Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Quest for BETTER

I find myself using the word “better” quite often.  Better is a rather bland term that merely means to improve upon.  But, think about how much better something can be if one considers incremental improvements.  Incrementally, if we are better today compared to yesterday and better this school year compared to last, how much better can we become over time? In fact, better was one theme of last evening’s #ndedchat as each participant was asked to share a goal that you would like to accomplish next school year.  Here are a couple of the responses:

In order to get better, we often need to ask others how we are doing.  Sometimes our own perception of our teaching, work, school, and district does not always match the perceptions of others.  Here are a few examples to ponder.

When I was a classroom teacher, my goal was always to become better.  My first year in the classroom compared to my tenth year was significantly different.  One of my methods was to give my students an opportunity to provide honest opinions about their experience in my classroom.  I recently reviewed some of the completed surveys (which I have saved) and read through many of the the survey responses.  (After doing so, I think this will be another blog topic for another day.)  The top of the survey stated: Please answer the following questions honestly and in much detail as possible.  Your answers are important to me.  I value your opinion to improve myself as a teacher and my U.S. history class.  The 2 main questions were:
  1. What did you like BEST about this class?  Be specific.
  2. What did you like LEAST about this class?  Be specific.
A quick summary of the results indicate students liked best: projects, hands-on learning, cooperative learning, simulations, role playing, and using technology.  On the other hand, students liked least: notes, quizzes, reading out of the textbook, and worksheets.  My last year as a classroom teacher was 2003, and yes, I was guilty of having a certain percentage of graded items to list in the gradebook that students liked least.  It was not easy for me to receive criticism about my teaching and the learning experiences I worked so hard  to create.  But, I asked for it because I felt the overall student perspective was more important than how I felt about THEIR experience.  I took those evaluations to heart and made adjustments each year based on their opinions.  The learning environment in my classroom shifted from teacher-centered to student-centered (more project based learning) mostly because of the feedback I received from my students.

For many years, I worked with a teacher evaluation system as both a teacher and administrator that allowed few opportunities for growth.  As a teacher, I desired to learn ways I could improve.  I usually got a “doing great” evaluation from my administrator, which did little to add to my growth.  As an administrator, I found myself providing similar input.  Currently, I am thrilled that our district is using the Marzano Teacher Evaluation Model.  The Marzano model contains 60 elements which build on each other to support teacher growth, development, and performance with a strong emphasis on Domain 1: Classroom Strategies and Behaviors. The basic premise is to define quality elements of teaching and learning, observe, evaluate, and open the door for some dialog between the principal and teacher.  In the old model, only one observation was required and no score was issued, so basically, the majority of teachers were allowed to carry on with business as usual.  The Marzano model, through multiple observations, assigns a score, followed by a conversation regarding potential growth opportunities.  Evaluation scores are new to teachers and not all teachers have embraced rating scores of less than innovating (perfect).  We are not all “there” yet.  We are not all perfect in all aspects of our teaching profession.  I believe there is always room for growth.  We should be aspiring to be innovating in all aspects every day and we will get there through our commitment to being better every day.

From a systems perspective on getting better, many districts use an accreditation organization or system to guide their school improvement efforts.  Many schools use AdvancED which provides “...guiding principles and effective practices for school improvement that help schools advance the level of education they improvement is both strategic and operational and essential components must be in place for a school to truly address comprehensive school improvement. A school must be able to collect and analyze data, set goals, plan, implement, and evaluate. The realization that none of these components are independent of each other along with the continuous review and evaluation of activities leading to improved results is what leads to authentic school improvement (AdvancED).  Surveying stakeholders (parents, staff, and students), analyzing the results, and initiating changes based on the results is a key component of the process.  Every five years, an external review team provides an objective validation of the areas in which the school/district is doing well and the areas needing improvement.  The school or district evaluation includes a list of Powerful Practices (all schools/districts have things to be proud of), Opportunities for Improvement (there is always room for improvement), and Required Actions (areas in which schools/districts must address).  What a wonderful, researched-based model and systems approach to continuous improvement for our school/district to become better.

So, what are we afraid of? What is standing in our way of becoming better each day to become great?  Jim Collins provided some insight to those questions: “Good is the enemy of great. And that is one of the key reasons why we have so little that becomes great. We don't have great schools, principally because we have good schools. We don't have great government, principally because we have good government. Few people attain great lives, in large part because it is just so easy to settle for a good life.” (Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...and Others Don’t, 2001).  Good is comfortable.  Great is challenging.  Just think...If we have a true desire to get better and we are committed to getting better every day, month, year, how good can we become?  Let’s make better part of our everyday thoughts and actions.  Our students will be the beneficiaries of our never ending quest to become better, and being better everyday will lead us down the path toward becoming great.  How are you going to be better?  Who are you going to ask for input to become a better teacher or administrator?

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