Friday, February 20, 2009

A Shout Out to Preschool Teachers Everywhere!

Last week I gave a speech to beginning teachers and mentors in a large school district in my state. I always begin my presentations by trying to get to know my audience, much like the way I get to know the students in my classroom on the first day of school. So I begin by playing a little game I call "That's Me!" I say a statement like "I am a high school teacher" and all the high school teachers jump up and shout, "That's Me!" It's just loads of fun. So on this day I named everything I could think of from beginning teachers to mentors to elementary, middle, and high school teachers to administrators to people who wandered in off the street because they heard there was food.

When I finished I asked, "Did I forget anyone?" All of a sudden a gang of teachers jumped up and yelled, "Preschool teachers!" Preschool teachers...oh my gosh! How could I have forgotten about them? I acknowledged them and apologized for the oversight. I then took a minute to tell them about my experience with my granddaughter Taylor as she started preschool last August. It had been a defining moment.

So as I was driving home, I had a little time (three hours, to be exact) to think about the role of the preschool teacher. I was thinking about how cute those little kiddies are and how they never curse at the teacher or forget their supplies or homework. I had some nice little daydreams about becoming a preschool teacher, just another idea in a long list of potential opportunities that I've thought about recently. I must be having a career identity crisis.

Today I had the chance to test my skills. I had Taylor over so I thought we'd have some school time after nap. We started a little shaky, though. I first became aware that Taylor was awake when I heard her shrieking, "It's a HEART ATTACK! It's a HEART ATTACK!" from the bed. Apparently, the dog was excited to hear Taylor rustling in the covers and jumped on her as a friendly doggie greeting. Taylor was not quite as excited.

After a nice snack of cheese nips and apple juice (see...I know what they eat), I gathered the materials and started "school." First I wrote Taylor's name in big letters with my marker and asked her to copy them with hers. She did really well with "T." She did pretty well with "A." Then she took the marker and wrote on my sleeve. Realizing that the first green mark was not nearly big enough, she made another one, this time longer and thicker, and running the length of my arm. Before I could reprimand her, she began writing on her own hand.

"Taylor," I said. "What's Mommy going to say when she sees marker on your hand?"

She continued working on her body art creation. "She will say she LUB me."

Hmmm. I then used my best refocus tools to get her back on track. Cookies.

She attempted the other letters but was obviously losing interest so I decided to try something I had heard preschool teachers talk about: a part of their curriculum called "dramatic play." Taylor loves to play "pretend" so I thought this activity would be very educational.

We walked over to the toy box, and I grabbed some play cups, plates, and a little set of utensils - a spoon, a little strainer, and a measuring cup. Taylor immediately grabbed the strainer and came at me like a race horse out of a gate. Before I knew what was happening she announced, "Let's flush out your nose" and jammed the cute little strainer halfway up my face. I was horrified, not to mention in pain, so I tried to find a diversion. I reached for a ball, but she was on me again, this time explaining, "We have to get all that gooky out!"

Finally I had the ball in my clutches.

"Here, Taylor. Catch." Taylor obediently caught the ball...then she promptly beaned me in the just flushed nose.

"We're playing foot-fall," she squealed.

Then I got another idea. Preschool teachers surely take their students outside to learn about nature. Taylor and I filled her Disney Princess pitcher with water and braced ourselves against the winter elements to water some flowers. She did great for .2 seconds. Then she "watered" my car. It's okay. The ice will melt in the spring.

It was about that time I realized that I may not ever be a good preschool teacher. So I decided to conduct a little research.

"Taylor," I asked. "What do you learn at school?"

"My A's and B's" she answered.

"What else?"

"I learn to be nice. No biting. No pushing."

I'm nose flushing?

But it's okay, Taylor. We can play school like that anytime you want....because I LUB you. And thank you for helping me understand that there is no preschool classroom in my future. Not for all the cheese nips and apple juice in the world.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Principal Principles

I've never had the desire to be a school administrator. Not for one second. I've always known that my place is in front of a classroom with chalk in my hand. Well, times have changed, and there are no more chalkboards. But I still have no administrator aspirations. However, I've just had an amazing opportunity, and I feel that I may have a message for others who see a school principalship in the future.

I have recently had the opportunity to talk to school communities - including teachers, support staff, parents, and students - about what makes a good administrator. What I have found is that there are characteristics that are common across school levels and community demographics when it comes to defining what makes a principal great. Here are the results of my unofficial research on the "Principles of Great Principals."

*The school is a family.

There is an air of connectedness that any visitor can sense immediately when walking into a school that is led by a great principal. I've heard it referred to as "a community of caring." Teachers and parents talk about the school leader being accessible, and students feel at home in the building, aware that the principal cares about them. One teacher said, "If I needed him right now, I could talk to him right now, no matter what he's doing." The sense of teamwork is apparent, and just as good teachers maintain a family atmosphere in a classroom, good principals establish that same feeling in the school as a whole. There are frequent celebrations, and the work is fun for everyone in the building.

*Teachers are treated as professionals.

Over and over, school after school, I heard these words: "He lets me teach." Although great principals are instructional leaders who guide the staff in the best interest of student learning, they do not micro-manage their teachers. Instead, teachers are given the flexibility to provide instruction that is meaningful for the students in their classrooms. Similarly, great principals were teachers first. As one teacher described his principal, "he's never forgotten where he's been." Since they are able to remember their days in the classroom, they treat their teachers with the respect they deserve and give them great amounts of instructional freedom.

*Instruction in the school is data-driven.

Great principals disaggregate data schoolwide so they can give their teachers a "big picture" understanding of instructional needs. They also take that data and determine methods for sharing best practices among the staff as well as for selecting professional development opportunities that correspond with those methods. Teachers are empowered to use data on individual students in their classrooms as they plan lessons that promote student growth. In addition, the academic culture is celebrated as principals reward academic success in ways that motivate students and staff.

*They are student centered.

Great principals know their students. They know their names, their stories, their strengths and weaknesses. They know all about their families, their dreams, and their limitations. And walk through a school with a great principal, and you'll see him/her with an arm around a student, having a conversation about a recent test score or athletic event. Students love good principals; they know when they're cared about, and they know when an administrator makes a difference in a school.

*They reach out to families.

Great principals make an effort to include families in the community of a school. They offer various opportunities for parents, including Parent Advisory Councils, Open House nights, question and answer sessions, and frequent communication via phone messages, emails, and publications sent home with the students. One principal I met explained how he visits the home of every rising freshman before they begin high school. Now there's an example of going above and beyond the job description!

*They have undying energy.

As one teacher explained it, "He squeezes 28 hours into 24." Great principals are in those schools early in the morning and late at night. They can be seen at sporting events and chorus concerts, and they pick up trash and plant flowers on the campus. They spend their days working with teachers on instruction, dealing with student discipline, and communicating with parents and others in the community while working into the night supervising sporting events and attending band concerts. During their "off" time, they are reading educational research in an effort to find strategies that will enable their teachers to make a difference in their classrooms.

*They promote school spirit and teamwork.

There is a palpable spirit in a school that has a good leader. It can be felt when listening to the morning announcements and seen on the hallway walls. Everything is a celebration, and everyone in the school is happy to be there. Academic success is cheered just as athletics are, and teachers and students know they are valued. Visitors who come in the building must think This would be a great place to work! Everyone is happy and relaxed even though there is a sense of urgency concerning learning and student achievement. And everyone from the cafeteria staff and the custodians to the students, teachers, and office staff will announce with pride that they have the best school and wouldn't want to be anywhere else.

*They develop leaders.

Great principals work diligently to ensure that their teachers are equipped to be leaders in the classroom. Resources and supplies are available, and opportunities for professional development are encouraged. Student leadership is also valued in schools with great principals. Students are given opportunities to excel in areas of interest to them, whether they are athletes or members of the chess club. And school principals serve as important mentors to their assistant principals and interns.

As one teacher said, "He makes me want to be a better teacher." A leader of leaders - that's what a great principal is.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Career Change?

I ended up teaching in a middle school the same way many teachers do. There were no positions in the high school. At first I taught middle school language arts while coaching cheerleaders at the nearby high school and waiting patiently for some high school teacher to retire or have a baby or move to another state.

But one day a few years into my career, I woke up and loved middle school. I've talked about it before. I realized at some point that middle school students are funny and smart and challenging and lovable; they emcompass everything I could ever need to experience job fulfillment. I love watching them participate in their first competitive sports, their first chorus performances, and their first student councils. I see them fall in love for the first time, get their hearts broken, and possibly struggle in school like never before.

And when those things happen, I'm there...cheering them on, wiping their tears, giving them hugs...I love a middle school child.

But something has happened in the past couple of days that may be life changing and career altering. I have fallen in love with elementary school children.

In the past two days I have visited two different elementary schools. And I am finding myself surprisingly drawn to children who are no taller than my knees. The reasons are clear: one - they love me, and two - they are cute as bugs!

When I say they love me, I mean all I have to do is walk in a room, and there they are, all grins and waves. I've even gotten a couple of hugs from tiny total strangers. So simply put - I love them back: I love their little bitty clothes and shoes and lunchboxes and their huge gaptoothed smiles.

All of a sudden I think I would love to teach elementary school. There's only one problem. I don't know how. I feel pretty good about motivating an adolescent to read. However, I have no clue how to help a kindergartener recognize that A is for Apple.

I would love those little cuties, though. We would hug and play, and I promise I would resist the urge to bite the little darlings. Maybe there's an elementary classroom somewhere in my future. But for now it seems those schools are well staffed. I guess I'll have to wait for someone to retire...or have a baby...or.....

Here's my buddy Samuel. I plucked him right out of the lunch line. Those snaggly teeth were just adorable to me, and he was so cute in his little vest!

I found this cutie patootie getting ready for lunch and asked his name. He barely whispered it so I told him I didn't hear him. He took a deep breath and yelled, ETHAN!!!" across the cafeteria. He was so excited to get his picture taken.

Not to be outdone by Ethan, Christopher asked to have his picture taken, too.

And just an end note - Sarah is a precious fifth grader who gave me a tour of her elementary school. When we arrived at the teacher's lounge she announced, "This is where the teachers go to relax when they have finished all of their work and don't have any more papers to grade." I tried really hard not to laugh while envisioning a time like that.