Tuesday, August 9, 2016

5 Challenges to Your Best School Year Ever

As the new school year is just around the corner, it's a great chance to commit to making learning more effective and meaningful in your classroom or school. Here are five challenges to make it the best year ever. 

1. Greet Your Students at the Door

Everyone can make it a point to greet students at the door each day. But it's also easy to get busy with other things and neglect the doorway greeting. It's easy to get pulled away by paperwork or visiting with colleagues or other things. That's why I decided to include this as a challenge. It's a challenge for me too. I always try to greet students in the morning, either at one of our entries or by mingling in the hallways. But sometimes I let other things get in the way. I want to commit to make this a top priority all year long.

Greeting students is helpful for several reasons: 

  • It shows students you care and want to interact with them. 
  • It allows you to read students' body language and see how they're doing, if they're ready to learn.
  • It earns buy-in from your students and motivates them to engage in your classroom. You might be surprised how much difference it makes when you make greeting students a top priority.

2. Teach Your Best Lesson on the First Day

I think it's fair to say there is too much teacher talk overall in K-12 classrooms. Learning would be better served if students were more actively processing content and skills instead of so passive receiving. And that's and every day concern. But is there any school day with more teacher talk than the first day of school? 

Teachers talk about the rules, the procedures, grades, the seating chart. We talk about the syllabus, about the class objectives, and more. I remember a teacher who even discussed at length the organization of the textbook. Really?

Why would we want the first day of school to be the most boring day of the school year? Shouldn't we want students to actually be excited about returning to school for the second day? I think the first day should create enough excitement and intrigue that students are more excited about learning tomorrow than they are today.

I recently read that we tend to make first impressions of people we meet within the first 7 seconds and then spend the rest of the conversation trying to convince ourselves why our impressions are true. I'm betting that's true in the classroom, too. Your students will make assumptions from the first day that may be hard to change later.

So I'm suggesting you try to teach your best lesson on the first day. Make it so great that students will be rushing to your class for day two. Don't talk about all the boring rules and procedures on day one. You can communicate all that stuff a little at a time the first few weeks of school. Some of it you can address as teachable moments arise. I understand the importance of rules or procedures, but don't start the year with that stuff.

Instead of the boring pitfalls of the first day, here are some alternatives. Challenge students with a problem. Have them work in groups to create something. Use a team builder to get students active. Here is an Epic List of Team Building Activities. Use Brain Teasers to get your students thinking immediately. Here's another set of Brain Teasers that might be a little less challenging. You might even be able to use the brain teaser to illustrate something about your rules or procedures, if you are determined to squeeze some of that in on day one. 

Another possibility would be to jump right into your content. Have students read something interesting and even mind-blowing from your subject. Have a discussion about it. Get everyone talking and sharing as much as possible right from the start. Set the stage for high levels of engagement on the first day.

And another possibility, I would always do this when I was teaching high school English. I would tell my students on the first day that I was going to learn everyone's name, today. I had six classes with nearly 30 students per class. So this was always a big risk. It's tough to learn 180 names. And I always failed. But I would try. And I would learn most of the names on the first day. 

Think of the lessons that flowed from this. The kids were interacting with me. There was suspense. They couldn't wait to see if I would remember their name on the next cycle through the class. It was a great chance to talk about taking risks and failing forward. We would laugh together at my mistakes. I also did this to emphasize the importance of relationships. I try to learn your names because I want to get to know you.

Whatever you do, make your first day memorable. Try to teach your very best lesson!

3. Make Questions More Important than Right Answers

I'm guessing many students have come to believe that success in school is closely tied to delivering right answers. And if you deliver enough right answers you get a good grade. But this type of learning doesn't necessarily stick. Students will deliver right answers on the quiz or test that is right in front of them, but what about months down the road. Do they still retain much of that information? I'm guessing no.

But focusing more on questions can lead to deeper understanding. And when students have deeper understanding, the learning tends to stick. It helps with applying information, seeing the big picture, and transferring learning to new contexts. Questions are the foundation of all inquiry. Physicist and Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman said, "There is NO learning without having to pose a question."

But not all questions are created equal. Many questions are asked in the classroom that do not generate deeper thinking. These questions are the ones that seek a single right answer with very little explanation of thought. But my challenge is to make a shift. Try to make your classroom more about questions than answers.

A couple of years ago, we asked our students to select schoolwide essential questions to guide inquiry across all subjects. Our students actually voted on the questions. We had one question each quarter of the school year. You could do the same thing in your classroom or school. Here's a Giant List of Really Good Essential Questions.

4. Put Students in the Driver's Seat

If our goal is to create independent, lifelong learners it's important to create classrooms where students are taking greater ownership of their learning. We know that a student-centered classroom is more effective than a teacher-centered classroom. So how can you put your students in the driver's seat this year? 

Our school went 1:1 last year with Chromebooks for every student. Many in our community probably thought this was about keeping up with technology. But the greatest benefit to every student having a device is student agency, the ability for each student to make some of the decisions about the direction of their learning. Access to a device and consequently access to the sum of human knowledge via the internet creates opportunities for empowerment.

But we can't keep teaching the same way and expect empowerment to increase. Just giving a student a device will not lead to empowerment. We have to give up some of our control and help guide and facilitate learning instead of making every decision ourselves.

Here are some questions for you to consider about agency and empowerment in your classroom?

  • How often do students have input on how they will learn?
  • How often do students have input on what they will learn?
  • Are students given opportunities to lead conversations?
  • Are classroom goals developed by the teacher alone or in partnership with students?
  • Do students have some time to pursue their own goals?
  • How often do you ask students for feedback on their experience in your classroom?

In classrooms where student ownership has flourished, I've noticed that it's usually because teachers really listen and spend a considerable amount of time understanding their students' perspective, what's important to them, what their experiences with learning have been in the past. There is a feeling that the students and the teacher are co-creating the classroom together, instead of the teacher delivering lessons.

5. Eliminate the Trash Can Finish

Where does most student work ultimately end up? Unfortunately, most of it is destined for the trash can. It will never be shared with anyone beyond the classroom. The teacher will review it and assess it, and finally it comes to rest in a landfill. Sometimes, the work will be shared with other students in the classroom. But why aren't we seeking more authentic audiences for student work?

When students know their work will be shared with a real audience, it changes the mindset. Instead of just producing work that is good-enough to get the grade, they will want to produce work that represents their best efforts. The sense of audience is an opportunity to practice empathy and try to see the project through the end-users' eyes. It's what professionals do in their work all the time. Our students need to be practicing the skills that all people use when they are completing a project or developing a product that will no doubt be presented to a real audience.

And there are more ways than ever to share student work. With social media and other digital platforms, student work can be shared across the world. Students can create blogs, produce podcasts, or compile digital portfolios. Twitter is a great way to share out links or images of student work. The #Comments4Kids hashtag is one great way to connect with audiences and get feedback too. 

According to a Forbes magazine article, your online presence will soon replace the traditional resume. But most students haven't done anything intentional to establish digital presence or personal brand. Your classroom could help change that. You can find ways to share student work so that their great ideas and best efforts can be accessed in the present and the future.

Besides digital sharing of work, there are other ways to make learning visible and include real audiences. Elementary schools are great at displaying student work throughout the school. Why don't more secondary schools do this? One idea a teacher developed in our school invites professionals in our community to examine student projects. It's kind of like Shark Tank, with students pitching their ideas to a panel of "sharks." Schools can also have maker faires or other showcase events where student work is on display for parents and community.

Avoiding the trashcan finish can be as simple as a Tweet or as complex as a schoolwide fair. Everything students do can't be shared out, but we need to start sharing more. It brings relevance to learning and allows kids to contribute ideas and products to the world right now. Students shouldn't have to wait until they are out of school to make valuable contributions.

Question: Which of these challenges will you try this year? Let me know what you think. Leave a comment below or respond on Twitter or Facebook.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Does Your School Build Dreams or Crush Them?

Yesterday, I had a conversation with one of our teachers about some new ideas she wanted to share with me about her plans for the coming school year. She shared ways she wanted to create more relevance for her students, give them more ownership, and create a more engaging learning experience in her classroom. Wow! Those are awesome goals.

She had several specific ideas for achieving these aims. So we chatted about them. She was seeking feedback so I made some comments and asked some clarifying questions. I also handed her a book I thought might be helpful as she's thinking more about where her ideas will lead.

After the conversation, I was reflecting on it. I thought to myself, I wonder if she is more excited or less excited about her ideas after our meeting. Of course, my intention is to generate excitement around new ideas and create a culture of risk-taking and innovation in our school.

But trying to be a good coach, I shared some cautious comments too. While I loved the direction of her ideas, I wanted to interject some wisdom from my experience. I'm not sure how helpful that was. It's difficult for me not to launch into my own ideas about how I would do such and such. For the most part, I think I avoided that. But the last thing I want is to be a dream killer.

I remember a conversation I had with someone who was a leader in my life. I was sharing some ideas that I was very excited about. My passion was in this area and my energy flowed when talking about the changes I was planning. 

My leader didn't completely reject the ideas I shared, but every comment seemed laced with caution and barriers. I can remember two words distinctly from that conversation my leader used over and over.

Yeah, but...

Those two little words cut my enthusiasm in half. I didn't feel energized by our discussion. I felt deflated. Instead of throwing gasoline on my dream, they poured water all over it.

I believe successful organizations are dream building organizations. They tap into people's passions and create a sense of excitement and enthusiasm in the culture. I guess there are successful organizations that aren't great at this, but I would venture there are no incredibly, extraordinarily successful organizations that don't have a dream building culture.

Image source: http://goo.gl/jSxnpQ

And I think this post is challenging for all of us in schools, not just principals or others in formal leadership positions. If you're a teacher, how does your classroom support students' own goals and dreams, not just your goals for teaching a subject well? Does your classroom allow students enough freedom and flexibility to pursue things that are important to them?

And when your students share their dreams with you, do you pour gasoline on their dreams or douse them with water?

We've all had students share dreams with us that seemed impossible. Or, we felt they didn't really understand what it takes to achieve the dream. Their actions weren't lining up behind the words of their dreams. I think we must be very careful about how we show up in these conversations. We have a delicate balance to help build dreams and guide actions. 

Unless someone in our life is about to go off a cliff, I think we should do everything possible to lift them up and speak support and encouragement into their lives.

Jim Carrey was once a struggling young comic from a poor family trying to make it big. He didn't have much, but he had a dream. And he wouldn't give up on it. When he was 10-years-old, he even mailed his resume to Carol Burnett. He was bold and audacious believing he would someday entertain millions and make them laugh.

In 1990, he wrote himself a check for $10 million dated Thanksgiving 1995. He placed it in his wallet. At the time, he was broke and struggling to find work as a comic. In the notation on the check, he scribbled 'for acting services rendered.' He carried that check with him as a powerful reminder. It was the tangible representation of his dream.

By 1995, he had starred in multiple films, Ace Ventura, Pet Detective and Liar, Liar. He was earning nearly $20 million per movie!

I wonder how many people in Jim Carrey's life thought his dreams of being a comedian were misguided? I bet there were lots of people who thought he'd never make it. Those people probably doused him with water. But there were probably others who saw something special in him, who threw gasoline on his dreams of being an actor and comedian.

Image source: http://goo.gl/kKYxWA

When we see students or teachers who struggle with apathy, I think it's often because they've given up on their dreams. Everyone must have something to aspire to, something that makes you want to get up in the morning and push forward in life. We need dreams to chase. As educators, we should be that spark of inspiration for both our students and our colleagues. 

When someone shares their dreams with you, how will you respond? Will you be the 'Yeah, but...' voice in their life? I would suggest a different response. How about these two little words, instead? 

Yes, and...

1. Yes! You can do it.

2. Yes! I believe in you.

3. Yes! Tell me more about that.

4. Yes! Why is that important to you?

5. Yes! How can I help you?

6. Yes! You are on the right track.

7. Yes! Your dreams matter to me.

If you are going to inspire others in your life to dream big, you can't get stuck in the where, when, who, and how. Dreams are about what you want and especially why you want it. I feel so guilty about this in parenting my own children. I feel like sometimes my expectations have placed limits on their dreams. Our adult minds are so practical and boring.

But today I am reminded to help those around me dream big, audacious dreams. I don't want to crush dreams. I want people to be excited about their dreams and not the dreams I have for them.

How will you encourage the dreams of those in your circle of influence? Reflect on who the dream builders were in your life. I want to hear from you. Share a comment below or respond on Twitter or Facebook.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Does Your Professional Development Honor Teachers as Learners?

For the past couple of years, our school has worked to create a way of supporting professional learning that is more personally meaningful. We were inspired by the idea of Genius Hour and how that might be relevant for teachers too. What if teachers were able to learn in a way that respected their individuality? What if they pursued their passions? What would that look like? How might that empower teaching and learning in our school?

We are trying to create the most powerful professional learning possible. We realize the importance of learning and growth for each individual. If we want sustainable, meaningful change in our schools, it will only happen when teachers are learning and leading.

From this thinking, we developed a plan for teachers to have greater ownership of their professional development. The idea was for teachers to pursue any learning they wanted so long as they believed it had the potential to improve our bottom line. And for schools, our bottom line is never about profits or shareholders. Our bottom line is about creating powerful learning for students. 

So our message was clear. If it might make learning better for students, then pursue it. If you are passionate about it, then pursue it. That was the challenge. We asked every teacher to write a Personal Learning Plan, to express a general direction for where they were headed. 

The first year I met with every teacher and signed off on the plans. I quickly realized that the meetings were standing in the way of teachers pursuing their goals. In meeting after meeting, I heard questions like "Does this sound okay?" or "Is this what you were looking for?" We were seeking to empower teachers, but the requirement of a meeting and a signature seemed to take away empowerment. 

So last year we didn't have the meetings or the signatures. We had several activities during our regular staff meetings to brainstorm ideas and share possibilities, and then teachers simply shared their plans through Google Classroom. We wanted to remove the barriers and get to the real work.

So much of the PD of the past felt like jumping through hoops. It wasn't always relevant to every teacher. It might be exactly what one person needed, but it might not be helpful at all for another. In a sense, it created a culture where professional learning became lifeless. It was just something that was expected and sometimes dreaded. I think some teachers began to view professional development as something that was being done to them instead of something they felt invested in. 

We needed a professional development reboot, one that actually honors how people learn best. These principles work for students, and of course they work for teacher learners too. 

Greater Ownership

The success or failure of each teacher's plan belongs to the individual. The responsibility for growing personally and professionally ultimately rests with the individual and not the organization. We will provide support and encouragement, but you will get out of your professional learning what you put into it.

If you are taking risks and pushing the envelope, you may experience failure in the short term, but that is okay. Sometimes we learn the most from what doesn't work. The important thing is to be invested in your own learning. We want it to be authentic and feel personal to you.

Increased Choice

Two years ago we required teachers to write goals that were aligned with certain building goals. We were emphasizing literacy since that is so important across all content areas. And we were about to launch our 1:1 program so we felt it was important to make digital tools a priority. We asked each teacher to line up their goals with the direction we were moving as a building. 

But last year, we removed that requirement too. Most teachers still had goals that were very relevant to literacy or digital tools, but they had the freedom to pursue things that might only be relevant to the learning in their classroom. We trusted our teachers to choose the priorities for their learning plan. What is important to you? What will benefit your students? The choice is yours.

Providing Time

We have built-in time for teachers to collaborate and learn. Every Wednesday morning, school starts at 9:00 a.m. The late start provides time to do this work. But we still have to be very careful it doesn't fill up with other stuff that leaves little time for personal learning. It's essential to try to carve out some time to allow teachers to be self-directed learners. However, time should also never be used as an excuse to not be a learner. Everyone has the same number of hours in the day, and learning is not optional for educators. We have to model the ongoing growth and lifelong learning we should seek to inspire in students.

Opportunities for Sharing

We tried to build in some opportunities for sharing Personal Learning Plans throughout the process. However, that is an area we need to continue to develop. It is so important to reflect and share in an ongoing way. Creating the structures for that is one way the school organization can support this process.

While most teachers developed and executed their plans on their own, some teachers elected to work together to create a learning team. We think it's great to allow the flexibility for teachers to choose to work independently or with others. But either way, sharing with others is essential and not optional.

Near the end of the school year, we facilitated a closing event for the Personal Learning Plans. We randomly assigned teachers to small groups for a time of sharing. Teachers were asked to bring an artifact or product from their work to share. It was a time of celebrating all the good work that was done.

What's next?

This year as we develop new learning plans, we are going to facilitate several opportunities for teachers to brainstorm and share possibilities. We want to develop more opportunities to support this work and allow staff to encourage one another and build off of each other's ideas. One activity will be a First Turn/Last Turn structured dialogue. Here's how it works:

1. Groups of 6 are ideal.
2. The facilitator will ask one group member to share a possibility for their learning plan.
3. In round-robin fashion, each of the other group members will comment on the idea with no cross-talk.
4. The person who initially shared the idea will then close the round by processing his or her thinking about the comments offered by the other group members.

Emphasizing the rule that there be no cross-talk will help keep the discussion focused and on-topic. Follow-up conversations can occur after everyone has a turn in the structured dialogue.

Transformational Ideas

As I mentioned before, the criteria for the learning plan was that it had potential to improve student learning. But maybe we can aim even higher? We want to think bigger and strive to do things that don't just improve student learning, but that can actually transform student learning. 

It might be helpful for a teacher to learn how to use Powtoon, Twitter, or Glogster, but it could be transformational if the teacher learns how to use these tools to cause students to take more ownership of their learning or to create work for authentic audiences. We want to focus our energy on ideas and learning that has the potential to transform student learning. We want our work to be a game-changer for our students.

Here are a few examples of topics our teachers chose last year for the Personal Learning Plans:

  • The impact of goals and journaling on student motivation
  • Project Based Learning
  • Nonfiction reading with IEP students
  • Genius Hour with emphasis on human rights
  • Formative Assessment strategies
  • Increased choice in demonstrating mastery
  • Using CAD to create designs for 3D printing
  • Developing math tutorials for student to use for review and reinforcement
  • Using technology in choral rehearsals (video, music theory techniques, etc.)
  • Creating "flipped classroom" lessons
  • Increasing student choice in reading to develop passionate readers
I am very proud of the work our teachers have done as part of their Personal Learning Plans. We have already seen new ideas become game-changers for our school. As we continue to practice and refine this process, I believe we will see even more positive results. Ultimately, our efforts to honor teachers as learners and empower individual and collective genius has been meaningful for our school.

How is your school honoring teachers as learners? Do you believe this type of professional development would be helpful in your school? I want to hear from you. Leave a comment below or respond on Twitter or Facebook.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

7 Reasons for Teachers to Be Enthusiastic About a New School Year

The days of summer will soon give way to the start of a new school year. For teachers, the end of summer can be met with mixed emotions. Even the most passionate educators can be reluctant to give up the freedom and flexibility of summer break. But it's also a great time to get excited about the possibilities that lay ahead. It's GO-TIME!!!

As you gear up for back-to-school, here are seven reasons to be enthusiastic about the new school year.

1. Making New Friends

One of the most exciting things about the start of a new school year is the chance to meet new people and welcome them into your school. It's a privilege to get to know new staff members and students. And it's a great opportunity to share with them all the things that make your school great. It's also a great opportunity to find ways they can contribute to making your school even stronger.

Remember that being new can be terrifying. Offer your support. Be sure to send the message loud and clear to everyone new to your school, "We're glad you're here."

2. Reconnecting with Old Friends

I also look forward to seeing everyone who is returning. Over the years, we build increasingly strong bonds with the people we work with. It's great to hear about their exciting adventures of summer and begin to share in the daily life of school again. I can't wait to see all the smiles and feel the energy as we come together again to help kids.

Keep in mind that returning to school can be especially difficult in certain seasons of life. I am always reminded that a word of encouragement or act of kindness can go a long way to making the new school year better for someone going through a difficult time.

3. Making a Difference 

For some students, summer hasn't been that great. They've had struggles, turmoil, maybe even hunger. Returning to school won't solve all their problems, but it will provide a chance for educators to make a difference. No matter what their summer was like, your students are counting on you now. They need to know how much you care. They need you to love them, listen to them, and to never give up on them.

Your work as a teacher makes a difference in the lives of young people. That's a great reason to get excited about the start of the school year! 

4. Fulfilling Your Purpose

It's great to enjoy the wonderful time away from school during summer break. Good teaching is demanding in so many ways. We need time to recharge. But there is something about doing what you are meant to do, even when it's hard. The start of the school year is a great time to reflect on why you started in the first place. Why did you become a teacher? How will you make a positive impact this year?

When you have passion and purpose for your students and your teaching, you won't have too much trouble being excited for the new school year.

5. New Beginnings

When I reflect on a previous school year, there are always things I wish had gone differently. I see areas I need to improve, and things I want to change. The start of the school year is a brand new thing. It's a fresh start.

There's something about the cyclical nature of school that lends itself to making adjustments based on last year to continue to make things better for learning. But the key is to reflect and set goals during the summer, so that you're ready to adjust and adapt this year.  

6. New Opportunities to Grow

Positive people grow. Happy people grow. Healthy people grow. The new school year will not doubt present challenges that will help us grow if we choose to allow growth to happen. I believe growth is an essential part of being fulfilled in our lives. We can't stay the same or even have stagnant growth and expect to have a healthy and happy life. And for certain, we won't make much of an impact on others if we aren't willing to grow.

I know some people dread the start of school because they feel that they are going to face challenges that are really difficult for them. Some struggle more with difficult students. Some struggle to keep up with paperwork or grading. Clearly, some struggle to get through the school day more than others. I think most of that is related to attitude.

If we welcome the challenges and view them as a way to grow, it changes everything. If we invite hard things into our lives, it makes us stronger. Rarely do I see an unhappy teacher who also regularly takes on new challenges. Usually, the most unhappy people in your school are the ones who are most protective of their time and their comfort.

So I think a GREAT reason to get excited about a new school year is that it's a GREAT opportunity to grow. What would your school be like if every educator had a growth mindset?

7. Believe in Amazing Possibilities

I'm excited about the new school year because I believe this will be the best school year ever. I'm excited about the work our school is doing. I believe we are moving in a positive direction. I see a tipping point happening, where we will see learners empowered in ways we've envisioned. 

Your classroom has amazing possibilities too. Students will learn more about who they are. They will learn and grow and become more confident and independent learners. Commit yourself to the idea that great things are going to happen this year. Focus on the positive. Who knows what incredible things will happen this year in the life of your school?

Questions: What gets you excited about a new school year? What are you anticipating? I would love to hear from you. Leave me a message below or respond on Twitter or Facebook. Here we grow!

Monday, July 25, 2016

Top Quotes on Excellence for Educators

In a previous post, I discussed some possible distinctions between excellence and success, and why schools should aim for excellence. When success is defined only by the end results, it doesn't honor the process and how not all aspects of our "success" are within our control.

I think about the Olympic athletes who will compete in Rio in just a couple of weeks. Not all of them will be successful as competitors there. In fact, someone is going to finish last in every single event.

But clearly, these are excellent athletes. At least I can't imagine any of these elite athletes not demonstrating courage, heart, determination, hard work, and discipline. One would expect every Olympic athlete must exhibit these qualities just to make it to the games. These are qualities that embody excellence.

But in spite of their excellence, not all of these athletes will experience the same level of success. The same is true of teaching and schools. Sometimes, we do our best work in situations that may not appear to result in outward success.

Below are a few quotes that capture the spirit of excellence I am seeking to describe. For students, educators, and schools, a new school year is filled with possibilities. However, we can't always control our level of success. But we can control our level of excellence.

"Excellence in education is when we do everything we can to make sure they become everything they can." 
–Carol Ann Tomlinson

"Excellence is not an accomplishment. It is a spirit, a never-ending process." 
– Lawrence M. Miller

"Strive for excellence, not perfection." 
– H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit." 
– Aristotle

"We should not judge people by their peak of excellence; but by how far they have traveled from the point where they started.' 
– Henry Ward Beecher

"Excellence is to do an common thing in an uncommon way." 
– Booker T. Washington

"Strive not to be a success but rather to be of value." 
– Albert Einstein

“If you are going to achieve excellence in big things, you develop the habit in little matters. Excellence is not an exception, it is a prevailing attitude.” 
– Colin Powell

"The secret of living a life of excellence is merely a matter of thinking thoughts of excellence. Really, it's a matter of programming our minds with the kind of information that will set us free."
– Charles R. Swindoll

"Mediocrity always attacks excellence."
– Michael Beckwith

Question: How will you demonstrate excellence as an educator? How will inspire your students to strive for excellence? I want to hear from you. Leave a comment below or respond on Twitter or Facebook.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Does Your Classroom Offer Cash-Back Rebates?

Grading as a Kind of Manipulation

Earlier this summer I did something I vowed never to do again. I fell for a deal with a cash-back rebate. You know, the kind where you follow a complicated set of instructions and then mail-in all the required papers and hope it pays off. If you're lucky, you'll get your rebate check back in the mail in a few weeks.

I'm not sure why I fell for this again. I guess I thought the deal was just too good to pass up. After the rebate, the synthetic motor oil was going to be a great buy. And I didn't even need it right away. I had just changed the oil in the vehicle I planned to use it in.

But in spite of my best intentions, I failed to ever claim my rebate. I kept the receipt. I had the bar-code and the rebate form. I was good to go. But then I got distracted. I forgot about the rebate for awhile. And when I thought to finish the process, I couldn't find the receipt anymore. Game over.

Now I am just a resentful consumer. I'm irritated with myself for breaking my promise to never try for these offers. And, I'm irritated with the brand for manipulating me with a rebate offer they know many customers won't complete. They count on it. They are manipulating customers to buy knowing many consumers won't ever complete the rebate process successfully.

But it's so frustrating, and it's not customer-focused. If they really wanted to give me a great deal, they'd just give me the $10 off, without all the hoops. They don't actually want me to be successful. They want me to fail.

You've probably been frustrated by a rebate offer too. I think most people have. But not getting my $10 bucks is not the end of the world. But when similar tactics are used in the classroom, it undermines the foundation of learning.

The Problem With Points and Grades

In schools, the currency is not dollars and cents, it's points. And for a student, the more points you earn the better grade you get in the class. Students start learning this at a very young age, as soon as grades matter to them and their parents.

The points themselves are not the problem. The problem is how the points are used. Students learn to see the points as part of a transactional system, the game of school. The goal is to earn points. We have used the system to the extent that many students have forgotten how to learn just for the sake of learning. The first question students ask in many classrooms after an assignment is given is, "How many points is this worth?"

Clearly, classrooms and schools aren't offering cash-back rebates, although I'm guessing students might say it was great if we did! But when we further a grading system that is transactional, in essence, we are using sticks and carrots to manipulate behaviors and results. It's very similar to what companies do when they use rebates.

Just like the rebate is used to manipulate, points can be used to manipulate, too. Teachers have used the power of points for all sorts of reasons. To get students to participate, to show up on time, to choose right answers, and even to bring boxes of Kleenex.

Students are even sorted and ranked according to how well they play the game and earn points. I'm not a fan of sorting or ranking when it comes to learning. But this is especially concerning since earning points is often more about compliance and selecting right answers than showing good thinking or solving problems creatively.

In the current system, teachers even communicate the importance of an assignment by how many points it's worth. "The test tomorrow is worth 100 points so you better study tonight."

It's well-intentioned manipulation. And when used on rare occasions it might be helpful. Teachers are always trying to influence student behaviors and decisions. And for good reason. We will do just about anything to motivate students to learn. But as soon as sticks and carrots become routine in the classroom, students come to expect them all the time.

Point Chasing Never Empowers Students As Learners

The problem with transactional systems is they only change behavior for a moment. They never last. In fact, they work against most some of the most valuable things we want students to gain from school. They rob empowerment. They steal intrinsic motivation. And they even undermine relationships. 

Some students get so frustrated with the points game, they just quit caring. They refuse to play along and choose not to care about how the teacher or the school 'grades' them. And it's not just the kids who are 'at-risk' or 'underprivileged' who tend to reject this system. Often some of the most intelligent and creative students see through this artificial construct and pull back from learning in school.

Some of these same students have passions outside of school they pursue as self-motivated learners. They pour themselves into hobbies, interests, and causes. They will read online for hours, they will create art or practice an instrument, or they will share ideas on message boards or through social media on all types of important topics.

We do our students a disservice when we don't empower them as learners at school too. If students leave school less excited about learning than when they entered, we have failed them.

Learning Isn't About Transactions Between Students and Teachers

We don't have to use transactional systems in classrooms and schools.

Some companies choose not to use rebates. They let their product or service stand on its own merits. They communicate the value of their products with a compelling message of why they are helpful and beneficial to us. And because we believe in their product, we are willing to pay full price.

Likewise, classrooms and schools offer something extremely valuable to their end-users. What could be more valuable or more helpful than learning, for the sake of learning? But we have to remind our students of the wonder and awe of learning. We have to package it in ways that are interesting and attractive. This is especially true when they have come to view learning as part of a system of compliance to ultimately earn a grade.

Cash back rebates don't build loyalty with consumers, whether they ultimately receive the rebate or not. And a school culture driven by points and grades won't build loyalty with students either. It won't transform students into self-motivated learners. Only empowerment and authentic learning experiences will do that.

Question: How do you empower your students and avoid the compliance-driven classroom? I want to hear from you. Leave a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

7 Questions To Guide Decisions Of School Leaders

"I am not a product of my circumstances. I am a product of my decisions." -Stephen Covey

Making good decisions is important for all us. Whether we are working with students, with parents, or even with colleagues, our decisions ultimately define our success. And the key to better decisions is better thinking. We must never make a key decision in haste. Instead, we should consider the problem from everyone's perspective, collect advice, and ask ourselves the questions that will help us make the wise choice.

Our decisions can have a big impact on the school, learning, and ultimately our students. So it's very important to make the best decision possible. Of course, I often make decisions and then come to realize later that with different information or a different perspective, I might have acted differently in the situation. When we make decisions we are doing the best we can with the information we have at the time.

That's why it's so important to ask tough questions to make sure the decision is the best one possible with the available knowledge. I want to think through my decisions and test my thinking with questions that help me clarify my values and ensure that I'm acting in a way that is congruent with my beliefs. I want my actions to line up with what I believe and what I profess to others.

These seven questions have helped me make better decisions. I'm sure there are others you could add to the list as well, but these are the ones that I keep going back to.

1. How can I help you? 

This first question is the essence of servant leadership, the leadership approach that recognizes leadership is service and turns the old paradigm of leadership on its ear. Leadership is not about power over others, or being in charge. Instead, it is about helping followers be successful. It's about helping others reach their goals. Robert Greenleaf coined the term servant leadership, and he described it as a type of leadership that strives to help followers be healthier, wiser, freer, and better able to be leaders themselves. Leadership does not just create followers who are dependent on the leader, but it creates new leaders who are able to extend their influence and become change agents.

So as I make decisions, I must always remember this question, "How can I help you?" This question begins with empathy, the ability to see things from another person's viewpoint in a caring way. Sometimes I need to speak the words aloud and offer to help. Other times my actions and attitudes may demonstrate this mindset even if the words go unspoken. But my goal as a leader must always be to help those around me be the best they can be. If someone in my school needs anything I can help provide to be successful, my job as a leader is to try to move mountains to get it done.

"The secret to success is good leadership. And good leadership is about making the lives of your team members better." -Tony Dungy.

2. Is this good enough for my own child? Would I want this for my own child? 

As a parent I will do just about anything to support the success of one of my kids. I want them to have the best opportunities possible. I want them to have the best teachers, and I want them to have experiences in school that cultivate a love of learning and lead them to find who they are as people and as learners.

As I consider situations in my school against this high standard, there are times when I realize we're not quite there yet. There are things that need to improve to best meet the needs of students. I guess there will always be areas to improve, but I don't find this discouraging. Instead, I find it exciting to know that we can create better opportunities and continue to grow so that every student finds optimal success.

I will share that this question has helped me to find clarity on tough decisions in the past. When there are times the task may seem too big or the obstacles insurmountable, asking this question has helped me stay focused. I've also used it with others in my school to help frame a situation on a personal level. Parents don't want excuses about why something can't be done, they want heroic action that overcomes any hindrances and ensures that their student is receiving the best.

3. Will this decision preserve or attack the dignity of a child? 

Our words are very powerful and can do great good or great harm. By considering this question, it helps me focus on the humanity of a child in each situation. We must always strive to build up and not tear down. We must treat others with dignity and respect. As Todd Whitaker writes, great teachers and principals treat every student like they are good. We must presume positive intentions and come alongside students to help them succeed. 

There is never a place in a positive school for cutting sarcasm, public humiliation, or harsh treatment of a student. Even the best teacher will occasionally make a mistake in how they treat a student, but we should work quickly to restore any break in the relationship. When everyone in a school makes decisions that consistently preserve dignity and respect, the culture will be one of mutual cooperation and shared success. I explored this topic in greater depth in a previous post.

4. As I make this decision, what am I ultimately hoping to achieve? 

Part of effective decision-making is the ability understand how decisions are going to impact the goals of the individual or organization. I may be justified and have good reasoning for a decision, but if it is going to ultimately hinder the mission of our team, maybe I need to reconsider my decision. There is great finesse and wisdom in knowing how to help others be successful. Sometimes it means overlooking things that might be personal pet-peeves of the leader.

As we make decisions, we should always consider the purpose of the decision and if a particular action will lead to the purpose being accomplished. We should also consider if the decision will do any harm beyond the main purpose. Many schools have implemented policies to try to fix a specific problem, but have unwittingly harmed culture or created distrust. You must
 consider if the purpose is large enough or is there a higher purpose that might be jeopardized in this decision? Effective leaders see the big-picture.

5. How does this decision impact learning in our school? 

Some decisions or situations may not affect learning greatly or at all. If this is the case, why make these decisions important in your school? We spent too long trying to solve the issue of whether students should be allowed to wear hats in our building or not. Ultimately, most everyone agreed it really didn't affect learning so why make an issue of it. Other decisions, however, greatly impact learning. We need to have tough discussions about our schedule, course offerings, assignments, and grading. Are we making decisions based on what's best for learning or what's convenient for adults?

I would add one other part to this question. Does the decision have the potential to transform learning in this classroom or school? I think we spend too much time trying to incrementally improve the same stuff we've always been doing. We should all be thinking about how we can do things that could be a complete game-changer for our students. We need to think big!

6. If you had no fear, what would you do? 

Sometimes change can be frightening even if we truly believe change is necessary. Fear causes us to hesitate, to think small, and to avoid difficult conversations. We are all governed by fear to one degree or another, but nothing great was ever accomplished without risk and a possibility of failure. We must practice taking risks in small ways and build confidence in our risk-taking to reach for our really big dreams. If a decision is good for students and will improve learning, what are you waiting for? If you had no fear, what would you do?

7. In any situation, how will the best people respond to this decision? 

There will almost always be critics of any significant or meaningful decision. We cannot please everyone. What's right is not always popular and what's popular is not always right. But in any situation, we should consider what the best people will think. If my very best teachers will not support a decision, then perhaps I need to consider why I feel this is the best decision in the first place. If the best teachers are unable to support a decision, then maybe I need to go back to #4. What exactly do I hope to achieve if even the best people in the building are not on board? Conversely, how often do we delay or lower our expectations because of the worst people in the building (students or teachers)? We shouldn't aim lower or expect less because a few people seem to find a problem for every solution. If the best people are supportive, then even in the face of some criticism, a school can successfully move forward.

Question: What other questions would you include to guide effective leadership decisions? I want to hear from you. Leave a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter.

This is an update from a previous post published here in April 2014. 
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