Sunday, October 27, 2013

Put What Matters at the Center

From the first day I entered the classroom as a fifth grade teacher in the New York City public school system, one of my greatest challenges was time management. I would plan at least six different activities for the day and in the end, I was lucky if I got to three of those activities. Our math period would run into science; our writing workshop would last for hours; and our discussions about life or current events would become the priority. Whatever the details, the bottom line was I never got to everything I had planned and I always felt like my kids got short changed. My colleagues were zipping through the curriculum and we were always behind. Was I cut out to be an educator? Were my kids actually learning anything meaningful? Should I be looking for another job? Time management seemed like a crucial skill for a successful educator. 

Well, here I am almost 17 years later and I am still an educator. I am still working with kids. And, I am still lacking strong time management skills. But, here is the biggest difference, I no longer feel like I have failed our kids or staff because of my poor time management skills. A couple of years ago I came to the realization that being successful as it relates to time management skills wasn't just about getting things done in a timely fashion or about getting things done that others felt should be a priority. No, time management was about getting to the things that mattered the most; getting to the things that would benefit from my attention; getting to the things that were consistently at the center. 

For me, the kids, their needs, their happiness and their future successes were always at the center. So, effective time management skills in my world mean spending time with our kids. Spending time in our classrooms each day. Spending time getting to know our kids and their interests and passions. Spending time going out to recess to play with our kids and watching them laugh and have a good time. Spending time in the lunch room eating with them in a relaxed fashion and engaging the children in non-school related conversations. That is where I devote the majority of my time and I think I meet with success because our kids are happy; our kids are engaged; our kids are learning; our kids feel valued; and our kids love coming to school. Although I cannot take the credit for how our kids feel, I do think that I devote a lot of time creating a tone and mood in the building and that directly, and indirectly, impacts our kids. 

So, as I reflect on this idea of successful time management skills, I realize that isn't only about addressing the crises the emerge every single day; or putting out the many fires that flame up from hour to hour; or responding to the hundreds of emails that end up in my inbox. No, successful time management is about getting to the things at the center; getting to the things that matter most; getting to our kids.         

Monday, October 14, 2013

Dr. King: We Can Do This Together

Dear Dr. King,

About a year ago I wrote you a letter asking that you begin a conversation about the current landscape of public education in New York State. I was hoping that you would hear the concerns of the masses and reconsider some of the initiatives, plans and changes you were implementing with little feedback from those impacted most - our educators, families and students. Unfortunately, you never responded to that letter and you continued unfolding changes to the way we teach and learn here in NYS.

One of the biggest changes was the way that we evaluate educators. For example, I was rated a 9 out of 20 (the value added piece) according to your office based on the growth my kids exhibited on the state tests (which were totally different from last year so how they could be compared makes NO sense to me but whatever) yet the people who supervise me directly rated me a 59.5 out of 60 and last month I was honored with the Bammy Award for Elementary Principal of the Year for the entire country - somehow that doesn’t add up to a 9 out of 20 from my perspective, but what do I know? Can you please share the research that supports the value added method as an effective way to evaluate educators? I would love to be able to share that with our staff so they can begin buying into the idea. One of the things I know about effective leadership is that there must be a singular vision that everyone believes in and embraces if there is going to be growth and sustained change. You may want to consider this moving forward because it may change the way you are received by the masses or the “special interest groups.”

You have also started impacting the way we instruct students. Even though the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are supposed to inform us in regards to WHAT skills our kids need to have to be college and career ready no where in the mission statement of the CCSS do they mention HOW we should teach kids and with WHAT we should teach kids - they do not promote a "Common Core Curriculum." Yet, with all the “suggested” modules shared on the Engage NY site, which you reference almost every time you speak, the implication is that you do believe that a “one size fits all” curriculum rooted in similar instructional strategies and approaches is the way to go. Can you please show me the research that supports a “one size fits all” model as an effective approach so I can share that with our families so they can buy into that idea? I want to make sure that moving forward we will treat every child the same and instruct them in the exact same way. You see, that would be very different from the way we currently do things at Cantiague. We have devoted our time at Cantiague focusing on differentiating instruction with an emphasis on 1:1 conferences and small groups; we have also dedicated ourselves to meeting the needs of every child; and we have made it a point to create a happy and positive environment for children so they can feel good about themselves, which in turn allows kids to avail themselves to learning. These are the things that we believe in at Cantiague and they don't seem to be aligned to the ideas espoused behind a “one size fits all” instructional approach but with the studies and research you provide us, I am sure we can start convincing the community that a "Common Core Curriculum" is the best approach.  

Yes, the list of changes can go on but we all know what they are and they have not been received in the most positive way. With that being said, I believe you can still change the current landscape of public education - we can do it together! Call me idealistic, but I think you were on the path to changing the game until the plan imploded.  Recently there was a glimmer of hope because I heard you were going to be hosting Town Hall Meetings in conjunction with the PTA throughout the state to give our families a voice in this process - AWESOME! Our families, who are the primary advocates for our children, need to have a voice and better understanding of the current state of public education in NY so they can stand behind the vision after being assured it is in the best interest of children. But, as we all know now, you have cancelled those Town Hall sessions after the first one didn’t unfold in a positive way. After watching portions on YouTube I will say that I am disappointed in the way some of the people in the audience conducted themselves and the mob mentality that almost took over the space wasn’t productive in the end but you see Dr. King, I completely understand why that happened - I could have been any one of those people in the audience - any one of those parents or educators. I understand why people got angry; I understand why people voiced their frustrations; I understand the passion that permeated the room; I understand why people shouted at you and pushed you for change. The answer is quite simple… it is all about our kids.

Although I cannot speak for every parent or educator in New York State, I can speak for myself and what I can say is that I am having a hard time understanding that all of the changes that have been implemented in New York State are actually in the best interest of kids. How is testing kids for hours on end in their best interest? How is stressing kids out about a state test in their best interest? How are the curriculum modules on Engage NY in the best interest of kids? How is a “one size fits all” instructional approach in the best interest of kids? How is evaluating our teachers and principals on student state test scores in the best interest of kids? How is reducing our kids to a number in their best interest? These are just some of the questions I have because if you can explain how all the changes you have implemented are in the best interest of kids and can support those changes with sound educational research and theory then I will be a believer… a supporter… a voice for change. But until then, I am just a concerned educator. I am just a building principal trying to do what is best for our entire community. I am just a dad trying to rekindle my son’s love for school and learning because at this point it is almost gone thanks to the “pressures” of school.

Dr. King, even though I am frustrated and disappointed about the state of education today in NY, I am still rather quixotic by nature. I tend to see the glass as half full. I believe there is still hope. I believe we can still change things for the better. I believe we can do this together. I don’t know anything about being the Commissioner of Education here in NY but I do know something about public education and with over eight years experience, I know something about educational leadership. Effective educational leaders listen to all members of the community because they deserve to be heard even if their voice doesn’t end up impacting change. Effective educational leaders take constructive feedback and use it as an opportunity to learn and grow. Effective educational leaders don’t take things personally. Effective educational leaders do things for their students that they would do for their own children. Effective educational leaders work diligently to ensure that their vision becomes the vision of every member of the community. Effective educational leaders lead with their heart and mind - the people being led need to feel valued, respected and appreciated as integral assets to the organization. Effective educational leaders earn the trust of those around them because they are transparent in their actions and beliefs. Effective educational leaders have one goal - doing what is in the best interest of children.

Dr. King, I submit these traits of an effective educational leader not because I doubt that they are part of your skill set but because I can assure you, from my perspective, it doesn’t seem that you are accessing them to help you bring about the change you envision for public education here in NYS. The masses don’t seem to be supporting you Dr. King and if you are going to change things you need their support; you need the masses to believe they have a voice in this process; and you need the masses to believe that everything you are doing is in the best interest of children. We can do this together Dr. King because I, for one, believe in public education. I believe in our educators. I believe in our families. I believe in our kids. Please show us all that you believe too.


Tony Sinanis
Dad to an AMAZING 4th Grader
Lead Learner Cantiague Elementary School
Elementary School Principal of the Year
Doctoral Student at University of Pennsylvania  

Monday, October 7, 2013

Being Connected Saved My Career

Groundhog Day... the movie... doing the same thing over and over and over again... hitting the plateau and getting stuck at that spot... that was the best way to describe my professional world. I was becoming Bill Murray and I wasn't thrilled about it. Don't get me wrong - I love the movie and I think Mr. Murray is a talented actor but feeling like I could pull up my calendar from the previous year on any given date and it would basically be identical as the current date was starting to get concerning... boring... and a little scary! Not only did my ADD heighten my awareness of how stuck I was feeling but I always prided myself on staying current... on learning... on growing... on getting better and for the first time in my career I didn't feel like I was achieving any of those professional and personal goals. I was doing the same thing over and over again and I didn't feel like I was contributing to our school community. I wasn't feeling like a "value added" cog in the well oiled machine (I won't even go into a rant about the value added model because I don't believe it is an effective way to evaluate educators but it seemed to fit here). 

Fortunately, I work in the most amazing school, nestled in the most awesome community, on the planet! Our kids, staff and families always find new and exciting ways to do things. They always serve as a tremendous source of inspiration for me... and this was contributing to my personal problem.... everyone around me was growing, learning and enhancing and I was feeling stuck! I needed a jolt... I needed to learn something new... I needed a personalized professional development experience that would rock my world... I needed to be a better principal.... I needed to become a Lead Learner... I needed to get connected!

In January 2012 I jumped into the deep end of the pool and joined Twitter. I was extremely hesitant to do so because the whole social media thing wasn't my scene (all the negative buzz in the press didn't help) but I needed something to move me... I needed something to save me! Although I didn't get the whole Twitter thing at first and I wasn't seeing the benefits or rewards I figured I had nothing to lose because I needed something or else I didn't know how long I could last, professionally! So, I slowly started to build my PLN - my Personal/Professional Learning Network - and I filled it with passionate educators who seemed to be using Twitter to share, collaborate, learn and grow. I started by "lurking" - just reading the tweets of those in my PLN, connecting to the blogs of different PLN members, checking out the apps people were suggesting and reading the articles people deemed worthy to share. It was slow and subtle but before I knew it, I was hooked! I was learning! I was growing! I was starting to break the Groundhog Day cycle... what a relief!

Twitter was saving my career! Instead of watching the news each morning I started my day by checking my Twitter feed and invariably, I learned something new. I read about something I wanted to try to help me be a better administrator. I explored something I thought our teachers might love or our kids might enjoy. I was leaving the plateau! After a few weeks of lurking and consuming, I started to share information that I thought was relevant and useful (links to articles, featured apps, etc.) and started to interact more with the people who I valued in my PLN and to my surprise they started responding (thank you Joe, Eric, Jessica, Todd, Bill P., Peter, Vicki, Lyn, Josh, Pernille, Tom W., Tom W., Jimmy, John, Andrew, Joan, Matt, Jason, Spike, Bill B., Michael, Curt, Daisy, Dana, Brad, Scott, Erin, Elissa, Bill K. and the list goes on and on)! I was forming connections that would change my world. Connections with passionate and dedicated educators from around the world - Australia, England, Thailand, Pennsylvania, Canada - you name the spot on the map and there was a dedicated educator from there who was willing to share on Twitter! This is when the experience really changed for me... this is when I started to feel energized... excited... empowered. This is when I took control of my learning and growth. It wasn't about Twitter... it was about the connections. The people on the other end of the tweets that I loved reading were the source of my growth. The people who believed in education; the people who were dedicated to doing what was best for children; the people who believed they could learn and grow every single day. Those connections... my PLN... these people I didn't know in "real life" were becoming my support, my resource and my friends. My PLN and being a connected educator were saving my career.

You might be thinking - why do I need to go to Twitter for these connections when I have colleagues I work with each day and could just pick up the phone to connect? Well, that is a valid question and one I considered at length. I have incredible colleagues and I have learned a lot from them over the years but what I found was that we were all wrestling with the same questions, issues and needs and getting an outside perspective could only be a positive thing. The thing that is different about the educators on Twitter... the people who I have connected with... is that they are the best of the best from across the globe (not just from your own school or district)! They are willing to share, collaborate, problem solve, seek advice, give advice, offer perspectives, share resources or just share a joke or story that makes me laugh and gets me through the day. 

Lately I have been reading a lot about participatory cultures and I think this concept best captures the Twitter experience... the power of the PLN! Jenkins defines a participatory culture as a culture with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement (discussing ed reform, sharing our students' blogs, etc.), strong support for creating and sharing one's original works (i.e. - blog) and a type of "membership agreement" where what is known by the experts is freely shared with the novices - and that experts and novices fluidly switch roles because at some moment in time we are all experts or novices. Members in a participatory culture feel like their contributions matter and they feel connected with the others in the community. Based on this "definition" and the connections I have formed on Twitter, I would say that the educators on Twitter have created a participatory culture... a culture where everyone feels valued, supported and heard. A place where one's thinking is stretched and being pushed out of one's comfort zone is the norm not the exception. A place where the connections serve as the inspiration.  

Want a place where you can personalize your learning and professionally develop yourself while standing on line at the supermarket? Want to learn from some of the most amazing educators in the world? Want to consume, share, grow and enhance your skill set every single day? Want to avoid the Groundhog Dog experience? Want to save your career? Then the answer is simple... GET CONNECTED!