“Merhaba!” “Salaam! “¡Buenos días!” In my eleven years as a public school principal, greeting my students at the door as they start their school day is one of my greatest joys. It also serves an important purpose – setting a welcoming, warm environment in which each student is known and valued. In serving a range of English learners over the years, I have learned to keep five essential values at the core as I partner with teachers and parents to support our whole student body.
Students who are English learners are English learners all day. (Photo courtesy of the author)
First, bilingualism is a gift and an asset. Helping students maintain their native language is crucial for helping them to develop their identity. We always encourage parents to support their children’s native language development, helping our students engage in complex discourse at home, while celebrating the linguistic assets our students bring to school each day.
Class act! Principal Nauiokas and students at Mott Haven Academy in the Bronx. (Photo courtesy Jessica Nauiokas)
Every year, hundreds of thousands of youth enter the foster care system in America and become one of our most vulnerable groups of students, as each move from home to home is frequently accompanied by school transfers and educational disruption.
As the principal of a school specifically designed to meet the needs of children in foster care, Mott Haven Academy in the Bronx, I have seen how factors like unnecessary school transfers and untrained educators allow child welfare-involved youth to fall through the cracks. As a result the country’s half-million foster children have poorer attendance rates than their peers, are less likely to perform at grade level, are more likely to have behavior and discipline problems, are disproportionally assigned to special education classes, and are less likely to attend college.
The first-ever Educator Equity Lab was held on March 29th at Jackson State University in Mississippi, where more than one hundred education stakeholders made commitments to ensuring equal access to excellent teachers for the state’s students of color and students from low income backgrounds.
The Lab was part of the Department of Education’s broader efforts to support states in closing persistent nationwide “equity gaps” in access to great teachers. Last fall, then-Secretary Arne Duncan announced the approval of the first batch of state plans submitted under the Excellent Educators for All Initiative. And, he tasked the Department’s Teaching and Principal Ambassador Fellows with leading a series of labs to help with their implementation.
As NCLB’s replacement, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) comes into focus, educators’ input is poised to play a larger role in the implementation of law than ever before. Over the past several weeks, educators, other key stakeholders, and representative organizations have come to discussions with the Department of Education, both in person and electronically, to share thoughts on the guidance and clarification that are needed in moving forward in implementing this law.
As part of the listening, the U.S. Department of Education’s Teaching and Principal Ambassador Fellows (TAFs/PAFs) were asked to hold listening sessions for Department staff with teachers, principals, and other stakeholders to inform ESSA implementation. This past week, several other TAFs and I organized sessions in and around our own communities with district superintendents in Connecticut, math teachers in California, students in Rhode Island, business leaders in Colorado, and educators in Washington, D.C., and New Hampshire; and, in the coming weeks, we have discussions planned in rural communities in Northern California and Washington across to urban centers of New York City and New Jersey, to name a few.
As I sat in Colorado soliciting input, I realized that this shift to a more proactive, solutions-oriented mindset proved harder than it sounds. For too long, we have been asked merely to react. Now we have the opportunity to shed the reactionary posture we have been exercising for the past two decades under NCLB and it’s not easy.
In these sessions we heard a lot of important feedback. We heard calls in Connecticut for incentives for districts and states to innovate. High school students shared their feelings about standardized assessment and their concern about the extent to which current assessments really measure who they are. Math teachers and leaders in California expressed a need for clearer definitions of college and career ready standards and posed questions about accountability measures that reflect more than test scores. In every place, we heard calls for improving all angles of the teaching profession –recruitment, retention, and job satisfaction.
While important to hear, what is evident is that they are not new – all are responses to what has been; What’s new is that we are being called on to contribute our professional expertise in crafting what could be. If ESSA is to work, states, districts, and the federal government must seize opportunities to craft policy that employs our firsthand knowledge of what works and doesn’t in real classrooms and schools. At this moment, the federal government is asking what we see as the key provisions and policies so that any guidance or rules enacted reflect our professional expertise. We know that every teacher and school leader won’t sit in a room with Department staff, but please know that you can send your thoughts and concerns to email@example.com. Adding your voice does not mean having to read and digest 1,000-plus pages of the law. Plenty of analyses and summaries have been published and you can find some starting places on the Department’s website.
I am glad that ESSA provides an opportunity for us all to rethink the assessment, accountability and educator evaluation systems to ensure they are meaningful and helpful. It’s important that the law requires consultation with stakeholders like us at every level. Now, we need to be ready with our vision and our solutions of what can be so that every student can truly succeed.
This post is one in a series on ED Goes Back to School, a program that integrates ED employees into diverse classrooms.
We all know that ‘a-ha’ moment. You remember the teacher that made your world open up in new ways, or the moment you saw a child’s eyes light up in understanding. Love for learning starts early. To celebrate these everyday small moments of joy, the US Department of Education embarked on a week-long journey, visiting several Early Learning Programs in the DC metro area. Highlights below:
ED staff visited different programs in the DC metro area, including Educare whose work with the homeless ties directly to the White House Place-based initiative pilot. Following the visit, staff from different program offices gathered to share their takeaways. Kimberlin Butler, an analyst with the Office of Innovation and Improvement, found that “talking to those communities about their early learning models and getting the leaders to be empathetic to the different situations students enrolled” underscores the importance of place-based learning.
ED was also able to visit CentroNía, an early learning program that teaches children in a dual-language English/Spanish Early Learning environment. The program uses a co-teaching model, with two teachers providing instruction in either Spanish or English. ED employees who visited observed that the program was not just teaching a second language, but bilingualism, as the school shared that many families speak both English and Spanish at home.
We live in an increasingly connected world. At School Within School, children maintained their community garden, infusing science into nurturing the environment. Rebecca Miller, who works in the International Affairs Office, shared a small moment of joy while climbing a staircase during her visit: “I ran into a music teacher, carrying a guitar…he met his students for music class and they sang the going up the stairs song.” SWS retweeted the video, with the hashtag “#nothing without joy”. This sums up what early learning is about: the openness of embracing all things.
The Power of Early Learning
ED Goes Back to School provided the opportunity for the Department of Education to connect their work to various innovative models of Early Learning. The consensus was that these visits gave us a better understanding of how Early Learning is at the ground level. Teacher Ambassador Fellow Meredith Morelle shared how “the Policy office is P-12 and the emphasis needs to be on the P part, not K or 1. It is important that policymakers see practice. As an educator, it is important to have an understanding of pre-k.”
Ultimately, after visiting and sharing their impressions, everyone agreed on the most important takeaway of their school visits: it takes hard work to educate all kids.
Every year the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) selects a national Principal of the Year. During this year’s selection process they brought their three finalists to Washington DC to connect with local legislators, policy makers, and officials in the United States Department of Education. These are reflections from a conversation with these three principal finalists led by some of the Department’s Teaching and Principal Ambassadors Fellows.
I had the wonderful opportunity a few Fridays ago to moderate a roundtable discussion with the three finalists for the National Secondary School Principal of the Year. As I heard their responses during the discussion, I couldn’t help but notice that while each of the three finalists came from vastly different contexts, there were common threads that ran among their responses.
The conversation around teacher development, for example, led all three candidates to discuss the importance of teachers and acknowledge that teachers are critical for high-functioning schools. I was particularly taken by a quote from Patty Fry, the principal of Plymouth South High School in Plymouth, Massachusetts, who said, “If we don’t have good principals, we can’t keep good teachers; if we don’t have good teachers, we have nothing.” This statement explains why leadership is critical to schools and the important role both principals and teachers play in student success.
The other thing that struck me during the conversation was the relentlessness demonstrated by each of these three individuals. On several occasions there was mention about not taking no for an answer and finding ways to overcome obstacles that stand in the way of what is best for kids. Principal Kyle Hoehner of Lexington High School in Lexington, Nebraska, explained, “If we are told we can’t do it, we still find a way … if it is best for kids you always find a way.”
Principal Alan Tenreiro of Cumberland High School in Cumberland, Rhode Island, who was ultimately selected as the NASSP National Principal of the Year, summed it up by saying, “We create a culture of trust, where teachers are not the objects of change, but the agents of change.” That is, a good principal doesn’t try to control how teachers teach; rather she empowers teachers to make the changes needed to meet the best interest of students.
This statement resonated the most with me because I realized that any of the finalists would identify, but so would a lot of principals across America. Principals everywhere are transforming life outcomes for our children and are committed to working hand in hand with teachers to be agents of change. It is truly a position where context matters, but at the heart, there are far more similarities you find among great leaders than differences.
Everyone remembers a teacher that inspired them. How many of us remember our principals? Principals are responsible for ensuring our schools are open, that the teachers who inspired us are receiving the support he or she needs, and that our classrooms are environments that will help us learn.
I was inspired by a principal. But, it wasn’t when I was a child; it was when I was a teacher. And that inspiration has guided me to become a principal who continues to adapt and learn based on what I saw worked and didn’t work.
My principal, Jill Myers, inspired me to lead. She helped me become a strong teacher. She opened doors for me in education, challenged me, and supported me. She showed me that strong leadership builds strong schools. What I learned from my principal was that leadership matters.
When I was a first-year teacher in the South Bronx, I almost left the teaching profession. Like many, I was new; I was hopeful and wanted to make a difference. But, I still didn’t know how yet. Great teachers aren’t born – they are nurtured and developed. Great teachers have a mentor that helps them grow.
The strongest model for schools is one in which principals are creative, innovative instructional leaders. They find opportunities for their teachers to lead. They support teachers in their growth and create a safe space for adults to take risks in their learning. As we look at what builds a great school, we need to look at the principal. Who is at the helm? What vision have they set for their communities? How have they developed an environment that fosters learning and creativity?
Our kids need great teachers. And our teachers need great leaders. One can’t exist without the other. Principals bring in opportunities for their communities – they find resources where there weren’t any before. They connect families. They find places for children to thrive both in and outside of the classroom.
As a Principal Ambassador Fellow, I am proud to be able to represent principals in education. With this fellowship, ED recognizes that principals can make a huge difference in a school. This October, for National Principals Month, I urge you to get to know your principal. My hope is that the next generation of students will say that their principal inspired them to lead, and as a result, more great schools will emerge and continue to thrive.
As a principal for the past twelve years, whenever I meet with teachers and ask them what they want to focus on to help students learn, over and over again, the resounding cry is: how do we teach effort? “Too many of our students just give up!” they cry. “If they only tried, they would succeed!” others say. Teachers are not flustered by a student’s struggles academically, but rather, they say, if students learn the habits of “stick-with-it-ness,” they can grow and feel successful.
Educators play an especially important role in building growth mindsets in middle school, and middle school students benefit from additional support from their teacher when learning growth mindset skills.
Schools across the country are implementing strategies to teach learning mindsets, so that when we talk about learning, it involves more than just intelligence, but an understanding that teachers can help mold a student’s perspective and outlook on learning, and help him or her discover what it takes to succeed.
At Baruch College Campus High School in Manhattan, the mathematics department is trying to change students’ mindsets from fixed to growth. Teachers are working to instill grit, tenacity, perseverance, and resilience in the classroom. They’re making grit part of the class conversation with open discussions that reveal moments from their own lives where grit was relevant or should have been.
In Dr. Elizabeth Jaffe’s class, she teaches a lesson by moving all the chairs to the side of the room. Students are only able to get their chairs back through problem solving. The problems aren’t difficult, but they require perseverance.
When you walk the halls, you see posters on classroom doors reminding students that hard math problems are not the same as long math problems. The bulletin boards allow space for students to add ways they’ve displayed grit academically or personally. The school culture’s has created an environment where students are reminding each other to show grit throughout the year.
Another way the school supports effort over smarts is through their homework policy: homework is graded based on completion. If they don’t know an answer, students need to show where they went to get unstuck, even if it didn’t work. Students also have flexibility in their assignments, allowing them to use their strengths. This may be something as simple as choosing from three debate topics, choosing the method of presentation for their work, choosing homework questions, or choosing which section of the newspaper to critique when determining how the media uses statistics to manipulate the public.
In Brooke Simon’s Algebra class, she provides students with hint envelopes. In the beginning, when they solve a problem they can use as many hints as needed, but the goal at the end of the year is for them to stop using the hint envelopes as a crutch. Students are taught that a wrong answer can be as informative as a right answer. This increases student confidence, allows them to feel more comfortable participating, and it teaches them to keep going no matter what.
Ultimately, the students feel more successful and develop a greater love of mathematics when they realize that it’s not always about the right answer, it’s about recognizing the beauty of the mathematics around them.
Students often say “I’m not good at math.” Baruch is a great example of how a school and its staff are actively working to combat that mindset, and building on the concepts of Learning Mindsets, they are changing students’ minds one problem at a time.
Danny wasn’t coming to school. When he would come, he sat quietly in his seat, eyes downcast. His academic advisor had noticed he was in school less and less and was disconnected. She followed a ladder of intervention, which guided her to reach out to his teachers and the guidance counselor. As his advisor, she knew her students well, because she cycled with them for all four years of high school. When Danny wasn’t in class, the entire school team engaged in supporting his return.
Today, the U.S. Department of Education—in partnership with the US Departments of Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, and Justice—launch Every Student, Every Day: A National Initiative to Address and Eliminate Chronic Absenteeism to raise awareness about our national chronic absenteeism problem and to support states, school districts, communities, and schools that are committed to solving this problem. Typically defined as missing at least 10% or more of school days in a year for any reason, excused or unexcused, chronic absenteeism affects as many as 7.5 million kids a year and is a strong predictor of low academic achievement and high school drop out.
It is common knowledge that in order to learn, kids need to be in school. Yet, Danny’s story is familiar to all of us. Many of our children are not attending school on a regular basis, causing them to fall further behind.
Children cannot be anonymous. Oftentimes, if a child has been away from school for an extended period of time, they fear returning. When they enter class, they are so far behind, it seems impossible to catch up. And so the cycle continues. They no longer return to school – they are further removed from learning, disenfranchised and lost.
The teacher action plan is one example of how a school provided guidance to all educators in the building to support students. The counselor worked with social services and arranged home visits. We learned that Danny was a homeless gay youth, struggling with his identity and his family. There were many obstacles stopping Danny from coming to school.
In the end? Danny graduated and went to college. He emailed his advisor and guidance counselor, telling them “you saved my life. Thank you.” For a young man who was lost in the world, school gave him an anchor. His teachers noticed, and his counselor provided supports.
This approach is critical to combatting chronic absenteeism. It wasn’t just that his teachers cared. It was that the school had a comprehensive, clear system to help all stakeholders support this child. Teachers could follow a plan that they had a voice in crafting.
It truly takes a village to raise a child. We talk a lot about college and career readiness, but if the child is not sitting in his seat in school, he cannot learn. This story is the story of my school, and how through teacher leadership, a team approach, and a commitment to teaching the whole child, we were able to help this young man achieve his potential. What’s your story? How can we help all our children get to school, and stay there, every day?
Seeing the sights in Banff. Front row from left to right: Secretary Duncan, Pam Reilly, Wendy Bandi, Jennifer Aponte; Back row: Joseph Fatheree, Sharif El-Mekki and Mark Sass. Not Pictured: Natalie McCutchen (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)
It was wholly evident to us at ISTP 2015 that great teaching is increasingly being recognized worldwide – and rightfully so — as a key catalyst to improving trajectories for individual citizens and whole countries. The theme of the summit, Implementing Highly Effective Teacher Policy and Practice, focused on: developing and promoting effective leadership among principals, teachers, and administrators, valuing teachers and strengthening their sense of effectiveness or “self-efficacy;” and encouraging innovation in the 21st-century classroom. As guests of the U.S. Department of Education, Secretary Arne Duncan invited us to attend, learn and contribute.
Being party to this international conversation was exciting. As Jennifer Aponte, a K-12 teacher from Boston said, all the countries and delegates “should be commended for tackling the most complex educational issues.” These are not easy issues and it is such a tremendous opportunity for countries to learn from one another. However it was Secretary Duncan’s decision, Joe Fatheree, 2007 IL Teacher of the Year, noted to add “an authentic teacher’s voice to the conversation” that, “helped enrich the dialogue between global leaders on the importance of teacher leadership and innovation.” A key theme of the summit was teacher leadership and by inviting teachers and a principal, the Department of Education continued promoting educators as leaders and demonstrated its leadership on this issue.
Throughout the event, we were surprised that the sessions and panels did not include active practitioners nor highlighted active teachers as experts. As Wendi Bandi, 3-4th math teacher from Fall River, MA, put it, “the format of the summit did not reflect the ideas being discussed.” Mark Sass, a high school history teacher from CO observed, “teachers were continually referred to in the third person.” While ISTP 2015 had several experts about the field share useful analyses, there were no experts in the field lending their experience and expertise. Natalie McCutchen, a middle school math teacher from KY, remarked, “I was in awe…but one aspect of ISTP that kept resonating with me was that teachers should be in the forefront of the summit; teachers needed to be the ones delivering firsthand accounts of the initiatives and programs that have proved successful in their schools… teachers need to be the voice, face, and the experts of education.”
In an unusual move, Secretary Duncan insisted that the seven us be in the room to help shape the U.S. Delegation’s commitments for 2015 and asked that Jeff Charbonneau, the 2013 National Teacher of the Year, present our commitments to the international community. This symbolized that educators were both an integral part of creating the United States’ commitments, as well as key to meeting them. In doing so, “Secretary Duncan modeled what teacher leadership looks like when you cultivate and empower teachers to flourish as visionary leaders and not just part of the backdrop,” said Pam Reilly, the 2014 IL Teacher of the Year. Indeed, the seven of us felt very empowered, and in the pursuit of continuous improvement, convened a meeting with the other teachers from around the world. Collectively we committed to supporting teachers becoming an integral part of the 2016 International Summit on the Teaching Profession.
Next year, at this time, each country will travel to Berlin to share the progress they made towards and lessons learned from the commitments they announced in Banff. How the summit is formatted will also tell a story about countries’ commitment to teacher leadership. It is exciting that so many great minds are devoted to tackling some of teaching’s most complex issues. We are confident that we can build on the successes of the 2015 Summit and include more practitioners among those great minds. As leaders in U.S. schools, we are committed to help make this happen.
“The Ambassador Fellows are a critical investment in ensuring that the decisions affecting students are informed and implemented by our nation’s best teachers and leaders. The answers to our most challenging educational problems lie in the voices of the courageous principals and passionate teachers our Fellows bring us every day.”
– Secretary Arne Duncan
Teaching Ambassador Fellows gathered at the Teaching and Learning conference for the announcement of the Teach to Lead initiative earlier this year. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)
Since 2008, the Department has employed 87 outstanding teachers on a full- or part-time basis through the Teaching Ambassador Fellowship program. Last year, ED piloted a Principal Ambassador Fellowship that brought three highly-talented principals to work for the Department on a full- and part-time basis.
Teaching and Principal Ambassador Fellows are outstanding educators, with a record of leadership in the school community, strong communication skills, and insights on education policy based in their school and classroom expertise. They come with networks of support from their professional communities and have participated in a variety of activities that have prepared them to write and speak frequently about instruction, school culture and climate, educational leadership and policy.
Both of the highly selective programs reflect the belief that teachers and principals should have meaningful opportunities to learn about and shape the policies that impact students and school communities nationwide. As teachers and principals are often the most trusted sources of information about education policy for parents, community members, colleagues, and students themselves, it is imperative to create more ways to link the Department’s programs, policies, and resources directly to the field.
The 2013-2015 Principal Ambassador Fellows and Secretary Duncan. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)
There are two different options for candidates. The Washington Fellowship is a full-time appointment, based at the Department’s Headquarters in Washington. The Classroom Fellowship, on the other hand, enables teachers and principals to participate on a part-time basis, while still allowing them to fulfill their regular school responsibilities.
All Teaching Ambassador Fellows spend one year learning about key federal programs and policies, sharing their expertise with federal staff members, and providing background on federal initiatives to other educators. This helps teachers better understand and implement these efforts at the federal, state and local levels. For the Fellows, the program provides greater knowledge of federal educational policy, strengthens their leadership skills, and gives them the firsthand opportunity to address some of the challenging issues facing education today.
“Being a Teaching Ambassador Fellow has been the best professional learning of my career,” says Tami Fitzgerald. “I have learned about educational policy, but more than that, I have discovered that my voice can be heard, and our collective voices can make a difference.” Principal Ambassador Fellow, Rachel Skerritt adds, “The Principal Ambassador Fellowship is intended to be a beneficial resource to the Department, allowing ED to hear valuable input from school leaders. However, the experience has been just as beneficial to my own learning and leadership. I constantly bring back best practices to my own school, having had the privilege of meeting passionate principals nationwide.”
As October, National Principals Month, comes to an end, I cannot help but to reflect upon what led me into the principalship.
As a twenty-one year old African American male, I could have very easily become a statistic. Five months after graduating from IUP in rural Pennsylvania, I was shot and left for dead on a football field in Philadelphia.
Many people struggle to recover from such an experience and I am blessed to have a community that rallied around me and refused to let me succumb to the trauma that could have easily overwhelmed me. Instead, I was led to become a career changer, transitioning from counseling adjudicated youth to one of the most important careers in the world-being a principal.
As a teacher leader, my principal, Charles D’Alfonso, supported and encouraged me to take on the immense challenge of becoming a principal. He guided me, connected me with other mentors (like Yvonne Savior, who would serve as my new teacher coach and new principal coach years later), and provided various resources to spur my growth and success. And, although, I viewed myself as a leader of middle school students, my principal saw me as a leader of a school community.
Today, I make it part of my mission to encourage all my peers to mentor the brave, humble, and up-and-coming leaders in the principal pipeline. We need to do this to strengthen our profession and to ensure that there is a higher level of diversity in the principalship. By expanding leadership opportunities for women and minorities, we acknowledge the diversity of the students we serve. By harnessing the unique and life-impacting experiences and perceptions of culturally distinct principals, we will help to strengthen students’ outcomes – including and especially for the most vulnerable students in our communities. We will impact these students in ways that equip the next generation to master the incredible challenges and seize the incredible opportunities of our time.
It’s said Albert Einstein, the great scientist and philosopher, believed that one of the most powerful forces in the universe is the effect of compound interest in finance. I’m not sure if this attribution is true, but I do know that – like the power of earning “interest on interest,” – a great principal is a force that elevates, amplifies, and supports the great work of teachers and other school staff. And, that’s a mighty force! In my experience, it’s certainly one that moves mountains, uplifts communities, and accelerates student achievement.
My fellow Ambassadors Jill Levine and Rachel Skerritt and I have visited many cities and schools over the last several months, and we’ve spoken with over 875 principals. Research is clear about the tremendous lever that principals represent in school improvement efforts. Our conversations with our colleagues around the nation affirm the research below.
Principals’ actions have a have influence on why 70 percent of our best teachers leave the classroom
There are 90,000 principals, for 98,706 schools, employing 3 million teachers all of which serve the 55 million students in American public schools. On average, then, each principal impacts 611 students, each day, of each year, over their life at a school.
I am humbled and inspired daily by the work that we do and the impact that we have. As principals, we must continue to identify and develop those leaders in our buildings that can join us in this mission of the principalship – just as Charles D’Alfonso did twenty-two years ago.
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School-Shoemaker Campus in Philadelphia, PA, and a 2013-15 Campus Principal Ambassador Fellow of the U.S. Department of Education. El-Mekki serves on Mayor Michael Nutter’s Commission on African American Males and is an America Achieves Fellow.