Thursday, March 5, 2009

Everything I Need to Know I Learned From My Browndog

It’s funny how life works out sometimes. I grew up in wonderful family and was blessed with two loving parents and three fantastic siblings. I am the youngest of four and have a sister for a best friend and two great brothers. For as far back as I can remember, we always had dogs in our family. My dad, a hunter and fisher extraordinaire, had a saying about dogs: "If it can't hunt, it can't stay." As a result, we usually had a retriever or a setter. So when I grew up, got a teaching job, and bought my own house, I also bought my best browndog; a wonderfully friendly and spirited chocolate lab named Bailey (officially named Kate's Mudsplash Bailey Girl).

As I reflect on my life as an educator, as I often do, I can say that everything I ever needed to know about life I learned from my browndog. Here are some lasting life lessons that I've learned from my furry and brown best friend:

1. Greet everyone enthusiastically, be happy to see them, and show them how much you care about what they do. In other words, build lasting relationships. Dogs have this wonderful connection to people and, as an administrator, I can't say enough about how important it is to build relationships with those with whom you live and work closely. There is always a common goal to strive toward in education and there's no better way to get people to follow you as a leader but through building relationships and appreciating what they do every day. Take time to appreciate those important people in your life and show them how much you care about them and what they do. It is the single most important thing you can do for your teachers, who do the most important work in the world...inspiring the next generation to do great things.

2. Work hard and play hard. My browndog will be turning ten in a few weeks and she is still all puppy. She loves to work hard and please me, her leader, and she loves to play even more. We need to take time to do the same things. Being an educator or an educational leader is hard work; we face obstacles every day and do our best to inspire and motivate others to do their best work as well. But the job can be taxing, both physically and emotionally; so it is ever so important that after working hard we reward ourselves with a little bit of fun. This is true not only for us, but for our students as well. We need to remember to reward hard work with some fun. It will pay dividends that are everlasting. Kids and teachers alike will become more connected to their schools and they will become leaders in their own right.

3. Take a walk every day. In other words, take time out to get some physical activity every day. I have a teacher in my UPK program that is seeing the rewards of this idea in real time. Each day, after her normal routine of calendar, weather, the pledge, etc., she has the kids count to 100 doing combinations of ten reps of some sort of physical activity...jumping, push-ups, squatting, jumping jacks...anything she can think of. The kids love it and are building strength and so are she and her aide. I visit each classroom every day and I can see the kids making progress! But what I really love is that the kids make me join in too. It's fun, we see progress in others and praise each other, and we expend some energy which helps us to focus on our work afterward.

4. Rest as needed. My browndog is a power napper. As she is approaching her ten year mark, she naps more frequently and tuckers out more easily. However, she recuperates quickly because she rests as needed throughout the day. As adults, we need to remember to do the same. Of course, we cannot nap while on the job but we can be proactive by planning accordingly so that we are able to organize and manage our work in meaningful and effective ways. Teachers need to learn be ever-mindful of their weekly and report card deadlines so that they are not spending their personal family or home time grading papers or projects to calculate grades. There must be a clearly defined line of work and life. Educational leaders need to find and share strategies and tools to help teachers monitor their time more effectively.

5. Praise good deeds. I will admit that the browndog was not always the best pet. As a pup, she chewed every rung on my dining room chairs until they were toothpicks, she ate my favorite and original Birkenstocks my sister brought me from Germany, and she often shredded magazines or books for me to find when I got home from work. Rather than spanking or punishing her, I found that a much more effective way of stopping the bad behaviors occurred when simply praising her for being a good girl each day. Although she has not done anything like that since she was a pup, I still greet her each day upon my return home from work by asking if she was a good girl. Each day, she takes me through every room in the house to show me what a good girl she was or to "brag" in her own way about what she had done that day. As a result, I take time to shower her with praise for her deeds (or lack thereof) and she is so receptive to that praise that she is inspired to do good work each and every time I leave her. People, or students and teachers, are no different. Taking time to praise them for the work that they do each day goes a long way.

6. Play well with others. Dogs and people are social beings, so why aren't teachers? Many teachers operate as islands; they close their doors, plan their own things, and rarely collaborate unless required to do so by their leaders. A teacher can do wonderful things, but teachers, together, can do AWESOME things. Teachers need time to work together to plan meaningful learning experiences for children. In addition, teachers must be granted time together to ensure that what they are teaching is aligned to state standards. Further, teachers need time together to discuss the different strategies and ways they implemented their content and instruction in order to compare with one another which ways were more effective for kids. This is the most powerful conversation that is worth having in our field.

7. Take time to smell (the roses). Dogs, especially my labbie, are led by their noses. Those of us dedicated to the profession of educating kids need to take time out to appreciate the good things we do and the progress that we reap. We must make time to reflect on the things in life and work that we do well in order to find inspiration and motivation to continue to grow as people and professionals. Reflection is the key to inspiring growth and ensuring that we do not enter into a "rut." We cannot continue to do things the way we've always done them. Our students and teachers deserve much more than that. We must be open and willing to grow professionally and continually in order to inspire the best in others.

So take time to look for life lessons in the little things that we take for granted. My browndog has certainly inspired me to do so. Your teachers and your students deserve the same.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Building a Professional Learning Community

In my current situation as the Director of Curriculum and Instruction, I am charged with ensuring quality programs and learning experiences for all students, Pre-K-12. My biggest challenge right now is that the teachers in my district have not had stability in my position for nearly two years. They are jaded; they have heard that great things would be taking place and were willing to invest time and energy into things that were promised, but have not seen any follow through. In addition, they are starved; they are dying for some professional development that is meaningful, will enhance their daily classroom practice, is seamless in its implementation into the classroom, and will engage and motivate the unique students in classrooms today.

To add to the pool of frustration, my teachers are in their second year without a contract and negotiations have gone into arbitration. To put it simply, it's ugly out there. Teachers are disgruntled and feeling under appreciated and overworked. In addition, as in many other districts out there, there is a huge disconnect and feelings of inequality between buildings and levels (elementary, middle school, and high school). To complicate the matter further, there are feelings of animosity not only between buildings, but within buildings as well. biggest hurdle right now is building collegiality. Thank God for my PLN and my DLN to help me in this momentous task. I've recently begun the process of joining Communities for Learning and I am so excited to have this support to help me on my quest of building collegiality and establishing an atmosphere of supportive collaboration throughout my district. I long to create a learning community "in which participants embrace the privilege and responsibility of learning individually and collectively. " I want to inspire teachers to increase their expertise and share that success with other teachers in an atmosphere where they feel safe and inspired to do so. I believe that, only through building collegiality and fostering an atmosphere of sharing experiences, teachers can come to understand teaching and learning to a point that transcends the limitations of their unique individual perspectives.

How do I go about building this collegiality among teachers, departments, and individual schools in my district? I have some ideas and I'm hoping that my membership in Communities for Learning will direct me and support me in bringing those ideas to fruition. But I would appreciate any suggestions you might have to help me as well. How do you attempt to bring people, who have a history of not working together, to join in conversations to move your building or district forward for the sake of the children you serve?