Monday, July 29, 2019

Start the New School Year By Building Relationships

I love the newness of the beginning of the school year. New clothes, new shoes, new school supplies, freshly painted walls, and newly waxed floors. All are wonderful reminders of our opportunity to wipe the slate clean and start again. If you are like most teachers, you may be tirelessly preparing for the first week of school and the to-do list seems never-ending.  But as we ready ourselves for the kickoff, let's keep in mind the reason we teach.  
Image Credit: Pixabay
The start of a school year has to be about building relationships.  It's a time to establish an atmosphere of cooperation and support so that significant learning can occur. Aside from imparting knowledge and skills, educators have a tremendous responsibility to lead young people on their learning journey. As they learn the rules to follow and the content they'll be taught, it's imperative that students build relationships with those who will be on the journey with them.  
Image Credit: Pixabay
Here are some of my favorite activities to help build classroom community.
Every student is given a bingo sheet. Each square contains a question and students must find classmates who can affirmatively answer a question and sign the corresponding square. Because students cannot sign more than one square, kids must circulate the room and talk to many different classmates in an effort to cover five in a row or even the entire sheet.  
Let's Break the Ice

Developed by Shelly Sanchez Terrell, students are given a list of questions, and for a period of one minute, pairs of classmates will interview each other and answer a given question. After a minute, they find another classmate and move to the next question. The game ends when all questions have been answered. This activity will help find commonalities. Students are often surprised to find how much they have in common with those they perceive to be most different. Afterward, students reflect on the results, which could lead to a group or class discussion, a writing activity or blog post. 
Using the presentation tool of their choice, students create a collage of images that represent a vision of their future. When completed, students present their vision boards to their classmates. While this a great strategy for focusing on goals and aspirations, sharing the boards with peers helps to find commonalities that can strengthen the classroom culture. Here's a sample.
Developed by Kyle Schwartz and featured on national news networks, the lesson plan was first implemented with third graders as a sentence starter. I adapted the lesson when I taught secondary English learners and used it as a blog post prompt. Students were asked to compose a paragraph and share any information they deemed essential to their learning. Teachers can gain invaluable insight from this activity. It can be implemented with any student population and can be tremendously helpful in planning for differentiation.
As we embark on the new school year, let's remember the words of Dr. James Comer. 
Learning about our students and helping them learn about each other helps develop significant relationships that should, in turn, maximize their learning experience.

Modified from its original version, I originally wrote this post as a response to Larry Ferlazzo's question, "What are the best ways to start a school year?" published on August 8, 2016. 

Sunday, July 14, 2019

The Voice of a Quiet Leader

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Regardless of where an educator falls on the leadership spectrum, if they inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, they are leaders. Leadership is not about position, paycheck, or prestige and is not limited to administrators.
The term “teacher-leader” has become a ubiquitous term, commonly found on evaluation rubrics, résumés, and publications. Leadership is no longer limited to principals, central office personnel, or superintendents. It has become an expectation of all educators. But what exactly is a "teacher leader?"

Commonly referring to those teachers who have taken on leadership roles and additional responsibilities in their school communities, teacher leaders are perceived to be visible, vocal, and impactful. These individuals are often found chairing committees, mentoring beginning teachers, leading professional development sessions, and involving themselves in decision-making alongside the administrative team.

But how should we define being "visible, vocal, and impactful?" Do we need large crowds to make an impact? Do we need to undergo mentor training and be official mentors? Does leading professional development require a large group? Must the decision-making be part of a school improvement team or school leadership committee? If you concur with John Quincy Adams’s thoughts, your answer to these questions might be, “not necessarily.” A teacher leader identifies a need, steps up, and attempts to find solutions.

Whether or not we are vocal and visible, sitting on committees, or taking on additional duties, we are all leaders. Our work as educators is as much about connecting with learners, as it is about curriculum, standards, and student data. Effective teachers not only impart knowledge, but they also inspire students to, as John Quincy Adams purportedly stated, “dream more, learn more, do more, and become more.” Regardless of your official title, from the teachers' lounge to PLCs to formal professional development sessions, we are leading our peers in larger and smaller ways. We are also leaders to parents who entrust their children to our care. To other stakeholders, we are leaders who foster their support for the children, schools, and community.

Teacher leadership is about relationships. It is not necessarily about how visible or how vocal we are. It’s about seizing every opportunity to make a difference in the life of another human being. Adams’s quote sits on my office wall serving as a reminder, to me and the teachers I serve, that every day we have the opportunity to lead - to make a difference.

Just as oxygen is not seen or heard but is critical to our existence, quiet leaders are the invisible force behind the learning process. Their efforts may be seldom acknowledged, their accomplishments may be rarely recognized and their voices may not be heard loud and clear, yet without their leadership, our schools could not survive.

If you are a quiet leader, know that you are invaluable to the school community. And for those who are at the front and center, let’s not fail to affirm those who are leading from behind.