Administrator Reality: A fresh look from the "other side of the table"

Nearly seven months ago, I mentioned that my role would be changing.  It's been an eye opening experience at times sitting on the "other side of the table" as a district administrator after serving for six years as a high school math teacher.

I've been serving in my new role now for a little over four months now and have learned (at least) four lessons about schools, education and the change process.  Without further ado...

  1. Just as it is impossible to please every student in the classroom, it is also impossible to please every adult staff member at a meeting or professional learning time.  One staff member may want to meet in the room with the comfy chairs while another realizes the room with the not-so-comfy chairs is better suited for the day's agenda.  What makes sense for the music department may be the decision that puts three other departments in a difficult situation.  Shifting to see the big picture or as one professor calls it, the "balcony view," takes some time and adjustment...and it is bound to ruffle a few feathers along the way.
  2. The same classroom idiosyncrasies are present in administration, too.  Students don't always come to class prepared; adults don't always come to professional development ready to learn.  Students want everything to be fun, exciting and new; adults get frustrated when meetings and in-services aren't as exciting as their favorite hobbies.  Have you ever had that student that thought they already knew it all or wasn't plain interested in learning, despite your best dog and pony show?  Surprisingly, classroom teachers have been known to exhibit some of these same qualities.  Creating activities that are interesting, valuable and engaging for a large number of adults is just as challenging as it was for me to create lessons for my high school math students
  3. There is not enough time in the day/week/month to solicit input from classroom teachers before every decision is made.  As a teacher, one of the ways I felt valued as a professional was to be a part of decisions that impacted students at the building or district level.  I cheerfully served on and chaired various building and district committees.  Shortly after I moved to the "other side of the table," I realized that the system is not setup to solicit enormous amounts of input from classroom teachersBill Ferriter blogs about this topic from time to time.  Bill calls it "influence by proximity," administrators lending a listening ear to their teachers on an ongoing basis.  Let's say I spent all of my time visiting teachers before school, during their prep periods and after school on a regular basis.  This means the teacher must be willing to give up his/her time to do this as well.  This is the problem I see.  In order to adequately bring teachers on board for many of the decisions they want to be a part of, they would need to participate in meetings on a weekly (and sometimes more often than that) basis.  Sorry, Mrs. Jones...there goes your prep time; please take twice as much work home to do all in the name of increased input from you, the classroom teacher. In times like these when budgets are tight, I'm not able to hire subs regularly to pull out teachers to play a greater role in the decision making process.  Here me out - I don't bring this up because I devalue input from the staff in my district, but the reality is teachers only have so many hours in the day and those hours tend to be reserved for reflecting, planning and grading for the next class, day, week or unit.  Asking our best teachers to take more work home doesn't sound like a winning strategy, which brings me to the last lesson...
  4. Educators, just like students do not always know/realize what is in their best immediate interests.  A quality teacher knows the activities that will lead students to deep levels of learning.  Initially, students may groan and verbalize their unwillingness to engage in the activity, but after the fact, learning has taken place and the best students look back and realize the value of the activity.  The same is often true of initiatives, professional development, and top-down rules/regulations.  Initially, adults may not feel valued because XYZ is being forced upon them, but a few days, weeks or months later, it becomes apparent to the good teachers that XYZ was necessary and beneficial.  In the interim, Joe Administrator fields plenty of questions and fields some heat for forcing XYZ.  When Joe sticks to his guns (because he knows XYZ is worth supporting), it may seem like he is stubborn or unwilling to listen to his subordinates, but in hindsight Joe made the right decision. 
These four topics are the ones I think about regularly as I reflect on my new role.  At times, it feels like I'm starting over as a first year teacher fresh out of college.  Other days, I feel like this is the job I've been trained and preparing to do for years.  Compared to teaching, my gut tells me the rewarding experiences are even more rewarding, however the difficult days are even more difficult.  Classroom teachers, where have I misrepresented you?  Administrators, what have I missed so far in my limited time serving in this capacity?  Feel free to leave your comments and questions below.

Technology has been around forever. Is 1:1 enough? (Take 2)

Russ and I led a session at the 2010 ITEC Conference in Coralville, IA on October 11.

Title: Technology has been around forever. Is 1:1 Enough?

Description: Many schools in Iowa are implementing 1:1 initiatives. Is placing a computer in every students' hand the end? What next? Bring your thoughts to this forum.

(This session was similar to the one we led at ISTE 2010 as previously mentioned here.)

Thanks to everyone who was able to make the session and contribute their thoughts.  The video archive is available below.

Technology has been around forever. Is 1:1 enough? from Matt Townsley on Vimeo.

Assessment for Learning: Solutions to Common Barriers

Slides from this afternoon's presentation to the staff at Clear Creek Amana.

Thanks to Brad Fox and Michele Pettit for inviting me to speak today.

WCYDWT - Starburst

As a former statistics/probability teacher, I see a few possibilities. 


Not for a grade: Homework - what's the point?

When talking about standards-based grading, I often hear the argument...

I agree with the standards-based grading philosophy, but I'm nervous about not grading homework and other practice assignments.  How do you motivate students to complete homework (or other non-graded assignments)?
My responses:
  1. What do you do with students in the traditional system who don't do homework even when it is graded? 
  2. Does the student need to complete the homework/practice assignment?  If he/she already understands the big ideas, doing the homework probably is not a good use of time. 
  3. Engage in a conversation with your students that looks something like this...
    Teacher: "If homework was worth 3 points, how many of you would do it?"
    (Many hands go up)
    Teacher: "Okay, if homework was worth 2 points, how many of you would do it?"
    (Still lots of hands go up)
    Teacher: "If homework was worth 1 point per day, how many of you would do it?"
    (Several hands go up)
    Teacher: "If homework was not graded, how many of you would do it?"
    (A few hands go up)
    Teacher: "Johnny, why would you still do your homework?"
    Johnny: "My parents would still make me do it."
    Teacher: "Thanks for your honesty, Johnny.  Suzy, why would you still do your homework if it was worth zero points?"
    Suzy: "I love math class!"
    Teacher: "I do, too, Suzy.  Thanks for your enthusiasm.  Frank, why wouldn't you do your homework if it wasn't graded?"
    Frank: "If it's not graded, it would give me more time to play Playstation with my friends." 
    Teacher: "Frank, if you didn't do your homework for this unit, how well do you think you'd do on the test?"
    Frank: "I would probably fail the test or get a D."
    Teacher: "Thanks for your honesty, Frank.  If you didn't do your homework again for the next unit, how well do you think you'd do on the test?"
    Frank: "I would probably fail or get a D again." 
    Teacher: "Frank, how many tests do you think you'd have to fail before you realized that doing your homework is a good idea?" 
    Frank: "Probably two or three."
    Teacher: "Okay, now that you know that...why wouldn't you just do your homework?"
At one time in my teaching career, I "hid behind points."  Rather than having a discussion like the one above with students, I took the easy way out by giving students who didn't complete their homework a zero in the grade book.  My students didn't benefit.  It was the easy way out for them, too.  Confronting the reality that homework/practice/formative assignments and activities are important opportunities for feedback [not merely point accumulation exercises] is a classroom shift that requires ongoing discussion with students.  How do you accomplish this in your classroom?