Shelley Burgess

Reflections of an educational learner and leader


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It’s Up to Us

I work with an amazing group of principals who inspire and motivate me every day, and yesterday one of them shared something with me that made a powerful impact.  She is beginning her first full year in her position as principal (she started mid-year last year).  Since she started at her school last October, this new principal has been working diligently to build relationships and gather data.  She has combed through test scores, sat in on grade-level meetings and made a huge number of classroom, hallway and playground observations.  She has engaged in discussions with students, staff, parents and community members, and she has earned their trust and their respect.  She has been a colleague, a leader, and a decision-maker, but most importantly she has been a learner, an observer, and a listener… and each day she has grown a little bit stronger in her convictions about the kind of school she wants to lead.  This year she decided to set the tone of her first staff meeting using this quote as the theme for their work together…

It’s Up To Me…

“I’ve come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or de-humanized.” – Haim Ginott

What I know from speaking to her afterwards is that she got choked up and had a few tears in her eyes as she read the words.  She knew the message she was planning to send might be harsh, but she knew it was the right one to send.  I also know she moved others to tears, and she inspired others to thank her, to give her hugs, and to speak encouraging words.  She had several staff members request a copy of the quote, and she sent it onto them with a message to “never underestimate the power you have as a teacher”.  What she did that first day took conviction and it took courage.

Upon reflection, she also shared with me that while the journey of becoming a principal has not been an easy one, she feels strongly that she has been chosen to lead her school for a reason.  She has a vision, a sense of purpose, and a belief that she will make a difference.  She has developed what Michael Fullan has referred to as a “moral imperative”, and I am certain that through her leadership, her school will thrive.

My conversation with her made me think!

As site and district leaders…

  • It’s up to us to develop the collective sense of moral purpose.
  • It’s up to us have courageous conversations.
  • It’s up to us shape the school culture.
  • It’s up to us to hold up the mirror, even if some of us won’t like what we see.
  • It’s up to us to define what we stand for and act accordingly.
  • It’s up to us to inspire and to motivate.
  • It’s up to us to push people to places they never thought they could go.
  • It’s up to us to challenge the status quo and do what is right, even when it is not popular.
  • It’s up to us to create schools where we would be proud to send our own children.

It’s Up to Us

I have come to the frightening conclusion that as leaders we are the decisive elements in our schools and in our districts.  It is our daily mood that creates the climate.  As leaders, we possess a tremendous power to make a school exceptional or to make a school a failure.  We can use tools to create indifference or use instruments of motivation.  We can berate and blame or we can inspire and innovate.  In all situations, it is our responses that decide whether or not our schools will exceed expectations or fall below them.  It is the choices we make each day that ensure our students succeed BECAUSE of our schools, not in spite of them.

 


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What’s Your Passion?

“A great leader’s courage to fulfill his vision comes from passion, not position.”  – John Maxwell

We are just about to start a new school year this Monday. I am energized, motivated, and excited about all of the possibilities our team will have together this year to learn, teach, lead, connect, engage and reflect! We hosted our first  “Kick off” event for all employees on Wednesday which was a huge success.  We had opportunities to see old friends, make new connections and participate in healthy activities.  We had opportunities to think, to laugh and to come together as a community.  I loved every minute of it and have received incredible feedback from our staff.

 As a participant in the event, I also had the unique pleasure of seeing my husband, Dave Burgess, deliver the keynote speech.  You would think that as his wife this would not be new to me… but it was.  He has never stood up in our living room and delivered his keynote, and I don’t follow him on his travels as he delivers it in other districts – so it was a first for me.  While there are many things he said that caused me to stop and think, there is one that really stood out for me… it was when he asked us “What are you passionate about?”  He separated passion into three categories, and while all important, the one that has caused the most reflection for me was “Category Two” or my “Professional Passion”.  For the last few days I have been asking myself – what is it about my profession that I am passionate about?  What was it that got me into the business of education, and why is it that I would not want any other career than to be an educator?

“If there is no passion in your life, then have you really lived? Find your passion, whatever it may be. Become it, and let it become you and you will find great things happen FOR you, TO you and BECAUSE of you.” – T. Alan Armstrong

So – here are my thoughts…

  •  I am passionate about making a difference in the lives of students.
  • I believe that a quality education is the great equalizer, and I am passionate about making sure every child receives an amazing education every minute of every day they are in school.
  • I am passionate about eliminating the “achievement gap”.
  • I believe every child, regardless of their background and what they do and don’t bring with them into school, has an amazing desire to learn and to be exceptional, and I believe WE have the knowledge and expertise to help them realize they are exceptional.
  • I am passionate about providing every child with rich learning opportunities that prepare them to compete with any other child, anywhere, anytime in any subject area.
  • I believe we have the power, the ability, and the obligation to make sure every child leaves us fully prepared to excel in the next phase of their educational experience.
  • I am passionate about making sure every child thinks of themselves as smart.
  • I am passionate about seeing things in children that they don’t yet see in themselves and about nurturing and encouraging them to share their gifts and their talents with the world.

I am also passionate about working with adult learners, teachers and leaders.

  • I believe all of us have an amazing capacity to have an incredible influence on the lives of children, and I am passionate about developing a sense of collective efficacy.  I want to make a difference – not excuses.
  • I am passionate about creating a culture among the adults that includes a belief that we in fact do have the power and the ability to help our students accomplish amazing things – even the students who others may have written off!
  • I am passionate in my belief that it’s not programs that teach kids… it’s teachers. An OUTSTANDING teacher who has nothing but crayons, a chalkboard, and blank pieces of paper in the classroom wins hands down, any day of the week over the best “program”.
  • I am passionate about collaboration.  Collectively we are stronger and better than we are individually; we need to hear each others’ voices and push each other to learn, to take risks, and to be even better than we thought we could be.
  • I am passionate about outside the box thinking, innovation and creative problem solving.
  • I believe being a part of a team of people coming around the table brainstorming unique ways to tackle a challenge (particularly when it comes to student learning) is one of the best ways to spend my time.
  • I am passionate about coaching and engaging in rich dialogue around teaching and learning that ultimately has an impact on student learning.

I know there is more, but this is what I have come up with so far!

I invite all of you to join me in reflecting on your passions!  What is it that you are passionate about?  How do you incorporate your passion into your district, your school, your classroom or your work?   I look forward to hearing what YOU are passionate about and how you incorporate that passion into your work!

On a side note – I shared this reflection (worded a little bit differently) with all of our staff and invited them to share their passions on our discussion board.  I am looking forward to what they have to say.


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First Days of School

Over the last few days, I have seen several posts and comments about the importance of the first days of school and the impact they can make on the lives of students, so I thought I would share a letter/reflection I recently sent out to the teachers in our district as they get ready to welcome a new group of students on July 30th.

I am certain that if not now, then very soon there will be hundreds of teachers in our district preparing both physically and mentally for the first week of school.  What I remember from my days as a middle school teacher is that the yearly anticipation of a new crop of students standing at my door step always filled me with excitement, and I will admit a little bit of anxiety.  For most of my teaching career I taught 7thgraders, so on the first day of school I always stood before a whole group of students new to the middle school experience.  They would sit down in my classroom where I had spent painstaking hours before their arrival creating an inviting and warm environment for learning.   As the bell rang, they would often stare anywhere except the front of the room as they waited nervously for me to shed a little bit of light on what this whole middle school experience would be like for them.

Every year I taught I spent a significant amount of mental energy thinking about the experience I wanted them to have those first few days knowing that what I did would set the tone for us for the entire year.  I knew with 7th graders that my team and I held a significant amount of power in our hands because what we said and did when that bell finally rang would shape the thinking of 176 students of what to expect in middle school. My team and I took this responsibility very seriously and put a lot of collective thinking and energy into how to make those first experiences special and meaningful for our students. We didn’t want those first few days to be filled with rules of what they “can’t do”… we wanted to open their eyes to new possibilities and create experiences for them that made them want to come back for more. I am not sure we ever got it exactly right, but we worked hard to try to make those first few days memorable.

Although no longer a teacher, I have had two occasions in the past few weeks to revisit the power of those first few precious days we have with our students and the amazing impact the choices each teacher makes can have on the psyche of our students.  Within the first few hours they are with us, our students will be making decisions about their role in their classroom and the kind of year this will be for them.  We hold an amazing amount of power over their thinking!

The first experience I had came a few weeks ago when my husband, a high school teacher, finished the initial draft of his first book, and he finally let me read it.  There is a chapter in the book he titles “My First Three Days” where he shares what he believes is most important to convey to his students during the first three days they are in his classroom.  He describes the activities he does and the reasons he does them, but at the end of it all what struck me is his unwavering commitment to convince his students that the time they spend in his classroom is going to be different.  He shares that his first three days are a carefully orchestrated “sales pitch” to convince his students that no matter what their experiences have been in school, that his is a classroom where he will guarantee them success.  You can find his blog post, “The Third Day”  at http://www.daveburgess.com/blog/?m=201108 One of my favorite points he makes is this:

Many of the students who will be sitting in front of you as you start the year have not been successful in school in the past. School has beaten them up.  They have been told, and shown, that they don’t measure up…. They’re evaluating whether or not this will be an emotionally and psychologically safe environment.  They’re wondering whether or not it is worth their time and effort to give it another shot and try.  It’s easier, sometimes, to not give your best and then blame failure on a lack of effort rather than possibly be forced to consider that it could be a lack of ability.  If you don’t try, it’s easier to save face with your peers when you fail.  It is our job to address these unspoken thoughts that are rattling through the minds of our students and the earlier we do it the better.  My goal is to completely smash all thoughts and ideas that my students have about my class being more of the same for them.  I will pull out all of the stops to convince them that it doesn’t matter if they have failed before because my class is absolutely and completely different.  My class has been specially designed for them to be successful.”

The second occasion I had to revisit the idea of the first few days was at a conference session I attended led by noted author and educational leader, Alan November.  He is known for his work on integrating technology and web resources into the classroom and for pushing all of us to do more to help our students learn about their role in a global society.  He centered the theme of his talk around the idea of “students as contributors”, and he laid out five key roles he thought students should play in the classroom.  An article he wrote on this topic can be found at:

http://novemberlearning.com/resources/archive-of-articles/digital-learning-farm/

Ultimately he shared his thinking about how he would spend his first five days of school with his students centered around teaching them how to fill these roles and how to contribute to the classroom community.  My notes don’t do his work justice, but at the heart of his message was this – he would spend his first five days:

  • Building capacity for all children to contribute to the learning of others
  • Teaching children a variety of ways to document their learning and teaching them tools they would use as a class to document the learning of the group.
  • Teaching his students advanced research skills – showing them how to maximize their use of the internet to get the best content from anywhere in the world and to use it as a tool to help them search for what quality work looks like.
  • Encouraging students to think globally and understand there are multiple perspectives on any issue
  • Creating a community of learners who collectively build a shared library of resources.

Both of these experiences took me back to my days as a teacher and helped me reconnect with the memories I have of working with a great team of teachers to do our best to make those first few days of middle school special for our students.  They also made me think of each and every one of you who has had very little time for rest, relaxation and rejuvenation this summer and who will quickly be returning to a sea of little faces anxiously waiting for you to take them on a special journey of learning this year.  Thank you for all the time and energy you have spent, and will spend, to make your first few days, and every day after that, impactful and memorable for our students.


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What’s on YOUR One Page?

Almost every piece of educational research on school improvement includes some version of focus, tackling one problem at a time, making a commitment to having a few well-articulated goals and priorities and sticking with them.

The real path to greatness, it turns out, requires simplicity and diligence.  It requires clarity, not instant illumination.  It demands each of us to focus on what is vital – and to eliminate all of the extraneous distractions. – Jim Collins

It turns out that “focus” is sometimes a difficult thing for us.  As educators, we are responsible for so much.  We are expected to teach all of the content standards in all subject areas to students at all levels of learning. We teach both language and content to students learning English.  We integrate character education, help students learn how to “say no to drugs”, promote anti-bullying campaigns, ensure our students develop patriotism and a sense of civic responsibility… the list goes on and many educators feel overwhelmed with the awesome responsibility of all they have to do.

As educational leaders, it is critical that we help our teams sift through all of this and get crystal clear about our focus.  We have all heard the saying that if we try to do too many things, we are not doing any of them well. I have watched this play out on too many occasions throughout my career.  We need to identify what matters most.  Not only do we have to identify it, but we need to communicate it at every opportunity. Then we need to spend the majority of our time on it.  We need to use it to plan what we say and what we do. We need to be the guardians of it.  As Stephen Covey so eloquently stated, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing”.

A colleague of mine once used this analogy which sticks with me to this day:

When I think about how to focus at my school, it helps me to think about how I clean my house – every room is important and at some point in time needs a little bit of attention.  But my kitchen needs to be cleaned every day.  After every meal, I put things away, do the dishes and wipe down the table, the counters and the sink.  I can almost always put off the dusting or the vacuuming one more day, but my kitchen can never wait until tomorrow.

I have spent a little bit of time recently reflecting on our focus and what I wanted to share with principals as being our most important work for the upcoming school year, so I decided I was going to create a document that clarified it on paper.  As I started on this journey, I gave myself three criteria:

  1. It had to be aligned to work we were already engaged in – no new initiatives
  2. It could not include any more than 4 areas of focus
  3. It had to all fit onto one page in an easily accessible and clear format.

 

I pulled out several documents to assist me as I started down this path: our Board’s goals and priorities, our student achievement plan, our Title III plan, our Program Improvement plan.  All in all I reviewed over 100 pages… and I wanted to get it onto one!

This was NOT an easy task, but it was a critical one – it forced me to think about every aspect of our work and its impact on student learning.  It forced me to have to think about the connections between different pieces of our work and to make decisions about where a piece of work “fit”.  Should technology be its own focus or should it be something we use to help us achieve a different focus?  It also caused me to think about what we might need to stop doing.

It took me several hours over several days, several drafts and multiple versions of a “one-page” document, but I think I finally have something.  It may not be as “visual” as I would like it to be – I always admire great infographics, fancy charts and organizers – but it is done and it makes sense, and I believe it captures the voices of many people in our organization.

I cannot emphasize enough how important this exercise has been for me as an educational leader.  Not only do I now have more clarity and focus, but I am able to clearly share it with others.  I have something simple in my hands that I can use to make most of the decisions I make every day in my role.  I know what type of data I want to collect and review, and I know what types of data and products I will be asking principals to share with me.  I know what I will be looking for to highlight and celebrate, and I know what types of questions I will be asking when I visit school sites and classrooms.  I know the types of books and articles I want us to read and learn from as leaders of this work, and I know how I want to support my team.  I know what I want to say “yes” to and what I can easily say “no” to.  I also know that I will be a better learner and a better leader because I have gained greater clarity about our most important work. I am energized about the work I will be doing with my team this year, and I am positive this was an important step in helping move our system from being good to being great!

You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage—pleasantly, smilingly, non-apologetically, to say “no” to other things. And the way you do that is by having a bigger “yes” burning inside. The enemy of the “best” is often the “good.  – Stephen Covey

If you haven’t done so already, I encourage all of you in my PLN to try the same exercise…  What’s on YOUR one page?


What If?

A few weeks ago I read the blog post “If” by an educator I admire, David Culberhouse http://dculberh.wordpress.com/2012/06/20/if/  I have read, favorited, organized, archived, and retweeted several posts lately which have inspired me or made me think, but “If” is one I keep coming back to.

In his post David introduces the simple word… “If, the Great Qualifier”  He explains…

  • “If allows us not to be all in…it is an incredibly safe word. It is the antithesis of risk. If is a safety net. And we use it constantly at our places of work, with our families, and it even weaves its way into our prayers. It makes everything we do safe and risk-free.
  •  “If, the Great Qualifier” is the controller of the disrupters and the maintainer of the status quo… Too often, the “ifs” are all conditions beyond the school’s control, conditions that ultimately release the educators from responsibility for their students’ learning.”

I have heard too many “If’s” in my career and many of them sound like the ones David highlighted:

  • “yes, all kids can learn…if the students want to learn…if the parents are supportive…if our school had more resources…if the district, state, and national policymakers would stop hampering our efforts.”

My commitment as a leader this year is to push back on the “IF’s” with “WHAT IF’s”…

When I hear someone say IF?  I am going to respond with WHAT IF?   WHAT IF helps us see the possibilities; it helps us move from negative thinking to positive thinking.  WHAT IF has the ability to inspire and to motivate.  WHAT IF helps us dream and create a vision.  WHAT IF is powerful!  I envision that this year some of my responses to “IF” might look sound like this…

WHAT IF we believed every child could learn at advanced levels?

WHAT IF we believed that every child was capable of meeting challenging learning objectives?

WHAT IF we believed every child wanted to learn?

WHAT IF we believed every child had unique and valuable gifts and talents?

 WHAT IF we believed every child were a critical thinker, a creative innovator, and a dynamic communicator?

WHAT IF we believed every parent was doing their best to support their child?

 WHAT IF we believed every parent wanted their child to go to college and be successful?

 WHAT IF we believed every time a parent confronted us with a complaint it was because they had the best interests of their child at heart?

 WHAT IF we believed that every parent wanted to partner with us to do what is best for their child?

WHAT IF we believed every teacher was exceptional and was committed to doing what was best for students?

WHAT IF we valued every teacher as a professional and gave them a voice in decision-making?

WHAT IF we believed that every teacher was a learner willing to take risks and try new things in the best interest of students?

WHAT IF every time we had new information that told us a student was struggling we responded with timely interventions and WHAT IF we committed to learning new ways of intervening when everything we tried didn’t work?

WHAT IF we believed that the administrators working at the National, State, and District levels had the best intentions for students at the heart of their decisions, policies and mandates?

WHAT IF we assumed positive intentions every time a colleague or a parent said or did something?

The list goes on…

As leaders, we are responsible for cultivating the culture in our districts and at our sites.  We have to help each member of our team build a sense of efficacy  –  they need to know for certain that the choices they make each day have a profound impact on students and their learning.  When administrators consider their teachers to be exceptional, teachers excel.  When teachers believe every child in their classroom is capable of achieving great things, students excel.  We have to have high expectations for ourselves, our colleagues, and our students, and we have to believe they can and want to meet them.

When we have a sense of efficacy, we accept responsibility for learning, teaching, and leading; we don’t place blame on others.  When we have a sense of efficacy and are faced with challenges – we don’t qualify them with “IF”… we find ways to get better with “WHAT IF”?

 


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Thank You to my PLN

As an educational leader in an elementary school district, I have always considered myself a learner. In fact, the willingness to be a learner is one of the qualities I most value when I am considering hiring others.  For a variety of reasons, though, I had not been pushing myself to learn about and use social media. I will admit I had been resistant and even a bit of a skeptic believing social media was a tool used by teenagers and others with too much time on their hands.   I have paid too much attention to the media highlighting stories where social media has been used inappropriately to harm others, and I let them reinforce my views that this was not a movement I would soon embrace.

That all changed a few months ago.  Following an introduction to Twitter by a new and valued colleague, I went home with enough interest to at least check it out.  After a full year of prodding from my husband (an avid user of social media), I finally asked him to sit next to me for awhile and walk me through step by step.  He helped me create a Twitter account, showed me the basics of navigation, and started to help me understand how to maximize its benefits and use it effectively.

In just a short time, I have connected with principals, assistant superintendents, superintendents, teachers, education leaders and authors from around the globe; I have received valuable resources through articles, blogs, and education links; I have participated in hosted Twitter discussions with educators across the country and nationwide sharing resources and information about the qualities of effective educational leaders, strengthening PLCs, and the most effective ways to help a struggling teacher improve and grow in his/her craft.  I have learned to use my RSS Feed, and I access it daily to read great blogs posted by many of you in my PLN. I have listened to multiple perspectives and grown in my learning tremendously.  Someone in my PLN (I am so sorry I don’t remember which of you it was) summed it up for me in a tweet –

“Twitter – In 140 characters or less you can touch my heart or shift my perspective from 5,000 miles away”. 

Because of what I have learned from all of you in the past eight weeks I have been inspired to:

  • Attend the ISTE conference in my hometown
  • Wake up at 4:30 a.m. (at least once in awhile) to join #satchat
  • Help my 8 year old daughter create her first website and write her first blog posts
  • Revise the Educational leadership webpage in my district to include a blog, links to great resources for learners and leaders (many of which I have received from all of you), and a discussion page for various topics
  • Join the #learn 365 project, create the “SBUSD Year of Learning” website,  and launch the project
  • Write a reflection that I shared with our leadership team about where we were, where we are now, and where we are going
  • Create a collection of blogs, articles, stories, and quotes about learning, teaching, and leading that I will access and use in my role as a leader
  • Collaborate with other learners and leaders to create and get ready to launch a Twitter chat with a focus on district-level leadership

And now, I have started my own blog which I hope to use to document my reflections on learning and leadership.

Through my PLN, I have been reminded that as leaders it is important to be clear about our vision and what matters most, and I have taken steps to clarify this for my team; I have been inspired to help my district tell our stories and share them with the community, and I am determined to make social media play an integral role in our system.

As a learner I took a step outside of my comfort zone and am now learning in new and exciting ways.  Because of all of you in my PLN, I have been a better learner and in turn I will be a better leader. Thank you all for what you have done for me!