@DrNickSutton suttonnick82@gmail.com

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Leadership in the Face of Inequities

When I first became an administrator, I was overrun with new experiences and challenges each day. Everything was new, and I had just not lived through enough past experiences to assist myself with basing future decisions. This was a challenge, but as time went on, and about ten years of administrative experience passed by, I had reached a point of comfort with the various issues that also arise at any other given district. In other words, nothing surprised anymore. I had lived through enough various human resource, financial, and professional development related issues, that although very challenging at times, were aspects of educational leadership that I had come to expect.
Unprecedented. This is a term with a definition that accounts for an extreme assessment of a situation. It has now become a term that has also lost some of its emphasis and impact because it is a term that has been used so much to describe the reality of our world and education system right now. This is a truly unprecedented situation.
The best educational leaders, and the ones I look up to and try to learn from the most, are the ones that take on any situation with confidence and a plan. Confidence and a plan are the most important thing a leader can offer right now. This does not mean you need to predict the future, or hide that you are also scared. Rather, confidence and a plan show that you are willing to lead in a crisis because you understand that you are far from perfect yet know also that you must help others.
In light of our current situation, virtually all school districts in our nation are navigating to online learning for students. While it is inspiring to see educators embrace this, despite their different levels of readiness and varying degrees of preparedness, it has also put a spotlight on an issue that we as a collective educational society need to address. The discrepancy between technology and internet access for students equates to nothing less than unequal access to educational opportunities. In places where school buildings are closed, as in Illinois, there is not a single teacher that does not miss and want to help their students. The difference for so many students on whether learning is occurring, or the quality of engagement and instruction, is not based upon desire, but a lack of access.
Technological resources and internet access needs to be ubiquitous for all, and this need has come to the forefront right now. If all schools are being tasked to prepare students for 21st century skills, then 21st century access for all is a must. I am not going to pretend that I have the universal answer and solution on how to make this happen, but I do know this: the first step to solving any problem is identifying that the problem exists.
I have seen firsthand lately that being a leader has nothing to do with a title. Being a leader has everything to do with action. I am witnessing kitchen workers, bus drivers, and educators working tirelessly to positively impact students in the face of severe challenges. These are the true leaders in a crisis, and they deserve our recognition. Leadership is about actually doing something. Based upon this realization, I would now task our society to lead through action, as well. We need to ensure no student lacks access to learning due to a lack of resources. We need to do better, and the unequal technological state of our education system right now proves it.

Friday, January 24, 2020

How do teachers develop their views?

It's interesting because I wonder how much of a new teacher's curriculum is created and driven by whatever teacher they happen to be placed next to in a school.  Think about it..... When a new teacher, especially someone tasked with teaching a secondary level content, first sits down in their classroom before school starts, how many times are they given the summary of what to teach and when by their new next door neighbor. 

Now this scenario is not necessarily a bad thing.  We work in a field in which being collaborative is necessary and indicative to a positive and productive school.  Educators are supposed to help other educators.  However, what is interesting to me to consider is how much of an educator's career is probably influenced by who they end up being next to in their first year.

Consider this.... Imagine a district that has a curriculum committee that has spent years creating a curriculum scope and sequence that is rich in rigor.  It lists specific essential skills and is completely aligned to necessary learning standards to address.  At the start of the year institute, the district administrators go over the document and outline their expectation that it is followed.  Then later in the day, when the new teacher has a question about the new content they are tasked to teach, reaches out to the veteran teacher next door.  If that veteran teacher indicates that they do not personally follow the recommended curriculum exactly, and they then suggest the new teacher should not either, what is most likely to happen?

To take this topic a bit further, it always fascinates me how any school can get their entire staff together in a room and begin asking procedural questions to only discover how different each classroom is being run.  For example, to exemplify my point try asking a large group of teachers what their view is on late work policies.  Do you accept late work?  Is it due when it is due?  Do you do a percentage off for each day late?  Etc.

Rather then getting into a debate on what the best practice is for late work, instead I would encourage any teacher reading this to not so much reflect on what their policy is, but to instead ask yourself did your current policy become your own because you had veteran teachers early in your career recommend it?  I think this question could then be utilized through a number of different topics.  What is your view on homework? Giving zeroes? Extra credit?

So many schools and districts do not have universal policies on these topics, and the reason is that trying to find consensus is difficult... if not impossible.  However, when these topics are not universally addressed, then new teachers are likely going to follow and conform to the recommended procedures that are provided by the first veteran building teacher that they develop a relationship with.  I would be curious how many current educators maybe realize that so many of their positions and opinions on education may have been influenced by where their first classroom randomly ended up being connected to.  Or even more thought provoking....How different would your classroom views and policies possibly be if you had simply ended up being next to someone else?

Friday, December 13, 2019

Why is it okay to be "bad at math?"

All educators naturally fall in love with specific unit plans or content areas.  It is simply human nature to have favorites much like other aspects in life.  On the other hand, this tendency can also be seen with educators least favorite realms of education.  They will inevitably have some learning standards that they just do not find as interesting as others when trying to help students reach mastery.

However, what is interesting to me is how often I encounter educators that continually tell me without hesitation or issue that they are bad at math.  I have seen this in all sorts of settings, and this type of comment can be stated without reservation.  For example, when I was still a teacher working in some type of after school homework help program, it was always a challenge having enough workers available to help students with their math assignments because so many teachers would simply proclaim that they were not good at it.

I am curious how we have evolved as educators that this type of comment is okay to make about math, but not reading.  Specifically, if we ever heard a teacher inform everyone that "I really don't like reading, and have never been good at it." it would be met by a lot of collective gasps on how a teacher could say something like that.  However, why is it we live in a society that it is okay for teachers to make the same type of comments relative to math?  Perhaps this being an acceptable position is part of the reason adults grow up disliking math in general.

Monday, October 7, 2019

We need to stop "Doing RTI" and remember that RTI is a "process."

The field of education is filled with research based interventions that are all sound practices based upon everyone's universal goal - impacting students positively.

However, I think all educators need to remember that the RTI or MTSS systems of support are wonderful models to create to help kids.  I think the misconception and reasons some buildings do not have the success they want with these systems is that there is confusion.  RTI is not an event.  RTI is a process.

Master schedules that have an RTI period set aside during the day is fantastic and necessary.  The issue, in my opinion, is when the focus of implementation of an RTI system ends there.  A set aside RTI period should be when additional instruction takes place, outside of the core, with the goal that this additional instruction will re-mediate the skills that were lacking. 

I have observed well intended confusion in which RTI periods are merely time for additional support on classroom assignments for students that are struggling.  While this may be an impactful and necessary layer of support for many students, this is not an actual RTI system.

A true RTI system has to begin with layers of interventions in the tier 1 classroom to be able to accurately use data to identify the skills that are lacking to justify and objectively navigate next steps.  This is where tier 2 and tier 3 interventions come into place, and would also be an accurate utilization of a true RTI period.

Simply put, I think the field of education has somehow gravitated to "Homework Help" during the day being synonymous with "Doing RTI" and I am not sure this is a positive reality.  So many students struggle with homework because they are lacking skills, and if there is confusion on the system that should exist to help them, I am not sure how they are ever going to catch up.

The primary purpose behind RTI is to help students with skills and content knowledge they were missing, and this is a system all school buildings should have.  The successful ones are the ones that do it correctly though - as a system, and not an event.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Educators - The Opportunity to Create

Like almost all people, I find the topic of religion and spirituality a subject that is fascinating and one I continually find large, encompassing similarities with concepts within the education field.  Almost all religions seem to identify and incorporate the topic of creation in some way.  If a higher being is affiliated with creation, then we as human beings are not only the result of creation, we are living opportunity providers for additional creation.

Now how we define the topics of "higher being" and "creation" are obviously open to endless debate and interpretation.  While the limitless debate is an exquisite and healthy thing, it is not one I aim to delve into within this post.  Instead, it is the correlation I find with the opportunity for creation of positive connections within the relationship of educator to student.  This core concept is often stressed as the most important premise by so many in the education field, but I sometimes worry some see the topic of positive relationships as the current craze and are more dilettante with their perspective then deeply genuine. 

I continually hear about the "importance" of building positive relationships, but I wish I heard more about the wonderful "opportunity" to build positive relationships in the field of education.  Content and pedagogy is obviously important, but the very opportunity for positive relationships for growth is what is paramount, and should be the inherit driving force for so much, if not all.  

All educators having the continual opportunity to create this type of impact is really a pretty beautiful reality, and truly should be seen as the gift  that it actually is.

Friday, August 16, 2019

The Opportunity of the Start of School

I love the cycle of public education.  Each month my job as an administrator is different than the month before.  Just like as a teacher with each classroom of kids being different, the same can be said when it comes to the monthly tasks that present themselves as a district superintendent.

However, my favorite part of the school year is definitely the start.  Obviously, I enjoy all of the students coming back, but the primary reason I love the start of school is because of all that it represents and offers everyone involved.

With each start of a school year, it comes with a universal goal for everyone to better than the year before.  I hear this type of statement with everyone, too. 

Students comment on how they want to do better in a content area.

Teachers comment how they want to teach a unit in a new way.

Administrators comment that they want to see a new program be successful.

I cannot think of another career field that offers this opportunity for renewed opportunity like in public education.  Every fall comes with the chance to be better, new, and improved.  I think this portion of the cycle is what really makes public education special and unique to me.

Monday, August 12, 2019

How do you define collaboration time?

With the return of essentially all school districts back for the first day of school, many educational leaders are building agendas on how to spend those precious first few days back.  It is always a special setting since all staff members are in attendance, and there is a subconscious level of excitement that naturally accompanies each new start of the year.

This year, I spent some time exploring and investigating how other districts utilize their beginning of the year institute training days.  Although there were many differences, some vast and some small, there did appear to be a trend for one distinct similarity that almost all agendas shared....they all included the practice of "collaboration time."

What became interesting to me is how much the term "collaboration time" appears to have different definitions.  In some districts it appears synonymous with grade level content discussions, while in others it seemed to have a basis within instructional strategies.  All of these different interpretations had value, but it seemed common to at least include this practice of group discussion time in some manner.

Secondly, I have noticed that "collaboration time" seems to more likely than not take place in the afternoon.  I would go even a step further, and state that my very mini investigation seemed to conclude that specifically it was almost always after lunch when this occurred.

At this point, I love contemplating why and how this has become such a common norm.  I do not think it is a stretch, or strange conclusion, that educators work best when involving their peers.  However, I think how we as public educators define collaboration becomes the thought provoking topic.  For example, should this time be agenda driven with an intended product as an outcome OR should this time be informal in nature where the direction of the meeting flows more naturally?  The other question I have begun to ask some districts is why they include such an emphasis for collaboration at the beginning of the school year, but then do not build master schedules to ensure these types of opportunities for group collegiality continue during the actual calendar year.

My honest fear is that there are times in which "collaboration time" is  an inadvertent space filler used when extra time is present.  I would love to hear from more individuals on this topic, if they are seeing some of the same trends as myself, and have ideas on why this is happening.