Posted by: principalsintraining | February 10, 2016

Life In A Glass House (Light Filtering In Through Many Prisms)

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One moment standing on a gray shore; how do different filters alter the landscape?

There’s a great scene in Sex and The City: Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) meets the famous artist Aleksandr Petrovsky (Mikhail Baryshnikov) at a gallery; a performance artist is in the midst of a 16-day piece in which she lives in a three-walled space (the fourth wall nonexistent to allow the viewing public in). The exhibit is about the intricacies (and drab minutiae) of quotidian life; in this three-walled prison, is there a possibility of transformation? Parker, ever the pragmatist, quips: “At 3:00 am, when no one’s looking, I’ll bet she goes around the corner for a Big Mac.” Baryshnikov: “You are a comic?”

If pressed for time, fast forward to the 2:46 mark. 

Carrie Bradshaw sees an overly wrought exercise in self-exposure and deprivation; Petrovsky sees a serious (“significant”) undertaking of a noble endeavor: self-exposure and deprivation. Perhaps why this scene sticks with me more than any other is because it unmasks something fundamental about the human experience: two people can witness the same thing and come away with very different views and feelings about it. Each of us sees the world – feels the implications of any given context – through our own unique (and at times opaque) prism.

Working and creating on a public stage – living in a glass house – are part of being a professional educator. Teachers do so in front of their students each day. Site administrators and superintendents do so in front of staff, students and community. Each of us in education lives in our own glass house. Yet the glass can at times be soundproof: teachers feeling that their administrators turn a deaf ear to the work in the trenches; students sensing that their perspectives and ideas don’t matter in the classroom. For such a public profession, we often conduct the business of our careers in quite a private fashion! (Here’s a wonderful post on one teacher’s gradual process of making his classroom practice public.)

Last year, my most-viewed post was on asking for feedback. This year I have committed to gathering input from staff at each trimester – a report card, if you will. I asked for “Stoplight feedback” (what should I Stop, Start and Continue doing) and a series of questions based on the Balanced Leadership Framework (McREL) by Waters and Cameron.

Formative assessment is a process teachers and students use during instruction that provides feedback to adjust ongoing teaching moves and learning tactics.” – ELA/ELD Framework for California Public Schools, 2014

Interestingly, this definition of formative assessment of student learning doesn’t include administrators, mentors, peer coaches, collaborative teaching partners, etc. Just as we must continue opening up the classroom to more channels of input (students are our classroom co-workers; parents are our partners at home), leaders must formalize (and publicize) more avenues of feedback for their work. Collecting feedback can be a valuable exercise in and of itself – for a time. If the recipient does not process this feedback with the givers, then eventually the confidence in this exercise will fade.

An eighth grade classroom at my school has a definition for effective feedback that I appreciate: it must be “Specific, kind and helpful.” My first trimester report card is all about me getting input on the work I do – and then, as the above definition states, adjusting my tactics based on that feedback. Feedback can be challenging to read; the anonymous nature of this survey deprives me of the opportunity to hear someone’s words and tone in context and in person, however I will maintain this avenue to ensure that people feel safe in providing me critical input.

For each segment I will include verbatim comments that represent warm and cool feedback and then indicate the adjustment I will make based on this feedback. Perhaps this is a bit like judging figure skating – a question of throwing out the high and low scores. But every comment represents someone’s perception of me; every comment helps me understand with more texture and depth the spectrum of ideas and philosophies about leadership, learning and kids that span this teaching staff (24 of 29 teachers submitted comments – an excellent sample).

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I feel that you are genuine in your desire for professional growth and continued education of the staff and appreciate you promoting this value.

Morale is extremely low at Hall. We need leadership to foster a team environment, a team Culture. Teachers, new and veteran, feel like both administrators are on a different page. We do not feel supported by you. You do not respect our desires with discipline despite being highly outnumbered by us with your ideas. A detention as a consequence for certain inappropriate behaviors, is appropriate, however, you do not support this style of intervention/discipline. As a result, the student’s behavior at Hall is at an all time low!

You are a role model to all of us on how to be professional, kind, and inclusive to everyone, adults and students.

It would help if we had whole school assemblies led by school leaders, not only the Leadership class. It would help set a tone for the school. Your calm yet strong presence in the office, in my room, around campus is VERY helpful.

My adjustment: There are a number of comments indicating an interest in assemblies led by the administrative team as a method of better clarifying behavioral expectations for kids. While it is my belief that students do, in fact, understand the expectations, and that the transition from childhood to the teen years by definition means kids pushing back against boundaries/expectations, I support the idea of grade level (or smaller) gatherings to better foster the values represented in our Cougar Code. Kids are savvy; assemblies where they get sat down and read a list of rules from the guy in the tie are uninteresting and, even worse, ineffective. As some feel I do not foster a team culture, I will make sure to include teachers and students in planning, delivering and evaluating such gatherings.

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Last spring we looked to answer the question: What values do we aspire to and what are the expectations we hold in common? Read more about the process here

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You are always open to new ideas and strategies in and out of the classroom. You are very accessible for support, thank you.

I have little experience getting guidance from you.

I am not certain you understand how vast the disparity among students in a single class of over 30 students affect the ability of the teacher to teach grade level curriculum in skills based subjects.

You seem very thoughtful about curriculum and supportive towards teacher requests for curriculum development.

My adjustment: This feedback is exactly what I thought it would be – highly polarized! I agree 100% that I can do more to be involved in department meetings and curriculum planning, delivery and assessment. While I believe I have meaningful conversations with some teachers about instructional practice, I know that I must devote more time to engage with all teachers – not just through the lens of providing them feedback on what I see, but also in charting a course forward in how teaching and learning will continue to evolve at our school. One effort we have undertaken in our Lead Team of teachers is to create a protocol for peer observation. There has been interest in this for some years in our district, however we have not succeeded in getting this started. As a leader, I believe in teachers learning from each other – not just from administrators doing observations or outside experts doing trainings (though both of those avenues can be quite meaningful). A successful integration of this practice will mean that all of us, as a faculty team, commit to it in a way that is sustainable, safe and supportive.

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You set clear boundaries for students, and challenge them in authentic ways to step forward and do better (two steps forward, one step back) – we are moving forward.

Teachers are often left with little support when students misbehave. It often comes back on the teacher not the student.

You work your ass off working with the students, but everyone doesn’t see that and because you are not a dictator, some may not realize how effective you are and you are making a huge difference for the better with our school climate and culture.

I know you are working hard and it’s a challenging group. Keep up the hard work. Many kids don’t feel like going to the front office is a big deal and I’ve heard things from several students that they can do what they want and there aren’t any consequences. So there is a perception problem that needs to be dealt with.

Follow and enforce the rules for student boundaries and behaviors. Don’t look away and pretend the behaviors are not occurring.

My adjustment: 12 teachers give me 6 and above; 12 give me 5 and below! This is an area of true polarity on our campus – we are wrestling with an essential question I first saw in a 7th grade classroom: What is the balance between structure and freedom? This scenario brings us back to Carrie and Aleksandr in the art gallery: two people, two vastly different experiences. For some I am setting clear boundaries; for others, I am looking away and pretending to not see bad behavior. I will check in with every teacher on campus about how I can better support a culture of positive student behavior, and how I can better communicate the consequences that I do, in fact, implement.

I believe these actions must come hand in hand with our understanding that the effectiveness of punishment in changing undesired behaviors is questionable – that, for some students, receiving a punishment may reinforce their behaviors as it gives them the attention they are seeking. Here is another perspective on “balanced school discipline” that I would like us all to consider as we continue to shape our philosophy and culture of discipline as another vehicle for student reflection, learning and growth.

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Please provide authentic feedback the day of, or next day, following a classroom visit.

I see you all around campus having positive interactions with students and staff. It is greatly appreciated.

You have rarely came into my class.

You seem very visible in classes throughout the day. One of your strengths is building and sustaining connections with students and the community. The kids seem to feel very comfortable with you.

My adjustment: While I seemingly get the highest marks here, I can still do better being in classes every day for more time. I can provide feedback to each teacher I visit in the spirit of supporting their growth. While in those classes I can engage more with the students, ask them about their learning, and challenge them to go further and think deeper.

Additional themes that emerged from the Start, Stop, Continue prompts:

Use of my phone/sharing via social media

When out and about, put your phone away. What message are you sending the students when you are engaged with your phone, not them?

Get off Twitter and get in the daily routine at school.

(Continue) Tweets and social media.

I like that you remind us to come “out” of our classroom community by taking pics and posting on social media. I think we as teachers sometimes forget that we are a much larger community (with parents and other teachers) than just what is in our classrooms at the moment.

My adjustment: I will continue to use Twitter and other means of social media (our school has a blog and a podcast that I created) to ensure that we are sharing the amazing work of students, staff and parents. This sharing shows our community what learning looks and sounds like at the school their children attend; more broadly, it influences and benefits other educators. I will be mindful about when I am using my phone to do this work. Additionally, I will ensure that a visit to a classroom isn’t just to “snap pictures” and depart; building on thoughts shared above, I will provide meaningful feedback to the teacher on what I observe.

My manner of speaking/communicating (or non-communicating)

I would like you to be more direct in your communications, sometimes I have no idea what you really mean.

Saying um constantly. Looking away when talking to teachers.

Being a little clearer when you are expressing yourself–both to teachers and to kids.

Talking a little less. Sometimes in meetings, you talk and it goes on and on.

My adjustment:
This feedback makes me smile – yes, I do have a slow cadence to my speech, and my communication style is more stream of conscience as opposed to bullet point. I agree I need to talk less and listen more attentively. If I know the answer to something is “No,” then I will say that. I will work to communicate in a clearer fashion, especially when in front of larger groups; at the same time, I am not a politician reading from a teleprompter.
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Feedback can feel like heat; the more we invite it, the more we welcome its warmth.

I chose to ask for this feedback to improve my work and my school, and to show that I care very much about what I do and what my viewing public thinks about that work.

I will also offer (transparently, spoken through the fine mesh of this glass house) that this choice entails both accepting challenging feedback and taking the time (in this post, in direct conversations…) to better clarifying to my colleagues and community the values that define me as an educator and leader.

I am grateful for all of these perspectives – I believe that each of the ideas/critiques shared comes from a sincere desire to make our school better for kids. I did not find every bit of feedback to be Specific, kind or helpful necessarily – yet I find all of it to be of immeasurable value. Each day I will continue to push myself to make the school better for kids, teachers and parents; I will get myself out of the office to see the teaching and learning taking place; I’ll check in with colleagues to see how they’re doing and how I can support them; I will continue asking for anonymous feedback while also leaving “my door open” (though, as I am out and about daily, there is often no door separating me from anyone else) to people’s ideas, questions and critiques. I encourage our staff to take their concerns directly to the source.

I also know that is a difficult endeavor given the ancient imprint of hierarchy. We can work on that together.

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Responses

  1. The biggest challenge I have when looking at feedback that is that specific is trying to live with the Millstone of a comment that cuts to the bone. I could have 90% positive remarks, 8% neutral, and 2% needs improvement and it’s those 2% that will haunt me ten years from now.

    That’s important to remember when we and our students give other students “feedback.” My wife still remembers a HS teacher telling her she wasn’t a good writer. I still remember WAY too many comments in HS and beyond.

    Thanks for sharing this.

    • Our challenge as a species: we perseverate on the negative (& anonymous feedback can make someone’s attempt at constructive critique feel like an attack). By getting it more frequently I think we develop a deeper resilience to those outlier comments, though hopefully we don’t totally ice over…after all, feeling that hurt means we CARE. Asking for feedback means we care. Maybe this is a good PD exercise: remember feedback that hurt you – now how can you change that for your students now?


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