Thursday, August 9, 2012

The eternally elusive mission: Thoughts for the new crew of Norris teachers

Welcome, teachers! Norris is a special place, and today marks the formal start of your employment with our school district.  The Jedi-mind trick you have to master, though, is the realization that this district will only remain special if you endeavor to make it so.  You have to perpetuate a legacy of great instruction because we have brought you in to replace people who established and sustained that over many years – or we brought you in to meet the growth needs of a burgeoning student population.  We need you at your best. We don't want you to settle in and settle for average outcomes from yourself or mere proficiency from your students.  Strive for more.  It is the commitment of classroom teachers and the combination of compassionate care for every learner coupled with rigorous academic expectations you uphold that helps us realize our mission.

You should realize – you must realize - that the process starts with selection and you are not here by accident.  We do not make arbitrary hiring decisions.  We have a data-informed decision-making process for our teacher applicants.  We know the characteristics we are seeking.  Teachers here must possess a dualistic mindset that is equal parts content knowledge and a love of learning combined with an unwavering compassion for the individual learner.  Either of these in isolation is not enough.  A teacher with content expertise who does not fundamentally care about the individual student is unable to build relationships that support learning.  A teacher who is compassionate and caring about children but fails to create a rigorous academic environment is actually doing kids a disservice and will never reach the outcomes we expect. 

We are very fortunate to be blessed with an abundant applicant field from which to select our candidates.  Some of that is geographical proximity to Lincoln and some of it is that this is simply a great place to work and people know it.  So we have high teacher retention, low teacher turnover, and that fosters the kind of outcomes we want because it helps to establish a common language for instruction and a lot of experiential wisdom.  Wisdom I invite you to lean upon and draw from as you reach out to your new colleagues in the coming weeks and months.  We do vet our teacher applicants very carefully. I am not saying we subject applicants to the same level of scrutiny as an FBI background check, but we do make sure that we have sufficient screeners in place to be able to verify that you possess the fundamental characteristics of a quality educator: that you have yourself a zeal and a passion for learning and that you are possessed with a desire to continue to grow professionally and to do so with an earnest commitment to collegiality that stems from a compassionate desire to help every learner thrive. 

Our mission is simply stated, but it is also eternally elusive.  We realize it by degrees and by increments, but we can never truly say "we've arrived."  Our mission is that we guarantee quality learning experiences so that each learner thrives as a productive and life-long learner.  So unless we undertake the most ambitious longitudinal academic study in the history of educational research, we'll never really know, will we?  But we can have a pretty good idea.  On an elemental level, it starts with classroom teachers who uphold and uplift the noble spirit and essential humanity of every individual learner.

Norris has a unique and interesting demographic. Like many districts, we have seen increases over the last five years in the number of students in our district who are in poverty.  They do not enjoy some of the benefits that affluent families are often privileged to bestow upon their children which impact out of school learning and may translate to increased achievement gains in the classroom as well.  We have also seen increases in the number of students in our district whose special education status carries with it very particularized learning needs as dictated by their IEPs and we must strive to fulfill those needs. We also have a population of students where on almost any national assessment instrument administered two-thirds or more of them will perform in the upper quartile.  We have had grade-level achievement indices where an entire cohort has three-fourths of its students in the top quartile, which based on a normal curve distribution would only be one-fourth of our students.  Think about that!  And the thing I want you to understand is that this awareness of achievement data, this little bit of assessment literacy about Norris does not mean that your work is done because a substantial number of students walk in the door day one already proficient.  Quite the opposite! What this means instead is that you have a moral mandate here to differentiate your instruction.  Because we are interested first and foremost in individual student growth and we must surpass minimal standards and mere proficiency if we embrace that philosophy.  Our mission statement insists that we guarantee quality learning experiences because we want every individual learner to thrive.  So this means we will immediately identify the students who are not proficient on the state assessments since those are grade-level standards measures and we will intervene, effectively, and get them to baseline.  Just as importantly, though, we will use our other assessment data such as the MAP test to ensure that we know what the next appropriate learning targets and mastery goals are for those learners who are already at baseline proficiency.  

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