Thursday, January 21, 2016

Therapists and Educators Share a Common Road to Excellence

In fact, according to the latest research in the psychology field all professions and fields can achieve excellence following three steps.

In the May/June 2011 issue of Networker, Scott Miller and Mark Hubble outlined these steps to achieving excellence. My writing is inspired by their article and reference to a conference that took place prior to the article being published. The conference was held in Kansas City, Missouri and included internationally acclaimed researchers, clinicians, performers, and celebrities. The purpose was to lay out a series of steps for psychotherapists to achieve excellence in their practice. Conference presenters set out to show attendees what could be accomplished following these three steps with the goal of getting therapists to commit to the hard work necessary to attain excellence.

As the story goes a young female pianist Rachel Hsu entered the stage at the start of the conference dressed simply in a black satin dress and red sash. She calmly adjusted her bench and quietly sat at her piano. Her hands hovered over the keys momentarily and then at once she engaged fully into her piece. The composition for all of the classical music lovers reading this was the Concert Etude no.3 by Franz Liszt. This work is a famously challenging to play and a pleasure to watch as quoted in the article. It was said the difficulty level on a scale of one to ten was a twelve to give you some perspective. At the conclusion of Rachel’s performance, the audience was literally in tears so taken by the amazing and extreme skill with which Rachel commanded her moving performance.

Even more intriguing is the fact that Rachel was only 8 years old. Responding afterwards to a barrage of compliments and questions she stated humbly that she had made mistakes they just did not notice them. Later in the empty hall she and her mom went back to the music and examined her mistakes so she would know exactly what to focus on going forward.  How does an 8-year-old achieve such excellence? Does she mirror the researcher’s three steps to excellence in her approach to music? The answer to the later question is yes.
Likeness only
Rachel shared these three steps in her ensuing conversation (she was also presenting at this conference):

·       Step one; know your baseline and your potential.
·       Step Two; engage in deliberate practice.
·       Step Three; obtain ongoing feedback.

Rachel shared that she practiced 4 hours every day including weekends and holidays amassing more than 4,000 hrs. or the equivalent of almost 170 straight days at the piano.
Researchers reflecting on the hours and commitment therapists portrayed were a bit puzzled as they pondered why there weren’t more excellent therapists since it was also the intention of most therapists to become as good as they possibly could. Why weren’t they seeing the results they hoped for in patient outcomes etc.? Then it dawned on them as they recognized in Rachel’s background the nearly invisible social network that existed to support Rachel’s success. Rachel had a network of social support. The authors Scott Miller and Mark Hubble refer to this as the social network of support. Social scaffolding as it was explained is a critical element for one who’s goal is attaining excellence. Rachel’s parents, peers, coaches, and vast access to resources comprised her social scaffold and led to her success.

Let’s shift gears now to the field of teaching. I know you have astutely recognized the parallels to our profession. Educators are drawn to the field of education for the same basic reason as therapists, to help others. Like therapists we also want to be the very best we can be. There are not too many teachers that would say they do not want to be anything less than excellent. Why then don’t we see dramatic improvements in teachers? Why aren’t so many teachers efforts who’s desire it is to be excellent being realized?

To answer these questions let’s look at the three steps more closely.

1.     Do you know your baseline? How? Unless you have standards by which to assess your teaching how do you know where on the continuum of skill you fall? Have you considered your potential as a teacher? How much better do you think you can be? Get yourself a copy of: The InTASC Learning Progressions for Teachers

2.     When it comes to intentional practice do you focus on your mistakes in order to improve? Let’s face it most of us are not comfortable focusing on our mistakes especially when we are told our performance is linked to our pay. There needs to be a shift in the way we look at ourselves. Let me be vulgar for a moment. As my colleague said recently, “we need to embrace suck.” If we suck at something okay then, embrace it. When we can be at ease with looking at our shortcomings we are mentally positioned to make improvements in our practice.

3.     Do we obtain ongoing feedback? Having peers and supervisors look at our practice provides valuable input in planning our improvements and increases our effectiveness three fold. Ongoing feedback refers to frequency. The more often we receive feedback the quicker we can make changes and the faster we can grow. Consider setting up on line collaborations using Video Reflective Practice. We must structure our social network in such a way that we always have a feedback loop by which to see ourselves. That requires trust and aligning with people we trust and who honor our practice and can provide input without judgment. It also requires time to reflect.

Hopefully understanding the concept of social scaffolding will enable us to intentionally build our resources in order to support growing more highly effective. Ten thousand hours does not make one an expert if we keep making the same mistakes over and over again. Having a good coach goes a long way in building our expertise. Also, shifting our thinking from just hanging on to the positive things we do to embracing our mistakes will engage us in making effective improvements. And finally, advocating for the time and structure we need to work along the continuum of improvement we will help us begin to see an increase in student achievement.
Isn’t that what it is all about?

* May/June 2011 issue of Networker article: The Road to Mastery by Scott Miller and Mark Hubble.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Administrators Make or Break Innovative Teachers

What key character traits do administrators possess who successfully facilitate the work of innovative teachers? I have pondered that question often in the last three years and even more recently I added these questions; Which role teacher or administrator is more critical in cultivating innovative schools? Which role would allow me to make the greatest sustainable difference?

Holding a degree in public school administration for as many years and contemplating taking on the principal role I have yet to find compelling evidence to do so until recently that is.

From my humble beginning in New York State where I began my education journey to Vermont where I teach to this day I have seen administrators take a beating from all sides. Often it seems they cannot please anyone and spend countless hours putting out fires.

Most recently, I have hit a wall professionally speaking. I think back in amazement that I have been able to accomplish as much as I have for so long. I consider myself an innovator when it comes to the unconventional application of technology in the classroom. Now with my signature programs that defined in many ways the teacher I am or was cancelled I am left picking up the pieces. Like an engineer at a plane wreck site I am trying to deconstruct the events and figure out the cause.

As I reflected back on my past administrators I identified four traits that contributed most to my successes and allowed me to soar: 

       Trust - Each new initiative I delved into I had an administrator who believed in me. This I know because they allowed me to venture outside the box. At my first middle school interview in Vermont I was very transparent about my intentions. I stated strongly that I intended to sell everything in the lab and build a new concept and if that were not okay then I was not the one for this job. He looked me in the eye and said; Take all the rope you want to hang yourself. I laughed liking the challenge of his words. He was true to his word and cleared the path for me to build an award-winning lab. He demonstrated his trust in me from the start. Micromanaging teachers infer the opposite of trust.

       Fair - even when they do not believe. Once outside of school at a social event my former AP shared with me an interesting tidbit. He said Jay remember When you asked for 22 new iMac Desktop computers? Yes, of course I replied. What did I have to lose? Well he continued, I only passed the request forward because I was sure there was no way in this world it would be approved. To his shock it was and a new era was launched for my students and me. I am still taken aback by his comment.

      Strong leadership - contributed greatly to keeping the wolves from my doorstep. You know what I mean. The wolves are the colleagues in your building who recognize your program has departed from the status quo of the school and try unceasingly to pull you down. One particular administrator rather than giving into the squeaky wheel told him/her to back off. He protected innovative programs.

       Visionary - Possessing a vision that goes beyond the school building allows teacher leaders to engage in effective advocacy and shape their profession on a global scale. In the local administrative line I have encountered two mindsets. One that was supportive to the outside initiatives I am involved with and another that pointed out what I was doing did not directly benefit the school I was a part of. I most appreciated when my principal commented to me during a post observation evaluation that I should think about mentoring my colleagues. He recognized my ability and shared his insight, which gave me clarity and helped me to focus and set my growth goals.

As I resolve my most recent disappointments I realize the great strides I was able to make were do in great part to the strong administrative support I experienced. I conclude therefore both teacher leaders and strong administrator roles are equally vital. One is no more or less important than the other. Unfortunately in our state administrators hold their positions an average between three to five years. That means constantly reselling your program/vision to each new admin team.

At times I wish I could play both roles. I like what I can accomplish as a teacher leader. Skies the limit. At other times in my frustration I want to right the wrong as an administrator having learned so much of what a teacher needs to be effective. That said I have decided beyond a doubt I will continue to teach to lead, reinvent myself as needed, and stay true to my mission of helping teachers all over in becoming more highly effective.

We need administrators who recognize teachers as experts and take a “hands off” approach allowing teachers a “hands on” experience.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Teaching Angels and Hash-browns

     I don't imagine Teaching Angels eat hash-browns that is if you believe in teaching angels. I did not believe in teaching angels until a professional acquaintance enlightened me. I am writing this post in response to a recent request by the folks at CCSSO for teachers across America to share why they love teaching (#LoveTeaching).
     While I have many stories to support my love of teaching this one story speaks volumes for me. I will state right up front I now believe there are teaching angels and they visit us when we need them the most. I consider myself a visionary with undying passion to the cause of educating our youth but recently I admit I have felt the wind leave my sails. I felt I had come off the mountain and walked the valleys not by choice just following the ebb and flow of life.
      This one particular day I came home from school and my wife greeted me with the usual; "How was your day?" I dryly responded; "Hon, I no longer make a difference in my students lives." To give you a little background I have been a middle school teacher for 20 yrs and loving every minute of it. But this season having had my prize winning innovative program cut with no warning or explanation and my funding slashed I feel quite empty and at times disillusioned with the system we all operate in. I continued to explain to my wife as an exploratory teacher I only see my kids for 28 or 30 days in any given year. Not much time to create a routine or develop supportive relationships I told her. Therefore, I no longer make a difference and I feel very sad and depressed.                        
     The next day was like any other and as usual I have students who are a challenge to me. I had this one six grade student in my media class who I sat in the front of the room to try and keep him awake. During my short information session preceding our work Johnathan (not his real name) would fall asleep. He always wore what seemed like the same frumpy tee shirt and worn pants. His dark straight ebony hair was shag cut but not recently. His teeth while straight were not the best kept. When his eyes were open they were very large captivating brown eyes. Cleaned up he would be one cute little guy. I did not give him a hard time as I thought to myself, he has a hard luck story I suspect. I have learned over the years there is always a good reason for a students behavior that goes beyond our understanding at the time.
     Students went to work on the computers after I gave them their writing goals for the day. Jonathan began typing away and much to my surprise he really engaged in the task. He chose to write about his life and all the places he had lived. I noticed he had moved quite often mostly from motel to motel out of state. I complimented him on his first paragraph and shared with him how I liked his candor and fun writing style. He made it interesting to read about himself.

     Class ended and the students left except Johnathan. I observed through the corner of my eye he was intentionally waiting behind. I was seated at my computer and instead of walking out the door  he walked over to me, reached into his worn coat pocket and took out three hash-browns carefully stacked and neatly wrapped in plastic, reached out his hand and said; "Here Mr. Hoffman these are for you." Maybe earlier in my career I would have thought this was a joke and sported a puzzled grin on my face. Not today though. As if instinctively I sensed this was a genuine gift to me. "Thank you Johnathan." I said with a warm accepting smile. I stayed silent as I maintained eye contact. He said without a prompt; "This is my most favorite class and I like having you as a teacher." I thanked him again and he smiled and left.

    I later spoke with the guidance counselor and inquired a little more into Jonathan's situation. I shared what just happened. The counselor told me he lives in a motel with his folks. Dad is out of work and mom is handicap. Jonathan makes a big deal about his food he went on to tell me. It is his one source of comfort. He said the hash-browns he gave you today that was what they gave out at the motel for breakfast. He went on to say it was a big deal that he gave them to me. I had a lump in my throat as I left his office.

     That night which began with; "How was your day?" I  shared this event with my wife.  I broke down and cried before I could finish. I realized with great certainty a teaching angel visited me today and let me know I most definitely do make a difference.
      I teach to make a difference and when I do - I love teaching!

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

A Dream Come True

        In my dream world I imagine what it would be like if our students were so excited about learning they came to school early just to get a good seat and prepare to engage in an action packed day of learning. A hush falls over the classroom as students wait with mounting anticipation for the teacher to share the plan for the day. And then bang like racehorses out of the starting gate they leap into their projects. Sure you have been there. Imagine if our students were so 

hungry to learn that they forced their way into school to begin their work,
        It was early morning for me as I left my home to go vote in a presidential election. At 6:45, dawn had just broken. I like to be the first to vote so I can make haste to my classroom.  School does not start until 8:40 but in a high-tech lab full of iMacs, camcorders, and a plethora of broadcasting technologies, one cannot arrive too early to get things set-up and ready to run. According to plan, I entered as soon as the doors opened, voted and made my way back to my car. As I prepared to pull out of the parking lot, my cell phone buzzed. It was one of my News Team students asking when I would arrive.  She sounded excited, if not a bit impatient, as I explained I would be there inside of 10 minutes. She said she was waiting in the hallway outside my classroom/studio with other news team students.
         As I mentioned earlier, school starts officially at 8:40. I thought to myself,  “wow, it is 7:10 and my students are asking where am I?”  The only person who arrives at school earlier than I do is the janitor and sometimes I beat him in the door. I wasted no time zooming across town and whirling into my parking spot at school. The benefit to arriving early is that I get the best parking spot in the lot. With a sense of urgency, I walked down the hallway and, as I turned the last corner to my classroom door, I noticed the hallway was empty. Where had the students who were waiting for me gone?
         My heart sank for a brief moment feeling as though I had let them down by not getting there quickly enough. They must have left. As I shuffled through my pocket to grab my door key, I was struck by the fact that the classroom lights were on. Not only were they on but there was a small group of kids inside the lab. How could this be I thought. With so much equipment to safeguard, I always make double sure I lock my door at the end of each day.
          Puzzled, I entered the room only to find an array of equipment fired-up and a group of students so busy working they barely took the time to say good morning to me. They broke into my studio!
It’s that simple.  Somehow, they broke in. With a light air of curiosity I asked, “how did you get in?” They responded in a very matter of fact tone as they continued to work, explaining they had talked the janitor into letting them in.  Our janitor knows very well not to let anyone into my studio without me there. This directive is all but carved in stone. I am very protective of all the sensitive and expensive equipment in the classroom. No one gets the keys to the castle while I am out.
         Nonetheless, there they were all working hard at 7:20 in the morning with no teacher present.  I stopped, reflected for a moment, and laughed in complete and utter awe at what had just happened. My kids broke into the studio to work.
I wondered if I had really died sometime that night and went to teacher heaven. This must be all a dream. After all, no kid would get up earlier than need be, break into his or her classroom, organize and execute their project plan. No, not without a teacher!  I am dreaming or I died and I am in teacher heaven. Just to double-check my mental status, I took my cellphone out and dialed my wife, Nancy. I said, “hon, you are not going to believe this. My students just broke into the studio and they are all hard at work!
           Is that the craziest thing you ever heard?”   We marveled together for a few moments then I said goodbye and started my day.  I was on top of the mountain looking down and seeing all was beautiful! I wish this for all teachers. You never know what lies around the next corner.

I just love teaching!