Thursday, January 22, 2004

Soldiers, Leaders, Teachers

Like a schoolyard blog, I like this list of leadership lessons from a soldier in Iraq. I'd say it applies both for administrators leading teachers, and for teachers leading students:

1. In my classroom, I've been known to tell groups that were arguing, "You need to work this out by talking and listening to each other respectfully. I'm going to go help another group now, but I'll come back in a few minutes to check on you. By that time, I expect you to have found a solution." It would make my life soooo much easier if kids learned to sort out their problems without resort to the referee... er, teacher.

My principal lets us all take on projects, make mistakes, correct them. She's not perfect, but she definitely gives us both the latitude and support to take risks and learn from our mistakes.

2. I would translate this for the classroom: Don't say anything you aren't prepared to back up with action!

3. No student should EVER fail without some notification in advance that she or he is doing poorly. We send mid-semester progress reports home to inform parents and students of where they stand. Not every child responds, but some definitely kick into high gear, looking for extra credit opportunities or just cleaning up their act in general. It's only fair to give families of failing students enough warning to prepare themselves and perhaps change the situation. And, if anything, it covers your ass!

In my old school, I never knew what my administration thought of my teaching (honestly, I don't think they thought about my teaching very often!). I got observed once or twice a year, and official reports were typed up based on those observations, but I really wanted more constant, reality-based feedback. Formal observations were treated as a performance - my AP told me my first year to invite her to observe my best class on a day when I had a very good lesson planned. That was important for a good formal observation, but I would have liked her to drop in from time to time and give me some lower-stakes feedback. In my new school, we get more of that, and we are pretty open-doors, but it's still not enough. One of the best things about the Teach For America program is that the summer training includes tons of observations by peers, mentors, and supervisors, so you get pretty comfortable having people in your classroom and accepting constructive criticism. I wish all schools were like this!

4. I'm not so good at keeping my politics a mystery, especially when it comes to environment-related lessons - but I never create lesson plans just to "preach." If kids get an environmental message from my lessons, it's because they put together the information and saw its implications. When they bring up an environmental issue or a political issue, I tend to ask guiding/provocative questions. It's not totally non-partisan, but I never just get up and say, "This is what we should do." And when we do draw conclusions about something, I tend to point out what other people think, if anything to keep my young idealists from being completely disillusioned as they bump into people who disagree with them.

5. Yup. True of classroom policies, for SURE. And since kids are growing & developing, they change their attitudes towards school, behavior, etc. over the months of a school year. In NYC, it is widely accepted that sixth graders enter very innocent and sweet, but get feistier as the year goes on, becoming seventh graders, who are considered the toughest to deal with, but they slowly mature into eighth graders, who have mellowed out and know how things work and how to get along in a school. Your school environment modifies the degree of these changes, but the overall outline has been true in both schools where I have taught. So, you definitely have to review policies frequently. We've had to crack down this week, because the kids came back from the long weekend and had forgotten what school is supposed to be like!

6. For school purposes, I'd translate this: The better you plan, the better your lesson will go.

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