Category Archives: Building & Maintaining Collaborative Relationships

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.

 

15 minutes at a time

This is my third post of #draftweek where I’m finishing up some neglected blog posts; you can read more about that here. This post was started in January of 2013 and wrapped up at its close with the italicized type.

Preparing for my teachers’ return from Winter Break on Monday, I’m blocking out time for my next round of 15 minute meetings. This is a concrete action step I take to give teachers a voice and build trust. Going back, I was selected as principal to open a new building in my district in February of 2010. As a district, we were in the final stages of a limited enrollment full-day kindergarten pilot. The school I now serve had been closed for renovations, as its previous population moved into a newly constructed building. It was decided we would be a kindergarten attendance center for 6 of our district’s 13 elementary schools; as a fast-growth district, not all of our buildings had capacity to house this program. With the growth of the full-day kindergarten student population nearing 80% of the total group, that also meant many teachers would be shifting from half-day instruction to the full-day program.In turn, this meant that 20 of my 23 classroom teachers would be joining me from another building in my district. Spanning 64+ miles and serving multiple municipalities and diverse student populations, I knew it was critical to embrace these teachers right away as they prepared to leave their school homes to help me shape our new one. Likewise, I needed to get to know them so I could be intentional with building teams within our school and have a grasp on both strengths and needs. As soon as I was permitted, I contacted all of my teachers by phone to welcome them. I followed that up immediately by scheduling trips to each teacher’s teaching location at that time, in many cases to meet them for the first time. When we met, I provided them with my personal contact information and contact information for our school. I also posed some questions and really listened to their responses.

  • Where have you been as an educator and an individual?
  • What opportunities do you hope to have?
  • What do you hope to step away from at this time?
  • What do you want me to know about you?
  • What is on your mind now?

Really valuing the information they shared along the way, I decided to embed this at another point in the year, too. After winter break, I shared a Google spreadsheet with blocks of time I was available. I made sure I offered times at different points of the day, knowing that before school, after school, lunch and prep time would be better for different teachers for different reasons. In advance of these meetings, I posed a couple basic considerations:

  • Tell me what is going well.
  • Tell me where there are challenges or where we could do better.

When I invite teachers to pick a time I stress that it is not mandatory and it is strictly a time for me to listen. I tell them I will keep the content of our conversation confidential unless I discuss it with them first. I remind them that it isn’t evaluative and I want to hear what they have to say, even if they think I won’t like it. If you are an administrator, I really encourage you to think about adding this to your practice. Consider this as you do:

  • Trust- Some of your teachers will be hesitant to share and may not take you up on this offer until they hear from colleagues what it was like. Others may embrace it right away.
  • Ideas- You’ll get some great ideas! For example, we started hosting one faculty meeting a month in a different part of the building so a team of teachers could lead off by sharing their work. 
  • Value- Listen carefully and talk little! Show teachers that you value their thoughts and their time.
  • Needs- It is critical to listen to what the teacher says, and what they don’t say, to assess his or her needs as an individual and a teacher. Sometimes in this one-on-one setting, what you’ll hear may be different than what you predicted.
  • Solutions-  While in some instances this was an informal conversation, some teachers approached me with written notes and their noted challenges were often matched with a possible solution. 
  • Follow-up- Be willing to take time beyond that 15 minutes to address what a teacher brings. In some cases that meant more one-on-one time and for others it meant a conversation with our School Leadership Council or another team .

While I had the bulleted terms in that last section listed in my draft, I filled them in today, so I’m not sure that’s exactly what I was thinking at the time; it is, however, what I believe to be important looking back. Admittedly, I allowed that intended time get chipped away and didn’t have those meetings in January. That explains the post in the draft folder, huh? I still think this is critical to share, for while I did use other measures to collect feedback, I missed out by not having these individual meetings. And with that our teachers and kids likely missed out, too. This spring, I accepted a principal position in a different district, and I’m committed to reinstate these meetings. I’ll start with those first questions I used when I met my new teachers at my last school, and follow up with an additional check-in meeting mid-year and at the close of the year. Other measures, while often valuable for a specific purpose, just didn’t give me the same feedback and connections as I got 15 minutes at a time. 

Writing time

Last Friday I noticed the following Tweet:

I have 9 “draft” posts that I started and never finished, thinking of picking the 5 best and finishing them Monday-Friday next week.

— Jesse P. McLean (@jmclean77) July 5, 2013

This got me thinking about the unfinished drafts that were sitting in my own folder and the general lack of attention I’ve given my blog. Within the next day or so I responded to another of Jesse’s Tweets, noting that I’d been thinking about joining him in this challenge of sorts. Upon a quick count, I had 5 posts started to varying degrees along with many cases of “I really should write about that” floating around in my head. Jesse asked why those posts most often ended up in the draft folder, and I’d attribute that to two main reasons:

  • I simply wasn’t taking the time I needed to write and reflect.
  • I’d struggled (and still do to an extent) to write a simple point-in-time post, instead striving for an authentic, thoughtful reflection…that was comprehensive, polished and ‘finished’.

Have those same reasons impacted your writing? What are other challenges that impede your writing time? Logically, I know taking this time is important to my own learning and the modeling of learning I hope to do for others. I also know a blog post is only ‘finished’ until you think more, read more, reflect more, share more, and experience more. In other words, it isn’t finished. Learning isn’t finished. When I look back at previous posts, I see many instances where I could expand and add on based on things I simply hadn’t known or done at that point. I have to move past those reasons, and, with that, I joined Jesse in #draftweek where we’re each completing 5 posts that previously sat ‘unfinished’ and unshared. (I’m also throwing in a Goo Goo Dolls/Matchbox 20 concert tomorrow to add to the excitement.) Be sure to check out Jesse’s blog over here for some good reads, too.

Back to my own draft posts, last night I wrote about #iledchat, and tonight I find myself here in “Writing Time.” The excerpt below was all I had written the first weekend in May.

Today I completed my last required doctoral course. Having also passed my comprehensive candidacy exams this spring, ‘only’ my dissertation remains. Just before the semester started, I wrote this about my choices and experiences.

And that’s where I stopped this particular post (Must have been really tired…., right?). My intent was to write further about putting a structure in place to formalize my dissertation process and continue the accountability that came with weekly class sessions. With that, a special shout-out to Brent Anderson who patiently talks me through my study as I work to formalize the initial stages. Brent has a dissertation in progress, too, and  writes on his blog; you should check out his messages to his school community here.

The truth is I have a lot of work to do to be sure I honor writing time, both in my personal/professional reflection and to actualize my doctoral goal. As you make time to write and recognize that learning never stops, make sure you also encourage a colleague or friend so they have the support they need to both move forward and encourage someone else. I know that, after the fact, I never feel like writing time is time wasted.

Talking #ILEdChat

I’ve developed this pattern of reflecting on the awesomeness that comes from my Personal Learning Network (PLN) Monday nights at 9 p.m. CST. This is right about the time #iledchat wraps up for the week. We’ve just passed the 5 month point since we started a weekly chat initially rooted in Illinois education topics. ‘We’ includes the planning team of me, Jill Maraldo, Kevin Rubenstein, Bob Abrams, and other educators from both within and outside of Illinois who are so gracious to join us in learning. Sometimes the conversations mean encouraging and agreeing, and sometimes they mean challenging and pushing back; often they include both. I know we learn from both, for sure. Just tonight, we were glad to welcome Chris Wejr from a couple time zones away as we talked about awards in schools; be sure to check out his blog for some thought-provoking reads.

Leading up to the start of #iledchat, a few factors coincided:

  • I’d started a Google doc to track local educators that used Twitter. I loved connecting with educators from all over the globe, but my curiosity also led me to see what local people were Twitter users. 
  • I had gotten more involved in my region of the Illinois Principals Association, so I was both connecting with more people in person and wanting to share the amazing connections and resources that they could access.
  • Illinois administrators had just endured the evaluation training modules and we were getting ready to administer the 5Essentials survey to our staff and our parents, both were a little stressful and uncertain.
  • I’d noticed and jumped in on some other state Twitter chats like #IAedchat; you can find a list of many chats here. Months prior to that, I’d had my first chat experience with #PTchat.

When Jill asked if I’d like to be part of a team to start this, I didn’t hesitate at all. Backing up to that #iledchat team, I’d only met Bob in person before this started. I met Jill a full month later, and I’ve yet to meet Kevin face-to-face. Weekly, however, we collaborate on a shared document, share resources, and offer both positive and critical feedback to one another as we prepare to facilitate the chat. I’ve been excited to have other local colleagues join in the fun, too, as they reached out as newly connected educators.  We’ve also added a Google+ community where you can find our chat archives each week along with related resources! Check it out and feel free to share there, too.

We tackled the 5Essentials survey as our first topic(Coincidentally, those results just came out.). Like tonight, though, many topics are global in nature, and I enjoy learning about school systems in other states and countries. Both local and global topics benefit from sharing varied perspectives. You can check out the much larger #edchat and some thoughts from Tom Whitby for the background on that, too.

If you found this post through Illinois Principals Association and a chat is new to you, check out these resources to learn more about participating in a chat. You can also use the #iledchat hashtag throughout the week to share. Again, while this has enhanced my global network, it has also undoubtedly enhanced my local network. That translates, in simplest form, to enriching my school community through people, resources, examples, and conversations of what is truly possible as we seek to best serve our kids. Thanks to everyone who has joined us and we’re excited for those of you who will join us in moving forward in connection, reflection, and action!