Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Good is the Enemy of Great

The latest book I have been reading has sparked another series of thoughts that after bouncing around in my head for a few days, I have garnered enough nerve to finally sit down and write. The book is by Jim Collins titled: "Good to Great". Collins and a group of researchers spent several years studying how good companies became great. This is a business centered book, but I found several parallels between his intended audience and education.

The very first chapter hit me like a ton of bricks: GOOD IS THE ENEMY OF GREAT. Now, I consider myself a pretty good teacher, so I was slightly offended by the title. What is wrong with being good? I work very hard at my craft and do not feel being "just good" is a negative. I almost closed the book and gave it back to my brother, whom I borrowed the book from.

I am glad I continued reading. I began to realize that when people settle for just being good, it prevents them from reaching their fullest potential. They become stagnant and okay with the status quo. How many times have we heard our fellow teachers utter the phrase, "Why do I need (insert latest educational pedagogy, tech program or buzz word here), my test scores are good enough? I do not need it." These teachers are not willing (or maybe able) to push themselves to go to the next level. I believe these are the people that Mr. Collins was referencing with his statement above.

"Just being" good is a disease that may be incurable. After some reflection, these are the people that we need to keep our young teachers away from. Do not get me wrong, many times good teachers are successful for a few years, maybe even several. I believe this is the group that begins to flounder when there is a paradigm shift, or new way of thinking. These individuals resolutely stand their ground, resting on past successes, refusing to change or modify. Little do they realize, everyone else is passing them by.

As a side note, there is nothing wrong with being a good teacher. I am proud to say my kids have had several good teachers at school, and they both learned a lot from these dedicated individuals. Their classes were always fun and educational. My kids raved about these teachers, mad when we "forced" them to stay home because they were sick.

So, what about the group of us that works hard at running a successful, organized, engaging classroom? We subscribe to blogs to stay fresh on new methods to reach more students. We are involved in Social Media to connect with educators from around the world. We thrive on conversations that challenge our way of thinking, either changing our minds about a topic or reaffirming our original thoughts. We secretly want to be observed by administrators more to encourage discussion about what we may need to improve upon.

That, I believe, is the difference. If you are trying to find ways to improve your craft, I believe you are on the road to Greatness. I do not think Greatness is a destination. I do not know if you ever get there. But, that might be the subliminal message Mr. Collins is conveying: do not settle...keep seeking out ways to improve...keep working hard. The path to greatness is lined with it.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

How Time Made Me Better

I was struck by a Twitter comment yesterday by @Urban_Teacher: "Teacher Tip: Sometimes it's better to soak the pot, then scrubbing away. It avoids you damaging the pot and wasting energy." I laughed out loud at the simplicity of this statement. How many times have we left a "soaker" on the stove to be able to clean it easier tomorrow? Without fail, the dirt and grime is easily cleaned off with little effort. All the pot needed was some time to get rid of its grime before becoming shiny and new again. I immediately began to connect this to how time has helped me improve as a teacher. This was the spark I needed for a post...

I have modified my list down to three main improvements I made over the years to fine-tune my classroom environment: One, the time I give a student to answer a question after he or she was called on in class, Two, the time I give a situation or problem involving a disruptive student. Lastly, and the one I think is the most important: MY OWN TIME. I believe these three changes over the years have made me a better leader in the classroom.

For starters, giving students time to answer a question in math class is very important. The student may be flustered after being called without raising their hand. Giving them time allows them to compose themselves and minimized the chance of embarrassment. No student wants to look foolish in front of his or her peers. The way you handle this with middle schoolers could depend on the number of hands that go up the next time you ask a question. Combined with this is how I have handled the student that says, "I did not get that one," or "I skipped that one." I use to just skip right over that and pick the next student. That changed several years ago. Now, I either ask them to try it now while continuing to go over the homework with the rest of the class, or I ask a classmate to walk the student through the problem while I go on with the rest of the students. I found this to be much more beneficial than skipping over them. The students learned they had to know the work, and I was going to give them time to do that.

Just as important is the way I have started handling situations in my classroom that are a distraction to the learning environment. We have all had the student that will not pick their head up, stop tapping their pencil or anything else imaginable to just get attention. The younger me would have directly handled this situation, distracting the other students, getting off the daily objective and giving me a monster headache. I have learned over time (sorry, the puns keep happening!) that the behaviors change quicker if I allow politeness and subtlety to "soak-in" for a while. This keeps the flow of the class moving along, and the students does not get the satisfaction of disrupting class. Do not get me wrong, this may need to happen over several days before the pot becomes clean again, but I have found if I try to scrub too soon, I end up wasting a lot of energy!

Lastly, I started giving more of my own time. Several years ago, I began taking students to my room during recess time so they could work on retakes/redoes on various math assignments. This gives my students chances to learn the material at their own pace outside of the normal classroom structure. In addition, I am there to provide extra instruction when needed. I can not say enough about how this additional time helped create the "never settle" attitude in my classroom. I never want students to feel that they have lost the chance to improve their understanding of math concepts. The additional time of face to face interaction is what most of these kids need to shine. Regardless of the latest tech fad, or state driven "buzz words", kids just want some old school face to face interaction and communication to fully understand tough problems. Ronnie Burt has an excellent post on this very concept.

How has "allowing the pot to soak" helped you as an educator? I would love to continue the conversation...
Thanks for giving me your "time." Okay, I had to throw in one more!!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Real Talk for Real Teachers

I am not embarrassed to share that I read a book in a little over 24 hours. Now, the book was not a 1,000 pages, but for someone like me who is an extremely slow reader, this was quite an accomplishment. I discovered this book while searching Amazon for a new title. To my astonishment, there was a title that slapped me in the face: Real Talk for Real Teachers. After that got my attention, I noticed the author: Rafe Esquith. Rafe Esquith! I have read his three previous books about teaching, and loved each one. Talk about Christmas in July!

For those who may not know Rafe, he is a teacher from Los Angeles California. Rafe has been at his craft for thirty years. He has been recognized by Oprah Winfrey for his excellence in education. He tours the country sharing what happens in his small classroom (Room 56). His books should be required reading for every educator.

Briefly, the book is broken into three sections: The first part is for New Teachers. This section is full of accurate and real information that was probably not shared during any college/university education class. The second part is for teachers with more than five years on the job. His main message: You could probably now begin to coast, but provides several reasons why you should not. Lastly, the third part is for the veteran teacher (which just this year I quickly realized I now fit that category at my school!). He commends the veteran teacher for their years of sacrifice. It is truly inspirational.

The part of the book that struck home for me was his discussion on No Child Left Behind. To put it bluntly, Rafe believes that some children should be left behind. FOR NOW! I have to admit, I agree. Now, I do not believe anyone should be denied the chance to succeed. Policies should not be created that refuses a group of children the opportunity at a quality education. What I am afraid is starting to happen is teachers are expected to not only leave the door open for the child, but CARRY HIM OR HER AS WELL. This is where, as educators, we need to realize the difference. The sad part about what we do is no matter how many opportunities we create for our students, some will still choose to not walk through that door. That does not make us bad teachers, because our job is to create an environment where the door is left open, but the student walks through himself.

For example, I created a Lunchtime Club for my math classes where students can come up to my room during lunch to do corrections or retake a quiz or test. When I first created this club several years ago, I made it a requirement that anyone with a low grade had to attend. There was no discussion about it. I would go down to the cafeteria escort the group back to my room. Of course there were several students that I had to "force" to show up. What I did not realize at the time was how many problems this created in my room during my lunch hour.

The students that were forced to attend were not productive. I wasted a lot of energy trying to get them to work, while missing several opportunities to connect with the students that voluntarily attended the session. In addition, I ended the lunch hour very frustrated. Normally, it took the rest of the afternoon to get rid of the headache I received from this lunch hour work session.

After some thought, and reading one of Rafe's first books, I realized the session should be strictly voluntary. I still went down to the cafeteria to escort the group to my room, but I only brought back the students that wanted to attend. What a difference this made! The sessions were productive, quiet and fun. I was able to connect with the students by giving them time to work through math problems they found challenging. Not surprisingly, my headaches went away as well. I never proclaimed to be a "quick learner"...

The unforeseen bonus was that some of those students that initially were disgruntled about being there, volunteered to show up soon after. When they attended, their work was of higher quality, and they were easier to work with. All I did was keep the door open, but I allowed them to walk through themselves.

Believe it or not, this was a tougher sell for the parents. I have to repeatedly remind parents that their son or daughter is more than welcome to attend, but I will not make them. I have actually had parents go to my principal to complain that I do not work with their child during my lunch hour! Again, I calmly remind them I will be there tomorrow to pick up the group. Your child is more than welcome to attend, but it must remain voluntary.

That is a tough balance for teachers. We want to naturally "save" all of our struggling students. We feel their pain and struggles as our own. The "Real Talk" is sometimes we can not. We need to be patient, keep the door open, and hope the student passes through themselves. When that happens now, I am the first one to greet them with a handshake on the other side of the door. It is at that time the real learning begins. And it was simply because I did not force them to walk through before they were ready.

Thanks, Rafe, for another extremely inspirational book. THERE ARE NO SHORTCUTS!!

Monday, July 1, 2013

Six Important Traits of a Leader

The past couple of years, I have had the opportunity to add several administrative tasks to my regular teaching assignment. These added tasks have ranged from completing our district's No Child Left Behind grant and writing our Professional Development Plan to Leading our Teacher Evaluation Committee and Leading Professional Development on the following items: AchieveNJ, SGOs, SGPs and PARRC. This additional work has provided me with a lot of great opportunities to learn about the administrative side of schools. I am confident that this work will give me a solid foundation when the opportunity arises to be the Lead Learner of my own school.

In addition to these opportunities, I have learned a lot from the following authors: Todd Whitaker, Thomas Guskey, Robert Marzano and Will Richardson. Through my readings and experiences, I have noticed six common behaviors/characteristics of an effective leader. I am taking a different approach in this post, because I am going to attempt to show how these characteristics changed me professionally.

Lead Learner: Without a doubt, this is an important skill for a school's leader. This person must always be looking for new trends in education to share with his or her staff. He or she must model the behavior to be followed by the staff and students. My journey started with setting up a Personal Learning Network. I have created a Twitter account that has connected me with a lot of very intelligent and innovative people. I have started sharing these connections with my colleagues, hoping to share the impact this social medium has had on my learning.

Enthusiastic: This is a trait that ebbs and flows during the year. But, as the leader, it is important that this is modeled everyday. Enthusiasm is highly contagious. Your staff will look to you for the pick-me-up they need during those down times of the year. A leader that senses this and can do it effectively will keep the morale high all year long. Personally, this trait was critical when I started guiding my colleagues through several changes over the past couple of years: a new teacher evaluation model, Student Growth Objectives, Student Growth Percentiles and PAARC. I intentionally developed training sessions that were different (but informative) to keep a positive environment. I knew these changes were going to be tough, but I presented it in a way that was upbeat and positive.

Active Listener: We are all busy. We are constantly trying to juggle several things at one time. But, I have learned the hard way that not actively listening to a colleague creates more problems in the end. I have really tried to stop whatever I am doing and listen to whomever comes into my room to speak to me. Do not get me wrong, I still need a lot of work in this area, but I am working hard at improving. Not only does a Leader need to hear what is said, but he or she needs to hear what is not being said. An effective leader needs to be highly skilled at "hearing" things even when no one is speaking. The ability to read body language and facial expressions allows a leader to take stock of how the atmosphere in the builind is, and handle things accordingly.

Dedicated: As mentioned above, we are all busy. In addition, there are endless state mandates and programs that need implementation. Let us not forget about handling phone calls, meetings, emails and discipline problems. Nonetheless, an effective Leader must be dedicated to their vision for the school. Are we on the right track? Are we still providing our students with a rigorous and challenging curriculum? Are we offering this in a safe and friendly environment? State mandates and programs are important, but an effective Leader finds a way to blend these changes into the current school climate. Personally, I worked very hard this year finding creative ways of blending all of the changes facing my colleagues into small, bite sized sessions. I found this was the best way to keep them focused througout the meeting.

Empathetic: Education is always moving a hundred miles an hour. Our days are stuffed from beginning to end. That is why sometimes an effective Leader has to know when to take his or her foot off of the gas pedal. Give people a break sometimes. I experienced this early in my career when my Principal sensed a lesson was not going well. Two thirds of my class did not do their homework. As a result, the activities I had planned were fumbling along, to say the least. Thanks goodness, my Principal put herself in my shoes and left a note on my desk that simply read, "I'll be back tomorrow for your observation." I have always remembered that event through my career. I would have run through a wall for her after that day. I am glad, however, she never did ask.

Resourceful: The leader of a 21st century school has a lot on his or her plate. The leader is usually bombarded with a great number of questions/requests. Where do you direct them? What information do you provide them? The 21st century Leader's job, very much like his or her teachers, is not necessarily to have all of the answers, but to know what roads/avenues to take to get them. What better way to do that than by an ever-expanding PLN. This is one area that has saved me tremendously the last year. Because of the great people in my PLN, I have been able to reach out and get answers or suggestions to a variety questions/problems. I am constantly forwarding my colleagues these very helpful resources. Now, if I can just get them to start blogging and joining Twitter...

I have been teaching for 18 years. I have had the unique opportunity of adding several administrator roles over the last few years. I am also an aspiring Administrator. I have spent the past year working very hard at expanding my PLN. Please follow me on Twitter @jcordery. Also, he link address to my blog is
Did I forget any important traits or qualities that start with these letters? Please share your ideas...