The Most Important Classroom Comes with a Home Address

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I remember when I first started taking courses in education, and extending into my first teaching job, how perplexed I was by the amount of time that was focused on the importance of creating strong partnerships between school and home.  I wasn’t puzzled by the concept, but by the fact that so much energy was put into the discussion.

For me, the school-home partnership was a relationship so interwoven into the threads of my life that it never occurred to me that it did not come naturally to others. I grew up in a family of educators. My mom, one of the most talented teachers I’ve ever met (not that I’m biased in any way), loved teaching as much at the end of her 38 year career as she did on her first day. My dad’s parents were both educators – my grandfather was a principal and my grandmother a first grade teacher for decades – and my sister is currently an art teacher. For me, not focusing on school has never been an option!

Throughout my professional experience, I quickly came to realize how vital something that I took for granted–the partnership between school and home– truly is.

Relationships, rigor, and relevance are three ideals of Albemarle County Public Schools that lured me to this school division nearly a decade ago. Those ideals have been a part of my belief system throughout my career in education. While each of those words holds a high degree of importance as a component of our core mission, I frequently find myself going to the word relationships as the most important.  As a teacher, principal, and in other educational leadership roles, I have found that strong, credible, personal and respectful relationships almost always have positive outcomes in a child’s education.

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Lessons from My Grandfather

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On Grandparents’ Day this year, I was drawn to thoughts of my grandfather. A New Yorker, a first generation American, a World War II veteran, he combined the opportunity of the GI Bill with hard work to become a college graduate and a chemist. He was a brother, a son, a husband, a father, a grandfather (even a great-grandfather!), and a friend. He also was a tireless learner.

I vividly remember my grandfather having notebooks filled with pages and pages of tables of data. Whenever we visited his house, I would see him, every morning, check the rain gauge near the sunroom in the back yard.  He would record temperatures, humidity, and precipitation levels in his notebook and look for trends (something I found out later that he often did in his job developing insecticides).

Once I asked him, “Grandpa, why do you do write down all those numbers every day in your book?”

His response? “Because it has to be done.”

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A new school year: Technology, yes, but with a human face

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Opening Day for our schools always is an exciting time; you can sense it in the anticipation of our administrators and teachers, find it among the eagerness of staff and see it in the enthusiasm of children and parents.  During the first two weeks of our new school year, I have had the chance to visit with staff, parents and young people at various open houses, faculty meetings, an early football game, and while riding with students on the bus for their first day of school.

In all of these places, I heard from principals that the first days of the new year went very well, with students instantly engaged in building learning communities.  Parents tell me they have been pleased with school schedules, bus transportation arrangements and by their interaction with administrators, staff, and teachers.

I do know, however, that with 13,000 learners, more than 2,000 employees and over 14,000 miles of bus routes, perfection will not always be achieved.  That’s where communication and teamwork come in.

I’ve found that when problems inevitably arise, we do best when our principals, school counselors, and teachers take the lead in collaborating with parents to find the right solutions.  That’s borne out, too, in our survey of parents and other community members: the highest grades we receive are when we solve problems at the building level by finding common ground.  In the midst of the many changes we make to keep pace with today’s contemporary learners, one lesson has not changed:  two-way communications is the key to the success of our work.

There are changes we need to make and some of those have to do with the methods of our two-way communications.

We’re continuing to automate our database to increase online access for parents to information they need about the educational lives of their children.  Our Parent Portal is empowering parents and students to access schedules, attendance records, and grades in real-time.  We’ve also concentrated on consolidating forms, reducing paperwork, and electronically providing required notifications to parents.  This had the added benefit of saving on printing and mailing costs by eliminating the wholesale distribution of “School Talk,” our paper-based parent handbook.  Now, information will be posted online and we will work individually with parents who specifically request a paper copy.

We also are improving our website, utilizing the skills of student interns and our technology staff to move thousands of links and websites to our new platform.  Our format and designs are simpler and more uniform to make it easier for parents to find the information they need.  Regardless of the school web page you are on, you will find important information in predictable places.  You also will find that individual schools have retained their own identity through their own use of school colors, mascots, welcome messages, images, and video.

We will continue this year to shift to a more user-friendly communications style. Twitter and Facebook will allow us to post timely updates of important developments and events.  Our millennial parents—our first digital natives who now are parents of young students—tell us that social media is their preferred method of communications for family purposes as well as for business.

Social media is also a wonderful force multiplier in the classroom.  Teachers are using Skype to connect students with their counterparts from other parts of the county, country and world and to see and hear from subject content experts.  Students are posting their own blogs, twitter feeds, wikis and YouTube videos, all with parental permission, of course.

To paraphrase Bob Dylan, times are changing.  Just a few years ago, eBay, Skype, Google, Facebook, Twitter, all were strange words.  Today people are making hotel or restaurant reservations, paying bills, shopping, and communicating with friends, children and grandchildren using these web sites.  We have learned to communicate and conduct business virtually in a broad variety of ways.

So it should be with education.  In schools across the United States, both in universities such as the one in our own backyard and in Pre-K through Grade 12 schools, educators are closely working to improve communications and bring contemporary learning tools into the classroom.  In spite of all these new communications resources, though, we should all remember that the most ancient form of human communications, face-to-face, still offers the best opportunity to work together as partners in support of our young people.

— Dr. Pamela Moran, Superintendent

On the Beach but Still in School

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Upon returning from vacation a couple of weeks ago, I gathered the mail from our neighbor and started sifting through it for bills. In the pile was a hand-written letter from our son Mark’s music teacher. When Mark closed out the 6th grade for the summer, he forgot his guitar music. Going above and beyond the call of duty, his teacher mailed it to him with some directions, and she closed with wishing him a great summer: a simple note and a reminder that she was thinking of him.

old music notes - retroHer note reminded me that teaching is an identity more than it is a job.

Upon entering this field of work, one assumes a role bound neither by time nor place. As a community, we open and close schools according to a calendar. While administrators and support personnel are working during the summer to plan and prepare buildings, buses, and other infrastructures for the ensuing year, “ten-month employees” are not on hiatus.  While I truly wish school-year employees will take some time to focus on themselves and their families during the summer break, it probably is more accurate to say most of this workforce continues to be engaged in efforts of all kinds either directly or indirectly related to teaching and learning.

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Lifelong Lessons around a Pot-Bellied Stove

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It’s a trite phrase, but like most clichés, has more than a ring of truth.

If I had a penny for every time I heard a business leader say, “I can hire graduates with outstanding grades, but we spend too much time having to train them before they are ready to work,” I really would be a millionaire.

Almost every time, the disconnect has to do with what the business leader describes as “soft skills.” We don’t have a course with that title in our schools, but soft skills remains among the most valued credentials a budding professional can bring to any organization.

pot bellied stove

Growing up in rural Virginia, my soft skill learning laboratory was our local country store, complete with a pot-bellied stove and a group of farmers who gathered every evening to sit around that stove and talk. The conversations always would start at about the same time and everyone always would be on time.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was having my first soft skill lesson.

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Learning is a Gas

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If you don’t consider yourself a “science person,” I hope you are not turned off by the title of this blog. In fact, I hope you don’t see yourself or anyone else as a “science or art or history person” or…

I remember growing up and listening to adults say something like, “I am not very good with numbers.” It led me to believe that everyone fit into categories of what they were good at or what they never would be able to do.

So, what does this have to do with the title, “Learning is a Gas?” Well, if you fill a glass with ice, the ice cubes start out as a solid until they melt. The glass, or container, doesn’t play a role in the frozen water’s shape. As the ice cubes melt, the water does take the shape of the container. If you heat the water and it becomes steam, the glass no longer contains it. The gas fills the room, free of its glass container.

ice cubes

I think learning, or more exactly, learning expectations, are like water. The challenge for parents, caregivers, and educators is to be aware that we can inadvertently impose containers on young people, thus limiting their abilities and ambitions.

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What a TV Remote Control Has to Do with the Math SOL

Learning about numbers and mathematics has always inspired me. When I was little more than a toddler, I remember noticing that the TV had 30 channels and the remote only 15 buttons – my first real-life math problem!

When my fourth grade teacher had me build a solar cooker to heat hot dogs, and a scale model of my bedroom, my love of math became lifelong. I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up and being a Math teacher was a dream come true. 

Now I dream about other things as the Lead Instructional Coach, responsible for mathematics for our schools.

I have the privilege of working with math teachers at all levels to create learning opportunities for students that are exciting, innovative, and lead to a deeper understanding of mathematics. Quality Learning is the maxim that drives my work with teachers and students.

To keep Quality Learning the main goal:

  • All students need to use math to solve challenging problems both by themselves and collaboratively.
  • Assessments should be rich enough that teachers and students can use the results to accurately measure student progress and identify opportunities for improvement.
  • Instruction needs to be balanced between conceptual understanding, problem solving, foundational numeracy skills and operational procedures. 

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Not Everything at the Mall has a Price

You probably go to the mall to shop, meet friends, or just simply to spend some spare time on an unstructured afternoon. Once a year, I go for inspiration. Lots of it.

At least that’s what I get to do for a few weeks in February and March, along with all my visual arts colleagues from Albemarle County Public Schools. Each year, for the past 19 years, students produce artwork that becomes the Visual Arts Festival, transforming Fashion Square Mall for two weeks.

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How To Complete Your First Half Marathon

When people ask me what my job is, I always get an interesting response after I tell them I am a Systems Coordinator in Strategic Planning for a school division. They don’t say much,  but their facial expressions are worth more than 1,000 words.

One brief conversation stands out. I was on a bus in Virginia Beach, having just completed my first half-marathon. A young man asked what I did for a living. When I told him, he just couldn’t help himself—he had to ask, “What does strategy have to do with schools?”

Actually quite a bit. No individual or organization that aspires to high performance can get there without a plan. That certainly was true for me that day in Virginia Beach. I would not have been able to complete my first half-marathon without a sense of how I would approach the challenge — how many weeks I needed to prepare, what type of shoes I would wear, what my pace would be, how often I would drink water, how far from the finish line to accelerate. Strategy works.

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The Personal Side of Organizational Health

As the Director of Human Resources for Albemarle County Government and Albemarle County Public Schools, my primary responsibility is to lead a team dedicated to the goal of recruiting, training and retaining world-class professionals. It’s the most effective way I know to enhance the health of an organization—and it often determines how well the schools, for instance, will perform in meeting their strategic goals, including preparing students for lifelong learning and success.

Over the years, I’ve found that performance excellence is determined by many factors, and that often the health of an organization is driven by the health of the individuals within the organization. A person’s physical and emotional well-being has a great deal to do with the quality of their personal and professional lives.

I’m reminded of just how important these connections are by a recent report on our Medically Supervised Weight Loss (MSWL) program. This past year, 94% of program participants had a body mass index of 30 or above, which is an indication of obesity.  High blood pressure, elevated cholesterol readings, and difficulty breathing while asleep were some of the more common conditions experienced by these employees.

The MSWL program is not a lose weight fast program, since that type of approach almost never works for more than a brief period of time. Rather, the program depends upon its ability to change the lifestyle of participants, through the use of medical evaluations, nutritional and dietary changes, education, and exercise.

Its goal is sustainable health improvements.  And it works.  Sometimes dramatically.

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