Secret to serving others: Taking care of self

 It was my first week as a superintendent and I was still working in my school office around midnight. I was startled by a knock on the window behind me. I turned quickly to see the face of the district’s school board president staring at me. I motioned for him to go to the front door and I let him in the office. He was an elderly farmer who no longer had children in the school system but who was a very active school and community civic person. He told me to go home and he gave me sage advice: “No one will put on your gravestone that you were working at midnight.”

 As I enter the twilight of my career I am able to reflect on both past successes and failures. Earlier in my administrative career I remember “elder” school administrators telling me to calm down because this crisis (you could insert any major problem school administrators have in this space) will soon pass. Of course, as a young, energetic and passionate school administrator I felt the need to solve the crisis now.

That board president was wise. I doubt if anyone at our visitation will discuss or remember the solution to the “crisis” we solved. My bet is that family, faith, friends and good times will more be the reflections that are shared. That brings me to the subject of this article: “Taking Care of Self.”

The message for those of us who are so consumed with our jobs is that if we do not take time to take proper care of self we will not be able to serve others – and that visitation mentioned above might come sooner than expected.

Educators spend an enormous amount of time doing their work if they do it well. During my administrative career I spent three to four nights per week at school activities, board meetings and community affairs, plus hours working in my home office for the school district.

As many of you know, I am an avid exerciser and I run at least three miles almost every day. I also lift weights two to three times a week and for the last several years I play or practice golf at every opportunity. Many ask me when I find time to exercise. I learned early in my career that the best time to exercise is early in the morning. If I wait to exercise in the evening it seems like something always gets in the way and school administrators have to attend many night activities.

The job of being a school administrator can be very stressful and exercise is a great way to alleviate stress. It burns the unwanted calories from poor eating habits due to snacks at meetings or a rushed fast food lunch. Exercise also allows the body to cleanse itself of conflicting thoughts and solutions and helps one focus on the real issues at hand.

Obviously, family conflicts occur due to the many hours worked by school administrators. These conflicts are sometimes harder to solve. It took me awhile to find solutions, but I would like to share with you some that have worked for me.

I was lucky enough to be able to work in the same district that my children attended. While this can have some disadvantages it definitely offers the advantage of attending games and concerts as both a parent and as a school administrator.

A practice my wife Linda and I started later in our marriage was the concept of a “date night.” The communities I worked in did not allow school activities on Wednesdays because of church and family activities. Thus, Linda and I would make Wednesdays our “date night.” This was time for us to spend quality time together. Recently I was mentoring a superintendent and offered this as a possible solution to his perceived lack of family time. He started this practice and found it extremely valuable family time.

Technology has become so important in our roles as school administrators that we let it dominate our lives. How many times do you check your phone when you should be spending quality time with your family or friends? Put the phone down and listen and talk to family and friends. The superintendent I mentioned in the preceding paragraph started a practice of putting his cell phone in his bedroom when he got home. He would only check it occasionally and this led to much better discussions with his wife and children.

Another superintendent (who, by the way, is very tech savvy) told me how he handled this constant flow of communication via technology. When he arrived home he did not check email until he returned to work either the next day or after the weekend. He did keep his personal cell phone with him and his top staff knew this number and how to contact him in an emergency.

You need to take care of self if you want to serve others. Start making plans to eat healthy, exercise at least 30 minutes five days per week, spend special uninterrupted time with family members on a daily basis, visit with friends on a regular basis and keep proper perspective of whatever faith you believe. The school district that you serve now will quickly forget the service you have provided them, but your health, family, friends and faith will be with you until the end.

“Zero Tolerance” = “Poor Leadership”

It has been interesting to witness the ebb and flow of school discipline over the years. Recently my son-in-law, who is a high school assistant principal, asked me about how I handled “bomb threats” and other major student discipline issues in my career. Early in my administrative career, I told him that as a high school assistant principal we had a school discipline rule that allowed students to choose to take “swats” (administrator swinging a paddle and administering a direct hit to a student’s posterior) instead of taking an out of school suspension for such offenses as fighting, etc… He could not believe administrators paddled students.

When school massacres entered into our reality world with such events as Columbine HS in 1999 school boards and administrators started to develop “Zero Tolerance” policies for school discipline. I remember reading about a story that related a kindergarten student being expelled from school because he had a knife in his lunch container left by his mother after she had cut his fruit.

The passage of the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994, which required states to enact laws mandating that schools expel any student found on school property with a gun, also spurred the number of school expulsions. This Act also allowed the superintendent to modify the expulsion where appropriate and this is my point in this article. Leaders need to examine all the facts when making difficult decisions such as student expulsions and make the best recommendation they can based on these facts.

Real school leaders do not jump to conclusions and recommend student expulsions without giving full thought to all of these actions. This same thought process can be extended to many decisions made by school administrators. Teacher union leaders want to open up the language related to SB 7, the performance-based teacher evaluation law; because they claim districts are intentionally rating teachers “Needs Improvement” in the year when the district is going to Reduce In Force (RIF) in order to get rid of this teacher. I hope all administrators realize the importance of teacher evaluation ratings and are basing their summative evaluation rating on the facts gathered via informal and formal evaluations. Just like the kindergarten student who was expelled due to possession of a knife, I hope administrators are not rating a teacher based on a poor performance during one teacher observation.

If a teacher is rated “Unsatisfactory” or “Needs Improvement” the administrators should have made it crystal clear to the teacher what the teacher is deficient in, instructed and coached the teacher on what they needed to do to improve. Components of Well-Executed Evaluation are the following:


What did the evaluator see?  What happened?


What does a GOOD teacher do?


What MUST this teacher do to get better?

SHOULD, may, ought to consider-fatal words – DO NOT USE THEM


HOW does the teacher do what the evaluator is directing?

Model vs. Default

In my opinion there is much confusion over the use of the words “model” and “default” in the State of Illinois new Performance-Based Teacher Evaluation System.

Most school districts (the top performing 80%) will not have its Performance-Based Teacher Evaluation system in place until the start of the 2016 school year. The lowest 20% districts will need the system in place by 2015 and some Title I grant receiving districts will be implementing even sooner.

ISBE has declared that the Danielson Frameworks is the state model for practice based teacher evaluation. It is not the “default model,” it is a “model.” The following sentence was copied from the ISBE Website “The classroom observation portion of the state-designed optional evaluation system is being adapted from Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Professional Practice, widely used for evaluations by districts across the country.”

School district joint committees are free to develop their own model but if they do they need to make sure they meet the requirements of the TITLE 23: EDUCATION AND CULTURAL RESOURCES SUBTITLE A: EDUCATION CHAPTER I: STATE BOARD OF EDUCATION SUBCHAPTER b: PERSONNEL PART 50 EVALUATION OF CERTIFIED EMPLOYEES UNDER ARTICLE 24A OF THE SCHOOL CODE. SUBPART A: GENERAL REQUIREMENTS. Several important concepts in the Part 50 rules that the Joint Committee will need to consider are the following:

  • “The evaluation plan shall contain a rubric to be used in rating professional practice that aligns to the instructional framework.”
  • “Instructional framework developed or adopted by the school district that is based upon research regarding effective instruction; addresses at least planning, instructional delivery, and classroom management; and aligns to the Illinois Professional Teaching Standards.”
  • “The evaluation plan shall consider the teacher’s attendance and competency in the subject matter taught, as well as specify the teacher’s strengths and weaknesses and the reasons for identifying the areas as such.”
  • The district shall quantify the relative importance of each portion of the framework to the final professional practice rating.

The state model plan that becomes the “default plan” is referred to in this following sentence from the Part 50 Rules: “In situations where a joint committee cannot reach agreement on one or more aspects of student growth within the timeline established under Section 24A-4(b) of the School Code, the school district shall adopt the State model plan contained in Subpart C of this Part with respect to those aspects of student growth upon which no agreement was reached.”

There are always winners and losers!

ISBE has published the calculations as a result of the proposed SB16, the School Funding Reform bill sponsored by Sen. Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill). According to information provided by Jim Broadway via his State School News Service, Chicago Public Schools stands to be a big winner. While they will lose $28M in state aid under this bill they will gain $600M because the bill would require the state to make its pension payments.

My former school district Ball Chatham stands to lose $848,000 or 9.7% of its state support. IASA published in its Capitol Watch publication that “One ISBE chart using a foundation level of $5,169 (the FY2014 number) and without including the hold harmless calculations shows that 475 school districts would end up gaining state funding and 387 would lose state funding under the proposed new formula.”

The important points for school district leaders is that you should always budget carefully and try to have adequate reserves to survive unexpected events. I used to explain this to school board members and others by using the analogy of dominos. If each school district was one domino, I always wanted my district to be toward the end of the line when the dominos started to fall. I figured that the State (even the State of Illinois) would not let every district in the state go bankrupt so I wanted to position my district toward the end of the line so that when the public had suffered enough, somebody would step in and solve the problem.

While your school district may be a winner in this new funding formula, remember that there will be other changes that occur over time that may change that forecast. Budget as if the end is near and that your school district can absorb short-term revenue changes.

1:1 = Engaged Learning

If you are a regular reader of this column you will certainly remember that on many occasions I have written about the most important Domain/Component in the Danielson Frameworks, 3C, Engaging Students in Learning. Last year I visited Gurnee Elementary District and was tremendously impressed with its 1:1 program. Last week I visited Berwyn School District #100 and again I was extremely impressed.

Berwyn officials host regular visits for educators to see how their 1:1 program is working in actual classrooms. Berwyn is an elementary district with 4,000 students, 76% low income, 79% Hispanic, ELL population of 50% and spending in the bottom 25% of elementary districts. 81% of Berwyn students met or exceeded the state standards on the 2012 test.

Each student and teacher in the district has an Apple device. Most students are using a Mac Book Air but there is deployment of iPads at the Kindergarten level and some testing of iPads at other levels. Students and teachers are allowed to take the devices home for extended learning. Dr. Stan Fields, district superintendent, informed me that there is very little loss, theft or damage done to devices that are taken home. Parents of students who want to take devices home must purchase insurance for the devices.

The most important part of this visitation was that in every classroom I visited I witnessed 100% student engagement. You might ask how I would judge “student engagement.” In every classroom I went into I asked at least three students the following questions: 1) What are you learning today? 2) What does the teacher expect you to know and be able to do as a result of today’s learning goal? 3) How will the teacher assess whether you have reached the learning goal? 4) How much did you know about this learning goal before today?

In a middle school science classroom I talked to a group of four students who were researching the topic of abuse to animals as a result of “Animal Farms” for human consumption. The student assignment was to research this topic, prepare a presentation to inform the other students what they learned and how they would apply this information to their own lives. One student explained to me, that as a result of this research he has changed his eating habits and is considering becoming a vegetarian. This young man also explained to me how he was combining the knowledge of this science unit with the instruction he is receiving in physical education to develop a plan to make him more fit, lose weight, and not eat meat. He went on to tell me that his biggest problem is getting his mother to change her cooking habits. Obviously as a young person he relies on his mother’s grocery shopping and cooking. He is in the process of teaching his mother what he has learned about good eating and exercising so that she will provide for a healthy life style for members of his family. This is an example of the Berwyn goal of “Every day, students make personal connections with their learning.”

While many critics of 1:1 programs and others who do not value its merits often seek quantitative data on how this program is increasing student academic growth. The district has seen solid increases in standardized test scores since the inception of the 1:1 program, increased student attendance, huge increase in digital reading via myON Library, and iTunesU 1,527 course downloads from 14 foreign countries.

Berwyn conducts its own teacher professional development with many teachers volunteering to share with others the successful implementation of 1:1 projects in their own classrooms. It was very inspiring to listen to classroom teachers’ talk in positive tones about how excited they are to teach in this 1:1 environment. Berwyn teachers publish their lesson plans in a digital library where any teacher is able to use the plan simply by searching the common core standard, subject or grade level.

As a trained teacher evaluator I can tell you that in each classroom I visited I would give the teacher a 4 (Excellent) on 3C, Engaging Students in Learning. How many teachers can you say that about in your school district?

Using Data to Make Decisions

As we work with school districts on the use of student growth data for teacher evaluation purposes some interesting revelations are occurring. High School teachers are finding out that students know a whole lot more than the teachers thought they knew. Elementary teachers are discovering that not all students go “brain dead” over the summer months and many maintain and even grow the knowledge that they left the previous grade with.

I have written before about the use of data to make decisions. I have learned a lot about the use of data from individuals with MBA type degrees. I remember talking to an alternative certified superintendent (did not travel through the traditional education duties of teacher, building level administrator to superintendent) who was asking me questions concerning what factors I used to analyze the hiring of new teachers. I had to admit that we used a certain cadre of questions but in the end we made the hiring decision on non-scientific type responses such as the candidates love for children.

This administrator related to me an analysis he was doing with teachers in his district. The district had a majority of students from Spanish speaking families. He had analyzed student growth scores disaggregated by the native language of the teacher. He divided teachers into three groups; 1) Native English speakers no Spanish skills; 2) Native English speakers with Spanish as a second language; and 3) Native Spanish speakers with English as a second language. His analysis determined that students in classrooms with native Spanish speakers with English as second language outperformed all others. Second were native English speakers with Spanish secondary and last were English only speakers. He told me that they were going to use these results as a screening tool in the interview process for new teachers.

While I do not think using student growth for teacher evaluation purposes will be an evolutionary changing experience for public education, I do think using data to think about what we are doing will be important for improving education.

In another example of using data to make decisions was an analysis I did concerning high school student performance results on the ACT vs the same student’s results on the WorkKeys portion of the PSAE. High School administrators and teachers were concerned that students did not try as hard on the WorkKeys as they did on the ACT because the ACT counted for college admission and the WorkKeys had no high stakes result. I analyzed the scores using a decile (each of ten equal groups into which a population can be divided according to the distribution of values of a particular variable) analysis and discovered that there was no significant difference in student scores. In other words if a student scored in the top 10% on the ACT they also scored in the top 10% of the WorkKeys.

A high school district superintendent shared another example to me. In this use of data the district analyzed the math courses that students took in middle school against the grades and level of math the same student earned in high school. It was determined that students who successfully completed Algebra I in the 8th grade had a 93% chance of getting a 24 or better on the ACT test as a high school junior. Conversely a middle school student who only progressed through 8th grade remedial math had only a 2% chance of scoring a 24 or better on the ACT. Once these statistics were communicated to parents at the elementary level the feeding elementary districts had much greater success getting students to enroll in more rigorous math classes.

Don’t Be Late To the Student Growth Party

IASA has started to conduct administrators’ academy training and consulting services to school districts on the topic of “Determining Student Growth for Teacher Evaluation Purposes.” Most Illinois districts will have to comply with Performance-Based Teacher Evaluation by September 2016, the lowest 20% student performance districts will have to implement by September 2015.

ISBE will be introducing their “Default Model” for student growth at the April 18, 2014 PEAC meeting. I have seen parts of the Default Model and generally I would give it a “thumbs up.” It allows enough flexibility for local school districts to design their own student growth systems that both teachers and administrators will embrace.

The key for teachers is to correlate what they teach to what assessment the district uses to determine student growth. Student Learning Objectives (SLO’s) accomplish this goal. SLO is a process whereby teachers, with input from teacher evaluators, pre-test students around learning standards related to the district’s learning standards. Teachers then examine the individual student scores and determine areas where students are strong and areas where multiple students exhibit weaknesses. The teacher then writes an SLO around three to five learning objectives, predicts how students will grow their learning during the semester or year, then post tests the students to see if the students reached the predicted goals.

This process requires a mid point review where the teacher reassess the predicted student growth rate and may decide to alter the student(s) goal based on this data and with input from the teacher evaluator.

The PERA law requires the use of an assessment model to determine the teacher rating on student growth. ISBE is recommending that “Adaptive Conditional Status Model” is the proposed state default assessment model. In this model the teacher will group students into separate “Tiers.” Students are placed into one of a set number of initial starting groups based on current assessment data collected at the start of the school year or course (i.e., baseline data) and other relevant information (e.g., IEP status).   

Expected Growth Targets  

  •  Identify the actual performance to establish starting points (i.e., baseline) for students.


General Population

English Learners

Intellectual Disability

Emotional Disability










16 (34%)







14 (30%)







15 (32%)







2 (4%)







47 (100%)
  • The student groups are simplified for the purpose of this presentation. There would most likely be very specific student groups based on individual student needs.

Now is the time to get started on “Student Growth”

Sandoval Superintendent Dr. Jennifer Garrison and I have started to train school administrators on how to go about the process of using student growth to meet the requirements of PERA. We have conducted three trainings thus far and the constant message we are receiving from the participants is that districts are behind in the development stage for this important component of performance-based teacher evaluation. This message is constant in all areas of the state.

PERA requires all school districts by school year 2016-17 to be in full implementation of performance-based teacher evaluation including both teacher practice and student growth. No later than November 1, 2015, the district and teachers’ union must form a PERA Joint Committee to decide on all the critical aspects of this new law. The bottom 20% performing school districts need to be in full implementation by 2015-16 and with PERA Joint Committee formed and meeting by November 1, 2014.

ISBE and PEAC are recommending that districts spend at least one full year practicing the assessments prior to implementation. It takes another full academic year to decide on what assessments to use and to develop the local assessments. This pushes the date for most districts to choosing and developing the assessments in school year 2014-15. For those who have to go earlier this work should have been done during this school year.

It is recommended that districts start an “informal” PERA Joint Committee as soon as possible to discuss the various options. Districts may want to contract with IASA to bring Jennifer and I to your district to start this discussion.

The first part of this process is reading and understanding the various components of the law that can be found in the Administrative Rules for Part 50 on the ISBE website at

The next important piece is a complete understanding of Type I, Type II and Type III assessments.

We have been recommending that districts start a “District Assessment Identification Tool.” Using a spreadsheet, list all categories of teachers in the first column, and then Type I, II, III in the next three columns. After listing all categories of teachers start filling in the spreadsheet with all assessments your district presently is using for all three types. Next, to fill in the missing pieces you will need to determine what assessments need listed as each teacher is required to have at least one assessment from Type I or Type II and one from Type III. If no Type I or II is available then the teacher can be measured by two Type III student growth assessments.

ISBE is in the process of developing the default model for student growth as required in the PERA law. This process will include the use of SLO’s for Type III assessments. In the training we present, Jennifer and I discuss in detail how her school district has already implemented student growth for performance-based teacher evaluation. Developing SLO’s are time consuming, complicated and potentially critical collective bargaining discussions.

Using Video to Improve Teaching Practice

For several years I have been suggesting to teacher evaluators and teachers to use video for teachers to reflect on their own practice and also for evaluators and teachers to use video to talk about teaching practice. I would strongly encourage you to visit the Teaching Channel website at and watch this eight minute video on 2010 National Teacher of the Year Sarah Brown Wessling reflect on how she uses video to improve her own teaching.

Ms. Wessling uses a Flip Camera with a wide-angle lens attached to the camera and mounts the camera on a tripod. In the video Ms. Wessling explains how she videos nearly every lesson she teaches. Ms. Wessling states, “I think there is a difference between the abstract of how we see our teaching practice and the concrete reality of it. I think what the video offers us is a certain degree of reality. There is a lot to be learned from that.”

Reflection is a key component of the Danielson Frameworks. Video is the best process I think any person could use who wants to improve his or her own performance. Ms. Wessling scans the video and makes written notes about what she is seeing. She uses these notes to reflect on her own performance.

In this video there is also a segment where Ms. Wessling is engaged in a reflective conversation with her principal about her teaching practice while watching the video. Notice how this reflective conversation takes place in her classroom and the evaluator and the teacher are sitting side by side discussing the teaching practice. This is not about rating teachers this is about improving the teaching practice so students perform better.


Will PERA result in more tenured teacher dismissals?

I believe a common assumption among educational reformers, some school board members and some school administrators is that the implementation of the Illinois Performance Evaluation Reform Act (PERA) is that it will be easier for school districts to remove tenured teachers. While there are some provisions in SB7 that change some of the processes for dismissal of tenure teachers, the administrator work in gathering proof is essentially unchanged.

In teacher dismissal cases administrators need to determine if the teacher is being disciplined for misbehavior or incompetence. If the employee engages in conduct that is irremediable (as defined in a variety of teacher dismissal cases) then the teacher can be dismissed. If the conduct is remediable the employee will receive a Notice to Remedy from the school board and will continue to be employed but must remediate the behavior.

Teaching pedagogy falls into the remediable category. This requires that the administrator do the following:

  • Collect evidence via informal and formal observations and share the evidence with the teacher in writing.
  • Formal observations must be preceded by a conference between the teacher and the evaluator, followed by another conference between the teacher and evaluator.
  • If the teacher is rated unsatisfactory there must be a process with the union to select a second evaluator.

A very important item of tenured teacher dismissal in Illinois that SB7 did not change is that the school board possesses only an investigatory/charging function in tenure dismissal cases. The hearing officer possesses the authority to decide all issues with respect to a dismissal decision, including the GRAVITY and SERIOUSNESS of the charges (Spangler 1st Dist App 2002).

A matter of great importance to the actual evaluator is what the evaluator must do with the teacher in order to meet the requirements of a well-executed evaluation of remediating the teacher. This includes the following points:

  • The evaluator needs to gather the facts by observing the teacher. What exactly did the evaluator see? What happened in the classroom?
  • Next the evaluator must know what a “proficient” teacher does and communicate these skills to the unsatisfactory teacher.
  • The evaluator must tell the teacher in exact words what the teacher needs to do to get to the proficient level. The evaluator cannot use words such as should, may, ought to consider, etc…
  • The evaluator must also tell the teacher how to do what the evaluator is directing the teacher to do.

The above listed processes and skills are the same now as they were before the implementation of PERA. The evaluator is recommended to do multiple observations of teaching, share in writing the facts from the observation along with suggested corrections to any fact that the evaluator deemed to be Needs Improvement or Unsatisfactory. The evaluator then needs to ensure that the teacher understands the directions on how to improve and also provides supports for the teacher to improve their performance.

The one major change that will occur when the district implements Performance-Based Teacher Evaluation is the use of student growth as a significant factor in the summative rating of the teacher. This is in addition to consideration of the teacher’s attendance, planning, instructional methods, classroom management and competency in the subject matter taught.