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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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.

How Does Your Garden Grow?

How Does Your Garden Grow?

As a leader in my classroom, I am keenly aware of the culture I want to establish and build throughout the year.  I know that it is my responsibility to make this happen, much like my back yard garden.  At the moment, my backyard garden is in a bit of disrepair. Nothing is doing particularly well.  In moving to Saudi Arabia and settling into a new house, it keeps falling to the bottom of the to do list.   I  know that it is not doing well because I’ve been neglectful.  I’ve provided minimal care, done little to help the garden grow.  I am certainly getting out of my garden what I put into it.  Very little.  I am proud to say that this isn’t the case for the culture in my classroom.  Establishing and then maintaining a learning focused, positive classroom culture has been extremely hard work.  It is flourishing because of the constant attention and persistent effort that I devote to it through recognition, relationships, resources, rewards, and rituals.  In thinking about leadership, I recognize that these principles are easily applicable to a principal’s efforts to develop a culture within their school community or even within smaller collaborative groups.

People inherently crave recognition and positive reinforcement.  It’s the reason why schools are filled with gold stars, Student of the Week, and Honor Rolls.  So as a leader, how to do you routinely recognize what is valued in your community? Do you routinely drop a small note in an email or mail box?  Do you regularly laud and applaud the great people and learning that is taking place, both privately and publicly? There are innumerable forms of recognition.  What is important is that you be specific about what you observed and student learning.

Recognition certainly helps build relationships.  In the ever changing landscape of education in the 21st century, the relationships necessary for effective  collaboration is a key to success. So, as the educational leader in your school, how do you build relationships with and between the colleagues you are working with?  Do you begin meetings with opportunities for people to meet and greet?  Do your routine forms of communication include personal details so that faculty can learn about each other?  Is wandering part of your daily routine?  Wandering the halls, classrooms, yard, and lunchroom has tremendous virtues.    Not only does it enable you to develop relationships, but it also provides you with the opportunity to  encourage collaboration and connect different community members with each other.

The reality of teaching is that no one enters the profession because of the end of year bonuses and plush perks.  But like teachers who use stickers, pencils, and recommendations to help motivate students, principals can harness resources at their disposal for a similar effect with their faculty.  Passing along professional resources is an easy step.  It might simply be a book, an article, or even a website, but their is great power in sharing.  Using deli.ci.ous to building a collective library of learning links is inexpensive tool.  Share your time.  Use it to take a moment to drop off a new resource to a teacher you know might find it of interest or cover a class so that a teacher can attend a particular PD session.  Arrange for your teachers to visit other innovative teachers or schools in your area.  Pass along any invitations or tickets that you might receive.    Connect teachers and classrooms with the greater community … a local historian, athlete, or charity that can support learning.  In the same way that the kindergarten student who proudly leaves school with a pencil they received for their birthday helps contribute to a positive learning environment, by being creative about sharing resources, leaders can achieve similar results in their school.

Recognition and rewards are closely tied together.  Rewards need not be expensive or extravagant.  What is important is that rewards are used to motivate and cultivate a positive culture. Offer Starbucks cards to the first three faculty to submit their report cards.  When interest, energy or enthusiasm drops during a long PD session or difficult faculty meeting take 5 to raffle off a movie pass, potted plant, or even a “Get Out of Recess Duty” pass.  Order subscriptions for the faculty lounge or professional library.  Food is always a hit.  This might be healthy snack during parent conferences, holidays treats in mailboxes, or even little cupcakes to celebrate a colleagues birthday.  Place a bouquet of flowers or potted plant in the office or faculty lounge and then raffle it off or award it to a winner at the end of the day.  LIttle rewards can help brighten the day of just one person or the whole community.  Either way, rewards are a powerful tool in helping a principal develop, maintain or change the culture of their school.

Rituals are an essential piece of a community and of culture. They slowly bring community members together through shared experiences.  Repeated celebrations brings new and old faces in a school together.  They become something that a group of teachers remembers and look forward to.  What do you do to build rituals in your community?  How do you welcome new community members or say good-bye to departing ones?  Do you recognize important milestones like birthdays and other personal celebrations with cakes, flowers, or cards?  What do you to to recognize professional accomplishments?  How do you begin or end meetings …. with sharing, reflection, a reading, or food?  The business world goes to great length to build community identity with bar-b-cues, family picnics, charitable work, or sporting teams (softball, bowling, curling, etc.).  Do you?

As a classroom, team or school leader, you can help develop the culture you desire.  With a little effort, you can establish a positive morale, build strong personal and professional relationships, while highlighting the values of your community.  What gets recognized and rewarded, is what get’s done.

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I Love My ELMO

ELMO

Many kids, like my 6 year old son, have a favourite stuffed animal that they bring to bed with them every night.  His favourite is a cuddly little fellow from Seasame Street, named Elmo.  He doesn’t laugh when tickled and is beginning to look worn around the edges, but Elmo does bring a lot of comfort and happiness to my eldest son.  Quite simply, he loves Elmo.

Apparently, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree because I too am in love with ELMO.  However, mine isn’t red, fuzzy, or cuddly.  I don’t take it to bed with, nor would I want to.  My ELMO is white, shinny, and new.  It sits on my desk in my classroom, next to my computer.  In simple terms, my ELMO is a document camera.  In reality, it is much more than that.  It is a transformative piece of technology that shifted my professional practice and dramatically improved student learning.

For much of the past decade I have worked at the International School Bangkok (ISB) in an environment that continually sought out and supported innovative educational practices.  ISB is a rich learning environment in many ways.  SMARTBoards, scanners, FLIP cameras, digital microscopes, laptop carts, VoiceThreads, wikis, and blogs are integral parts of the learning environment.  However, it’s the people who are truly the source of its wealth.  I consider myself to have been extremely fortunate to have worked along side wonderful colleagues like Dennis Harter, Tara Ethridge, Kim Cofino, and Jeff Utecht, and many others.  Each exemplified ISB’s ideal of 21st Century Learning — creative, collaborative, flexible, tenacious, etc.  Although they were each extremely helpful when technology needed an introduction, explanation, or went awry, the technology was not the focus.  Connectedness and collective knowledge was.  By making their thinking visible, each contributed in their own way to my professional and personal transformation.

This is why I love ELMO.  More than interactive whiteboards, laptops, wikis, blogs or any other piece of technology, my ELMO helps foster 21st Century Learning.  Throughout the day, regardless of subject area or interest, it helps make the group’s thinking visible.  In Math, a variety of possible solutions are shared and discussed.  In writing, author’s can quickly share the process they used to develop an idea.  The mystery of your peers’ thinking disappears and understanding improves.  We learn together, from each other.  In doing so, ELMO has helped improve the levels of collaboration.  It is an invaluable tool for collecting real time feedback, for providing exemplars, and modeling thinking and tenacity.  Accountable talk is an important part of inquiry based learning and ELMO is a piece of technology that does a wonderful job of facilitating our collaborative inquiry.  As a teacher, document cameras, like my current ELMO, have helped me focus on student learning rather than my teaching.  When combined with interactive whiteboards, the impact of a document camera is multiplied ten fold.   More than any other piece of technology, document cameras have truly transformed my daily professional practice and helping develop 21st century learners.


Pearls

Original Posted September 2nd, 2010

I must confess, I am finding that my educational leadership journey is a lot like having children.  I have been around kids and teachers or principals all of my life.  I have had great and not so great moments with each.  They feel familiar.   Comfortable.  However, not until I had children of my own, did I truly understand how little I actually knew about kids and how much I had left to learn.  Labour, delivery, lactation, episiotomies, Apgar scores  … the learning curve was steep.  I can say the exact same thing about my growth as an educational leader.  Missions, visions, difficult conversations, instructional supervision, school improvement processes …. there is always something new to understand.  Although the learning curves are steep, they are incredibly rewarding.

For the past nine years at the International School Bangkok, I have been fortunate to work with many exceptionally talented formal and informal educational leaders.  They have been incredible colleagues, leaders, role models, and mentors.  They have generously shared many pearls of wisdom.  I admire and respect each of them for their unique strengths and leadership qualities.  There is one particular quality that they have in common.  Each possesses an incredible depth and breadth of knowledge.  They exemplify the idea that “If you want to lead, you’ve got to read!”.   And read I have.  Reading is an essential element of my professional development plan. Fullan, Hargreaves, Marzano, DuFour and other gurus provided excellent starting points.  However, I soon realized that there were other authors and sources for inspirational ideas.  So I filled my RSS reader and set up a netvibes account.  I started to read Daniel Pink, Seth Godin, the Harvard Business Review, and Chip and Dan Heath.  Malcolm Gladwell was viewed through an entirely new lens.  I am always on the lookout for a good recommendation.  Do you have any?

Dr. Atul Gawande has perhaps been the most influential author of late.  Better is a book he wrote about how the medical profession improved itself.  It inspired this blog.  While reading, I kept thinking about applying the lessons he shared from the world of medicine, to the world of education.  It’s from his story of Dr. Apgar and the development of the Apgar scale that I gleaned a second pearl of wisdom.  “If you want to make any change, big or small, simply start counting”.  It seems so simple.  If you want to loose weight, start counting calories.  If you want your New Year’s resolution to get to the gym to become a reality, write it down in a log.  I quickly adapted this to my classroom practice and now regularly track essential instructional practices like the types of sharing that close a readers’ or writers’ workshop.  It has made a difference.  Dr. Apgar transformed the world of medicine simply by counting.  A complex procedure, additional resources or time were unnecessary.  She simply collected the information already at hand and used it in a different way to influence change.  Have something that you would like to change? Try counting.

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