On In-Service and Back to School Training

For many of us, it has been a summer of learning.

For many of us, it has been a summer of renewal.

Of finding new ideas

Of tweaking the old ones.

Of refocusing, re-thinking, and perhaps even re-committing.

We eagerly await the arrival of those kids, we hope will become our kids, and we dream of the year to come.

But before the first day of school there is bound to be training.  There is bound to be new programs, new initiatives, new things added on to our already heavy shoulders in order to make this year the possibly best year we have ever had.  And I try to be excited and I try to be ready and I try to be open-minded, but I realize now that while the program may be amazing.  While the research may be compelling.  While the intentions may be the best, it doesn’t really matter.

You could bring us the very best program in the world, but it may never be enough.

Because school is not really about implementing programs.  School is not really about the lesson plan.  Or the curriculum.  Or even about the research.  It is about the kids, of course.  We say it all the time.  And yet, where is the time spent in our back-to-school days?  What are our discussions centered on?  What do we walk away from our in-service days knowing more about?  The program or the kids?

I for one hope it is the kids, but often see them left to the end, brought up as data points and survey results.  Brought up in lofty dreams and grand ambitions.  Why not make in-service about the very kids we teach and invite a few in?  Why not interview them to ask about their hopes for the school year?  Why not have them craft questions or areas they would like us to get better at.  Why do so many of our decisions that center around kids never involve the kids?

So if you are in charge, if you are the one making the agenda, bring in the kids.  Add their voice.  Add their presence.  Let us focus not on the training of more curriculum implementation, on all the new initiatives, at least not the entire time, but instead on the problems the students challenge us to solve.  Let us focus on what we say we are really there for; the kids and let them guide us into making this the best year yet.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

 

 

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To All the Great Leaders Out There

I have worked for a few incredible administrators, both at the school level and also at the district level. I have worked for administrators that saw the bigger picture, that always trusted (even if they were scared), that always kept kids first.  I have worked for leaders that were visionary in the way they created opportunities for us to grow as educators.  That saw each of us on our own learning journey and would ask how they could support rather than tell us which way to go.  I am lucky.  Not everyone works for leaders like that.

So when I think of what I could share with administrators who are looking to create empowered teachers.  When I think of what I could share with those who want to be great, who probably are great, but want to keep growing.  When I think of what I could share with some of the amazing administrators that I know are out there, it boils down to a few things.

Don’t be the roadblock.  Be the one that sees the bigger picture and encourages teachers to try that new idea, to think new things, and to always ask a lot of questions.  If your technology is blocked, ask why.  If you keep hearing no from higher up, ask why.  Be a questioner yourself, and do not be afraid when educators question the systems they work in, be afraid when they don’t.

Don’t be the dominator.  Yes, the world needs your genius, but it also need the genius of others.  Be the facilitator of conversation, be the one that gives time for those to happen, not the one that speaks the whole time.  If you worry that you may speak too much, time yourself versus how often others speak.  I promise you it will be eye-opening.

Be the path that others want to follow, not the one they have to follow.  Be a leader that questions themselves, that celebrates the great but also discusses the failures.  Create an environment where self-reflection and school reflection is the norm, not just when something goes poorly.

Be someone who supports.  Someone who trusts.  Someone who sees the good even when it is hard to see.   Someone who celebrates and knows when someone needs to be celebrated.  Make tough decisions but explain how you make them.  Say yes more than you say no, but when you say no explain why.

Invest in choices that will benefit all learners not just the majority.  If a teacher has a concern about a program, question the program not just the teacher.  make sure kids know your name, know that you are in their corner.  Be the one that searches for the bigger story not just the story that is being told.  Be curious and be proud of your curiosity.  Be proud of your school, be proud of your staff, be proud of your kids.  Even if that school is tough.  Even those staff members are not perfect, even if those kids make your day as hard as they can. Be proud, be thankful and know that you are never alone.  That great leaders always are a part of the team, a part of the community and that they stand on the shoulders of the educators that they lead and the kids that they educator.  That your staff needs you as much as you need them.

I have worked for a few incredible leaders who led with their heart, as well as their mind.  Who led with everything they had in their pursuit to make school a place that all kids and all adults wanted to be a part of.  I am so grateful, I hope that many more educators get to work for leaders like that.

A Letter from My Principal for the New School Year

If you have ever spoken to me about the amazing district I work for, Oregon School District in Wisconsin, chances are you will have heard tales of how amazing our principal, Shannon Anderson, is.  Shannon is a huge reason to why I am a seventh grade teacher, she is the reason many of us love our school, and she is also the type of principal that I wish every single educator could have.  The following blog is her welcome back letter to us, it moved me, I hope it will move you, and I am so grateful that she allowed me to share it here.

Twenty-two years ago I was a first year teacher at Verona Area High School. There was more than one occasion that first year when I paused during class in a moment of panic and thought to myself, “Why in the world did someone actually entrust me with this classroom full of students? I have no idea what I am doing!” I was teaching five different classes in four different classrooms. I was planning lessons the night before, I was afraid of parents, and I had crazy grading practices (Why not give extra credit for bringing in boxes of Kleenex? I needed Kleenex boxes!). I look back on that first year of teaching and cringe.

That same year Jacklyn Keller was a ninth grade student in my Art Foundations class. She drew with confidence and grace. I remember her maturity and inquisitive nature. Jacklyn took several classes with me while in high school, and she never ceased to amaze me with her artistic skills and insightful observations about art-making and life in general.  Sometimes when I stop to pause and reflect on my former life as a high school teacher, Jacklyn is one of the students that brings a smile to my face.

Several weeks ago, I was attending Literacy by the Lakes, a three-day conference for Wisconsin teachers sponsored by the University of Wisconsin-Madison. On the first day, I noticed a woman sitting in front of me that looked like Jacklyn. I tried to read her name tag every time she passed me, but I could not read it. Finally, I gathered up the courage to ask her if she ever attended school in Verona. Before the words were even out of my mouth, she exclaimed, “Ms. Roper, it is you! You were my favorite teacher in high school!” (Yes, Ms. Roper was my maiden name.) I was stunned for a minute. I was stunned because it was indeed Jacklyn. I was stunned because she actually remembered me. But I was even more stunned that I was her favorite teacher from high school. Sure, I remember having a good relationship with her when she was in high school, but I never thought I was her favorite.

Jacklyn, a former high school teacher, is now a elementary school librarian in Madison. During our short conversation, it was clear to me that she is passionate about the learners she serves and committed to making learning engaging and successful. As we ended our conversation, I was a bit overwhelmed with the sense of pride I felt. Jacklyn was no longer the amazing teenager I remembered; she is now a passionate and successful educator.

During the 2016-17 school year, you will touch the lives of hundreds of students like Jacklyn. The relationships you develop with them will likely last longer in their memories than the curriculum or lessons you teach them. Some students will let you know how much you mean to them, and some will not. In fact, in many cases you will likely never know the impact you will have on their lives. I think that is one of the most amazing things about dedicating your life to education: you can make a difference every single day and not even realize it. Something you do or say can change students’ thinking. You can inspire them to take risks. You can encourage them when they are ready to to give up. You can help them to see something within themselves they cannot yet see. You can expose them to new possibilities. You can help them turn mistakes into opportunities. But most importantly, you can show them you love and care for them.

Looking back, I acknowledge the fact that I did not have much of clue about curriculum, assessment, best practices, engaging lessons, or communication with parents that first year of teaching. However, my brief reunion with Jacklyn reminded me of Maya Angelou’s words: “At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.” Even though I had a lot to learn about teaching as a first year teacher, I was able to develop some positive relationships with my students that made a difference.

As we prepare to welcome students back into our learning spaces (at OMS), I want to thank you in advance for the impact you will have on their lives. You will make a difference every single day!

When A School Becomes Toxic – What Can We Do to Change School Culture?

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When you walk into a school you can usually feel the culture right away.  Is this a building where teachers love to teach?  Where students thrive?  Is there a feeling of family in the air or something else?  A building’s culture is often invisible and yet it can be one of the most important components of what makes a school great.  In fact, I fell in love with Oregon Middle School because of the feeling of family I encountered in my very first interview.

So what happens when a school’s environment turns toxic?  Where mistrust and anger become commonplace?  What do we do when we find ourselves in the type of school where all we want to do is shut the door and teach in peace, too tired to deal with everything else?  Well, there are a few things we can do.

We can make sure we are not the ones being toxic.  Yes, it is hard to let go of anger.  Yes, it is hard to not get upset.  And yet, we also make a choice every day of whether or not we want to add more negativity or not.  We make a choice, it is not made for us, and sometimes we have to make it again and again throughout the day as we try to stay positive.

We can build others up.  Why not point out the positive that you see.  Just as negativity is contagious, so is positivity.  You may be the only one noticing great things but give a compliment, leave a note, do something that shows you notice the great that is happening around you and speak up.

We can choose to trust a new person.  We often only extend the trust to those we know well and everybody else in a building we are not quite so sure of.  But how about we assume that there must be more people in the building that are there because they also love teaching and kids?   Purposefully extending your circle of trust means that your “inner” circle will grow, which means there are more people you can vouch for internally.  It may not seem important but it certainly is.

We can watch each other teach.  I know nothing about what goes on in other classrooms but instead of being ok with that, I have asked if I can come watch others teach.  I have also opened up my door to anyone that would like to come in.  Yes, it is hard to feel like you are being judged but we can also assume positive intent.

We can have courageous conversations.  If someone is seemingly negative at all times, ask them why.  Yes, this may be super uncomfortable for all of us but a simple question can go a long way.  Often we establish a pattern of unhealthy venting and don’t know it ourselves.  Someone calling us out, even gently, can be all we need to see our habit.

We can focus on what we can change.  There are many things in my state that upset me, there are even decisions in my district that I may not agree with, and yet, when I cannot change things I let them go.  Why anyone wants to carry anger with them every day they teach beats me.

We can make new friends.  Often we stick to the same people in our teaching circle at school, why not extend that circle right along with the trust?  Stop by someone’s room and ask them a question, seek out someone new to sit by at the staff meeting, volunteer for a new committee.  Something to meet new people.  A toxic environment often comes from not knowing each other, so break that barrier down one person at a time.

We can refuse to give power to the toxicity.  In our silent agreement, when we nod, when we spread the stories that tear others down we are complicit in spreading toxicity.  When we agree rather than ask questions, when we stand and listen, we are complicit in the spread of toxicity. So walk away, don’t agree, speak up.  If you do not want a toxic environment then do something about it.  Shutting your door is the easy way out.

Sometimes the toxicity comes straight from the top, so administrators, this is for you.

You can be the voice of reason.  Seek out both sides of the story before you judge, don’t have favorites, and leave your own emotions out of it.  Just like teachers at times will side with students that they like, so will administrators, and that sends a very strong message to everyone in a school.

You can check your own interactions.  If the interactions you are having with teachers are more negative than positive, think of how that affects the students.  While there are always tough conversations to be had, how they are approached can make or break a school culture.

You can be positive.  I work for one of the most positive administrators I have ever met.  Every day, no matter what, she has a positive attitude, even in the hardest situations.  This makes a difference and it sets the tone.  Our culture is one where people welcome and teachers feel valued.  If an administrator always looks mad, tired, or stressed it spreads to everyone else.

You can respect privacy.   As an administrator, you probably have way more information than any teachers and especially about other teachers.  That is part of your job, and so part of your job should also be to keep that private.  I have heard horror stories of administrators sharing private things that greatly influenced how others saw a teacher.  Be mindful of what you share and who you share it with.

You can initiate hard conversations.  I think too often administrators are not quite sure how to approach a toxic person or situation, and I get it, it can get really messy really quickly.  But at the end of the day, if we don’t talk about a problem it will never get away.  So we can allude, circle, and kind of talk about it, or we can face the problem head on and try to get somewhere with it.

You can ask for feedback.  My administration just held a two-day listening session where anyone was welcome to come and discuss whatever they wanted.  That sets the tone for the level of trust they place in us; they want to hear what we have to say even if they have no solution.  Simply opening up the door and asking for genuine feedback sends a powerful message about where you are in your administration journey; are you trying to grow or are you good with where you are.

A toxic culture can arise quickly but can take years to combat.  And while it would be nice to simply point the finger to one person and accuse them of being the main culprit, we all have a role in it.  From those that continue to spread negativity by venting their frustrations, to those of us that choose to shut our door and forget about the rest of the school; we are all complicit.  So take a long hard look at yourself, after all that is the only person we can control, and make sure that what you bring to your school is really what you meant to bring.  I know we all have bad days, but some times those bad days become bad years without us even realizing it.  A school’s culture is never too late to fix; but it does take a decision to do something about it.  And that decision can be made by us. Every single day.

 

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

 

Dear Administrators – After the Observation

 

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For many years, I have been told that I am a great teacher.  In fact, the first time I was told that was my second observation as a brand-new teacher.  Ironic considering I did not feel great at all.  I was told that I knew what I was doing, that it seemed like I was on the right path.  And while it certainly made me happy to have gone through my observation unscathed and even with a compliment, it also confused me.  How could I be a great teacher if I was so new?  How could I not have things to work on in the classroom?  How could this be the epitome of great?

So for years, I always hoped for feedback that I could use.  For questions that would make me grow.  Sometimes ideas were shared, most of the time they were not as administrators were overwhelmed with even more things to do.  And so I found my own professional development.  I tore myself apart trying to figure out what I needed to work on.  I reached out to others so that I could grow.  But I always hoped that one day I would work for an administrator that would push me as well.

Last year, was my first year as a 7th grade teacher, and my first observation left me sleepless and nauseated.  After all, it was pretty clear to me (and the world) that 7th grade was so far out of my comfort zone and was my biggest challenge yet, and there was so much for me to still learn.   I didn’t know what to expect, I didn’t know what would be observed that I may have missed, I didn’t know what would be said after.

So it was with great anticipation I went to my post-observation meeting with my principal.  Anticipation because I longed to be given advice, to be pushed to reflect, to not just be told the good things but to find a path to grow.  And I was not disappointed.  While my principal pointed out the great, she also asked me to reflect.  She gave me ideas that I could try for things she had seen that I had not.  She left me articles and emailed me blog posts as she tried to support my growth.  That was the first time in 7 years that someone had done that for me.  That was the first time that someone said; yes, you have room to grow, even if you are good, and here are some ideas.

So to all of you incredible administrators out there, to all of you who observe.  Please push us.  Please guide us.  Please tell us the great, but then also please tell us the things we need to improve on.  Give us articles that may help, blog posts, videos, take the time to help us reflect and grow.  Make it as big of a deal for you as it is for us.

Stay current yourself so that you can pass on the information to others.  If you have never taught a grade level or subject that you have to observe, please learn about it.  Do not assume that your experience will be enough.  Please become knowledgeable so that we can use you as a mentor.  Be a role model when it comes to learning and growth and share your knowledge freely.  My principal, Shannon Anderson, is the epitome of lifelong learning.  She is not afraid to admit when she does not know something, but she will always jump right in with you to find out.   And she is not alone, I know others like her, but I also know some that are not.

I know I am asking a lot.  I know that administrators have so much to do already, and yet, the role of observer and mentor is one to be cherished, one to be nurtured.  To have the ability to influence someone else’s professional growth is not something that should be shoved to the bottom of a much too long to-do list.  Instead, make it your passion, realize the potential influence you can exert and use that power for good.

Being told what to work on was not a slap in the face, not when done correctly, instead it was a chance for me to re-evaluate practices that I had forgotten about.  To reexamine some things I thought I had figured out.  It was a chance for me to learn. A chance to grow.  A chance to not just be great but be better.  And better is what I strive for every day.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

 

Dear Administrators, I Only Have One Question

Dear Administrators,

I only have one question;

Does your staff trust you?

If yes; how do you know?

If no; why not?

If you don’t know; how will you find out?

Best,

Pernille

I am a passionate teacher in Oregon, Wisconsin, USA,  who has taught 4th, 5th, and 7th grade.  Proud techy geek, and mass consumer of incredible books. Creator of the Global Read Aloud Project, Co-founder of EdCamp MadWI, and believer in all children. I have no awards or accolades except for the lightbulbs that go off in my students’ heads every day.  First book “Passionate Learners – Giving Our Classrooms Back to Our Students” can be purchased now from Powerful Learning Press.   Second book“Empowered Schools, Empowered Students – Creating Connected and Invested Learners” is out now from Corwin Press.  Follow me on Twitter @PernilleRipp.