Monday, February 22, 2016

Innovative Schools

I don't usually read educational books all the way through. I prefer to read blogs; they are shorter, to-the-point, and if they're not relevant to me, I just close it and look for something else to read. Well, I just got through reading The Innovative Mindset by George Couros, and it was one of the best  books I've read!

I "discovered" George a few years ago via Twitter. I saw a Tweet that mentioned him, and I read his blog, "The Principal of Change."  I enjoyed reading his blogs, so I followed him on Twitter, and he became part of my connected learning network. Prior to the 2013-2014 school year, I read one of his posts about SAVMP, a School Admin Virtual Mentor Program, I signed up to be a mentor, was accepted, and virtually mentored three new principals, one in Montana, one in British Columbia, and another in Washington state. It was a great experience for me, and hopefully, for them as well.

When I attended the 2014 ISTE Conference, I attended a session with George Couros. It was in a crowded room, and I sat on the floor at the previous session so I could hopefully get a seat for his presentation. It was worth it, one of the best sessions I had the opportunity to attend.

I decided to purchase The Innovative Mindset when I saw it on my Amazon suggested list of books to buy (usually I purchase Connelly, Baldacci, Rollins, or Child on Amazon), and I'm glad I did. I read it cover-to-cover and if I had stopped to highlight or put sticky notes to bookmark pages, the book would be covered! I reflected on why I found it hard to put down, and I think it was because it was both inspiring and validating for me. I liked the examples he shared; the quotes were meaningful; and the questions for discussion made me think more deeply about our school. I know that I want to go back and re-read the book. That's how I know how much of an impact it had on me.

Empowerment is something I feel passionate about. I've written several blogs about this topic, and I believe that if our goal is to have empowered students, we need to empower our teachers. But innovation is more than just empowerment. Innovation is about a change in our mindset, and too many of our schools are compliance-driven. Students and teachers do not have the opportunities to ask questions, to follow their passions, or to be innovative.

In the first chapter, George Couros clearly defines what innovation is - "a way of thinking that creates something new and better. " (page 19) He goes on to say that "innovation is a way of thinking. It is a way of considering concepts, processes, and potential outcomes; it is not  a thing, task, or even technology." (page 19-20) Innovation is a mindset.

Clearly, George Couros wrote this book, not as a 'how-to guide' but as a 'how can our schools be more innovative?' In his last paragraph, he shares that "the biggest barrier to innovation is our own way of thinking. I am also reminded of the biggest game changer - and it isn't technology. The biggest game changers in education are, and always will be, the educators who embrace the innovator's mindset. These teachers and educational leaders look at change as an opportunity, not an obstacle, and they constantly ask: 'What is best for the learner?' With this mindset, they provide new and better learning experiences for our students every single day." (page 227)

So what does this mean for our school? First, I think we have teachers who are innovative and connected and who try new ideas that they learn from others, not just at conferences or workshops, but virtually as well. We have a pretty forward-thinking staff who understands that changing the way we teach and learn is essential in today's world and that we are all learners. In fact our vision states, "Hale Kula Elementary empowers learners to explore, discover, create, and share." Very shortly, tenured teachers will be able to apply for a transfer to any vacant position at our public schools. I know that when we interview any prospective teacher candidates, we will be looking for innovative teachers and asking questions to see what they have done that is "new and better." I certainly hope we have a large pool of teachers to select from!

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Our Most Challenging Students

As an educator for over 40 years, I've seen my share of behaviorally-challenged students. Some were as young as kindergarten, and others were older. They are the ones who needed to be removed from the classroom because their behavior disrupted teaching and learning or who bolted from or left the classroom without permission, eliciting a sometimes-frantic "Code Nike."

Most students do comply with the rules of school. A reprimand and communication between the teacher and parent usually has its intended consequence, and students realize that we have rules because we want a safe and nurturing learning environment.

It's that small 1-2% of students who are the most challenging, who make up the bulk of our disciplinary referrals, and who often require a team effort to get that child to a frame of mind where he/she is ready to get back to learning.

As part of our Positive Behavior Intervention System, we do our best to ensure a classroom culture where students work and succeed together. A classroom teacher has challenges, and making sure that everyone is engaged and learning takes special skills. It can be especially difficult when one student takes up so much individualized attention because of his/her disruptive behavior.

I certainly don't have all the answers, but my experiences as a parent, grandparent, teacher, youth sports coach, and administrator have taught me a few things about working with our most difficult young children.
  • I believe that all children want to be loved. Unfortunately, some children come from backgrounds without the kind of love most of us knew growing up or they have been hurt or "abandoned" before and don't want to be hurt again. The result is that these children don't know how to accept love or to give love in return. Our job as educators is to not give up on these challenging children. If we can break through their tough exterior, we may help them realize that there are people who care and who want them to succeed. 
  • Children need boundaries and rules. Rules help us to feel safe. School is a great place for students to learn that there are rules to be followed, and that there are consequences when we don't follow those rules. Consequences don't have to be punitive; natural consequences work as well as or better than negative consequences in many situations.
  • Children know when someone likes them or not. As adults, we need to separate the child from his/her actions. We may not like what they did, but we still like them as a person. 
  • We recommend giving 6 positive comments to every negative comment. Sometimes, that can be difficult to implement, but our most challenging students are the ones who need the most positive affirmations. We should make a special effort to catch those students when they are doing what is expected and show them our appreciation.  
  • Examining and analyzing the data as a team can help us to figure out what might be triggers and create a plan to teach appropriate strategies to eventually extinguish negative behaviors. Being proactive rather than reactive can make a difference, not only for the student but for the sometimes-frustrated and exhausted staff as well.
  • Our counselors, behavioral therapists, resource teachers, grade level colleagues, and administrators should all be a part of a challenging child's safety net. We should know which children to check up on from the time they enter in the morning until the time the day is over. "Hey, how are you doing? How's it going?" from multiple staff members sends a message to the child that people care.
As a school with a highly transient student population, we don't necessarily know the child's history before they enroll at our school. Cumulative records don't always tell the whole story about a student. Often, a child with major behavioral challenges is also struggling academically. The question then is, "Which do we address first? Behavior or academics?" Our support team has come to the conclusion that we need to address both behavior and academics through targeted and focused interventions. Addressing behavioral challenges may mean that the student is more willing to put forth effort on academic tasks, and when the student is more successful academically, we may see fewer behavioral incidents.

In my 40+ years as an educator, we have had a few students who needed more intensive services than what we could provide at the school level. However, we have had many more stories of those who may have had challenging behaviors but through a system of support, were able to become more successful. Those are the students who taught me the most, I think, about working as a team, having perseverance and never giving up on a kid. 

Monday, February 8, 2016

How Can We Improve Special Education Services in Hawaii?

Our school's special education department is wonderful. They conduct themselves professionally, rarely complain about high caseloads, work collaboratively with the whole team including parents, and do their best to implement their students' Individualized Education Program. Because Hawaii is considered an overseas assignment for military families, and because Tripler Army Medical Center is able to provide the level of services that families of special needs students may require, our military-impacted school has a higher-than-usual percentage of students with IEPs.

Recently, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser published an article titled, "Special ed audit cites staff, tech problems" about challenges in our Department. As stated in the audit, last year, roughy 25% of the Department's total budget was allocated for special education.  That amounted to about $325.5 million. An additional $40 million in federal funds meant that together, $365.5 million were allocated for the ~13% of students in our public schools identified as needing special education services.

In our country, every student is entitled to a free and appropriate public education (equality). To level the playing field, some students require additional services or supports in order to be successful (equity). Presently, all public schools in Hawaii receive funding based on a per pupil allocation (equality). Additional funds are allocated for disadvantaged, English Language Learners, and special education students because they require more services and resources (equity).

I am concerned about the amount of money being spent on special education services, and I am concerned that it will only get higher as the number of identified students increases. Based on my experiences at our school, I would like to share some suggestions regarding special education in our State. Some of these are systemic changes that will require honest conversations with all those concerned with improving special education services in our Hawaii public schools. This would include teacher preparation programs.
  • First, let's grow our own within the Department. Let's provide Registered Behavior Technician training for Educational Assistants at no cost to them.  Last year, our Department spent $38 million on contracted provider services. We can decrease that amount if we have certified RBTs in our Department to work with the autistic students who benefit from that type of specific instruction.
  • Next, let's do a better job of recruiting Educational Assistants and providing incentives for them to take courses related to their job. We give teachers the opportunity to move up a step when they take classes and complete the requirements. Let's do the same for our EAs.
  • Third, let's restructure our teacher education programs and have prospective educators enroll from their freshman year rather than waiting until they are juniors to be accepted into the College of Education. Get them in classrooms from the first semester so they have many more opportunities to gain valuable hands-on experiences.
  • Fourth, I'd like to see every teacher education program require their students to take classes and to spend at least a semester in a special education classroom. With a focus on Response to Intervention and inclusion classrooms, all teacher should know how to analyze data and how to provide specific targeted instruction for those students who may be struggling. Fewer students may require special education services if we can identify and intervene early on before the gap widens.
  • Additionally, every elementary teacher should be trained in multi-sensory strategies because children learn in different ways. One way of teaching may not be effective for all students. If students are not learning the way they are being taught, then we need to change the way we are teaching. When we teach using multi-sensory strategies, we provide students with different ways to get the information and to make connections that are essential for learning. 
  • Finally, schools struggle to provide appropriate services for students who require more intensive services. Perhaps it's time to establish centers in every complex area for students with autism or for students with emotional needs who are not successful in their present placement. The goal would always be to provide the intensive services the student needs initially and to work with the staff to gradually integrate the student back to their home school. Those schools can also be training centers for university students who have committed to working with students with more challenges. Perhaps we should also consider paying these teachers more since they are in a hard-to-fill area.
I believe that if we can implement these changes to our system, we will improve our services not only to students who are eligible for special education, but for all students. In the process, we may realize savings that can then be used for all students in our public schools.  Funding will be more equitable, but we will continue to ensure equity for those who are eligible for services.