It’s been a little more than a year since I began serving as an elementary school principal, and as I reflect on my time spent in this position, one thing is clear -- this is a hard job.
Don’t get me wrong. While difficult, it is also incredibly rewarding. My district’s superintendent, as we were walking through classrooms a few weeks ago, said something that is so true -- “Being an elementary school principal is as close to being a rock star as one gets.” As an assistant principal at a middle school, students ran away from me, the disciplinarian. As an elementary principal, students run to me.
Being an elementary school principal definitely has it’s perks. Like hugs. If riches were measured in side hugs, I’d be very wealthy.
Or dozens and dozens of finger waves each day. Those of you at the elementary school level know what I’m talking about.
Or walking across campus and hearing your name spoken in unison by a group of students headed to the library or lunch. “Mr. Coley! Mr. Coley! Hi, Mr. Coley!”
Or greeting students and parents at the front gate each morning with a high five, seeing their smiling faces, eager to learn.
Or sitting in a kindergarten classroom. If you’re ever having a bad day, go sit in a kindergarten classroom for a little while. It’ll make you smile. Trust me.
Or riding tricycles with kindergarteners, as seen in the video below.
But being a principal is hard too. People often ask me, “What’s the hardest part?”
Is it the long hours? No.
Is it the stress? Definitely a stress-filled position, but no.
Is it having to handle student discipline? No. Not fun, but not the hardest part.
Is it speaking with upset parents? No. Again, definitely not fun, but not the hardest part.
For me, the hardest part of being a principal is...wait for it...
Feeling powerless. Wanting to help but not being able to do so.
I moved into administration because I had a desire to support teachers, which in turn helps students and their parents. By providing support and encouragement at this level, I have the potential to affect change on a larger scale than I could in a single classroom.
But what happens when I'm not able to help? What happens when the desire is there, but what is required is beyond my reach?
Like when teachers come to me requesting additional staffing, but such hiring decisions are out of my hands.
Or when some of our classroom computers are eight years old, and a limited budget makes the replacement process a painfully slow one.
Or when a teacher comes to me needing a new lamp for her LCD projector, but the lamps I've ordered over a month ago haven't yet arrived and there are none available to borrow.
Or when parents come to me with legitimate safety concerns regarding our parking lot, yet those concerns stem from other parents not following the rules or being courteous. How do I mandate manners?
Or when a teacher asks me to work with that hard-to-reach student, but none of the tricks in my bag are working.
This is the hardest part of my job. Wanting to help but lacking the expertise or resources to do so. It’s frustrating.
I sometimes wonder if I’m making a difference, if I’m being a good leader. Last week a student handed me this note at dismissal time.
I must be doing something right.
I recently heard a story about three high school siblings who experienced a rarity in education -- all three students had the same teacher during the same semester. Different grade levels and different classes, but they all had the same teacher. For the sake of this story, we'll call him Mr. Smith.
One day, the three students' parents received a phone call from Mr. Smith letting them know that one of the students had fallen asleep during his class that day. Of course, this led to a conversation that evening between Mom, Dad, and the sleepy student. When the other two children, both well-behaved and high-achieving students, heard about what had happened, each of them shared their thoughts on the matter by saying, "I wish I could sleep in Mr. Smith's class."
So here's a question. How many of the three students would you say were engaged during Mr. Smith's class? For this question, we'll define engaged as being "into" the lessons being taught. How many students? Two? The ones not sleeping in class?
I contend that the answer is probably zero. None of the students.
Yes, the other two students weren't sleeping in Mr. Smith's class, but why not? Because they were engaged by his lessons? No. Both students indicated this wasn't the case, stating they wished they too could catch a few winks during Mr. Smith's class. No, more likely, the students weren't sleeping in class because they're "good" students who've been taught that sleeping in class is a no-no. Good students are supposed to pay attention in class, follow directions, and complete assignments on time. Because that's what good students do.
How often do we as educators mistake compliance for engagement? How often do we misinterpret quiet, on-task behavior as genuine engagement? Integrity has been defined as how one acts when no one is watching. Genuine student engagement is like integrity -- it will continue to be present even when the teacher isn't watching. Have you ever taught a lesson your students were so into that they lost track of time, forgetting they were supposed to go to recess or lunch? Think of those times when students asked to continue learning not because they had to but because they wanted to. That's the goal. That's genuine student engagement.
When I was teaching, I'm sure there were times when I mistook compliance for engagement. I had good classroom management. I ran a fun, structured classroom where students followed the rules and were on task. But does that mean all of my students were engaged, really "into" the learning, all of the time? Unfortunately, no. How often did I observe simple compliance from my students because I failed to truly engage them? How often did I observe counterfeit engagement?
Genuine student engagement occurs when a teacher is deliberate in his/her attempt to involve students in their learning, rather than simply treating them as passive vessels into which we pour knowledge. It occurs when students take ownership of their learning. It occurs when worksheets are replaced with meaningful tasks, when students are asked to create rather than complete. It occurs when students aren't asked to always sit through a lecture but are instead allowed to use technology to collaborate and connect with their peers, to learn together.
How will you genuinely engage your students today?
In two days I’ll be heading to Palm Springs to attend the annual Computer-Using Educators (CUE) Conference. I always look forward to mid-March and the opportunity to travel to the desert to be among other like-minded educators who come to learn about cutting-edge technologies and strategies to increase student learning through the use of educational technology. And if past events are any indication, while I’m at the conference this year I will hear, at least once, someone say something like “You still use PowerPoint?” (said with incredulity and rolling eyes) or “I can’t believe anyone still uses PowerPoint.”
Well, I have a confession to make. I still use PowerPoint. <gasp>
What?! You still use PowerPoint, Brent? Yep. I still use PowerPoint, and here’s why – because sometimes PowerPoint is still the most appropriate tool for the job, just like good old-fashioned paper and pencil are sometimes the best tools for the job.
Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t use PowerPoint for everything. I believe PowerPoint can be overused and misused, that “death by PowerPoint” is much too common. I agree that using a presentation with a bunch of slides filled with too much text is not a great way to increase student (or staff) engagement and therefore maximize learning. But there are times when a PowerPoint (or Keynote) presentation can help get the job done, especially when you embed video and/or other engaging elements into the presentation.
What about Prezi? Many would say Prezi is way more visually appealing than PowerPoint, and I would agree. But the question that needs to be asked is this – What are you trying to achieve in your presentation? Yes, Prezi is very flashy, and I think it’s a pretty slick presentation tool. But one must be careful not to overshadow a presentation’s content with its packaging.
A few years ago I attended a church that, for a time, used Prezi to display the lyrics to the songs we sang during worship. Did those lyrics look cool up on the big screen? You bet. Words were spinning in and out, changing color with each verse. It was very impressive. The problem? I frequently found myself paying more attention to trying to guess what the next transition effect was going to be than focusing on what the words of the song were saying, on worshiping Jesus. The flashy method of delivery took away from the content. It was distracting.
In the right situation, I think Prezi can be the perfect tool. There are so many great presentation tools out there like Prezi, Haiku Deck, Keynote, and Google Slides, each with its strengths. But my point is this – the task should always determine the tool. Putting up a new fence in your backyard? A hammer is a great tool for the job. But it’s not the right tool for every home improvement project. One size doesn’t fit all, in home improvement as well as technology.
Rather than demonizing PowerPoint, dismissing it as an archaic tool, let’s remember that for some, creating a PowerPoint presentation is a giant step forward in integrating technology in the classroom. We’re all at different points along the spectrum of technology use in education. Let’s celebrate each other’s successes and help each other grow.
Yesterday I had the privilege of talking education with the amazing Bedley Brothers, Tim and Scott. Both men are amazing educators (County Teachers of the Year, Tim in 2013 and Scott in 2014), but more than that, they are incredible people and friends. If you're not yet aware of their YouTube educational talk show, it is definitely something you need to check out. Each week, Tim, Scott, and a guest talk about issues at the forefront of education. Their list of past guests includes Robert Marzano, Daniel Pink, Rick Morris, Angela Maiers, Catlin Tucker, Vicki Davis and Dave Burgess -- amazing leaders in the field of teaching and learning. Not sure how I made it on the guest list, but I was honored to be able to chat with Tim and Scott for a few minutes.
For about 20 minutes, we talked about lessons learned from our students, Common Core, EdCamps, and water bottles. What? Water bottles? Yep, water bottles. You can watch our conversation below.
UPDATE: Two days after writing this blog post, it was announced that unfortunately, Bump would be shut down effective January 31, 2014. More information can be found at here.
There are a ton of great productivity apps out there, and in this post I want to tell you about Bump, one of my favorites. Recently acquired by Google, it's free and is available for both iPhone and Android.
There are two main things Bump can do for you. First, it enables you to instantly transfer items from your phone (your contact information, other contacts, pictures, videos, and documents) to a friend’s phone. Once the Bump app is installed on both phones, you and your friend simply open the app on each of your phones, select what you want to share with your friend’s phone, and gently “bump” the phones together (they don’t even have to touch – you just simulate a bumping motion near the other phone). That’s it! You both simply tap the “Connect” button that will appear on your phone’s screen, and your contact, picture, or file is instantly transferred to your friend’s phone (or vice versa). Oh, and it’s cross-platform, meaning it works iPhone to iPhone, Android to Android, iPhone to Android, and Android to iPhone.
But it's the second feature of Bump that, in my opinion, makes this app an absolute must-have. In addition to sharing pictures with a friend's phone, you can also go to www.bu.mp and use your phone’s Bump app to transfer photos from your phone to your computer by simply bumping your phone on the space bar. No more having to email yourself photos from your phone in order to get them onto your computer! As a principal, I frequently use my phone to snap pictures of things around campus (e.g. a picture for the school website, great student artwork, a photo of an area on campus that needs repair), so using Bump in this way is a huge time saver when I need to get pictures from my phone to my computer. Watch the short video below to see how this feature works.
If you're like me and use your phone to take pictures, I highly encourage you to check out Bump to make transferring those pictures to your computer a snap (a bump actually). Again, the app is free and available for both iPhone and Android. You can go to your phone’s app store to download the app or follow the links below:
iPhone – https://itunes.apple.com/app/bump/id305479724?mt=8
Android – https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.bumptech.bumpga
If you've read my blog before, you know I'm a big fan of Google Forms. In this post, I want to share how I'm using this powerful tool to help me be more productive in the area of parent communication.
This year, I have created a Google Form that I use as a Parent Contact Log. Each time I speak with a parent about a student or school-related issue, whether initiated by me or the parent, I document our conversation with this online form. The fields in my form include the date, parent's name, student's name, and a section for brief notes about our conversation (the form automatically time stamps each entry, but I manually enter the date of the conversation in case I make the entry at a later time). What I love about this form is that entries are automatically populated in a Google spreadsheet attached to the form. I could document these conversations in an old-school notebook, but by having all the entries in a spreadsheet, I can then sort conversations by parent, student, or date. I speak with a lot of parents, so having an easy-to-reference log of these conversations is extremely helpful. Below is a screenshot of the form I use.
Whether you're a teacher or administrator, you know that speaking with parents is a common part of the job. If you're not already doing so, give Google Forms a try and see how they can help you be more productive. If you're not sure how to create a Google Form, you can easily learn how by watching my Google Forms tutorial videos.
Well, it’s been a while. With my new position, I’ve had little extra time to blog. Shoot, I’ve had little extra time, period. But that’s a post for another day. While I typically write about teaching and educational technology, this post will be a little different. Consider it my attempt to discuss something close to my heart, to inform others about a common misconception.
I like to be organized. For those who know me, that is not a surprising statement. A structured, organized environment contributes to my productiveness and peace of mind. My classroom was always this way. I didn’t like clutter, and everything had a spot. My bulletin boards and the student work displayed on them were always straight and level. I used to endure friendly ribbing for using a level to make sure my bulletin boards looked just right (which I thought was funny, because those who initially teased soon became the ones asking to borrow the level). Now that I’ve moved into administration, I like my office to be the same way – neat and organized, two things that help me be more productive.
Over the past several years, when commenting on my neat classroom or office, I’ve had many, many people say things to me like:
“Yeah, I have to be neat too. I’m totally OCD that way.”
“I need to clean off my desk. My OCD is kicking in.”
In our society, I think there’s a large misconception about OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder). It’s a term that gets casually thrown around without much thought being given to what it actually is, because most people don’t know what it really is. On the other hand, consider mental retardation (now referred to as intellectual disability). That’s a term that doesn’t get thrown around too often, because most people have a general idea of what it means. Think of it this way…If you made a mistake while completing a task, would you say, “I’m so retarded” to those around you? I don’t think so. Why not? Because you know what intellectual disability/mental retardation is, and you know you’re not a person who has that impairment. Plus, you know (hopefully) this is a comment that would be highly offensive to those individuals who do have this impairment, as well as to their families. So why then do people off-handedly say they have OCD, when chances are, they don’t? Wouldn’t this be offensive to those affected by OCD?
So, what is OCD? Many use the term to describe people who like things neat and organized, but this is the misconception. Just because someone likes things to be tidy (even really, really tidy), it doesn’t mean he/she has OCD. OCD is an anxiety disorder. People who are affected by it are plagued by intrusive thoughts that produce uneasiness, apprehension, fear, or worry. They engage in repetitive behaviors aimed at reducing the associated fear or anxiety, even when the fear, anxiety, or behavior is irrational. Having OCD means so much more than being a “neat freak.”
You see, I have a personal connection to this subject. I have a loved one who has been diagnosed with OCD. For several years, I have struggled to support this person who has suffered from crippling anxiety, fear, and worry. I’ve watched as the person’s mind gets “stuck,” obsessing about things that rationally don’t warrant that kind of worry, and feeling compelled to behave in ways that won’t take the worry away. I’ve seen how this disorder can absolutely paralyze a person. Thankfully, with prayer and the aide of family and an excellent therapist, my loved one has learned to manage OCD.
So why did I write this post? To make anyone who has ever incorrectly used the term OCD feel guilty? Absolutely not. I’ve put my foot in my mouth, made comments without having all the facts more times than I want to admit. No, my goal is simply to educate, to let others know that OCD is more than a propensity for order and neatness. It’s something individuals and their families all over the world struggle with on a daily basis. I ask simply that we grant the disorder and the people it affects the respect they deserve.
Brent has worked in the field of education as a teacher and administrator for 25 years. He is currently Principal of Alta Murrieta Elementary School in Murrieta, California. Read more about Brent here.
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