Talking with Students

As I continue to learn and grow as an educator, one of the things I've pondered recently is my communication with students. I'm not perfect, but I do work on growing in my ability to connect with students and (hopefully) make a difference in their lives. 

The way we speak to and treat students is very important. Both are opportunities to model appropriate communication. One negative experience a student has with an adult can undo a lot of good and be very difficult to overcome. 

I have come to believe:
  • All students should be treated with dignity and respect.
  • We should speak to and treat students as if their parents were right there with us.
  • If we wouldn't say it in front of their parents, we shouldn't say it in front of anybody else.

One of the things I've been trying to do lately when finishing a conversation with a student is ask them 2-3 questions. Something along the lines of:
  • Do you feel I've treated you fairly?
  • Do you feel I've treated you respectfully?
  • Do you feel I care about you?

If I know I'm going to ask those questions, it helps guide my tone of voice and choice of words. And, I hope it helps send a message to the students that I truly care about them and how I treat them.

Doug Dunn is superintendent and principal of a small K-8 school in rural, south central Missouri. He can be found on Twitter at DougDunnEdS.

Be Somebody's Belle

Note: The post below is an email I sent staff on March 20, 2017.

One of the greatest joys of being an educator is helping students discover strengths, talents, and confidence. This past weekend, Julie and I had a rare opportunity to spend an evening with just the two of us.  With all of the potential controversy surrounding Beauty and the Beast, we decided to watch it before determining if we would allow our girls to do the same. There was a particular line in one of the songs that resonated with me more than it had before. I've heard the song many times before, but it hit different this time.

The line came towards the end of the movie when the Beast was discovering his gentle, caring side. Belle sang "there's something there that wasn't there before". The Beast had been rough around the edges and constantly had his guard up. His heart was hardened. That was, of course, until Belle inspired him to become something better. It wasn't easy, and it took a great deal of patience and perseverance, but Belle helped the Beast discover his great qualities that were hidden deep inside.

As educators, that's our ultimate challenge. We don't get to choose our students. We teach the ones we have - every single one of them. Many of them carry baggage to school that causes them to harden their hearts, behave in a negative manner, or care little about school. Those students need us now more than ever. Deep within them may be hidden, untapped greatness. Our challenge is to be the "Belle" in their lives who inspires them to pursue and discover their own level of greatness.

Doug Dunn has over 20 years of experience as a teacher, coach, and administrator. He can be found on Twitter at DougDunnEdS.

Seeking Better Things

Teachers are amazing people. Their work is hard, and they work hard at it. The demands placed on them can be difficult, challenging, emotionally and physically draining, stressful, and frustrating. The amount of respect and pay they receive do not correlate with the responsibilities placed on their shoulders. Simply put, teachers are modern day superheroes!

Great teachers are able to see that change is not necessarily a reflection on them, but a reflection of their students' needs. Often times, teachers are doing the best they can with the tools they have. I've recently reflected on a quote by Jeff Zoul in which he says Doing things better is good. But, doing better things is even better. 

One challenge I find with change, or even discussing change, is others feeling critiqued or attacked in a negative manner. Teachers may perceive doing things better as they aren't good enough. While this is typically not the case, the language we use in discussing change is extremely critical. I've not always been successful with this. My intentions have always been good, but I must continually work on my approach to effectively facilitating change. 

Doing better things is better. I find this part of the quote to be especially powerful. There is a wealth of research available now which tells us what the "better things" are. From Marzano to Hattie, there are many high-impact strategies we can incorporate into our classrooms that will blend well with our teaching styles and personalities to have incredible impacts on student learning. Doing better things simply means we discovered a more effective, efficient strategy. 

This is not the same thing as not being good enough. What it means is that we are growing professionally and finding ways to have a greater impact on the students we serve. Being better for students is not rooted in a personal attack; becoming better for students is a byproduct of our desire to pursue professional growth. As Todd Nesloney and Travis Crowder say in the book Sparks in the Dark, "Great teachers crave growth, and they seek challenges that will help them evolve as educators." Those challenges will come from genuine reflection and taking risks as we attempt new strategies. 

There was a time in which cash registers did not exist. The implementation of the cash register was not a personal attack on the employees at the time. Perhaps some perceived it to be such, but cash registers improved businesses by more accurately calculating totals and being able to check customers out in shorter amounts of time. Target stores recently experienced a company-wide outage in which the registers did not work. Their cashiers continued to work as hard as they could, but they simply could not get customers through the lines in a timely fashion. Businesses would not succeed today without the technology. This is not to slight the individuals who work as cashiers, but sometimes there are just better ways to do things. 

Cashiers can be hard-working, dedicated employees. However, without the cash register, the tools at their disposal just aren't efficient enough. Teaching is no different. Hard-working, dedicated teachers sometimes need more effective and efficient strategies in their toolbox. This is not a reflection on the abilities of the teacher but rather a reflection on the needs of our students.

Our ability to recognize there may be better strategies, and then successfully find and implement them, will make our impact on students great. 

Doug Dunn is superintendent and principal of a small K-8 school in rural, south central Missouri. He can be found on Twitter at DougDunnEdS.

The Difference Maker

Teaching is hard. It’s real hard. Most of us have seen some sort of picture or meme which describes all the different things teachers must be for their students. Most of these are true. Unless one has ever stood in front of a classroom and attempted to facilitate student learning, they have little clue what teaching is truly like. As Todd Whitaker has said, a non-educator who thinks they know how to teach because they were once a student is like the rest of us being master plumbers because we flushed a toilet this morning. There are many people out there who feel they have the answers even though they lack the training and understanding of research those of us in education have.

I live in a county with four independent, rural K-8 school districts which send students to our town’s high school. There is one business I go to on occasion in which the same conversation seems to pop up when the owner remembers I am the superintendent of one of the K-8 schools. It begins something like “I think all five schools should consolidate and become one. Our kids would be better off if they all had the same curriculum and were being taught the same things.” Whether it's a comment such as this or a debate on charter schools, my answer is the same. It's not the name of the school, the type of school, or even the curriculum that matters most. What matters most is the teacher in the classroom. 

The teacher in the classroom. 

No one person feels more pressure to produce results. And, unfortunately, no profession is respected less. This is a shame, too, because we have many incredible teachers in our classrooms.

There are many people trying to tell us how to do our jobs better. Believe us when we say we want to be better, too. Great teachers are never content with the status quo, and they are always reflecting and growing so they can continue to be better for students. 

Unfortunately, not every teacher is a great teacher. (same for administrators) It's a sad reality. The truth is, there are people in every profession who aren't great at what they do. Architects, lawyers, doctors, nurses, plumbers, electricians, mechanics, etc. Please do not bash an entire profession because of a few. We realize every student deserves a great teacher. And we strive to make this happen.

Getting great teachers in every classroom is a difficult task. For starters, fewer people are wanting to be teachers. There used to be a time when entering the teaching profession was encouraged and held with high regard. That has changed the last few decades. We no longer encourage enough of our best students to become teachers. Families also discourage choosing education. I can recall a member of my own family voicing his displeasure when I changed my major from business to education.

The lack of respect and income potential are major factors.

We don't enter education for the money. We enter education because of the profound impact we can have on the lives of young people. This is one of the messages we need to be sharing as we try to encourage more of our students to become teachers.

My wife and I were recently discussing these concerns and she brought up a great point. She noted colleges have extremely high standards for entry into medical school but low standards for teacher ed programs. How many students with an ACT score of 12 get into medical school? It happens with teacher preparation programs. I recall one of my undergraduate classes in which a professor asked those in the room why we chose our particular area of education. An elementary education major responded "I chose elementary because I'm bad at math." This happened to be a math education professor, and he candidly let his thoughts be known. I have asked applicants the same question. One time I was told "because the university didn't offer anything else." As a parent, these truths concern me. As an administrator involved in hiring, these responses do not show the passion I'm seeking in a potential hire.

Despite all of this, we should know that our education system is not broken. Our high school graduation rates are at all-time highs. When we compare ourselves with other countries in ways that compare apples to apples, we are doing extremely well. And, often times, much better than those countries that are typically mentioned as being the highest achieving.

Our country has great teachers. Teachers who are great at connecting with students, teachers who are passionate about what they do, and teachers who successfully challenge students to think, create, and achieve at levels they never knew were possible. 

Every student deserves a great teacher. Not by chance, but by design. This design process begins early on when we're encouraging high school students to become educators. It continues in college when students are being trained for teaching. The best learning ultimately occurs when teachers actually begin teaching. Teachers learn through reflection, instructional coaching, and various professional learning opportunities. 

It was stated earlier that what matters most is the teacher in the classroom. John Hattie's Visible Learning research indicates that about 95% of the influences on student achievement above the 0.4 hinge point are within a teacher's control or influence. The best teachers view this as liberating. It's liberating because, despite all of the baggage and obstacles in our students' lives, we can overcome and still have a major impact on each of them.

Hattie's research reinforces the importance and value of having a great teacher in every classroom. It's not the name on the school, the type of school, the technology being used, or the curriculum. The most important factor determining whether our students succeed in school is the teacher in the classroom. 

So who's the difference maker? 

It's the teacher in the classroom.


It's also you. You can be a difference maker by encouraging our best and brightest young people to enter the incredible, rewarding profession of education.

Whatever your role, go be a difference maker!

Doug Dunn is superintendent and principal of a small K-8 school in rural, south central Missouri. He can be found on Twitter at DougDunnEdS.

To the Unhappy Teacher

Teaching is tough. It gets even tougher when most days are filled with unhappiness and frustration. This can be due to administration, colleagues, students, parents, expectations, time constraints, etc. Doubt begins to creep in, and we wonder why we wasted so much time and money becoming a teacher. Am I cut out for this? I’m not good enough. What would I do if I wasn’t teaching?

I’ve had all of these doubts and frustrations...and more. There were multiple thoughts of walking away from education. I pursued jobs to be a used car salesman, a door to door salesman, and an insurance agent. Fortunately, I was never offered one of those positions. I would have accepted and missed out on the joy I have experienced the last nine years. Don’t get me wrong; I still have my moments. But, the frustrations I now have just feel different. They no longer cause me to seek other careers. The power in my purpose has been strong enough to fuel an enduring passion to make a difference. That power shuts down any thought of leaving education.

Don’t give up. There is still time for you to find happiness and purpose.

It’s not always roses and candy. Rarely is. I grew frustrated after years of dreading going to "work." If it wasn’t one thing, it was another. I temporarily left the classroom for a work-at-home virtual teaching position with the state. A round of state budget cuts soon left me unemployed for seven months. The economy was struggling, and schools were finding ways to absorb open positions rather than fill them. I didn’t know what I was going to do. Additional doubts, frustrations, and fears crept in.

My wife and I had just bought our first house and had our first baby. At this point, I just needed an income.

I applied for a teaching position at a destination school. A place that typically only hired locals and had very little turnover. I was desperate and would have taken any job at this point. To end up there was a true blessing and changed the course of my career. For the first time ever, I never dreaded going to school. I loved what I was teaching. The students brought me joy. I was surrounded by incredible colleagues and administrators who saw me as an equal and made me feel respected as a professional. I knew I was making a difference, and that felt great!

The only thing that could have pulled me away from there was a principal position. That happened after three great years. I still miss teaching, and I miss that school. The joy and passion I now have for education are deeply rooted in that experience.

I don’t profess to have a magic solution to make everything better. But, I would say please don't give up. It took me about ten years to find what I hoped teaching would be when I was in college. I’m so thankful I hung in there (and was never offered a position in another career field).

Sometimes all it takes is new surroundings - a new administrator, different colleagues, a different community, or even a different grade level or content area.

Be open to change.

Be open to learning and growing.

The more I seek to learn and grow as an educator, the happier I become. Learning and growing give me confidence. The more confident I become the more I feel like I make a difference. Feeling like a difference-maker keeps me in education.

I want you to have the same experiences. We all deserve to feel like difference-makers.

The field of education needs you. There are students who need you. Please, hang in there and search for the fire and passion you need to stay in education for the long haul.

It can happen. It may take some time, but it is possible....and so worth it!

Be a difference-maker!

Doug Dunn is superintendent and principal of a small K-8 school in rural, south central Missouri. He can be found on Twitter at DougDunnEdS.

Top 5 Books for Teachers

Reading about education has become a passion of mine. I've found tremendous value in numerous books, blogs, articles, Twitter posts, etc. I'd like to take a few moments to share five books I believe every educator should read. In fact, I propose these books should be a part of every undergraduate program training teachers to be teachers. 

The five books below are in no particular order. They are, however, critical to transforming our instruction and connecting with students in ways that make deeper, longer-lasting impacts on their learning. The days of boring worksheets that are anything but engaging need to go. Not that worksheets cannot be helpful, but worksheets do not get students excited about coming to school, engage their minds, or inspire them to move deeper into their learning. As Marcia Tate says, "worksheets don't grow dendrites!"

The Visible Learning series by John Hattie (and others)
John Hattie's Visible Learning research is a must-know for educators. In short, it's not about what works in education but rather what works best. Hattie has conducted 1400 meta-analyses involving 80,000 studies and 300 million students to determine which influences on student achievement have the greatest impact. We all wish we had more time in our classrooms, but we can maximize the time we do have by utilizing the strategies found to be best for student achievement. 

Over the past several years, multiple Visible Learning books have been published. Visible Learning for Teachers was a game-changer. Now, there are options for teachers who want to go deeper with the research in particular content areas. Options include:

Focus (2nd Edition) by Mike Schmoker
This book has become one of my favorites! Even John Hattie himself said Schmoker "has lit a fire" with this book. Schmoker has spent an extensive amount of time researching schools that have made incredible gains in student achievement. He emphasizes three areas in his book: guaranteed, viable curriculum, formative assessment, and literacy. What I appreciate most about this book is the 2nd half has dedicated chapters for specific content areas. In each of these chapters, Schmoker provides simple, applicable, and impactful strategies for content area teachers to incorporate higher quality and quantity of reading, writing, discussing, and debating. When you visit with businesses and colleges, they are saying students are not getting to them with the necessary literacy skills needed for success. Focus (2nd Edition) can help us change that!

Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess
In my opinion, student engagement is the missing link in many lesson plans. We've heard the phrase "you can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink." While this may be true, our efforts in the classroom should make students so thirsty they can't help but take a drink. This is where student engagement comes in. Early in my career, I felt you either had it or you didn't in regards to student engagement (creativity, engaging personality, etc.). Teach Like a Pirate (TLAP) addresses that myth and provides several applicable strategies to create an engaging learning environment.

TLAP is a fascinating book that is all about increasing student engagement, boosting creativity, and transforming our lives as educators. It has been a game-changer in education that has inspired many more incredible books by Dave Burgess Consulting.

The EduProtocol Field Guide
The EduProtocol Field Guide is a Dave Burgess Consulting book that provides many strategies and templates which simultaneously increase student engagement and incorporate the four C's (creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and communication). If your school utilizes laptops or Chromebooks, The EduProtocol Field Guide is a must have. 

Sometimes it's not about working harder. The strategies and protocols in this book can actually reduce a teacher's planning and grading workload. Increased engagement and learning plus a decrease in teacher workload makes this a win-win for everybody! When I finished reading this book, I recall thinking that this was one of those must-reads that every educator should have in their library.

Fish in a Tree
Fish in a Tree is different than the rest of the ones mentioned. Below is the description found on Amazon.
Ally has been smart enough to fool a lot of smart people. Every time she lands in a new school, she is able to hide her inability to read by creating clever yet disruptive distractions.  She is afraid to ask for help; after all, how can you cure dumb? However, her newest teacher Mr. Daniels sees the bright, creative kid underneath the trouble maker. With his help, Ally learns not to be so hard on herself and that dyslexia is nothing to be ashamed of. As her confidence grows, Ally feels free to be herself and the world starts opening up with possibilities. She discovers that there’s a lot more to her—and to everyone—than a label, and that great minds don’t always think alike.
The author of the beloved One for the Murphys gives readers an emotionally-charged, uplifting novel that will speak to anyone who’s ever thought there was something wrong with them because they didn’t fit in. 
As educators, it's very important for us to try to understand the root of student behaviors. Many of us have grown frustrated with behaviors students have exhibited - perhaps even calling them apathetic, lazy, etc. Fish in a Tree does an excellent job of putting readers in the mind of someone who wants to do well, but struggles because she doesn't yet know how to cope with dyslexia. This tear-jerker became a building-wide read for our school. It is an excellent book which can help grow empathy in all readers. (This can also be a great book to read as a family. Our family did this last summer. We all looked forward to reading the next chapter(s) as we shared laughter, tears, and meaningful discussions regarding the differences in people.)


It really is impossible to select just five (or so) books that are "must read" books. There are many incredible educational minds who have shared their knowledge, expertise, and experiences through literature. However, I feel there are two additional ones worth mentioning...

BONUS: There are two books, in particular, which challenge traditional mindsets and provide inspiration to be the teacher who is great at building relationships, connecting with students, and transforming the lives of those we teach. Kids Deserve It & What Great Teachers Do Differently. They are each quick reads and well worth the time spent reading them.

If there are other topics of interest, I might have suggestions for you. Don't hesitate to contact me via Twitter @DougDunnEdS.

Doug Dunn is superintendent and principal of a small K-8 school in rural, south central Missouri. He can be found on Twitter at DougDunnEdS.

Aunt Bee, Call the Man

"Aunt Bee, Call the Man." I can still hear a former principal referencing The Andy Griffith Show as he gave me advice about calling parents. Calling home was something that was terrifying as a young educator. The reaction I anticipated when delivering news about a child's behavior caused me to neglect this very important aspect of my responsibilities.

I soon discovered that parents were generally much more supportive than I had given them credit for. Calling home when students are struggling in class, whether that struggle is academic or behavioral, is an extremely critical but often underutilized strategy for educators. However, the purpose of this post isn't to convince anybody to call home when we need home's assistance. We already know we should. 

One of the greatest things we can do as educators is to call home when we observe something positive from a student. Not only can these phone calls help build positive rapport with parents and potentially minimize negative behaviors on the front end, but they can also be effective in building positive student-teacher relationships. (According to John Hattie's Visible Learning research, positive student-teacher relationships is one of the most impactful strategies we can utilize in raising student achievement with an effect size of 0.52.)

As a principal, I began making a #GoodNewsCalloftheDay several years ago. With the help of staff, we would identify a student who deserved a positive call home. That student would then come to my office and listen as I put their parent or guardian on speakerphone while delivering great news. This eventually transformed into handing out Good News Call of the Day bracelets for each student who received a good news call home. 

We may never truly understand the impact of such a small, simple gesture. I recall one student I brought to my office one day for a positive call. We each grew disappointed as I exhausted every phone number we had on file for her parents. Determined for somebody to hear her good news while she was in my office, I called grandpa. I've experienced countless numbers of smiles and tears with these good news calls home, but this one stands out above them all. Words cannot express the excitement heard in grandpa's voice and the smile seen on his little girl. What I didn't know until some time later was that grandpa was battling cancer and didn't have much time left before his passing. The family later shared the impact of that phone call. One of this man's last days on earth involved hearing great news about his granddaughter.  

Positive communication home doesn't always have to involve a phone call. Emails can be effective, but a handwritten note can be powerful. One year I made a point to send a handwritten note to the parents of one student in each of my classes every week of the year. This definitely took time as I personally wrote, addressed, sealed, and stamped each of these. The impact this had on a particular family made all those hours worth it. 

One of my student's parents (I'll call him David) had recently taken in a young man who needed a family and a place to live. They didn't have to, but they gave him a loving home and treated him as if he was their own. I was deeply moved by this. I hadn't written a note to David's parents yet, so this was a great opportunity to do so. That note stayed on their refrigerator for years. I know this because every time I saw David's dad he would tell me. He would also express how much that note had meant to him.

How powerful was that handwritten note? Consider that just a year or so before David's dad had threatened to physically harm me one afternoon over the phone. Already frustrated with the lack of playing time I was giving David on the basketball team, his dad felt I was picking on his son after confiscating his cell phone three times in one semester. This resulted in him calling the school one day and making the threats. That handwritten note resulted in an amazing transformation of a relationship. That family went from wanting nothing to do with me to highly respecting me. Years later after David had graduated from high school, I saw him in the local Wal-mart. He thanked me for everything I had taught him in math class and said I was the best math teacher he ever had. Relationships matter!

I will never profess to being the greatest at building relationships or finding the positives in staff and students. This is something I must continually work on every day. Finding the positive is a mindset. For me, it sometimes has to be intentional. I often get so caught up in trying to grow and be better that I overlook the good that's right in front of me. 

Hawk Nelson, a contemporary Christian artist, has a line in a song which says "You're gonna find the good if you're good at looking." My challenge to every educator (and myself) is to work on becoming good at looking for the good.  And when we find the good, let's be sure to communicate it. Our colleagues need to hear this. So do our students and their families. 

Imagine how a school culture could be transformed if every person in the building was intentional with finding and sharing the good in others!

Doug Dunn is superintendent and principal of a small K-8 school in rural, south central Missouri. He can be found on Twitter at DougDunnEdS.

30 Mindsets for Impact

Maya Angelou was a very wise woman. There is so much embedded in the quote above. Doing the best you can until you know better requires both persistent effort and a quest for growth. The latter part demands we step out of our comfort zones and take risks as we pursue that growth.

As educators, we should constantly be seeking to know better so we can do better. This is not to say we're ineffective or to admit a lacking, but this mindset should be part of our profession - to reflectively pursue learning and growth so we can have an even greater impact on the students we serve.

One of the most difficult things about being an educator is that parents and students deserve us to be great, seasoned educators on Day 1 of our careers. Unfortunately, this is not possible. There is too much to learn and experience. I sincerely wish I could go back and redo my first years as a teacher and first years as an administrator. I cannot. But, what I can do is continue reflecting and learning as I strive to be the best I can be for the students and staff I now serve. 

My educational philosophies continue to be challenged, transformed, and molded through various conversations, books, blogs, podcasts, and Twitter posts. The mindsets below are definitely not original thoughts, but they are mindsets which have had an impact on my growth and transformation as an educator.

This list is random and by no means exhaustive. These mindsets are simply one educator's beliefs...

  • Professional growth and learning is something each of us should pursue. We will always remain a work in progress. 
  • Education is about the learning, not grades.
  • Discipline is about prevention, not revenge.
  • Classroom management begins with relationships and engagement, not the best rules.
  • We must focus on those things we can control rather than blaming others and making excuses.
  • Yes, teachers are not respected or paid enough. But we must persevere and do what's best for kids anyways.
  • Compliance, paying attention, and following the rules do not equal engagement.
  • Retention and SPED testing are last resorts.
  • We cannot intervention our way out of ineffective classroom instruction.
  • Reflection should be a regular occurrence (for educators and students).
  • Students should be growing at least one year for each year they're in school. If they're not, we need to examine our practices. If they are, we need to determine what is working well.
  • Sometimes, the students aren't to blame for their lack of achievement. It's our method(s) of instruction.
  • Our systems are perfectly designed to give us the results we're getting. If we want different results, we must tweak (or change) our system.
  • There is no silver bullet in education. However, some strategies/methods have a greater impact than others. (We should know what those are and utilize them. See Visible Learning.)
  • Students do not learn from people they don't like. Constantly working on relationships is critical.
  • Worksheets are not the only way to measure student performance. In fact, they are rarely the best way to measure deep learning or application.
  • The field of teaching is reserved for only those with the unique combination of purpose, desire, determination, and dedication to persevere through all of the challenges and expectations. Teaching isn't for everybody...only the special ones willing to follow their calling.
  • We must surround ourselves with those who challenge us to be better. Not because we admit a lacking or deficit, but because being a professional means constantly pursuing growth.
  • We must live just outside of our comfort zones and take risks.
  • The status quo has no place in education.
  • Every student matters. (And if you disagree, write down the names of those who don't. Then, call their parents and tell them.)
  • Grades are typically a reflection of compliance and playing the game of school. Rarely do they tell us what a student has mastered or what their potential is.
  • The textbook is not the curriculum.
  • Teachers are the experts in the classroom, not publishing companies. Teachers should be deciding what gets assessed and how learning is measured....not the publishers. 
  • Collaboration is critical, and disagreement is ok - between teacher/teacher, admin/admin, and teacher/admin.
  • Making errors/mistakes is necessary for learning. They should not be discouraged, especially by traditional grading practices which penalize students for not learning something as quickly as another student.
  • Feedback is more important than grades. (Students can learn without grades, but they cannot learn without feedback.)
  • If points are taken off for late work, bonus points given, or final grades calculated by averaging, grades are no longer a true reflection of learning or mastery. 
  • Assessment is to gauge instructional effectiveness - not to have something to attach a grade to.
  • Success is not an accident. Hope is not a plan.

Doug Dunn is superintendent and principal of a small K-8 school in rural, south central Missouri. He can be found on Twitter at DougDunnEdS.

Becoming an Intentional Learner

How intentional am I in growing as a professional educator? This is an important question each of us must ask ourselves. It’s easy to get caught up in the negative aspects of our profession (low pay, lack of support, politicizing of education, lack of respect, etc.), but our responsibilities demand we continually seek to improve our craft for the sake of our students.

Early in my teaching career, I loved going to conferences and would attend as many as my school would pay for. I wasn’t an avid reader. In fact, the only piece of literature my eyes would see outside of school was the sports page of the newspaper. Hindsight, if I would have had the same desire to learn back then that I do now, I would have been a more effective teacher…. and more prepared for the principalship.

My initial career goal was to become a school counselor. However, the principal during my second year of teaching (Jerrod Wheeler) saw something in me that caused him to say I was a future principal. I don’t know what he saw, but it did prompt me to redirect my aspirations towards administration. Fast forward ten years…. I went from high school algebra teacher to elementary principal. (What was I thinking?!?) I quickly realized how much I didn’t know; it was either sink or swim. The guy who grew up preferring a basketball over a book soon became an avid reader. I had to. Elementary was not algebra. I didn’t know anything about phonics, Dolch or Frey, handwriting styles, running records, etc. Reading became about survival. It was necessary to become the leader my staff and students deserved. It was necessary for contract renewal.

There are definite challenges to being an intentional learner. Responsibilities at home, school events, meetings, kids’ activities, church and civic events, and being a husband, father, etc. all compete for what little time is left after school. It is true that we find time for what’s most important. However, I’ve caught myself watching a few hours of television during an evening only to realize I could’ve spent a few minutes connecting with my PLN (professional learning network) on Twitter, reading a blog post, listening to a podcast, or reading the next chapter of an educational book.

I don’t always feel guilty, though. Sometimes I just have to unplug and not think about anything regarding school. I have to protect myself from burnout, too!

Learning soon moved from survival to responsibility. I am a professional. This is not a label given because of my level of education, position, or place of employment. I am a professional because of the incredible responsibility I have to educate today’s youth. We expect our doctors to continue learning to be more effective in their profession. Same for engineers, scientists, attorneys, etc. The responsibilities they have demand it.

Aren’t we thankful dentists no longer use a turnkey to extract teeth?

It would be inexcusable for any of the careers above to not be learning new and better ways to perform their responsibilities. Same for those of us in education. It’s malpractice if we don’t. Our students deserve to have educators who are professionals by practice, not by title.

I’ve also learned that I cannot wait for learning to happen to me. I have to pursue it and own it. I recently wrote a blog post titled Striving For What Could Be. That friction between what is and what could be drives me to constantly be searching for ways to be more impactful in my responsibilities as superintendent and principal. I’m so fortunate for authors such as Todd Whitaker, Mike Schmoker, John Hattie, and Douglas Fisher. Their work has transformed many of my philosophies and values regarding education. I’m envious of undergrads and new teachers who are entering a profession full of resources available from Dave Burgess Consulting - books such as Teach Like a Pirate, The EduProtocol Field Guide, Kids Deserve It, and more. I wouldn’t have known anything about these resources had it not been for Twitter. Twitter allows me to discover the best books out there to read. It also allows me to connect with incredible educational minds who challenge me and cause me to grow as an educator and leader. I learn so much from chats such as #TLAP (Teach Like a Pirate), #LeadLAP (Lead Like a Pirate), and others.      

We have such an advantage in today’s time to be able to access and learn from these fabulous resources. It doesn’t end with books or Twitter. There are many incredible educational minds who share their thoughts and practices through blogging. Jennifer Gonzalez, Matt Miller, and Alice Keeler come to mind. Have a few moments in your car? Need something to listen to during your workout or while doing dishes? Podcasts are another terrific way to further professional learning. I currently follow about 40 of them. (I don’t listen to every podcast which gets published, but I watch for those which may be of interest.)

The possibilities are endless. The great thing is that we live in a time where we can customize our professional learning. We can pick and choose what we read, who we follow, and what we listen to. And most importantly, we can utilize these sources of learning when it’s convenient for us. It doesn’t have to be every day, or even every week, but we do owe it to our profession to pursue professional growth. Most importantly, we owe it to our students. Sometimes there are days (even weeks) which go by where I’m unable to find the time. This is okay. The most important thing is making a purposeful effort to become a professional through practice.

Finally, becoming an intentional learner will challenge our views, methods, and philosophies. There will likely be a great deal of time spent in reflection. This is a good thing! Ultimately, this learning will translate to trying new things in our classrooms and schools.

It is important to become courageous enough to allow ourselves to become vulnerable in front of staff and/or students. Risk-taking is a must in our profession.

Sometimes we fail, but sometimes we win - and we win because the kids win!

If you are interested in finding a book, learning more about Twitter, or discovering a podcast, please do not hesitate to contact me. I can provide some resources to get you started.

Doug Dunn is superintendent and principal of a small K-8 school in rural, south central Missouri. He can be found on Twitter at DougDunnEdS.

Are Our Students Academic Hostages?

In Chapter 2 of Culturize by Jimmy Casas, it is said that unleashing true potential begins by removing the labels that hold children hostage. My first thought was “how unfortunate students have learning limits placed on them by their teachers!” I then quickly realized I was one of those teachers. How many of us have taken results of state testing and crossed out the special education students to boost our proficiency percentages? “They don’t count” I would tell myself. What I was really doing was making an excuse as to why my instruction wasn’t as effective as it could be. (And, would any of us really want to tell parents that their child doesn't count?)

When we place labels on students, we subjectively place ceilings on their learning potential because of our own beliefs, opinions, and attitudes. It is not our place to do this. John Hattie’s Visible Learning research discovered “not labeling students” has an effect size of 0.61. This equates to 1.5 years' growth in 1 year’s time. This is huge! It is our responsibility as educators to quit giving our students academic death sentences. Students should be responsible for establishing their own identity and potential – and not forced to live up (or down) to the levels they have been assigned. 

Several years ago there was an elementary student in a building I served as principal who was multiple years behind in his reading ability. Regrettably, I joined in with other educators who would make comments like “he’s destined for the family farm and just passing time going through school.” I am ashamed to admit I contributed to creating this child’s perceived destiny based on my own perspectives. This is not our job as educators. Our responsibility is to provide hope. We must simultaneously increase expectations and provide the opportunities our students need to grow and be successful. We were all shocked when, after one summer, we learned the mother of this student worked diligently to help him with his reading. The result? He returned to school in the fall on grade level! This taught me that it’s not my place to say the possible is impossible. My job is to continue educating students and providing hope through whatever obstacles that may appear. 

I’ll conclude with a paragraph from Culturize:

I know from conversations with some students, they still believed school was an “institution” which put limits on their potential. They shared stories of being told for years they couldn’t do this or they couldn’t do that. They believed the system categorized them throughout their school experience and labeled them as average, low-ability reader, at-risk, potential dropout, special needs, etc. At the same time, they watched the same “institution” label others as honor students, talented and gifted, college bound, and as possessing AP potential. Some students have shared stories of unfulfilled promises by adults and a system which assured them of success only to find out they meant success for those who were willing to play the game of school and who were compliant. Some of these students attended school in body but were absent in mind and in spirit. In other words, they had checked out and were just hanging around the prison yard of lost potential waiting to escape.

Remember, unleashing true potential begins by removing the labels which hold our students hostage. We must help them escape their hopeless prison yards. Unleashing our own potential and maximizing our impact as educators may also mean removing labels we’ve been assigned by ourselves or others. We must step out of our comfort zone and know that success does not occur by accident. The first steps? Quit putting labels on students and begin working to undo the damage done by the labels our students have been conditioned to believe about themselves.

Note: The comment about the family farm was not intended to be insensitive or unappreciative. Farmers are critical, valuable members of our society.  The point was educators determining a child’s destiny.

Doug Dunn is superintendent and principal of a small K-8 school in rural, south central Missouri. He can be found on Twitter at DougDunnEdS.

Striving for "What Could Be"

I read a quote a few weeks ago which prompted reflection on my years as a basketball coach. That season of my life was full of great memories, experiences, and team success. Every player I had experienced one common side of Coach Dunn. I always chased perfection knowing full well that we'd never attain it. Every practice was designed to help prepare the team for playing the perfect game. We never did. What we did do was go to the state final four two years in a row. The first year we finished 3rd. The 2nd year we won the state championship. Successful...yes. Perfect...never. 

Here is that quote:
Leaders are fascinated by the future. You are a leader if and only if, you are restless for change, impatient for progress, and deeply dissatisfied with the status quo. Because in your head you can see a better future. The friction between "what is" and "what could be" burns you, stirs you up, propels you. This is leadership. ~ Marcus Buckingham

The last line about friction describes both Coach Dunn and Superintendent/Principal Dunn. You may relate to some or all of the quote as well. 

Here's what I think... Leaders aren't leaders just by title. We have leaders throughout our schools, but we each have different responsibilities. I know what burns me, stirs me up, and propels me. What creates that fire within you?

After those two successful years which resulted in the only state championship in the history of Chadwick High School, a disgruntled relative of a former player thanked me "for ruining the basketball program." It was a tremendous lesson for a 25-year-old young and inexperienced educator. It doesn't matter what you do, you will always have naysayers. My challenge to you is to take chances and try new things anyways. Sometimes you fail, but sometimes you WIN.

Strike that...

Sometimes the KIDS win!

Doug Dunn is superintendent and principal of a small K-8 school in rural, south central Missouri. He can be found on Twitter at DougDunnEdS.

The Purpose of School

I recently heard an educator tell students “the purpose of high school is to graduate.” Comments like this are like fingernails on the chalkboard to my ears. Our words and actions work to establish and/or reinforce that school is either about compliance or learning. Yes, school is an institution of learning. However, would our students agree? If students were asked questions like “why is this assignment important” or “why is this class important,” what would they say? Would their answers be:
  • So I can make the honor roll?
  • So I can advance to the next grade?
  • So I can get that scholarship?
  • So I can earn incentive money at home?
  • So I can go on the field trip at the end of the year?
  • So I don’t get in trouble?

Each of these answers reflect an attitude of compliance. Many of our students have been conditioned to feel this way about school. 

Often times these incentives or consequences are used in an effort to wield power over students and get them to “work harder” in class. Again, these actions feed the compliance mindset. 

As a teacher, I was guilty of this myself. I’ve recently read books such as The EduProtocol Field Guide and Focus (2nd Edition) which provide simple, applicable strategies to engage students in the learning process all while increasing discussion, debate, reading, writing, creativity, collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and more. Students will “work harder” when their work is relevant and engaging. 

It is our responsibility as educators to find ways to engage our students’ minds through relevant and rigorous learning activities. Only when this is a regular occurrence in our classrooms and schools can we begin to shift away from compliance mindsets which hinder learning.

Doug Dunn is superintendent and principal of a small K-8 school in rural, south central Missouri. He can be found on Twitter at DougDunnEdS.