My Story: From a Job Cut to Becoming School Librarian of the Year

Kristina Holzweiss of Bay Shore Middle School, Bay Shore, NY, was named School Library Journal School Librarian of the Year in August 2015. Be sure to check out blog posts from 2015 School Librarian of the Year finalists Sally Smollar and Lakisha Brinson!

Seven years ago I was excessed from a full-time school library teaching position, and last year I was on the cover of School Library Journal as the 2015 School Librarian of the Year. Many of my family and friends know my story, but very few of my colleagues do.

After teaching 7th grade English for nine years in my hometown, I wanted to make a difference by supporting students and teachers throughout an entire school. I couldn’t see myself as a principal, curriculum director, or a superintendent because teaching children was still my passion. So, I returned to graduate school and secured a position in a high-needs, diverse school district upon graduating from the LIU Palmer School of Library and Information Science. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to affect change beyond the four walls of my classroom.

Five years later, the recession hit. In 2009, my position was cut to part-time, the innovative hybrid company where my husband worked folded, and we were expecting our first son from South Korea. It was one of the lowest times in my life. Had I stayed in the classroom, I would never have lost my position. I was the senior English teacher of grades seven to 12 in my former district, and I risked that to become a school librarian. You see, in New York State, school librarians are certified to teach kindergarten through 12th grade, but elementary positions are not state-mandated. It is ironic that at such a crucial time in a child’s development when the joy of reading must be nurtured, school librarians are often lost due to excess and retirement. Even though my position was in the middle school, as they say “the last one in is the first one out.”

I was devastated. Winning awards and grants, writing articles, and presenting at conferences were the farthest things from my mind. I just wanted to pay my mortgage, put food on the table, and have health care benefits. After 14 years and two masters degrees with additional credits in educational technology and teaching, I was overqualified and overpriced. In my journey to become a better teacher and librarian, I had inadvertently “learned” myself out of many positions I had applied for during the most recent economic crisis in America. Worst of all, I couldn’t imagine being employed in a career where I wasn’t teaching children. I had marketable skills of researching, writing, and public speaking but I didn’t want to leave the teaching profession. After five years of developing a collection, creating new programs, and establishing relationships with students and staff I wasn’t ready to leave my first school librarian position.

As you already know, I lived “happily ever after.” But, had it not been for my present district that valued 21st century information literacy skills and certified school librarians, my story might have ended much differently. On my 40th birthday I not only signed my contract to become the librarian at Bay Shore Middle School in Bay Shore, NY, but I also became a mother to our first child, Tyler, from South Korea. As you can imagine, it was the happiest day of my life!

So, why am I telling you all this? Hopefully, you will be inspired to tell your story—how you make a difference in your students’ lives. Advocacy for your position as a certified school librarian takes place the second you put a book into a child’s hands, but it shouldn’t end there. 

  • Invite your parents, administrators, school board members, and community leaders to visit your library to see firsthand how you are helping your students develop 21st century learning skills. 
  • Become a member of the national library organizations AASL and ALA, but don’t overlook your state and local organizations. 
  • In addition to attending and presenting at library conferences, branch out to content specific conferences. 
  • Educators and administrators need to know how school librarians and library services support Common Core and other higher standards in all subject areas. To learn about the most current trends in technology, become a member of ISTE and attend their annual conference, or your state conference organized by your ISTE affiliate. Here you will meet like-minded educators if you consider yourself a techie or even a geek-in-training.
  • Download and share the 2016 edition of School Libraries Work!, a new research report providing evidence of the positive impact of school librarians and libraries on student learning.

I used to feel isolated as the only librarian in my school, missing the time when I had been part of an academic team as an English teacher. Now, I have expanded my professional learning network through Twitter, Voxer, and Facebook. When I have a question or I need a recommendation, I know that I have other librarians whom I can count on for support. I don’t need to comb through thousands of websites and blogs on the Internet because the entire educational community is ready and willing to help.

Several librarians, teachers, and administrators have visited my library makerspace this year. They want to know how the program works, what resources our library has, and how the space is managed.  But those are only the specifics, the practical matters that we can quantify. Dr. Gary Stager is known for saying that “the best makerspace is the one between your ears.” Your library, whether or not you have a makerspace, is not just a place where books and technology are stored. Every library is a reflection of the librarian and his or her students. It’s where the learning magic happens. It’s a dynamic, living entity that grows each time you share it with others. You need to grow too.

Each morning I enter my library, I hope that I can rise to the expectations of the title School Librarian of the Year. Each afternoon I leave, I know that I have done my best to provide the learning experiences that my students deserve. But each night, I read about and see on social media all of the wonderful things that other school librarians are accomplishing. There are many others who deserve the title School Librarian of the Year. They are the librarians who connect children to books that will change their lives forever, who offer their students opportunities to communicate with others around the world, and who create environments where students can tinker and create innovative solutions to problems.

Years ago, a friend of mine told me that I was a “rockstar librarian.” She appreciated all of the hard work that I did, to serve my faculty and students. I believed her, and I never wanted to let her down.  She believed in me, and I believe in you.

Taking Guided Reading Instruction to the Next Level

In her last post, Next Step Guided Reading Assessment co-author Maria Walther shared her ideas about read-alouds with added instructional power. Now, Maria offers her take on using guided reading in the primary grades to move children into the complex texts.

How does guided reading help students read more complex texts?

The goal of guided reading is to nudge students toward independence, so that they can read and comprehend complex texts independently. Using the teaching context of guided reading as part of a comprehensive literacy framework, I can teach readers a particular skill or strategy in guided reading one day, and the next, I can introduce a more challenging text where readers then apply those strategies. Guided reading has always been about matching readers to texts. Teachers who know their students and are knowledgeable about books are able to ratchet up the challenge with various books, day by day.

Why do young readers need access to books they can read?

If a reader is struggling with multiple aspects of a text that is too hard, it’s too challenging for the teacher to prompt and scaffold at every point of need. The students simply shut down. In the primary grades, confidence reins. Young children—especially striving learners—have to believe that they are readers. When young readers encounter a text that is overwhelmingly hard, you can see the look in their eyes: fear and defeat. So, I know from experience that there is much faster progress when I give children a book they can read (with support), and then another book that they can read, and so on. Once I’ve hooked them, and they see themselves as readers, my job is easy! That is the goal of guiding readers—teaching readers how to solve problems on their own so that they can do it independently when reading more complex texts. Our role as primary grade teachers is to provide learners with a solid foundation. We’ve learned so much from Fountas and Pinnell’s work on how to prompt and scaffold a student at the point of difficulty. If we want children to be able to read complex texts independently, we have to provide them with the skills and strategies to do so.

How do you add another layer to guided reading?

In the era of higher standards, we can add another layer to our guided reading instruction. You could amplify comprehension conversations in the small guided-reading group. Let’s say you have a group of emerging readers. You’d scaffold, prompt, teach decoding strategies with an instructional-level text on Monday, and keep at it Tuesday and Wednesday. Then, on Thursday, you could reread a significantly more complex text that you’ve read to the whole class. After all, even emerging readers—especially ELLs—need to hear the language of more complex texts. In this small-group context, you can read a little bit of the text at a time, and talk about the concepts and vocabulary in the book with a very focused, intentional comprehension conversation. At K-2, in order to discuss texts with complex themes and ideas, you will sometimes HAVE to do the reading for them. So, in my opinion, a guided reading lesson could occasionally be reading aloud and guiding students in comprehending a text.

How does assessment help you know each of your reader’s strengths, struggles, and interests so you can make the best student-to-text match?

I think we are depending too much on individual assessments that are either too time-consuming or too narrow instead of giving multi-faceted assessments to the whole class and to individuals. For example, I give a reading-interest survey to my whole class at the beginning of the year. This allows me to quickly put books they want to read into their hands. You can also easily give a developmental word knowledge inventory to the whole class to better understand their grasp of phonics. With information about my learners’ stages of spelling development, I know which students I need to do a running record with right away to see if they are reading accurately and fluently, and to learn which decoding strategies they are or are not using. Of course, I’m also asking questions to assess their comprehension. With the results of these assessments in hand, I have a complete picture and can match both texts and instructional methods to my readers. For above-level readers, I might provide guidance in selecting texts and then monitor their progress with 1:1 conferences. Readers who are below-level will get a steady diet of instructional-level texts and lots of support during guided reading. They’ll also get an equal amount texts they can read independently so that they can increase their reading volume.

Small group guided reading lessons are just one thread in the complex web of primary-grade literacy instruction. Each year, we weave together a diverse group of young learners into a cohesive community of learners, writers, thinkers, and problem solvers, while at the same time teaching them the skills and strategies necessary to be passionate, thoughtful, and critical readers. Hmmm! No wonder I’m tired at the end of every day!

On Read Alouds: ‘Pull a Favorite Book, Stop What You Are Doing, and Read to Them’

The following essay was first printed as the closing comments in Lester Laminack (2009)"Unwrapping the Read Aloud: Making Every Read Aloud Experience Intentional and Instructional" NY: Scholastic, (pp.93-95), and on Lester Laminack's personal blog on January 29, 2016. It is reproduced here with his permission.

Reading aloud to the children in our lives seems like such a commonsense practice. Yet in recent years I have heard teachers remark that they simply don’t have time to read aloud. These same teachers comment on how much they enjoy reading to their students and share fond memories from their own school years when teachers read to them. It is as if we feel the need to justify the use of precious time to read aloud. We seem afraid to exercise our own good judgment to do what our professional knowledge tells us is right and good for children. Let me remind you that we are professionals. Somehow in the midst of all the demands for higher scores, the very real threats of school takeovers, and the infiltration of scripted programs, we have lost sense of this fact. We are professionals.

Remember that we have a specific knowledge base that sets us apart from the rest of the population. We have deep understandings and insights into human growth and development, language and literacy development, pedagogy, curriculum design, and instructional technique. We know things the general public simply doesn’t understand. Yet we continue to allow influences beyond our profession diminish our sense of self and steal our very professional identity from us, and in doing so we lose our professional integrity.

I urge you to renew that knowledge base. Revisit those books and articles that once sparked your professional knowledge and piqued your curiosity. Revisit those books and articles, conference proceedings, and videos that once excited you, invigorated you, and nudged you into new practices in your classroom. Revisit the last time you felt charged and in charge. Remember those days when you entered the profession, and remember the feelings and beliefs that brought you in.

I can’t know your reasons for becoming a teacher, but I am virtually certain that there is not one teacher breathing who chose this profession because he or she wanted to raise a test score or make adequate yearly progress goals for the school. Whatever the reason you had for becoming a teacher, I’m confident it had something to do with children and their welfare and their sense of self. I am fairly confident it had something to do with helping children reach their potential and realize their dreams. Let’s refocus our energies on the children. Let’s make each decision based on what we believe would be good for the specific children in our charge. Let’s make daily decisions with that in mind. Let’s trust our professional judgment to guide our decisions. Let’s teach with integrity and know that our students will do well if our attention is directed toward the child—the mathematician and scientist and artist and writer and musician and athlete and reader and social scientist and dreamer and inventor and visionary in each of them. Let’s teach children again. Let’s be reminded we are here to raise humans, not scores.

Let me remind you that literature in all its many forms has such potential to expand the horizons of every child—regardless of background or baggage, privilege or poverty. When we read aloud to them, we offer them new vistas and new visions. We offer them new ways of coping with life’s issues and pleasures. We offer them new opportunities to grow their language and their understandings. We help them realize how much there is to learn. When we read aloud, we show them how we gain a little knowledge to ask better questions, and that asking better questions drives us to read even more. When we read aloud, we introduce them to people just like them and like no one they have ever imagined. We help them realize their homes are only a small sample of the dwellings of all humanity. We help them realize their families are one of many ways families can be formed. We help them realize that the sound of their language is one note in the music of the many languages on the globe. When we read aloud, we help them realize what they value and cherish as worthy and worthwhile and holy is only one way of assigning importance in this great big world. When we read aloud, we help them realize that no matter who we are, no matter where we live, no matter what we value, no matter how we sound, we are more alike as human beings from the inside out than we are different from the outside in. But perhaps the most important message that comes from our reading aloud to them is one that says you are worth the time this will take. You are the focus of what I do as a teacher. When I read to you, I give you that same undivided attention you once had snuggling in the lap of a caregiver who read to you. When a teacher reads aloud, it is a bonding between the teacher, the children, the books, and the act of reading. That in itself is worthy.

Friends, I urge you to reconnect to those stirrings that brought you into this profession. I urge you to refocus your attention to the children in your care. There is no more precious treasure on this globe than the children of its people. Nothing holds greater potential for good, for truth, for justice than the children on this Earth. We cannot afford to contaminate that precious resource with notions of worth connected to the number on a test. We cannot afford to lead our children to the belief that our school’s success, our success, their success, and, by association, their worth, is invested in adequate yearly progress. For a child to believe that he or she has responsibility for the success of a school, a community, a state, and the nation is ludicrous at best and immoral at worst.

Take some time now to search through your books, to carefully and critically examine your schedule, to revisit your vision about why this matters. Pull a favorite book, stop what you are doing, and read to them.

In all things, be kind and truthful. Let nothing you do take from a child his or her dignity as a human being, his or her integrity as a learner, his or her identity as one who is capable. Cause no intentional harm.

Peace be with you,
Lester

A Q & A About Writing, Reading and Storytelling with Author Carmen Agra Deedy

Award-winning children's book author Carmen Agra Deedy is scheduled to deliver the opening keynote at Scholastic Education's 2016 Reading Summit on February 14th. In anticipation of that event, we asked her a few questions about her stories, her writing, and what she's reading right now!

Carmen Agra Deedy is best known for her beloved children’s books, which include The Library Dragon, Martina the Beautiful Cockroach and the New York Times Bestseller, 14 Cows for America. An award-winning author and storyteller, Deedy is also an accomplished lecturer, having been a guest speaker for the TED Conference, the Library of Congress, and Columbia University. She is also the host of the four-time Emmy-winning children’s program Love That Book! Most importantly, Deedy spends much of the year traveling across North America and the Caribbean performing for children. They remain, unapologetically, her favorite audiences.

What kinds of stories bring you the most joy?

I love stories about people on the edges of things -- villages, families, their own minds. And I love when these border-dwellers find their way back again -- to their villages, their families, their own minds. When I can help a character get home again, that brings me joy.

I began my childhood as a refugee; I no longer fight the fact that themes of home and family will likely always wend their sneaky way into my plots.

What do you hope people will take away from your work?

I hope readers enjoy the time they spent with one of my stories. And if they are left with a sense of the world being a little bigger, a mite kinder, a trifle funnier––I am a happy writer indeed.

What are you reading now?

Exploration Fawcett: Journey to the Lost City of Z by Col. Percy Fawcett

One of a handful of books found on Ernest Hemingway's desk after his death. Fawcett has been credited as the real man behind the legendary Indian Jones. His son published his papers some years after Fawcett disappeared on a final, fateful, expedition to the Lost City of Z.

The Woman in Battle by Loreta Janeta Velazques

A book published by a Cuban woman dressed as a Confederate soldier in order to follow her Southern husband into battle. She claimed, among other things, to have fought at Bull Run. She wrote this book to tell of her many exploits.

What can I say? I'm a sucker for outrageous true stories.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Read. Read everything that falls into your hands that even remotely interests you.

It will come in handy one day.

Learn. 

Learn anything anyone wants to teach you that has merit. Learn to change the oil, knit, shoe a horse, write code, make a souffle.

It will come in handy one day.

Live.

Live your life -- don't just exist. Live it fully and don't miss a nano-second.

It'll all come in handy one day.

The day you decide to become a writer.

Live Streaming for Scholastic Education Reading Summit — Starting Feb. 14

The Scholastic Education Reading Summit brings together school leaders for a three-day conference focused on literacy and building powerful, joyful results-drive instruction in schools. The event kicks off February 14th in Los Angeles, and this year we're excited to be able to open up the full list of keynotes to educators on the web.

Keynote speakers will be broadcast live on the web here. And you'll find the schedule below. ALL TIMES PST!

The schedule includes talks by renowned literacy experts Dr. Nell K. Duke, Dr. Lester Laminack, Dr. Ernest Morrell, and Pam Allyn, as well as award winning author Kwame Alexander, and others.

We hope you'll tune in to hear from these thought leaders, and share your ideas using the #2016ReadingSummit hashtag!

Why Joyful Read Aloud Experiences Are Essential for Young Readers

If you asked most of the teachers I know, “What is your favorite time of the day?” I believe many would answer—reading aloud. In my 30 years of teaching first grade, I have rarely missed an opportunity to read aloud to my learners. On average my students hear five read-alouds a day. In the morning, in the afternoon, during reading and writing workshop, during science or social studies… I am not necessarily reading the whole book—maybe just a little section to point out a terrific lead, or to introduce a science topic. To keep myself on track, we create a read-aloud tally, marking a tally for each read-aloud experience we have together. A few years ago we had 790! In my travels across the country, I meet teachers who are struggling to find a compelling rationale to replace a packaged program lesson with a read aloud experience. In this post, I’ll share just a few of the many reasons why read aloud is essential in the era of higher standards.

Read Alouds Address Complex Concepts and Ideas

If we stay true to the notion that reading is a thinking process, we can address complexity and depth authentically through read alouds. I am inviting my first graders to do a lot more thinking aloud—talking about the books we read and honoring the thinking they have already done. Then, as we read complex texts together, I nudge them to ponder more deeply about the big ideas, themes, author’s purpose, and so on. Coupled with that, I am searching for texts that have complex concepts to spark conversations. One of my favorites is The Can Man by Laura E. Williams , the story of a homeless man who is collecting cans to buy a winter coat and a young boy who decides to collect them to save up for a skateboard. A book like this invites conversations about needs and wants, and themes of poverty and inequity. Another title that yields complex thinking is If You Plant a Seed by Kadir Nelson. In January and February, I read aloud a chronological collection of picture books and informational texts about United States history—the Underground Railroad (Underground) , Jim Crow laws (Ruth and the Green Book), the Civil Rights era (Freedom on the Menu)—not only because it builds students’ content knowledge, but because these books tend to be meaty enough to usher in rich oral thinking and conversation.

Read Alouds Build Background Knowledge and Vocabulary

In the last few years, I’ve noticed that more and more of my students come to school lacking the background knowledge and vocabulary needed to do the thinking, reading, and writing we expect. Abundant read aloud experiences help to fill in these gaps. Before delving into a science unit on the water cycle, I might read Water is Water by Miranda Paul to introduce words like steam, cloud, and fog. In addition, because so many of the books students will read in the future have traces of traditional tales woven throughout, I make it a point to read different versions of nursery rhymes, folk tales, and fairy tales. A few of my students’ latest favorites are Jan Brett’s The Turnip and Interstellar Cinderella by Deborah Underwood.

Read Alouds Spark Big Questions and Big Thinking

I learned the importance of asking open-ended questions and giving non-judgmental responses from Peter Johnston, author of Choice Words (2004). So, I always begin with the open-ended question, “What did you notice?” Then, I listen to what students say and build from there, always remembering to follow up with, “Why do you think that? What part of the text/illustrations helped you understand that?” It works well to look at a book from the perspective of a reader and the perspective of a writer. Reading from the writer’s perspective helps learners better understand craft and structure. With any picture book, you can ask, “What do you think the writer was thinking when she did this? Why would she choose to do that?” Or you can pose questions about the visual choices of the illustrator. “How do you think the illustration supports and enhances the words?” Think of read-alouds as a way to launch a continual dialogue about books throughout the day, and from day to day.

If we want children to integrate meaning and ideas across texts, they have to have experiences hearing a lot of texts. They need a rich textual lineage—a wealth of reading experiences from which to draw. We are setting ourselves up for failure if we put forth all these grand ideas of voluminous independent complex text reading, but then don’t offer students voluminous, joyful read aloud experiences each and every day.

Maria Walther is a first grade teacher and the author of five professional books with Scholastic, as well as the Next Step Guided Reading Assessment.

How Pinellas County (FL) is Creating a Literacy Movement in its Community

The ability to read is something many of us take for granted. It is something we learned long ago and practice so often that it seems almost an innate human function. And how could we live without it? It provides a bridge to opportunities in education, careers, and in our everyday lives. Unfortunately, we often forget about the complicated and challenging process of actually teaching that skill to young learners.

Foundational skills that support literacy are developed well before a child enters kindergarten. We are familiar with images of a teacher at the head of a classroom reading stories and parents cuddling up with a toddler and a book at bedtime. These are powerful and important moments that are equally important for a developing child. Teachers can’t do it alone, parents can’t do it alone, and classroom reading instruction is not enough to ensure children are reading on grade level. Literacy skills are sharpened well beyond the classroom and the bedtime story. Anyone who reads can help to instill a love of reading in young children.

In Pinellas County, Florida we are challenging our entire community to support teachers and parents and find new ways to promote literacy.

We have all seen the billboards saying that young children benefit from shared reading experiences; just “15 minutes a day” can make all the difference. That is, of course, if parents and other caring adults have the books to read. Many homes, particularly in low income areas, do not have a library of children’s books. Ready to Read Pinellas shares the joy of reading by putting high quality age appropriate books in the hands of young children from low income families. Every child who walks through our doors receives a book of their choice from our Ready to Read shelves!

Adventure in Tote Bags is a literacy program where children in Family Child Care Homes are provided with a tote bag to take home which includes age appropriate books and activities to be enjoyed by the family. Parents and family members are encouraged to read and participate in the activities with their children, fostering a love of reading in the entire family.

Officer Friendly’s Book Club pairs local law enforcement officers and early learning centers to promote a love of reading and build positive relationships between little citizens and law enforcement. Our Officer Friendly partners read to the children and donate a book to the center at the end of the visit. The Coalition’s literacy specialists select the books and provide support activities and materials for the center.

Each year at the end of January, we engage the wider community through a series of events known as “Celebrate Literacy Week,” which is this week! The Early Learning Coalition hosts special guest readers throughout the week at early learning sites all around the community. Guest readers included local business and nonprofit executives, elected officials, professional athletes and police and fire chiefs. 

Through these efforts, we seek to raise awareness and create a community full of advocates for literacy.

How are you supporting literacy in your community?

Asking Our Way to Education Solutions

These are challenging times and I think we can all agree that there should be more hours in the day. Work, commuting, errands, cooking, staying on top of the household chores, eating, spending time with family and being informed about what’s happening in our communities and in the world are just some of the things that occupy my time. Our children’s future and their education should be a top priority for everyone in our community, not just parents. There are so many ways we can all be more involved in our country’s next generation, but I like to tell people that the best way to get involved and advocate is to ask questions. Ensuring we have an educated citizenry and bright future is a shared and collective responsibility that falls upon each of us. Here are some questions we can all ask:

Ask adults how the child in your life is doing. Asking the child’s family about their education is always important; you can not only get some important answers, but also a roadmap to how you can become a more helpful ally in building a great next generation. Find out what their strengths and challenges are and make a plan to improve things from where you are. Can you ask the child’s teacher about their performance and how the child compares to other children in their class? Or about what teaching and education methods they’re using? Or, best of all, ask what questions you should be asking or what information they want to share with you. Like adults, children are not the same, even those growing up in the same household which makes each of us uniquely great. Abilities differ widely, but we should always ask about them and identify ways to involve yourself in solutions.

Ask a child about specifics. How easily we forget what our own school experiences were like! Perhaps you don’t remember what it was like to have every adult asking, “how was your day at school?,” but the answers you’ll get (or won’t get) are a pretty clear sign that it’s not the most effective question to ask. Instead, you have to ask very specific questions. If you aren’t the most knowledgeable about the child’s day, ask general questions about what the best thing about the day was, ask about specific school subjects and what they’re learning about there, if they found anything particularly difficult or annoying, what their friends are like. Like with anything else, asking a question that really only allows for one word answers will get just that. Even though my nephew is a college senior, he knows that “good” is never a sufficient answer.  While you don’t need to probe like a detective you do need to ask your child to elaborate on the information they are sharing and remember to be fully present during the conversation. Children know when they have your undivided attention and when they do not. We have to be thoughtful with our children and give them opportunities to give full and meaningful responses about what they are doing and how it makes them feel. 

Ask what you can do. We can always use a little help in all areas of our lives- and sometimes even asking people if you can help is a huge motivator. If you want the special young person in your life to succeed at school and beyond, try asking them what you can do to help them find more time or interest to study or read more. Maybe you can ask the parents in your life what support you can give them to help give young people more focus in their studies. And have you asked the teachers in your life how you can help make their classrooms even more effective at churning out the leaders of tomorrow? Most families could use some support, many teachers need help purchasing school supplies and every student could benefit from an encouraging word. Let’s not be afraid to make some offers.

Recently, I visited a 5th grade class in the Watts area of Los Angeles. I left inspired and encouraged by the wisdom, character and intellect displayed by each student in the class.   Instead of learning of the latest crisis on the news, actually make a point to visit a school and spend quality time with students.  Not only does it take a village to raise children, more importantly it takes a great society to turn out future leaders. I spend a lot of time at education conferences, which means I get a lot of time with parents and educators, but I also spend a lot of time listening to what speakers have to say. I also spend a lot of time writing about ways we can instill lessons in young people, for which I find myself doing a pretty good amount of research. I’ve also learned that young people will rise or fall to the expectations set for them. But at the end of the day, there are no silver bullet solutions. If there were a sure-fire way to make all students great, we’d have done it long ago. The reality is the best way to make change is to ask how we can build it. I’m always surprised at how some empathy, an offer of help and some genuine interest in each other is often the biggest step to success. 

Being a man or woman is a matter of birth, but being a man or woman who makes a difference is a matter of choice. Choose to be a difference maker!

Seven Leadership Ideals to Pursue in 2016

The author is the Community Superintendent for District 15 in Brooklyn, NY.

The start of a new year is a time when traditionally we take the opportunity to start fresh and set new goals. It is a chance to say “do-over,” and to start anew. We reimagine ourselves as we can be, and set lofty resolutions that exemplify our belief that we can “do it better.” I am no exception to this tradition. Like millions of people, I have begun to work towards the most popular personal goal. I am trying to lose weight. It is a goal that historically we usually abandon within two weeks. (It is one week of low carbs and counting…I will keep you posted.)

This same optimism is true professionally as well. We come back from the holidays (somewhat) recharged but definitely more hopeful, more optimistic that we can truly accomplish all that we set out to do. We take the time not only to think about the myriad of things piled on our desks, but on the skills that will help us to be more successful at helping educators so that we can all best serve our children; and so we list our resolutions, maybe not with pencil or computer but somewhere in our minds and in our hearts. 

As the leader of a large urban district that I consider to be a microcosm of our city, I am no exception. I too have a list of professional resolutions that capture what I believe and hopefully, are the kind of ideals that help to make us our “best selves:”

1. Lead by Inspiring - I am a Pollyanna and have long held the belief that people go into education not merely to have a career, but because they want to make a difference in the world, and they want to share with their students the magic of learning. They enter the profession with passion and commitment. I see my role to remind them of that passion, to inspire them, to make them understand that their dream is still a real possibility and that I share it. I want them to know that I will walk that road with them and help them, not browbeat them into submission to a set of protocols and accountabilities they do not believe in. Do not misunderstand me. I believe we are all accountable and that we should be. We hold children’s lives in our hands just as surely as do medical professionals. It is just that we have seen that accountability without inspiration and a focus on true learning brings out the worst in us all and is ultimately unsuccessful. I want to be honest and honorable, a truly inspirational leader because I know that people give their all when they are inspired by someone they believe in.

2. Be Emotionally Intelligent - We are coming out of a time when education was moving towards a very business-like model. It was all protocols and percentages. I remember people being somewhat taken aback when I wished a senior colleague a happy birthday or offered a small token when a child was born. Recent research, however, has shown us that if we want to make meaningful, sustainable changes in the world, then we must consider the emotional underpinnings that define who we are and that do not vanish as we cross the office threshold. The work of Dr. Lisa Lahey at Harvard and Dr. Marc Brackett at Yale serve to reinforce this understanding. It behooves us as educational leaders to be constantly aware of the “temperature” of those we are leading so that we can persuade them to attempt change and move toward that shared vision in a low risk environment. Just as teachers must be cognizant of the needs of the whole child, we must be cognizant of the needs of our educators, not just because we wish to be warm, fuzzy and well-liked, but because these understandings inspire people to become more innovative and encourage collaboration. We are a service industry. We make learners, not shoes, and we have to think about the needs of people in order to succeed.

3. Learn Together - There was a time when teachers were told, “Just close your doors and teach,” and principals zealously hid best practices so that their colleagues would not copy them and steal the thunder of their successes. Thankfully, that time is gone. We are all learners and as such, what better way can we work than as partners with a goal of outstanding student success for all children. This is not a goal that is easily achieved, and for this reason one of my resolutions is to enhance Collaborative Inquiry. While I can have an understanding of the strengths and needs at my thirty five schools, I cannot have that understanding at the granular level that my principals can have and at the even finer level that my teachers can have. It is for this reason that top down models do not work, and grassroots understanding of needs is essential. Therefore, it behooves me as a leader to promote this level of learning. It is both empowering and inspiring. It shows educators that they are trusted professionals and gives them a level of personal accountability to both their colleagues and their students that is more powerful than an external standard because they themselves connect their actions with outcomes. These shared learning opportunities can and should occur at every rung of the ladder. Just as teachers meet to dissect class and grade needs, strong principals work in teams to look at school and district needs. Additionally, superintendents work to share with their colleagues. In short, we need to consistently learn together.

4. Teach Don’t Tell - I was reminded two weeks ago of the value of that old Chinese proverb, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” I am a packrat with emails. I archive every email I receive, no matter how ridiculous. Consequently, I am constantly running out of space in my archives and routinely have to call the tech people to fix this issue. Two weeks ago, the gentleman who magically solved the problem did something differently.  He showed me the steps I needed to take in order to increase my storage myself. It was enlightening to say the least. I have since created numerous folders that enable me to archive more strategically.  He did not just solve the problem; he taught me how to solve the problem. This is the whole theory behind building capacity. We need to bear in mind that we are all still teachers and staff developers. A change in our title did not change the philosophy behind the role. Remember principals are called principals because they were originally the Principal (Lead) Teacher. When we model a skill for our teachers and fellow educational leaders, we empower them. They now have a skill that they can use strategically to problem solve at the school and classroom level. Isn’t this what we truly want for our children?  Isn’t this the ideal goal of the Common Core?

5. Evaluate Learning not Teaching - As a trained Quality Reviewer for eight years and the person charged with conducting Principal Performance Observations, I have spent a good deal of time in classrooms observing instruction. When I go into a class I always ask children if I may sit next to them and then I try to observe the lesson through the child’s eye. I ask what they are doing and why they are doing it. I ask to see their work and I listen in carefully to group discussions to ascertain their ability to think at a critical level. This is how I gauge the reality of the lesson, because what I really want to assess is not just what the teacher is doing but what the students are actually getting out of the experience. In short, what is being learned? As administrators, it is all too easy to focus on the lesson itself, the preparation and the delivery, but what really matters is that the lesson actually resulted in targeted student learning. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that you have to plan well to be able to effectuate this kind of learning, but we have all seen well planned and delivered lessons where the students simply did not get it. We as educational leaders have to share this message. We have to keep our “eyes on the prize” and the prize is student learning, not just teacher performance. If the kids are not learning, the delivery was not successful.

6. Be a Reflective Problem Solver - Any administrator can tell you that their best laid plans are often sidetracked by the plethora of problems and “fires” that we are called upon to address on a daily basis. It is one of the most frustrating aspects of our work. It is very easy to jump on an answer and quickly “put out” the problem. However, it is the very nature of this process that prevents us from being reflective leaders. When we are “fire extinguishers,” we do not take into consideration the consequences. We do not take the time to think systemically. Whenever this happens, I am constantly reminded of the parable of the penguins and the walruses in a small book called The Tip of the Iceberg by David Hutchens. It speaks to the unseen consequences of quick problem solving.  This is one of my hardest resolutions and one that I know is shared. Being a true problem solver requires both time for reflection and critical friends to collaborate with on solutions. (Like the weight loss issue, I will keep you posted on this one.)

7. Love What You Do - When you get up there in years and experiences, people start to mumble the “R” word around you, and to be honest on bad days you think about retirement as well. A wise woman once grounded me by telling me it was the work that mattered, not the title or the office. If you love the work then that is what sustains you in what is an extremely difficult, stressful and yet enormously fulfilling position. I love the work that I do and though I often feel overwhelmed and harried, I am hopeful, because being an administrator and an educator is such powerful and meaningful work. There is a corny teacher mug that says, “To teach is to touch the future.” Multiply this idea exponentially to understand your impact as an administrator. It is for this reason that you have to love the work. It will take all you can give and ask for more, but in the end you will see your success in the achievement of the thousands of children you serve over the course of your career. You touch lives every day. No work can be more meaningful, more valuable than that.

(Please note that these views are my personal views and do not necessarily reflect the views of the New York City Department of Education.)

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