Teaching Opinion

Response: Administrators Must Make ‘Alliances With Students, Teachers & Parents’

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 09, 2014 9 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series on this topic)

Lori DiGisi asked:

How can curriculum leaders (Directors, principals) support the kind of curriculum innovation that it takes to truly differentiate and create lessons that students will remember beyond the next test?

Today, I’ll be sharing guest responses from three educators -- Anne Reeves, Justin Tarte, and PJ Caposey. Part Two in this series will include contributions from three more teachers, along with comments from readers.

In addition, you can listen to a ten-minute podcast on this subject where I talk with Anne Reeves and Kelly Young (you’ll see his written response in Part Two).

Before we get to the guest responses, though, here are a few of my own thoughts:

I’d respond to Lori’s question by making these three suggestions to administrators:

* Build relationships. During my nineteen year community organizing career, I learned that little can be accomplished without first developing a foundation of trust and support. Administrators taking the time to learn my story (including my hopes and dreams), and their sharing their own, goes a long ways towards my desire to respect their judgment and take their ideas, and suggestions, seriously (you might want to explore my previous three-part series on implementing innovation).

* As part of the process of building relationships, develop a collaborative culture so that administrators are doing “with” and not doing “to” teachers. Another lesson I learned as an organizer is that it’s fine to start by sharing your own vision, but the key to success is after sharing it being open to critique and change and encourage others to mold it so it also becomes their own (readers might be interested in The Best Posts & Articles On Building Influence and Creating Change).

* Finally, if you want students to remember lessons beyond the next test, don’t place unfair pressure on students and teachers to focus on annual standardized tests as a measure of their ability as learners or educators. Instead, use the countless other research-based assessment methods and tools that have been found to be effective.

And, now, to today’s guests:

Response From Anne Reeves

Anne Reeves is an associate professor of education at Susquehanna University, in Selinsgrove, Pa., and the author of Where Great Teaching Begins: Planning for Student Thinking and Learning (ASCD, 2011):

Whether a curriculum is innovative or tried-and-true, administrators can support all students’ learning of curriculum that is memorable, meaningful and useful.

How? Develop alliances that put you where the action is.

Alliances with students

Go to the front lines of schooling--talk with students about their learning experiences. Administrators’ assessments of progress come not strictly through grades and test scores, but through communication with students about what they remember and use and how they feel about themselves as learners in various curriculum disciplines. Students can reveal gaps between instruction, assessment, and enduring learning by informing school personnel about their experiences. Their stories show us what the next steps should be.

I ask readers of my book (about designing instruction) to imagine a principal in the hallway outside of the classroom. As students emerge at the end of a class, this principal asks them “What did you learn today? What new skills do you have?” BE that administrator. Find out from students what they’re learning; if they don’t know, or can’t remember, or think they learned nothing, find out why. When learning is successful, find out why. If students talk about what they did in class instead of what they learned, teach them to see and articulate the difference. Students can become active partners in their learning if they’re taught how. As partners, they can help shape instruction.

Alliances with teachers

Just as teachers must form relationships with all individual students, so administrators must know individual teachers and develop trusting relationships with them. Discuss teachers’ goals for meaningful student learning and methods of achieving them. Brainstorm together. Encourage using natural ways of learning to help students enjoy and remember content. Use walk-throughs to learn what students respond to; build on those instructional strengths.

Alliances with parents

These take many forms, but boil down to “We’re all working toward the same goals--your children’s education and well-being.”

Achieving shared goals for meaningful, useful learning (articulated clearly at the level of objectives) depends on all concerned parties understanding and participating in this system of alliances. Administrators can take the lead.

Response From Dr. Justin Tarte

Dr. Justin Tarte is the Director of Curriculum & Support Services in the Union R-XI School District in St. Louis, MO. He has worked as a junior high administrator and began his career in education as a high school German Teacher. Dr. Tarte is active on Twitter @justintarte and blogs regularly at Life Of An Educator:

One of the biggest challenges we continue to face in education is the ‘teaching to the test’ mantra that we too often (whether on purpose or accidentally) seem to get caught up in. We first determine what it is we want kids to learn and then we design the corresponding assessment. Students spend time learning and then they are assessed. In short time unfortunately, much of the information is forgotten and the rate of retention is rather low. In this scenario, education is being done ‘to’ our students rather than ‘with’ our students.

To ensure our kids remember beyond the test, a strong curriculum built around innovation is needed. This type of curriculum has three main components for students: voice, choice and audience. When these three pieces are present in the day-to-day instruction we deliver in our classrooms, we have a much better chance of longer, deeper, and more sustainable retention levels.

Voice: Think about your education... did any of your teachers ask your opinion on the structure of learning or the structure of the assessments in your classes? Most would probably say no. This is where we have a huge opportunity to give our students voice in the learning structures within our classrooms. It’s this voice that creates buy in and support for students and their learning.

Choice: We talk a lot about empowering our students, but it’s not often that we give our students choice in the learning process. Imagine a classroom where students are able to pursue and engage in their interests as it relates to the bigger picture. Obviously there are standards and learning objectives that need to be met, but except for us, the educators, there is nothing preventing our students from addressing these standards as part of something they are interested in learning more about.

Audience: When kids create, write, and design just for their teachers, they make sure it’s good enough for their teachers. Here’s the thing, we don’t want our students doing work that is ‘good enough.’ We want our kids doing work that is out of this world. We want our kids sharing their genius with the world, and to do that we need to give them an authentic and global audience.

So, my challenge for you is to redefine your instructional model and empower your students to be actively involved in THEIR education. At the same time, create ample opportunities for your students to share their genius with the world. If you do this, then kids won’t be learning for a test, they will be learning for their life.

Response From PJ Caposey

PJ Caposey is Superintendent of Meridian CUSD in Northwest Illinois and a sought after presenter and consultant. PJ has written two books, Building a Culture of Support: Strategies for School Leaders and Teach Smart: 11 Learner-Centered Strategies that Ensure Student Strategies, and is an active blogger for many websites. PJ can be reached at principalcaposey@hotmail.com or followed @principalpc:

If you don’t fail on a relatively grand scale at least once per year, you are probably not trying hard enough. This was advice my mentor gave to me and that I share with my teachers quite frequently trying to help establish a culture of innovation, risk-taking, and quite simply - progress. Large failures do not come by following the outline of a pre-purchased curriculum or textbook and genius does not simply occur out of activities that have produced the same results year after year. Progress, innovation, creativity, and genius are all born out of change, risk, vision, and passion. Show me a principal that establishes that type of culture in their building and show me someone who is a game-changer and in the truest sense of the word is serving their faculty, staff, and students.

Three things leaders can do to work toward this end include:

Be explicit: Our teachers want to do a great job and work hard every day at their craft. If the expectation and I hope it is, is to create differentiated lessons with experiential learning that truly engages students then we must state it as such. Our teachers are capable of great things - but we must tell them where the destination is if we expect them to make progress.

Build trust: I give out “Feel Free to Fail” cards to each teacher and ask that they come in and share with me a time when they tried something knew and it did not work. This is a very small thing - but it is my way as a leader to show that classroom failures (and we have all had them) are not going to be used as ‘gotchas.’ Teachers must believe that we are there to support them. The move from sit and get education to innovative instruction is a process, not merely a decision an educator can make - leaders must support this process.

Teach less to teach more: Teachers cannot teach everything there is to know. In fact, those that focus on teaching content have a much smaller chance of feeling as though they have the time to teach innovative, creative lessons that truly stick with kids for a lifetime. Is there a balance to be reached - yes! Students must have a certain level of content knowledge to be culturally literate, however, if we want to explore the true genius in our students we must realize that students must create the content, not consume it. The simple way of saying that and promoting it as an educational leader is this - teach less, not more.

Thanks to Anne, Justin and PJ their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post. I’ll be including reader responses in Part Two.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind. You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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Education Week has published a collection of posts from blog -- along with new material -- in an ebook form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Last, but not least, I’ve recently begun recording a weekly eight-minute BAM! Radio podcast with educators who provide guest responses to questions. You can listen and/or download them here.

I’ll be posting Part Two in a few of days....

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.