Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Ten Tips for Finishing the School Year Strong
by Mike Nitzel, Principal
Thomas Jefferson Elementary School
Rock Island-Milan (IL) School District

The end of the school year brings with it many emotions--excitement at the prospect of summer vacation, perhaps tinged with a bit of sadness that another school year has come to an end.  Some of us have just finished our last school year after a long and distinguished career; others, like me, are one year closer to retirement.  Some of us are looking forward to new challenges in new positions next year, while others among us are looking forward to new challenges in current positions.  Some of us may be in the unfortunate position of having to look for work next year.  Whatever our status as this year winds down to a close, and whatever our position, we should all be united in our effort to finish this year strong.  Here are some tips for doing that. 

1) Plan Meaningful Activities for Students--Every day, every hour and every minute we have with our students is precious.  Use your time in meaningful ways.  When you're tempted to throw in a movie or heaven forbid give them a word search--ugh!--find something for the kids to close read and write about instead. 

2) Maintain Your Agreements With Your Students--I prefer the word agreements rather than rules.  But whatever you call them, don't let them go out the window as the end of the school year approaches.  Maintain the standards of conduct for your community through the very last minute of the school year.  If your agreements were important the first week, they're important on the last day.

3) Maintain Accountability--This is related to #2.  If students or staff do not maintain the agreements you have made, hold them accountable.  Like your agreements, if accountability is important during the first week, it's important on the last day. 

4) Maintain Rituals and Routines--We all find comfort in rituals and routines.  Our rituals and routines define what's important and what we expect.  For example, though we only have five days left in our school year, I am still publishing my Daily Update complete with a teaching tip/resource of the day.  Abandoning rituals and routines in the last days of the school year diminishes their previous importance and the importance that they will need to have next school year.  It also sends a message that the school year is already over, which it isn't.

5) Keep Your Classroom As It Is--Wait until the kids are gone to tear down your classroom.  Nothing says, "We're done!" like empty bulletin boards.  I've seen teachers begin to tear their classrooms down two weeks before the end of the school year.  This is a terrible message to send. 

6) Maintain Professional Dress--Unless you're going on a field trip, it's field day or it's incredibly hot and you have permission to wear them, keep the shorts and t-shirts at home in the closet.  Again, dressing down as the year comes to a close sends a message to your kids that vacation has already started.  What you do is more important than what you say.  Your dress sends a message.  Make sure it's the right one.

7) Stress the Importance of Attendance--Kids belong in school when school is in session.  Be explicit about this and let them know that their attendance is your expectation. Of course, it will help if you plan meaningful learning activities. 

8) Stay Away From Countdowns--Counting down the number of days until the end of the school year reinforces the notion that school is something the kids should want to get away from.  Don't we want them to feel exactly the opposite?

9) Come to School Yourself--It's tempting to take those unused sick days or unused personal days towards the end of the year, especially if you find yourself in a "use them or lose them" situation.  Lose them.  You're a professional and your presence is critical to the success of your kids.  If you're gone, why should the kids show up?  What's left must not be all that important, right? 

10) Maintain Your Enthusiasm--Be excited about learning, every minute of every day.  It can be tough at the end of the year.  You're tired.  You've been working hard.  You should be tired.  But your kids deserve your best every day--first day, last day and everyone in between--and your best requires your enthusiasm. 

These are just a few things that I thought of as I was thinking about the end of the school year.  As a school principal, my school year never truly ends; the minute the last student and the last teacher leave the school, our school secretary, the custodians and I are busy preparing for the first day of the next year and I don't get the same vacation that others get. It might, therefore, be a little easier for me to preach on this a bit.  But whether you are an administrator, teacher, secretary, paraprofessional or custodian, our students deserve our very best every precious minute we have with them.  Let's all agree to give it to them. 

I would be interested in any comments you might have.  As always, thank you for taking time out of your busy lives to read this.  I truly appreciate it. 

Monday, May 27, 2013

The Importance of Social Emotional Learning in Schools
by Mike Nitzel, Principal
Thomas Jefferson Elementary School
Rock Island-Milan (IL) School District 

A few minutes ago, I just finished participating in an exceptional #iledchat on Twitter on the topic of Social Emotional Learning.  As an aside, if you have not participated in an #iledchat, please consider doing so.  You can find #iledchat at 9:00 p.m. central time every Monday.  Many of the responses got me to thinking about the importance of SEL in our schools so I thought I would share some brief thoughts on the topic. 

The Necessity of SEL: Social Emotional Learning is not an add-on or "one more thing to do"; SEL should be central to what we do, equal in importance to reading, mathematics, writing, science, social studies and all of the other "stuff" we teach.  In point of fact, it should probably take on GREATER significance.  Consider Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.  If you look at Maslow's "pyramid", you will see at its foundation the physiological needs--breathing, food, water, sleep--those things that are essential to life itself. Moving up the hierarchy, we next find safety needs and then the need for love and belonging.  The central thesis of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs is that those needs at the bottom must be met before any of the higher needs--esteem and self-actualization--can possibly be attained.  In school vernacular, it works like this--kids can't learn if they're hungry, afraid, or don't feel a sense of belonging.  Yet, how many students do we encounter each day who do not receive the basic, foundational yet essential needs that Maslow outlines for us?  You know the answer as well as I--too many.  We might not like it or feel prepared for it, but it IS our job to provide these essential, foundational needs to many of our students.  Students CANNOT learn if they do not have access to the most basic needs necessary to sustain life or if they feel unsafe, unloved or uncared for.  I'm fond of reminding my staff that theirs may be the only loving, caring faces that some of their kids may see during the day; that the breakfast and lunch that their students eat with us each day might be the only food they see until they come back to us the following day.  If we want our kids to care about the "stuff" we teach them, we had better first care about them as people, recognize their simple most basic needs, and do "whatever it takes" to meet them.  The reading series we choose, the math practices we employ, the writing model we decide upon mean nothing if our kids don't see them as important; how important can they be to our kids if those same kids are wondering where their next meal is coming from, whether or not mom or dad will be there to look after them when they get home or what they are going to feed their younger brother or sister for supper--or whether today is the day the class bully is going to get them at recess? 

Even if you don't work in a high poverty school such as mine, your kids still have those basic needs for safety and love and belonging that must be met.  School is a tough place for kids to navigate; I think we lose sight of that sometimes.  Peer pressure, the desire to fit in, the pressures of social media, all create stressors on our students, no matter their socio-economic status.  Helping our students learn respect, responsibility, empathy and (gasp!) character are essential to give them the tools they need in order to be safe, and part of a loving, caring community.

Meeting Our Students' SEL Needs: We can help meet our students' SEL needs both explicitly and implicitly.  There are many programs out there that we can use to explicitly teach our kids how to help form productive relationships, to build community, and to help meet their safety and love and belonging needs.  PBIS, Conscious Discipline, Steps to Respect, Second Step, and The Leader in Me are a few that we use in my school district.  The concepts found in these programs can be taught in a variety of ways--teacher or counselor-led whole group lessons and class meetings are just two that come to mind.  These explicitly taught programs can be very effective programs if used with fidelity and integrity.  And extensive professional development on how to teach these programs is a must.  But as importantly, or perhaps more importantly, are those things that we do in those small moments every day that help our kids feel safe and a part of a community.  By treating students in the same manner we would wish to be treated, by modeling the behavior we expect of our students, and by being present for them in those moments they need us, regardless of how small the issue might seem to us, we will be taking enormous steps towards helping them meet Maslow's needs for safety and love and belonging. This will help make all of our students not only happier, healthier, and safer, but more productive academically.  

In short, I think we often fail to put first things first in our zeal to improve our schools.  When we stop thinking of Social Emotional Learning as something "extra" that we do or as expendible during budget cutting season, we will be advancing our academic agenda in a very real way.  It is really quite simple; if we can help our kids meet their physiological needs, safety needs, and needs for love and belonging, we will be putting them on the launching pad for academic success.  The alternative is to continue to believe that in spite of the very real and very significant struggles that many of our students face on a daily basis, they can be successful if we only choose the "right" reading or math program.  Belief in the latter will not only hurt our students socially and emotionally, and it will lead to continued academic failure.  We should remember that at budget cutting time when it seems so easy to reduce one counselor, one social worker or one interventionist and think that it won't impact our academic programs.  If we want our schools to improve, we had better start focusing on the right things, the foundational things.  To be sure, that's a jump-shift in thinking for many.  If this is a difficult concept for you to grasp, think of it this way--you don't improve your home by removing the cement blocks that provide its foundation. 

I would be interested to know what you think.  Please feel free to share a comment about what I've written.  And as always, thank you for taking time to read this.  I really do appreciate it. 

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Useful Communication Tools for Every School Principal
by Mike Nitzel, Principal
Thomas Jefferson Elementary School
Rock Island-Milan (IL) School District

An essential component to building relationships is communication.  If your stakeholders are to feel a part of what you are trying to accomplish, they first must be informed about what you intend to accomplish.  Providing information is the first step towards establishing two-way communication which is vital to the success of your school.  Here are some things I do to maintain communication with my stakeholders.  You undoubtedly have other ideas and I would love to hear about them through your comments.

1)      Daily Update to Staff:  Each day I put out a Daily Update to my staff.  It’s a kind of newsletter in which I provide them an updated calendar for the current and upcoming weeks, let them know who is out of the building for the day, and provide them with any additional information that they need to know—upcoming deadlines, etc.  I also provide them with a “Teaching Tip/Resource of the Day” and each week I provide them with an inspirational quote of the week.  At the bottom of the Update our school and district mission statements will always be found.

2)      The Bulldog Bugle: This twice monthly newsletter goes home to our families and any other interested party who wants one.  It contains calendars and schedules of upcoming events and other informational articles of interest.  But perhaps most importantly, there is a “Teaching and Learning” corner, a “Parent Involvement Corner” and  Common Core State Standards  Corner” found in every newsletter. 

3)      Email Hotline: Our school has an email hotline which I use to remind parents about upcoming events or to report on things that have happened at school such as safety drills. 

4)      Proactive Phone Calling:  This is one of the most useful tools I have used.   Each week I call at least three families at random (our secretary blind chooses the families for me to call) and I ask them three questions: 1) Is there anything positive you would like to share about what is happening at Thomas Jefferson School?; 2) Is there anything you think we can improve on at Thomas Jefferson School?; and 3) Is there anything you would like to share about Thomas Jefferson School that we haven’t talked about.   Seeking out the input of your families outside of regular school surveys communicates to them in a very real way that you care about what they have to say and it gives them a very real voice in what’s happening in your school. 

5)      Facebook: We have used Facebook in the past and some schools use it far more effectively than we do.  It can be an important two way communication tool, but it can be fraught with pitfalls as well.  Be careful in how it’s used.

6)      Twitter: This is an excellent tool to keep a wider audience informed about what is happening in your school, both in and out of the classroom.  For examples of how I use Twitter, check out my Twitter feed using my handle @MikeNitzel.  Some schools have set up their own Twitter accounts as have some school districts, including mine @R_I_Schools. 

7)      School Website:  This is certainly not a new concept and it needs little explanation here.  One caveat about school websites—KEEP THEM CURRENT!  It is very disappointing to go to a school website looking for information and finding that the last post is three months old. 

8)      Suggestion Box: Some schools use these very effectively for anonymous feedback.  One warning though—have a thick skin and be prepared to read things that are surprising as well as a bit disappointing.  That being said, you can get some good feedback and ideas from using one. 

These are just a few ideas I have regarding communication within your school and with a larger audience.  I’m sure you have many more and again, I’d invite you to comment and share!  Remember, good communication is a starting point to good stakeholder involvement in your school, something that will only make your school better!   Thank you for taking time to read my thoughts on school communication.  It is most appreciated!