Friday, August 15, 2014

"This is Gonna be Our Finest Hour"

I am posting today as part of Leadership Day 2014, an effort led by Scott McLeod to celebrate the anniversary of his blog and to encourage outstanding digital leadership.  Please consider checking out his blog, Dangerously Irrelevant, and other Leadership Day 2014 posts.

Back to School time means a lot of things to teachers, but for many it means a mandatory professional development day.  Teachers often groan as they file into the auditorium for what is typically the annual "sit-n-git," especially when the topic of the lecture is the awesome new learning strategies that we should employ in place of, well, lecture.  The irony of this is never lost on my colleagues and we placate ourselves by saying, "If I just find one thing I can use . . ."  For me, the PD day is a great time to sit on the other side of the desk and think about how my lessons are perceived from a student point-of-view.

Another great time to learn on the other side of the desk happens for me every Thursday evening during the school year.  For 22 years I have played the baritone saxophone in a community concert band that rehearses at a local community college.  The members of this band are mostly volunteers who enjoy making music.  We play a demanding repertoire for a community organization; rehearsals can be intense and draining.  As I play, I experience many emotions -- hope, worry, frustration, joy, satisfaction -- and think about how students in my classroom probably feel as they work to learn chemistry.  Some weeks I learn more about teaching and learning from 7:45 - 9:45 PM on Thursday than I did in my graduate work in Education.  Sometimes I retool my Friday lesson plan while I sit there.

So what does this have to do with Leadership Day and digital leadership?  Even when the PD is terrible or the rehearsal strenuous, I learn so much about content delivery and mastery from those experiences.  I would suggest that every school leader who is no longer in a classroom spend at least one day in a classroom in the role of the teacher, doing the things that are espoused on professional development day.  I predict that several benefits would be realized.  School leaders would develop greater digital skills that would serve them well in their positions.  School leaders would also gain a stronger sense of the struggle of the classroom teacher to meet the demands of our challenging profession.  Classroom teachers would benefit from this type of modeling and the collaborative discussion that probably ensues.  If teachers see something in practice that works, they will want to try it.  If school leaders try something that doesn't work, maybe it won't be included anymore in the "sit-n-git."

This week I helped facilitate some professional development for a local school district that is adopting a Chromebook 1:1 program this year.  The worries of the teachers seemed to fall into one of three categories:  1)  2700 students all need the Chromebooks at the same moment and the whole network fails or 2)  their administrators will be critical of how often they don't use the Chromebooks or 3)  they don't know how to meaningfully implement the Chromebook 1:1.  I knew I couldn't help with the first thing, but for the second and third worries, I suggested they ask an administrator to model for them.  Shouldn't this be the way it works?  Or at least a way that ed tech integration could work?  Though the teachers doubted that this would happen, I was heartened that when I suggested to the staff that they use Google+ to network with others, their superintendent jumped right in and joined a Google Education Group.
My sister serves on a school board for an elementary school district where her children attend in a Chicago suburb.  This past spring one of her daughters' teachers asked for her help with videotaping a lesson for a graduate class.  My sister taped a lesson where the teacher conducted her differentiated reading groups.  My sister marveled at the way this skillful instructor gave personalized attention to the readers who needed it most while she managed other groups as they worked collaboratively, independently or with a classroom aide.  She raved about the lesson and management, saying that she hoped all school board members would do something similar so they could see how the programs and policies they mandate play out in a classroom.

In Ohio, the tired education joke is that we are building the plane while in the sky.  The collision of our New Learning Standards and assessments and a new statewide teacher evaluation system do make it feel like we are doing just that.  We laugh when we watch videos like this at the beginning of staff meetings, but when I hear that expression, I always think of the Apollo 13 mission when something was literally built in the sky after it was modeled on the ground by the people overseeing the mission.  When you watch the Ron Howard film, everyone cheers at the end when the exhausted astronauts finally land safely in the water.  Though the lives of the ground crew were never at stake in the mission, they celebrate the victory that they shared with the team that was in the sky because they were so personally invested in it.  On the other hand, they didn't make it to the moon though that was their objective.  Are our education ground crews ready to celebrate a shared victory even if we miss our target?

People have asked me if I ever intend to leave the classroom for a new mission of instructional coaching.  My main hesitation has been that I want to keep my foot in a classroom because it forces me to constantly examine and refine my practice.  If you are not in a classroom, spend a day teaching in one this year and see what you learn.  I'll be blasting off in 5 more days.  I hope I'll see you in the sky!

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