I can do this

In the Fall of 2010, I enrolled in a doctoral program in Educational Administration at Northern Illinois University. Today, I spent this afternoon in  DeKalb to observe a dissertation defense for a candidate with the same committee chair and a quantitative study. While I’m likely a year+ from that step myself, I needed to see someone successfully navigate that process. I needed to remind myself that I can do this. Now here I am writing ABOUT my dissertation, when I probably should be writing my dissertation itself. All in the name of reflection, right?

About a year and a half ago, I wrote a bit about my decisions, the challenges, and the benefits here. Since then, I completed my final two courses, passed my comprehensive exams, and started my dissertation work. The exams were pretty stressful, and I was glad to put them in the rear-view mirror on my first attempt. And while I was pleased to reach the milestone of completing my coursework, I found myself having some mixed feelings. As a mom and a principal, I feel the weight of my responsibility to those I serve at home and at school. Often that is a  positive, but it certainly isn’t without challenge. For that time on Saturday, though, I selfishly felt responsible only for myself and found myself in the company of others at a similar stage in life trying to balance the same things I tried to balance. It was a comfortable place to be, and I miss that part of the experience.

Since then, I’ve changed school districts and started my dissertation. I was fortunate to find a chair and a methodologist so I could begin fine-tuning my study. Some members of my cohort still check in from time to time; one friend, Brent Anderson, and I check in more regularly and made the trek today to see that defense, talk about our experience and progress, and enjoy the local nachos. At some point in today’s conversation, and in most that we have on this topic, I find myself saying, “We can totally do this.” Watching a candidate present and respond from questions to her committee was really helpful and encouraging. As we were there to observe, the chair and committee members explained some parts of the process to add to our learning. In that moment, I feel okay. In the moments where I’m focused on my next step, I feel okay. When I think about all that happens between my next step and that last step, I feel a little less than okay. I’m guessing that’s a normal part of the process, although I assure you it isn’t my favorite part.

salonwritingMy plan?

Keep focusing on that next step with the knowledge that I’ll reach my end goal. Continue those support and accountability conversations with my friends and colleagues who are working through the process as well. Be disciplined as I work toward my own graduation target of May 2015. And keep taking photos of the random places I work on my dissertation, giving credit to Brent who started this. I’m sure it’ll make for a lovely collection someday!

 

Before the data

Many times this year, we’ve talked about data. As grade level teams, we’ve explored local assessment data to ensure appropriate interventions are provided. As a school intervention team, we’ve collected data on behaviors and their antecedents to ensure we set students up for success and support their areas of need. As a principal team, we’ve talked about the kind of data that might come from the new PARCC assessment versus what we’ve experienced in the past. As part of the weekly #ILEdchat on Twitter, we’ve discussed using data to guide instruction and the type of data we could glean from portfolios or summative assessments or formative assessments. I will agree that data is important to guide objective, well-thought-out decision making. I can’t, however, stress the importance of what comes before the data enough.

They are all ‘our’ kids

Relationships are key. If we want to build relationships, we have to know our students before and beyond the data we collect. Our experience may not be their experience. Their experience may be different than their neighbors’ experience. We have to know that, to honor that, and to support one another as we seek to support our students. Sometimes this means considering that a child’s school experience is greatly impacted by home stressors. Sometimes it means contemplating that another student who ‘shouldn’t’ feel picked on really, truly does. And if we think crunching numbers and analyzing data makes our heads hurt, we have to be even more ready for the heavy weight that comes with really knowing students, the challenges they face, and the compelling urge to be part of their support and solution.

This story below is one of my favorites in highlighting the need to support one another as we farm our corn, or in this case support our students. It highlights the theme that every member of our learning community has to be all in.

photoAs the time of year is upon us where we’re making class lists and making decisions about the learning environment and supports a student might need in the year ahead, I’ll be sharing this story with my staff again. All kids are ‘our’ kids and we have to work together. Remember what comes before the data.

What will I learn, Mom?

My husband and I have four kids between the ages of 7 and 11, and we live in a neighborhood with many more. As we’d hoped, our house is a place where our kids and their friends congregate quite a bit. This weekend, my soon-to-be-sixth-grade son and a neighborhood girl were chatting about junior high. Both of them started summer band this past week and are loving it.

As I used to be a junior high school administrator in our district, they asked me a few questions about schedules, electives, and lunch. I was able to weigh in based on my experience, while noting that things are different from school to school and changes have likely happened in recent years. Then he asked, “What will I learn in junior high that I can’t look up on my phone?” He then noted that I’d been using my own phone’s calculator to figure out my monthly expenses when we started this conversation. I talked about mathematical thinking I still had to know to figure that out. My husband, a former math teacher, chimed in and agreed, but none of us were totally satisfied. We talked more about our experiences as students and educators, and we talked about what we hoped our son’s experiences might be. I especially love his question because we’ve spent some time talking about respectfully asking questions when you have them and not staying quiet and compliant.

And a good question it was, son. To be honest, I’m still thinking about it. What do you want to tell him? Are you happy with your honest answer? What should we be able to tell our kids?

The value of the blog

A couple weeks ago, I finished 5 draft posts that had been lingering for some time. This stemmed from Jesse McClean sharing via Twitter that he was going to revisit 5 drafts in 5 days. I decided to join him in this endeavor and as of this morning we’d collectively knocked down 10 posts. You can check out his blog here. As I was writing so often, I gave a lot of thought to the purpose and value of blogging as a learner.

Going back, Josh Stumpenhorst‘s blog, Stump the Teacher, was one of the first education blogs I read just as I was starting out on Twitter. Knowing Josh in person, I found it so interesting to read about his experiences as a teacher. I admired his willingness to share his philosophy and opinions, even if they differed from others. From here and from Twitter, I found many other blogs that interested me. My first blog predates all of this as I wrote about our adoption journey here. I wrote there with the purpose of keeping our family and friends current on our adoption and keeping our own written record of the process. Eventually, I started my professional blog on Blogger, and then I moved it to my own domain after some good conversation.

Vehicle for sharing

As a consumer, I’m still often amazed at how freely people share resources and ideas through their blogs and Twitter. As a contributor, I find writing is a great way for me to both reflect and to share my story with others. Dean Shareski’s keynote Sharing: The Moral Imperative brings together many examples of the far reaching effects of sharing our practices with others and makes a compelling case for our ‘obligation’ to share. While I’ve known sharing my work is important, I don’t think I’d given sufficient thought to the impact it can make. As a school leader, I move from sharing my work to sharing our collective work as a learning community…by sharing our story. Thanks to other educators sharing, I can also see what is truly possible and gain perspective that differs from my own. I’d love for others to share comments and feedback that open further dialogue as I write; at the same time, I know I don’t do enough of this for others.

Evidence of learning

At the same time, I started working on the structure of my blog to both make it a useful space for others to visit and to support my own reflection and learning. George Couros re-shared this piece about using your blog as a portfolio. He talks about the blog portion of his website being his learning portfolio, and he uses his local principal standards as categories for his posts. While I’ve visited George’s blog many times, I hadn’t really connected with that piece yet. This time I did. I added a page sharing the Illinois Performance Standards for School Leaders, and I started using those as my categories. Over the rest of the summer, my goal is to go back and categorize my previous posts. In the short time I’ve done this, I already find myself connecting to and reflecting on the standards more than I explicitly have in the past. Sometimes I find it tricky to decide which standard(s) to link. Rather than viewing my blog as something separate and the standards something I link to my performance evaluation (I know, I know…), they both gain strength and meaning when considered together. You can also read about this perspective on Jessica Johnson‘s blog over here. She’s an elementary principal in Wisconsin, who just realigned her blog to her principal standards. (Full disclosure: She’s already done re-categorizing her posts. Nice work!) I’ve also added a page with professional presentations as I’ve started having those opportunities in the past year.

Some next steps

As I’ve shared before, I sometimes have a hard time being satisfied with a blog post in the moment. I’m getting better at that. If I have more to share on a topic later, I can do that. Hitting publish isn’t the same as The End. So, along with going back to categorize my earlier posts, my first next step is to keep writing!

Another challenge as a school leader has been encouraging others to share openly and globally. The biggest step I can take to combat that is to model that sharing myself. And not just the rosy, sunshine, that-went-so-well moments. But the moments where I questioned myself or admitted to something I could have or should have done better. As I prepare for this new school year, I am excited for the conversations and the stories that could encourage others to take next steps of their own.

 

Myths & basketball teams

Today marks the end of #draftweek in which I finished and published the 5 posts from my draft folder one day at a time. I initially started this post in April following a particularly heated conversation in my doctoral course. I wrote the italicized portion that day, as follows:

For the last three years, I’ve been part of a doctoral cohort in Educational Administration. During that time, I’ve been fortunate to learn with a group of really funny, hard working, supportive school leaders from the greater Chicago area. Many of us are nearing the point of having less than a month of coursework and our dissertation ahead of us. (When did I ever think I’d be saying I ‘only’ had a dissertation left?!)  We’ve been enrolled in a policy course this term that includes graduate students from other programs, mostly still related to education. Recently we’ve read and discussed Learning to Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs, an ethnography written by Paul Willis in 1977 about working class boys in school and preparing for the factory floor.

Last Saturday afternoon, we engaged in some discussion with our peers, our professor and a guest professor with some expertise in Willis’s work. Our guest referenced the myth he believes our schools perpetuate by telling all students that they can succeed, go to college, and find a job. He further suggested there are a finite number of jobs and we simply don’t have a place for everyone.

He said we tell kids to work hard and they’ll succeed, and question the ethics of selling this to kids when he doesn’t believe it to be true. Essentially, he went on to liken this to a basketball team in which not everyone that wants a spot on the team gets a spot on the team. He said it doesn’t make sense to prepare all kids to be on the team because only the best kids will make it. This didn’t go over so well (and there is some speculation that he was just stirring the pot). Going back to the make-up of the class, it specifically included my doctoral cohort from Educational Administration, some Master’s level students working toward administrative certification, and doctoral students in other education programs. Many of my cohort members didn’t care for his stance, especially as we could all think of ‘that kid’ who didn’t exhibit the profile of someone who ‘makes the team’ who DID end up being successful with intervention and collaboration. These are students that may have had a different path if we selected it for them based on the early traits we saw.

One of my classmates is a principal at a high school with a fairly large Hispanic population, and his dissertation research relates to Hispanic student success in college. His question to the professor (which went unanswered) was simply, “What is our message then?” Should we be encouraging students and telling them that, with hard work, they can go to college and be what they want to be? As my colleague also questioned, “How is telling students to try their best not the truth?” How does hard work not pay off, even if the payoff is sometimes delayed. How could this be a myth? Your thoughts? What should our message be?