To try to articulate exactly what makes a great leader is a complicated, if not an impossible task. From my experience, the job of a leader, and especially of a principal, consists of countless priorities, fires to put out, and an endless juggling act of various stakeholders. Even with that in mind, thinking back on my previous leaders, both effective and ineffective, I believe that a few primary skills can be focused on to separate the best from the worst. An effective leader focuses on improving staff morale, modeling comfortable failure, and ensuring the leadership team is coherent.
The most important role of a principal is to ensure that the school is a community working together. Our current model is crushing our teachers. Cox, Chambers, Parmer, Jackson, Dial, Strizek, Wang, and Kaiser (2017) found that 17% of teachers leave the profession in the first five years (p. A-7). Between social pressures against Common Core Standards (CCS), Value Added Model (VAM), and contention of districts and teacher unions, the stress on teachers is almost palpable. As a principal, it is critical that we make every effort to ensure our teachers feel appreciated (Senchel, Sober, & Hope, 2016) for the hours they put into the essential work of teaching students. I spent two years at a school where the principal did not have this priority, who believed that teachers were satisfied despite what they shared with me and others on leadership. During that time, the school saw increased turnover, including veteran teachers leaving for other opportunities or retiring earlier than planned. In my current role, I work with a principal who prioritizes staff morale. Our leadership team is encouraged to thank our staff for their hard work regularly. In addition, the leadership team does staff events whenever possible, including Pancake Fridays. The first Friday of each month, a group of the leadership team cooks pancakes for the school staff. As a result of these various efforts, the staff morale has greatly increased in the school. During the previous two years, we started the year with 40 or more new teachers, filling the positions of those teachers who left voluntarily. Based on our recently received intent to return forms, we are only anticipating four teachers leaving voluntarily.
After staff morale has improved, a leader can focus on the second most important job of increasing the instructional capacity of the teachers. According to Fullen (2014), a principal can’t sustainably be the instructional leader for the staff. A great leader can model the necessary mindset to allow for innovation and experimentation in the classroom. To accomplish this, a leader must be willing to make decisions and more importantly, willing to admit when that decision was not the right one. People learn from failure, by making mistakes and not making them again. As a leader, we can be the example of comfortable failure in our schools. This is accomplished through trying new ideas, reflecting on the results, and admitting when the results are not what we hoped. When you model this for teachers, they feel more comfortable to do the same in their classroom, which in-turn makes students more comfortable to make mistakes as well. In this way, we can indirectly impact student learning.
A principal cannot be everywhere at once, and so they need to build and cultivate a team that can carry out the work of supporting teachers and their priorities. The most important part of this process, Lencioni explains (2002), is building your team up to be comfortable with conflict. At my previous school, the principal was unwilling to address members of the leadership team when they did not meet goals or complete assigned tasks. As a result, productivity of the leadership team decreased, staff stress increased, and dissatisfaction of many of the leadership team members increased. This was the biggest reason that I left that school and came to work for my current principal. He tasked the leadership team with reading The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, and has since used that book as a basis for leading the team in tough conversations. As a result of his modeling, team members are more comfortable addressing each other when work goes uncompleted, or when team norms are not followed. The result has been increased productivity and accomplishment of goals.
My greatest strength as a leader is building trust and improving staff morale on a campus. I am well practiced at planning and launching community building activities and programs at a school. At my last school, I created a series of staff shout-outs that could be completed by anyone for anyone and encouraged the leadership team to fill them out for teachers on campus. Most teachers who received them hung them up in their classrooms on display and viewed them with pride. I also managed a monthly after school team building meetup that consisted of a random selection of teachers in order to get teachers who did not normally interact with each other to build relationships.
I am also an expert in integrating instructional technology into the classroom. I have launched Digital Curriculum at two different schools successfully. I this role, I focus specifically on dynamic Professional Development and blended learning. This maximizes the impact of the development while minimizing the time constraints on our staff. These strategies apply to all initiatives and rollouts as well.
I know that my biggest struggle as a leader will be follow-through of my ideas. I have ideas that I am confident will be successful and lead to student learning improvements, and I will often delegate parts of the tasks to others. Where I fall short is making sure that I complete the ideas to fruition and completion, not just until I lose interest or the task is forgotten. An example of this is working with my Student Tech Support students. I created an engaging project centered around Minecraft that required peer communication, use of online discussion board, and digital citizenship skills. It was to culminate in students creating a screen capture video of their creation and sharing it via social media. We ran into an issue with the screen capture software, and so the project never got completed. This is clearly an area of need of improvement for me. One way in which I will help support this weakness is in building a team of leaders around me that are empowered to call me to task when necessary. In addition, I will continue to research this specific area of leadership and use other experts leaders to provide mentorship in completing the tasks I set for myself.
Cox, S., Chambers, L., Parmer, R., Jackson, B., Dial, S., Strizek, G., Wang, Y., and Kaiser, A. (2017). Documentation for the First Through Fifth Waves of the 2007–08 Beginning Teacher Longitudinal Study (NCES 2017-355). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, Retrieved [2/9/2019] from http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch.
Fullan, M. (2014). The Principal: Three Keys to Maximizing Impact. (1st ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Lencioni, P. (2002). The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Senechal, J., Sober, T., & Hope, S. (2016). Understanding Teacher Morale (Rep.). Richmond, VA: VCU MERC Publications.
As I announced on Episode 75 of the Planning Period Podcast, I have started a Master's Program in Educational Leadership. As part of this process, I will be posting to the blog many of my completed assignments, research papers, and thoughts about class.
This, is the first of those posts, my Professional Biography (school names have been removed for legal reasons).
Brad Shreffler is Digital Instruction Coach at a large public middle school in Central Florida. His primary job function is to assist teachers with the implementation of instructional technology in their courses as a part of the Digital One-To-One initiative. In this role, he creates interactive and participant-lead professional development based on teacher needs through a variety of differentiated sessions throughout the year, and one-on-one mentoring.
Brad began his career in education through the Alternative Certification path. He received his degree in Business Administration from the University of Central Florida. After a few years working in various business fields, he found himself called back to teaching, where he had started in college before a degree change. He became a substitute teacher and after a year was hired to teach 7th Grade English at a Title I middle school, where he spent four years. There, he was consistently at the top of the school in standardized test scores, both proficiency in student growth, and was passionate about incorporating any technology he could into his classroom.
After his fourth year, Mr. Shreffler followed his principal to a large high school where he taught 9th Grade English for a year. During that year, he was the English Department representative of the digital curriculum teacher leader group, who were tasked with helping plan for and roll out the beginning phases of the One-to-One program. He became the unofficial leader of the group of teachers, and after a few months realized that if the first year of digital implementation was going to be a success, it would require a coach dedicated to the program full-time. He approached his principal with the suggestion and they agreed to making Brad the Digital Instructional Coach.
During his three years in that roll, he took on more instructional training and mentoring responsibilities, ending his time there as Curriculum Resource Teacher, and a definite leader in the school for teacher support in all aspect.
In 2018, a different middle school principal Andrew Jackson, and Assistant Principal Nicole Mutters asked him to come to their school as the Digital Instruction Coach to help launch their one-to-one program in their first year.
Brad has dedicated himself to innovative instructional practices, supporting teachers in their practice, and reaching the needs of all students.
My mom died last week.
I had just finished story time with my son and was prepping a slow cooker lasagna for tomorrow's dinner when I got the first call. 8:30 pm on a Tuesday, and it was Uncle Bill calling. There had been some kind of accident at work and she was bleeding internally. Details were limited as I was getting information 3rd and 4th hand. She had a preexisting condition, cirrhosis, and that had maybe caused or complicated the injury.
My mom and I hadn't talked in almost 3 years. I was driving up to visit, with my 3 year old son in the car, when I found out she was still with him. To be fair, he is an addict just like her, but he had come to represent all the worst parts of my mom's choices. She had assured me that he was out of the picture, or else I wouldn't be driving up there. I stopped about half way and called her from a cheesy plantation-themed highway gas station to say "What the hell?" It ended in a fight and the last thing I said before she hung up on me was "Mom, I don't think your life is safe for Z to be around at this point."
"The doctor is saying that there isn't much hope," Uncle Bill said, and I spread a layer of ricotta over meat sauce.
Texts, calls, discussions, and searches made up the next couple hours, and ultimately it was decided that my brother and I would head to Atlanta where she lived and deal with the situation. We were her only living heirs, and so it was on us. The last call came at 3 am Wednesday. She flat-lined, and per her wishes, they did not resuscitate. At 6 am, I put my lasagna on a timer and got on a plane.
I'll spare all the details of how and why, but the end result is that I spent three days in Atlanta with my brother, his girlfriend, my aunt and uncle, another aunt, cousins, and (quite briefly) him. It was some of the most emotionally confusing days of my life.
I kept remembering a moment from just this past July when I was in Atlanta. I was visiting my Aunt Peggy and Uncle Bill. Aunt Peggy is my mom's older sister, and as would make sense, we often talked about Mom. We would wonder where she was, how she was doing, and how her life could have gotten to this point. She had estranged herself from almost all of her family by the time she passed, and she used to love her family, and there were times we were all a loving group. Huge Thanksgivings with even larger meals taking up every flat surface just to be able to enjoy stuffing and turkey.
Anyways, just a few months ago I told Aunt Peggy and Uncle Bill that there were only two ways this estrangement would end. I would either get a call from Mom saying she realized everything she had done wrong and was getting clean, or I would get a call that Mom had died. As I said a few times on this most recent trip, the call came 6 hours earlier than I expected.
I left Atlanta and returned home Saturday morning. That was when the emotions really started to kick in for me. Being up there, things needed to be done, wills found, events planned, people consoled. Once I got home, there weren't other people to take care of, and it came flooding in. Not in a debilitating kind of way, just in waves. Quiet one minute, sad the next, angry after that, confused always.
Now it's Monday, the first period bell is about to ring. My students are going to ask, they're going to want to know why I was gone three days, what happened. Do I tell them? Is it too much for middle schoolers? Or, will the honesty be valuable? Create a learning experience?
And I'm still looking forward to the leftover lasagna I'm having for lunch.
If you listen to my podcast, you've probably heard that I am going to a new school this year, and in my area, students are back on campus today.
I have been lucky enough in my 10 or so years teaching to have some wonderful students. My last group of students at the high school I was at, students I have written and tweeted about before, are the best group of young people I have ever had the pleasure and honor to teach. They have gone so far above and beyond what is required, even by a service based class like Student Tech Support, or as the lovingly call it Shreff Tech. These students have even come to help me distribute laptops to the middle school I'm at now, taking some of their last days before heading off to college to help me even more. They're great.
What I have been struck by over this time though is that they don't really understand their place in my heart (and yes, I am aware of how cheesey that line is).
I care for these students so much. I have spent every school day for the last 4 years with them, watching them grow from awkward 14 year olds, fresh faced and in a new school, into young adults, ready to make their way into the world. It makes me so sad to realize they won't walk into my class today, and yet tremendously proud they graduated and are moving on.
I love these kids like I love my own son, with the same pride and respect, awe and excitement.
And while I have spent those 4 years showing them through action and word how I feel about them, I don't think they can actually understand it. Few if any will become teachers, but I suspect that is the only way they could connect to this feeling. Even then, I struggle to imagine any of my teachers felt this way about me. I suppose some did, but it doesn't fit with my memory of school and my teachers.
Teaching is an odd job for a lot of reasons, but this might well be the top. We spend a year, or years, building relationships with our students, raising them up and supporting them, pushing them towards adulthood, only to let them go, and in most cases, never see or hear from them again. Even if you're that teacher that kids remember, without the bounds of a scheduled course, that relationship typically evaporates in the time it takes to cross a stage and grab a diploma.
There is nothing to be done about it, nothing to scream against of fight. We just have to accept that students will never understand their place in our hearts.
Kyle Bowen kicked off the session talking about Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Teaching. He had some great points about what AI really is, and ultimately shared some experiments he is working on with others at Penn State. The huge takeaway is his slides! The graphic work was excellent, from the Maslow's Hierarchy with the bottom level stickers of Wifi and Power. And the graphic of the BYOD Action Figure (in the style of GI Joe) "Now with kung fu texting grip." The whole audience was laughing at each slide, which helped drive home the message, which is we need to be thinking about how we can use AI to enhance learning.
The session included another student presenter, Austin Tong. He also presented last year at ISTE, and was one of the students who really stole the stage. Austin is a powerful student voice calling for personalized learning. He shared a number of examples of his own work at his school, including projects generated in MInecraft, with video editing, and with no-tech options (like making a board game). The important thing, according to Austin, "it is important to get to know your students and provide them the space to learn." Really impressive presentation.
Another excellent session was Promoting Social Emotional Learning with Technology and the Makerspace with Robert Ruff. Robert is a music teacher and tech coach (mind blown!). He talked about some easy and interesting ways to improve social emotional learning, which is making sure students are being treated well, are engaged in their learning, and are cared for so they can learn content. One idea I particularly liked was the implementation of random acts of kindness cards. Students would commit a random act of kindness, and pass the card along. Those cards had tracking numbers on them, and the students could fill out a short Google Form with that number so they could track who gave them the card, and where their random act was passed on. How cool is that?
Bonnie McClelland presented on her project #GridPals. It uses Flipgrid as a way for classes of students to interact in a PenPal style format, but through video and real conversation. You can find more at FlipGrid's Blog. This is a powerful way to bring authentic connections into classrooms, and it is truly simple to setup.
Overall, an excellent session. Still love IGNITEs, and I can't wait to present mine on Wednesday!!