3 Lessons I Learned Leading Startups That I Wish I Knew as a Principal

Having worked in leadership roles in both public education and in the edtech startup industry, there are three organizational behaviors that, should I go back to school or district leadership, I would implement on Day 1.  

#1:  Daily or Weekly Standups

What’s the best way to have a well-run organization (whether a school or an edtech company)?  Communicate!  Take ten minutes every morning and assemble your office staff.  Go through the day, discuss what is expected to happen that day, and give every person a chance to ask questions.  Not only will doing so ensure everyone is on the same page, everyone’s day will run smoother.  

Standups allow for daily communication.

Oh, and what’s with the “standup”?  Everyone stands up for the meeting.  There isn’t a more effective way to keep a meeting short and on-task than by making people stand up while it’s happening.

#2:  Chat

I am against intercoms in schools.  In my opinion, they are the most intrusive and abused devices in existence – completely disruptive to teaching and learning (or general sanity). Download Slack (or embrace the use of any messaging tool that your teachers already like) and let every teacher and staff member in your building use it to communicate. These tools are efficient and allow for regular communication.

I like Slack because users can create “channels” that your staff can follow (i.e. lunch duty, after school clubs, 5th-grade team, etc.).  Of course, your staff may think big brother is watching their conversations.  But, as long as conversations on your messaging system put students first, what’s the worry?  

#3:  Ring the Bell!

Make no mistake, right behind the intercom, bells are the most obnoxious systems in schools.  But, in the workplace, ringing a bell is not the way employees know when to stop doing “this” and start doing “that” like the way many schools use bells to determine when Math is over and PE begins.

Bells are a way to let people know something positive has happened somewhere in the organization.  Full disclosure, this is stolen from car dealerships who ring bells with every car sale.  But, at Otus, big or small, we ring the bell.  A code bug is squashed…ring!  A sale is made…ring!  And, more of a full disclosure, we literally ring the bell emoji in Slack (you already know how I feel about distractions).

Bottom line, find your bell.  Don’t literally ring a bell in your school, but do make a point to publicly celebrate successful moments with your staff.  Maybe send an email blast or a group chat message containing small victories from the day (a great PD session, a positive call from a parent, etc.). Everyone has bad days and by “ringing the bell” you are showing that despite your bad day, good moments are always happening at school.

This post is written by my former co-worker and current husband, Keith Westman.  Follow him on Twitter at @keithwestman.


About Keith: Dr. Keith Westman taught third grade, served as a K-8 technology coordinator and was a middle school principal during his ten years working in school districts.  He left public education to work with his childhood friend who had started an edtech company.  That company, Aspex Solutions (now part of Frontline Education), grew up to provide AppliTrack and K12JobSpot.com to thousands of school districts and millions of job seekers throughout the country. Keith is the COO of Otus, the makers of the Otus Student Performance Platform, based in Chicago’s popular Fulton Market neighborhood, and moonlights as an Adjunct Professor at DePaul University.

Teachers: Do We Appreciate One Another?

teacher appreciation graphic

This post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt’s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.

Today’s guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

Recently, my school district completed our second annual, year-long professional development program we call “mini-con.” Our theme this year was assessment, and I facilitated a course which was attended by 26 enthusiastic and dedicated professionals.

Over the year, our group spent time discussing and studying a variety of facets related to assessment. Teachers then applied their learning (individually or in teams) to create an assessment for their students. These assessments had a number of desired criteria. In short, we aimed to create assessments that:

  • authentically assessed a prioritized standard
  • had clearly defined learning intentions and success criteria which were mutually understood by the students and teacher
  • promoted student ownership

Needless to say, we were not talking about creating multiple choice tests. This was hard work.

At our last session, learning was facilitated by the participants themselves. Teachers shared a bit about their experience creating and using their new assessments. The goal was not for teachers to showcase their “best” work. Rather, this was an opportunity for teachers to ask their colleagues for feedback and answer each other’s questions.

The mini-con session was 90 minutes, and I spent the entire time sitting back and basking in the glory of what the teachers shared. There were a variety of highlights, namely the risks teachers took as they tried new ways of assessing students, how teachers collaborated with each other to analyze student work,  and how technology was integrated to formatively assess students in relevant ways. Teachers were transparent about their processes, emphasizing both celebrations and struggles.

I felt very proud of this tenacious group, and I was extraordinarily appreciative of their effort and strong will to grow as professionals.

On my ride home from work that day, I thought to myself, “How perfect that teacher appreciation week is soon. I can show these teachers how grateful I am for them.”  But, my train of thought was interrupted as I had an epiphany of sorts centered around these questions:

  1. How had I shown appreciation for teachers throughout the year?
  2. Do other teachers show appreciation for their colleagues regularly?
  3. Are our methods of showing appreciation for one another effective?

When it comes to appreciation, do we all speak the same language?
Several years ago, I read The 5 Languages of Love by Gary Chapman, and while this book primarily speaks to personal relationships, I have found the basic premise to hold true for a variety of interpersonal circumstances.

Basically, Chapman asserts there are five ways humans show affection for each other:

  • By giving gifts
  • By sharing words of affirmation
  • By spending quality time
  • Through acts of service
  • Through physical connection

Chapman goes on to explain that people have a primary and secondary love language which they use to express affection. These languages are also their preferred ways to receive affection.

Chapman cautions that just like with all languages, if two people speak different languages they may not understand each other. For example, if an individual feels affection through words of affirmation and someone gives them a gift to show their love, the recipient may not feel loved just by the receiving the gift alone.

Therefore, if we want to make sure our feelings for each other are properly communicated, we need to speak the same language. I can give a gift if that is my love language, but if the recipient of my gift speaks the language of words of affirmation, I need to also include a thoughtful note or explanation. Chapman suggests watching how others show affection toward others to figure out how they prefer to receive love.

OK, but how do love languages relate to teacher appreciation?
Results of a new study, Teacher Job Satisfaction and Student Achievement: The Roles of Teacher Professional Community and Teacher Collaboration in Schools published in The American Journal of Education conclude that a positive school culture and teacher collaboration are essential for student achievement. Additionally, a recent article in Forbes Magazine cites evidence from multiple studies all which indicate employees who feel appreciated are more productive and have more positive feelings about their work/workplace than those who feel unappreciated.

And, it is here where teacher appreciation and the 5 Languages of Love intersect. As stated, studies show employees who feel appreciated have stronger performance than those who do not feel appreciated.

When surveyed, teachers consistently report feeling underappreciated (OECD).  This leaves me wondering something: how many attempts at showing appreciation go unfelt because the wrong “love” language was unknowingly used to express gratitude?

Probably many. But, there is more to this than just using the right language.
Teachers most frequently say they feel unappreciated by society and administration.  And, it is easy to look outward at factors we cannot control, we can’t make society appreciate us. But, when we look inward, we must ask, what part do we, teachers, play in creating a culture of appreciation?

Sometimes we get so caught up in how busy we are and how physically and mentally demanding teaching is that we forget to show appreciation for others who do the same strenuous job.

Then, we have weeks like this one (Teacher Appreciation Week) where teachers across the country are showered with sweet treats in the teacher’s lounge, and are given tokens of appreciation from students, parents, and administrators. But, how many of us take the time to show genuine appreciation for each other on a regular basis?

When we consider ways to improve school culture and create positive, collaborative environments which ultimately benefit students, we often look to our district’s administration or the government to foster conducive conditions. Yet, we overlook the vital role we (teachers) play, individually and collectively, in contributing to a positive school climate.

So, in the spirit of teacher appreciation week and along the lines of the 5 Languages of Love, this week, take a step back and observe your colleagues. How are they expressing their gratitude toward others? Are they sharing words of affirmation, giving gifts, offering service?  Once you determine your co-worker’s language of love, consider these 5 ways to show appreciation for your teaching colleague(s) every day of the year:

  • By giving gifts- surprise your colleague with breakfast.
  • By sharing words of affirmation- Acknowledge what you appreciate about your colleague and share the specifics in an email, note, or in person. “I appreciate how you always keep our team student focused…”
  • By spending quality time: Look at your PLC meetings as quality time. During a meeting, share an example of something you have successfully implemented with your students which you learned from one of your PLC members.
  • Through acts of service: cover your colleague’s extra duty or make copies for them, because you value them, not because they asked.
  • Through physical connection- smile at your colleagues when you see them, everyday.

How else will you show appreciation for your colleagues? Share your ideas and more importantly, share the results. How has showing appreciation for each other impacted your school’s culture?

Questions about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.

4 Phrases All Teachers Say and No Students Understand

shift-focus-graphic-finalThis post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt’s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.

Today’s guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

Before I had children, I had no idea just how crucial explicit directions are for their understanding. Case in point, the time my son took his first independent shower. It seemed simple enough. I told him to “take and shower,” and then asked him, “do you know what to do?”

He responded with a resounding, “yes!”

Ok, then! I turned on the water, set it to the right temperature, and proudly waited outside the bathroom door for him. So, imagine my surprise when he came out of the bathroom dripping wet, with shampoo in his hair, and soap on his face, trying to wrap a towel around himself.

I was reminded of this incident while attending an inspirational and thought-provoking workshop led by George Couros, author of The Innovator’s Mindset last week. At one point, George showed us a video clip of a dad telling his young son to “keep his eye on the ball,” and the little boy literally put his eye on the ball.

I started to think about all of the ambiguous things educators say to students with the assumption our students share an understanding with us:

“Study.”

“Work in your groups.”

“Finish your work.”

“Behave.”

More importantly, I started to think about how often we believe we have given students clear directives and put the onus on them meet these vague expectations. Then, if our students do not meet these expectations, we allow ourselves to make convenient excuses, “I told them to study. They didn’t.  I can’t do that for them.”

“Is what we teach as important as how we teach?”
Couros asked us to think about this question during his workshop. As an instructional coach, my focus is on instruction. I strongly believe that regardless of the content, good instruction is good instruction. So, my inclination was to answer, “how.”

But, as I pondered this question more deeply, I believe the answer is actually, “both.” Part of high-quality instruction is offering the right content for individual learners. And,  part of high-quality instruction requires us to be explicit in our communication and flexible in our implementation.

To avoid using vague phrases like those stated above we need to shift our focus from the action (study) to the desired outcome (learn). We can accomplish this shift by implementing the research of John Hattie (Visible Learning For Teachers).  Hattie has found certain criteria to have a greater impact on student growth than others. Strategies with an effect size of .4 for or above are proven to result in a year’s growth for a year’s (appropriate) use. For example, take a look at these four shifts.

Instead of asking students to study, focus on how they learn. (Metacognition .69)

Unfortunately for me, I didn’t understand how I learn best until I became an adult learner, and was given the autonomy to “study” as I saw fit. As it turns out, making flashcards and writing outlines were not the most effective strategies for me. But, creating mind maps and visual depictions are highly effective for me.

With the availability of research about learning, our students have the opportunity to ascertain how they learn best now, as children. The key is for educators to recognize and embrace the fact that all students do not react the same way to all learning strategies. Therefore, we should avoid requiring students use a certain strategy (take notes), and instead, expose our students to a variety of learning strategies and help them determine what strategies were helpful or not.  Then, we can tap into this knowledge to choose/differentiate learning strategies for subsequent learning activities.

Instead of asking students to work in groups, offer them structure. (Cooperative Learning .59)

Contrary to popular belief, group work is not synonymous with cooperative learning. To ensure all students in a group benefit from learning activities, all group members must have equal and active participation and opportunities to learn. This goes beyond setting roles for students in groups (sorry, the timekeeper does not have the same learning opportunity as the discussion leader).

There are multiple ways you can encourage true cooperative learning. Hattie recommends jigsawing content amongst groups to be later shared. This suggestion, however, assumes the learning intentions and success criteria are clear (see below).

Another way to ensure true cooperative learning is to provide structured ways for groups to run, like Kagan Structures. As an instructional coach, I have collaborated with teachers to implement such structures and seen remarkable student growth from tweaking just this one piece.

Instead of asking students to finish their work, provide explicit learning intentions and success criteria (Teacher Clarity .75)

Hattie coins the terms “learning intentions” and “success criteria” in Visible Learning. He uses what has become one of my favorite analogies to describe the need for clear learning intentions and success criteria:

“Imagine if I were simply to ask to get in your car and drive; at some unspecified time, I will let you know when you have successfully arrived (if you arrive at all). For too many students, this is what learning feels like.”

When we tell students to finish their work without providing them with the specific learning intentions and a concrete example of success criteria, while it may feel like we have set clear expectations, students, more often than not, do not know what they need to do to finish their work. Therefore, it is crucial for teachers and students have a shared understanding of the learning intentions and success criteria.

Instead of asking students to behave, focus on building rapport (Teacher-Student Relationships .72)

It is easy to believe we have strong relationships with students just by having their best interest at heart. And, perhaps there is some truth to that. But the question is, what type of relationship is it?

Because of the inherent age and status differences between teachers and students, many teacher-student relationships revolve around compliance and one-way respect (student respects the teacher).  But, genuine relationships require both parties to equally commit to building trust which ultimately leads to respect.  The teacher and the student must also show vulnerability, be transparent, and approachable.  Again, because of the inherent age difference between teachers and students, it is the obligation of the teacher to model these qualities.

“Behave” is a non-specific directive often used in response to a variety of actions: disruptions, fidgeting, yelling out, fighting, etc. The root of these actions is what really needs to be addressed, rather than demanding students “behave” which is unlikely to result in any sustainable change. Contrarily, when authentic teacher-student relationships are established, teachers and students are more likely to discuss the issues and create effective action plans.

In the end, these are just four phrases of what is probably a long list of things we say that don’t clearly communicate intentions to students. What other ambiguous statements have you said in the past and how have you adapted your practice? Please share; I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Questions or comments about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.

 

Teachers Make The Worst Parents

parent-communication-hacks

This post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt’s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.

Today’s guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

(This is part one of a two part series of posts on parents).

My husband and I are both educators, and as luck would have it our oldest child is the student who educators commonly refer to as “that kid.”  From the moment he was born, our son has been strong-willed, inquisitive, and likes to push the limits (we have no idea where he gets this from).

Teachers often describe our son as “spirited” or “rambunctious,” and he frequently gets in “trouble” at school. In fact, our son got in trouble in his very first classroom setting: the hospital nursery. Yep, that’s right. Our newborn was “kicked-out” of the nursery after a brief 45-minute stay because he was bothering the other babies by crying too loudly.

As he has grown, our son has maintained this dynamic personality, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. We appreciate his sense of humor, and ability to engage in lively debates. However, we also recognize that our son defies the definition of a “good” student and can be perceived as a challenge. Because of this, my husband and I become closely acquainted with our son’s teachers over the years. And, while it pains me to admit, at times my husband and I have been “those parents.”

Difficult parents are part of the job for educators. During my career, I have certainly had my fair share of “those students” and “those parents” (you can read about one of those incidents here). But, education is no different than any other profession. Just as doctors have difficult patients and businessmen have difficult clients, teachers encounter difficult customers as well. The key to successful relationships with difficult clients (parents in this case) is to determine what the parent wants and then try to deliver.

But, what do parents want?
Distinguished educators and authors, Todd Whitaker and Douglas Fiore, make a simple claim in their book, Dealing With Difficult Parents. They assert that all parents want the same thing: what is best for their child. However, problems arise because parents don’t always know what is best for their child or how to communicate this desire.

Whitaker and Doulas present profiles (single parent, economically disadvantaged, etc.) and behaviors (yelling, defending their children, unresponsiveness) of demanding parents. None of these groups or actions describe my husband and me. We fall into an entirely different category of difficult parents, perhaps, a much more undesirable bunch. We belong to the category of parents who are also educators.

Ideally, parents and educators are partners in the education of their children. So, in theory, a teacher-parent would make for a perfect partner. But, many times, the opposite occurs as teachers (myself included) feel threatened by educator parents.

Why do teachers feel threatened by educator parents?
Whitaker and Douglas address the notion of teacher defensiveness when they encounter difficult parents. The authors write:

“If we are truly caring people, then as teachers, principals, and superintendents, we should never feel defensive when we deal with parents. We might feel awkward, uncomfortable, intimidated, but we should not feel defensive. If we are making all of our decisions based on what is best for students, then this defensiveness should not be occurring. If we do feel defensive, then it is probably because we, or someone we are attempting to support, has done something wrong.”

The Best Defense is A Strong Offense
And, the best offensive play for educators is effective communication. Peter DeWitt, author of Collaborative Leadership, (yes, I am a guest writer for his blog. No, he didn’t ask me to plug his book; I am plugging his book because it’s awesome) writes: “Make sure you use positive words when talking about students, teachers, and school. It may sound silly to offer this advice, but we hear one positive for every ten negative statements.”

This statement is so true, yet we often don’t realize the words (or the tone) we use are negative. Take the two examples below which both address our son’s inability to focus/engage in learning. Notice how word choice and tone contribute to the message:

Example #1: “Your son has demonstrated an increased attitude of disengagement in classroom activities (whole group, small group, and independent work). He selectively chooses what he will and will not participate in. As I stated in his progress report, “it is a goal for him to become more invested in his learning.”

Example #2: “Good morning! I wanted to let you know that your son received a card change in library this morning for not engaging in the lesson. When he and I chatted about it after he returned to class, he said that he was having a hard time focusing today since he found the lesson to be boring since he already knew the information. I was impressed that he was able to openly talk about how he is feeling and just wanted to keep you in the loop. I will continue to help him practice effective problem solving and from what your son tells me, I know you are doing the same at home.”

Our son presented with the same issue. The teachers responded differently, and so did we.

With example #1, we responded with a battery of questions for the teacher. What interventions had been put in place? What was different about the activities he was choosing to participate in? How did she know it was a choice? Whose goal was it for our son to become more engaged, his or the teacher’s?

With example #2, we responded with gratitude. We felt like we had a genuine partnership with the teacher. In spite of the fact we detested the school’s mandated public shaming system (card changes), we were able to get past our negative feelings because we were so appreciative of the teacher’s positive and collaborative approach.

Reading this back now, I can see the difficult parent in myself in example #1. I can see why the teacher became defensive. We put her in the hot seat.  But, as Whitaker and Fiore report, we acted the way we did because we wanted what was best for our child. And, perhaps, as Whitaker and Fiore suggest, our line of questioning caused the teacher to feel defensive because she knew she had done something wrong.

In reflecting on my reactions to my children’s teachers over the years, I have developed a list of items to consider when communicating with educator parents (and all parents for that matter).

Rather than listing attributes of the child, what concrete examples of behavior, academic, and social-emotional behavior can I share?

  • How can I best communicate the steps I have taken thus far?
  • How can I best communicate my plan moving forward?
  • How can I show (not tell) the parent I want to partner with them in the learning process?
  • How can I positively report negative actions?
  • How can I ensure I am proactively communicating with parents?
  • How can I mitigate the fact that this parent may (subconsciously) feel jealous that I get to teach her child?

This list is not comprehensive and we surely need to consider each parent situation individually, but it’s a start. What works for you when working with difficult parents? I encourage you to share your experiences so we can all grow as educators and parents.

Questions or comments about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.