The First Friday: Our Future World

In addition to my regular blog posts, each Friday I share the Teaching and Learning Friday Focus memo I write and send to all staff in our district. Here is the first edition of the 2014-15 school year... 

"The future of the world is in my class today, a future with the potential for good or bad...several future presidents are learning from me today; so are the great writers of the next decades, and so are all the so-called ordinary people who will make the decisions in a democracy. I must never forget these same young people could be the thieves and murderers of the future. Only a teacher? Thank God I have a calling to the greatest profession of all! I must be vigilant every day lest I lose one fragile opportunity to improve tomorrow."
- Ivan Welton Fitzwater

This week, we set the stage for another successful year of leading impressionable young people. I take great comfort in knowing that these children attend our schools, where their minds, emotions, and values are shaped by some of the finest role models imaginable. These young people will go on to become our future. We will produce many noble citizens who go on to greatness. We also must confront the inevitable fact that others will take a different, even tragic, path. All we can do is remind ourselves to "remain vigilant every day lest we lose one fragile opportunity" to do whatever we can to encourage the former and reduce the likelihood of the latter.

The first week of school--indeed, even the first few minutes of the first lesson we teach--sets the tone for the entire year. If our students leave school Friday afternoon excited about themselves as learners, and you as their teacher, then, my friends, we are already halfway home. From what I observed this week, I anticipate this will be the case. As you progress through the remaining weeks of this school year, I encourage you to reflect on our mission. Recall also the import of our charge as described by Fitzwater. Remember, too, that our kids will meet any expectations we set for them as long as we are firm, fair, and consistent with these expectations and build relationships with our students so that they will want to meet them. Finally, remember that the primary way we accomplish this positive relationship-building with our kids is simply by caring deeply about them as learners--and as human beings.

Again this year, each of us has an exciting opportunity awaiting: to be a small part of something big--what our own future will look like! Thanks for molding the minds of our future politicians, lawyers, athletes, doctors, religious leaders, engineers, and teachers. May you all be blessed with a healthy and happy year, both at school and at home. I mentioned on Monday that I believe this will be our most exciting year yet in our school district's storied tradition of noted excellence, thanks to our amazing students and our equally-amazing teachers, who stand ready to teach them, guide them, and care for them.

Book Bits...

A Repair Kit for Grading: 15 Fixes for Broken Grades by Ken O'Connor

This summer, many staff members in our school district took advantage of our free, optional summer professional learning reading initiative. Some staff members read Rick Wormeli's, Fair Isn't Always Equal. Others read Personal Learning Networks by Will Richardson. Still others read Covey's Leader In Me. As for myself, I joined several colleagues in reading Ken O'Connor's book, cited above. At some point during the year, I will call on colleagues who read the other books to share what they learned with the entire district through the weekly Friday Focus. For the next 15 issues, however, I will be including in this space just a bit of information from Ken's book that I read as a way to share with everyone in our district a few key takeaways.

In O'Connor's excellent book, he devotes a chapter each to 15 "broken" grading practices, offering a "fix" for each problem. Here is the first problem, along with Ken's fix:

Grades are broken when they do not accurately communicate achievement, i.e., information about academic progress. The fix for this is to make sure we do not include student behaviors (effort, participation, adherence to class rules, etc.) in grades, only achievement. Grades should reflect only student performance in mastering the public, published learning goals of the state/district/school. Our kids and parents have a right to know the specific level of a student's knowledge in a particular subject and on each standard at a given point in time. Grades are broken when we mix achievement and non-academic achievement elements into a grade. The fix is to report such variables as behavior--or in our district, Habits of Success--separately from achievement. Too often, grades reflect a mixture of multiple factors; a grades should provide as clear a measure as possible of the best a student can do in a specific academic area.

Opening Day!

“Schools are not buildings, curriculums, and machines. Schools are relationships and interactions among people" (Johnson & Johnson, 1989)

The first day of school is not only an exciting moment in time for any educator, it is also a day of nearly unparalleled importance. Each new school year opens with a flurry of activity and tasks that immediately crush the preceding lull. The good news for teachers is that students arrive on the first day of school exhibiting their very best behavior. Even those students with the most challenging backgrounds and checkered discipline histories will put forth what, for them, is their very best effort on the first day of school. It is of paramount importance that, as educators, we do whatever we can to invest in and capitalize on this once-a-year opportunity, which can provide dividends far down the road. We must remind each other of a seemingly trite, yet powerfully prophetic cliche’: you never get a second chance to make a great first impression.

My primary message to educators during this time is very simple and can be summed up in two words: relationships and expectations. District office leaders should share--in a transparent and honest way--expectations they have for various stakeholders. Principals must outline their expectations for teachers as well as insisting that teachers establish firm, fair, and simple expectations at the outset of each school year for students. Teachers, in turn, must let their students know why the expectations exist and that these expectations will be enforced consistently for the remainder of the school year. Although expectations come first, the second step is even more important. After clearly outlining expectations along with answering why they are important, each group must then spend the remainder of our time building relationships with those around us so that people actually want to meet our expectations.

In our school district, students’ first day of school is next Wednesday. It will be one of many such “Opening Days” of my career, yet I never lose the nervous edge I felt on my very first day of school when I began my career as a first grade teacher in Gwinnett County, Georgia. As we begin yet another new school year next week, I hope all educators share my sense of excitement, rejuvenation, and anticipation of what will be a tremendous year of growth for the students, parents, and staff we serve. Our success as professional educators will depend to some extent on our specific skills and the breadth of our knowledge base. However, I firmly believe that our character and our human relations skills are even more vital to the ultimate success we experience with our students and our entire school communities. Nearly every effective educator I have worked with in my career has excelled in the area of interpersonal skills. Although no list of such traits can be thoroughly exhaustive, I encourage you to peruse and reflect on those offered below. Let’s focus on these human relations skills as we embark upon a noble journey: teaching young people who need and crave our guidance:

  • Be willing to admit when we’re wrong.
  • Be able to laugh (have a good sense of humor) and cry (display empathy and sensitivity).
  • Take time to help others.
  • Remember how it felt to be a child.
  • Be able to resolve conflicts between people.
  • Enjoy working with people of all ages.
  • Truly care about others.
  • Realize that you can’t please everyone.
  • Be optimistic about people’s motives.

No teacher at any school entered this idealistic career path to become wealthy, or because of the plush working conditions, or because of the generous monetary bonuses. Instead, many of us heeded this calling because: (1) we wanted to make a difference and (2) we felt that we had the capability to do so. As Woodrow Wilson suggests in the following quote, we are here to enrich the world, if not our stock portfolios:

"You are not merely here to make a living. You are here to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, and with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world. You impoverish yourself if you forget this errand."
One way we engage, inspire, and empower our kids and each other is through storytelling. I am reminded of a story that a pastor included in the weekly bulletin at a church one week. It was titled “Pushing Against the Rock.” Without going into all the biblical references, it was simply about a man who was commanded to continuously push against a large rock, which he did for many years with no immediately discernible results. After many years of apparent failure, the frustrated man questioned what he was doing wrong and why he had failed. The answer given to him was that he had not failed at all; his calling was to be obedient and faithful and he had exhibited trust in following through on this calling. In the end, he had developed a strong back, arms, and legs through his daily efforts and the rock was moved for his as a reward for his faithful efforts.

Like the man in this story, many educators reading this post consider teaching their “calling,” not merely their “job.”  Like the man in the story, many of you will not see the rewards of your daily toil on an immediate or frequent basis. Yet, in the end, you will grow stronger through fulfilling Woodrow Wilson’s charge to enrich the world. Just as importantly, so will your students--whether you or they notice it this year or many years hence. As we look forward to our district’s “Opening Day” next week, I want to thank educators everywhere for making the most of their own Opening Day and for serving in the most noble profession of all: teaching.

3 Worth Reading:

1. Empathy: The Most Important Back-to-School Supply by Homa Tavangar

2. Teachers: Preparing for Your Best Year Ever by Elena Aguilar

3. First Days of School Wiki (lots of resources here)

Cultures of Excellence

“ Culture is what enables teams of people to defy the odds and achieve the remarkable. ”  from the NfX Company Culture Manual “Culture”...