School Improvement Innovation Summit: Day 1

This week I’m attending the School Improvement Innovation Summit in Salt Lake City, but my reflection for the day will focus more on actually getting to the summit rather than attending it.  Registration and opening reception are from 6-8pm – as I write this it is 5:00 and I’m on a plan in Denver waiting to take off and arrive in Salt Lake City.  If all goes well I’ll arrive around 7:00 and hopefully make it to the hotel in time to catch the end of the opening festivities.

So here’s what I want to blog about: my travel itself.  I left home this morning about 6:20 expecting to board a plan at 9:30 in Raleigh, fly to Baltimore and then take an 11:15 flight to Salt Lake City, arriving out here about 2:00 in time to attend a focus group meeting on the Common Core State Standards and then the opening reception for the SIIS.  When I arrived at the Raleigh airport, however, at 8:20 I was informed my flight out of Raleigh was delayed and I would miss my connection in Baltimore.  After working through it all with the SouthWest rep I was re-booked onto a flight from Raleigh to Philly, Philly to Denver, and now Denver to Salt Lake City – arriving 5 hours later than I originally intended. (did I mention my flight out of Philly was also late, but I did have time to make the connection to Denver!)

At one point during the day I tweeted, “If the people who work for SouthWest weren’t so darned happy these delays would really bug me Says a lot about having an infectious attitude.”  In the past two weeks I’ve flow to SLC twice, both times on Southwest, and both times I’ve experienced delays and issues (including delayed luggage, an un-planned for overnight in Chicago, and re-routing due to late planes).  Yet both times I’ve been very impressed about the attitudes of the employees.  I know their reputation, but I had never experienced it before.  Yet today seeing the smiling faces (which were genuine) and the caring attitudes helped put me at ease and made my difficult journey more enjoyable.

Which has caused me to reflect all day on the attitude I project to those I work with – be it students, staff, or parents (though in my new role my interactions with students and parents will be significantly less than before).  Do I communicate an “I care” attitude that helps put people at ease when they are going through a difficult situation?  And let’s be honest – most of the time students and parents – or even staff – are dealing with a school administrator they are, unfortunately, dealing with a difficult situation.

Last week one of my major goals was to create the draft of the walk-through observation template I’m working on for my district.  In creating this template I’ve modeled it on several I created over the past year for my previous school, and part of that process has been extensively researching questions to ask, criteria to look for, and even examples from other districts.  As you can probably imagine, a good portion of the questions will focus on classroom climate and management, with questions such as, “Does the teacher smile” or “The teacher demonstrates respect for the students” or “The teacher communicates a belief that every child can learn.”  These questions are important questions to ask ourselves – particularly in a business where we interact with and serve people every day.  I wish I could say that the optimism and enthusiasm I experienced today (regardless of which airport or state I was in) was something I saw day in and day out in every classroom.  But the sad fact is that it is not.  A business who’s sole purpose is to move people from one location to another – be it for work or pleasure – has a better understanding and implementation of what it means to create a positive climate and bring joy to people than many schools I have visited or worked in over the years.

Don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of teachers out there who do exhibit positive relationships with students and communicate a belief that all students can learn – but, unfortunately, at some schools those teachers are the exception rather than the norm.

But even for those places where it is the norm, even one negative attitude can affect others.  At best it drags down other staff members and causes dissention, but at the worst it affects negatively the lives of kids.  Think back to the teachers you had when you were a kid.  You can probably give the name of your best teacher – and your worst.   And chances are, the worst probably had a negative attitude towards either you, your class, or teaching in general.  They were there to get a paycheck – not invest in a life.

Today Southwest airlines invested in me – and they only had me for 14 hours (should have been less J).  Every day of the school year we need to invest in our children – whom we have for a lot longer than that (and maybe that’s part of the reason the airline employees were so successful: even though they had me for a brief moment, they wanted my experience to be a positive one because they knew I had a choice of coming back.   Maybe we should view our schools the same way.)

For the record, I did arrive in SLC to attend the very end of the opening festivities.


A Requiem for Education

Recently I had the opportunity to attend a performance of Brahms’ German Requiem (or Ein Deutches Requiem for all you musicians). This 70+ minute piece for chorus and orchestra is my favorite large choral piece of all time. I’m going to make a connection to education, but you’ll need to read through a few paragraphs to get a background so you’ll understand where I’m coming from and the connection I will make…

To truly appreciate this choral masterpiece I believe you have to have a basic understanding of both music history and church history. The German Requiem stands as a unique composition for a requiem. Historically, requiems were written by composers following the basic structure of the requiem mass, or mass for the dead, of the Catholic church. They had historically been very dark and, quiet honestly, depressing (the most famous is Mozart’s Requiem). The Latin texts were prayers for the deceased.

Brahms’ requiem, however, stands in marked contrast to this tradition. First, it was written not in Latin but the vernacular of his countrymen (German, in this case). It also has as its text selected verses from the Luther Bible. The text is not one of petition on the part of the deceased, but peace and comfort for those still alive, while at the same time offering hope for a life after the present. It is not necessarily a “Christian” text as much as it is a spiritual text, however, all the lyrics do come from Christian scripture, though the ideas espoused in them could be common among many religions.

There are a couple of key points mentioned in this previous paragraph that are important to note. First, the text was German and not Latin, and that from the Luther Bible. For those who are not familiar with Christian church history, Martin Luther began the Protestant Reformation during the 15th century, and one of the key strands of the Reformation was translating the Bible into the language of the people. Luther himself spent countless hours translating the Bible into German, because he believed that lay people should be able to read and understand the Bible without having to trust in the priests of the Catholic church (which was required since very few read Latin). Obviously his work was greatly assisted by the invention of the printing press. Brahms offers a change from tradition by using a libretto written in German and not Latin, thereby widening the audience that would understand the text.

Second, the fact that the libretto itself is one of peace, comfort, and hope instead of despair, petition on behalf of the dead, or looking forward to the Day of Judgment as the Latin version of the mass prescribed. Whereas the traditional requiem was a prayer for rest for the deceased, Brahms’ focused on offering comfort to the survivors.

In addition to these historical features from church history, we also need to recognize that Brahms was a Romantic composer, writing at the height of the Romantic period. Beginning in the early 19th century (with music from the later part of Beethoven’s life) music began to shift in how it was composed and created. Music began to explore human emotion and story at a much deeper and profound level than it had ever had before. In fact, Brahms’ masterpiece was written after his mother’s death (though some scholars believe there were connections to the death of his good friend Robert Schumann about a decade earlier). The German Requiem is, in many ways, a musical attempt to work through the grieving process of Brahms’ loss. As you listen to the piece you can sense the various stages of grief in the music – anger, denial, and even acceptance by the end. This can be sensed both musically as well as in the text.

So what does all this have to do with education? If you have read this far – thank you! Here’s the point. Brahms offered a piece that, in some ways, serves as a turning point (a revolution perhaps?) for music. He is a composer writing during a very transitional time in music history (the Romantic period), and he composes a work that is unlike almost any other. Some scholars even measure the impact of The German Requiem down into the 20th century with other masses that were written that followed a similar theme. In short, Brahms, in his requiem, offered a change of perspective from looking down at the dead to up to the living.

Yet how often do we in education spend our time looking down at the dead (“We’ve always done it this way”)? How many students’ lives do we inevitably impact because we blame everyone and everything for the problems we face instead of taking both responsibility for mistakes and initiative for successes? I’m not suggesting that education is the savior of the world, but I am saying we often blame others for our own mistakes (“If their parents would…” or “If their previous teacher would have…” or “Why doesn’t the administration….”) Fill in your own blanks.

What we should be doing is looking forward to what we have to offer students and our world. We need to encourage our students and tell them the good things they do, not tear them down. Those of us in leadership (myself included – perhaps especially) – need to make a bigger deal of praising and acknowledging the positive work done by teachers and other personnel at our schools (after all, how could the school function without the custodians, secretaries, and cafeteria workers?). Instead of spending a life time focusing on the negative we need to shift our focus to the positive.

And I have to say there are several people in my district that constantly challenge me to do that – and for that I’m thankful. Let me offer some specifics for what we can do as leaders to help encourage a positive perspective instead of a negative:

1) First and foremost (and perhaps, most difficult), is to model a positive attitude and create a culture of success for our staff;

2) Praise those who need to be praised – both privately and publicly;

3) Hold accountable those who are not doing what needs to be done – and do it privately. I’ve sat through too many faculty meetings where general negative feedback is shared, and the people for whom it’s intended are the ones that are always absent or fail to understand it’s for them; let’s stop that and just start confronting them when they need to be confronted (this is actually what many of the really good teachers request!);

4) Encourage and empower creativity and extra effort – and get on teachers who tear others down for going above and beyond. Too often in education we allow teachers with “seniority” but a sour attitude to destroy initiative and kill excitement; too often in education I hear people put down those who go the extra mile because then it makes those who do less feel bad. Instead of encouraging those who give 150% we tear them down so they feel guilty for trying, and then we end up with a culture that accepts only 50%. This needs to stop – begin to encourage and praise those who deserve it!

As I listened to the concert this past week I was struck by how Brahms’ change in perspective could be applied to education so easily…. The hard part is actually doing it.

School Culture

Yesterday I attended a workshop on school culture and the presenter, Sandra Morris, shared these quotes. They are not original to her, but I was unable to locate the original person (if it’s you, please let me know so I can give you the credit you’re due!)

Healthy School Culture: “Educators have an unwavering belief in the ability of all their students to achieve success, and they pass that belief on to others in overt and covert ways. Educators create policies and procedures and adopt practices that support their belief in the ability of every student.”

Toxic School Culture: “Educators believe that student success is based on student’s level of concern, attentiveness, prior knowledge, and willingness to comply with the demands of the school, and the articulate that belief in overt and covert ways. Educators create policies and procedures and adopt practices that support their belief in the impossibility of universal achievement.”

These two quotes really hit a chord with me, and it made me wonder: What am I doing as a leader to create a healthy school culture? The other question I have to ask is, what am I doing about those people in the building who are contributing to a toxic school culture? I think this is one of those areas where just a little bit of “toxic” can destroy a whole bunch of “healthy”. As I reflect on these two more and more, it seems that so much of what we SAY we believe and do would fall under “Healthy”, yet so much of how we create the school system – particularly for minorities and poor students, falls under “toxic”.

I’m curious – could you post what you do to create that healthy culture and at the same time combat the toxic?