Monday, November 13, 2017

School Superintendents' Contracts -For academic innovation, 5 years is better than 3

School Superintendents’ Contracts
For academic innovation, 5 years is better than 3

Jonathan T. Jefferson

Too many people in leadership positions are there for the wrong reasons: ego, money, power, etc.  Subordinates are often left wondering if their supervisor was the best available person for the job.  In the world of public school education, choosing the wrong superintendent could have a detrimental impact on our greatest resource: children.  During my career I have worked with many exceptional educators.  Most of them state that they would only consider a superintendency at the very end of their careers.  In essence, depriving students of many years of leadership from the best and brightest innovators.

Why is this so?  Why are so many talented individuals opting to avoid or delay moving into a superintendency?  The answer is simple.  Moving into a superintendency is a risky proposition.  After years in education, earning tenure, and providing their families with financial security, who would risk it?  Superintendents are more often than not offered three-year contracts.  That is less than most elected officials.  How many superintendents have the courage to make controversial changes even when backed by empirical evidence?  Fear of offending a board member or an influential member of the community are real considerations.

Public and private schools today are essentially the same as they were in the 1920’s.  Our school systems are notoriously slow to change.  Fortune 500 companies would fail if they progressed at the same pace.  Most superintendent searches are not only limiting their pool of candidates by advertising three-year contracts, they also look for people who have traveled the same career paths: building administration, central administration, etc.  These limitations ignore the fact that successful leaders do not need to hail from traditional pathways.

What might offering five-year contracts do?  For one, it may increase the pool of candidates considerably.  Second, innovation would be given a chance to flourish.  Instead of fearing the backlash of decisions that create discomfort, superintendents would gain the benefit of time to watch their choices bear fruit.  

Naysayers could raise concern that a school district signing a “bad apple” for five years is risky.  That would ring true if the candidate were not thoroughly vetted.  In today’s digital age, there is no reason why the candidate’s blogs, podcasts, and media interviews should not be readily available.  Their professional contributions to newspapers, journals and/or book publications can also offer insight.  Lastly, if possible, visiting their current place of work to interview colleagues, teachers, and students would provide the best character references.

It is time that we begin making real changes in our schools.  Motivating more people to join the ranks of chief school officer with five-year contracts may get the ball rolling.  Otherwise, the snail's pace of progress will continue.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Importance of Play

The Importance of Play
Jonathan T. Jefferson

“We are never more fully alive, more completely ourselves, or more deeply engrossed in anything, than when we are at play.” - Charles E. Schaefer

It was the summer of 1982.  My new Evel Knievel styled red, white, and blue bicycle survived the journey from Queens to Macomb, New York.  I was as anxious as any 12-year-old would have been to get their bike down from the roof of Dad’s brown Ford station wagon.  Taking a spin on the rolling hills of the rural farming community my family called home for so many summers was all I could think about since the scent of spring first tickled my nose.

My 16-year-old cousin Derek and I constructed a ramp from the door of a crumbling wooden out-building.  We stacked stones underneath one end until the ramp’s angle was steep enough to allow my bike to jump clear over the ten-foot wide swampy area in front of our home.  I conducted a few practice runs from the road, down the dirt driveway, and onto the wooden ramp.  Gauging the speed necessary to propel myself from the ramp onto the high grass on the opposite side of the swamp, occupied my thoughts for days leading up to the main event.

Today, I still wear the scars from a practice jump that canceled the main event.  Now, as an educator, I can see clearly how the unadulterated creative play of my childhood ingrained in me a true understanding of mathematical and scientific principles that were taught in school during the years that followed.  Conceptualizing the relationships between angles, height, speed, and distance was not difficult due to my real-life experiential practices.

Recently, I viewed a Tedx Talks presentation titled The Decline of Play given by Boston College Research Professor, Dr. Peter Gray.  Dr. Gray shared the results of the dramatic decline in play in developed countries over the past 60 years.  Results such as the following in children, adolescents, and young adults: increase in anxiety, depression, feelings of helplessness, suicide, and narcissism.
There are times when I assume something to be true, but I lack empirical evidence to prove it.  Dr. Gray’s presentation motivated me to delve deeper into the topic of play.  Are my beliefs that I learned to navigate challenges inherent in social interactions better owing to play?  Did older children model for me how to teach by being patient and responsible educators during challenging new games?  Was the sometimes cruel banter between peers, wins, and loses all experiences that prepared me for adulthood?  My gut response to these questions is yes, but what else does the research say?

“Play is the highest expression of human development in childhood, for it alone is the free expression of what is in a child’s soul.” - Froebel

“Chronic play deprivation may have the effect of gradually dehumanizing the children it affects, with a consequent loss of their ability to care, to emphasize and exercise compassion, or share the same reality as other children.  The available evidence suggests that play deprived children become disturbed, aggressive and violent adults” (Hughes, 2003).  Maybe I can thank play for the fact that I have never been arrested, and tend toward empathy over violence.

Parents reading this may be thinking that their child is not play deprived because they receive physical education in school, belong to a sports team, or attend play dates arranged by adults.  These activities may be beneficial at helping children to remain physically fit, stave off obesity and diabetes, and possibly help control tendencies toward hyperactivity; however, it is free play that researchers are finding most apt to benefit the whole child.  “…free play refers to activity that is freely chosen and directed by the participants and undertaken for its own sake, not consciously pursued to achieve ends that are distinct from the activity itself.  Thus, adult-directed sports and games for children do not fall into the category of free play” (Gray, 2011).
According to Gray (2011), “Play functions as the major means by which children
  1. develop intrinsic interests and competencies;
  2. learn how to make decisions, solve problems, exert self-control, and follow rules;
  3. learn to regulate their emotions;
  4. make friends and learn to get along with others as equals; and
  5. experience joy.
Through all of these effects, play promotes mental health.”  What teacher would not want to receive children with the aforementioned strengths?  How much better would children perform academically if curriculum were scheduled around the premise that play comes first?

“Genius is play, and man’s capacity for achieving genius is infinite, and many may achieve genius only through play.” - William Saroyan

Skeptics may doubt the prudence of scheduling schoolwork around play; after all, to compete in a global society the products of our schools must be intellectually strong.  When referring to a commonly accepted international barometer, the PISA survey, one nation that places a high value on play does exceptionally well.  The survey compares 15-year-olds from around the world in reading, math, and science.  It is conducted by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) every three years.  Since 2000, Finland has consistently scored among the top countries in all three areas; joining the consistently high performing countries of South Korea and Singapore.  “Finland’s success is especially intriguing because Finnish schools assign less homework and engage children in more creative play” (Partanen, 2011).  Finland also places a high value on equality.  Regardless of socioeconomic standing, gender, and/or citizenship status, all students receive the same quality education.
Vanderschuren (2010) concluded “that the pleasure of play has the ability to reinforce learning activities…”  I can not tell you how many times my 12-year-old mind went over the projected speed needed to jump the swamp on my bike.  It was mid-summer.  No homework had been assigned, and no adults were involved in my plans.  I did not think of it as a learning activity.  It was fun; pure, unadulterated, fun.  “Play provides opportunities for children to learn, as they discover, create, improvise and imagine.  Children’s immersion in their play illustrates how play enables them to simply enjoy being” (EYLF, p.15 quoted in Educators guide p.32).

Imagine an urban street filled with children of all ages.  A street similar to the one I grew up on in Queens, New York.  My seven siblings were spread over 19 years.  Friends in my peer group had older and/or younger brothers and sisters in the peer groups of my siblings.  Often age-mixed play would ensue whether in backyards, playgrounds, or living rooms.

One of my favorite neighborhood games was called Catch One Catch All.  The older children set the parameters; no entering the alleyway, stay out of Mrs. Dickson’s garage, and the cross streets (avenues) were off-limits.  Many of these limits were the same limits set by our parents for the youngest among us.  The object of the game was for one person to begin as “It” while the others found hiding places up and down the block; under cars, behind bushes, in trees, and on rooftops.  It would count to some specified number with their eyes closed.  Once It opened his or her eyes, It would proceed to find the first person.  The found player would then join It in searching for the others.  This pattern would continue until everyone was caught.

Younger players would inevitably get caught first, and they would strategize together to catch the older players.  Over time, the hiding strategies of the older players would be learned by the younger, and the cycle continued.  Gray (2011) concluded that

“…age-mixed play offers opportunities for learning and development not present
in play among those close in age, permitting younger children to learn more from
older playmates than they could from playing with only their peers.  …the more
sophisticated behavior of older children offers role models for younger children…
…permits older children to learn by teaching and to practice nurturance and
leadership; and they are often inspired by the imagination and creativity of their
younger playmates.”

In remembering the beauty and wonders of play, it begs the question, where did we go wrong?  Has the advent of technology taken us away from the social richness of play in a manner that television never could?  How can we turn back the clock on the narrow testing and accountability, policy driven, standards based schooling that now dominates the educational landscape?  These are more than just questions to ponder.  The mental health and well-being of generations of young people depend on our collective next steps.

“Combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.” - Albert Einstein

When she was U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton stated the following: “We were so independent, we were given so much freedom.  But now it’s impossible to imagine giving that to a child today.  It’s one of the great losses as a society.  But I’m hopeful that we can regain the joy and experience of free play and neighborhood games that were taken for granted growing up in my generation.  That would be one of the best gifts we could give our children.”

Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) (2009).
Belonging, Being, and Becoming: The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia.
Canberra: Australian Government.
Gray, Peter (2011).  The Decline of Play and the Rise of Psychopathology in Children and
Adolescents.  American Journal of Play, 3(4), 443-463.
Gray, Peter (2011).  The Special Value of Children’s Age-Mixed Play.  American Journal of
Play, 3(4), 500-522.
Hughes, Fergus (2003).  Sensitivity to the Social and Cultural Contexts of the Play of Young
Children, In J. Isenberg & L. Jalongo (Eds.), Major Trends and Issues in early
Childhood: Challenges, Controversies, and Insights (pp. 126-135).  New York: Teachers
College Press
Hughes, Fergus (2003).  Spontaneous Play in the 21st Century.  In B. Spodek & O. Saracho
(Eds.), Contemporary Perspectives on Play in early Childhood Education (pp. 21-39),
Greenwich, CT.: Information Age Publishing
Partanen, Anu (2011).  What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland’s School Success.  The
Vanderschuren, Louk J.M.J. (2010).  How the Brain Makes Play Fun.  American Journal of
Play, 2(3), 315-337.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Someone is Going to Get Hurt or Killed, and There's Going to be a Lawsuit

Someone is Going to Get Hurt or Killed, and There’s Going to be a Lawsuit
By Jonathan T. Jefferson
           “The sky is falling the sky is falling.”  Maybe it’s my position as a School District Director that makes me feel like I am being chased by Chicken Little every day.  I look in the mirror frequently to make sure that I am not inadvertently wearing a sign that reads “PLACE COMPLAINTS HERE.”  My guess is that others in positions of leadership experience similar issues.
           When I was a beginning teacher, a veteran teacher once told me that if I wanted to get something done right away, I should say that it’s a safety issue.  I never acted on that advice, because Aesop’s fable, The Boy Who Cried Wolf, made more sense to me.  If everything is an emergency, than nothing is an emergency.  This basic tenet has not been learned by many who report to me.  Instead of simply requesting something new because it would be more efficient, easier to use, and/or aesthetically pleasing, the additional implications that there’s going to be a lawsuit if the improvement is not made is often stated for added measure.
           This article is not my version of an elaborate complaint.  There are serious health implications associated with complaining.  I will share these risks along with methods to avoid them.  In addition, those like me who are looked upon as billboards for complaints will learn new methods to deal with them.
           In the article by Dr. Travis Bradberry, How Complaining Rewrites Your Brain for Negativity, research was shared that should give chronic complainers cause for pause.
         “When you repeat a behavior, such as complaining, your neurons branch
out to each other to ease the flow of information.  This makes it much easier to repeat that behavior in the future-so easy, in fact, that you might not even realize you’re doing it.” - Travis Bradberry, Ph.D.

Bradberry also shared research from Stanford University that showed “…complaining shrinks the hippocampus-an area of the brain that’s critical to problem solving and intelligent thought.”  Furthermore, according to Bradberry, “…complaining impairs your immune system and makes you more susceptible to high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.  It even makes the brain more vulnerable to strokes.”  These are scary facts!
           Bradberry suggests replacing negative thoughts with positive ones, instead of being pessimistic, be optimistic.  In time, accentuating the positive will become the norm.  For example, a bulk of the physical education equipment at one of my schools went missing.  I informed the teachers that new equipment would be ordered, but for now, borrow from another school within the district.  One of my teachers immediately complained that another school would not have the size ball that he prefers, and that someone could be hurt or killed if the wrong sized ball were used.  This was of course a grossly exaggerated complaint.  Thinking optimistically, the teacher could have been delighted at the fact that his school would be getting all new equipment, and temporarily being without any equipment could lead to the implementation of creative new activities.  If a concern needs to be aired, Bradberry suggests solution-oriented complaining; have a clear purpose, start with something positive, be specific, and end on a positive.
           Dealing with chronic complainers can be exhausting.  I found myself walking away from the onslaught of complaints as deftly as possible.  Before I understood the structural impact that complaining has on an individual’s brain, I would be inclined to take their extreme exaggerations to heart.  Does this person think I’m an idiot?  Don’t they know that I know they didn’t attend law school?  Why do they always bring bogus liability claims into their complaint?  In a Psychology Today article by Dr. Guy Winch titled How to Deal with Chronic Complainers, he stated that “Chronic complainers’ perceptions about their hardships are deeply embedded in their personalities and sense of identity.”
           Everyone needs to know their strengths in order to handle complainers smoothly.  Fact based humor has become my go to strategy.  Last summer I stood in a gymnasium with three of my physical education teachers, one of them requested a series of permanent holes be installed in the floor for volleyball standards.  I saw the benefit of not having to roll the current heavy pole and base systems out, but each of the teachers immediately raised concerns that our current pole and base system could fall on someone.  I looked at each of them, and stated that our current combined years in education totaled approximately 100 years.  During those years, not one student ever had a volleyball pole fall on them.  They laughed at themselves when they saw how unnecessary their exaggerated liability comments were.
           When a complaint is indirect, but false, I choose to respond indirectly.  During a recent staff development workshop, one of my teachers said to our guest lecturer that our school district’s technology department is awful.  The teacher did not acknowledge that the technology department loaded 30 iPads with dozens of applications specifically for our workshop.  In addition, our guest lecturer had just benefited from their assistance in setting up her new iPad Air to work with the classroom’s projector and screen.  Sadly, this same complainer ignored the years of videotaping that technology department personnel faithfully completed for her when she coached.  My indirect response was to publicly thank the technology department for their efforts in assisting us to have an excellent professional development experience.
           To chronic complainers I say this: The sky has never fallen, and life or death issues rarely present themselves in the world of education.  Do your health a favor, and chose to be an optimist. To those leaders out there who are bombarded with complaints, know this: It’s not a personal attack on you, but a complainer’s brain wiring that contributes to their exaggerations.  Know your strengths, and apply the strategies that work best for you in dealing with complainers.