Tag Archives: beyond the bake sale

Hey Bammy! If Anyone Can Reverse the Negative National Narrative, Parents Can!

I whole-heartedly support the concept of the Bammy Awards: “to celebrate all that is good in American education” and “to reverse the negative national narrative that dominates the education field.” The Bammy Awards weave together our collective body of work into one exhilarating story that as individual educators we often struggle to spin. This inability to counter the negativity aimed at our profession, my life’s purpose, puzzled me for years. Experience eventually taught me that the negativity was little more than a community reaction to what was misunderstood. When I was a school principal, I painfully learned that my community’s perception of me and of my school, whether accurate or not, WAS the story. Perception is reality, right? And, because the largest contingency in my school community were my students’ parents, parent perception and what they did not understand about education fueled the story they were telling.

Parents’ perceptions of school are shaped by their own education experiences, past and present. We can’t do anything to address a parent’s past experiences, but we sure can influence their current interactions with school and their relationships with teachers, those relationships that form the foundation for and strong family-school partnership. We can work to make parents raving fans of our schools and of the education field as a whole by empowering parents, by sharing with them the edu-jargon and edu-knowledge we live for, and by including them in decision-making for real issues. We can invite parents to be our true partners in education. As partners, they too will soon become compelled to reverse any negative perception of American education. In a school of 600 students, there are likely more than 1,000 parents ready to engage in the national narrative. That is a small army. If we don’t reach out and offer our knowledge and our partnership, that army may join the ranks of the negative national narrative. However, make each of them a parent leader and school partner, and watch that negative national narrative fall apart!

My school district has embraced dispositional hiring for finding the most effective teachers to lead our classrooms and to build meaningful relationships with parents. We intentionally look for teachers who genuinely want to draw parents into the education process as partners in education. Schools who hire these teachers empower parents by sharing teaching and learning knowledge and by including parents regularly in the school decision-making process.

One of my favorite dispositional interview questions to ask teacher candidates 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 any time 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.

A colleague recently lost her mind (we all do from time to time) and, while venting, complained to me, “Parents just don’t want to be engaged in their children’s education.” I could tell by the look on her face she immediately remembered my position on this topic and wished she could take back those words. “Hogwash!” I replied. (For real… I said that. I love that word.) “Of course they want to be engaged. But, we have to provide parents with the opportunities, entrust them with the knowledge, and likely give up a portion of the control to which we have grown accustomed.” We all learned from Schoolhouse Rock that “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. They will become raving fans of American education and they will take over the national narrative. I believe that.

I suspect that the one-hundred-plus educators nominated for a Bammy Award this year possess the disposition for building effective parent-school partnerships. I also suspect the four (yes, four) parents nominated as of 11:00 pm on 5/7/15 share that disposition, too. I also suspect that if you are reading this blog post, you know of a parent or 1,000 parents who share that disposition. I encourage you to acknowledge those parent voices. Lift them up and honor them with a Bammy nomination so that they are noticed. Join me in celebrating all that is good in American education by nominating a parent leader for a Bammy Award at http://www.bammyawards.org/.

Rogue Lenses and Miniature Elephants

rogue rōɡ/ adj.

  1. Vicious and solitary.
  2. Large, destructive, and anomalous or unpredictable.
  3. Operating outside normal or desirable controls.

Twenty three minutes. That’s how long it took me to coax my contact lenses on to my eyeballs this morning. That was a pretty good split for me. I consider taking twenty three minutes to put in my contact lenses a small, but significant, victory. Made my day!

I go to war with my contact lenses almost every morning. Rarely do I walk away victorious. Yes, the contact lenses eventually show mercy and smugly lay themselves over the pupils of my baby blues. On the very worst of mornings, however, a rogue lens will sometimes flee to the deep dark corner of my eyeball. Once, after 30 minutes of poking and pressing a lens on the vicinity of my right pupil and repeatedly missing my target, I waved the flag of surrender. I assumed the lens had escaped by jumping to my bathroom floor. Defeated and discouraged, I didn’t even bother to look for the scoundrel. I just grabbed my loyal Burberry frames and ran out of my house, late for work, tense and sweating from the battle.

Later that morning, while reading a legislative update, I felt a seismic sneeze developing in my sinus. I instinctively closed my eyes as the blow reached my nostrils, bracing for the eruption. When I opened my eyes, I flinched and then grimaced, feeling what I thought was an eyelash stuck in the corner of my eye. Irritated, I walked quickly to the restroom, poking and picking at my eye once again. Standing in front of the mirror, I grabbed each eye lid with my thumb and pointer finger and pried the lids apart. I stepped closer to the mirror. Staring at my eyeball, I spied the outer edge of the runaway contact rolling into sight from the back of my eye socket! Apparently, the lens had been hiding behind my white orb for several hours. My earth-rattling sneeze dislodged it and pushed it to the surface! “A-ha! Gotcha!” I squealed, as I pinned the lens to the corner of my eye with the tip of my finger and not so skillfully slid it into its proper place. Victory, right? Well, not exactly. One lens in in one eye and no lens in the other is useless. Defeated again.

I try to keep a diverse supply of lenses at my disposal. It’s my belief that effective school leaders look at every situation through as many different lenses as there are stakeholders. As I have just demonstrated in the preceding war story, not all lenses lay on the leader’s eye as comfortably as some. But, no matter the discomfort, no matter the effort required, all lenses must be utilized to gain perspectives otherwise overlooked. Leaders make decisions based on their own perspectives as they intersect with the multiple perspectives of stakeholders. Perspective is a function of knowledge and experience. Without knowledge and experience, the view through any lens is likely to be skewed.

I am reminded of a book I read for an Ethno-music History class during my freshman year in college – The Forest People, by Colin Turnbull. The ethnographic descriptions in this book are all about perspective. One vignette comes to mind: A boy who has lived his entire life under a jungle canopy finds himself for the very first time looking at a herd of elephants in a huge clearing just at the edge of the jungle. Having never experienced any real space, having no real concept of visual distance outside of the crowded jungle foliage, he reaches out to touch the tiny elephants that appear to be just inches before his eyes. Looking through a lens limited by lack of knowledge and limited experience, he does not realize that these elephants are enormous and in fact several hundred yards away. They are not miniatures, and he struggles to make sense of this realization. But, with a new lens through which to view the elephants, a whole new world lies before him.

I struggle at times to take advantage of opportunities for impacting student learning when the view I see through any lens is limited by my lack of experience. I am currently working with our district Family and Community Engagement team to re-focus district wide efforts for increasing student learning through parent engagement. I will limit the impact of this effort if I try to view each of our 23 schools’ parent engagement needs through one lens. My lens is bias. That bias grows exponentially when I consider the intersecting perspectives of the numerous parents, teachers, administrators, and community members who are on this journey with me. The only way to battle that bias is to utilize the diverse lenses at my disposal. Take one lens out; put another lens in. Repeat. Take that lens out; put a different lens in. Repeat.

When we talk with teachers and administrators about how parents perceive our schools (do they see partnership schools or fortress schools?) we must remove the educator lenses from our eyes and replace them with parent lenses. Some educators who are not also parents might find themselves in a lens war, poking and pressing to properly place the lens onto the pupil. When we partner with parents to ensure that all diverse students are valued and provided equitable learning opportunities, we must put an advocacy lens in one eye and a cultural competency lens in the other. These are not soft lenses. For some, these lenses are not easily worn. They are not even easy to find. Many cultural competency lenses go rogue, hiding behind our white orbs, hindering a clear view of what is real. Some lenses have to be taken captive. “Capturing the contact lens” is actually the technique I’ve developed for securely placing rogue lenses in my eyes each morning. When that sucker just refuses to go in, I literally grab the lens off my fingertips with muscled eyelids, and like a Venus flytrap, clamp my eyes shut. After a little eyelid massage from my finger, the lens, no matter how reluctant, always finds its resting place on my pupil.

We must keep many lenses of all shapes, shades, and sizes at our disposal if we are to build strong parent-school partnerships. We must constantly change those lenses so that we don’t mistake huge elephants as miniature. And, whatever we do, we must never give in to a rogue lense. Even if it takes a battle to get that lens onto my eye, and even if it is uncomfortable to wear, it must be worn. If we allow a rogue lens to jump on to the floor, never to be found, then we risk not seeing from a unique perspective that could have helped one more parent be engaged and one more child succeed.

How many different lenses have you had in your eyes today?

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.