Monday, September 1, 2014

Now I Am An Eleven

Just last year I shared some really important news with the world - I was a nine. That's right - a NINE - not a ten or a fifteen or a twenty - a NINE! I was rated a nine out of twenty - less than half and by someone else's standards, considered barely effective. Rated "barely effective" by someone (or something) who has never seen me work, never watched me navigate my building nor asked people in my community about me as an educator. A nine! 

What am I talking about you ask? Well, last year I wrote all about how the NYS APPR and evaluation model and process had changed and my growth score, according to NYS, was a nine. Now, don't get me wrong, a nine out of twenty isn't terrible and even though it precluded me from receiving an overall highly effective rating, I was named the 2014 NYS Elementary School Principal of the Year so I must have been doing something right. Truthfully, I was fine with the nine and I had moved on... until last week when I found out I am now an ELEVEN! I should be jumping for joy, right? I moved up two points! Now I am closer to being in the middle of the effective range (albeit still closer to barely effective). Now I am more than half (11 out of 20). Now I am double digits. That's right folks, this year I have been rated an 11! Why do you ask? How did NYS come up with this number? What work did I do to be rated an 11? The truth is, I have no idea how my rating was determined but I do know that I will wear my 11 with my pride!

Ok, so I am being somewhat facetious but there is a reason for my tone - I think it is ridiculous. This portion of the educator evaluation plan, as it is being used, seems ridiculous to me. The idea of rating teachers using the Value Added Model (which has not been proven to work well) based on growth from one test to the next, which has been different every year, seems to make the process somewhat unreliable from my limited vantage point. Do we train 17 year olds on quiet side streets to get their licenses and then take them to a NASCAR race track to actually pass the road test? No! Why? Because that wouldn't be the best way to assess their skill set; the skill set that they will need to successfully navigate most of the roads and terrain types they will encounter in their driving lives. 

We can also safely say that rating educators on how children perform on ONE test, predominately composed of multiple choice questions, is not the best indicator of whether or not said educators are effective in their daily work to facilitate teaching and learning. And don't even get me started about the fact that we overwhelm children with dozens of multiple choice questions on one day and then determine whether or not they are college and career ready based on how they answered those multiple choice questions. What college or career do you know that wants really great multiple choice test takers? Not many that I know because these multiple choice questions don't necessarily tap into the readiness levels of all learners - they don't give all learners a space to show what they know.

Fortunately, there are many things that we do control in the world of education - things that can directly impact children each day to ensure that they are safe, happy and open to learning. So, in honor of my ELEVEN, here are 11 things that I think we control that can have a positive daily impact on children...

1) Educators need to take the time to establish relationships with the children in their space because effective instruction can be built on functional relationships rooted in trust and respect. There is research that speaks to the impact of positive relationships on student academic performance! 

2) One size fits all instructional approaches and techniques do not work so differentiate in whatever ways possible to give all children access to learning regardless of readiness levels. And I am not going to sit atop my soapbox and tell you what differentiation looks like because I think effective differentiation is one of the most challenging feats to accomplish but please, oh please, for the children who need "enrichment" don't just give them more work! Differentiate in ways that are meaningful to you and your students.

3) Educators should try really hard to love their students and create a safe haven for them because school should be the place where children feel protected, valued and empowered!

4) Failure, for all learners, students and educators alike, should be embraced as an opportunity to learn, grow and enhance your skill set. Don't punish learners who fail - celebrate the learners who are willing to take risks and think outside of the box.

5) Educators should try and give children some time during the week to research, explore or think about the things that bring them joy and tap into their passions (i.e. - Genius Hour)... Passion Based Learning is a thing and it can help take learning to another level in any classroom or school.

6) Make your classroom, school or district a JOYFUL space because when learners are happy, they feel good about themselves and are able to more readily avail themselves to thinking, considering and ultimately learning! As educators, we should share the things that bring us joy because that can influence the tone of our learning spaces in incredible ways. I really believe that if there is no joy at the core of our learning spaces, then no matter how good our teaching is or how much we have prepared, the results will be limited.  

7) Not all children need the same thing, at the same time and that is OK! If one child needs to be rewarded as part of an intense behavior plan then go to it, even if the other children question why they aren't being rewarded. Don't forget, fair isn't always equal. This also reminds me of why things like Zero Tolerance policies don't work... each child; each situation; each variable is different and we must take the time to understand these differences before taking action.  

8) Be thoughtful about homework - don't just give it because it is what has always been done or because all the other teachers on your grade level are giving it. Give homework that is meaningful to children and then, the next day, make sure you, the educator, check it and provide meaningful feedback. If you are not going to check it or offer feedback then don't assign it. There is very little research that shows a positive correlation between homework and student performance in school yet for some reason there are many educators who still pile on the homework... why?? Just be thoughtful because for many of our children and their families after school is their only time to decompress, explore personal interests and reconnect so let's not compromise that time just because that is what we have always done!

9) Give students voice in the educational experience... let them have input in upcoming units of study... let them discuss books they have read... let them generate the rubrics used to assess their work... let them assess themselves... let them decide what activity should come next... let them give you feedback on how you are doing. As educators we should always want to get better and the best feedback will likely come from our students who live us each day!

10) Remember that not every child and family is the same. Just because one family returns everything on time, responds to your emails immediately and volunteers for every event while the other family is always late, doesn't show up and may even forget to send something in for their child's birthday don't pass any judgements -  instead, take the time to learn more. You may even need to invest more in that family who is struggling to juggle everything because you don't know what they have sacrificed to live in your community and attend your school. All the families in our communities are different and the sooner we embrace that reality, the more we can accomplish in our efforts to do what is in the best interest of children!

11) As educators we should never lose sight of what matters most... our students. Everything we do, even when it isn't easy or goes against the popular opinion, should always be in the best interest of children. 

I could certainly add many more items to this list but because I am only an ELEVEN, I think it is appropriate to stop at number eleven. You see, I may not be the best principal in the world and I may not be the most effective educator on the planet (after all, I am only an 11 out of 20) but what I do know is that we, as educators, have the ability to impact our children in incredibly positive ways each and every day based on the decisions we make in our classrooms, schools and districts. So, let's get out there and create awesome learning spaces for our children and forget about the policies and mandates that are trying to reduce us to a number. Take it from me - I am Tony Sinanis and I am an eleven!