions in the short term, but for the long term every independent school had better be considering not retrenchment but innovation as the best strategy for survival and growth.

Even schools that have a long and proud traditional heritage and that may be "the only show in town" in their particular markets will need in the next four to five years to develop thoughtful, mission-based innovations in their programs and policies that will clearly differentiate them, both from other private schools and from public ones.

It's time for schools to look at their mission statements and dig into the language that is most idealistic and then figure out how to realize those ideals in ways that will be exciting and compelling to students and families in years to come. Instead of continuing to trade on even the most well-earned reputation for staid, predictable classroom instruction, schools will have to begin finding ways of crossing what seems like a No Man's Land toward their future.

But it's not a No Man's Land at all. Plenty of schools have undertaken initiatives into the unknown with considerable success, and these schools can be resources for others that decide that going green, going global, expanding service-learning programs, committing to 1:1 laptop learning, or even dropping Advanced Placement courses can play to their strengths and capitalize on opportunities yet to materialize.

Consider what may look like the most daring of these ideas, bidding farewell to AP-designated courses. Assuming for a moment that your teachers are trained in their subject matter and well-versed in curriculum and assessment design, then why shouldn't they be able to create outstanding, challenging high-level courses that will serve your students particularly well? As far as other issues go--admission, college placement--a number of other schools have already done the heavy lifting there; check out the new Independent Curriculum Group website to see how they have done it and how it has worked out.

Those "only show in town" schools, it seems to me, are especially well positioned to innovate; by building their programs and the case for them well among existing constituencies, they can leverage their strong reputations to build tremendous support for new programs in the community--their market--as a whole, turning innovation into a whole new set of strengths that will attract students and donor dollars for years to come. Instead of holding onto the mantra, "2 - 4 - 6 - 8, We don't want to innovate!," those schools should be looking for ways to stay on top of the market by finding new paths to educational excellence.

Innovation will require time and money, and the crisis is urgent. But schools need to take a deep breath, look hard at their missions and priorities, and then figure out how best to pursue their own ideals toward new and better ways of doing their work. Hunkering down won't suffice--it's going to mean going over the top, toward a more secure future.

The best part is that innovation will pay off directly and quickly for students. The excitement and challenge of new ways of thinking and learning based on 21st-century understandings will improve their educational experience and at the same time prepare them even more effectively for their own next adventures.


Thursday, February 5, 2009

Time is of the essence

I've been a slacker in blogland for a while, but I will plead the usual busy-ness: kickoff to our juniors' college search-apply-choose process, a few days at another school talking about schedule, and a slew of writing for the National Association of Independent Schools on issues managerial and financial. I've got a breather before the next onslaught, which includes arthroscopic knee surgery (so that my two will match) and a presentation on reinvigorating veteran teachers at the end of the month.

My schedule-related travels made me realize again how important is the allocation of time in our schools. Time is the coin of the realm, the most scarce commodity and the most valuable, and those who control time in schools--administrators, the calendar committee, the athletic director--have considerable power over the lives of students and teachers. The curriculum rises and falls by whether the school has a schedule that allows it to be executed, and the collective sanity of the school community is directly related to the amount of balance in the school day, week, term, and year between work and reflection, action and reaction.

For a great many years now I have been a big fan of Grant Wiggins's essay, "The Futility of Trying to Teach Everything of Importance." The title itself says everything that needs to be said about the issue of scheduling in schools, and yet schools too often seem bent on teaching everything--it's the additive curriculum, with more and more squeezed into at and seldom anything taken out. Competitive independent schools have ramped up graduation requirements, beefed up their AP programs with the extra time required to--let's face it--teach to the test, and sent the message loud and clear that passionate (and time-consuming) commitment to a couple of activities is the route to colleges whose names shine brightest in rear-window decals.

I won't belabor the point, as it has been made time and again, and probably at your school by some of those older teachers who sit at the back of the room during faculty meetings and occasionally screw up the courage to ask if something will be "taken away" now that your school has added this or that to the program. Generally speaking, of course, nothing will be subtracted, rolled back or otherwise removed from the program. This or that period will be shortened, or lengthened, or seized and repurposed, to make the new good thing happen. It will all be fine.

Along with Wiggins, the Coalition of Essential Schools pushes ideas I fancy, including, "Less is more." While it may sound like New Age sophistry, a bogus koan, sometimes we need to remember that it makes sense, even in traditional schools. The problem is that executing this concept involves rethinking the way we do things right at the core level: courses, content, assessments. It involves reimagining how time can be used in schools to accomplish the things we need to do, carving and paring around the sometimes decorative edges--like piling homework on kids as window dressing designed to prove that the school is "rigorous"--and focusing on what matters most of all in the context of the school's essential mission.

It wasn't a bad world back when St. Basalt's required two years of Latin, two years of mathematics (on to trigonometry for the most able), a couple of years of science, and full immersion in European history and English literature, all marinated in the sweat of students whose afternoons were spent in team sports. The content and depth of the courses aside, the foundational transactions in such schools in the old days were very much the same as those of our own era: students developed strong relationships with bright adults who challenged kids to think, write, work, and run as hard as they could and who passed stern but affectionate and usually encouraging judgment upon their efforts. This program, laughably spare as it may seem to us today, produced good and capable people--some of them ourselves, others our parents and grandparents. St. Basalt's teams were competitive, its theatrical productions of Bell, Book, and Candle enjoyable to watch, and its graduates went on to college.

What did the boys and girls of St. Basalt's sixty years ago do with their spare time? Beats me. It's not likely any more of them read for pleasure than our students do today, and with those long afternoons on the field or in the rink they weren't hanging out at the malt shop. They weren't Facebooking, but they were probably socializing and canoodling in ways that wouldn't look unfamiliar in the 21st century.

Somehow, kids both kept themselves busy and managed to eke out an education--in 20th-century skills, I'll grant you--without 60+ period rotating schedule cycles and "co-curricular" courses in everything. Interesting, isn't it, that 21st-century skills, with all the yeasty synergies of collaboration and technology, seem to take so much more time to teach when we just add these elements to what we are already doing?

Because that's just it: we fail to take advantage of the yeasty synergies of technology and our better understanding of how learning happens, and we bury ourselves and our students. Think of all the years since the Advanced Placement Biology examination was instituted and all the new knowledge in that field that had to be taught. A few new findings supplanted older ones, but for the most part the new content amounted to ever-increasing granularity--more and more detail. Word is that the College Board is at last trying to revamp the curriculum to bring the content back to the level of humanly-learnable-in-30-some-weeks.

I'm beginning to sound like one of those "what are we taking away" curmudgeons in the back of the faculty meeting, and I don't mean to. I like a busy day, and I love the idea that in our time we are stretching and challenging our students in new ways and with many new points of view.

But time is of the essence, and I think schools need to consider whether their students and teachers have become victims of the additive curriculum. Whether a school's schedule is a funky block, a complex rotator, or a tried-and-true straight day, it has to meet the needs of the students and of a curriculum that is intentional and humane. If your scheduler has become a contortionist and your community members sprinters, step back and return to first principles: mission, values, goals.

Let time serve the people, rather than the people feel as though they are serving time.


Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Recruiting Strategies

In uncertain economic times the quality of a school's faculty matters more than ever, and the conditions of 2009 should occasion that smartest, most intentional hiring season ever. Whether the school is looking for one teacher or many, thoughtful recruiting--based on the hiring self-study recommended in a previous post as well as on the specific need--will increase the probability of bringing in appropriate candidates who, as teacher, will be able to deliver to students the programs on whose quality the school's reputation and well-being will depend.

Smart recruiting is mission-driven. The qualities of prospective teachers should match the stated and lived values and purposes of the school. Therefore, schools ought to think carefully about where they begin to post positions and cast their nets in search of candidates who will be good matches. No school should rely exclusively on agencies and hiring fairs to meet their needs, although these can be great sources of outstanding candidates; neither should schools automatically table applications that come in "out of the blue." Agencies, incidentally, are more than willing to work very closely with schools to match candidates, and whoever is in charge of a school's hiring should not be afraid to push agency contacts in search of the best people.

In recent years most independent schools have expressed a desire to make diversity an important part of their recruiting efforts, but too often the challenges of a what is often described as a "small pool" force schools to abandon this goal. This is an unfortunate situation that at its worst can breed some cynicism in the school community among those committed to diversity, but any school can make the extra effort needed to expand the reach of its recruiting efforts. At the least, organizations like StrateGenius and NEMNET, which both offer minority placement services, should be consulted at the outset of the hiring season.

To begin with, schools should explore local recruiting resources. Job listings for teaching positions can be posted in local newspapers, and such listings increasingly show up on sites such as Craig's List--it's not crazy to recruit where more and more people actually go looking. If there are local or regional publications where an inexpensive small display ad about "working at St. Basalt's" would attract attention, consider using such an ad as a conduit for contact with the school; this will be most cost-effective in cases where the school is making multiple hires.

In communities or regions with newspapers or on-line publications focused on traditionally underserved populations, want-ads for teaching jobs--even translated into languages other than English, if appropriate--are likely to reach potential candidates who might not be "hooked into" the agency or job fair scene or who might not know about school "jobs" webpages or regional association listing sites. Additionally, such ads are signals to that community that the school is thoughtful about its desire to participate in a multicultural world and sincere in its desire to have a diverse faculty, and such signals can attract new student applicants, as well. (In fact, all teacher-recruiting materials should be considered as having a role in student recruitment, as well.)

The content of the school's position listings is important. Some ads make schools sound so august and formal as to be potentially off-putting, while others supply so little information about either the position or the school as to be practically useless. Boilerplate language about the school should be concise but as warm as possible, and job descriptions should leave enough room for flexibility so that qualified candidates who do not fit a precise description are not discouraged. Visual content should be inviting; it is possible that the school seal and Latin motto are better left out or replaced simply by the school name in its official font.

I posted earlier on "employment at" websites, which should be made as comprehensively informative and as attractive as possible. If the school creates its own print materials for teacher recruiting, these should obviously be good-looking and focused on why it's great to teach at St. Basalt's--professional development opportunities, community, programs--and try to differentiate or at least be very specific about the professional and social culture of the school; good photographs showing actual teaching will help. Schools need to remember that the recruiting season is about attracting and energizing smart, committed teachers and not about impressing them with the school's past glories; these matter, but the teacher will be starting work in 2009 and needs to have a sense of what the school is like as a place to work, grow, and live.

Other places to look for potential teachers include such usual suspects as college and university placement offices but also employment fairs with a public/charter school focus (look around or check with your local public school system), industrial employment fairs (there might be some potentially terrific STEM teachers who could be curious to sit down with a school at such a fair in times when job pickings are slim), and even local teacher union newsletters. The U.S. government's Troops to Teachers program "helps eligible military personnel begin a new career as teachers," and teachers ending their stints with Teach for America may be good bets and can be reached at the TFA outplacement site.

Although some school administrators detest the hiring process and work to complete it as soon as possible, its importance to the vitality and even viability of the school should inspire creativity, serious effort, and patience. It may take time to bring in a "ideal" candidates, but they are out there: expert, diverse, enthusiastic, and excited by the mission of your school. Work thoughtfully to find them and to let them know as much as possible about the school even before beginning to interview and hire, and the next year will go even more smoothly because the new hires will understand and be committed to the school and its mission.


Thursday, January 8, 2009

What makes great teachers--and what attracts them to schools?

What seems like a long month ago a piece by Malcolm Gladwell appeared in the New Yorker under the title "Most Likely to Succeed." As is usual for Gladwell's work, the piece is briliantly written, creatively constructed, and provocative; he loves being the gadfly. In this case, the conventional wisdom he is questioning has to do with teacher hiring, curiously mirrored against the process pro football uses to vet prospective recruits. The subtitle of the article is "How do we hire when we can’t tell who’s right for the job?" And that is his point.

I'm not going to offer up a critique of Gladwell's approach, although lately I've found his thinking on education to be surprisingly reactionary, but the article seems to have sparked yet another round of the "What's wrong with teachers?" discussion, this time among what is perhaps a more elevated crowd than that stirred up by campaigning politicians. I was interested to note a few days later a blog post on the Wall Street Journal "The Juggle" site entitled "What Makes a Good Teacher?"--the post made reference to the Gladwell piece and was clearly inspired by it. Interested, I followed the commentary on this post, which revealed to me a great deal about how the kinds of Americans who read the Journal and the New Yorker think about teachers and schools.

Predictably, a fair number of the Journal commentarists let loose on teacher unions, tenure, and contemporary approaches to the teaching of spelling and grammar--the usual shibboleths of conservative educational critics. There was a biting and thus entertaining exchange over the proper use of the apostrophe, as in "it's" versus "its," and a couple of writers just thought the U.S. should adopt whatever methods are used to teach math and science in countries whose students outscore their American peers on the TIMMS assessment. A few people sneered at what they assume to be the poor intellectual quality of those who enter teacher training programs. One respondent even dragged out his (alleged?) SAT score as proof of his own intellectual worth.

But there was also a great deal of thoughtful commentary on the nature of schools and the qualities of excellent teachers and the kinds of conditions under which teachers can thrive, and it was heartening in the end to see how many of the writers (and a few of them are teachers, I'll have to admit) seem to understand the challenges of teaching.

Stepping way back, I will go so far as to generalize that a deep concern for children and their success was, by consensus, the signal characteristic of good teachers. Those who have this quality are seen as willing to make some sacrifices, even Herculean efforts, to make sure their students learn and grow.

Excellent teaching happens, the writers tended to agree, where teachers had the time to prepare adequately and administrative support to be innovative in their pedagogy. A few even acknowledged that Journal readers are likely to live in communities where affluence and high expectations around education are pretty much a guarantee of satisfactory educational outcomes; one writer even pointed out that socioeconomic filters blunt the effects of the problems with teacher hiring that Gladwell writes about.

None of the Journal commentarists nor Gladwell himself explicitly mentioned what I believe to be another factor in teacher success: clarity of purpose. (I even dashed off a letter to the editor of the New Yorker, but I'm not expecting it to appear.)

Schools with strong, clear and easily understood missions and the will to put these missions at the center of everything they do--generally independent schools, most religious private schools, and many charter schools--are likely to attract teachers who will be willing to "go the extra mile" with students to enact and teach values and ideals in which they believe. Within this group, independent schools have both the historical and financial advantages to capture the attention of prospective teachers with especially strong qualifications, to evaluate candidates carefully and fully (and expensively), and to offer contracts that, even if salaries are less than those of some charter schools, do not generally equate to vows of poverty.

Not every independent school teacher is a great teacher or even a good one, but schools that are exceptionally clear about who they need as teachers and who can communicate their educational and cultural values well in the hiring process are likely to attract and retain particularly strong faculties. Independent schools have another advantage here, in that longevity and established governance structures add a layer of mission and program stability that is not to be found in every charter school or newly founded faith-based school.

What Malcolm Gladwell may not have considered, and what the Journal writers seem to have missed, is that the kinds of teachers who will establish the success-oriented relationships with their students and who will spend hours perfecting their curriculum and pedagogy are most likely to be found in schools that educate their students and nurture their teachers in a context of shared meaning and purpose, supported from every quarter in the school and its community. (One suspects that the TIMMS poster-child countries are ones in which cultural homogeneity and a longstanding sense of teachers as figures of respect create this context on a national level, at least within the education system.)

It would be a wonderful world if our politicians would create more conditions for public schools in which meaning, purpose, and reward structures commensurate with the importance of the enterprise were the rule and not the exception, but in the meantime private schools, and in particular independent schools, should continue to work hard to enunciate and live positive, distinctive missions and values. This should ensure a continual flow of great, and potentially great, teachers toward their classrooms.