What it Means to Appreciate Teachers

This week is Teacher Appreciation Week and tomorrow is the final day to pay homage to our nation’s greatest gift – those who teach selflessly and tirelessly, with diligence and commitment to our students!

Each week I send a Monday Morning Message to the teachers in our district.  I have been doing this for almost a year and it has been a gratifying experience.  My “MMM” are not general reminders of items that are due or upcoming trainings.  They are words of praise and support.  I often share educational articles, blogs from colleagues, YouTube videos, stories, pictures, and even song lyrics I find inspiring!  Throughout this process we have all learned more about each other.  I always receive responses from the staff on my Monday Morning Messages.  The conversations I have had via email with teachers over the last year that I would not normally see on a daily basis have been exceptional!  All due to a brief message!  Two wonderful experiences occurred over the last week or so that I would like to share.

Recently, I was welcoming a newly approved staff member to the district during one of my walk through visits.  She took the time to say, “Thanks for all you do.”  I did not realize but she pointed out that in almost every one of my Monday Morning Messages, I tell the teachers, “Thanks for all you do.”  To hear her say it was humbling and wonderful.  I hope it has the same effect on the teachers in my district when I say it to them.

The second situation did not start out as wonderful at all.  Yesterday, in the middle of Teacher Appreciation Week, we were notified by the Barnegat Police Department that we were to go into “shelter in place” status.  This meant that all school’s doors were to be locked and no one entered or exited.  For the remainder of the day yesterday, we had to count on each other to remain positive and calm while police sirens echoed through neighborhoods, which is not a common sound in our sleepy little shore community. Teachers inspired students, reassured parents, and assisted administrators during a very frightening time for many people.

We remained in contact with each other through email and messaging systems.  As I poured through dozens of emails over a day in a half, some amazing themes began to emerge.  Parents were complimenting teachers!  They were recognizing our staff for their dedication and patience, their positivity and loyalty!  Teachers were complimenting each other as well as administration for maintaining communication and a sense of calm throughout the situation.

I have often felt the phrase, “It takes a village” is so appropriate for education.  I have never felt I could accomplish anything in our district if it were not for the educators that I am lucky enough to call my colleagues.  I am grateful that I can go into any building in our district, greet teachers by name and receive hugs from warm, caring people who have dedicated their lives to teaching children!  What could be better?

I hope that as we close Teacher Appreciation Week, your village is a fabulous as mine.  There are always challenging days in education, but knowing there is an entire team of dedicated teachers standing with me through challenges like we faced yesterday inspires me to dig deeper, read more, and strive to be the leader they deserve.  Thanks for all you do! 


Teaching to the Last Bell

Yes, the warmer weather is upon us.  Many students are exposed to spring-time weather and begin to think of lazy summer days where they are not buried in homework and standardized testing but perhaps buried in sand! Teachers, too, begin to think of ways to end the school year.  Many of us start to make excuses about what we can realistically cover or complete before May or June arrives.

In New Jersey, we do not end the school year until mid to late June.  Maybe it is time to address #lastbell, #MayMatters, and #Jazzed4June all at the same time.  How can we steer away from, “We only have thirty days left.  I can’t possibly cover…” or “Is this year over yet?”  Remember that if we as educators are tired, so are our students.  Consider also that school may be the safest place for school children.  The summer break may not hold promise of vacations at the beach, sleepovers, camps, or other exciting, fun activities with family and friends.

As we begin the countdown, maybe we should begin to count UP.  Count UP to what we CAN do in the precious time we have left.  I am sharing some strategies that might be useful to you as you approach the end of the school year.  Here is one of my favorites.  It comes to you courtesy of Allyson Apsey, a school administrator from Michigan and fellow Compelled Tribe member.  Think of utilizing these strategies as the year winds down.  I think they are important in September, January, or June.  Try CRAFT in your classroom.  You can find more on Twitter @AllysonApsey.

  • Choice: small or big
  • Relationships: so everyone feels like they belong
  • Ask, don’t tell: they know so much more than we think they know
  • Fun: everyday! Student-prompted and teacher-prompted
  • Turn it around: when you find yourself in a power struggle, back it up

Think of how this might look in May or June.  Does it look different than in September?  You may have to dig deeper as an educator and be more patient, but allowing student choice and really listening to them matters.

Have you tried a mystery Skype?  How about a scavenger hunt using Twitter to assist students in transitioning from one grade to another?  Have you considered asking students to write a reflective writing piece regarding their expectations or apprehensions of moving up a grade or to a new school?  Perhaps writing is not the way some students express themselves and they are given choice in how to respond.  Will a song work?  What about an iMovie?  Remember that we are only limited by what we limit ourselves.

Here is a short excerpt from author, Dave Burgess.

How Will You End Your Year?

Consider his example or one you create with your grade level team, school, or district colleagues to end the year strong.

Although the examples I shared lack curricular content delivery, I am confident that every skilled educator can engage students AND address content.  Teaching to the last bell can be joyous and memorable!


Professional Growth

My oh my, how the year has progressed!  The year is not over yet (see blog on #lastbell) but it is time to start reflecting, assessing, and re-calibrating our focus to get ready for next year.  As I was doing the aforementioned activities, some interesting thoughts emerged.

We set goals as a district and as an administrative team in the early fall of 2015.  My goals did not sit on a shelf.  They were living, breathing, actionable tasks that had meaning…up until about January.  Then Twitter, Voxer, and the #compelledtribe came along, all as a result of attending the NJ TECHSPO conference.  I can literally identify WHEN things changed for me.

This is powerful as an educator.  When I look back and read the goals that I established for myself, I can track progress for the beginning of the year.  But now, as I look back, they seem to be written by a completely different person.  As I reflect on them with a critical lense, the first thoughts that comes to my mind are, “Really?  That’s it?”  Then, “Where is the evidence? Where is the authenticity?  Where is the innovation?”

In just a few shorts months I have learned so much and grown in ways I could not have imagined.  For a busy administrator, I find myself reading articles and sharing them with my staff on a regular basis.  I have engaged with teachers and administrators on a more personal level than ever before.  I have implemented daily leadership actions in my office as a result of Twitter chats (#CelebrateMonday, #cowbellTuesday, #YouMatterWednesday, #HighFiveThursday, #FunFriday).  The best part is that my staff is starting to implement daily leadership actions of their own!

I listen and respond to questions of the day on Voxer from Compelled Tribe members and Women in Leadership groups. Their words of inspiration, ideas, and suggestions fuel my energetic passion for improvement in our schools.  I actively participated in my first EdCamp and plan on using this model in my district.  I am currently creating a book study on Twitter for the administrative team then will attempt one in the fall for the entire staff. I will also be implementing Twitter challenges and have begun reinforcing how important it is to teach to the last bell.  As a result of a fascination with maker education, we visited local schools and are ready to implement programs for the 2016-2017 school year and beyond.

I have demonstrated growth in the areas of:

  • implementing innovative practices in my district
  • using social media to connect educators
  • inspiring my staff
  • providing educational resources in the areas of maker education, leadership, literacy, utilizing podcasts in the ELA classroom, assessment of instructional practices, and multicultural awareness
  • motivating teachers and administrators to improve communication (by modeling it), and to follow through on all district/school initiatives
  • improved writing skills
  • collaboration with educators from across the country and around the world

None of these items were outlined in my goals that I set in the early fall of 2015.  They just happened…

All of the above-mentioned items were areas of growth that I sought on my own and thoroughly enjoyed.

Other than the NJ TechSpo Conference, NONE of the professional growth activities above cost the district Board of Education a dime.

I could not be more grateful for the opportunities provided for me as Superintendent of Schools in Barnegat, NJ.  I work with an amazing staff and collaborative administrative team in a supportive community.  Professional Growth is what you make it.  Make yours meaningful, fun, and fabulous!

Reasons to Smile on a #CelebrateMonday

Did you ever have one of those days?  Or maybe one of those mornings?  I did.  Today.  Monday – of all days!

I woke up on the wrong side of the bed, had no time for coffee, felt frustrated that my children (who are usually helpful) did not assist with morning chores and focussed on things that did not matter to me.  They wanted to watch television on an already jam-packed, behind the eightball morning!  We had no time for breakfast (don’t worry – they ate at school), rushed out of the house, returned to the house because we forgot my daughter’s costume for her show at school, and arrived at morning band for my son in the nick of time! Whew!  During this rapid Monday morning madness, I was short-tempered and worried about every little thing that needed to occur.  I was not my joyful self, was short-tempered, and in a bad mood.

Then something amazing happened.  Well…a few amazing things happened.  We pulled up to morning band and as I was rushing to get my kids into school my daughter said to me, “Mom. Don’t worry.  Your day will get better.  Don’t forget to breathe.”  I stopped short for a beat.  My daughter is eight…and is wise beyond her years sometimes.  I walked my children into school, calmer now.  I gave them hugs and kisses and apologized for my rushed, anxious, frustrated behavior.

When I returned to the car, I took a minute to breathe.  I also took time to be present, to reflect, and be mindful. What an amazing sensation!  To let go of tension and to re-focus my energy in a positive way.  Then a few more mini-celebrations occurred…

I had two short errands to run before work. At 7:30 a.m. I pulled into Wal-Mart for a few items we needed at home.  I was greeted with, “good morning”, had an amazingly pleasant and engaging conversation with the cashier, and exited the store with “have a nice day”.  When I stopped for a cup of coffee at Wawa a stranger held the door open for me, another struck up a pleasant conversation about the weather, and still another (complete stranger) complimented me on how nice I looked!  I thought for a moment that I might be having a weird out of body experience.

What I realized was much better than being on another planet or being someone else.  When I took time to be mindful, present, reduce my anxiety, re-focus my energy in a POSITIVE way and to #CelebrateMonday, EVERYTHING changed.  Is it possible that somehow I was able to invite positive energy?  That had I remained on the path I began that my day would have been dramatically different? YES! I believe that we invite positive when we exude positive!

I am so grateful that my day changed because each day we are called to lead, it is a lofty responsibility.  We are responsible to inspire, motivate, and educate.  None of these responsibilities should be taken lightly.  For all of you who wake up on the wrong side of the bed, remember that life is about choice.  I choose happy!

Learning for the Love of Learning

Yes.  I said it.  Learning for the love of learning.  Can it happen?  Is it possible?  How can we (as educators) motivate students to LOVE learning?

This topic intrigues me.  In investigating “learning”, I conducted a self-assessment, but not in my current learning style.  I am thinking and assessing from when I was a student.  I know how I learn now.  I know why I learn now.  How and why did I learn in college or even in High School?  Considering I graduated High School twenty-seven years ago, this is a difficult exercise, however I challenge you to do some reflective thinking.

In fact, do one better than me.  Ask your students these questions and see what their responses are.  I wonder what they would say.

Ask yourself the following questions as if you were a K-12 student, not as an adult.  I did. Here are my questions and answers.

Q.  “Do I love to learn?”                            A. Sometimes. When I’m not tired, or working, or                                                                             doing homework, or involved in after school                                                                                       activities, or helping around the house.

Q.  “What do I love to learn about?”       A. Things that interest me. Music, art, writing, etc.

Q. “Who do I like to learn from?”            A. Hmmmm (this is where it gets interesting…)

  1. Someone who is excited to teach me.
  2. Someone who is funny.
  3. Someone who makes learning interesting.
  4. Someone who makes the tough concepts easier to understand.
  5. Someone who is patient.
  6. Someone who cares about me.
  7. Someone I admire.
  8. Someone I try to emulate.
  9. Someone I trust.
  10. Someone who inspires me to do my best.

I wonder if my recollections are accurate or if they are too inspired by what I know about student engagement and rapport (which I feel are absolutely necessary between teacher and student).  So I tried to think of specific teachers and the connection I had with them – why I LOVED their classes.

I had teachers who were passionate.  Some who were so passionate they ignited a spark inside me for a topic I thought I had little or no interest in.  I had teachers who were so hilarious they could have been stand-up comics.  Those teachers would do anything to make a lesson memorable and it worked.  I know because I can recall facts that the teacher shared in a hysterical manner.  I had teachers who never gave up on me.  Even when I took high level courses that were incredibly challenging (at both High School and collegiate levels), I had teachers or professors who made learning interesting, never gave up on me, offered extra help, and were incredibly patient.

I had teachers who I wanted to grow up and be like.  I do not mean that I wanted to be a teacher.  Ironically, I did not play “teacher” as a child.  I wanted to be like them because of other things like the way they treated students, their integrity, their passion, and their dedication.

I do recall that I wanted to play like one of my music teachers.  When you are inspired by a gifted musician, who plays with amazing technical precision as well as a warm sound that conveys every expression imaginable, there is simply nothing like it.  I wanted to emulate that sound.  I admired him.  I trusted him.  I practiced for hours and hours because he inspired me.

As we live in a world filled with data, Common Core, student growth objectives, growth percentiles, and lots of other measureable pieces of information.  How can we measure the inspiration a teacher provides to a student? How can we measure learning for the love of learning?

In my opinion, if a student gets up, gets to school, and gets inspired, we can thank dedicated, committed, engaging, passionate, funny, patient, loving teachers.


Only Those Who Dare Drive the World Forward

Where do you find your inspiration?  What motivates you?  What is your purpose?

At this time of year, many educators are on spring break.  This is a time to rejuvenate and refresh but also reflect.  For how can we move forward without first looking back?

Today I saw a commercial with the slogan, “Only those who dare, drive the world forward.”  I think it was for Cadillac but during the commercial, there was a short clip on Easton LaChapelle and I was reminded of this video and quite honestly what inspired me to write this post.

Great project
How do we inspire our students, teachers, parents, administrators, and community members?  How can we inspire students like Easton?  How many of these students are in our classrooms whose delivery of education are regulated by mandates?  How many creative teachers cannot reach children because they too are confined by rules and regulations?

I am not a rule breaker.  As Superintendent, I am compliant and meet the needs and requests of the Department of Education in New Jersey and my local Board of Education. As a leader it is also my job to ask why, to motivate others, and to never stop until EVERY student reaches their highest potential.  Here are some ways that may help you be inspired and get rejuvenated this spring:

1. Read. Yes. Read anything and everything you can.  Read books, articles, and blogs.  Try not to delete what is sent to you.  If someone has thought to share an article, try to skim its contents. There must be something of value for your review. Challenge yourself and read material you might normally choose.

2.Go on site visits. Find other schools or districts that are doing amazing things and get a team of educators together to be inspired by them.  If that school is not within local travel distance, get on a Google Hangout and arrange to observe what they are doing. Invite people with you who are naysayers that may find fault with your plan.  It is better to poke holes in the beginning of implementation then to backtrack once you are on your path.

3. Set goals. Be sure to set personal goals as well as team goals.  Write them down. Do not put them on a shelf.  Use your calendar or other strategy to reflect on these goals on a regular schedule.  Commit to change or it will never happen.

4. Inspire others.  I always say that “change is a challenge” and I truly believe that.  I recently read an article on using the “motivational wave” to inspire others.  The theory behind this suggestion is not to continuously berate your followers, teachers, administrators, or parents with a barrage of information.  Forcing people to adopt your way of thinking never works.  You can lead a horse to water but you had better find a way to convince him it is good for him (or someone else) or he will not drink.  

Rather, a “strike while the iron is hot” attitude may work to your benefit.  Share information readily. When someone shows an interest in change or implementing something new, is when you should provide additional support. Help them ride that wave!

I hope everyone can begin the last part of their school year inspired and excited.  There is nothing better than motivating students to be excited about acquiring new knowledge and choosing their paths to success! Remember that what great educators do every day matters to our students and communities. 

Joining the Tribe

When I received word of becoming part of the Compelled Tribe, I was thrilled.  As I sit to compose my first blog as an official Compelled Tribe member, I am nervous.  This is challenging but thrilling at the same time.  I tell myself, “I am growing through this process!”

To further define tribe and reflect a bit, I Googled it.  Merriam-Webster says a tribe is: a group of people that includes many families and relatives who have the same language, customs, and beliefs.  I would agree with this definition.  At first I thought of writing about things like passion about education and expanding my professional learning network.  Instead, I decided to dedicate this blog to the challenges of conflicting tribes.

Many of us, in our work or home, surround ourselves with similarly minded people.  If we like fitness, we have an affinity for those who also run or go to the gym.  If we enjoy a certain type of music, we go to concerts or chose a station on Pandora that selects what we like.  There is comfort in what we know. There is comfort in participating in an on line Twitter chat on Saturday or going to church on Sundays.  There is comfort in the faculty room or a colleague’s classroom where we can work collaboratively on lessons and (for some) even comfort when talking with an administrator about how to improve instruction or engage students in a more meaningful way.  This is comfort in our tribe.

But what happens when you are faced with the conflict of tribes or tribes with differing opinions?  How do you handle those challenges?  Here are some suggestions:

  1. Don’t get defensive.  Even if you are listening to opinions that differ from yours dramatically, try to listen openly.  It will be challenging but it matters.
  2. Wait patiently until your opposition is done speaking.  This means that while you are listening to an opinion that is driving you crazy, you disagree with vehemently or you feel in your very bones, is wrong, try not to interrupt.  Doing so does two things.  It makes you appear impatient and disrespectful and it may add fuel to the fire of the disagreement.  It is appropriate to be passionate but do not allow that passion to be interpreted as defensive.
  3. Take notes.  Taking notes keeps you focussed on the topic at hand.  It also serves as an outline for when you will have to respond.  If you are like me, the notes can also include anything you are feeling at the time.  Remember, the notes are private and you will have the opportunity to filter your feelings when it is time to draft a response.
  4. Do your research.  Educate yourself.  Do this by researching the topic you disagreed on.  You may change your perspective (or not) but at least then you are well-read and ready to understand (perhaps) why they are seeing it their way and you are seeing it your way.  This can occur when we disagree with a colleague on how to teach writing effectively to our third grade class, how to utilize benchmark data to adjust instructional strategies for individual students, or how to openly discuss an observation rating from an administrator on his/her most recent classroom visit.  Doing research will be helpful in any situation.  Remember, knowledge is power.
  5. Try to see it from their perspective.  This is very challenging at first.  I am a school Superintendent and it is often difficult for me to see an item from the perspective of a Board of Education member, especially in the heat of discussion at a committee meeting or when information is just being brought to my attention.  During these times, I struggle to maintain my composure and sometimes I do not succeed.  After all, I too am human and I care deeply about education.  However, demeanor and character are always important.  If you lose your cool, find a way to get it back.  Pretend you are visiting to the topic for the first time.  Sometimes this helps to hear something from someone else’s perspective.
  6. Provide Feedback. After trying to understand the point the opposing tribe member was making, doing your research and listening open-mindedly, be sure to provide feedback.  By responding to your opposition, it demonstrates to them you were listening and that what they shared with you matters.  Even if you (at first) disagreed, their opinion matters and it may have even opened your eyes to something new. This is so exciting because it is how we grow!

Last week in the middle school in my district we had a potentially dangerous situation.  A student brought in two items that appeared to be hand grenades.  The administration evacuated the building and notified the police who called in the bomb squad.  After a thorough examination, the mock grenades were not deemed unsafe and the students and staff returned to the building.

In a very uncharacteristic way, I shared an email with our parents that was extremely detailed.  I tend to be a bit “old school” and (in the past) may have simply shared that it was safe for students to return to the building.  However in the times of social media, when most of our middle school students were texting their parents what they “heard”, I reached out to the Board President and advised him that my email correspondence to families was very transparent, especially for me.  I sent the email and received dozens of return emails from parents.

I read every one of them and I responded to every one too.  Most parents were thankful for the detailed information I had sent.  Many provided suggestions for communication in the future.  At one time, I probably would have thought, “I am an administrator.  I know what I am doing.”  Then I received one email that furthered my growth through what could have been an awful situation.

A parent thanked me for sending the email but she went a step further.  She was pleased with the extreme detail that I provided for families so that she could follow up and speak with her seventh grade daughter.  That correspondence did it for me.  I totally understood where this parent was coming from and I commended her for wanting to speak to her daughter.  Knowledge is power and that mother was going to do what any exceptional parent would do – TALK to her daughter.  I was reminded that as parents, we are our children’s first teacher.  As school administrators or teachers, we cannot take that away.  In fact, we should embrace it.  Never underestimate the power of a strong parent-teacher connection.

I want to close with a quote I read on Twitter quite some time ago.  I wish I knew who gets the credit, but sadly, I do not.

“We are all faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as impossible situations”

Don’t you just love that?  I know I do.  There have been many times that opposing tribes (board members, fellow administrators, teachers, parents, colleagues or even departments of Education) have presented me with impossible situations.  Each time they have been a challenge and not every time did those situations become great opportunities.  But I can honestly say that each time I viewed an impossible situation as a great opportunity, it became one.