Monthly Archives: August 2014

Surprise & Delight on the First Day of School

I moved with my family from Western New York to Northern Kentucky just over 4 years ago. It was a big move for us in every way, including new jobs for both my wife and me: Gwen as a college professor and me as a school principal.  We were anxious about starting new jobs, but as parents, we were were mostly concerned about how our children, Jacob and Katelyn (10 years and 7 years old at the time) would adjust to a new school community that is literally 15 times the size of their previous school district.  
Everyone in the Detwiler house experienced intense first-day-of-school jitters that first year.  I was excited and nervous about meeting my new school family, and my wife and kids felt the same about their schools.  I was thrilled to be taking on the Lead Dreamer role in a new school, and I enjoyed my first day visiting classrooms, talking with teachers and staff, and meeting parents.  But, I was also distracted all day thinking about Jacob and Katelyn. Were they okay? Did Jake puke at lunch? Did Katelyn meet a boy and run away? Yes, I do tend to exaggerate.  I call it “literary license”.
I could not wait to get home that night to find out how the first day of school went for my children. As I entered my house and walked into the kitchen, I was practically knocked off my feet by my son.  Jacob could not wait to tell me about his Science teacher: “Dad, you will not believe what she did!  Get this:  She turned off the lights and lit a candle … a CANDLE dad, in the classroom. Then, in a soft voice (Jacob lowered his voice for dramatic effect) she said to us, ‘Things are not always what they appear to be.’ Then, she blew out the candle.  And, do you know what she did next?  (Now loudly, with glee) SHE TOOK A BITE OUT OF THE CANDLE! Then another, and another, until she had eaten the whole thing!!  Can you believe that, Dad?!”  Well, I of course said, a little concerned, “No, I can’t believe that. What was she actually eating?”  Jacob leaped out of his chair and with giddy laughter replied, “A POTATO.  She made the candle out of a potato! All of us, the whole class, were dead silent, watching her eat the candle. We all thought she might be some kind of witch. But, don’t worry, she’s not. It was a potato. Get it, Dad?  ‘Things are not always what they appear to be.'” Then Jacob said the magic words that to this day still bring tears of joy to my eyes, “I love it here! This is going to be the best year ever!”
Surprise & Delight.
I am fortunate to be part of a team of educators from my school district who is participating in the University of Kentucky’s Next Generation Leadership Academy this school year.  During our first session, we met Mr. Buddy Berry, the Superintendent of Eminence Independent School District in Kentucky. (Follow him on Twitter @BuddyBerry and #surpriseanddelight) Mr. Berry’s inspiring presentation was about the incredible transformation his school district has undergone in terms of innovation and 21st century learning.  His entire story was captivating. However, it was something Mr. Berry said toward the end of his presentation that has stuck with me for weeks.  Paraphrased, it is this, “The best measurement of student engagement is how many times our students go home at the end of the day and exclaim to their parents, ‘You won’t believe what we learned today!’ THAT is engagement with Surprise & Delight.”
Surprise & Delight is also a powerful hook for engaging parents.  My superintendent in Boone County, Kentucky, Dr. Randy Poe, often reminds school leaders, teachers, and staff to make parents and the community “raving fans” of our schools so that they become our strongest supporters and active partners in education.  Citing the book Raving Fans by Ken Blanchard and Sheldon Bowles, we make raving fans of our school community by discovering what our customers want and deliver “plus one”.  In public education, this requires us to talk to our customers – our students and our parents – to discover what their education needs, hopes, and dreams are, then deliver on them.  In my opinion, the “plus one” can be fulfilled through Surprise & Delight.
While many of you are still looking forward to the first day of the school year, my first day occurred  over a week ago. Let me share how teachers and staff in my school provided Surprise & Delight to both students and parents, before school even started, exciting a school community that is now eager and hopeful for the best school year ever:
– Teachers invited students and parents to summer picnics and to “Meet Me at the Playground” afternoons, and started building important relationships with families. 
– Teachers made summer telephone calls to their students and families introducing themselves and expressing enthusiasm for the school year ahead.  
– During our school “Meet and Greet” night, families were photographed in a photo booth, and the photo was attached to a card that asked the students and the parents, “What are your hopes and dreams for this school year?” The cards and photos now hang in the school hallways as a reminder that we value parent and student voice and that we are committed to seeing family dreams become reality.  
– On the first day of school, as children got of the buses or were escorted into the buildings by their parents, they were greeted by dancing teachers and staff with smiling faces, while one of our teachers, dressed as a club D.J., amplified fun celebratory music that blared all over the campus. A little unorthodox?  Probably.  Surprising & Delightful?  Most definitely!  I heard a number of parents say, “I love this school” as they were headed to their cars.  See for yourself… 
These are just a few examples of how Surprise & Delight infused into a school culture can be a legitimate strategy for building trust and relationships with families.  What about you?  As you are preparing for that first day of school, as you are aligning lesson plans to learning standards and putting the last touches on your classroom Maker Spaces, STEAM labs, and Literacy Studios, don’t forget to ask yourself, “What is my plan for Surprise & Delight?”  If your plan comes from your heart, is purposeful, and is executed with confidence and joy, you will make “raving fans” of your students and of their parents.  Guaranteed, your students will go home and exclaim to Mom and Dad, “You will NOT believe what I did at school today!” Use Surprise & Delight to fuel student and parent engagement on the first day of school and sustain it throughout the year. 
Note: Do you want to “Steal Like an Artist” and try the lit potato / candle trick to Surprise & Delight your students on the first day of school?  Find out how it works and the science concept behind it here.

Hire Teachers Who Empower Parents

I’ve just recently started referring to myself as my school’s Lead Learner, following the example of extraordinary educators I’ve met through #PTchat on Twitter (Wednesdays at 9 pm EST; shameless plug, I know) and through my summer #PTcamp Voxer conversations with my PLN.  If you’ve read my other two blog posts (yes…two…I’m a blogger-in-training), you will not be shocked when I tell you that I am kicking around a new leader label: the school’s Lead Dreamer.  Not to leave you hanging, but I have to move this particular post along, so if “Lead Dreamer” does not make sense to you, you might choose to read my other posts after you finish this one. 🙂 
Hiring exceptional teachers is one of the most important Lead Dreamer jobs. Effective teachers make the most difference for student learning.  These teachers embody certain identifiable dispositions.  One critical disposition of effective teachers is the desire to build relationships with parents and the ability to draw parents into the school community as partners in education.  These teachers build school-parent partnerships that have positive impact on students.  Schools who hire these teachers empower parents by sharing teaching and learning knowledge and by including parents regularly in the school decision-making process.   
My school district has embraced dispositional hiring for finding the most effective teachers to lead our classrooms. One of my favorite interview disposition questions is: “Will the parents of students in your classroom be involved, engaged, or empowered, and what is your role in getting them there?”  Of course, there is no “right” answer to this question. However, if the hiring committee listens closely to HOW the candidate responds, they can get a pretty clear picture to what extent the candidate values parent-teacher partnerships.  For example, an answer such as, “I will ensure that my parents are involved by providing them opportunities to make photo copies and to help when I need it,” does not likely indicate a disposition for fostering true parent-teacher partnerships. On the other hand, a candidate who responds with, “My students’ parents will be empowered to join my class at anytime during the day so that they might learn along with us and share their experiences with us,” is likely a teacher who values school-home partnerships. 
Over the summer, armed with my disposition questions for hiring, I set out to build dream team interview committees of educators and empowered parents. For the first interview cycle, I received 206 applicants for one teaching position. I decided to conduct three rounds of interviews.  The first was a screening round where pairs of educators and parents asked applicants four questions, two of them being disposition questions.  From there, we narrowed the field down to six candidates who interviewed with a full committee of educators and empowered parents.  Finally, two finalist candidates were invited to teach a classroom of Grade 5 students in front of the committee. After the lesson, the students were given the opportunity to provide input – student voice – regarding the teacher selection.  Did the parents on the committee feel empowerment in the education process?  Did it make a difference?  You betcha!  Kim, one of the parents on the interview committee, described her experience:
“I was surprised at the entire process.  While the disposition interviews, panel interviews, sample lesson being taught to kids were impressive, it was your willingness to trust and put your faith in us to find the right teacher. I felt empowered, as did my daughter, to have a voice in the process.  I’m sure that the candidates that came through my room, were less than thrilled to only meet two parents during disposition interviews, but it sent a strong message as to what your vision/voice is about our school. While this new hiring process is lengthy, you should continue to do it this way and always ask parents to be involved.”
For a second interview process, I turned the parent empowerment dial up a notch.  I assembled a hiring committee where the educators and parents were equally represented in numbers: five parents and five educators. The parents on the committee were parents of the children assigned to the class for which we were hiring.  Maria, another parent, described her participation this way:
“I’m going to be honest, I thought maybe we (as parents) would get to ask a few questions but otherwise be there mostly as a side note. I might be a bigger “nerd” than I originally thought; but being able to be a contributing part of the interview committee was absolutely invigorating…. we were trusted with the freedom to comment during the interview and ask the candidates our own personalized questions. Huge!”
Do parents want to be engaged and empowered in their child’s learning? Of course they do.  But, we have to provide them with the opportunities, entrust them with the knowledge, and likely give up a portion of the control to which we have grown accustomed. Listen to how the following parents from the interview committees describe their desire to be engaged and empowered:
Jen: “I would like to see a stronger Parent-School partnership in every aspect of education, from being more active in the PTA or PTA activities to being present more in the classroom. I am a single mom with a full time job so I know it can be difficult, but it is so rewarding to be a part of your child’s/children’s education.”
Maria: “We have hundreds of kids in our school, that means that we have a whole lot more sets of parents associated with these children. Each of these parents are good at something. Experts at something. Trained in something that maybe nobody else in the school knows anything about. I would love to see parents in the school teaching classes or something as simple as making a presentation on something they specialize in, mentoring kids, using the skills they have gained through their lives to help advance our children. For instance, I’m a commercial certified inspector for a pest control company. I could talk to the kids about bugs or maybe have a presentation for the staff on helping prevent bed bug infestations or avoid taking it home.”
Knowledge is power.  In schooling, we educators are the keepers of that knowledge. Hiring teachers who will empower parents and who embrace school-home partnerships is essential for all students to find school success.  The more we empower parents in the decision-making process, the more engaged parents will become in their children’s learning and in the school community. The question is, are our schools staffed with teachers and leaders who possess the dispositions to take that leap? Hiring with effective teacher dispositions in mind is the answer.