Sunday, November 10, 2013

Walked a Mile

The American Proverb, “Don’t judge a man, until you’ve walked a mile in his boots,” proved very powerful for me this past week.  I wasn’t judging anyone of course, however, I was asking a lot of my teachers regarding the implementation of our new Reading and Language Arts curriculum.  I was asking for “implementation with fidelity” without being able to fully empathize with their perspectives.  I found that I truly wasn’t providing the instructional leadership that I desire as a principal.   I found that many of the challenges that I was hearing were consistent across each grade level.  I decided that the limits that I was unintentionally placing on myself as an instructional leader were going to be days of the past.  I encouraged (and begged), a fifth grade teacher to allow me to fully plan and implement a weeks worth of our new English and Language Arts curriculum materials.  I will forever be grateful to this teacher for her willingness to allow me to take on this challenge.  It is not an easy thing, to hand your classroom over to someone else.  I made sure that she understood that this was for me, and that I was not a “model” of implementation.   My goal was to fully immerse myself in the new materials so that I could fully empathize with time constraints and full implementation.  I was excited and nervous, but anticipated the experience ahead!

After my first Friday of planning from 5:00 PM to 10:30 PM, I immediately realized, that this was going to be a powerful week!  To say that I benefited from this experience would be an incredible understatement!  This was the most powerful learning I have ever personally endured.  Those 20 students taught me more this week, than I could have learned in a month’s worth of formal professional development!  Again, my first night of planning included totally immersing myself into the curriculum; I had to ultimately familiarize myself with ALL portions of what this curriculum had to offer.  It took a lot of time and I of course, could have implanted without spending that amount of time, but again, I had to begin with my end goal in mind. 

That Friday, was not the end of my planning, I planned up to one hour each night for the next day’s instruction.  *My first point of personal learning – good teaching requires great planning, reflection and follow-up!  I’ve known this and preach this often, but after wearing my principal hat for the past six years – this perspective really came to life for me again.  Often, it is this portion of a teacher’s career, the planning, checking papers and essays, as well as catching students up that are absent throughout the week, that is consistently overlooked by stakeholders.  Good teaching requires great planning, reflection and follow-up – which consumes a lot of time.

Throughout the week, I also realized just how much I miss the classroom!  Teaching is incredibly hard work, but is also one of the most rewarding professions that I could ever imagine!  Our learning targets in the classroom during the week included sequencing a biography and writing a summary of the several passages that we read.  Observing the student work was worth the price of gold to me!  I saw growth and implementation of the skills that I was hoping students would gain throughout the week, and to me, this was priceless!  I loved to see the expression on a student’s face, when they finally “got it”.

The second point of personal learning for me, was that our new curriculum is exactly what I had been hearing it was, from the teachers perspective.  Our curriculum materials contain too many great resources to fit into our 120-minute block of literacy.  While all materials and instructional standards available and suggested are wonderful and incredibly rigorous – the reality is plain and simple, it cannot all be done!  We as professionals need to make decisions about how we can best meet the core curriculum implementation, through creating a design of instruction that facilitates strong implementation.  I believe this is through the reading and writing workshop model, and our classrooms must look different than they had previously.  I plan to provide better instructional leadership to help teachers make this happen!
Finally, as I feel often at Denver Elementary, I felt so, so proud of our teachers.  I had a recent conversation with an individual from outside our district, and he mentioned that our implementation is a model for others.  Our teachers are very professional, hard working, and passionate!  This shows everyday at our elementary school!  My final take-away, was that our teachers are working hard and are really doing a great job implementing the “shifts” required within implementation of the Iowa Core Curriculum. 

My conclusion is that every principal and/or instructional leader needs to become a practitioner and place themselves back in the “trenches”.  For me, it was the most rewarding experience I have ever had as a principal!  I will say, however, that my principal duties took a back seat, and I was up late each night trying to make up for the time that I took away from that very important responsibility.  As a matter of fact, it is an expectation within our district, that we as principals get into every classroom each week, and complete a formal walk-through.  This unfortunately didn’t happen, however, when I walk through classrooms from now on, I will do so as a stronger instructional leader, one that I couldn’t have imagined being, prior to walking a mile in one fifth grade teacher’s shoes!