We’re Better Together: The Power of the PLN


Whether it was fate or just perfect timing, I will never know, but I could not have asked for better motivation this morning than #LeadUpChat. On Friday I am presenting about the power of a PLN to a group of elementary principals at MESPA’s annual Fall Conference. My goal is to illustrate the importance of developing a strong PLN and support participants in this effort by showing them how to begin with Twitter and Voxer.

I have been reflecting a lot about my presentation and had set aside time today to put those thoughts in motion. Coffee in hand, I sat at the kitchen table, opened my computer and decided to get some motivation from my PLN by hopping on Twitter for a bit! Here was the Tweet that flew across my feed:


As we began the exhilarating, all-be-it intense hour, my introductory remarks began to take shape and then it hit me. Why am I starting my presentation speaking about my PLN? Why not let my PLN speak for me? I grabbed several of the Tweets that resonated with me and put together a slideshow of their words that screamed the importance of a PLN from the rooftops. Here are some of the highlights:

  • @lauriemeston writes: Yes! I’ve learned more in the last year supported by my PLN than I have in previous 30 yrs in eduction.
  • @brmohr writes: I also love that I can learn from my PLN anytime of the day or week – from all over the country
  • @PrincipalOgg writes: We help each other out when we can. We develop a growth mindset of learning and helping each other reach their goals.
  • @AmyHeavin writes: Through our conversation, we share insights & ideas. When we act on those ourselves, we grow. When we share others grow too!

In the presentation (click here to download it in its entirety – it’s only 3.5 minutes) which will be my opening remarks Friday, there are 50 quotes representing NINETEEN states and three COUNTRIES!!!! What more powerful message do I need than that? In the past, to learn from that diverse of an audience, I would have had to spend hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars to go to a national conference. The power of PD in 2015 is that your PLN is there for you when you need them 24/7. The PLN breaks down, no smashes down, the walls of isolation in what can be a very isolating career.

PS: If anyone knows how to get a Power Point presentation to play as a movie WITH the music, please share your expertise in the comments below. I can save it as a Quicktime movie but the audio does not convert with it.



Do I Follow My Own Advice?

I enjoyed reading Justin Tarte’s (@justintarte) blog post “The journey continues…” describing his pathway to administration. He is embarking on his first administrative role and his post solicits advice from current, retired or aspiring administrators. As a fellow educator who took the same plunge 4 years ago, I can empathize with his feelings and shared some thoughts with him I hope will be helpful.

For the last hour I can not stop wondering; Do I follow my own advice? Below is what I shared with Justin; an evaluation of my own efforts is in italics. Looks like I have some work to do : )

*Work to find the balance between work and your personal life – Area for Needed Growth: While this is always a goal, friends and family alike would tell you this is not a strength of mine. With July 1 comes a gym membership near my new school to get the ball rolling. I have been told that yoga should be required for school administrators : )

*Schedule time for walk-throughs – it is the most important time in your calendar. Exemplary: One hour a day is scheduled and my administrative assistant knows this is sacred time in my calendar so things are rarely (if ever) scheduled during these times.

*Stick to the schedule you created in #2. Satisfactory: Depending on the time of year, I am very dedicated to getting into teacher classrooms as I believe this is a critical component of my role as the instructional leader. Next year, I hope to manage my time better during the “busy seasons” so I can maintain this dedication all year long.

*Open door policies are only as effective as your response to the constant requests for, “Do you have a minute?” Exemplary: My response invariably is, “You can have more than one!” When I was a teacher, I regularly sought out the advice of my Principal (@bwittcoff). Her willingness to take the time to talk and reflect with me helped me become a better educator. I want to be the same support to the teachers with whom I work and work hard to make sure they believe my door is always open.

*Model what you believe in in terms of best practices. Exemplary: I work hard to “practice what I preach” in terms of my expectations of teachers and am a firm believer in leading by example.

*Find time to spend time with kids so they know you before they come down to your office. Satisfactory: The kids are my favorite part of the job – from high fives as they walk off the bus, to spending time in classrooms or at recess, the success of a day can be measured in the number of interactions I have with kids. Though establishing and maintaining relationships with kids is a strength of mine, this is still an area I need to spend more time on in the next school year.

*Find opportunities to teach because you will miss it : ) Exemplary: When I first became an administrator, I missed teaching and having my own classroom. As I grew in the position, I found that my definition of ‘teaching’ changed. I began to see conversations with others as teaching – discipline meetings with students, parent meetings discussing a child’s needs, conversations with teachers about lessons, a child study meeting with a teacher. When my lens of teaching expanded, I realized that almost every part of my day could be considered ‘teaching’. I do still enjoy participating in my ‘old’ definition of teaching and do this regularly through Student Council meetings, faculty meetings and weekly Community Meetings.

*Ask questions, ask questions, ask questions, ask questions… Exemplary: “Phone a friend”  and “Two+ heads are better than one” are words I live by!

*When making a decision, first take time to listen to the stakeholders involved and then explain your values and philosophy behind your decision. Exemplary: This lesson learned from my former principal will never be forgotten. When making a decision I think some members of the community will not agree with, I try to preempt the phone calls with a communication stating the values and philosophy behind the dcision. Click here for an example.

*Have fun! Exemplary: I absolutely love what I do and can frequently be heard stating, “How can you not be happy working in an elementary school?”

Like Justin, I will be transitioning into a new position as the principal of a K-5 school in MA on July 1. I am hoping that this pause for reflection will inspire me to work towards following my own advice more often. I encourage you to visit Justin’s blog and give him advice as he embarks on this next chapter on his journey as an educator. I then encourage you to reflect on whether you follow your own advice – it is time well spent!

Reflecting on Traditional Evaluations – Time Well Spent or Mandated Time Sucker? You Decide

I just spent the better part of my vacation week writing teacher final evaluations. Each evaluation took on average three hours to write well. Take into account the time spent prior to that on organizing meetings, conducting the meetings, watching the lesson and cleaning up the scripting, beginning to end the process takes close to ten hours of time for each teacher! An evaluator can’t help but wonder – is it time well spent or is it a mandated time sucker?

Sounds like a nice way to spend a vacation, huh? I have only myslef to blame. Each year I set a new goal that I will space them out over the course of the year. This year I did one in January – progress right? As we said about our beloved Red Sox here in Boston as last season wrapped up, next year is the year!

As I was writing, I couldn’t get a recent Kim Marshall workshop out of my mind. The administrators in my district traveled to hear him speak about mini-observations. Marshall developed a framework by which teachers are evaluated based on frequent, short mini-observations as opposed to the one-shot-deal approach of many of the traditional models. Needless to say our district has the one-shot-deal approach in which I observe a teacher conduct an isolated lesson and write the evaluation based on that one 45-60 minute lesson. I admire the efforts my current district is taking to bring teachers and administrators together in a working group to analyze the research surrounding teacher evaluation and work together to do this process better.

Until then, however, we continue with the old model. So back to Marshall’s conference. He opens by asking the crowd (mostly administrators) to raise their hand if they were evaluated under the traditional one-shot-deal approach. Most participants raise their hand. He then asks the crowd to raise their hand if this traditional approach significantly changed their teacher practice. At the workshop I attended only five (of 250!!!) raised their hand! As an administrator relatively new to this role in my fourth year, I was shocked. Really? Only 2% of the attendees benefited from the current evaluation method I was asked to use each year?

Part of the reason I was shocked was because I was one of the five who raised their hand. When asked by Marshall what worked for me, I actually ended up making his point! As a young practitioner, new to the teaching field, I had a lot of questions and felt as though I was in a constant state of inquiry. In my principal (Twitter @bwittcoff) I found someone who was willing first to listen and then to process and to reflect. Most importantly, I found someone who was willing to challenge me and stretch my thinking to help me become a better teacher. These conversations however did not just take place during my formal observations. They took place throughout the year and were part of an ongoing dialogue about teaching and learning. I grew as a teacher and changed my practice because of frequent feedback, frequent dialog and constant reflection.

Marshall’s book, Rethinking Teacher Supervision and Evaluation: How to Work Smart, Build Collaboration and Close the Achievement Gap, opens in the introduction with two powerful quotes:

  • “Principal evaluation of teachers is a low-leverage strategy for improving schools, particularly in terms of the time it requires of principals.” Richard DuFour and Robert Marzano
  • “Write-ups have low to medium leverage on influencing teacher practice.” John Saphier

As I wrote my evaluations this year, I wondered, will these write-ups make a difference? Will they influence teacher practice? If the research holds true, the document probably will not. The conversations we had in the post-conference were probably more powerful but only if that conversation was one in a long stream of reflections on teaching and learning over the course of the year. I am frequently in teacher’s classroom – at the minimum once a week for at least three to five minutes. Where I need to stretch myself is in those follow-up conversations that provide feedback and foster reflection after most visits.

I am interested to hear your thoughts on my reflection question that is currently at the forefront of my reflection:

How can principals provide frequent, timely feedback to teachers most effectively?