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!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Teachers Have a Right to a Good Living!

2015 marks our school districts 50th anniversary. How unfortunate that our coming celebration of excellence is now marred by our first and only strike.
After one horrendous week, the strike is over. Final score? No, there are no winners. Yes, we will have a fair settlement, but at a price no one bargained for.
Personally, I never bargained for: being cursed and honked at by drivers speeding by; walking in the pouring rain until my knee gave out; buying a brace and continuing to walk; being in every days front page of our local newspaper; viewing an unbalanced report on the evening news; and being shunned by student athletes at the school board meeting.  I no longer wanted or felt safe leaving the front door of my home to mingle in the community. I feared being confronted by another angry person at each corner I turned.

To be fair, there were many more folks who honked in support of our stand and gave us the thumbs up as they sped by. But, it’s the vial comments that prick your spirit and leave you sliding down the slope of despair. Like my colleagues, I feel rejected, humiliated, sad, disillusioned, and empty. We have poured all that we are into our profession and into what we do. Teaching is who we are. 
Nonetheless, I am resolved to continue to advocate for teachers and their right to a fair and good living. No matter how shamed and guilt ridden we are made to feel, educators need not be the standard for a mediocre or substandard living. We have a right to a good living and we should be able to feel good about that. 

I am proud of the courage and integrity my colleagues displayed in defending their right to a good living. I am also thankful for a union that has our best interest at heart and supported us and guided us through this whole ordeal. Our collective bargaining rights allowed us to advocate for a professional salary. I wish the same for my colleagues across this nation who without representation cannot even afford to stay in the profession they love so dearly. I look forward to the day when instead of quibbling over teacher salaries, we put our energy into coming up with systemic solutions for funding education.

Monday will look different to be sure. With many students having different views of the situation, it will take some time to regain our equilibrium. We will need to heal the tensions and rifts that exist throughout our education community.

It still holds true that our community has a longstanding and proud tradition of excellence in education. It is common to hear folks say, "We moved here for the education."  It takes an entire community to build such a reputation. To this end, we embrace the future and when our doors open in the morning we will welcome our students with warm hearts and a smile on our faces.
Now back to my kids (students).

Saturday, May 10, 2014

I Think We Can Take Better Care of One Another.

  Here we are on the heals of Teacher Appreciation week and the idea of tolerance tugged at my heart. How it came to be is interesting. It started on a saturday morning when I was catching a bite to eat one town over. The State of Vermont Agency of Education generously gifted me with custom license plates as part of being recognized as Vermont's 2013 Teacher of the Year. As you can plainly see it says TEACH13. The underlying thought was it would be a creative ice breaker inspiring conversation around education and being a teacher. In my devious thinking I imagined what would happen if I did not live up to all the rules and courtesies of the road that all good drivers should aspire to? I would instantly become that teacher that blah blah blah... No need to stretch your imagination. Allow me to share with you from experience what did happen. As the story goes I exited the small town go-around heading for a parking slip in front of my favorite eatery. Just then a car pulled out and I swerved ever so slightly across the center line to get around it. The quiet warm late morning air was broken by the shout of a passing driver as he sped around me; "Go back to school teacher!" he yelled. I wanted to respond with a snarky retort, but exercised a bit of self control and instead laughed to myself and thought, it was bound to happen sooner or later. I must be tolerant of him I thought and understand I am held to a higher standard. It was at that moment I  began to think about tolerance.

   My mom was a teacher in a private school for a good many years. In fact for a short time I had to endure all the trials and tribulations of being a teacher's kid. She modeled great tolerance for her students and by most respects was a good teacher but when it came to adults and especially the colleagues she taught with that was another story. Look out if you did not agree with Mrs. Hoffman's view of how to teach. She is my mom and in the spirit of tolerance I will leave it at that. One might share similar flaws in myself. We all have them.

  Are we that much different? How did your last faculty meeting go? In my experience it can be a pretty rough place where teachers are very short and rather crass with one another. Dare I say a bit intolerant! Remember the last time one of your colleagues shared an innovative idea only to be shot down and run over? I wonder why it looks so different in our faculty gatherings then in our all accepting classroom environments? Recently, while sitting at lunch with colleagues I learned our high school had been named the best high school in Vermont by Newsweek Magazine. I replied how wonderful that is and asked my colleague what criteria were used. Another colleague starring me down replied immediately with an air of sarcasm, "What criteria were used to determine the teacher of the year?" It was a remark that was off topic, unexpected, and like an arrow it pierced my heart. How did this happen I thought. I could see in her eyes that she has endured a lot of pain in her journey. I went home sad and reflecting quite a bit. A dear friend shared with me; "People who have been hurt usually hurt others." 
In the end my hope for my colleague is that she be healed of any pain she is feeling emotionally. If we were to treat each other half as well as we treat our students we would experience a changed climate for the better. Educators often feel emotionally squeezed from both ends. Parents, administrators, negative community sentiment, school boards, politicians, lack of time for our own families etc... Amidst so much turmoil at school it is not uncommon for teachers to take time off in order to regain their emotional health or in desperation just leave the profession.

   I think we can take better care of one another. I would challenge you gently, to make it a priority to be more tolerant of your colleagues. Unconditionally accept your colleagues like you do your students, without judgement. Welcome each of their differences of opinion. Celebrate the diversity in thought and styles that exist and see if in doing that you feel just a little bit lighter and happier!

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Education Should Involve an Element of Unsettling

For this months post I invited my colleague and good friend, Sophie Fenton a highly celebrated educator from Melbourne, Australia, to share with our readers her philosophy of education.

For me, education is about facilitating growth … growth of students to develop into erudite citizens and growth of teachers to enhance their craft. Education is about enabling rather than instructing – it is about unleashing the potential in every one of us. But for that to happen, the teaching and learning environment has to be an equal participation. I go into my classroom willing to participate in a partnership. I know that I come into the classroom with a set of knowledge, but my students also come into the classroom with knowledge. I find that I impart knowledge in the process but I also gain knowledge - I don’t presume to know everything but share what I know. I also invite my students to share what they know and, in doing so, I find that the teaching and learning environment becomes an equal participation – a ‘dance’ if you will … sometimes, an intense tango and other times a swooning waltz, often simply a joyous frolic … but always a dance that involves both partners – me and my students. And that ‘dance’ is defined by a shared conversation and shared learning … Students appreciate the content delivered in a lesson (which has to be there!) but what they value is the way they learn it – through shared conversations and through a valued educational relationship with me as their teacher. On the basis of that connection between them, and me the learning takes care of itself.  Where you have a safe and connected environment, you can unsettle your students just enough to get them out of their haze and seeking to find meaning in a way that re-settles them. Enable them to experience the excitement of collaboration as they embark on a quest together. Teach them about taking risks and learning from failure. Challenge your students to turn the ‘Reliant Robin’ that has characterized their learning until this point into a space shuttle … make your classroom a place of questing … and make the learning culture irresistible! An educational environment that is irresistible creates the best possible opportunity for learning to take place.

Why do I think that education should involve an element of unsettling? The 21st Century is dynamic. It’s a moving feast of complexity and interactivity in a rapidly transforming, globalized context. It’s not about memory recall anymore, but rather the capacity to seek out and locate relevant information and then, crucially, be a critical user of that information. It’s about being flexible, communicating globally and being able to cope with constant challenge. Education has to equip students to be capable and competent individuals who can not only participate in society but also feel confident to be the drivers of it. We need to equip our students to feel confident in grappling with the challenges the modern world faces. Effective teaching enables students to develop capacities around problem solving by providing quests, not answers. 

This takes me back to my original point. To teach is to understand that education is about growing people. Teaching is about enabling students to engage with the world (critically and emotionally), to step outside their comfort zone, to take risks, to learn from failure, to be curious and to challenge conventional wisdom. Education is a human endeavor at its best, is communal. And teachers, at their best, are powerful agents of change.

Top Gear, BBC TV, ‘Space Robin’, Series 9, Episode 4, 2007,

Sophie Fenton

Head of Professional Learning and Chair of Humanities Faculty
       Melbourne area, Australia / Education Management

2012 ASG NEiTA Victorian (State & Territory) Teacher of the Year Award Winner
November 2012
In recognition of teaching excellence in the field of History and Politics.
In recognition of excellence in staff development in the teaching profession.
2012 ASG NEiTA National Excellence in Teaching Award Winner                                         ASG NEiTA
May 2013
Award for innovation in the field of pedagogy, staff development, and curriculum.

2012 ASG NEiTA Australian Education Ambassador International Space Camp USA             ASG NEiTA

Represented Australia at the International Teachers of the Year Space Camp for Educators,           NASA Space Camp, Huntsville, Alabama,                                         
July 2013