What’s Your Average?

27 Feb

This past week was a challenging one.  I left campus on Friday feeling beaten-up, stressed-out and discouraged.  Don’t worry too much about me…I’ll get over it, but it has led me to spend a significant amount of time reflecting on what I am doing, and if, in fact, I need to do some things differently.

It is not an epiphany to recognize that prioritization, and timing, are critical aspects of effective leadership – not only in the classroom, but in our day-to-day activities.  As I reflect on my first year as principal, I have come to realize that there are many days when I arrive home exhausted, but with little conviction that my day was productive.  Time eaten away by disconnected tasks, random “fire” extinguishing, and a plethora of e-mail.  Busy, but not necessarily productive.

 Effective teaching requires the careful identification and elaboration of specific learning goals, followed by the design of activities that allow students to process information and frequent formative assessment to monitor student progress toward goals and guide instruction.  Likewise, to be effective as a school leader, one must carefully consider “the big picture,”  identify desired outcomes and prioritize activities accordingly – choosing to complete tasks that move the organization toward the achievement of identified goals.  I am finding that this is much easier said, than done.  There are many days that I feel like I am playing a frantic game of asteroids – trying to knock out hurtling objects and avoid catastrophic collisions, with little thought to the impact to our campus as a whole.

About a year ago, I had the opportunity to visit the School of One in New York City’s Chinatown.  This specialized program, focusing on mathematics, provides an exciting glimpse of the degree of individualization that technology offers for the future of education.  When students arrive in class, they check large flat screen televisions to determine their assigned learning modality for the day.  The modality is determined with input from a complex algorithm developed by Wireless Generation and is based on specific student needs.  While the technology itself is not a panacea for classroom instruction (teachers still drive the process and provide significant input), it does serve to improve efficiency and speed the formative assessment process.  The algorithm helps teachers ensure that they are providing the right instruction, for each student, at the right time.

I often joke, with my wife (an electrical engineer), that I need an algorithm.  Something that will tell me what I am supposed to be doing, and when — a means of assuring that my actions are purposeful and productive.  If only it were that easy, but life doesn’t work that way.  As enticing as the School of One’s algorithm is, there is still a pressing need to account for the human element in education, and as helpful as the algorithm might be, success still hinges upon how we (teachers, students, and administrators) handle our failures.  Do we learn and adjust, or just keeping making the same mistakes over and over again?

I think we sometimes make the mistake that at some point we will “arrive” and that this job of educating kids will become easy…natural…an after-thought.  Truth is, if we ever feel like we have arrived, we would be well advised to think again.  This week, during a discussion about a new teacher evaluation instrument our district is adopting, a staff member drew the analogy of a teacher (or administrator) as a hitter in baseball.  Even the best hitters strike out, fly out and get thrown out at first.  No one hits a home run every time at bat.  As educators, we should not expect to be home run hitters with every activity, lesson, or strategy.  The key is in the averages…sticking with it…trying new approaches…not being afraid to fail…getting back up…expecting to get better.

In spite of a rough week at school, I am determined to get better.  I will refocus on what matters.  I will work diligently to do the right things at the right times.  This week, I will be a .300 hitter (hits divided by at bats—the traditional measure of batting ability).

Swing away.

Jeff Delp (currently the Assistant Principal at Willis Junior High School in Chandler, Arizona) 

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