We've Sung Every Hymn in the Hymnal

“Teacher growth is closely related to pupil growth. Probably nothing within a school has more impact on students in terms of skills development, self-confidence, or classroom behavior than the personal and professional growth of their teachers.” 
Roland Barth

This photo of Saint Simons Island is courtesy of TripAdvisor

For seven years, I lived on St. Simons Island, Georgia, a beautiful coastal community roughly halfway between Savannah, Georgia, and Jacksonville, Florida. While living there, I attended services at Wesley United Methodist Church at Fort Frederica every Sunday for seven consecutive years. One Sunday, near the end of my time there, the music minister stood to tell us which hymn we were about to sing and added something that surprised me: “After singing today’s hymn, we will have sung every hymn in the hymnal since I arrived here as the music minister.” Even though I had attended services at this church nearly every single Sunday for seven consecutive years, I had no idea that we had worked our way through every song in the hymnal or that the music minister had an apparent strategy behind what he was doing in his leadership role. Although this particular moment took place over a decade ago, I was reminded of it recently when reviewing feedback from our staff about a recent professional learning day in our district.

http://wesleyssi.org/welcome.html caption
For three years, I have had the honor to help plan--along with a host of other very talented colleagues--the professional learning (PL) events in our district. We take these opportunities rather seriously since there is never enough time for professional learning and we want to maximize what precious time we do have available to us. Immediately after each formal PL event on our calendar, we send a survey to all staff asking whether the time spent on PL was useful and soliciting feedback on how we can do better. Thankfully, the feedback we receive is always positive overall, a testament to the fact that the vast majority of staff in our district are not only teachers, but also lifelong learners themselves who are continuously seeking ways to grow and become even better at what they do. When we perused the comments section of the survey from our most recent PL day, we noticed that some folks suggested we bring in “outside experts” on a topic (which we have done on several occasions) while others asked for extended time to work in job alike teams for planning purposes (which we have also done on several occasions). Still others suggested we plan an Edcamp style event (which we did two years ago). It struck me that, in a way, we have “sung every song in the hymnal” over the past three years when it comes to what we have planned and implemented in terms of PL experiences. 


Honestly, this has not been accidental; indeed, it has been intentional. We do not believe in a one-size-fits-all model of learning for kids; we are equally opposed to such models for staff. As a result, we strive to plan widely varying PL events in our district. We have hosted nationally renowned leaders like Tom Guskey, Todd Whitaker, and Tom Murray in our district to name but a few. We have sent staff to local, regional, and even national conferences near and far. We host an annual Teaching and Learning Conference each January as a way to kick off the second semester to each school year. We schedule ongoing grade level and PLC meetings to continuously re-examine what it is we want kids to know, how we will know if they know it, how we respond when they do not learn, and how we respond when they have already mastered what we intended to teach. We have hosted district wide Twitter Chats on a variety of topics, asking all staff to choose one in which to take part. We have joined forces with neighboring districts to host an annual summertime “TechCamp” focusing on teaching and learning in a 1:1 environment. We have hosted optional face-to-face after school workshops and within the day “lunch and learn” workshops. We have created a district hashtag (#engage109) on which many staff share articles, resources, and ideas they try out in their classrooms. This year, we even unveiled our new anytime, anywhere PL platform we call Deerfield University, offering over 30 opportunities to complete a mini PL course, with topics ranging from Project Based Learning to Home-School Connections, and allowing staff to earn digital badges and incentive points along the way. Honestly, this brief list merely scratches the surface of the amazing amount of professional learning opportunities that amazing educators in our district have planned, designed, and implemented over the past three years.

In reflecting on these wide-ranging professional learning opportunities, it seems we have attempted to offer every type of learning on every possible topic during a relatively short period of time, much like the music minister in my former church was able to cover all the hymns in our hymnal over time. Not to belabor the point, but when comparing these two seemingly-unrelated events, I find a few additional parallel points worth noting:
  • Although we sang every hymn in the entire hymnal at our church, some were way more popular than others the majority of attendees. Likewise, some professional learning events tend to be more widely popular with most staff than other events.
  • Not everyone in my church had the same favorite hymns. Hymns I considered the absolute best were ones my neighbor did not like at all. Likewise, some professional learning events we have planned were extremely popular with some staff while somewhat unpopular with other staff members.
  • The actual singing of the hymns was only a small--but extremely important and talked about---part of the entire service. Likewise, professional learning is but a small part of our school year, but equally important and talked about.
  • The actual singing of the hymn was only part of the overall point. The meaning behind the words, how--if at all--they impacted us, and how we acted as a result moving forward was more important than the actual singing. Likewise, professional learning events themselves are only a small part of the learning; what we DO with what we learn is more important still.
  • As but one individual among hundreds of church members, I had no idea whatsoever the strategy and intentionality behind the music leader’s efforts. I marveled when I learned there was actually a rhyme and reason to the songs he selected each week. Likewise, although it may seem random to some, in school districts with effective professional learning, designers of such learning start with the Why? and have a purpose in mind for every learning event they schedule, as well as an overarching, long-term strategy.
Excellent teachers I have observed over the years plan and deliver daily lessons and units of study that are intentionally designed and which purposefully call on students in the class to engage in a wide variety of learning activities, all aligned to specific learning goals. As adults, our learning must be equally intentional and purposeful. Engaging in a variety of professional learning experiences on a variety of topics is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

Great Teachers are Boring!

A teacher is one who makes him/herself progressively unnecessary.” 
Thomas Carruthers

As someone whose title is “Assistant Superintendent for Teaching and Learning,” I spend a great deal of time in classrooms observing--not surprisingly--“teaching and learning.” In the past few years, many of these visits have been very brief. This year, I enlisted two colleagues in our T and L Department, @mfaust and @arubin98, to kick off the year by spending a full hour in one classroom at every grade level and every subject area across our district. One goal we have in doing this is to focus on great teachers across grade levels/disciplines to analyze what themes emerge regarding what great teaching looks like. As of today, the three of us have observed for a full hour in the following grades/subjects at different schools in our district:

1st Grade
2nd Grade
3rd Grade
4th Grade

5th Grade            
6th Grade Math
8th Grade ELA
8th Grade Social Studies

Fortunately for Amy, Marcie, and me (and, more importantly, our students and parents), our district employs scads of outstanding teachers from which to choose if one wishes to observe top notch teachers. Not surprisingly, these rock star teachers readily agreed to let the three of us barge in and spend an hour closely observing teaching and learning and taking notes on what we observed. We still have many observations scheduled for the weeks ahead, but after just a few, I made a general “observation” about my “observations,” which, honestly, went contrary to my expectations. Some of these 60-minute chunks of time were largely student-centered, while others were largely teacher-centered. To test my observation, I posed a question to my PLN: “Which lessons do you think have been more fun to watch, the student-centered ones or the teacher-centered ones?” For anyone reading this question, what is your own guess?

I would not be surprised if you answered as did my PLN. With near unanimity, they quickly replied, “The student-centered ones!” That certainly seems the logical choice; after all, we regularly promote the idea of “student-centered” classrooms as a point of emphasis. Although there needs to be a balance and there is nothing at all wrong with teachers leading the learning, we have spent considerably more time and energy working with teachers to create student-centered classrooms in which students are more in control of the learning with much less time devoted to traditional “stand and deliver” teaching strategies. However, after just a few observations, I realized that the teacher-directed lessons were actually a bit more “fun” and somehow “easier” to observe than the student-centered lessons we observed in which the teacher did little in the way of traditional, direct instruction. Why is this? What meaning might we take away from this generalization?

When I observe lessons in which “traditional” teaching is occurring (i.e., the teacher is doing the majority of speaking, the teacher is standing up and leading discussions, the teacher is providing direct instruction to the whole group, etc.), I am in my comfort zone and know just what to do. I draw on my own eighteen years of teaching experiences and am able to focus on everything the teacher is doing. It is easy to provide feedback, highlighting what worked and offering possible alternative actions the teacher might consider. In a great teacher's classroom, when traditional teaching is occurring, I am entertained and marvel at the way the teacher rolls out the sequence of learning events. I suspect kids are, too. I reflect on comments teachers offer, questions teachers pose, movements teachers make, stories and jokes teachers share, body and facial language teachers employ, and their pacing of the lesson segments. Moreover, it matters not whether I judge the traditional teaching to be outstanding or unsatisfactory; with either extreme, it is still somewhat fun and certainly easy for me to observe this type of teaching, providing appropriate feedback. I am comfortable with this type of teaching and learning and look forward to sharing my insights on this type of teaching and learning with the teacher.

On the other hand, during my recent observations of less traditional, more “student-centered” learning, I have found myself feeling almost a bit bored and having a harder time focusing. The teachers weren’t doing anything! They were not at the front of the room, they were oftentimes silent, and nothing they were saying or doing seemed worthy of writing down to reflect on later. How could I provide feedback on their “performance” as a teacher when they were not “performing”?

The realization that I found “traditional” teaching more interesting and fun to observe than “student-centered” teaching bemused me; how could this be and what did it mean? The answers, perhaps obvious, are still worth remembering when we are observing “teaching and learning” in our classrooms:
  1. Why is observing “traditional” teaching “fun”? I get to sit back and watch and am often entertained. The teacher does the bulk of the work; I am off the hook.
  2. Why is observing “traditional” teaching easier than observing “student-centered” teaching? I simply focus on everything the teacher says and does. I know and am comfortable with this type of teaching. I have done it, seen it, and have provided tons of feedback previously on such teaching. 
  3. What does it mean and what must we do? In many schools, we have encouraged teachers to leave their comfort zones and release more responsibility for the learning to students. We must understand that this may push many of our students outside their own comfort zones as well. Sometimes, “traditional” teaching is easier and more fun for our kids, too. We need to push teachers and push our students to leave their comfort zones. At first, it may not be as fun or as easy, but fun and easy should not necessarily be our goal. Hard work and fun go hand in hand and this is an even better outcome. Finally, anyone who is observing a teacher (and I hope that includes not merely formal, administrative observations, but also teachers observing teachers), needs to work harder as well; it will be fun (not boring!) when we do. Instead of sitting and simply watching the teacher and noting all s/he says and does, we need to get up, immerse ourselves in the learning, and focus on students: What are they saying? What are they doing? What is the task? How are they collaborating, communicating, creating, thinking?
And now, a confession: I do not really believe that great teachers are boring; in fact, a few truly great teachers I have observed recently in our own district are also the very antithesis of boring. They are all ridiculously great teachers; in addition, they are among the most unique, interesting, passionate, energetic, and dynamic human beings you could ever hope to find. So, admittedly, I am trying to be a bit provocative with my blog post title; at the same time, I do believe there lies a hidden truth within this statement. 

Too often, we still equate great teaching with teachers who play the leading role in the classroom; charismatic, entertaining, sage-on-the-stage, stand-and-deliver orators and presenters of information. This still has a place in the realm of great instruction, but I have also learned that great teaching (maybe not teachers) can look quite boring, including the “teaching” I saw in a recent observation in which the teacher said nary a word for 13 consecutive minutes while the kids did all the talking--and teaching. In this sense, then, great teaching can indeed be “boring.” To shift this mindset and understand this type of teaching is not boring, we need to shift our focus when observing in classrooms, observing the teacher less and students more and observing “teaching” less and learning more. Focusing on learning, not teaching, is another way we Teach and Lead with Passion!

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”...