All posts by Jen Munnerlyn

Jen Munnerlyn is the Elementary Principal at the American School of Warsaw. Her international experience began back in 1980 when her parents first started teaching overseas. Jen blogs about her own experiences as a Third Culture Kid, the adventures of being the mother of a TCK, and about elementary education in an international school setting. Her picture book The Adventure Begins, about the first day at an international school, is a favorite among adults and students abroad.

Teacher Appreciation Day

What matters most? Recent research has shown that the most important contributor to student learning success is the teacher. Beyond class size, socio-economic status, or program emphasis, the teacher- what they do, how they create learning opportunities and the relationships they build with students- is what matters most.

Recently, I’ve experienced this first hand. And trust me, it matters.

The first time I threw my back out was over 20 years ago. The cause is mysterious, but tends to be blamed on a combination of genetics, lifestyle (stress) and good old, bad luck. The first time it happened I was a new college graduate unsure of my next move when bending over to gather the laundry out of the dryer, I suddenly couldn’t get up.

Years later, the same thing happened. (Different countries, different scenarios- but the same exact pain and inability to move.) The change for me though, was my devotion to do what needed to be done to never, never have my back blow out again. In a nutshell, I became committed to Pilates as a way to strengthen and lengthen all the muscles in and around my back.

Fast forward and it’s two years ago when my inexcusable and yet very human relaxing of the rules (read: I stopped going to Pilates) landed me right back on my back, and essentially in a pickle. Struggling, but staunch in my decision, I joined a studio and began the long, difficult road back to commitment.

Initially, I was unable to differentiate between what was working and what wasn’t in the various classes I was attending. The whole idea of getting stronger and better was a mountain bigger than I thought possible to climb. However, with practice I did indeed improve and gain back the mobility and confidence necessary to walk, sit, stand and move without fear.

However, it wasn’t until this August that I moved out of approaching the “standard” of mobility and began to wade into pushing into my particular and individual program of both need and true progress.

What is the difference? Quite simply it is my new teacher.

With other instructors I was part of the pack, reaching for the same goal even though I was behind: there due to an injury while others were trying to fit into smaller clothes. We had a routine, completed with fidelity at each session. I knew it by heart. In fact, I probably didn’t need an instructor to complete it. In that state, I was not growing or reaching. I was simply showing up and blindly going through the motions.

However, my new instructor isn’t doing what she always does, she isn’t teaching the “course”. Instead, she is intent on learning about each of us in the class; then tailoring her instruction to fit our needs and modifying it- sometimes right in the moment, to make sure it fits. She uses formative assessment techniques to see how we are doing and then changes her plans based on our performance. Our summative assessments always involve a performance task. And while I don’t receive a report card, I do know more about my ability in relation to the Intermediate Level (not to brag) targets than I ever knew before.

In just a few weeks, I’ve developed more strength, and confidence about my back than I was able to gain in all of last year’s classes combined.  (I’ve estimated it was about 80 hours worth of my time and money.) The machines aren’t different. I’m not going to lengthier sessions. Nor is my progress due to a new diet, or chic workout clothes.

The only difference is my teacher.

She is really good at what she does. And what she does is spend time discovering who I am and what I need; then she tailors her teaching to my needs.

Isn’t that what good teaching is all about?

Photo credit: http://arrowwoodbrainerdlodge.com/assets/caches/images/assets/users/general/bullseye-544×299.jpg

Better than Busy

Today is my “get organized on the home front” day. I look at next week’s calendars for my husband, my daughter and myself. I try to plan out meals we can make which take into account how busy we are each evening. My daughter and I forward think her study plan around her swim team commitments. We strategize who will do what, when, so that we can best get it all done and still find time to in our evenings to be together as a family.

I used to think I worked hard to do it all. Now however, I find I work hard to focus on doing what matters and turning down the volume on what doesn’t. It is deciding what goes in which column that can be difficult.

Being busy has always been a blessing for me. In University my grades improved the semester I got a job and had to balance my limited time. In both my work and mom roles I recognize there have been moments when I was highly effective at getting something done because either my schedule or a particular deadline made me do it.

However, a life of deadlines is deadly. It can sap the joy from the experience of being awake and part of something. It can cause creativity to leak out and add a sense of pressure to the goal, which clouds the situation, and your focus. At work, it is easy to move through the huge number of events and important dates and not be present in the experience of school. As a society we are busy. As parents we are busy. As educators we are busy. We know our kids are… busy.

But being busy isn’t the same as being productive. Being productive isn’t the same as being balanced. And I’m sure you would agree it is balanced most of us are striving for. (See Dennis Sparks’s recent blog post about “Crazy Busy”.)

So how do we help set the stage for balanced days in our schools for our teachers, our parents and most importantly for our students?

First, we need to help people recognize why striving for less is actually more. (See the NYT article on The ‘Busy’ trap.) We need to give people permission to focus on a few things- really well. Then when we celebrate, we need to celebrate not only the task completion, but also the way we all feel about the work and the workload.

Another key is to say ‘no’ with more frequency. No, is not a positive word for many. Saying ‘no’ to an idea can be misinterpreted as saying ‘no’ to the person behind the idea. However, if we want to move forward as organizations and as people in ways that hold us up and keep us balanced and capable of doing our best work; then no isn’t a negative, it is a necessity.

Finally, we need to listen to each other and value where people are and what they can do. When I hear a colleague saying he can’t get it all done, or a parent complain they are running from event to event, or when my daughter says she just wants some time to not think, I need to stop what I’m doing and hear them. While my ability to juggle, produce and manage might enable me to find a sense of balance, something isn’t working for them. The goal then, for all of us, is to try and help.

Families, individuals, and organizations that cultivate balance as a way to ensure they do their best work and live their best lives might actually be a new definition of a 21st century learner. Learning to live within this new world as a productive person, doing meaningful work and living a vibrant life requires we strive for more than just being “busy”.

A Year of Full Buckets

One of the most personally influential books I’ve read in recent years is How Full Is Your Bucket? by Tom Rath. It is a short, simple read with a powerful and useful message. While I get it, believe it, and try to practice it, this week as we started school, it was a message I was reminded of over and over again.

First and foremost, “bucket-filling” is a about happiness. It is also about communication and general understanding of human nature. The basic idea is this: Each one of us carries around an invisible bucket of water. Throughout our interactions with other people our bucket can either lose water or be filled up. For example, when I make someone feel good, I fill her bucket. When I make someone feel badly, I dip into her bucket and she loses water. In addition, when people are feeling sad or mad, their buckets can lose water. Finally, if you are dipping into other people’s buckets and taking their water, your own bucket actually is affected and causes you to lose water yourself. In other words, a negative interaction affects both of you.

A key idea with Mr. Rath’s work is that we can never really know another person’s bucket level. Therefore, we always need to be aware of our own actions as we might be dipping into an already low bucket.

In schools, this is a key idea worth teaching students. With our young ones it is an easy way to frame our discussions about how our actions and feelings can affect others and ourselves. When you are happy and nice others feel good- and you do too. The image of an invisible bucket and each of us having a “dipper” is one kids love and can use to explain how they themselves are feeling.

Not only is it a cry for treating others well, there is also merit in considering the responsibility each of us has in protecting our own buckets. For older students, recognizing that you have some control over whether or not you allow someone to deplete your bucket is an important lesson. While you can’t control their actions, you can realize what they are doing and choose to remove your bucket from their reach. As I’ve said to my own daughter recently: “You don’t have to hang out with people who make you feel bad. Move away from them. Limit your interactions. Take control of it. You don’t have to be mean, but you can move on.”

For the adults in my days, I try to focus on the fact that I can’t see their buckets. I have no idea what else is going on in their lifes when they come into school upset or angry. While they have something to complain about which seems to involve me- there is a good chance they have had some dipping from another source. Maybe they have a sick child at home. Maybe they have worries and pressures at work. Maybe they are new to this country and are struggling with the move and relocation. Regardless, my goal must be to try and fill the bucket of a disgruntled parent, peer or friend, even if they are acting in ways that threaten my own pail.

While the book and the research behind How Full Is Your Bucket? isn’t new or even revolutionary, the start of school is a timely moment to pull out those ideas, dust them off and recommit to them. Whether with students, with colleagues, or simply- as I’m doing- with yourself, deciding to be a bucket-filler is a conscious action worth the time, energy and effort.

Sometimes the easiest things can have the most impact.

Photo Credit: https://c1.staticflickr.com/5/4073/4819576802_4159ab58ae_z.jpg

 

A Human Curriculum

I’ve never been at the beginning of something before. I have never started a trend or discovered a band. Don’t get me wrong, I’m into what’s in, but I’ve always lived overseas and often when I hear about it or see it, it usually isn’t cutting edge or new, but tried, true and still viable.

Today however, I’m a first, an early-adopter and a pioneer. One of the few at the forefront and beginning of something new which is also, potentially, the next “big-thing”.

Interested? Well, I think you should be. If you are an educator interested in teaching relevant, transformative and real things to your students so they are truly prepared for the invisible “what’s next” in our ever-changing world, then I have some news for you.

The Common Ground Collaborative (CGC) might just be that absent piece you and your school have been wanting, needing, and missing. This weekend I was fortunate to have a guided tour of this new curriculum from two of the international-teaching world’s great designers: Kevin Bartlett and Simon Gillespie in Miami at a 2-day Principal’s Training Center workshop. It was the first-ever training offered around the CGC. Forty-seven of us gathered to learn, question, and consider next steps.

To begin at the end of my personal story, I’m in. Not only does this curriculum framework make sense from a what’s-good-for-kids standpoint, it also presents those of us who will be using it with an elegant and simply designed format that provides a comprehensive but flexible frame from which we can build and grow learning and learners in our schools.

Quite simply, the Common Ground Collaborative gets at everything that matters, and is brave enough to leave out what doesn’t. (Which surprisingly makes it manageable, adaptable, and relevant.) Recognizing how people learn- adults too- and what people need to learn, the CGC will enable users the opportunity to provide their schools with expertly written modules and units from leading authorities in the field, allowing everyone to focus on the teaching and learning and not the curriculum writing itself. While for many this will be a sigh of relief and a recognition that teacher-written curriculum is often not the best use of teacher time and talent; others will want the professional opportunity to design for their particular context. Which is perfectly fine and doable within the flexible CGC framework.

As a parent and an educator, I’m often struggling with defining what it is my child and the children I teach need to learn in this, the 21st Century. Independently, I’ve been thinking about the need for schools to transform into places where we focus less on the facts, figures and content and more on learning to learn or even on learning to learn with others in collaborative, people-supportive ways. If I can outsource most of the learning now to Khan Academy or the like then maybe my time at school should be more focused on building the social-emotional and cooperative skills in my students.

Well guess what? The CGC provides for that too. The most important difference and ultimately one of the greatest strengths of this curriculum is the emphasis placed on viewing teaching and learning through the lens of eight ‘Human Commonalities’. These are the bedrocks of this practice model and what makes it relevant and futuristic all at the same time. These commonalities are built-out through the conceptual standards in the curriculum, providing a place where students learn while questioning and developing their understanding. It is, to me, a map for teaching how to be human. It is also quite possibly the only thing that matters when you think about our common human problems and needs.

But don’t fret. They aren’t throwing the basics out with the bathwater. The Common Ground Collaborative weaves into the design frame a strand where students develop the competency skills necessary to be a literate person. These skills are taught, measured and highlighted through the competency standards in the CGC “DNA”. The difference though is they are presented as one piece of this complex yet simplistic frame and not as the only piece. Students will be taught explicitly how to become automatic at those things that require automaticity. They will do so through study models and exemplars, which they in turn will practice at emulating.

As a final strand, and one which I am happy to see represented, is a focus on character learning (values and dispositions) within the CGC that ensures there is a roadmap both for teaching and for learning those true and consistently important transfer skills of behavior and civility. This emphasis is part of what will ensure students have the capacity to truly learn and grow while living inside this curriculum. By teaching and then providing time and authentic reasons for students to reflect, consider, and develop a growth mindset, which we all know is necessary in our new age of education, the CGC will imbed opportunities for this type of learning through the character standards within each module.

The Common Ground Collaborative is a small-bite, highly flavorful dish of newness and yet it just seems so familiar and so right.

The process has just started, but the possibilities are huge. Over the next year the CGC team will be discussing this new curriculum and offering other workshops at regional international-school conferences around the world. This weekend, the Common Ground Collaborative tossed a stone in the water. If you get the chance, jump in and try this on.

Come ride one of the waves with us.

Commence with Courage

It is the time of year when commencement speeches are being shared with groups of new graduates. Some of the best are available for all of us to learn from on the web.  After watching a few, I started thinking about both the message and the method of these highly anticipated and often moving speeches. Did you know, by definition, commencement is not about the end of a journey, but really is the beginning of one?

As we finish this year, close up shop, and head off for the summer, I want to commence with words of wisdom and encouragement for the very same reason we gather graduates and speak to them: how you end matters. It is the end that leads to the beginning, which ultimately propels us through what’s next.

True to my elementary-school roots, my commencement speech to my colleagues would reference that simple, yet powerful tool available to all of us… the picture book.

Commence with Courage  (Based on the book Courage by Bernard Weber)

Educators have to be courageous. Everyday. And in many ways.

“There are many kinds of courage. Awesome kinds. And everyday kinds. Still, courage is courage—whatever kind.”

Courage is ending with honest and transparent dialogue about what didn’t go well this year.

Courage is doing what is right for students, even if it means more work for the adults in the room.

Courage is trusting your end-of-year words will be read as carefully as you wrote them.

Courage is pressing send on a reference letter that tells the truth.

Courage is smiling through a parent meeting when the news is new and the questions are harsh.

Courage is trying to teach in ways that are new and different in the face of standardized measurements and expectations.

Courage is asking “why” instead of just thinking it; then being ready to build on the response in positive ways.

Courage is standing up for a colleague who is trying, and standing up to one who isn’t.

Courage is reading your anonymous survey results and keeping that barking dog called doubt tuned out long enough to reflect.

Courage is signing your name to an anonymous survey ensuring your feedback has enough context to matter.

Courage is moving to a new country, a new job, and a new school.

Courage is reading testing data with a question mark in your voice.

Courage is closing the door and letting them take the exam, knowing life isn’t an exam.

Courage is trying new techniques and strategies- especially during the last week of school.

Courage is leaving on a high note, even if you can’t wait to get on that plane.

Courage is believing next year will be better. (And believing it every year.)

Educators have to be courageous. Everyday. And in many ways.

Best to begin and end, with courage.

As I read over my list, I’m certain there are statements of courage I’ve missed, and probably need to add. Building this list has been an affirmation of my professional experience, beliefs, and journey. The best part? It isn’t over yet.

Courage is heading off for the summer only to return refreshed and ready to learn.

Building a Striving Scaffold

While helping an elementary grade level order classroom library books recently, I came across sets of books labeled: “Books for Striving Readers”.  Reading the fine print, these were books for students who needed a bit of scaffolding to reach for the on-grade-level texts. These particular books were high-interest, but written at a slightly lower level, which allowed students to build their skills toward fluently reading grade level texts.  This idea of a “striving scaffold” got me thinking about the work we are doing in schools around the world.

Why?

Because, schools who strive, thrive.

While schools where striving turns to struggling end up not only not reaching the level they’d hoped, they might find there is the dreaded “summer slide” in buy-in, skill development, and momentum. (Worst case- you are further behind where you started.)

As the end of the year push begins, it isn’t hard to feel people wobble. Whether it is exhaustion from a long first year, a sense that a particular class or grade level is ready to move forward, or simply the need to close up and celebrate the end of this year’s initiatives and goals, people are in many ways done.

As administrators though, we have to keep looking forward. We must continue to plan and to build for next steps; but not blindly and not without real consideration for the path we are on, always asking: Is this the right thing to do, right now?

This is the first step in building a striving scaffold, assessing where we are against where we need to go and analyzing whether or not the path/plan initially created is the right one to take now. (Now that we know more, now that things have changed, now– right now- at this particular point in the year.)

From there, we need to plan for steps in the process which take us from here to there, and lay it out in enough detail that we can really see what it is we need to do. Just like striving readers, striving schools will sweat the small stuff.

A striving reader, has a planned pace, has clearly identified needs, is assessed frequently to make sure he is still in the right text and is guided and monitored. His scaffold is manageable. Do this, then this- first one step than the other. We don’t hand over The Old Man and the Sea and say… “You can do it, good luck!”

Striving schools too will reach for what they don’t currently have, by making sure to push, pull, train, support, communicate and direct toward that same goal: that sweet-spot between something new and challenging to do which is a success, and something doable enough to allow the wheels on the bus (day-to-day teaching and learning) to keep turning.

However when does striving become struggling?

For the reader (like the school), it is when there is too much to do and the path can’t be clearly seen. (Sure steps can be taken two-by-two, but then there might be another scaffold in place like a handrail to help guide and support the climb.)

Striving schools:

  • Plan for and show teachers what the path is – this is where we are we going and why. 
  • What the terrain looks like – this part is going to be bumpy, this part will be smooth.
  • What scaffolds will be there to support the journey – here is where there will be training; here is where there will be help.

Striving is working toward an attainable goal, which is clear enough to stretch out toward. It feels good, like that perfect run or set of laps in the pool.

Struggling is being buried in and feeling bad about the efforts you are making. You can’t see how to get there and therefore, how you could possibly be successful. Struggling is lifting weighs, which are too heavy and hurt your back or running sprint after sprint and getting that stich in your side.

Striving makes you want to do more. Struggling makes you want to quit.

We aim to help every reader strive and thrive with scaffolds to assist. Can we do the same for our schools?

Honest Inquiry

What is the most common question we ask a child? My bet is it’s “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I know I’ve asked it myself a number of times. I’ve even answered it when one of the smallest on our campus innocently enough thinks I’ve still got time to become someone or something else. (My response is always what it was when I was five, a big rig truck driver. Or, if that doesn’t work out… Zorro.)

But how often do we ask it of our schools? Who do we want to be?

It certainly makes you think. It also makes you appreciate that we can (like me- when a 4 year old asks) become something new, better, or different.

However, to know what you want to be, you have to first know who you are. That knowing is never easy. It is difficult to be as honest with ourselves as we are with each other. But we have to be if we are going to know what we are dealing with.

Honestly inquiring into our organizations might sound like: What are we good at? What could improve? Who comes here? For what? What are our hopes, dreams and desires as a group? What are we afraid of, worried about, or don’t understand?

It reminds me of Seth Godin’s question “What is school for?”

If we know what our classes, courses, and campuses are for, and can honestly say we know what we are right now, it leads us to the topic of what’s next. However, then, it’s easy to just say: “I like what I’m doing now thanks. I want to be what I am.”*

Right? You’ve heard that before I’m sure.

However, deep down we all know that’s not enough. Things are and continue to change. From the climate to the gadget, from the need to memorize to the necessity to act, solve and create- we need to find a flexible resilience in what we do and what we pitch school as being for. (Flexible because we will change again. Resilient because we need to be strong enough keep changing, growing and discovering.)

In International Schools especially, we need to recognize our mission and unique position. We have the mission to educate children in a certain style (American, IB, standards-based, college prep, globally aware, etc.). However, we have an opportunity to educate for so much more. We are uniquely positioned to take advantage of our diversity, and/or our locales.

Honest Inquiry in International Schools might sound like: Are we taking advantage of our unique setting? Do our students and parents understand and value what is different about our internationally located school? Are we maximizing our own potential and not just mimicking what schools in our home countries are doing?

Who do we want to be?

Some schools are taking risks, trying on new paradigms and noticing the shifts. From there, it’s true there is a lot of work to be done to make risks realities. However, it is only with the planning, attempting and reflecting; then trying something different, that we can move our organizations forward.

As I head off to start the end of this year, I find myself wondering how I can help plan for five or more years of change, and yet keep the inquiry process alive and more important than adhering to the plan.

In a nutshell, how can we use questions to drive us to more and better questions, instead of letting our answers snuff out the inquiry?

*(Oh, how Plumbeam would have answered that! Photo above is from that famous and wise book The Big Orange Splot by Daniel Manus Pinkwater)

Come Together

In times of tragedy people come together. Communities and whole countries unite to help each other cope and understand. Grief isn’t isolated, but shared. Questions- even if there are no answers- can be posed to others rather than pondered alone. However, most importantly in times like these, it is our shared background that can help us make sense of, or at the very least, try to move on from an experience.

As I’m sure you know by now, the International School community has been rocked by recent reports of abuse and pedophilia. Hitting especially close to home is the knowledge that a teacher- a colleague- for many, a friend- was responsible. For me, this news is especially challenging to digest because I’m a life-long member of this community. A third-culture teacher’s kid no less.

Behind every news report I find myself asking questions I’m sure you’ve asked yourself or heard others say… How could this happen? Why didn’t someone know? How will all of these children cope with this knowledge and sadness?

Those questions are important for us to ask and of course important to try and answer. However, what I’ve been thinking about more so today is what should we do now? What should we do as a community- a Third Culture or Global Nomad Teacher community- to support each other, the children and our schools?

First, I think we need to grieve. This happened. It happened at our schools, under our watch, and to our students. It is our collective tragedy and we need to acknowledge the horrible facts as well as our feelings of guilt, rage, and sadness for all involved.

From there, we need to find immediate ways to conduct better background checks on everyone working inside our walls- not just those coming in new to us next year. Through our common job fair ties, I think we can find a way to utilize those systems to house shared data. We need advice on what to ask for and how to procure the records, but between our world embassies we should be able to find a solution that can travel with a person who moves from place to place as many of us do. (This summer I was planning on getting an FBI background check for another purpose, however now I will also upload it to Search Associates so recruiters can use it.)

Finally, as administrators, we need to find ways to provide details about any concerns through our recommendations. My understanding is that in this case, there was a suspicion, which resulted in another background check being done. Although the background check didn’t provide details to warrant action, the fact that it had to be done again might have been important information for the next school to know.

Supporting each other as International School Educators right now is key. As a TCK, without a “home”, without “roots”, (without, without, without) what I do have is all of you. YOU are my community, my home and my people. Together we can all get through this.

 

Thank You Mr. Hacker For This Teachable Moment

Last week my email account was hacked. You know the message (or you might have even gotten the message from me!):

“Subject: Important Message

Please view the document i uploaded for you using Google docs. CLICK HERE just sign in with your email to view the document its very important.

Thank you”

Which would then lead anyone who did “Click” to a non-existent document.

Yes. It was a pain. Within 24 hours I had 50 emails from people asking me if I sent them this weird message. That, of course, meant I had to respond to all those people telling them no, unfortunately/fortunately it wasn’t me, but it was SPAM and maybe they should consider changing their own email passwords.

Most people were understanding, and had either experienced something similar or knew someone who did. Many had seen this message with another fake document “attached” before. No one was angry or upset. It is very much part of our digital lives- to be hacked.

What I wasn’t ready for though, was explaining what happened, what it meant and how to handle it to students in my elementary school who were sent the message- and of course opened it! (An “Important Message” from the Assistant Principal- what 8-10 year old wouldn’t open it?)

I was surprised then when a 4th grade girl sent me a series of emails about the hacking episode.  She took the situation, worked through it and then learned from it all. Here is how our correspondence went:

Student: Ms.Munnerlyn I am wondering what is this, because when I clicked on it, it said it was suspicious and when I click on it nothing comes up.
Me: Please don’t open. My email was hacked, and it was sent out. Thanks for letting me know. Please tell others. Mrs. M
 A few minutes later…
Student: OK, my mom thinks it’s a virus and it happened to one other friend.
A few minutes later…
Student: I just looked at it in Google and it is a scam, what it said is that scammers will see my password (had to log in) and start sending e-mails that scam other people. That website said to change password immediately, what do I do???
Me: To be safe, it might be good to change your password. Today at school I learned of 3 parents who had the same situation happen to them. Do you know how to change your password? If not, I will be happy to help you with that tomorrow. Tell your teacher you need to come to me with your computer ok?
Don’t worry- our tech director has told me this isn’t dangerous or anything. They are trying to get people to send them money. However- you and I are too smart for that. The problem for us is that this is an inconvenience only.
Thanks for checking with me. Your friend, Mrs. Munnerlyn

—-

Not the conversation I would expect to have with a 10-year-old, but one which I’ve been thinking a lot about lately as it is the exact conversation I should be having with her- and others like her at our school.

You see, we offer digital citizenship weeks, and days and courses, and tell kids to be careful, cautious and aware online. We have given them examples and talked to them about reasons. Our students, for the most part, are good online. If anything it is a back and forth email spat which gets out of control. However, this is the first time I have had a real example like this: a scenario from the real, big, unpredictable world out there.

So who got schooled through Mr. Hacker’s teachable moment?

I did, of course. My student taught me that she is not only internalizing what we’ve been teaching, but maybe more importantly, she is showing signs of being a truly independent, savvy, and resourceful technology user.

It isn’t getting hacked that counts; it’s how you handle it. 

Photo credit: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/b/bb/No-spam.png

Becoming a Teaching Principal

One of the best things about teaching at schools overseas is the opportunity to connect with consultants when they are in the region. Whether at conferences, or weekend workshops, we have many of the best-known thinkers in the area of education coming to and near our schools to help us all improve. Once abroad, those super-stars of the education world are just like us, navigating the visa line in Muscat, or trying to bargain in Nepal. It is a unique pleasure to have the chance to be with a guru: on a plane, in a taxi, or even in a classroom at one of our schools.

Last weekend, we hosted Matt Glover, early-childhood writing specialist, author, teacher and leader, at our school. Matt was moving through several schools in the region on his way to a NESA-sponsored weekend workshop in Muscat, Oman. We had one day for our Kindergarten and Grade 1 teachers to work with Matt. He presented for a few hours, took our specific school-related questions to heart; then demonstrated some teaching moves in our classrooms, followed up by an afternoon working with teachers. Although I learned a great deal about writing and early-childhood best practices from Matt, (more on that here) what really stuck with me was the fact that he was a former principal who made it a point to teach too.

Eureka! That’s what I want to be.

I know high school and middle school principals- and I’ve heard of a few Heads of School- who teach a class. This allows them to stay connected to the kids and to the teachers through their “on the ground” work. I’ve always been impressed by the added workload and admired the desire to maintain that connection. However, what I’ve not seen is an elementary school principal who consistently teaches. Mainly because it isn’t easy to break the ES day into “classes.” (Nor is it necessarily good for younger children to have multiple leaders in the room, as it can confuse structure and routine.) So, how did Matt Glover do it? How can I be a teaching-principal too?

Well, as a principal of a large (800+) early childhood school in Ohio, Matt spent years teaching in classrooms to improve both his own understanding of how best to reach young writers, as well as how to support and lead his teachers as they took on the work. He knew it would be easier to bring along his whole school if he was a leader who was also trying to do the work he was asking his colleagues to embrace. Matt wasn’t acting as the teacher of an isolated class of children; he was the teacher of the whole school. He maintained his own learning stance, moving through the “how can we do this better” phase right alongside his teachers and the students.

The result is evident when Matt presents. He isn’t the sage on the stage, but rather someone who has built up his own repertoire of skills- over time, and with practice. Practice inside the classroom with real kids, practice doing the instructional work as much as getting it down on paper, and practice analyzing student writing to understand where to go with a particular child as well as the whole student body.

Last week Matt Glover taught me how to be a better writing teacher. He also helped me realize that the best way for me to be a leader is to lead from the work inside the classrooms.

If I can practice like Matt, my leadership might just be meaningful too.