Change

Bringing More Google to Schools

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I believe in “Google” schools. I want more schools to be “Google” schools.  When I think of a “Google” school, I am thinking beyond the world of Apps for Education.  Rather, I want my school and the schools of my children, to be filled with educators who would be equally at home working at Google.

It is no surprise that Google often ranks at the top of innovative companies in the world. It also frequently tops the list of companies that most college graduates want to work for.  Yes, the compensation that these top companies offer is undoubtedly attractive. In this respect, the world of education can’t and shouldn’t try to compete.  But there are some things that Google considers when hiring that we in education should try to emulate.

The first is “smarts”.  Being smart is important at Google just like it is in education and many other professions. But at Google, being smart is not enough.  Intellectual curiosity is considered even more important and is something they look for when hiring.  Think about it in the context of education.  The phrase “Life long learners” commonly appears in the Mission and Vision Statements of schools around the world. Yet how often is the idea of intellectual curiosity factored into hiring?

Quite naturally, Google wants every person they hire to be good at what they do –  be it coding, networking, marketing, or finance.  Schools are no different.  Kindergarten teachers need to be as good at what they do as a Middle School drama, or an IB Calculus teacher.  But a clear difference lies in the fact that Google expects everyone to be a leader.  They actively seek out people who will take control of a situation instead of waiting to be lead.  According to Tony Wagner, Google has a bias towards action.  They want their employees to always be asking the important question, “How can I make things better?”  In other words, If you see something is broken … fix it!

I like the Google mindset because it is what I think we need more of in schools. You can never have too many people working together to make the world a better place.  I think at its core, schools need to be incubators of intellectual curiosity, places where everyone is teaching and everyone is learning.  Schools benefit by being populated by professionals who lead without necessarily having the positional power. I guess that is why I am fascinated by the work of Dana Watt’s and her research into “Disruptive Leadership in the International Schools”.

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A Tip of The Hat to AES

In my experience, teachers by nature seem to be natural collectors.  As an international educator on the move, I don’t collect stuff.  Instead I collect recommendations for schools, principals, and headmasters.  In the back of my mind, I always have an ever changing list of five schools I would like to work at, five principals I would like to work with, and five headmasters I would like to work for.  Although my list is in a constant state of flux because of professional opportunities and retirement, one thing has remained a constant over the years … The American Embassy School (AES) in New Delhi.

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Years ago, AES appeared on my radar based on recommendations for principals and headmasters to work for.  Not long after, I began to work and collaborate with past and present AES faculty.  One thing has stood out from my experiences … AES faculty have all been  top-notch educators and innovative professionals.  More recently, my professional work has been enriched by AES’s innovative work with mobile learning and iPads.  In November, I had the opportunity to learn from so many educational rock stars while attending The iPad Summit at AES. Dana, Ben, Stacy, DavidGary, and so many others did not disappoint.  They knocked one out of the park with an amazing professional conference. So save the date for The iPad Summit 2014!

Then AES went and did it again.  A friend and colleague in Taipei shared a refreshing video from AES on Home Learning.  It discusses their shift from being a Homework to a Home Learning school. They understand children. They understand learning. They understand families. They understand technology. Yet again AES is leading the way. It is a shift I hope to see in more schools.  So in my best Stephen Colbert, I wanted to give the great folks at AES a “TIP OF THE HAT” for the wonderful things they are doing.

Coaches Make a Huge Difference

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For the past two years, my family and I have returned to Canada to spend our Christmas holidays with our extended family.  What surprised me about returning home during the winter was not adjusting to the cold, but instead it was my learning curve.  Since being away from winter, a lot has changed. The internet exploded, fax machines disappeared, and cars now have anti-lock brakes.  This certainly made driving much easier.  Technology also made skiing easier.  When I left Canada to work in Mexico, snowboards were still not allowed on most hills.  No one wore a helmet and the skis themselves were very different. Even though I grew up skiing all of my life, I booked some time with a ski instructor for some lessons. I needed to relearn how to ski using the new fancy parabolic skis. Thanks to a great ski coach and some new technologies, I was back skiing … possibly even better skier than before. What enabled me to experience immediate success?  It was the coaching provided by my ski instructor — specific, timely feedback that provided very clear goals.

On the ski hill and in sports, coaching works.  More and more teachers are adopting a workshop model for literacy instruction that enable them to coach readers and writers.  Schools around the world are recruiting for a variety of instructional coaching positions — learning, literacy, math, science, cognitive, instructional, technology, etc.   There has certainly been a great interest in the professional learning model that might be described as coaching; and for good reason.  The coaching model is an incredibly powerful form of professional development.  Jim Knight, from the University of Kansas Coaching Institute, shared the following on the chances of teachers implementing new instructional practices.

  • Workshop on the new skill – 10%
  • Workshop with modeling – 12-13%
  • Workshop, modeling, and practice – 14-16%
  • Workshop, modeling, practice, and feedback – 16-19%
  • Workshop, modeling, practice, feedback, and coaching – 95%

It’s a no brainer.  Coaching and coaches have the potential to make a HUGE impact on learning, both for students and teachers.  So I find myself wondering, how can schools and educators take advantage of this great opportunity?  What role do coaches and coaching play in your learning and your school?

Change. Just Because …

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The dust has settled on the start of a new school year in Saudi Arabia.  And, so far, I am pleased by the wonderful beginning that we’ve had.  A new school year brought about a great deal of “change” for our community.  We opened a new building to welcome more members into the fold.  Our leadership profile changed, as two new principals joined our team.  My teaching team expanded from six to nine, as we welcomed four new colleagues into our group and many more throughout the school. We have a wonderful new learning coach, an additional counsellor, and are in our first year of implementing a newly adopted Social Studies curriculum.

There has been a lot of change, and for that I am thankful.  Not because what previously existed was broken, dysfunctional, or lacking.  As a matter of fact, I am thankful for quite the opposite of reasons.  I am proud to work at my school and know that my children are receiving a top notch education.  However, I believe that change, simply for the sake of change, is a GOOD thing.  I know that the most successful schools need to change things up in order to be at their best.

But why fix what isn’t broken? Well, even the most high performing, healthy schools, can be vulnerable to a buildup of professional cholesterol.  Overtime, personal dynamics begin to take over, and informal networks start to take on a formal structure. Practices become entrenched, territories emerge and people become protective of their sphere of influence.  Unfortunately, these “islands” or “silos” limit collaboration, communication, creativity, and efficiency. Simply, they hinder rather than help learning.  Rather than wait for a professional heart attack, learning leaders can begin to manage change while things are still at their best and avoid the need for a complete overhaul.

Here are some questions that you might ask yourself, your colleagues, your leadership team, or your faculty, in helping you monitor your own professional health or the health of your school.   A colleague I met this summer at the University of Bath shared some research around change from Harvard that I found fascinating and I thought I would share some key ideas.  Try answering YES or NO to the following statements.

Communication & Collaboration

    • Do teachers interact only with teachers from their own grade level, team, subject area or group?
    • Do strong subcultures and norms exist between grade levels, teams, subject areas or groups?
    • Do “silos” or “islands” interfere with communication or efficiency?
    • Has collaboration between grade levels, teams, subject areas or groups decreased over the past few years?

Influence & Power

    • Do influential teams, groups, or individuals have access to disproportionate time/resources?
    • Do influential teams, groups, or individuals interfere with how decisions are made?
    • Have teams, groups, or individuals extended their influence over the past few years?

Adaptability

    • Are people uncomfortable with change, both big and small?
    • Has it been a long time since individuals or teaching teams have had significant change — i.e. influx of new colleagues, change of grade levels, adopting new professional practices, etc.?
    • Have the levels of student learning and/or performance decreased over the past few years?

If you answered YES to 0-2 of these statements, things are looking good.  There is no need to change.  If you answered YES to  3-7 of these statements, it is a great time to consider change!  Finally, if you answered YES to 8-10 of these statements, you may be behind the curve, and facing a need for significant change.

As someone who started running a few years ago, I know the importance of changing my workouts so that they do not become routine.  I know that once they do, they hinder my growth as a runner.  Change for the sake of change, is essential to success.

Although a new school year has just started, for many of my international school friends and colleagues, it also happens to be the time of year for some professional reflection. At this time of year, I always find myself thinking of  The Clash, and the question of should I stay or should I go?  Is it time for a change?  Am I suffering from a build up of professional cholesterol?  I know, that is certainly not what I want, and I do know that I want to manage change on my own terms.

Put Down Your Old Tools & Pick Up New Ones

Spring time.  It is such a great time of the year.  It’s a time for tulips, pussy willows, and getting the garden ready for summer.   Excitement abounds as plans to end the school year are set and summer vacations are scheduled.  What I like most is that a feeling of rebirth, reinvention, and re-invigoration are in the air.  At home and work, it is time to do a thorough spring cleaning.  Around now, most of my favourite magazines inevitably find their way to friends, the faculty room for some gentle re-use, or my blue box for the requisite recycling.  But I also find time to enjoy parts of them one last time before sending them off to a new home.

In DWELL, I recently re-read an interesting article about William McDonough‘s work as an architect, designer, sustainability guru, and founder of Cradle to Cradle design.  Reflecting on his work, McDonough spoke of an important lesson that he learned from one of his mentors, Walker Evans.  Evans was a noted large format photographer, who at seventy, took to using a simple Polaroid camera for much of his work.  Why did he do this?  Simply, he recognized that …

“…you need to learn that every ten years, you put down your tools and pick up new ones; otherwise, you only have one life.”

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So, I have found myself thinking about Walker Evans’ words of wisdom and William McDonough’s example.  I have always enjoyed and valued the change that teaching internationally has afforded me.  Over the years, I have gained valuable experiences in a diverse range of international schools in Europe, Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East.  I have worked as an elementary classroom and middle school subject area teacher. I am certainly richer for the experiences that the constant change has provided.

Maybe it is because it is spring.  Maybe it is because I am approaching the end of my eighteenth year as an educator.  Or maybe it is because I feel the need to make room for something new by getting rid of the old; but I keep asking myself …

What can I do to live more than one life?

What tools will I put down next year?

What new ones will I pick up?

As a life long learner, I need to practice what I am not good at.  What do I need to practice?

As I confirm my summer plans, I am also considering what old tools will I put down and what new ones will I pick up?  What disruptive technology can I adopt next year to help me live more than one life?  I have started my list and am excited by the possibilities.  I do believe that some of the characteristics of great educators is that they continuously reflect on their work.  They seek to stretch themselves, and are comfortable being out of their element.

But I also find myself considering how can I encourage my colleagues to live more than one life?  As a learning leader, principal, or headmaster, what are you doing to help your colleagues put down their old tools and pick up some new ones?  Are you embarking on a 1:1 iPad pilot program?  Implementing a new standardized assessment like the ISA?  Beginning to explore different forms of running records? Reconsidering the idea of literacy in today’s ever changing world?  Offering alternative sources of professional development like a COETAIL course, instructional coaches, or the use of agendas and protocols to enhance collaboration?  What part does identifying disruptive technologies play in your end of year reviews or goals meetings?

What are the old tools that you might put down?  What new ones might you pick up?

Looking For Learning

Getting back into some sort of blogging routine feels a lot like getting back to the gym.  I have great aspirations, but do not seem to always find time to fit everything in.  It’s hard.  So last week, I set a small personal goal for myself … try and build a blogging routine by posting something this week.

Following up on my previous post, I continue to find myself thinking about learning — its big idea, what it means to me, and my colleagues? What does it look like in our community?  I am a firm proponent that schools should always be learning focused collaborative endeavors.  As an educator, my professional practice continues to be a work in progress, constantly changing, adapting, and evolving. Now I am much more of a “coach” or “critical friend” to the kids I work with than ever before.  Quick, timely, formative feedback is incredibly powerful either on the ice at a hockey practice or in a reading workshop.  I would not want it any other way.

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As an educator, I am looking for a similar critical friend or learning coach to help improve my professional practice.  It is something I look for in my colleagues and formal administrators.  Fieldwork Education’s   Looking for Learning protocol is the closest experience I’ve had to receiving consistent, timely formative feedback.

Looking for Learning, is an effective process for working collaboratively with colleagues (teachers, instructional coaches, parents, principals, etc.) to see what learning is happening in classrooms.  The focus is on student learning.  So talking to kids about their learning is at the center of each visit.  Should a teacher be in the midst of a mini-lesson, classroom visitors can simply move on to another room, and drop by later when whole group instruction is no longer in progress.

Ten to 20 minutes is the typical length of a teacher or administrator’s classroom visit.  In the busy day to day routines, finding ten or 20 minutes here and there to visit a colleagues classroom is easily manageable.   However, it is absolutely fabulous when I manage to set aside an hour to visit and talk with students about their learning in a wide range of classrooms, grade levels, and content areas.

When visiting a classroom and talking to kids, four essential understandings helped shape conversations:

Is this a learning classroom? This simple line of questioning is incredibly powerful.  It is non-threatening and one that every educator, parent, and student would expect to hear a resounding, YES!  When a learning community has an established, shared common definition of learning, the power if this question is amplified.

Is the learning appropriate and sufficient?   As an elementary literacy teacher, this idea always makes me think of students’ “Just Right Books”.  Ideally, learning for the kids should not be too difficult, nor too easy.  It should be just enough of a stretch that they can independently achieve a level of success.  When speaking to kids, I tried to speak with them in order to find out if they were learning something new, consolidating their learning, simply treading water, or drowning.

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What is helping or hindering the learning? This is perhaps my favorite line of questioning.  I always found it to be amazing to hear students reflect on who they are as a learner, identify what they see as a need to further support their learning, and articulate exactly what is helping them on their journey.

Here’s a list of possible questions to help guide your conversations with kids.

The final piece of the puzzle is getting together with a colleague to share and discuss your visit.  This always created the biggest challenge for me, but I soon found that a short conversation over coffee at recess worked best.  It is easy to participate in a reflective conversation with your colleagues because Looking for Learning is not evaluative.  As the visitor, your role is to simply share out the evidence you collected during your visit, not your impression, your opinion, or suggestions for next steps.  When visiting classrooms, I tried to take detailed notes because I always found receiving specific quotes from the kids seemed to encourage reflection because they helped me recognize if my perception matched those of my students.

I am a BIG fan of Looking for Learning. Not only do I see its great potential to support student learning, but what I like most is that after speaking with students and my colleagues, I find myself energized and enriched by the experience. Thank you Pam Harper and Fieldwork Education.

LEARNING … It’s What We Do

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For the past few months, work has been a little busier than usual.  We have been busy wrapping things up at the end of one accreditation cycle and launching into a new accreditation process — Excellence by Design.  Although things have been busy, I find the accreditation work very engaging and worthwhile.  I think it is because I always enjoy the collaboration and thinking about the potential that our learning community holds.  I believe it is important to recognize where we are, celebrate our wonderful accomplishments, and start to envision where we want to be.  The accreditation process has certainly provided me with a tremendous amount of food for thought.

Recently, friends who work in other professions were sharing what was happening in their work and personal lives. Both also happened to be in the midst of some sort of accreditation / self-evaluation process similar to ISO 20000 certification.  I was struck by the similarities of purpose, process, and importance of  accreditation in their work.  I was also surprised by the ease and simplicity with which they could clearly communicate the work that they do, be it producing a good or providing a service.  Both shared the great lengths that are taken in their professions to establish a simple, common understanding of what they do. It was central to their growth, development, and how they monitored the quality of their work.

So, I found myself wondering, what is it that we do in schools?  Do we have a common understanding of what we offer our children, their families, and the greater community?  My guess is that if I asked this question to my colleagues, LEARNING would likely be a top response.  But do we have a common understanding of what it means to learn? Could every member of my school community share the simple, common understanding with a parent or colleague?  Would we be able to consistently identify learning throughout the grade levels and across the curriculum? I must admit I am not so sure.

I believe that International School Bangkok offers some great ideas for helping develop a simple, common understanding of what they offer the members of their community.  A simple, clear and concise Mission and Vision Statement is a great place to start.

MISSION
To be a model of excellence for educating students for success in the world community.
VISION
Through outstanding teaching in a nurturing environment,  ISB inspires students to:
  • achieve their academic and personal potential
  • be passionate, reflective learners,
  • becoming caring, global citizens

There is tremendous power in being able to simplify a complex idea and I believe that International School Bangkok does a particularly good job at it.  However, what I find most impressive is that as a community, they have established a common understanding of “learning” and what it looks like.

Learning is the primary focus of our school and we recognize learning as a life-long adventure.  We value meaningful learning where students construct enduring understanding by developing and applying knowledge, skills, and attitudes.  Increased understanding is evidenced by students who:
  • Explain its relevance
  • Describe how it connects to or conflicts with prior learning
  • Communicate it effectively to others
  • Generalize and apply it effectively to new situations
  • Reflect critically on their own and other’s learning
  • Ask questions to extend learning
  • Create meaningful solutions

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If learning is an essential component of any school, why do more schools not have a definition of learning at the heart of their Mission and Vision statements?  It is  these documents that help shape and provide direction for a school and its improvement plan.  In the world of education, just like the world of business, having a shared, common understanding is essential for establishing a cycle of continuous growth.  ISB’s definition of learning provides an essential framework for collaboration, a tool for monitoring the quality of student learning, and a means of adjusting professional practice because stakeholders are looking at things through a shared, critical lens.

Ahead of the Curve

Originally Posted June 2011

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I am always interested in hearing my friends who work in the business world talk about their work. Their vocabulary is peppered with words like “synergy”.  They talk about leveraging opportunities for growth and harnessing innovation for improvement.  They are always seeking a competitive edge.  They want to do the best that they can.

The more I think about it, the more I have come to realize that my professional world and the professional world of many of my friends, have a lot in common.   According to a recent TIME magazine article, most drivers consider themselves to be in the top ten percent of people on the road.  Ten percent of Americans believe that they will live to a hundred years or more.  The reality is that only 0.01% of us will actually live to see a hundred years.  In the context of a standard distribution curve, we know that there will a few outliers at the top and bottom ends of the spectrum, but the majority will fall somewhere in the middle. Yet, no one strives to be mediocre.

Like most drivers, I consider myself in the top 10 percent of people behind the wheel.  I also want to live to see a hundred.  As a parent, I want my children to have access to the top medical care. Is anyone really comfortable with seeing a doctor in the bottom 10 percent of their profession?  How about boarding an airplane for a flight with a pilot in the bottom ten percentile?   Likewise, as a parent, I want my children to have access to the best teachers so that they can have the best possible educational experience.  I want to be an exceptional teacher, an exceptional leader.  I want to be in the top 10 percent of educators.  Simply, I want to be ahead of the curve.

How do you stay ahead of the curve?  I think that there a couple of key practices that P.D.  Broughton outlines in Ahead of the Curve, that exceptional principals can do to stay ahead of the curve.

First, they pair intellectual restlessness with grounded competence.  Exceptional principals are “life long learners”, professional development omnivores, and prolific readers.  Yet they are also master teachers.  They understand where the rubber meets the road and how to get things done.  Like the ying and yang, they balance ideas with practicality.

Exceptional principals establish cultures where new ideas are encouraged and developed.  They create a culture of continuous improvement and curiosity.   “No!” or “We can’t do that.” are not  typical responses.   Instead, “That’s an interesting concept …” and “Let’s explore this further” is how they approach new ideas and situations.

Exceptional principals understand their school from top to bottom, but  they are also ready to tear it up and start all over.  They possess a deep understanding of learning, teaching, and leading.  They value what can be learned from the past to help guide the future, but the exceptional leader does not accept the status quo. They are continually seeking to improve the quality of learning experiences for their students.

Finally, exceptional leaders ceaselessly revise their judgements and consider evidence that challenges their beliefs and biases.  It’s easy to collaborate and think that you are headed in the right direction if you surround yourself with like minded people.  Embracing the dissent and alternative points of view is challenging.  It takes work.  It takes thoughtful planning and consideration.

Where do you fall on the curve? What do you do to stay ahead of the curve?

Leadership Lessons @ The GAP

Originally Posted May 2011

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Shopping, ugh!  It is not one of my preferred pass times, but my wife likes to shop.  Living in Saudi Arabia, this means I am her wing man and chauffeur for outings to the mall.  While waiting patiently in our local GAP franchise, I had the chance to sit and think.  I spent my time reflecting on the great professional learning experiences that I have had since my last post in February.  Over the past few months I completed an elementary math specialist course, attended a leadership seminar at Harvard Graduate School of Education, and the NESA conference in Bangkok, Thailand.  It has certainly been a wonderful period of professional learning.

So, while mulling over some big ideas and reflecting on my practices and beliefs, I started to recognize that educational leaders have a lot in common with their khaki clad brethren.  Leadership, and change in particular, is a retail experience.  In order to establish an effective culture, change a culture, motivate a group, or shift a school, it requires “face to face” experiences, personal attention.  The staff at the GAP offer great leadership lessons.  Not only do they attend to the requests of shoppers (How can I help you? Let me know if I can get any specific.), they provide individualized feedback (That’s a great color on you! Those pants are a great fit!), and offer new perspectives (Did you see the new cotton tees?).  They make their customers feel valued.  They are out and about in the store, roaming the floor meeting customers, building personal connections, seeing how they can help.  Sometimes they are very active,  while at other times they step back, let individuals shop, and help out when required.

Come to think of it, as the educational leader in my classroom, I do this already.  My roles is that of a guide, helping guide differentiated student learning, providing individualized feedback, and offering new perspectives and ideas.  Effective teachers don’t hide behind their desk.  They are out and about, roaming the classroom, monitoring learning, engaging students, sometimes providing direct active assistance, or from a short distance allowing students to explore and build their own understanding.

I’m drawn to leaders who exemplify what’s best about the GAP’s sales staff.  As an aspiring principal, I want to be an educational leader who lives outside the office, who helps propel student learning by recognizing and supporting the needs of individuals.  If I want to encourage a change or implement a new initiative, I need to build relationships, make personal connections, and communicate clearly.  To accomplish this, I need to be present in classrooms, hallways, the cafeteria, yard, and faculty lounge; talking, listening, observing, and helping out … just like the best teachers and the people at The GAP.

“Is that clear Mr. Bender?”

Originally Posted February 2011

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Earlier today, I participated in one of our weekly PG&D (Professional Growth & Development) afternoons at Saudi Armaco Schools.  It was a productive time spent collaboratively building understanding of the Words Their Way program.  Time, planning, and effort had obviously been well spent by Jen, our literacy coach, to set the stage for a productive meeting. Tables of treats were organized to help boost our groups energy at the end of a work day and near the end of the work week in Saudi Arabia.  A protocol was selected to help facilitate collaboration and focus our dialogue.  I liked this.  I’m a big fan of protocols!!  Group members were assigned different roles within the process and everyone was expected to, and did, contribute.  After working through the protocol with my team, the reporters from each grade level team (k-5) shared out their findings.

Our collaborative time was well spent as we worked to better understand the Words Their Way program.   A great many ideas and themes emerged that will be helpful in moving forward.  So did a number of “big picture” questions …

Why are we implementing this program?
What do we hope to accomplish?
How will this benefit our learners?

I love these types of questions for a number of reasons, but mainly because they demonstrate that my colleagues care about students and student learning. These questions could easily be interpreted as resistance to change, colleagues reluctant to try something new or move in a different direction.  However, from a leadership prospective, I like the questions because they provide me with additional insight into next steps.

At the moment, I am in the middle of reading Switch, Chip & Dan Heath’s book about change.  One point that they highlight is that what is perceived as resistance is often a result of a lack of clarity.  People need crystal clear directions.  Think about it.  A doctor can’t just say to a patient that they need to loose weight, and expect success.  So doctor’s clearly layout the need for change with metrics and outline a plan for success … changes to diet, lifestyle, and specific goals with repeated check-ups to monitor progress.

So when asking teachers to adopt a new program or undergo a change of any sort, think about clarity, especially when faced with resistance.  A friend Dana also reminded me this week to take a moment to check your Vision?  Has the rationale for any change been clearly identified and communicated?  How has clarity been achieved around the intended goal and the benefits to student learning?  Is there anything else that can be done to add clarity? Maybe there’s something we can learn from Principal Richard Vernon, in the  The Breakfast Club.