The October Imperative – The Academic Leader

Years ago, teachers used to talk about the “big” learning months – September, October, January, February, and March – because these months offered large blocks of time for uninterrupted teaching and learning. As more research became available on the topic of how students learn, the importance of these months was reaffirmed but with a more focused argument. This has led the Ed Directions staff to rebuild our perception of a “school year” organized around semesters and grading periods into a “learner year” that emphasizes the phases in the development of all students into proficient learners and proficient performers:

 

  • The Opening of School – the first three to five weeks of school that are used prepare all students for success by creating a learning environment and by supporting the development of academic, social, and emotional competencies needed for success. Emphasis is on building intentional cultures and climates (social and emotional rituals and routines that create a positive climate and etiquette for classroom work) and on “learning to learn” work (academic rituals and routines that equip all students with core competencies needed to engage in and successfully complete learning work).
  • The Formative Period – from mid-September to the winter break, the focus is on engaging all students in “meaning making” (i.e., learning for meaningful use as opposed to learning to recall). This requires a student to learn how to learn so that they can use their learning at high levels. It is critical that all students become proficient learners before the Calibrating Period, and October is the most critical month for this development.

 

For school leaders, October requires a focus on academic leadership as opposed to management. Leaders will still have to manage the buses, handle discipline, etc., but they must add the academic leadership role. The focus must be on the student as learner and the management of systems needs to be shaped to enhance student learning and performing. Too often a “system” can be maintained despite the negative impact it might have on learner development. One example that Ed Directions coaches have found in schools is busing patterns. Often busing patterns that cause students to be late to school (the excused tardy) are maintained because it is the way they were planned even though it disrupts first-period classes, costs students “time on task,” and causes tardy students to miss chunks of learning work. For the Ed Directions coaches this is a case of “the tail wagging the dog.” Academic leadership requires students’ work be the top priority. This requires leaders to engage in some very specific leadership activities.

Systems audits: In September and October, leaders need to audit every system to make sure that it contributes to an optimal learner environment. This includes entry and exit protocols, busing routes and rules, lunchroom procedures, assembly procedures, and transition patterns, in addition to the availability and use of technology and the availability of textbooks and materials. Ed Directions coaches have a toolkit of audits that can be used. They begin working with academic leaders that they are mentoring to audit systems – academic and nonacademic – and develop ad hoc plans for any system that interferes with optimal learning. For an optimal October, all systems must be working to the students’ benefit. A sample of a systems check used by one of the Ed Directions schools is included below.

 

Entry to School

      All buses arrived on time

      Most buses arrived on time

      More than one bus was late

      One or more buses were significantly late

      Movement from the bus to the classroom was smooth and efficient

      Movement from the bus to the classroom was mostly orderly

      Movement from the bus to the classroom was disorderly

      There were no discipline issues on the bus or during entry

      There were discipline issues, but they were handled quickly and efficiently

      There were discipline issues, but they were allowed to disrupt the entry process

The entry into the school created the impression of a safe, welcoming environment for all students.

  1        2        3        4        5

Notes:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lunch

      Transition to and from lunch was orderly; no classes were disturbed

      Transition was mostly orderly but there was no consistency

      Transition was disorderly; some classes were disturbed

      Transition was chaotic

      Movement through the lunch line was orderly and followed a consistent routine

      Movement through the lunch line was mostly orderly

      Movement was disorderly and created the opportunity for serious issues

      Behavior in the lunchroom was relaxed but orderly

      Behavior was adequate but at times was noisy

      There were discipline issues, but they were handled by adult staff

      Lunchroom was very disorderly with opportunities for serious issues to develop

Transition to and from lunch and lunchroom behavior created the impression of orderly environment where students could socialize but understood the limits, rules, and routines.

  1       2       3       4       5

Notes:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Culture and climate audits: For students to work at optimal levels, they need to perceive school as a safe and welcoming environment. Ed Directions coaches emphasize the importance of developing behavioral and academic rituals and routines that institutionalize a student-friendly learning environment. It is critical that any ineffective or toxic environments be addressed quickly and aggressively.

 

Culture

Indicator

Self-Assessment

Priority

Our school culture was designed with “best practice” in mind.

 

1                                 5                                 10

 

All teachers believe that all students can achieve the goals set by the state standards.

 

1                                 5                                 10

 

Rituals provide for all students to enter/leave (school/class) on a positive note.

 

1                                  5                                10

 

Behavior rituals are designed to be proactive, not reactive, and focus on optimum learning behaviors.

 

 

1                                  5                                 10

 

Rituals establish an etiquette for adult/student and student/student interactions.

 

 

 1                                  5                                  10

 

The school is safe and welcoming. Students want to come to school.

 

 1                                  5                                   10

 

All students get a chance to “produce” in their preferred mode (and enjoy success).

 

 1                                  5                                   10

 

Students have daily access to a teacher who can teach them.

 1                                  5                                   10

 

Classrooms are flexible and have resources for all students.

 

 1                                  5                                   10

 

Students have the opportunity for immersion, extension, and hands-on experiences.

 

 1                                  5                                   10

 

Students have the opportunity to speak informally to teachers and administrators.

 

 1                                  5                                   10

 

 

Academic visibility: In the early Formative Period, it is important for all students to see all academic leaders (not just the principal) as interested and supportive participants in the teaching/learning process. Visibility in classrooms, hallways, and common areas supporting optimum behaviors and shaping ineffective behaviors reinforces positive elements within the culture and climate (e.g., erasing bullying). This also provides academic leaders with an opportunity to observe systems in action and collect data that can be discussed in leadership PLC meetings. Active and proactive visibility is a critical part of creating an optimal October. An observation checklist used by an Ed Directions school is included below.

 

Student Work: Student Engagement

Date:            Teacher:                              Period:                     Activity:              

      All students were highly engaged during the entire observation.

      Most students were highly engaged during the observation.

      Some students were highly engaged; the rest were engaged in the learning work.

      Some students were engaged but many were not engaged in the learning work.

      Few students were engaged but most were not engaged in the learning work.

      No students were engaged in the learning work, but behavior was compliant.

      No learning work was observed. General disorder.

Supportive anecdotes/examples:

 

Data management: Often leaders get caught up in dicing and re-dicing test scores. Ed Directions coaches emphasize that effective academic leadership should attend to test scores as a data point but not as a decision point. Data management requires that academic leaders develop data systems that produce data that tells them what the test, the administrator, and the student scores mean. It allows them to evaluate the implementation and impact of their school improvement plan and forms their ad hoc planning for effective leadership. It will be critical for teachers who want all students to be successful learners by December to have data that identifies students who are not proficient learners, the point at which their work breaks down, and the cause of the work breaking down. Students could be at risk for patterns of behavior that are both academic and nonacademic. An organizational tool used by several Ed Directions schools to help academic leaders focus on “at risk” students is included below.

 

At Risk Students

Age Cohort

Critical Group

Number

School Plan This Year

One year behind

 

 

 

Two or more years behind

 

 


Discipline

Critical Group

Number

School Plan This Year

Multiple serious offenses

 

 

Multiple classroom disruptions

 

 

Multiple tardiness

 

 


Attendance

Critical Group

Grade

Grade

Grade

School Plan This Year

1 to 5 days

 

 

 

 

6 to 10 days

 

 

 

 

11 to 20 days

 

 

 

 

More than 20 days

 

 

 


Performance

Critical Group

Grade

Grade

Grade

School Plan This Year

Scored a 1 in a content area

 

 

 

 

Scored a 1 in more than one content area

 

 

 

 

Has never scored above a 1

 

 

 

 

 

Formative leadership: Academic leaders need to lead the formation of both teachers and students during the Formative Period. This requires observation, data collection, and formative interaction. For teachers, it means formative observations of classroom culture, climate, teacher work, and student work followed up by data sharing that emphasizes strengths, concerns (prioritized), and follow-up conferencing if needed.

 

For students, this involves regular observation in different environments with immediate recognition of appropriate behaviors or a reminder of school expectations for minor deviations. More serious deviations should be addressed immediately in a post observation conference that includes the development of an informal or a formal behavior improvement plan that will be monitored by the observer and the student.

 

A sample of formative observation and conferencing tools for teachers used in some Ed Directions schools is included below.

 

Classroom Observation

Date:                    Observer:                      Classroom:                 Time:                 Subject:

      The lesson plan was obvious and learning objectives were stated.

      Materials were available and transitions between activities were effective.

      Teacher kept students engaged and on task.

      Student work involved practicing academic or behavioral rituals and routines.

      Student work included acquiring work, organizing work, and creating meaning.

      Student work did not include the formative phases.

      The rigor of the student work was appropriate for the time of year.

      The rigor of the student work was not appropriate for the time of year.

      All students were highly engaged .

      Most students were engaged or compliant.

      All students were compliant.

      Some students were off task.

      Many students were off task.

      Student work involved critical reading.

      Student work involved writing in response.

      Student work involved critical thinking, problem-solving, and decision-making.

 

      The teacher maintained an effective rapport with the students.

      The teacher had an adversarial relationship with the students.

 

      Class communications emphasized the language of the discipline.

      Class communications were conducted in informal register.

      The focus on a standard  language or task was obvious.

      The relationship between the lesson and a standard was not obvious.

      Academic rituals and routines were observed.

      No academic rituals or routines were observed.

The classroom was safe, friendly, and focused on learning. Teacher and students followed academic rituals and routines that encourage positive interaction between and among teachers and students.

  1       2       3       4       5

Notes:

 

Positive comments:

 

 

 

Concerns for discussion:

 

 

 

 

 

In some Ed Directions schools, observers conduct observation follow-up conferences with teachers as a part of teacher formative experience. A sample of a teacher worksheet for such a conference is included below.

 

Date:                      Date of Observation:                          Teacher:

Positives:

·       

·       

·       

Concerns:

·       

·       

·       

Action Priorities:

 

 

 

Action Plan Steps:

1.      

2.      

3.      

Completed by Date:

1.      

2.      

3.      

Follow-up Observation Date:

Follow-up Observation Conference Date:

 

Evaluation of the Opening of School: The priority for the Opening of School Period was to immerse all students in an optimum learning environment and equip all students with the academic, social, and emotional competencies (or shaping rituals and routines that support those competencies). Failure to develop any of these priorities will put students at risk and reduce the opportunity for maximum growth as learner in the Formative Period. A sample evaluation used by one Ed Directions school is included below.

 

The 2 to 3 Weeks Prior to Opening

Goal

 

Evaluation

Concerns

Completed summer PD for school leadership.

 

1   2   3   4   5  

 

Finalized staffing – instructional teams and content teams.

1   2   3   4   5  

 

All teachers were introduced to the safety plans and practiced their roles and responsibilities.

1   2   3   4   5  

 

Built consensus around the school improvement plan and built a vision of success.

1   2   3   4   5  

 

Completed initial training for staff in how students learn and what causes them to perform at a particular level.

1   2   3   4   5  

 

Provided facilitated planning for all teachers in developing competency based unit and lesson plans.

1   2   3   4   5  

 

Finalized the co-curricular and extracurricular activities to be provided and identified adults responsible.

1   2   3   4   5  

 

Finalized schedules – bus, cafeteria, academic.

1   2   3   4   5  

 

Collaboratively assigned students to teachers/teams.

1   2   3   4   5  

 

Initiated contact with parents/students welcoming them and introducing them to the year’s plans.

1   2   3   4   5  

 

Provided teambuilding activities for teachers and students (e.g., shared task or competition).

 

1   2   3   4   5 

 

 

Weeks 1, 2, and 3

Goal

 

Evaluation

Concerns

Established student-friendly climate and culture.

 

1   2   3   4   5  

 

Established behavioral rituals and routines.

 

1   2   3   4   5  

 

Established academic rituals and routines.

 

1   2   3   4   5  

 

Bussing plan worked as designed.

 

1   2   3   4   5  

 

Cafeteria plan worked as designed.

 

1   2   3   4   5  

 

Behavior rituals and routines were established and implemented.

1   2   3   4   5  

 

Academic rituals and routines were established, practiced, and monitored.

1   2   3   4   5  

 

Behavioral and academic rituals and routines were mastered by all students and observed in all classrooms.

1   2   3   4   5  

 

Office and classroom technologies worked as advertised.

1   2   3   4   5  

 

Every classroom had required curricula and materials in place.

1   2   3   4   5  

 

Safety plans were explained and practiced and worked as designed.

1   2   3   4   5  

 

Baseline data on every student as learner and performer was collected.

 

1   2   3   4   5  

 

Identified initial student cohort groups and linked to adult responsible.

 

1   2   3   4   5  

 

Established critical reading, writing, and thinking as core competencies in every content area.

 

1   2   3   4   5  

 

Established adult access for all students.

 

1   2   3   4   5  

 

Assessed each student’s ability to do the learning work and performing work required.

1   2   3   4   5  

 

Provided immediate support for students unable to perform required learning or performing work.

1   2   3   4   5  

 

Initiated data collection in data room and focused initial PLC discussions on student readiness for success.

1   2   3   4   5  

 

All classes and students are ready to transition into the Formative Period.

1   2   3   4   5  

 

 

Some of the research on the student as learner indicates that if we provide an optimum learning environment and we equip all students with core competencies that they need to be successful in a classroom environment, we can achieve tremendous growth in student performance in the Formative Period. Some research indicates that we can increase student learner potential over one full year if we keep them highly engaged in appropriate learner work from September through December, and October is the key to a successful or unsuccessful transition into the Formative Period.

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