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.