Middle School Does Not Suck

When I interviewed for my current position as a middle school principal, there was one fact about myself that I did not make a point of mentioning.  The panel could see on my résumé that I had taught high school for nine years and spent four years as an elementary and high school assistant principal.  What they could not see – and never found out – was that I had never been to middle school.  Any middle school.  I had never had a reason to.  I was home-schooled through 9th grade and had just never gotten around to checking “see what middle schools are like” off my bucket list.

brainAs a career high school educator, I knew all about middle schools though.  Middle school is the holding pen where we store hormones until their brains catch up. Middle school is the place where nobody can think and everybody cuts up.  Middle school is the place where students mysteriously fail to learn the most basic fundamentals of my content area.  Middle school is the place where only very brave (and slightly crazy) teachers work.  Middle school is a place where gum and paper towels in toilets and puberty and puppy-love-turned-earth-shattering-break-up rule the day.  In a word, middle school sucks. Somehow, in spite of my deep-rooted biases, I got the job.

The longer I work in a middle school and interact with my students and collaborate with these amazing teachers, the more convinced I become that the stereotypes about middle school are worse than misleading.  They create an inappropriately imbalanced focus. Maybe my perspective is skewed, but it seems to me that the focus in middle school too often is on minimizing the damage (individually and collectively) until students can be delivered to high school where the road to successful adulthood begins with the installation of a brain.  More plainly, we are content merely to “survive” middle school.  The problem with this approach is that for a great many students, their lack of preparation for high school becomes an obstacle that takes them multiple semesters to overcome.  For far too many, their high school career ends early because they simply can not make the recovery quickly enough.

I say we need to re-imagine – or perhaps just acknowledge – the importance of middle school.  We have placed a huge burden – and most of the focus – on high school in regards to student success.  Graduation rates – high school problem.  Dropouts – high school problem.  Graduates unprepared for college and the work force – high school problem.  Almost without exception, students are required by law to attend school throughout their middle school years.  High schools are often guaranteed only one year with students who start off behind.  Having been a high school teacher my entire career, that time frame is simply not long enough.

I have a new perspective to propose.  High schools make graduates; middle schools make dropouts.

I am not suggesting that we start blaming middle schools and looking for new ways to put pressure on them – like we have been doing to high schools for years.  What we should do is begin thinking of middle school as critically important to each child’s future.  The emotional and physical and social stress of the middle school years is well documented.  What if we saw middle school as the time to stay engaged as a learner, to define a strong identity and to make meaningful contributions to society?

So many have been middle level educators much longer than I have and are already champions of this argument.  To their voices I add these few specific suggestions in no particular order.

1.  Electives are critical.  One unfortunate and very damaging impact of the “accountability era” has been the frequent decision to add remediation and intervention courses to school schedules by removing electives.  This decision is made in spite of the fact that many elective classes might already do what the classes that replace them are supposed to do.  For example, research suggests a link to increased test scores for students who participate in Fine Arts classes.  Incidentally, that same body of research suggests that the benefits of taking these courses extend far beyond raised tests scores.  While some may question the validity of this research and insist that additional time in Language Arts and Math yields better results in those subjects, it is impossible to argue that the benefits of taking highly engaging elective classes are lost by not taking them.  More plainly, students who are enrolled in strong elective classes are more engaged in all parts of the school experience.  The Fine Arts are exceptionally valuable to students who take them, but so are other high-interest courses.  Of particular appeal to students are courses that provide opportunities to combine complicated thinking with real-world applications – such as Robotics and a host of other similar courses.  Although elective classes are critical in high school as well, they might easily be the key to keeping middle school students engaged in their learning at an age when all students struggle to find value in school. If we are to prepare students for the future that awaits them just around the corner, we must recognize the fact that more time on a couple of subjects and more pressure applied will not result in more learning; it might result in less.

2.  Hands-on learning should be the default approach.  Another victim of the era of high-stakes testing has been an emphasis on hands-on learning.  A great value has been placed on accumulating knowledge in school – and on proving that accumulation via test scores, both at a classroom level and via standardized tests.  What we have valued far less is providing students rich learning experiences aimed at doing.  We are content with reading and writing about decomposition instead of pulling apart a rotting log to see it for ourselves.  Students experience so few hands-on learning opportunities that the ones that they do have become the defining moments of the course – the (single) dissection of a frog in Science; the (only) letter written to the mayor or governor or author in Language Arts; the (possibly somewhat frowned upon) detailed budget created for an imaginary trip in Math; or the (brazenly controversial) class debate about a high interest current event in Social Studies.  Why must we be defensive when we create learning experiences for students?  What makes us think that sitting quietly in neat rows will result in more learning than putting our learning into practice?  I contend that a major purpose of learning is to put that learning into practice in some way.  Further (or perhaps because of that fact) we learn best when our learning is experiential.  If the education we are offering students is to be useful to them, we must stop behaving as if the application of their learning need not happen until they have left us for the “real” world.

3.  Student voice must be nurtured.  Helping students find and use their voice is important at all grade levels.  To students struggling with the physical and emotional maelstrom that is middle school, it is vital.  I have contended elsewhere that school administrators must not only permit but nurture teachers’ voice.  In the same way, for students to reach their maximum potential, they must be co-creators of their own learning experiences.  Students should be permitted to make decisions about their own learning.  Students should be one of the most important “stakeholder” groups, invited individually and collectively to wield real influence on the decision-making process.  Students should be invited to sit on interview committees (as they frequently do at our school).  Students should be given opportunities to express their ideas to real audiences of more than one – they should write and create for more than just their teacher.  Middle school students should treated as if they are capable of complex thinking and their opinions matter.  What better way to prepare students to contribute meaningful to a democratic society than giving them opportunities to make such contributions now?

This post is intended especially for three special groups of people and to each I address these following appeals.

Pre-service teachers: don’t believe the hype.  Middle school is not objectively more challenging than any other teaching.  For every problem unique to middle school, there is a benefit also unique to this age group.  While we have our issues, there is a long list of obstacles that elementary and high school teachers face (unique to each level) that is irrelevant to middle school.  You may personally not be a good fit more middle school.  Don’t go into the decision assuming you are not, however.

Educational decision-makers (board members, superintendents, Central Office personnel): don’t allow our passion for increasing graduation rates lead to decisions that short-change middle school students.  High schools need lots of support and attention.  Elementary schools need to provide students with a great foundation.  Middle schools are incredibly complex organizations serving even more complex human beings.  Do not let simplistic stereotypes drive the decisions you make about us.

Middle school educators: don’t listen to people who don’t know what they are talking about.  You are not crazy for teaching at this level.  You fill an absolutely essential role.  You have the opportunity to keep inspire students to stay invested in their own learning.  For students surrounded by endless hints and clues and outright attacks to the effect that neither they nor their opinions matter, your faith and acceptance makes it possible to believe a different narrative; in spite of all the stereotype and hype and self-doubt to the contrary, middle school does not suck.

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One Focus

During a conversation with an influential member of our community and personal friend this week, I shared in passing my long-held theory that all schools must have a single focus if they are to achieve and sustain excellence.  We spoke about the tendency of many organizations to continually seek new ways to improve (good) by adopting more and more programs (okay) that are never clearly connected to each other (counter-productive).

The problem is not that we are tackling too many of the problems we face nor that we are using multiple strategies to pursue growth.  It is that our efforts are far too often disjointed.  My friend summed up our conversation and our concern in one short phrase: origin_9112507763“We are pushing too many buggies”.  Each time we think of something else important we add a protocol or a policy or a weekly task to our existing list.  When as schools do we have conversations designed to ensure that everything we do is aligned to our overarching purpose?  When do we announce that we will be discontinuing Initiative X because it has served its purpose or is redundant of Project Y?  If schools must do so many different things in order to serve students well (and there is no question that we must), would we not better position ourselves to be successful if we built a conceptual framework to understand how everything we do fits together to support our mission?

I propose that in order to become great, schools need to choose a single focus.  One something that defines who they are.  An identity on which to hang everything that is part of being a school.  I believe that having such a focus is more important that what that focus is.  In other words, while there are plenty of things too narrow to support an entire school culture (like “Clean Bathrooms.  Every Stall, Every Day”) there is not only one “right” focus for schools.  For example, the middle school where I work has chosen a deep and practical understanding of assessment and grading as the focus of our shared learning.  We have chosen to make that area of expertise “the thing” for us.  Because classroom assessment is such a fundamental issue, our learning in this area is impacting every other part of the school culture – it is changing our school.  Although we have chosen this course, I continue to be convinced that we could just as easily have chosen a different path.  Last summer I had the privilege of visiting Mooresville Graded School District in North Carolina as a member of a team from our school system for the purpose of learning more about their 1 to 1 technology initiative.  Among the many things I learned those few days was the fact that when their school system set out to put technology in the hands of each child, what happened in the process was a radical change to the way they approached teaching and learning.  Collaboration changed.  Approaches to grading and assessment changed.  Lesson planning and communication strategies and student voice and scores of other details about the schools changed as a result of an unwavering commitment to achieving their goal.  In fact, by focusing on one thing, they were able to grow in many different areas because their work was aligned to one purpose.

The truth is everything we do in school is interconnected.  If our planning and our work fails to consider the interconnectedness of each part of what we do, that work will inevitably become a jumble of disjointed pieces – confusing and overwhelming at best; working at cross purposes and self-defeating at worst.  I do not make this proposal lightly.  To successfully adopt such a singular focus in a school requires effective leadership, a strong culture, shared decision-making, and a willingness to be highly reflective and honest about the way things are as a faculty … among other factors.  On the other hand introducing an unending parade of programs, protocols and policies is much more easy – and probably expected.  But doing so can not result in a sustainable culture of excellence.

I am practitioner, not an expert in organizational leadership.  Having said that, this approach is working for our school.  We articulated and agreed on a vision of where we were going from the beginning.  None of us anticipated the path we have taken, though.  We are even now discussing what our next steps will be.  We maintain our focus and see the goal, but there is no magical formula to follow.  Here though are some of the (non-magical, non-formulaic, not guaranteed) steps we took as a school to make the implementation of this philosophy work for us over the last several years.
1.  Laying the Foundation.  During my first year as principal we engaged in countless formal and informal discussions about ourselves.  We talked about what kind of school we want to be and how exactly we might get there.  As part of that discussion I proposed studying grading and assessment together.  No program.  No mandate.  No timeline.  Just a challenge.
2.  Teacher Leadership and Buy-In.  During the summer after my first year, we held a retreat for all the faculty leaders.  We studied several resources on the topic of grading and assessment.  At the end of the retreat I asked the team to decide whether to propose grading and assessment to the faculty as our long-term focus or not.  When they decided to do so, we all immediately became co-planners in the process.  The teacher leaders presented the majority of the proposal to the rest of the faculty.
3.  Digging into the Idea.  That summer the faculty agreed to participate in book studies to begin learning about this topic together.  Again, there was a specific item on the agenda of that faculty meeting to choose between “Yes, Let’s Move Forward” or “No, Let’s Hold Off on this Decision”.  We had a back-up plan in case the faculty decided to wait.  The fact that each teacher chose to join the process made the learning that occurred that year much more meaningful.
4.  Articulate Your Position.  By the end of that school year, the faculty had proposed, drafted, discussed, modified and “ratified” a position statement on our shared learning.  We wrote a Grading Manifesto.  In the context of this process, it was a formal declaration of our focus as a school.  We chose to make this the central focus of our learning.  Every certified employee’s Professional Learning Plan (teacher and administrator alike) includes the actions and activities he/she has chosen to continue learning about assessment.  A copy of the manifesto (signed by everyone) hangs in the front office.
5.  Long-term Commitment to Learning.  As I hinted at earlier, we are not following a script.  We are taking each next step based on an evaluation of where we are, where we are going and our determination of the best possible way to get there, based on what we know right now.  For example, every teacher is part of a formal Professional Learning Group this year.  By the end of the year, every teacher will have spent at least five pull-out days learning with grade level and department groups.  We are planning an in-house workshop/EdCamp/mini-conference for this summer.  We are discussing what the step will be after that.  It will depend of what we know and what we need to learn next.  What we are firmly committed to is maintaining the same focus we have had.

Our story is not over yet.  I have lived enough of it, however, to be fully convinced that we would be a much different school if we did not have one idea that we consider central to who we are.  I have heard and been part of enough other stories to believe that we are not unique.

Meaningful change and growth take time.  When radical change happens rapidly, it is either superficial or damaging.  Be patient.  Choose a focus.  Make a commitment.  Become experts.  Schools that have a strong central identity will determine how all the minutia connected to education fits together – and in so doing will be much more successful at the entire process than those operating from program to program.

*For my Yankee friends, buggies are what we use to collect groceries here in the South.

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Common Core: We are Having the Wrong Debate

An Open Letter to Alabama Legislators

Dear Policymakers,

As you are certainly aware by now, a new set of instructional standards in Mathematics and Language Arts (called Common Core State Standards) have been written and adopted by many states.  If you are unfamiliar with the reasons for drafting these instructional standards or with the process, I will leave that explanation to others.  You must already know that Alabama’s decision to adopt these standards – as part of the Alabama College and Career Ready Standards (CCRS) – has become the topic of a great deal of concern, debate and (some would say) controversy.  origin_125489887Note: I will continue to refer to the Common Core throughout this letter with the caveat that I am referring to Alabama’s adoption – CCRS.  In spite of my efforts through parent informational meetings, information posted on our school website and the work done by our school system to provide our community with context and details to understand the shift to Common Core standards (which took place officially last year for Mathematics and this year for Language Arts), some parents continue to express concerns about this decision.  More frustrating for me is the fact that many parents are not expressing concerns but make comments in passing that reveal that they have a very inaccurate understanding of what this shift means.  Unfortunately, this issue which should be purely academic seems to be turning into a political one.  Opinions ranging from misinformed to wildly inaccurate to conspiracy theories are bombarding our community.  I assume that some (if not many) of the members of the community (and others around the state) are contacting you with these concerns.  More than one has communicated to me a hope that Alabama will withdraw from the Common Core.  I am writing today in the hopes that one building principal’s perspective will be helpful as you carefully consider this issue.  Here are three facts I believe are important for you to know.

1.  The Common Core are instructional standards only.  The thread that runs most commonly through the concerns I hear is based on a misunderstanding of this fact.  Instructional standards describe the academic skills and concepts that students should learn.  They do not prescribe content – such as specific books that must be read.  They do not prescribe how to teach – such as how fast to go or which resources to use or what order to go in.  They do not prescribe the teaching of any cultural or political or religious ideologies.  The confusion on this point is understandable: schools and school systems do make decisions about which resources to use and what order to go in and which books to buy.  Educators draft lists that they believe lend themselves to teaching to the level of understanding prescribed by the Common Core.  These actions are right and good.  They are cause for differences of opinion, which should result in honest discussions and consensus at a local level.  Blaming any of this on the Common Core is an act of great dishonesty by those who know better.  Think of industry standards in any other profession – we do not blame the standard of excellence when individual companies make unethical decisions or change their product in the pursuit of those standards.  Neither should we blame Common Core for the decisions local schools and school systems make.

2.  The Common Core raises expectations.  With respect to the concerned and well-meaning folks I know who have repeated the notion that the Common Core lowers academic expectations for students, this idea is simply ludicrous.  In my opinion, the only way to hold this position is to be unfamiliar with the standards themselves or with the instructional standards they replaced.  Any public educator who takes this position is engaging in intellectual dishonesty.  To anyone who has this concern, I strongly recommend the rich set of resources accessible on the Alabama Department of Education website (and linked here).  Of particular interest might be documents that provide a side by side comparison between (the former) Alabama Math and Language Arts standards and the Common Core.  Let me highlight just one 7th grade math standard as an example.  The instructional standard used to read as follows: “Identify whether a number is rational or irrational”.  The corresponding Common Core standard that replaces it reads in part: “Apply and extend previous understanding of operations with fractions to add, subtract, multiply and divide rational numbers.”  How is it possible to claim that a shift from accurately identifying something to using that same thing in complex ways is a lowering of expectations?  I boldly claim that if a lowering of expectations for students does happen anywhere, it is in no way because the standard for learning described in the Common Core caused such a decline.

3.  Common Core and standardized testing are two separate issues.   Standardized testing is an issue about which we should be having a discussion.  I am very strongly of the opinion that we have allowed our schools to become aligned to the wrong objective.  In the name of raising standards, we have been spending the majority of our efforts on raising test scores over the last decade.  The cost of that focus has been meaningful student learning.  Here’s the problem: more learning (usually) results in better test scores but better test scores don’t necessarily prove more learning has happened.  When it was time for us to choose between more learning and higher test scores, we chose better test scores.  We have been talking as if those two things are the same for so long that is doesn’t even occur to most people to see a difference.  When critics of the Common Core warn of new and terrible testing regimens, that assumption is completely reasonable.  For many school systems, adopting the Common Core will result in the adopting of new tests.  Because the Common Core is more demanding, the new tests will almost certainly be more demanding.  However, the mentality that says that the only way to know that students are learning is to put a multiple choice test in front of them is the culprit in this scenario, not the Common Core.  To be absolutely clear, I believe that we need the level of expectations Common Core lays out and we need to shift away from our obsession with standardized tests.  I am aware that some of my colleagues do not share this position – some because they disagree but many because they simply do not believe it is possible to shake free of the culture of testing.  I believe we can not afford to abandon the Common Core and that we can also not afford to continue making better test scores the purpose of school.

I have heard other objections to Common Core.  Some frequently repeated include the following: it is a thinly veiled attempt to enrich curriculum developers, textbook companies, and standardized test writers; it is a conspiracy for indoctrinating a generation with a liberal worldview; it is a usurpation of the states’ right to design and provide a free, public education; it kills creativity; it robs teachers of the freedom to make decisions about their teaching, etc, etc.  To all these I say there is a difference between the instructional standards that are the Common Core and the choices that local schools and school systems make to implement them.  These issues may indeed be pitfalls associated with Common Core, but they can all be avoided with good decision-making.

To each of you tasked with making legislative decisions on behalf of the citizens of our great state, I make this simple appeal: refuse to let the debate over the Common Core continue to be a political issue.  We should be discussing these concerns.  No change of this magnitude should be made without a great deal of open dialogue, including honest dissent.  However, using the Common Core as the instructional standard in our schools will only be a political issue if we continue to let it be one.  Each community should hold its educators accountable to make good decisions.  Please do not bow to the pressure you are feeling to force a withdrawal from the Common Core.  Please do talk to educators.  It is our job to know what the Common Core is; we would love to talk to you about it.  Our students deserve to be taught at high levels.  The Common Core describes exactly that kind of high expectation.  Whether or not you represent the citizens my school serves, it would be my honor to speak to any of you interested in a more in-depth conversation regarding this issue.  You can reach me via email at amaxey@tusc.k12.al.us.  Thank you in advance for your careful consideration of these ideas.

To anyone reading this who is not a legislator, I make this appeal: find out what the Common Core (the standards) really are.  Engage the educators in your community in a discussion about this topic.  Ask what is being done to implement these instructional standards and what will be done in the future.  Form an opinion about the standards and about the way your school and school system is implementing them.  Speak to your representative.  Encourage educators from your neighborhood to do the same thing.  Most importantly, insist that your school sets high standards and helps all students reach them.  Your child deserves such a school.  All children do.

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Dumbledore as an Example of an Effective (School) Leader – Part III

Whether you have read the Harry Potter series or not, you probably know this much about them: the title character is a school-aged wizard-in-training destined (and expected) to defeat the ultimate bad guy: Lord Voldemort.  What you may not have considered before, even if you have read the books, is that Harry’s mentor, Professor Albus Dumbledore is a model of effective leadership: particularly educational leadership.  Several of the characteristics that make him a leader were the subject of Part I and Part II in this series.  Three more of Dumbledore’s leadership characteristics are highlighted here in this third and final installment.

Dumbledore is not tempted by wealth or power.  From my perspective, access to power and the offer of wealth are inducements to compromise one’s good judgement which are not easily ignored.  Somehow, he does ignore these temptations though.  He is offered the position of Minister of Magic multiple times but steadfastly refuses.  Although that position would afford him much greater power, Dumbledore is convinced that his place is at Hogwarts and is not swayed by this offer of power.  Even without this official appointment, Dumbledore has great power and influence but chooses to use it sparingly.  He is the Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot, but does not use that position to his own advantage.  He comes into possession of the Sorcerer’s stone but chooses not to claim the immortality that it offers.  By the end of the series, it becomes clear that he owns the Elder Wand – the most powerful of all wands – but does not flaunt its power whatsoever.  As Dumbledore is a human being, he must certainly be tempted by these enticements.  Indeed there is plenty of evidence to suggest that he is definitely flawed as both a leader and as a man.  He seems to recognize fully, however, that great leaders draw away from wielding the influence of their wealth and power as they acquire more.  They are not seduced nor driven by a quest to accumulate either.  

newspaperOne of the most inspiring points I see in Dumbledore is the fact that he is not distracted or swayed by “scandal” or bureaucratic pressure.  He continues teaching and leading Hogwarts in the way he believes to be best in spite of pressure from the Board of Governors.  In fact, he is temporarily removed from his position as Headmaster because he refuses to implement policies that he believes to be harmful to his students.  Dumbledore also ignores frequent (and ludicrous) attacks in the newspaper.  While it is unclear how the criticism and accusations and lies make him feel, they do nothing to deter him from the actions he knows to be right for his students.  Even the Ministry of Magic does its best to control Dumbledore through pressure, slander, and even the threat of sanctions and arrest.  While he gives ground in some cases, Dumbledore never compromises in spite of the pressure he faces from the central office, the government and the media.

One final characteristic that I admire in this leader, is his refusal to take himself too seriously.  In spite of the fact that he is the world greatest wizard he has an acute sense of humor.  Throughout the series, this attitude of whimsical joyfulness is most often his default mood and masks nearly entirely the staggering depth of knowledge and the awesome power that he possesses.  He sets silly passwords to protect the door to his office.  He is aware of student fads, particularly the light-hearted (if officially banned) practices students are fond of.  Even at official functions, like the start of term feasts he is so unpretentious as to keep his speeches extremely short, including one that was famously only three words long.  When set beside government officials and professors and even muggles who are filled with self-importance, Dumbledore provides by sharp contrast an example of a healthy sense of humor and self-image.

There are other characteristics of an effective leader easily seen in Dumbledore: courage, decisiveness, delegation of responsibility, time management, vision-casting, clear and effective communication, and many more.  Perhaps those can be the focus of another discussion.  In the meantime, for me, there can be no doubt that whether J.K. Rowling has studied the characteristics of an effective leader or not, Albus Dumbledore is an example of a highly effective leader – particularly in the areas of school leadership.  Even as a fictional character, he models for me a combination of qualities and approaches to leadership that I find to be worth studying and aspiring to acquire.

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Dumbledore as an Example of an Effective (School) Leader – Part II

In the first part of this series, I proposed the idea that Professor Albus Dumbledore is more than an authority figure to serve as a backdrop against which Harry Potter’s character develops – he embodies a strong leader to match (and mentor) the hero Harry becomes.  Dumbledore is devoted to a life of learning, is committed to the pre-eminence of learning over compliance, and is dedicated to the belief that learning rarely happens in the midst of chaos.  To these strong leadership qualities, Dumbledore adds the following.

Dumbledore places a strong emphasis on recruitment and personnel development.  He only hires the best teachers.  Minerva McGonagall is arguably the best teacher portrayed in the Harry Potter series.  She demonstrates a deep knowledge of her content area, is a very skillful classroom instructor, builds positive relationships with students, never acts out of bias or shows favoritism, and holds students to high standards.  She serves as Dumbledore’s Deputy Headmistress – a testament to her own leadership abilities.  In Professor McGonagall we see an example of a consummate professional.  From my perspective, the only reason that an individual of McGonagall’s extensive abilities works as a teacher at all is because of the leadership of Dumbledore.  She could easily hold any of a number of other positions, but believes in the vision of Dumbledore so much that she dedicates a lifetime of service to educating the young.  snapeAnother example of Dumbledore’s dedication to developing those around him is Severus Snape.  Although he is frequently in conflict with Harry and often appears to be in league with Voldemort, Snape is nevertheless in point of fact unrivaled at his craft.  Although he covets the Defense Against the Dark Arts position, his mastery of Potions is so prodigious that several teachers (including Professor Dumbledore) seek his assistance when they want to be absolutely sure of getting a potion right.  Dumbledore keeps him on as a teacher even when their pedagogical practices do not align perfectly.  Through the course of their relationship, Dumbledore serves as a mentor to him and shapes the course of his career (and life) significantly.  Another example of Dumbledore’s drive to assemble the best possible team is Rubeus Hagrid.  While most other Headmasters would not likely have permitted someone who had been expelled from school and had his wand broken to be their gamekeeper, Dumbledore sees great value and potential in Hagrid.  Who else would have the passion and willingness to handle all the dangerous and sensational magical beasts that Hagrid does?  As Harry and his friends find out, hands-on learning is much more meaningful than learning from a book in most subject areas.  When it comes to magical beasts, Hagrid’s abilities give all his students valuable knowledge and experiences that they are unlikely to have gained without him.  There are many other examples of Dumbledore’s commitment to hiring only the best – Alastor “Mad Eye” Moody, the best of the Aurors; Firenze, the ultimate Divination teacher; Professor Sprout, Herbology teacher extraordinaire; Professor Binns, the ghost who teaches history; etc, etc.  Dumbledore knows that an exemplary school requires an excellent team; his own proficiencies are not enough.  By recruiting and growing a team around him, he makes Hogwarts a school without parallel.

Professor Dumbledore always treats others with respect.  This is a leadership quality much more easily identified than exemplified.  It is particularly difficult (in my experience) to treat others with dignity and respect when you know that they are actively seeking to undermine your success and that of your organization.  Dumbledore does exactly that, though.  He speaks respectfully and graciously to Draco Malfoy at all times, even when Malfoy makes it his business to antagonize Harry Potter.  There is no change in this tone even when Malfoy comes to kill Dumbledore.  Dumbledore is courteous to Lucius Malfoy, even when he orchestrates Dumbledore’s removal as headmaster.  Dolores Umbrage, through her actions, severely disrupts learning at Hogwarts and actively persecutes Harry Potter and his friends.  In spite of all that, Professor Dumbledore insists on treating her too with great dignity.  But perhaps most notable is Dumbledore’s interactions with Tom Riddle.  As a young teacher at Hogwarts, Dumbledore taught a young man who would eventually choose a path that led to his becoming the most powerful dark wizard.  During his school days, Dumbledore suspected that Riddle had been doing evil things and knew that he was keeping secrets.  Even this very troubled young man who would allow his pain to twist him into a tortured adult could never honestly say that he was ignored or belittled or disrespected by Albus Dumbledore.

Professor Dumbledore is humble.  In spite of the fact that he has legitimately earned a lengthy list of titles and built an unparalleled resume, he is addressed simply as “professor” by his student and as “Albus” by his teachers.  When considered in contrast to so many who insist on the use of the proper honorific by those around them, this practice is even more refreshing.  In spite of his vast knowledge and rich experiences, Dumbledore is known for his short speeches.  Not only does he avoid bloviating publicly, Dumbledore does not even mention his own exploits or use much of his power except at great need and almost never publicly.  In fact, the majority of his power remains cloaked from his students to the point that at least one of them foolishly concludes that his own feeble abilities are a match for this great wizard’s.  In spite of his great power though, and as further proof of his humility, Dumbledore is not too proud to ask for help.  He seeks assistance from his teachers, from outcast wizards, from men and women who doubt themselves and their own abilities, from children, and from ordinary muggles.  He never, ever casts himself as a one-man act.  His humility keeps him from challenging Voldemort in open combat.  Although he is the most powerful wizard in the world, Dumbledore does not let that cloud the fact that it is not his destiny to defeat the Dark Lord.  He pours all he can into preparing Harry to fill that role instead.

If you have enjoyed either or both of the first two posts in this series, the third post  has aparated here.

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Dumbledore as an Example of an Effective (School) Leader – Part I

As a Language Arts teacher, I considered teaching students to think deeply about what they read a very serious responsibility.  I continue to believe that critical thinking is the single most important lesson students can learn from us.  Either from a devotion to developing this skill in myself or because I am afflicted by the very human drive to make meaning of everything around me, I love the richness of literature and often seek to discover significance where others may not see it.  In that vein, and at the risk of crediting authorial intent and genius where it may or may not be intended, I submit that Professor Albus Dumbledore provides a model of a leadership (particularly school leadership) worthy of emulation.  A colleague once suggested that I may share some characteristics with Dumbledore.  The truth is that it would give me great pleasure to be considered half the leader I believe him to be.

origin_5190050734 (1)In case you have not read the Harry Potter books, Professor Dumbledore is the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where Harry attends school.  Dumbledore’s other positions, accomplishments, and honors are too many to list here.  He plays a significant role in a story centered around a student at his school precisely because he takes the time to know and develop a relationship with his students.

What follows are a few of the practices and characteristics that make him such an effective school leader.

Professor Dumbledore is a learning leader.  The role of principal has shifted significantly in the last decade.  Most have abandoned the view that values managerial prowess as the ultimate qualification.  A deep understanding of teaching and learning has emerged as most critical instead.  As the reasoning goes, a principal must be the “chief learner” in his/her school – the one who leads by the example of being most dedicated to advancing his/her own learning.  In a story full of students and of avid learners, Dumbledore is arguably the most dedicated learner of all.  For example, throughout the series, he seeks relentlessly to understand history.  He interviews “witnesses” to events that appear to be important; he “collects” memories for further study; he pores over ancient texts and rumors and legends.  Near the end of the story, his study of the nature, creation, identity, and location of “horcruxes” – the magical objects created by the antagonist Lord Voldemort in an attempt to achieve immortality – becomes a major focus of his efforts.  He commits himself – at great cost – to a high level of learning.  In a school full of learners, he models an unparalleled commitment to learning.  Even more impressive than his commitment to the study of magical history is his dedication to understanding “muggles” – non-magical human beings.  In fact, one of the great contrasts between Professor Dumbledore and Lord Voldemort is their respective view of muggles. Voldemort disdains them – when he does not hate them – and considers learning about them beneath his dignity.  Dumbledore respects muggles, does everything within his considerable power to protect them, and commits himself to learning as much as possible about them.  On the checklist of qualities that make a great leader, the box next to “committed to learning” is definitely marked for Albus Dumbledore.

Professor Dumbledore values learning more than rules.  In my experience, many educators act as if the enforcement of school rules is their most important job.  It is distressing (and frankly confusing) to me that we so often deprive students of the opportunity to learn for violating rules designed to ensure that they stay engaged in learning – like when we suspend students for being tardy to class.  I believe that it is critical to remember that the rules we establish in schools serve our main focus – learning.  Professor Dumbledore seems to operate from a similar belief.  He nurtures Harry’s growth even when Harry runs afoul of school rules.  From early in his first year, Harry frequently finds himself on the wrong side of school rules.  His transgressions come mostly in the course of protecting his friends or fighting against the Dark Lord but he does in fact break the rules fairly regularly.  From being “out of bounds” at every turn to sneaking into faculty members’ offices to crashing a flying car onto school’s lawn – Harry just can’t seem to obey the rules consistently.  Dumbledore knows of Harry’s indiscretions.  He frequently witnesses them; they are also reported to him by members of the faculty and staff and he is urged to apply strong sanctions.  While he does threaten to expel Harry if he doesn’t toe the line, he makes Harry’s learning a much higher priority than Harry’s obedience.  On more than one occasion, when he could be punishing him, Dumbledore chooses instead to teach Harry.  You see, Dumbledore knows that an ability to follow rules will not be adequate preparation for the future that Harry will face.  While a total disregard for order within the school environment would be harmful to his growth, a rigid conforming to the rules would not have prepared Harry for the feats he accomplishes.  Dumbledore allows Harry (and other students) to make mistakes – and even bend the rules – so that they can continue learning.

… but does not stop others from enforcing rules.  While school rules are subservient to student learning, they are not valueless.  Great schools do not spend a huge amount of time enforcing petty rules, but their students adhere to expectations anyway.  Great leaders do not cast themselves as disciplinarians, but they do ensure that there is order within their schools.  Dumbledore may not have spent his time handing out detentions or deducting house points from mischievous children, but he also does not stop others from enforcing the rules.  Professor Severus Snape very aggressively pursues the enforcement of school rules – frequently with undue relish.  Mr. Argus Filch (caretaker/custodian) has whole filing cabinets full of disciplinary files and begs Dumbledore to reinstate the more severe forms of punishment.  Dolores Umbridge is so devoted to rules that she makes up new ones and creates squads of students deputized to rat on their classmates for any violation of her ever increasing list of commandments.  Throughout Dumbledore’s tenure as headmaster, he does not stop others from enforcing school rules.  True, he prohibits Filch from torturing students; and he does not expel Harry as Snape urges; and he leaves the school (temporarily) when Umbridge goes too far in her zeal.  He focuses his efforts on teaching and learning, but he does not treat school rules with disrespect nor does he ask teachers to let students ignore them.  Even when Harry is assigned to unfair and even cruel punishments, Dumbledore does not overturn them.  He knows that the only thing more dangerous than a mindless enforcement of the rules is a wanton disregard for them.

Part II describes more leadership traits that Professor Dumbledore models.

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No Checklists

The following is one man’s opinion.  I am not a researcher.  I do not even have a career’s worth of experience to support my claims.  What I do have is deep conviction and a track record that suggests that I am not completely wrong.

I do not believe in checklists.  I believe that we areorigin_9568156463 still using a leadership model that has run its course and is no longer the best option.  There was a time when (and there may still be situations in which) dictating what and when and exactly how others are to act was an effective approach to leadership.  There can be no doubt that it was in fact the leadership model used during a large chunk of human history and did produce impressive results. It seems to me though that, in many ways, our (human) objectives have changed and demand a different approach.  One we appear reluctant to adopt.  Consider, for example, the fact that for the first time in human history, the educational system in this country and several others) aims to educate the entire population.  No other society has even attempted this objective.  Ever.  Instead of blaming teachers and The Education System in general for struggling to accomplish this Herculean task with outdated tools and resources, perhaps we should consider new approaches to the task.  One approach that would require zero additional funding is a shift to a leadership paradigm that sees vision casting and navigating as more valuable than expecting and inspecting.  While the majority of my formal leadership experience is in the field of education, I believe that these principles apply equally well in all areas.

I submit that leadership that is based on telling people what to do can not produce sustainable results.  I reject as faulty logic the argument that suggests that changing folk’s actions will naturally and eventually result in a change of mind.  Making someone do something over and over may produce automaticity but it does not necessarily produce conviction.  Unfortunately, the prevailing model of leadership (in American schools at least) is to cast a vision (tell folks what they are going to be doing), make a plan (tell them how they must do it) and evaluate progress towards “shared goals” (inspect for compliance).  It is fashionable to talk about “buy-in”, but in my experience, the what and the how are rarely really negotiable.  This paradigm runs all the way through our system.  No Child Left Behind (the federally enacted school accountability act of the last decade) however well intentioned was based on a very basic assumption: if we place enough pressure on schools to get better, they will. While good things have come from NCLB, this assumption has proven to be woefully unfounded.  Unfortunately, we continue to act out that assumption all the way down to the individual level even when we see that it doesn’t work.  We have trained our teachers to follow directions and keep their opinions to themselves – even when we “ask” for them.

It is my firm conviction that the micromanagement that we so frequently assume to simply be part of life results in superficial and temporary results at best.  We are fully aware that this leadership approach requires continuous supervision.  Most human beings simply can not stay in compliance all the time when expectations of them come in the form of a checklist (literal or figurative).  On the other hand, checklist leaders can not allow deviations because the toleration of any exception is an invitation to chaos.  The funny thing about this approach is that even when “results” are achieved, as soon as pressure to comply is released, most compliance ends.  In other words, any momentum gained is not self-sustaining.  Plenty of schools have “turned it around” and become “outstanding” by means of very tightly controlling everything.  Test scores shoot up and the educational world applauds.  When the (often charismatic) leader who drives this growth moves on or when the grant runs out or when the program is replaced, however, things slowly drift back to the way they were.  Actually, I have worked at a school where the momentum only lasted one semester before we began spiraling toward mediocrity.  In other words, checklist leadership is only as good as the last inspection.  This approach to leadership in schools frequently feeds the all too common assumption that one of the main purposes of school is to help students get more test questions right, a paradigm I have commented on in another post.  If we are to set our sights higher than creating test-acing automatons, we need a different approach.  Checklist leadership is not the way.

It seems to me that there is a better way.  Most people want to be part of something significant.  Most people want to help solve the problem.  Most people want to be good at what they do.  Very few people want to be told what to do.  Clarification: most people would rather be told what to do than to be criticized or belittled for missing the hidden agenda, but when their personal dignity is safe adults don’t like to be treated like children. Actually, children don’t like to be treated like children most of the time.  Daniel Pink explains these ideas beautifully in his book Drive.  He suggests that most people are in fact not motivated by extrinsic factors (once their basic needs have been met).  The desire for autonomy, purpose, and expertise is highly motivating.  Pink cites research studies to back his claims.  All I have is my belief about the nature of human relationships and my experience as a leader … and as someone under authority.

Even the Age of Accountability has not adequately described what we are aiming for.  We are getting outscored by Finland and a bunch of other countries and we don’t like not being first, so let’s get out there and “fix this”.  To what end?  Are we trying to get better test scores so our president can have bragging rights at the next G8 summit?  Will a race to the top of the testing heap make other countries stop bad-mouthing us?  Will better scores make life tangibly better for the individual students who achieve them or for the schools or the generation of students those individuals are part of?  I submit that schools need a better purpose than raising test scores.  A purpose that can not be prescribed by anyone outside the building nor by any one person inside the building.  The reason is simple.  If we do not all voluntarily sign up to pursue a much more meaningful goal, we will continue to become more and more irrelevant to the young people who occupy our seats because the law holds them there.  The leader who believes himself to be helpless against the time honored tradition of checklist leadership can not possibly produce results that last beyond his tenure.  At best.  The one who stares down the status quo and chooses a different approach may find that people who are challenged to be amazing – and given the freedom to pursue that goal – might begin performing at a level that could never reasonably be required by a checklist leader.  Such a leader might just disrupt things long enough to give others the courage to consider a bit of changes themselves.

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Honest Feedback

If you are in a leadership position of any kind this post is for you.  It is especially relevant for school administrators.  Leadership is not an individual sport.  Successful leaders do not operate in isolation; they work to create cohesive teams that work towards clearly defined goals.  The necessity of team building is a point not often missed; unfortunately, the approaches to doing so are counter-productive far too often.  Many leaders never consider questioning the ubiquitous assumption that it is their responsibility to “hold folks accountable” for doing what they are supposed to do – read apply the pressure necessary to ensure compliance.  I submit that meaningful and self-sustaining commitment to any shared goal is possible only by building a culture of trust.  That objective is possible only when you have a team that provides honest feedback.

It is my experience that most working professionals have been thoroughly and systematically conditioned to avoid giving honest feedback.  The role of a team member is to be a “team player” – one who does as he/she is told without asking questions.  Public school teachers have been trained to play this role well – give “input” when asked by listening carefully to what the boss is saying and then filling in the little “dialogue” boxes with answers that fit the formula provided by the expert or the “specialist” at the time.  In other words, teachers are afraid.  Listen to our buzzwords – “accountability”, “adequate yearly progress”, “standardization”, etc, etc.  The underlying premise of No Child Left Behind is that if we apply enough pressure (and/or offer enough incentives) our problems will get solved and stay solved.  From my perspective, this observation applies to other professions as well.  The terminology may be different, but the trend is the same: we can be great (or at least a lot better) if we could just get everyone to comply.

I began my career as a school administrator convinced that this thinking is wrong.  I believe that while this approach can yield to a change in the “data”, it will rarely lead to more learning and can never result in lasting change.  From the first day I was hired as a school principal, I set out to create a culture where the voice of each team member was valued; where each individual’s honest assessment of the decision we were considering was sought.  For more than half of my first year, the attitude of the faculty was polite skepticism.  It was as if everyone was waiting for the other other shoe to drop.  Till this day, some members of the faculty are apologetic when they offer a dissenting opinion – even when I ask for it.  In this my third year, there are levels of departmental, cross-curricular, and grade level collaboration unlike anything I have seen or been part of before in my career.  It is my opinion that the freedom to object – and think, and plan and innovate – has been a major part of bringing us to this place as a school.

I do not think there can be a formula for creating a team that provides honest feedback, but here are three specific examples of the strategies I have used.

Be vulnerable
Nothing demonstrates a desire for feedback like asking for it.  A practice I have engaged in both as an assistant principal and as a principal is to invite small groups of the faculty and staff to meet with me on neutral ground (usually the library) for the express purpose of providing feedback about me specifically.  In my invitation, I send five questions I will be asking:
– “What are my blind spots?”
-“What do I think I do well that I don’t?”
– “What do I need to do better?”
– “What do I need to stop doing or do much differently?”
– “In what area am I most in need of growth?”
These groups are always small; they always include both teachers and staff; everyone gets invited (by the end of the year).  In my invitation and at the start of the meeting, I ask for honest feedback.  I share my conviction that I can not possibly be fully effective as a leader if I am not aware of the perspective of the people on my team.  A point of particular emphasis is my request that participants save their words of encouragement for later.  This is not an attempt to fish for complements.  Almost invariable, I come away from these sessions with insight that I almost certainly would never have gained if I had not asked for the feedback.  Sometimes, I make major changes to my perspective or approach based on what is shared.  In addition to giving me the opportunity to learn, these meetings build trust.  On more occasions than I can remember, staff members have been very appreciative of the fact that they were invited to participate and that their feedback was invited at all.  Even participants who chose not to provide feedback frequently say that the gesture of asking was deeply meaningful to them.

Ask for feedback … and use it
If a principal’s roast is not quite your feed, you can still ask for feedback.  Seize opportunities to ask people for their opinions and then use their input as often as you can.  Ask the custodian how he would approach a task you are discussing instead of informing him of how you want the job done.  Use the secretary’s suggestion for how to get seven sheets of student-specific paper and report cards sorted and into the hands of teachers in time to distribute.  Give a draft of the parent letter you just wrote to a teacher (not just the Language Arts teachers) and ask her to mark it up for you.  The more you ask for feedback in the little things, the more willing your team will be to give their honest opinions about the big things.  In the past couple of weeks, we have started our school-wide professional learning group (details and an update in a later post).  Three of our departments (so far) have taken a day out of the classroom to engage in shared professional learning.  Science went first and planned a great activity.  They each wrote everything they do as part of their job as a teacher on a paper plate.  They then rewrote their plate to be organized the way they would like it to be.  Part of that process was “fixing a plate for Mr. Maxey”.  They wrote the things they would like me to take off their plates.  I visited their meeting that day (and the others on their days) so that they could share their specific ideas about how I can lighten their loads as classroom teachers.  I walked out of that meeting and took immediate action.  Our faculty meeting this month was planned around that feedback.  If you really listen to your team, they will be willing to be honest with you.

Admit your mistakes publicly
It takes a big man (or woman) to admit his mistakes.  But there are plenty of small-minded fools propping up the charade of their own greatness.  Here’s the thing: if you are a human being, you are going to make mistakes.  The only question is whether you are going to pretend that you are infallible or gain the trust of your team by admitting your mistakes.  By the way, for many leaders this is very difficult.  Too often our own pride convinces us to move on as quickly as possible.  In my opinion it is possible to say you made a mistake while communicating that it wasn’t your fault or not that big a deal or in some other way down-playing the issue.  It seems to me that leaders should bravely but humbly say “I made a mistake.  I am sorry.  I am going to fix it and make plans to keep myself from making this mistake again”.  When they do, their team and community gain respect for them.

As the cliche goes, there is no “I” in team.  There are plenty of eyes on your team, though.  It would be foolhardy to ignore the perspective of the entire team.  Good leaders listen when the members of their team offer feedback.  Great leaders ask for it.

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I am participating the the School Administrators’ Virtual Mentoring Program (#SAVMP) this year.  George Couros (program founder and coordinator) asked the participating principals to describe how they go about creating innovative practices in their schools.  In reflecting on this question, I realized that I need to decide if I want to write the Reader’s Digest or the Director’s Cut on this topic.  I’m still undecided.

Opinion: if you set out to be innovative because doing so is inherently good, you run the risk of achieving that goal.  If, however, your goal is to affect change through innovation, that can be a powerful difference.  Therefore, never lose sight of your vision and your objectives.  Creating them is a separate process; getting side-tracked from them could happen here, though.

Here are three things I think of as requirements for creating a culture of innovation:

1.  Always, always, always ask “why are we doing what we are doing?”  So many sacred cows could be made into lunch and fashionable accessories if we realized that were aren’t supposed to be eating beets.  We insist on doing things the “right” way because we never even consider the possibility that the folks who made up that way would never make the same choices if they had the tools we have at our disposal.  Keep the baby in the tub, though.  If we already know what our objective is, any decision we make in terms of change and innovation will be in service of advancing towards that objective.

2.  Expect people to think for themselves.  At my school I have literally and explicitly told our teachers that I will not fill in the blanks for them.  We discuss big ideas all the time.  I love discussing teachers’ ideas for how to advance the efforts we are making.  I simply don’t believe things would work as well if everyone would wait to act until I passed out the checklist for the week.  I’ve never met Daniel Pink and don’t expect to.  To my knowledge he has never been a school principal.  With apologies to NCLB and decades of tradition in the American educational system, his ideas about the way that leadership and relationships work are exactly correct.  We can not simply mandate our way to excellence or get their by fiat.

3.  Accept failure.  This is the twin of the last point.  As I have opined in a previous post, not only is failure not an option, it is much more likely when folks attempt to be innovative.  Admit your failures, learn from them, and move forward.  Team members who live in fear of failure will never innovate.  Unfortunately, for most human beings, the fear of failure has been systematically established throughout their lives.  Leaders who wish to foster a culture of innovation must just as systematically (and explicitly)  work to free those under them from this most debilitating of fears.

There’s more (recognize the efforts and the achievements of the team; hire great team members; learn from others; etc, etc) but I have to go: I’m working on a way to keep all three children asleep all night …

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The Importance of Trust

From my perspective, leadership is not possible without trust – only obedience.  People might do what you say, but unless you have established trust, you aren’t really leading.

A very wise man that I worked with a few years ago once shared this progression with me: Heart -> Connect -> Trust -> Follow.  You have probably heard the idea this represents before.  Understanding and applying it has shaped who I am as a principal.  First, you must show people your heart.  Too many leaders believe that having all the right answers is the most important thing.  People don’t want to know what, though, they want to know why.  They want to see your heart.  Simon Sinek explores this idea of the importance of why in a Ted Talk titled “How Great Leaders Inspire Action”.  If you haven’t seen it, it is worth watching.

When people around you see your heart they will connect with you.  It has been said many thousands of times, but relationships are what matter.  When you connect with someone, you begin to form a relationship.  As a leader, my goal is to foster relationships akin to family.  We may not have chosen each other nor our circumstances but we can chose to support each other and to work towards a common goal.

I must value the input of everyone on the team – that builds trust.  I must find a way to say yes as often as possible – that builds trust.  I must shield others from as much bureaucracy as possible and back them when our superiors and outsiders question them without good cause – that builds trust.  I must allow others to make mistakes in the pursuit of growth and excellence – that builds trust.  You see where there is trust, people follow.

If you want people to follow you, show them your heart, connect with them, and earn their trust.

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