Wednesday, December 3, 2014

You are where you are..... because of your students

  I have kept this quote posted on our staff wiki page for the past few years. I read it every time I log in. 

This is what I currently believe: 
    When I came to Conesville ES 9 years ago as principal, this school was already in a transitional time and probably didn't know it. (The outgoing principal knew it.)  "Things" had already started to change for our school before I arrived, but as usually is the case, slow and subtle can sneak up on you and go unrecognized for a long time.  Some of the more direct changes that would take place of course, could be attributed to me because that naturally happens whenever a building gets new leadership. Some of my personality traits, leadership qualities, and work ethics matched well with staff and students, and some didn't. But, hard lessons were learned and for the most part we all moved on together. 
     Growing pains came with the expectation of staff to work with new technology: first email, then wikis, google docs, ipads and more. More growing pains came with expectations that students also use the same technology as adults did. New standards were adopted. A new evaluation system put into place. Formative instructional practices became our life. It was messy. It still is.
    Student demographics had become magnified. Free and reduced lunch rates ballooned. Open enrollment requests and the issues that tag along had grown. The school doors had to be open earlier to get more students through the breakfast line in a manageable amount of time. Numbers of students with identified needs had climbed. Larger numbers of temporary students have become something to account for. Students entering kindergarten, but not yet ready for kindergarten standards. Or, second graders still needing skills that were only taught in the kindergarten classes. Gifted students clamoring for attention. Students arriving to school needing more social cues than ever before. 
    Our students today may sit in the same brick and mortar building that their parents and older siblings sat in, but most of everything else has changed, or is in the process of changing. And the changes still come. You don't stop them, you just manage them. If you're good, you predict and prepare for them. This staff is really good.

    With this premise in mind, "Whatever it takes to put the right students with the right teacher at the right time," this is what we have done one small step at a time:

Scheduling: In the perfect world, what would our perfect schedule look like? Let's start there and work backwards. Custom recess times can replace traditional "after lunch/before lunch" recess. Intervention specialists have a MAJOR voice in setting up the schedule so they can co-teach and pull out students in the most effective manner. Large blocks of time are made available wherever possible for reading and language arts. Art, Music, and PE specials are arranged to allow teachers who share students to "plan together so they can teach together." Plan specials commonly across the district to double the amount of tech time. Have a student in one grade level but could really benefit from a teaching session going on next door? Send them. Don't let the tail wag the dog.
"We are where we are because of our students."

Room locations: Movement of students to receive services and instruction is hard to manage in a 75 year old building.  Classroom walls and stairs can't move, but grade levels assignments and furniture can. We added a second pre-school this year so we took the opportunity to relocate (uproot) all of our pK-2 classrooms to leverage physical proximity so teachers could share common student groups more easily. It used to be unthinkable for a teacher to move out of  "their classroom" unless someone retired and the move was an upgrade. This group did so readily. 
"We are where we are because of our students."

Staff (assignments, movements, hires):  Sometimes, staff realize they are better suited with different groups of students or different grade levels and ask for a chance to prove it.  Sometimes, to address changes that are happening, you have to assign teachers to a new grade level or subject than what they were originally hired for. Be prepared to weather the fallout for the rest of the year. Changing staff assignments is hard on teachers and shouldn't be done lightly or offhand. We have changed some assignments. Sometimes, the principal is the only one who realizes the change needs made and has to make hard decisions based on what is best for students, not  what is best for teachers or principals. Some teachers decided to find work in another building. A couple decided to leave us altogether. I don't begrudge any of them. It's tough out here. Frankly, doing things the way they have always been done is easy. Being asked to do things that may not have a guaranteed outcome and no road map is difficult. Hiring is one of the most important things a principal does. We have made some great hires.
"We are who we are because of our students."

Enrichment & Intervention: We don't do this perfectly. What we do recognize though is that you have to strive to meet all students where they are and do it the best that you can every single day. We wrote action plans long before the Third Grade Guarantee made us. They have to be written with the students' needs in mind and then deliver it with fidelity. Every single aide is where they are suppose to be at the time they are suppose to be, providing support.  Every child, every day. It really starts making a difference when students start receiving what they need, when they need it.
"We do what we do because of our students."

Special Education:  Co-teaching in an inclusion classroom depends on the right mix of people. Don't do it if you don't have the right people. We have a great mix of co-teachers with regular education teachers. They advocate for the best and least restrictive environment and work towards providing it every day. If you have a special education plan at our school, be prepared for someone meeting you at the door to check in with you and giving you a hug on the way out. You may even get some reading minutes in over your lunch time.
"We do what we do because of our students."

Technology: We don't check the technology at the door. Never have, never will. We walk the talk at our school as much as we can. Technology levels the playing field for our students. Technology lives and breathes in our school. It's our one advantage. If you come to our school to learn, bring your learning device with you. Our teachers were using Google Docs two or three years prior to our district finally becoming a Google Apps For Education School. Each of our teachers already had iPads in hand when people were asking me in meetings what an iPad was. My Chromebook is four years old. We have a presence on social media because that's where our families are. (dragged my feet on that one but I finally gave up).  Our teachers value their professional learning networks on Twitter and know they have to be their own "Superman."
"We share what we share because of our students."

Fusion: We believe the natural evolution of formative instructional practices leads to doing everything described above. Our fusion class is a blend of kindergarten and first grade classes merged and mixed based on what the students need for that year, month, week, or day. It's supported with an intervention specialist, aides, and technology. We want to grow it sideways and upways. (click the fusion link for more info)
"We do what we do because of our students."

Relationships:    If you can't build these with your students, forget everything that you just read.
"We are where we are because of our students."

    I have proudly been teaching, leading, and learning in the RVLSD district for 18 years now and this is what I believe: Our district, and probably your's too, is slowly and subtly changing. It has to. The world is changing. Education has changed (I think for the better). Nothing was ever meant to stay the same anyhow.

The question is:                         How are YOU going to respond? responding? 

Inspirational credit to Kathy Balo, para-professional, Conesville ES