Friday, May 27, 2011

When it became fashionable to push rather than pull

A friend of mine recently made a very interesting comment.  She said, “There are two types of leaders – those who lead by pushing others along and forcing them to do what they want them to do, and those who lead by pulling others to join them and lead by their passion and commitment.” 
Over the past 20 years, I have worked for nine different principals.  Some of these men and women were leaders who pushed, and some were leaders who pulled.  While all nine were effective and possessed their own unique strengths, two of them have stood head and shoulders above the rest.
Why?  They were pullers.  They lead their faculty and staff by example, passion and commitment.  They were not content with the status quo.  They sought innovative  teaching concepts.  They educated themselves to the point of expertise.  They encouraged teachers to do the same.  They were risk takers.  More important, they got others – those in their charge – to believe in them, to devote themselves to the same concepts and to follow – willfully and joyfully. 
The first “puller” was my first principal, Clyde Folsom.  Mr. Folsom was a dominant, physical presence.  He was well over six feet tall and well over 250 pounds.  He spoke with a loud, booming Tennessee accent.  There wasn’t a challenge he didn’t like or take head on.  One of my fondest recollections of Mr. Folsom involved a parent who came into the front office of our school, screaming, “You people in here have your heads up your asses!” Upon hearing her,  Mr. Folsom came running out of his office, first grabbing his head, then his rear end.  He looked at the parent and calmly stated, “No, Ma’am.  My head is right here on my shoulders.  Now, if you’d like to discuss something with me and can do so without screaming or using profanity, I’d be happy to talk to you in my office.”
 Like most principals in Marion County at that time, Clyde Folsom was an ex-basketball coach, but the coach-turned-administrator stereotype stopped there.  Clyde Folsom was an innovator, who wasn’t afraid of ruffling a few feathers.  He was a fearless leader in curriculum development and a stickler for discipline. 
After a fairly long and distinguished career as a high school principal, Mr. Folsom was “punished” by district staff because he had the audacity to suspend a group of kids for actions committed after a football game (but off campus).   His punishment was to oversee the worst school in the district.  A school that “folks” in the area – thirty years after segregation – still called, “the black school.”  It was a school in physical, academic and emotional disrepair.  To Clyde Folsom, it was a clean palate. 
Clyde Folsom took his new palate and created a masterpiece.  He started by overseeing a $5.5 million renovation, which resulted in a near complete physical reconstruction.  It wasn’t unusual to see him cutting the grass (using his own riding mower), or watering flowers, or cutting tree branches.  He wrote grants to get new fencing and a full-time resource officer on campus.  Howard Middle School went from a worn out, broken down group of buildings that kids used to break into by cutting out the cinder blocks to a diamond in the rough. 
In addition to an old and worn out group of buildings, Clyde had inherited an old and worn out faculty – one that had “seen it all” and who knew how to teach “these kinds of kids.”  Clyde Folsom knew better.  He began by implementing a curriculum that utilized true “team teaching” – four teachers: one math, one science, one social studies and one language arts teacher, who taught the same group of students.  There were no bells to mark the change of classes.  If the math teacher needed more time, she simply put her head through the doorway to the science teacher’s room and said, “I need 10 more minutes.  Is that O.K.?”  He implemented a 98-minute block schedule.  He then hired consultants to teach teachers how to plan curriculum, integrate instruction and manage student behaviors.  If a student was unruly, disrespectful or off task, he had no business being in a classroom, according to Mr. Folsom.  The Time Out room became a place kids did not want to visit on his watch.
At first, teachers balked at all the changes, but when they saw the dedication, the passion, the drive and how Clyde Folsom was right there with them every step of the way – in every workshop, in every classroom, in every parent meeting – they wanted to follow, they wanted to change, they wanted to be part of the solution and not part of the problem.  The three years I spent at Howard Middle School were three of the best years of my career.  Had I not worked for Clyde Folsom, I doubt I would still be teaching today.
Pat Donovan – the other great “puller” – was in many ways the antithesis of Clyde Folsom and in many ways his Doppelganger.  She was (is) a tall, gregarious, athletic “Jersey Girl” who was equally at home cheering kids to do their best at a track event as she was growing orchids at her house on the beach.  Like Clyde, Pat’s voice (usually her laugh) often preceded her physical appearance. 
Pat was part innovator, part cheerleader, part teacher, part student and part parent to both teachers and faculty and the students at her school.  She, too, never met a challenge she did not like, and if there was a way to do something better, smarter and in a way that both challenged and encouraged kids, she was behind it 100% of the way. 
One of my fondest recollections of Pat Donovan was the time she walked through the New Orleans airport wearing a bright orange wig, made out of two-inch thick ribbon.  She charged through that airport wearing her wig and toting two suitcases full of books, training manuals, beads other goodies she had stored up on the trip to share with her teachers.  Close on her heels were the three teachers who attended the trip with her.  I was fortunate to be one of them.  That was the same way she lead teachers at her school.  She led the charge, toting the ideas, the books and materials while her staff followed closely at her heels.
Pat introduced teaching ideas and concepts to Indian River County that no other principal or school had even heard of, and she encouraged her teachers to be creative and innovative.  Pat and her staff implemented programs like Responsive Classroom (a program brought to her attention by my wife), handheld computing (she was known as the “technology queen” of Indian River County), and the FISH philosophy (Be There, Play, Make Their Day, Choose Your Attitude).  With every new idea, Pat’s teachers and staff were right there with her, and she was right there with them.
What distinguished Pat Donovan and Clyde Folsom from other leaders was that they never did anything with the precept of how good – or bad – it might make them look.  Pat walked through the airport with a ridiculous wig on her head not so people would look at her.  She didn’t care what people thought of her.  Her only concern was whether or not what she was doing would ultimately motivate teachers and, in turn, help kids.  Clyde Folsom didn’t cut the grass so that he could get his picture in the newspaper (although Teacher magazine did get a shot of him on his mower for an article); he did it because the grass needed to be cut.
Too many leaders today – principals, administrators, lawmakers and wannabe politicians – are pushers.  They push their ideas on others.  They impose their will on people.  They threaten, belittle and chide, and if anyone gets in their way, look out.  Their only concerns are who is going to see me, how am I going to look, and what can I get out of this?  They are content with the status quo, as long as it keeps them looking good.  They scorn new ideas because they might not produce “the numbers” needed to be viewed as a success.  In short, they are not risk takers because risk portends the potential to fail.  While they might be expert tacticians or masters in their fields, they fail to recognize one simple truth – the horse has a much easier time pulling the wagon than he does pushing it.

Friday, May 20, 2011

When the "product" becomes more important than the "customer"

This past week, teachers were given an overview of the new Teacher Evaluation system.  Without getting into specifics, the new system evaluates teachers using a 50 – 50 formula.  Fifty percent of a teacher’s performance will be based on the same type of “accomplished practices” and teacher performance measurements that have been in place for the past 20 years.  These practices include:  establishing classroom routines, identifying critical information, engaging students in “cognitively complex tasks” and my favorite – demonstrating “with-it-ness”.  What is different about the “new” evaluation, and what has received mention in this blog and in other media outlets, is the other 50 percent - student performance.
To many, this “overhaul” in the teacher evaluation process is both long overdue and a step in the right direction.  My brother, a lawyer and business owner, is one of those.  He posits that teachers, like other professionals, should be evaluated based on “job performance” and since student performance is the most tangible piece of data, it makes sense to use it when evaluating teacher performance. 
It’s a valid argument.  He’s a good lawyer.  His approach, however, is flawed.  While student performance can be influenced by good (or bad) teacher performance, there are so many other “tangible” and intangible factors at play.  Furthermore, the idea that “other professionals” (a phrase that has been bandied about a lot in the media – and cited in this blog) are paid based on the tangible results they produced is even more fundamentally flawed.  Humor me, while I apply the “tangible” results model to other professions.
I will start with the health care field.  More specifically, I’ll apply the tangible results theorem to dentists.  Are dentists paid based on the number of cavities their patients don’t get?  No.  Why not?  Because the amount of time patients spend brushing and flossing is a factor.  The number of times a patient see a dentist is a factor.  More important, the amount of emphasis parents place (and impart on their children) to care for their teeth is a factor.
How about personal trainers, dieticians, or weight loss counselors?  Are they paid based on the amount of weight their clients lose or how much muscle mass they gain?  Of course they aren’t.  Why not?  Because these professionals cannot control whether or not their clients follow the prescribed diets.  They cannot control whether or not their clients workout or exercise at home, and they cannot control the role genetics or body type play in weight gain and retention.
For the sake of time and space (and for dramatic effect), I will cut out some of the verbiage.  Are ministers paid based on the number of souls they save?  Are accountants paid base on the amount of money their clients save?  Are drug counselors and social workers paid based on the number of drug addicts who kick the habit?  The answer in each scenario is a resounding, “NO”!
Even if you examine those professionals who are paid based on client or personal performance, you’ll discover that their pay is based more on quality and value than quantity or actual performance.  Real estate agents aren’t paid on the number of houses they sell but on the value of the houses they sell.  Lawyers aren’t paid based on the number of cases they win (Most are paid regardless of whether or not their clients win their cases.).  Lawyers are paid more when their clients win, and they are paid even more when the case involves a lot of money – quality and value.
If Congress were to enact laws resulting in a “pay for performance” model for all professions, I’d dare say we’d see a sudden and dramatic decrease in both performance and the number of people willing to work these jobs.  How many lawyers would we have if all lawyers had to argue every case brought to them?  How many oncologists would there be if they were paid based on the number of patients whose cancer they cured?  Better yet, how many reality stars-turned-politicians would we have if they were paid based on the following:  shrinking the national debt, having a balanced budget, raising personal income, cutting unemployment, reducing crime and improving our military?
The pay for performance scenarios I’ve presented would seem ludicrous to lawyers, doctors, accountants and real estate agents.  The current system that bases 50% of a teacher’s job performance on one aspect of teaching, and in many cases one test, is equally ludicrous to teachers and administrators.
In the city in which I live, there is a doughnut shop.  I hate going there.  The service is slow, the employees are rude and the store is often out of certain products.  (I once jokingly asked, “Do you have doughnuts today?” after I was told, “We’re out of that” three times).  Despite its poor service and lack of proper management, this store always has a line at the drive-through, and there are customers in the store at all hours of the day.  How is that possible?  The answer is simple:  It’s the only doughnut and bagel place in town. From a financial perspective, it is a success.  From a customer perspective, it’s a complete failure.  We cannot apply the same business model to our schools.  We cannot allow the “product” to become more important than the “customers”. 
Allow me to drive my point home by describing two schools – one that focuses on the customer and the other that focuses (or doesn’t) on the product.
The first school has highly-motivated teachers and staff.  The principal has researched and implemented new, more advanced teaching techniques.  He has applied for grants to bring more technology to his school.  He offers “incentives” to students who have good attendance and who perform well on local assessments.  He brings parents and local businesses together to fundraise, conduct “family nights” and to create a positive, safe and nurturing environment.  At the end of the school year, when state test scores are released, the school earns a C.  Student test scores in math and reading – although dramatically improved from the previous year – did not meet the state and federal achievement levels, especially for its minority students and its lower socio-economic “sub groups” which make up 65% of the student population. 
Our second school has an older, more traditional teaching staff.  Most of the faculty does not attend a teacher workshop unless forced to do so.  The principal is in his last year of DROP and is counting down the days until retirement.  Technology at the school is outdated.  The curriculum used is the same one that the parents of the kids at this school used nearly 20 years ago. At the end of the school year, when state test scores are released, the school earns an A.  Student scores in math and reading – while no better than the previous four or five years – are above the local and state averages.  Since the school is in a predominately white, affluent part of town, the school does not have any “sub groups” and therefore its test scores are based on the performance students from a mid to high socio-economic group or more than 95% of the students.
Which schools’ administrators, faculty and staff worked harder?  Which group of teachers deserves recognition?  Which staff deserves more pay?  Which group of students worked harder or achieved more?  Which group had more learning gains?  Sadly, we will soon find out.

Friday, May 13, 2011

When others think they can do what we do - only better

When others think they can do what we do – only better

I recently sent my blog posts to an editor of our local newspaper.  Here are some of his comments:  “It’s overwritten…tighten up the verbiage…write it less like you talk…less cliches…”

His comments, in my opinion, were accurate and constructive.  He’s right.  I do tend to write like I talk, which at times borders on stream of consciousness.  Not in the James Joyce sense – more like Howie Mandel.  He wrapped up his comments with a nice compliment, “the content is novel” but then – near the end – he did the unimaginable.  He dropped the W-Bomb.  “Some might call parts of it WHINING.”  

Accusing a teacher, or any government employee for that matter, of whining is tantamount to a child telling his mother she’s LAZY because she won’t wash his favorite shirt at 11:00 at night so he can wear to school the next day!  Telling a teacher he/she is whining falls into the modern day category of, “Oh, no you didn’t!”

It was the second time in the past two months that someone used the W-word to describe something I had written.  After thinking about it for a couple of days, it dawned on me why people feel that way about teachers (and other government employees) when they speak out about the fate of their profession.  

In one of my earlier blogs, I made the assertion that the general public had a “love-hate” relationship with teachers, fueled by images and depictions of teachers in movies and the media.  I’ve even speculated that the current economic conditions and the fact that the teaching profession has not been as heavily hit by job cuts might have something to do with the negative perception of teachers, too.  Now I realize neither one of those is the primary factor.  Before the “big reveal” I am going to go all Ryan Secrest and prolong the suspense with a little rhetorical Q&A.  “Let’s dim the lights…”
  • When military generals testify in front of members of Congress that troops need more training and newer weapons, are they whining?
  • When a police chief asks city council members for more officers to fight crime, are they whining?
  • When doctors – working in a free clinic – report that government regulations and tedious paperwork hamper their ability to give patients top medical care, are they whining?
Here’s the rub.  All “civil servants” –  military, police, fire fighters, teachers, city clerks, social workers, etc. – make their living off the tax dollars of “others”.   Government employees are often criticized  because  “others” think they can do what we do – only better – and they accuse us of whining when we speak out.  

For the most part, military, police and firefighters get a free pass because these brave men and women risk their lives. Doctors aren’t whiners because they have a skill and level of educational achievement that most will never obtain nor can even fathom.  But teachers, city clerks, and other government workers are viewed differently because most people think they can do what we do – only better.

There is a sign in front of the desk of the clerk who handles the water bill payments in our town.  The sign reads something like:  I understand you may be upset, but if you yell at me, swear at me, pound on my desk or make any type of threat, a sheriff’s deputy will be called

People often treat school secretaries, attendance clerks, cafeteria workers and teachers aides who supervise children before and after school with the same anger, frustration and disdain. They don't value the important role these people have in the lives of hundreds of children.  They don't see the love, patience, kindness and understanding displayed toward kids every day, despite what "others" do or say about them. 

Perhaps people treat government employees with such contempt and disrespect because of another unfortunate adjective.  Many view us as civil servants – with an emphasis on the word “servant”.  Our sole purpose is to serve them, and we better serve them when, where and how they want to be served.  After all, their taxes pay my bills. But that is another blog for another time.

If whining is caring about children and their future, then I am a whiner.  If whining is wanting the best tools and resources to teach an increasingly diverse population, then I am a whiner.  If whining is not wanting to have to continue to make do with less and less resources, then I am a whiner.  If whining is informing the general public that teachers and other government employees are feeling the financial pinch, too, then I am a whiner.

Jimmy Buffet once said, "We need more fruit cakes in this world..." people who aren't afraid to stand out in a crowd.  I think we need more whiners in education.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

When generals don't understand the battles

When generals don’t understand the battles their own troops are fighting
It is Monday afternoon.  It is forty-five minutes after students have left for the day and twenty-five minutes after my contract hours have ended, and I have just read a “letter of appreciation” from our school district superintendent.  After reading the nine-sentence, four-paragraph “appreciation letter” one resounding thought struck me:  the Head Honcho, the Big Kahuna, the Grand Marshall of the parade, our five-star general – our leader – has about as much “appreciation” as he does “understanding” of what his troops – his teachers in the classroom – are facing every day.
In the nine sentences he wrote to express his appreciation for teachers, who for the last five years have continued to raise the level of achievement among students in our district, our Commander in Chief failed to make ONE specific reference to the efforts teachers make on a daily basis.  Oh, sure, he used phrases like, “it is through your hard work…” and “I commend you for rising up to the task…” but there is not one specific or direct mention of what teachers do.  He did, however, manage to reference the tough economic conditions district personnel are facing not once, not twice, not three times but FOUR times – four times in nine sentences.  In essence, he really isn’t recognizing what teachers have done or accomplished; he is recognizing and appreciating what HE and his staff have accomplished - financially.
In this blog, I have made the statement that teachers don’t do what they do for the money.  Before I go any further, let me make one thing clear.  Teachers – like all professionals – want to make a fair wage.  They want to be recognized – personally and financially – for what they do.  They have mortgages.  They have college tuitions to pay.  They have day care bills, auto loans, and medical bills, too. 
What the “generals”  - both local and state officials – are failing to understand (or maybe just failing to acknowledge) is that teachers – the soldiers on the front line  - are struggling and experiencing low morale, not because of their pay check.  Teaching has become infinitely more difficult over the past three or four years and morale is so low because despite everything that is going on around us financially, we are doing it with less support on a moral and professional level.
In a recent New York Times article, an analogy between teaching and the military was made rather effectively.  In that article, the author made the assertion that when U.S. troops are struggling or facing an increasingly insurmountable foe, we don’t blame the troops.  We look for different ways to support our troops.  More often than not that support comes from letters of support from the home front.  It comes from words of thanks and encouragement from legislators.  It comes in the form of better training, more personnel, more reconnaissance and more cooperation among the factions involved in the fight.
What has happened in education is the exact opposite.  Not only are teachers facing a more vocal, mobile and aggressive foe, at the same time, the support from our leaders, our generals, our legislators has evaporated.  It has been replaced by a condescending, underhanded and adversarial attitude.  Teachers are now seen as the enemy and not the dedicated soldier in need of moral support.
Since our field general is obviously out of touch, I decided to write my own teacher appreciation letter.  Like the commercials that urge Americans to simply say “thank you” to a U.S. soldier, my appreciation letter is going to be a simple list of “thank you’s” to all teachers, staff and administrators:
ü  Thank you for coming to work early and staying late.
ü  Thank you for working nights and weekends.
ü  Thank you for coming to baseball games, track events, car washes, bake sales, school plays, open house and parent conferences
ü  Thank you for tutoring students before school and after school.
ü  Thank you for taking time away from your own families to support other families’ children.
ü  Thank you for being patient with that child who has exhausted the patience of so many other adults in his/her life.
ü  Thank you for taking on one more student, who just could not get along in his last class.
ü  Thank you for engaging in all the mindless state and district “accountability” efforts , like writing standards in your grade/lesson book even though you could probably recite them from memory.
ü  Thank you for re-inventing the wheel each and every year so that you might find a new way to make learning exciting and engaging for a generation of students raised on television and video games.
ü  Thank you for listening to – and not arguing with – irate parents who want to blame you for their child’s failures rather than taking a more critical look at themselves.
ü  Thank you for enduring “workshops” and faculty meetings on such “important” topics like how to comply with even more mindless “mandates”.
ü  Thank you for making your grades and lesson plans public so that parents can review them and/or criticize them when their children either don’t do the assignments or claim, “He never told us about that.”
ü  And thank you for caring about the future of our county, our state and our country in your efforts to teach more than just your subject area, but teaching young people how to be loving, caring and responsible citizens.
Have a great week, and know that you are honored, respected and loved.