Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Happy Year New

I always find the end of the calendar year a challenge.  The cold weather sets in, there’s no sunlight, and we’re all too busy to realize that the cookies and chocolates that we've been devouring aren't the best diet.  It’s hectic and many of us find the days of December to be stressful.  Yet, there’s an activity that you can participate in to rejuvenate and reinvigorate yourself over the Holiday Break:  Reflection.  Many of us have experienced significant changes during 2013, personally and professionally.  Whether these changes have been for the better or worse, it’s important to remember and reflect.  It seems that hindsight is always clearer than when the path was ahead.  But, reflection for some is only a beginning.

A few years ago as I rang the Salvation Army bell at Walmart I thanked a contributor and said, “Merry Christmas” to him.  This older gentleman replied, “and a Happy Year New.”  At first this struck me as being odd, but I wonder if it was a slip of the cliché or a restating of it in a new context. I’d like to think that he was telling me to have a happy year and make it new: to move beyond my trials of that year and make the new year a happy year. To do this I needed to do more than simply reflect. I needed to rethink and use my 20/20 hindsight.

The root of reflection is improvement, not just remembrance, so reflection can lead to a new and different coming year. To make a year brand new, then, we need to identify what needs to be different in 2014. To honestly answer this question we need to begin with the individual. It’s too easy to point out reasons why things can’t change – it’s much more difficult to create the positive energy necessary for creating a year that’s new.

We must be the change we wish to see in the world.   Mahatma Gandhi

Through my reflections of 2013, I’ve been truly impressed with the many initiatives that you have endeavored with to make NNCS and the North Country better.  Most recently – the Angel Tree, Snack Pack Program, Key Club helping the elderly and offering free movies, food drives, bell ringing, PTSA Story Hour, donating to families in need, caroling, coming in on weekends to decorate the elementary hallway, collecting coats and mittens for children, Fun Nights, foreign language students teaching elementary, acceptance of special needs programs, and the PAL program.  Your generosity and empathy is overwhelming. I’m sure that Ghandi would be impressed. But what would you change about 2013, if you could, to make 2014 a new year?

I’d like to regale you with a personal story. About 15 years ago my health was not good, my teaching position was eliminated and my wife’s teaching position wasn’t a tenure track. I was fortunate enough to be able to retain a job, but it wasn’t in the middle school – where I had taught for 10 years. After my second week of teaching that September, I visited with Mrs. Chorba, my principal and mentor. I asked her to find a way to get me back to the middle school. As we discussed my dissatisfaction she had discovered that my request came from the fact that I found the climate much different from what I was comfortable with. Her words cut me to the core, “If you don’t like the climate and ‘feeling’ of the school, then what can you do to change it?” This sage advice was the beginning of a personal realization that I could have a significant impact on others and my surroundings. Shortly after this, I began working with the policies and procedures at the high school and district levels. It dawned on me that the only time I felt like I couldn’t enact positive change was when I told myself that I couldn’t. I learned the difficult lesson that sometimes change is good. What once seemed uncomfortable to me ended up being a tremendous experience. I came to learn that my new school was filled with wonderful teachers and students whom I learned a great deal from. I enjoyed working there and I am a better educator because of my experiences there. As I now reflect on that long-ago adventure, I’m unsure if the school climate was influenced positively by me after my conversation with Mrs. Chorba, or influenced negatively by me before my conversation.

Working in schools, we look to make a positive impact on the lives of children.  You have done so and then some.  You have influenced more than just your students, you have made an impact on me.  I am genuinely impressed by you and I challenge you to own your day and make the new year truly new.

Merry Christmas and Happy Year New!

Monday, November 11, 2013

Parent-Teacher Conferences

This is a re-post from previous years:

Ill never forget those anxious, nail-biting moments when my parents usually my mom—took off for parent-teacher conferences. I wasn't always the most diligent of students, so I worried. Would I get in trouble for combing my hair in social studies class to impress the girls? (Yes, I actually had hair at one time.) Would I have to begin my science fair project when she got home? The due date was only a few days from now, and in my opinion I had plenty of time remaining to complete the task. Years later, I prepare for my own childs parent-teacher conferences, and I am still nervous. What if my child isn't doing as well as I hoped? What if they’re socializing too much in class? Will the teacher think I’m a bad parent?  This is what goes through the minds of some parents.

Be positive with people and you’ll get positive results (Blanchard, Lacinak, Tompkins, Ballard, & Blanchard, 2002).

As a former coach, I view parent-teacher conferences like a time-out in a game. It is a brief opportunity in a contest (school year) to praise or redirect performances. Todd Whitaker (2004) is known for stating, “Raise the praise and minimize the criticize.” A conference is not the time to vividly describe and elaborate on every single minor classroom disruption, but if critical feedback is necessary it’s often best delivered with a sandwiching technique.

Great teachers help create magical moments and have the ability to ignore minor errors (Whitaker, 2004).

Here are some additional tips for successful conferences that I found from the Illinois Education Association (2000). I hope you will keep these in mind as you prepare for next week’s conferences:
  1. Prepare an outline. How are you going to budget your minimal time with parents?
  2. Gather student samples for praising and for redirecting.
  3. Anticipate possible parent concerns.
  4. Greet each parent with a handshake and a friendly smile.  (I always stood to greet a parent.)
  5. Ask parents if they have any concerns, and reassure parents that their concerns will be addressed.
  6. Before addressing any concern, describe students’ improvements or successes since Interims.
  7. Collaborate when addressing any concern. There should be teacher suggestions as well as parent input. Both parties should agree to this strategy. Suggestions may include more parent involvement by having parents sign daily agendas, assignments  or tests. This may mean more teacher involvement also, such as signing agendas, checking notebooks or binders, or having a phone or email contact.
  8. End on a positive note.
It is impossible to praise too much as long as it is authentic (Bissell, 1992).

Conferences have provided me with some of my most rewarding moments in teaching. Just as we appreciate praise for our efforts, parents appreciate praise for their efforts and their child’s progress. The school calendar may set aside time for parent-teacher conferences each year. However, I believe great teachers know that parent-teacher conferences are held throughout the entire school year. A great teacher keeps the student, the team, and the parents informed at all times.  Enjoy meeting and getting to know the parents of your students.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Keystone

Do you know what a keystone is?  It’s a term that’s important enough to be the slogan for a state just off our southern border.   To be literal, a keystone is a wedge-shaped stone piece at the top of a masonry vault or arch.   However, the figurative use of the term, according to Wikipedia, refers to the central supporting element of a larger structure, such as a theory or an organization, without which the whole structure would collapse.  To be historic, Pennsylvania was the keystone of the colonies, being centrally located as well as being the center of an early colonial movement towards federalism.  Recently I was reading a historical article which based some of its ideology on this early federal movement, which was supported by the “Keystone” state.  My mind wandered off the article and into the classroom, thus beginning my simple examination to find the “Keystone” to a successful classroom.

There are many important elements which must be present in a successful classroom.  This blog would be prolonged if I endeavored to list them all.  However, clear communication must be present with each component of the classroom.  At every level in each component of the classroom, there must exist communication which is two-way and open.  Obviously, the learning process is centered on finding an effective method of communication; however, my wandering mind takes me to an important partner in the process:  the parent.  How do we communicate with parents?  In each successful classroom there are usually multiple methods which allow for two-way communication.  Phone, email, and even texts can be utilized.  However, I have often seen a lack of development in a very simple, yet effective, mode of communication:  the website.

A website can contain a lot of the “static” information which parents are often searching for.  It can contain resources and create a climate of partnering.  I’ve even seen websites which list the homework assignments for the day – and I would gladly debate anyone who feels that this lessens the role for developing a responsible student.  To the contrary, it’s the responsible student who knows how and where to find information – what better source of information than a website designed by the teacher.

For teachers who want a medium which is easily changed each day/week/month, then consider the blog.  A blog can contain the same elements as a website, but is usually a bit easier to update on a regular basis.  As I scan the classroom websites of teachers I am seeing more and more classroom blogs.

This brings me to your homework assignment for today.  I would like to challenge you to visit five classroom websites – and only one can be from NNCS.  The other four have to be from other schools in the North Country, state, or beyond.  See how their site is organized and what types of information are placed on it.  Here’s the catch – you have to send an email to that teacher and let them know what you liked about their site.  Imagine the affirmation they’ll feel to receive that email from you.