Curriculum and Instruction
The whole point of school is student achievement, and teacher quality is the most important factor in the school when it comes to student achievement. Multiple studies keep pointing to the fact that it’s the quality of the teacher that most affects student achievement in the classroom. Class size, classroom resources and technology are important factors when it comes to student learning, but they are not as critical as having a great teacher. Having a great teacher is the biggest difference-maker in the classroom.
To keep great teachers teaching great, it’s critical that they choose their own professional development trainings. When teachers are given the necessary leeway to be in charge of their own professional development, it leads to increased motivation. Increased teacher motivation leads to increased student achievement. Effective teachers engage in continuous professional development (attending conferences annually at a minimum), always searching out the best practices, and always innovating. While it’s certainly reasonable for a school’s administration to also have PD goals for its teachers, the primary PD strategy must come from the teacher himself. That is the best to keep high quality teachers teaching at the highest levels.
Teachers must be seen and treated as professional practitioners. With that comes the high expectation that teachers will naturally seek out and implement the best available teaching strategies for their students. And when teachers select their own PD path, they are able to combine best practices with their own personal strengths and preferences, leading to the best possible pedagogy for their students.
Parent and Community Involvement
Parents and members want to support their school, so it’s imperative that we provide them opportunities to do so. I know this since I myself am a parent with children in school. When there are opportunities to help out at my child’s school, I always make the effort to help out. In fact, I wish there were more opportunities afforded us parents at my kids school (especially ones not during the school day, since those are difficult to attend due to my work schedule). Schools need to consider all the different ways that different parents may be able to support the school, and provide those opportunities wherever and whenever possible.
Using “authentic audiences” is one effective way to enlist the community in supporting their students. Simply put, an authentic audience is a small group of 3-5 adults from the community who come to the school to help teachers judge and evaluate student work. Oftentimes this takes the form of several community adults watching students give oral presentations, and then engaging in a Q&A session with the presenting students to gage the depth of their understanding. This benefits the students in two ways. Students see that their community truly values their education, and are willing to take time out of their days to support it. Further, the expectations for student performance increase as they work hard to impress the outside professionals who are coming into the classroom. This practice also helps give community members more ownership of their local school, which in turn motivates them to want that school to succeed even more.
Discipline and School Climate/Culture
I believe in small schools. In small schools students and teachers can’t help but get to know each other well, and when that happens disciplinary issues decline. In small schools it’s much harder for students to go unnoticed, or for students to fall through the cracks. Positive relationships between students, and between students and teachers are more easily built when they always encounter the same people, as opposed to being lost in a city of 2,500 strangers. Small schools size naturally prevent disciplinary challenges. Students are simply less inclined to act badly towards people they know well. Where in large schools, misbehavior can be easier to engage in when potential victims are just random faces in the crowd. I’ve worked in schools with enrollments between 200-500 students, and I’ve also taught at schools with over 2,000 students. The former is a community, and the latter is a city. And which tend to have more crime? Small communities or big cities?
Another logical (if less intuitive) approach to having a positive school culture with decreased misbehavior is the dedication to best pedagogical practices. Think about it. If the lessons are great, and if class is exciting, and if the projects are fun; students will be so engaged in the learning that misbehavior will become an afterthought. The best classroom management tool is not a classroom management tool; it’s simply a great and engaging lesson. Innovative, creative, best pedagogical classroom practices are the best way to keep students engaged in learning, and away from boredom and misbehavior.
Technology is the new normal. Gone are the days of endless lecture and rote memorization, for technology has allowed us (thankfully) to move beyond that. Technology now allows teachers to engage students in new, interesting and fun ways. Ubiquitous connectivity and 1:1 devices now allow teachers to meet students where they’re at (on their phones), and then use these devices to help students learn. Nearpod, for example, is a website/app that takes a lecture and turns it into a game. For students, a Nearpod presentation is not another boring lecture, but instead a fun opportunity to engage in learning using technology with the rest of the class.
With 24/7 internet connectivity, the sum of the world’s knowledge is now literally at our students’ fingertips (or more accurately, in their pockets). With websites like Britannica School, students can look up reliable information on any topic in the world on their phones in mere seconds. With this new instant information paradigm, the days of rote memorization of facts can now come to a close (facts that, it’s worth noting, are soon forgotten after the exam anyway). With the world’s information now in every student’s pocket, schools can now focus more on skills, which are more useful in truly empowering students to succeed beyond high school.
Technology has also brought with it the dawn of truly personalized education. With reading and math apps that adapt in real time to a student’s current level of performance, the one-size-fits-all factory model of the classroom does not have to be the reality any longer.
As a school leader, my first non-negotiable is that outdated pedagogy must be left behind. Technology has enabled so many improved teaching strategies in the past few years, that it would be inexcusable for teachers (even veteran ones) to still be stuck in 20th-century pedagogy. It’s OK if a teacher is hesitant to embrace education technology out of nervousness. That can be remedied with guidance and support. It’s not OK, however, for a teacher to avoid technology simply because they want to teach the way they’ve always taught. It’s nearly impossible to have a high-performing 21st century school if the teachers are still caught in a 20th century pedagogical rut.
Another non-negotiable relates to professional development. Since instruction improves when teachers are motivated, I believe in giving teachers the leading voice when it comes to guiding their own professional development. I want teachers to set their own goals for improving their own instruction, and then I will have them make their own PD plan for each year. Insisting on PD that is driven by individual teachers will improve the quality of instruction every single year.
Students must be made to see the relevance of their education, so another non-negotiable will be making connections between school and the real world. Each discipline and each class must make a concerted effort to demonstrate to students how their learning directly connects to life after high school in the real world. As students see more real world relevance in their daily classroom work, their motivation and work ethic will improve.
Time and again I’ve read that the best way to lead, is to lead by example. That is why as a school leader I intend to teach a class. I believe having a principal teach a class will help to inspire confidence in the school’s teachers. If the leader can truly relate to the teachers by being “in the trenches” alongside them, that can only help to facilitate a positive and trusting relationship.
When it comes to decision-making, I plan on asking a simple question: what is best when it comes to improving student achievement? When presented with a decision that needs to be made quickly, of course the leader should weigh the pros and cons of each option. But even more important is to analyze the options through the most important lens in a school: student achievement. Asking “what is the best thing to do here to help improve student achievement?” acts as Occam’s Razor, a tool that will help me quickly cut to the chase, and choose the option that best serves student learning.
My goal is to follow the Distributive Leadership strategy. Involving faculty in decision-making increases the faculty’s sense of ownership of the school. And as the sense of ownership increases, faculty will be more likely to care about results. They will become more motivated, and proactively work to achieve the goals of the school not because their principal told them to, but because they want to!
Be personable! Build relationships with all people on campus! When the leader makes an effort to smile and be friendly, not only does it contribute to a more positive culture on campus, but when a problem arises, there is a stronger foundation upon which that problem can be more easily resolved!
I am an experienced high school social studies teacher, having now been in the classroom for twelve years. I have taught the breadth of the social studies canon, including World History, US History, Government, Economics and People and World Cultures. I have taught 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th grades, all the while implementing curriculum that is project-based, real world-connected, focused on choice, and facilitated by technology.
My first job in education was serving as the Assistant to the Principal of a charter high school in Boston, MA. It was there I earned an appreciation for the complexity of school leadership.
After deciding to become a teacher, I earned my Masters in Education at Stanford University, with a focus on the teaching of social studies. It was there I developed a teaching style based on improving students’ skills (as opposed to focusing only on content).
My first two years of teaching were in two different schools in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I was exposed to a wide variety of different cultures (Latino, Chinese, Afghan).
After moving back east to be closer to family, I settled in to teach for seven years at Thornton Academy in Saco, Maine, a large comprehensive traditional public high school. It was at Thornton where I became a master teacher. My students won the state championship at the National History Day academic competition three different years, and several of my students went on to compete at the national level in Washington DC. I facilitated Project Citizen, which had my students advocating for public policy solutions to local problems in front of school administrators, city councilors, and state legislators. I developed the Go Global - Increase the Peace curriculum, which had my students communicating and collaborating with international pen pals around the world, and then presenting their learning to the local chapter of the World Affairs Council.
In addition to my teaching, I also wore many other hats while at Thornton. I served as a mentor teacher to multiple student teachers from local universities. I served as a committee chair during our school’s reaccreditation. I led many professional development workshops at a variety of conferences. I served a 120-hour internship with my Principal, towards earning my Building Administrator certification. I was elected to the state legislature to serve as state representative for my town.
After a wonderful professional experience at Thornton, my family moved west once again to be closer to my wife’s family. I now serve as the Social Studies Department Chair at Samueli Academy in Santa Ana, CA. While teaching at Samueli, I have also begun developing online lessons for Nearpod.com, and my lessons have been viewed over 20,000 times by teachers all over the world. And last year, my Go Global - Increase the Peace curriculum was given the 2015 “Award for Global Understanding” by the National Council for the Social Studies (the largest organization of social studies teachers in the country), which just may be the highlight of my whole teaching career.
Why do I believe what I believe about education?
Catholic Mass is long. At least for a kid, it felt as though that sixty minutes dragged on forever. And while it provided a lot of time to daydream, it also provided a lot of time to think. And with learning by osmosis, the ethic of serving others sank in over years of exposure to priests’ sermons. By the time I was a teenager, I knew I wanted a career dedicated to helping others.
After college I signed up for Americorps, which is kind of like the domestic Peace Corps. I spend my one year of service working for the I Have A Dream Foundation of Boulder County in Colorado. I spent a year helping to run an after-school tutoring center in a low-income housing development, and that experience affirmed my hunch that education really was the key to empowering people.
Once in the classroom, I quickly realized that traditional social studies lesson plans were not for me. I watched my master teacher lecture for thirty minutes or more, and I knew there had to be a more engaging way to teach. I embraced project-based learning (depth over breadth) and found my groove as a teacher.
In my post-college years, I also had an epiphany about reading. I realized that I enjoyed reading because I now got to choose what I wanted to read (unlike in college).
I started applying this principle of choice in my classes, and learned that it had an exponential effect on student motivation. I now provide my students with choices at every possible opportunity, and I’ve discovered that students take real ownership of their work with every choice they get to make about it.
The final piece of my teaching philosophy that slowly developed over the years is the emphasis on the real world. I witnessed in my early years that unless students saw personal relevance in the classroom work, they would never be fully engaged with the curriculum. I began to connect projects to things in the real world that my students actually valued, and once again I saw motivation and achievement increase. Once they cared about the subject matter, then they actually cared about doing a good job.
What do you believe about children and their education? Is education a preparatory experience? Preparation for what?
I believe motivated children can take advantage of their education to create their own future. When teachers use motivation-increasing techniques such as giving students choice, providing students with models, and connecting academics to real world topics students care about; the resulting increased student motivation leads to increased student achievement. Increased student achievement leads to greater opportunities for students in high school, college, and beyond.
Education is preparation for life after high school. Students must be exposed to a variety of subjects and ideas during school, in order to open their minds to the limitless possibilities that await them in the real world. They must also then learn the knowledge and skills (these days, more skills) that will serve them best once they enter the real world.