Category Archives: Teacher Leaders

When Was the Last Time YOU Failed in Front of a New Teacher?

Just before Christmas, one of our school’s mentors reached out with a simple request.  She wanted her mentee — a fantastic young language arts teacher — to spend a class period in my room.  “He’s great,” she wrote in an email introduction.  “You’ll learn a lot from him.”

I was excited about the visit mostly because I wanted to model the use of student unit overview sheets — a practice that I really believe in.  I also decided to model a willingness to take risks and try new things by tackling a hands-on activity that I had never taught before — introducing photosynthesis by making marshmallow molecules — recommended by my learning team.  My rationale was a simple one:  Photosynthesis is a difficult concept for students to understand, so using a hands-on model to rearrange molecules SHOULD have made the concept more approachable.

The day started well enough.  My students are comfortable with our unit overview sheets and the mentee in my room was challenged by the notion that teachers should be using unit overview sheets with students in order to bring clarity to their lessons and to integrate metacognition and goal setting into their classrooms.  “We use unit overview sheets for planning,” she said, “but I’ve never really considered using them with students.”

But my hands-on lesson was a complete and total disaster.

Students didn’t read the directions for the activity carefully at all, so they ended up with the wrong number of marshmallows from the beginning.  Worse yet, the marshmallows ended up being stickier than any of us expected — so our models were messy and hard to learn from.  Finally, the models that students built weren’t uniform — so groups couldn’t compare their work to one another to see if they were on the right track.  That meant I was all over the room answering questions and making corrections during the lesson.

I knew that the lesson was bombing and was pretty darn flustered.  Not only was I disappointed in the task, I was embarrassed because I knew that the mentee observing me was seeing a disaster.

So as the class period ended, I pulled her aside and let her look inside my mind.  I told her some of the reasons that I thought the lesson bombed — my students didn’t have enough knowledge about what models of molecules looked like, I didn’t provide a sample of a molecular model to compare to, and I should have counted out marshmallows in advance of the lesson so that students had the right amount from the beginning.  I also told her that all of those mistakes were preparation mistakes that could be easily fixed if I wanted to try the activity out again.

Finally, I told her my plans for making changes for the rest of the class periods that I still had to teach.  I wanted her to see that a part of being a good teacher is recognizing when a lesson doesn’t work and being able to adjust in the moment.  I also emailed her later during the day to tell her how my adjustments worked — and to apologize for wasting her time by having her observe a lesson that went horribly wrong!

Her response, though, was incredibly instructive.  “I’m actually glad I came,” she wrote.  “It’s nice to know that those kinds of things happen to other teachers too!”

You see the power in those words, don’t you?  New teachers DO struggle with their instructional design.  Instructional disasters ARE a part of their work lives — and those disasters can be disconcerting.  It’s hard to build professional confidence when you are a TEACHER who struggles with TEACHING.

The lesson that I had inadvertently passed along to her was that EVERY teacher struggles with instructional design.  We ALL have lessons that bomb on us.  The only difference between an experienced teacher and a novice is what we do — and how we feel — when instructional disasters happen.  Rookies doubt themselves while veterans draw on our experience to identify the reasons lessons failed and make revisions to our instructional plans to ensure that things go better the next time.

Interesting stuff, right?  Stated simply, new teachers NEED to see others fail.

But more importantly, they need to see others respond to failures.  When we model a cycle of failure, reflection and revision for the new teachers in our buildings, we steal the power away from struggle.  The message we send is that instructional challenges aren’t crippling or embarrassing or a sign of professional incompetence.  Instead, they are a normal part of our everyday lives.



 Related Radical Reads:

Five Thinkers Every New Teacher Should Follow

Epic Tech Fail Day

Epic Tech Fail:  Repairing a Techno Hiccup

How Much is Experience Worth?

After missing their budget deadline by nearly three full months, the North Carolina Legislature just released new salary schedules for the 2015-2016 school year.  I’ve been poking through them today — you can find them posted online here — and tinkering with the numbers.

Here are some general observations:

A first year teacher with a Bachelor’s Degree will be paid $35,000 by the State of North Carolina this year*.  A teacher with a Bachelor’s Degree and 25 years of experience will be paid $50,000 by the State of North Carolina this year.

Back-of-the-napkin math, then, makes one year of experience worth $600.

North Carolina provides a 10% stipend for earning a Master’s Degree and a 12% stipend for earning National Board Certification.  Both programs reward teachers for investing extra time into honing their craft and developing skills that can help them to become more effective instructors.  They are real opportunities for teachers to raise their own salaries.

North Carolina will pay teachers with 25 years of experience, a Master’s Degree and National Board Certification $61,000 this year.

Those numbers and a bit of back-of-the-napkin math makes one year of experience, a Master’s Degree and National Board Certification worth $1,040.

(*Note: The numbers cited here include only the portion of teacher salaries paid by the State of North Carolina.  Local municipalities can — and often do — add supplements on top of that base salary.  Those supplements vary greatly, however, from county to county.)


So what does this all mean?  I have no real idea.  Do other professionals see similar rates of salary growth over time?  Is making $15,000 more per year after spending 25 years in a field reasonable — or are people with significant experience in comparable professions (nurses, managers, police officers, firefighters) making significantly more at the end of their careers than they do on day one?

One of the things that I do know is that I’ve spent my entire career in North Carolina’s classrooms — and I’ve had my Master’s Degree and National Board Certification for 20 of my 23 years.  That has made it possible for me to say in the classroom — but I can’t say that I’m financially comfortable by any means.

In fact, I often wonder if I made the right choice when I decided to stay in the classroom.  I see the homes that the friends that I grew up with are living in, the salaries that they are making, and the cars that they are driving and I feel cheated because their families have opportunities that I cannot provide for my own.  I am — without exception — earning thousands of dollars less per year than everyone that I grew up with.  I’m also the only guy still working part-time jobs to make ends meet.


But here’s the thing:  None of those friends are filling the exact same role that they were filling on the first day of their careers.  They started as Sales Representatives and then began climbing the corporate ladder — moving steadily into Sales Manager, Regional Manager, and Corporate Trainer roles.  Or they moved from Associate to Partner positions.  Or they started as beat cops before becoming Sergeants and Detectives and Chiefs.

There is no corporate ladder for teachers, and while my experience is undeniably valuable — providing me with pedagogical expertise that makes it possible to effectively respond to the thousands of different circumstances that influence learning every day — my work is fundamentally no different than it was on the first day of my career.

My friends aren’t luckier than I am — and they sure as hell don’t work harder than I do.  They just pursued opportunities to advance in their professions — and each advancement came with a salary bump.  There ARE NO opportunities to advance available for classroom teachers.  You either teach and accept the stagnant salary growth that comes with that decision or you leave teaching.


So maybe my beef isn’t with the salary that I’m paid or the value placed on a year’s worth of experience in my state after all.  Maybe my beef is with the fact that education provides no real opportunities to remain a teacher while simultaneously accepting new professional responsibilities.

It’s education’s glass ceiling all over again — and it hasn’t changed in a hundred years.



Related Radical Reads:

Still Tired of Education’s Glass Ceiling

A Hapless Search for Organizational Juice

I Made $54,000 Last Year


Five Things Busy Teachers Need to Know about Writing a Book

Back in February, my good friend John Norton interviewed me for Middleweb — one of the single best resources for middle school teachers that I’ve ever seen.  In the interview, John asked me specifically about writing professionally.  He said:

Lots of teachers we know have it in the back of their minds (and sometimes closer to the front) to write a book.  You’ve done it, several times, with a full time teaching load, a new baby , a busy blog — the works.  How does that happen?  Give us the Top Five Things Busy Teachers Need to Know about Writing a Book.

Here’s what I wrote:

The Top Five Things Busy Teachers Need to Know about Writing a Book.

1) Know that publishers WANT your work.

One of the first barriers that teachers who want to be authors need to hurdle is recognizing that publishers REALLY DO want to hear what full-time classroom teachers have to say. We’ve been inadvertently taught over the course of our careers to believe that books are written by experts, not teachers. The fact of the matter is that most publishers understand that classroom teachers ARE the experts. If you’re willing to put the time into writing a book — especially a book that shares practical teaching strategies — publishers will line up to see what you have to offer.

2) Start blogging NOW.

When people look at my work, they often ask, “How do you find the time to blog AND write books?” What they don’t realize is that much of the content that ends up in my book STARTED as a post on my blog. In fact, if you read through the Ed Tech and PLC posts on my blog, you’d probably get a really good sense for what you’d see in any of my books. Granted, the work in my books is far more organized and polished than the work on my blog, but there are clear parallels between the two spaces.

For teachers interested in being authors, that’s an important lesson to learn: A blog can give you chances to polish your ideas. Just as importantly, you can get feedback on the kind of content that resonates with an audience. When a post takes off for me, I know that it’s probably worth incorporating into the work that I do beyond my blog. Finally, bloggers build their own audiences — which can help to convince a publisher to give you a book contract. When a publisher sees that I have 3,000 followers on my blog and another 7,000 followers in Twitter, they know that I’m doing something right.

3) Don’t expect to get rich quick.

The not so sexy side of educational publishing is that a book isn’t going to make you all that much money by itself. After grinding hard to write four books in three years, I probably pull in $8,000 per year in royalties off of book sales — and because sales of individual titles tail off after 3 or 4 years, I’m constantly working on the next book. That means you have to want to write for the sake of writing — you have to see writing as a way to reflect and to improve your own practice — instead of seeing writing as a ticket to financial security.

4). Stick to strategies, not stories.

Most teachers that I know who are interested in writing a book want to tell a story of some kind. Maybe it’s the story of how they were drawn to teaching to begin with or the story of helping students to overcome incredible challenges. Maybe it’s the story of how their school is changing lives and communities. And while those kinds of stories are beautiful and energizing to read, they’re also a dime a dozen.

More importantly, those stories don’t make up the kind of books that teachers — who are your most important market — are likely to buy. Instead, they want books centered around teaching/learning strategies. Sharing the ins-and-outs of what works with kids is WAY more important than waxing poetic about our profession. If you use some pertinent story-telling to illustrate your strategies, great.

5) Set aside time to write EVERY WEEK.

Sometimes teachers who are interested in being authors forget that writing — like golf or cooking or reading or running or parenting — is a skill that improves with practice. That means if you want to write — and more importantly, you want to write efficiently and effectively — you’ve got to do it often. Every Tuesday night, every Friday night, and every Sunday morning, I spend time behind the keyboard writing.

I might be posting on my own blog. I might be crafting a draft of a chapter for a book. I might be putting together an article for a magazine or adding comments on the blogs of other educators that I follow — but I’m writing. A lot. That investment of energy matters if you want to craft products that other people want to read.

Long story short: Writing a book is doable, y’all — as long as you are willing to believe in yourself, practice your craft, and make your ideas transparent to the world!  Being published has given me the chance to raise my voice and reflect on my practice all at the same time.



Related Radical Reads:

Unleashing Your Inner Author and Getting Published


What Does Leadership on Professional Learning Teams Look Like?

As a full-time teacher and part-time consultant on Professional Learning Community implementation, I’m always asked questions like, “What kinds of things can teachers do to move their learning teams forward?” or “What kinds of people make the best leaders for learning teams?”

Answering those questions starts by understanding that “moving learning teams forward” depends on three core behaviors:

Nurturing Strong Relationships:  The most successful learning teams care about each other, y’all.  They see one another as competent, capable practitioners.  They trust that everyone has good intentions and are willing to give one another the benefit of the doubt when conflict arises.  Their interactions are centered around collaboration INSTEAD of competition.  There is a real sense of WE — instead of ME — evident in every meeting.

Defining a Clear Vision of What “Forward” Looks Like:  Strong relationships aren’t enough to move learning teams forward, however.  Need proof?  Find that team in your building who loves working together but hasn’t changed their instructional practices in 20 years.


Moving forward, then, depends on a team’s ability to define what “forward” actually looks like.  In PLC terms, they create a shared vision for their work.  “A vision is a realistic, credible, attractive future for an organization,” writes Rick DuFour and his colleagues in Learning by Doing, “Vision answers the question, What do we hope to become at some point in the future?”

Simple stuff, right?  Without a sense for what you want to collectively become, it’s difficult to make any kind of progress together as a collaborative group.

Systematically Translating Vision into Action:  Developing a “realistic, credible and attractive future” is an essential starting point for moving learning teams forward, but without action, progress is impossible.  The most successful learning teams systematically identify practical, doable steps that they can take today that will move them towards their ideal tomorrow.

Without strong relationships, a clear vision for an ideal tomorrow, and an ability to translate vision into practical action, learning teams simply WON’T succeed.  Teacher leadership in a professional learning community, then, means nurturing those core behaviors.  Here’s the hitch, though:  There aren’t many people who are well suited to filling ALL THREE of those critical roles.

Relationship builders aren’t driven by setting vision.  Instead, they’re driven by the bonds that develop between individuals.  Vision setters, on the other hand, tend to value ideas over individuals — and they often imagine the impossible.  And the doers on learning teams are great at making things happen — but they struggle to imagine what could be because they are so focused on what needs to get done.

That means successful learning teams understand that “moving forward” depends on MORE THAN ONE leader.  They collectively identify, value and celebrate the leadership strengths — and openly recognize and wrestle with the leadership weaknesses — of every member.  More importantly, they assign tasks and fill roles based on their awareness of the individual leadership strengths and weaknesses of each member because they know that progress is dependent on getting the right person to tackle the right job.

In Building a Professional Learning Community at Work — my first book on #atplc implementation — my co-author and I go as far as to argue that successfully structuring learning teams means making sure that every collaborative group has a nice balance of Relationship Builders, Systems Thinkers, Innovators and Problem Solvers.  We also provide two handouts (see here and here) that school leaders can use to keep track of the balance of personalities on individual learning teams.

We took that argument further in Making Teamwork Meaningful — our second book on #atplc implementation — by suggesting that successfully structuring learning teams means making sure that every collaborative group has a nice balance of Discovery and Delivery Skills.

Does any of this make sense?


Related Radical Reads:

What Does Teacher Leadership Look Like in an #atplc School?

How Much Does the Composition of a Learning Team Matter?

What Can the Principals of PLCs Learn from Love Labs?


Simple Truth: Collective Strength Matters MORE than Individual Talent [SLIDE]

Oneof the guys that changes my thinking more than most is Paul Cancellieri — seventh grade science teacher and the mind behind Scripted Spontaneity.

Paul and I have talked a TON over the years about the mistaken belief that we can improve schools by doing nothing more than filling every classroom with a talented individual.  While talent certainly matters, it’s just not enough to drive change in complex human organizations like schools.

Instead, driving change in complex human organizations like schools depends on building high-functioning teams that can support one another — bringing complementary skills to bear against shared challenges:

(download slide and view original image credit on Flickr)

So the question — whether you are a principal, practitioner, parent or policymaker — is simple:

What are YOU doing to ensure that the teachers who serve the students that you care about are working on teams that are collectively strong?


Related Radical Reads:

Three Things Every Parent and Politician Needs to Know about Merit Pay

These are OUR Kids [SLIDE]

What Can Educational Policymakers Learn from Amazonian Explorers?

Are YOUR Learning Teams Playing Together?



Image Credit:
Band of Brothers by The US Army

Licensed Creative Commons Attribution on
October 21, 2012