AN ARTICLE ABOUT TEACHERS CHANGE LIVES 24/7?
Jim wrote most of the ILLINOIS PRINCIPALS ASSOCIATION newsletter of 11/2007,
(Vol. 15, #3, see www.ilprincipals.org).
Here’s what the article said:
Teachers Who Change Lives 24/7
What is the number one responsibility of building administrators? Is this a trick question—or even a valid one? Aren't there far too many responsibilities to consider? Is it even possible to come up with a number one on the top ten list of things that every administrator needs to do?
Let me respond. First of all, it’s not a trick question. Second, there is a number one responsibility. Third, it’s not only a valid question, it’s a critical consideration.
When I ask this same question to groups of administrators I get a variety of responses. Usually, they say the number one responsibility of administrators is to focus on students, curriculum, caring, or management. Another frequent reply is that it’s to meet the needs of kids. And another, it’s to assure that all kids are meeting the goals of the curriculum. All of those are good responses but they skirt the real and most crucial answer.
What is the number one responsibility of a building administrator? Simply and clearly, it’s to provide the best staff possible. Nothing more, nothing less.
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Think about that for a minute. The best staff possible. Not an average staff, not a “meets” staff, but the best possible. A staff that “exceeds expectations” in all categories. And as we all know, that’s quite a task to accomplish.
Since the largest percentage of any school staff is those with certifications to teach, it seems reasonable to me that this is one of the most important areas for building administrators, to make the teachers the best they can be.
I like to conduct a verbal survey when I speak with teachers and administrators. I usually walk around the auditorium or meeting room, find folks who have kids of their own in school, and ask them what kind of teachers they want for their own children. It doesn't matter if we are talking about kindergarteners, third graders, hormonally-challenged middle schoolers, or kids getting ready for college. The answers are always the same. Most responses get right to the point: they want the best teachers for their kids. Some get more specific by listing qualifications such as caring, giving fair treatment, being focused, understanding, loving, or patient. But I have never ever heard anyone say, “I want an average teacher for my kid.” Nor do they say, “I want someone who during their last evaluation was rated as “meets expectations.” Nor does anyone ever say, “A ‘C’ teacher is fine with me!” Think about that. Almost every parent out there readily states that they do not want an average teacher teaching their kids. I even get a little edgy in some of my talks by clearly stating to the teachers there that if they are “average” they need to know that probably no one wants them teaching their kids!
Here is the most important part of this discussion: It is absolutely true. Kids, and their education, are too important for average or, God forbid, less than average teachers. The same is true for teacher assistants, or principals, or anyone who works with kids, or who works for them, in the school system.
That said, my book, Teachers Change Lives 24/7, was written to share with teachers some basic, real-life concepts in easy-to-understand English, concepts that must be considered as we work toward providing the best for our kids and toward developing the a perfect school building or system. Teachers Change Lives was written for teachers and administrators as a guide, with 175 actual ideas suitable for immediate implementation.
To me, as a school leader, one of the primary goals is to get every educator in the system to see the big picture, understand their own importance in the system, and to create a vision for excellence that all can embrace and own. Chapter 13 of my book puts these ideas into focus. I have tweaked parts of that chapter in the paragraphs that follow. The concepts shared fit every person who works in a school building or system.
What You See is What You Get
A few years ago, Microsoft ran an ad that appeared in many magazines. I first saw it in an issue of National Geographic. It was a two-page spread that had a teacher standing in front of a line of eight students. I copied one page of that ad (the teacher and four students) and have given Microsoft lots of free publicity in my teacher and administrator workshops. I found the ad to be an exceptional way of demonstrating a critical point as we develop the best staff possible.
Let me recreate the visual for you if you don't remember or never saw the ad. The teacher is a lady. She is wearing a casual outfit with tennis shoes. She’s holding what looks like a clipboard and is facing a single-file line of students. I will share what the first four students look like. The kids, who appear to be 10-12 years old, have on jackets and two are wearing baseball-type caps. The scene is outdoors, maybe next to a museum. You can only see a part of a building behind the teacher and you also see a nicely landscaped sidewalk. Each of the kids appears to be holding a file or clipboard. What’s different on the photograph are the “ghost” lines around the students. These lines show what the teacher visualizes.
The first student, a young lady, is standing straight, holding her clipboard, and facing the teacher. The “ghost” lines have added a beret to her head, a large artist’s paintbrush to one hand, and an easel, with a sketch of the teacher's face, stands in front of the student.
The second student is a young man. He is smiling and appears to be raising his hand ready to ask a question. The ghost lines have added running shorts, an athletic jersey, and a wristband. The smiling boy is clutching an award hanging around his neck and holds what looks like an Olympic torch in his uplifted hand.
The third student is standing in line with her notebook open. This young girl's “ghost” lines have added a swimming mask on her head and scuba gear on her back, around her chest, and in her mouth. She appears to have a wet suit on, with flippers, and she is holding a flashlight.
The final student seems to be of the unisex variety. He or she (you can't tell) is standing, facing the teacher, holding the clipboard with both hands, and displays a bright smile on his/her face. The “ghost” lines have added a saxophone hanging from his/her neck, and he/she is playing it. Little “ghost” notes are coming out of the instrument.
Four kids standing in line. The expression on the teacher's face is one of pride and ownership—the same expression you see on most satisfied and productive teachers. She seems to be saying, “These are my kids. I am proud of them.” (Did you ever notice that only a few weeks after school begins each fall, many teachers start referring to their students as “my kids”?) But the ghost lines tell us even more. The ghost lines shout loudly, What You See is What You Get.
One of the most important components of any success is having a vision. Business leaders, school administrators, classroom teachers, parents, clergy, anyone who sets goals and works toward meeting them, gets there faster and more effectively if they have vision.
I have a personal example of that vision. Shortly after assuming the role of superintendent at the district from which I recently retired after 12 wonderful years, I formed a vision. I was sitting in the parking lot of the high school. My car was facing north. What I saw was a cornfield. It was also the edge of town and the line of expansion for a growing community. There was talk that the property I was looking at was going to be sold for yet another subdivision. I sat there pondering the plight of my struggling school district, one that had run out of space. Gymnasium stages, locker rooms, storerooms, even libraries had been converted into classrooms. Some support staff was located in hallways with desks in cubbyholes. Confidence and money were hard to find. The community wouldn’t embrace another tax increase and too many negative attitudes hindered the good works and intentions of an outstanding school board.
Sitting there, it dawned on me that what we needed was a new school. We needed a new middle school to allow relief for all the K-8 grade students. We could move the middle school students off their present campus and into a new building. The new building would be like a relief valve for an over-pressured school district. And what better place than across the street from the high school to create a new campus with endless possibilities? But it was my vision, and everyone knows that in order to make a vision come to fruition, it must be owned and embraced by the stakeholders.
Within weeks of that “experience” a group was formed to purchase the land. The Board engaged in strategic planning with community engagement. Within five years and six referenda, and a strong base of over 300 supporters, the vision became reality. The school was built and the community celebrated many forms of success. One successful vision opened the doors to many others.
Was it my vision that started it all? Yes and no. Yes, it was both the focus point of a possible solution and the motivation I needed to get things happening, and no, it had to become the collective vision of everyone in order to gain acceptance, support, and passion. So when push came to shove, my leadership helped create our vision.
When the teacher in the Microsoft ad looks at her four students she visualizes four developing individuals. She sees four possibilities: an artist, an athlete, a marine biologist, and a musician. Once she has her vision of what could be, she sets in motion the ingredients for success. She defines the vision and puts it in motion.
I imagine this teacher as one who encourages her students, suggests ways for them to experience their possibilities, and helps pave the road of success for their futures. She doesn't see four kids on a field trip. She sees four human beings needing help as they forge their way toward realistic goals. Her vision and passion will be the keys that open new doors for these children. She will use those keys to help change their lives. But I truly feel that her success as a teacher is a response to some administrator’s leadership and passion to provide each student in his/her building with the best staff possible.
Do you have a vision?
Can you see something that needs to be done and then help make it happen? Is your vision complicated or simple? Often, when I speak with educators, I ask them to do two things when they return to their scheduled lives, two simple yet profound requests.
First, I ask the teachers to pick just one student who needs a change in their life. I ask the administrators to pick just one teacher and do the same. Then I ask them to visualize that student or teacher making that change.
The second request for administrators is to define just one area of weakness that that focused teacher has. (This is hard because we often try to “fix” a plethora of issues, but the key to success is to focus on just one characteristic or trait that can be improved.) It might be getting along better with other staff members, not being so negative when faced with the mundane responsibilities of the job, losing some weight, spending more time with parents, learning how to teach more effectively, or balancing home and school more effectively.
A great way to offer improvement is through professional or personal development. Often we focus on just the professional development offered through the school or through a nearby university—and sometimes we do it with a less than enthusiastic attitude. What a shame. Every experience is just as good as we make it. We, as administrators, need to make professional development worth the time and energy.
I remember one well respected teacher leaving an in-service presentation who said, “I didn't learn anything new today, but I reinforced a lot of things I am already doing, and it validated my efforts. That is a good feeling.” She had the right attitude.
Another teacher commented, “I have never attended any workshop or institute where I didn't get at least one good idea to try.” I believe her because I imagine she never went into a workshop or institute where she wasn't looking for one good idea to try!
Life is all about learning. Good administrators and teachers try to learn and improve at every opportunity. They expand their inventory of experiences and sift through ideas that can enhance, validate, or replace methods or procedures. Excellent educators look for occasions to learn. Excellent administrators match their staff with meaningful and life-changing professional development opportunities.
So how can an administrator change the teacher they have selected? I suggest that administrators write down on a piece of paper the vision they have for improving the staff member, and they keep the paper where they can see it every day. It becomes a reminder of their vision for change. And then I suggest that they outline a plan. Creating steps to make this vision become reality helps it happen. And finally, they focus on completing those steps, one at a time, over a reasonable time period. The key is to always have a few workable visions in front of you. Make them doable and realistic.
Inch by inch, baby step by baby step, you can make things happen if you just see the end result and move toward it. Just a few manageable goals can give you the confidence to set bigger ones, to take on greater challenges, and, as a result, change the world. Silly? Not for a minute, for what you see is what you get. See change and you will realize change.
What do you see when you look at your teachers? What are your visions for the future? Do you see them as what they are—or how they could be? When you consider your own strengths and weaknesses, do you think of ways to improve yourself as a human, as a family member, and as a leader? Are you able to create a vision and then turn it into reality?
I once had a friend who lost more than 50 pounds. He looked terrific. I asked him how he did it. His answer has always impressed me. He said, “I visualized myself thinner and in better shape, and then I set a goal to lose one pound.” He waited for my response, and then he said, I followed that with 49 more goal setting experiences.” His theory? Anyone can lose one pound, and if you can easily lose one pound, just repeat that process 49 more times and your vision becomes reality. Sounds almost too simple, doesn’t it? And yet, if you think about it, it makes great sense.
One life can be changed if you break that life into manageable size chunks and work on it, one chunk at a time.
Create a vision, complete the vision, and what you visualized becomes what you get. It's a formula for changing lives. And if you apply it to areas of weakness, soon you begin to vaporize those weaknesses and build a staff of excellence.
Our children—no, all children—deserve the very best educators possible. It is our job as educational leaders to find, nurture, and continually develop them. That is our number one responsibility. And we can do it by establishing a vision, by facilitating “manageable chunks” of change, and by exercising passionate leadership.
Teachers do indeed change lives 24/7, but administrators set the stage for successful change. They see it, they find it, and they make it happen.
If you would like to interview Jim Burgett, he is available at firstname.lastname@example.org;
(618) 654-5874, or at
Education Communication Unlimited