Saturday, August 22, 2015

Military Students - Ambassadors for Education in Hawaii

When I became principal of Hale Kula Elementary School in February 2003, I had no idea how long I would stay. I thought I would get some experience under my belt and then perhaps move to another school or a District or State position. Here I am, over 12 years later, and I am still not ready to move on. Why am I so committed to working at Hale Kula? I think it's the military students and families I work with and my desire to make their education at our school a positive one that prepares them to be successful wherever they may move to next. I truly believe that our military students are the best ambassadors for education here in Hawaii.

The perceptions from military families was cause for concern a few years ago. With negative publicity from some schools, changes needed to be made. With support from Senator Daniel K. Inouye, Joint Ventures Education Forum was created in 1999, a partnership between the Department of Education, the military, and the business community here in Hawaii. For several years, Senator Inouye was able to get funding for military-impacted schools in Hawaii to purchase textbooks, upgrade their technology, create Transition Centers, and address other concerns that were identified through parent surveys. Although the funding is no longer available from Congress, JVEF continues to thrive. Discussions at meetings focus on ways to improve our schools through military and business partnerships, positive communication, and the continued sharing of ideas between the military and schools. Recently, JVEF held its 14th Annual Meeting, and it is evident that despite the lack of funding, the vision and mission of this organization remains strong, and good things continue to take place as a result of this partnership.

At our school level, communication is key. Our Facebook and Twitter posts provide an opportunity to share the great things happening at our school and to seek input and engagement from parents. We hold two virtual School Community Meetings each year, and participation at these meetings has provided parents with the opportunity to share ideas that may have worked at other schools their child attended or to bring up concerns that we may not have been aware of.  We seek input through our annual School Community Council survey, and we get a pulse of how parents are feeling about the curriculum, the school culture, and whether they feel their child will be ready for the next grade level. We also solicit comments about their concerns and what they like best about our school. This feedback helps us to focus on areas where we can improve.

Recently, we read about a military parent who extended his tour in Hawaii so his younger daughter could also graduate from the local high school. Another military parent shared how pleased she is with the services her young special needs child receives at her school. These are not isolated stories. Many of our parents share with us (through Facebook or emails) about how well-prepared their children were when they attended schools at their new duty station. I see students excelling academically, athletically, and socially. It really makes me proud to see how well they are doing and to know that we had a small part in their school success. I think of Noah, a fourth grader when he left our school. At the time, he was having some challenges dealing with his father's deployment. However, he had learned to play the ukulele at our school, and his mother sent me a video of him playing in front of his new schoolmates at their talent show. After playing a Jason Mraz song, he confidently stated, "Now I'm going to sing a song from Hale Kula, the best school ever" and proceeded to play the ukulele and sing our school song. (Yes, I had tears in my eyes.) When I see photos of our former students and hear of their successes, I realize that they are our best ambassadors for education in Hawaii. When they do well at their next school, it is a reflection on our schools, that we are doing something right. I recently received a note from a former student who just graduated with honors from high school. "Hale Kula has certainly shaped who I am," she wrote. What a tribute to the experiences she received at our school and how they impacted her as she moves on to do great things in college!

Being a principal at a military-impacted school has its challenges, but our staff is committed to doing our best to give our students the kinds of experiences that will shape who they are and lead them to successful futures.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Why Can't We Retain Teachers in Hawaii?

Recently, Civil Beat published an article titled, "Hawaii Schools Begin the Year Short on Teachers - Again."  As I read the article, I could relate to the frustrations of the principals. It isn't easy to find highly-qualified teachers, and I have been in the situation where I am "harassing" our Personnel Officer for a list of applicants for a position because school will be starting the following week. I look back on my first position with the Department of Education, and I wasn't hired until October after school had already been in session for a month.  So it is clear that starting off the year short on teachers is not a new problem.

When I received my teaching degree over four decades ago, there were no jobs for elementary teachers except for those with special education degrees.  At that time, the Department was disbanding their 3-on-2 program (3 teachers with 2 classrooms of students) at all elementary schools. That meant that 1 of 3 elementary teachers was now out of a job. I applied for and was hired to teach with Head Start, but many of my colleagues who graduated with teaching degrees ended up taking jobs in other fields and never became teachers.

Today, we have a different problem:  there aren't enough highly qualified teachers for every classroom.  To address this shortfall, the State has recruited teachers from the mainland and Teach for America.  This is a temporary fix, however, and does not address the major problem of keeping teachers for more than just two or three years. We all get better as we gain more experiences and more confidence. This is true of the classroom teacher as well.

We have a unique situation in Hawaii. When we recruit teachers from the mainland, the cost to relocate is extensive. New teachers probably think it's exciting to be offered a position in Hawaii, but without knowing the culture of this place, it can be a challenging transition.  Trying to find a place to live or looking for roommates to share the cost of a rental then purchasing a car to get to work is not easy when one does not know where to begin looking.  Many times, the teaching jobs are in remote rural locations away from places where they might meet other young people to socialize with. And of course, the high cost of living in Hawaii can be difficult to manage for someone with a new teacher's starting salary.  According to the article, "Why Do Teachers Quit?" 40%-50% of new teachers nationwide will quit within their first five years, and teacher turnover is 4% higher than other professions.  In Hawaii, according to the Civil Beat article,  it costs the State between $6.2-$13.5 million a year to recruit and train new teachers due to attrition.  That is money that could go towards increasing the weighted student formula pot.

So what can we do to truly make some changes so that we don't have to start the year off with a teacher shortage in our classrooms?  I believe the answer lies in our communities. If it takes a village to raise a child, doesn't this apply to our schools as well? We read about organizations or businesses assisting with a school-wide beautification project.  This is great, but schools need more than a one-shot project. How about giving employees time off to go to a school to mentor students who might need an adult role model? This could make a huge difference in the life of a student who may be struggling and needs some support. How about having volunteers go to school regularly to listen to students read or help them with their writing or their math? Teachers don't always have time to give every child the individualized support they may need to to be successful; volunteers could provide that extra support. Perhaps volunteers have expertise in an area that could benefit the school. Gardening? Composting? Aquaponics? Art? Music? Dance? Sports? Foreign language? School is not just about academics especially if we want to develop the whole child.  Oftentimes, schools do not have the funds to provide these extra classes, so having "experts" volunteer would be very much appreciated.

Because housing and/or transportation time can be stressful, the community can help out if they are willing to rent to new teachers.  If several teachers can pool their resources and rent a place, this not only saves them money, this has the added benefit of providing a natural system of support. While having a mentor teacher at school is important,  so is having people to commiserate with outside of school. Additionally, teachers can then support each other as a professional learning community, to share ideas and to reflect on improving their professional practices. It's too bad that most schools no longer have teachers' cottages; perhaps this is something that all remote schools should have in their community or on their campuses to address a real problem for new teachers to the school.

If we bring the community into our schools, teachers would feel more supported, and education truly would become a team effort.  This is especially true for those communities with the most challenges. As an educator for over four decades, I still get defensive when I hear people criticizing our schools and our teachers. I know that 99% of the educators I have worked with truly do care about their students and do the best with what they have.  This is why I hope that more people would get involved in our schools on a more regular basis.  I think it would make the public more appreciative of what teachers go through every day and our students would benefit from the extra attention they would receive from caring adults.

Living in an island state in the middle of the Pacific Ocean has its rewards as well as its challenges. I believe that our students deserve to have positive educational experiences that will prepare them for life whether it is here in Hawaii or elsewhere around the world. Let's join together and be a part of the solution to improve education for our students and our teachers!

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Personalized Professional Development Plans

 "All teachers will develop and maintain a Professional Development Plan that identifies areas for targeted growth and learning. Completion of the learning opportunities within the plan will be considered a matter of professional responsibility. The plan can include a varied amount of conferences with an administrator depending on the type of plan."  (Educator Effectiveness System Manual, 2015-2016, page 7)

EES has been controversial since it was first implemented for all public school teachers in Hawaii two school years ago.  The system was created as part of Hawaii's Race to the Top grant with the expectation that teachers' evaluation would be tied to test scores.  That first year was a nightmare, and teachers and administrators alike protested  vehemently about the poor rollout and training. (See a blog I wrote after that first year titled, "How Should Teachers Be Evaluated?".) Last year, the Department revised the expectations so the requirements were more do-able. The system, however, continued to pay minimal attention to Core Professionalism, and despite the added responsibilities, there were very few teachers who were rated "Marginal" or "Unsatisfactory" under EES.

This year, all teachers will be creating a personalized professional development plan as part of their EES evaluation. I believe we are finally on the right track! I hope that teachers will be motivated and engaged in growing professionally because they will be able to choose what they want to learn more about and how that will impact teaching and learning.  Along the way, their assigned administrator will meet with them to provide guidance, point them to resources, and have meaningful conversations where teachers will reflect on their progress and how their focus for their professional development plan (pdp) is positively impacting  teaching and learning.

What do we need to put in place so all teachers at our school can be successful?  First, we will ask teachers to share what they would like to focus on for their PDP.  Those who are interested in the same topic or question can work together as a professional learning community.  We will provide time for groups to meet at school, and teachers will be encouraged to share resources, observe their partners in the classroom,  participate in honest conversations, and join virtual communities on their designated area of interest.  This PDP is about demonstrating the General Learner Outcomes which are indicators for success in life. What we teach our students every day about the GLOs is just as applicable to us as adults. 

Our school vision is "Hale Kula empowers learners to explore, discover, create, and share."  This applies to ALL of us at the school; we are all learners.  This personalized professional development plan will allow our teachers to explore an area of interest.  They will discover new information as well as new ways of improving their teaching which will then positively impact student learning.  Teachers will be asked to create something to share their learnings with others.  What they share can be displays of student work, reflections, or any product of the teacher's choosing. This whole process is about empowering teachers with the choice to determine how they want to improve. 

I am appreciative that the Department has opted to place more emphasis on teachers' professionalism by requiring Professional Development Plans for everyone.  I know that this is a work-in-progress, but because it is personalized, there is an expectation that every teacher will be engaged as learners in this process.  At the same time, every teacher and administrator will gain by learning from others, not just when we allocate that time during faculty meetings, but through conversations and discussions, visiting classrooms, and sharing photos or student work in our school virtual community.  

Let the learning begin!

Providing time for teachers to learn from each other is essential.  How we provide that time will be determined after our teachers select their area of focus for their professional development plan.