Preparing for an Option B

The following is the address that was delivered to the Class of 2017 during the 116th DFHS Commencement. 

Good evening once again, and welcome to the Dobbs Ferry High School Commencement of 2017.

Before we begin, there are a few others who deserve thanks that I didn’t mention in my initial opening. First, I would like to thank the administration and faculty of Dobbs Ferry High School. I know that I say it time and again that it’s a true honor and a privilege to serve as the principal of this amazing high school, it’s a dream job really, and part of the reason for that is our faculty and staff. I have the good fortune of working alongside a team of professionals who are tireless in their drive to ensure that every student maximizes his or her potential. There is no greater or more rewarding profession than teaching, and our teachers can see the result of their hard work in the exceptional graduates that are sitting before us today. I know that a number of our teachers and staff are here tonight, so I will ask that they please rise and join me in giving them a big round of applause.

Next, a special thank you goes to the parents and families of our graduating class. As a parent of three children myself, I know that there is no greater gift for a parent than watching your children grow up. And today, that gift is a point of pride for all of you, as parents, for it has been through your guidance, your love and support, and your cheerleading that your children have met and exceeded the requirements to graduate from Dobbs Ferry High School. So this day, and this milestone, is as much about you as it is the students who are sitting before us. So congratulations to all of you…and at this time, I ask that that our graduates rise, face your parents, and give them a big round of applause. They are certainly deserving of it!

And finally, I would like to recognize an invaluable member of our school community who has just completed his tenth year of dedicated service. You have all heard the phrase “it takes a village,” and in Dobbs Ferry that is certainly the case…as so many individuals not only have a hand in educating our students, but also keeping them safe. One individual who does this daily is Joseph Kevilhan, our school crossing guard. Joseph is out there every day, rain or shine, in the coldest and warmest of temperatures, making sure that our students are safe as they cross a busy Broadway. And he has been doing it for ten years now. Please join me in a round of applause for Joseph Kevilhan.

Writing my remarks for this year’s graduating class provided me of course with the opportunity to relive many of the great accomplishments of our graduating seniors. While our current school was built in 1934, this is now the 116th commencement of DFHS, and each of our graduating classes leaves behind a legacy that adds to a long and storied history of both our high school and this proud community. This year’s graduates are no different, and are an exceptional group of students who fully embody our school’s mantra of IB for All, and excellence in all areas. Sitting before us today…

  • We have 29 students who have pursued a full IB Diploma with 100% of our students having taken at least two IB classes. In fact, this is the first class where we have had every student successfully take, and complete, IB English.

 

  • We have 9 students who were named National Merit Scholars, with one semi-finalist and one National Merit Scholarship Winner.

 

  • We have a Siemens Finalist, a senior who participated in the prestigious ISEF science research competition, as well as fifteen science research students who competed at WESEF this year.

 

  • We have the fifth class of seniors who have taken the Blue Star Financial Literacy exam and have helped to give our school a Blue Star distinction.

 

  • We have the first group of seniors who participated in our one-to-one Chromebook for all four years,and learned alongside our teachers as we continued to find new ways to use technology as a tool for enhancing teaching and learning.

 

  • We have exceptional artists, filmmakers, and musicians who continue to not only bring culture to our school community, but also recognition and awards, to0 many to list, to our school for their exceptional work.  

 

  • And of course we have a senior class that will be attending some of the premier schools in the nation, including Amherst College, Bucknell, Cornell, Dartmouth, NYU, Stanford, Tufts, UCLA, University of Chicago, University of Pennsylvania, GW, and West Point…to name a few.   

The accomplishments of our graduates never cease to amaze me, and as you know, there is no greater joy that I get than sharing those accomplishments with our community through our school Facebook page, Twitter, emails, and basically whenever anyone wants to talk about it.  To me, there is no place better than Dobbs Ferry and, in my opinion, it’s the absolute the best town to raise children. In Dobbs we’re like one big family, and we see time and again how our students and community members rally around causes to help others in need, and how they truly support and get behind one another, despite the fact that we may not always agree on all issues. To me, this is typical in any loving family. Many of our seniors have known each other since kindergarten, and they share a bond that was probably captured best when they paraded through the halls of Springhurst just the other day for one last time to the cheers of their former teachers,  and our current Springhurst students. There really is no place like Dobbs Ferry.

From an academic perspective, our high school distinguishes itself from most public schools due to the fact that we are a full IB World School, featuring both the IB Diploma Program and now the IB Middle Years Program. In fact, we were the first school in Westchester to be authorized as an IB School, earning this distinction all the way back in 1998. Dobbs Ferry has always led the way.

And as graduates of an IB World School, you have been prepared with the necessary skills for success in any endeavor that you choose to pursue, whether in the classroom or in the workforce. In the year 2017, we call these 21st century skills, but your parents can certainly tell you that skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, communication, initiative, and probably the most important skill of all, adaptability, are age old skills that all individuals from past generations needed for success. And while the context and the career paths that you will choose to pursue in your lifetime may certainly differ from, say 1982, when many of your parents were just entering the workforce, the types of skills that you will need are pretty much the same, just as they were when this great nation was formed, all the way back to our forefathers.

So in past years I probably would have focused the remainder of this talk on the importance of working hard, developing the 21st century skills that I just spoke about, setting goals, and going on to a lifetime of wonderful accomplishments. And those things are certainly critical, and please don’t lose sight of their importance. But today, I am going to focus on something a little different, and perhaps a bit more personal to some of you. Because no matter how hard you work, how often you do the right thing, how many goals you set and reach, how well you plan, and how much success you ultimately enjoy, one thing that is certain is that you will, at some point in your life, endure a form of personal adversity, or worse, a real personal crisis. For some of you, this may have already happened, and for others you might be in the midst of one right now.

Now, I’m not talking about the kind of adversity that comes from feeling overwhelmed with papers in school, or the stress that can come from having a high pressured job. If you are doing the right things and have success as a result, you will face a degree of adversity on a daily basis.  

Instead, the type of adversity that I’m talking about is the life altering kind, the kind that forever changes the course of your life. These are the moments that when they happen, we know that life as we had known it will never be the same. Whether it is a death, an illness, a job loss, or something else, these moments typically come when we least expect them, they don’t discriminate, and are often immune to our best efforts to prevent them from occurring in the first place. And for all of us, they are inevitable.

In her book “Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy,” Sheryl Sandberg points out that “Option A is not available. Life is never perfect. We all live some form of Option B.” On a personal note, I can point to several moments of adversity, and even crisis, that I have led me down the road of Option B. And while achieving some professional success, along with a dream job, and possessing those 21st century skills I talked about earlier certainly helped, the truth is that what was ultimately needed to come out stronger couldn’t be found in books, in a classroom, or even in that dream job. Instead, it was found in people. It was found in having strong personal relationships with others. So before you go off to what will be an awesome life with limitless possibilities, here’s some final advice, or perhaps one last lesson, that I’ll leave you with on how to prepare for the certainty of an Option B at some point in your life…

First, Stay Connected to Your Home. When we hear the word home, we often think of our town, our physical home, our bedrooms, and everything in between. But that’s not the home that I’m talking about. Home represents the people who we care most about, and who care most about us. It can be a mother, a father, siblings, other family members, close friends or for some of you in a few years, a future husband or wife. In his 1970s song “You’re My Home,” American songwriter Billy Joel uses the lyric “home is just another word for you” to characterize home as being beyond the physical space, and more about the person or people who matter most. Personal strength in the face of adversity, then, comes from our relationships with others. It comes when we are selfless, and give and receive without reservation, and without asking for something in return. It’s the individuals who we go out of our way for daily, and enjoy doing it when we do. So stay connected to your home. Always.

Second, choose Option A when it comes to love. Or more specifically, Choose Option A when it comes to pursuing what you love in terms of your passion, or who you love for the rest of your life, or ideally both. While an Option B (or C or D) might be inevitable in other areas, choosing Option A with regard to love will give you the greatest strength in the face of adversity. And when you choose love, or your passion, or both, you are choosing an honest life that gives the strength to endure any challenge that life will throw your way. You will also live with no regret, no matter what degree of adversity you face down the line, and you will rise to immeasurable heights of personal fulfillment and strength so that you can tackle whatever obstacles that come your way. So never, ever, settle in this area.

And finally, remember that you are part of a team. Each of you is now prepared to leave us to pursue goals and dreams that go beyond the streets of Dobbs Ferry. But always remember that no matter where you go, and what heights you soar to, you will always be part of the Dobbs Ferry team. And as members of that team, you have an eternal network of people who will support you, cheer you on, and look on with pride. So go out there, trust your talent, do your thing, and have a wonderful life. Thank you for an amazing four years that were fun, and always too fast. It has been a privilege. I will miss you all. Thank you.

Success Without Fulfillment Equals Failure

The following is an excerpt from the remarks that were made at the DFHS National Honor Society Induction on June 1, 2017.

This morning we have students who are being inducted into at least one, and in some cases two, honor societies: They are the Italian Honor Society, the French Honor Society, the Spanish Society, and of course the National Honor Society. Admission into any one of these Honor Societies is an extraordinary accomplishment, and is a recognition of the years of hard work and service of the students in this room.

So what does it mean to be a member of an Honor Society? For starters, we know that all of you are exceptional students in the academic sense.  You work hard, set goals, take action, and have maintained the exemplary grade point average necessary for admission. This is no small feat, and you undoubtedly deserve to be recognized and congratulated for your academic accomplishments.  So, congratulations to each of you.

But is being a smart person enough? No, it’s not. Is it only about grades? No, it’s definitely not. We can unfortunately point to many examples of highly intelligent people who achieved top grades in school but were ultimately not successful at all. Though they might be rich in terms of money,  or they may have top positions in their respective field, some of these same people are actually very poor. So there needs to be more. The Honor Society is built on four pillars: Scholarship, Service, Leadership, and Character. And while scholarship is certainly a component, it’s only 25 percent of what is truly needed for ultimate success and fulfillment. So let’s take a moment to consider the last three pillars: Service, Leadership, and Character. How are these qualities measured? How do we know if we are hitting the mark in these areas?  

The truth is that there is no true measure for these qualities, so the measure therefore lies within each of you. I always enjoy preparing opening remarks at events like this one because it requires me to pause and truly reflect on my own journey, and to hopefully share some insight based on what I have learned.  It seems that the older I get, the less I know. And each year I realize how little I knew the year before. Such is life. You may not know what I mean right now. But you will. Trust me on that.  

So the question that we are left to consider is what is truly required for personal fulfillment?  And is there honor in that? The answers to these questions again lie within each of you, but what I can tell you is that true fulfillment will come only through a commitment to ongoing personal growth and improvement. Remember, success without fulfillment equals failure. Success without fulfillment equals failure  (T. Robbins). So how do we achieve both of those states? By committing ourselves to constant growth. We need to grow. Sure, we need to grow in terms of scholarship, but more importantly we need to grow in terms of our quality as individuals. We need to be true to ourselves, honest in our approach, and connected to the people in our lives who matter most. And one of the ways that we do that is by being selfless in our actions, by leading through example rather than empty words, and by holding ourselves to the highest standard of character even though we may not always do the right thing. We are human and are not perfect. But it’s the commitment to learning from mistakes, reflecting, and growing that will bring true honor and fulfillment when all’s said and done.  

Always remember that induction to the Honor Society is a beginning, not an end. The principles that we are emphasizing today are guiding principles that will carry you through life. They are targets that we always strive for, and are ones that we should never truly feel like we have fully reached. They guide our journey as we strive to be the very best people we can be, and in doing so will propel us to inspire others and truly change the world.

Congratulations to all of you once again. Please continue to make your school proud, your teachers proud, your parents proud, and most importantly yourself proud. Thank you.

 

Leading Amidst Personal Adversity

There’s an awesome five-minute speech that Rocky delivers to his son in the movie Rocky Balboa (2006) that I often listen to. I even worked part of it into my graduation address last year. As an Italian kid who was raised in Elmont, a lower-middle-class Long Island town, I grew up a huge fan of all things Rocky, so to me his speech is as inspirational and “spot on” as they come. It probably also resonates with me because Rocky is the portrait of person who comes from basically nothing to accomplish things beyond the realm of possibility due to an unwavering belief that he had in himself and his own potential. Anyway, at one point Rocky said to his son, “life ain’t always sunshine and rainbows. It is a very mean and nasty place and I don’t care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life.” He’s right. Life certainly doesn’t discriminate, and we are all potentially a day away from personal adversity, or worse a full out crisis. This isn’t a glass half empty outlook. It’s just the reality. As a Principal, it’s easy to lead when everything is perfect. It’s easy to lead when there is order and when all is well both personally and professionally. But what about leading when there isn’t personal order? What about leading amidst personal adversity and crisis?

I’ve had close friends in leadership positions who dealt with some real personal adversity while being charged as leaders to be “the rock” for everyone else. Leadership is lonely enough when everything is perfect, so I always went out of my way to support those individuals in any way possible when they were dealing with some “stuff” at home. Whether it’s a quick “check-in” text or helping to manage all of the moving parts, I know that little things can sometimes mean a lot and that everyone needs a helping hand from time to time. And I mean everyone.

When I first started as the Principal of DFHS in 2011, I recall a conversation that I had with @dfdcidberry about leadership and he echoed a statement that I heard @ToddWhitaker say years earlier about how we measure strong leaders. He said, “The best leaders create organizations that can both sustain and grow, at least for a period of time, in their absence.” I’ve witnessed both sides of this, both with myself and with others, and have seen organizations both flounder and flourish respectively as leaders have dealt with periods personal adversity.

So what do these healthy, self-sufficient organizations look like? And how do leaders go about creating them? Here’s some “musts” for leaders because, as I said, we are all just a day away…

1) Hire the best people. This is singularly the most important factor in determining the success of any organization. Take a look at any successful organization and you will find talented people who are creative, motivated, inspired, and on the cutting edge. Even with weak leadership, these individuals can “carry the ball” and accomplish amazing feats. Too often we see leaders who cut corners during the hiring process and don’t put in the necessary time and energy that is needed to recruit and hire the very best. This is a recipe for disaster. If the talent isn’t there, the team won’t win. Ever. It’s as simple as that.

2) Maximize Potential: Second only to hiring the best people is identifying places in the organization where each individual can maximize his/her potential and can be the most successful. While evaluating talent on the hiring side of things is certainly paramount, it is equally important to evaluate talent in terms of the places in an organization where each person can be the most successful. For school leaders, this includes identifying the best classes and grade levels for teachers, identifying individuals to serve in leadership roles, and creating a program and system that will thrive with the talent that is available. It’s differentiation at its finest. It’s assessing the strengths and limitations of each individual so that those strengths can be enhanced and highlighted while reducing and/or entirely negating any existing limitations.

3) Empower (and trust!) Others: At this point you are probably getting the point that the very best organizations have talented people who are provided with the necessary conditions to thrive. Too often, leaders feel the need to have their hands in everything and think that they need to “know” everything about everything. This is insecurity on the part of the leader at its worst and will only serve to stifle an organization. In schools, leaders need to give teachers the power to make decisions around curriculum and professional development. Decision-making not only needs to be distributed, but members of the organization need to be trusted to make those decisions, and supported if things don’t always go perfectly. From my experience, an amazing thing happens when people are treated like professionals. Yup, you got it…they act professionally.

4) Foster a Growth Mindset: While hiring and empowering the very best to lead at different levels of the organization is certainly critical, it’s equally necessary that school leaders foster an environment that encourages and rewards ongoing growth for both staff and students. As a school leader, I continually keep all members of our school community focused on the vision and mission of our school and work with all of the constituencies to design ongoing action plans to keep us moving in the right direction. The key here of course is for the action plan to come “bottom-up” so that there is ownership that comes from the degree of empowerment that was discussed above. At our school, teachers are empowered to create new courses and design new curriculum while students regularly propose new ideas for clubs and community service. The simple, yet complex, mindset that I always push to teachers is to always question (and research!) what the best schools (and academic departments) are doing locally, nationally and internationally so that we can continually grow and evolve. As Tony Robbins said, “if you’re not growing you’re dying.” This principle needs to be owned by everyone and not placed solely on the shoulders of the leaders. If not, an organization will not grow and is destined to fail.  

5) Find Balance: Awhile back I wrote a blog about what is most important for school leaders and provided a “keeping your eye on the ball list.” I still stand by that list and think that principals need to prioritize what is most important or else things will become so overwhelming that absolutely nothing will get done. That said, the importance of personal wellness cannot be understated for any leader. Leading others is a great responsibility that is often high pressured and is always 24/7. Like it or not, that’s just how it is. So if leaders don’t have personal balance it’s going to be real hard to lead others. Finding balance can be accomplished in so many ways, but the key is to find opportunities for personal exploration, growth, and most importantly fulfillment. It is only when personal balance is achieved that people can lead with higher degrees of clarity, focus, and of course empathy.

Toward the end of his speech to his son, Rocky willfully looks into his son’s eyes and says, “…it ain’t about how hard you hit; it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. It’s how much you can take, and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done.” Adversity is going to happen to all of us. No one is immune or exempt. For me, it came at a time when I least expected that it would. And that’s exactly how it works. Thankfully, I had been intuitively guided with the mindset outlined above. Remember, if you’re not growing, you’re dying. At DFHS, we continue to grow each and every day.  

The Principalship: Focusing On What Is Most Important

I wrote a post a few years back on the Principalship and the most important aspects of the position. As I move toward the end of my sixth year, the position continues to be multi-faceted, fast moving, and ever-changing. In fact, no one day is ever the same. The busiest days are typically the ones when the calendar is clear and I walk into school thinking that it will be an “easy” day. I’ve learned by now that there’s no such thing. The information comes a mile a minute and I can literally find myself in ten different conversations over the course of twenty minutes on topics and issues that are dramatically different yet critically and equally important. That happens all of the time. It’s the nature of the position.

@DrSpikeCook wrote an excellent piece on the Principalship in response to a friend who asked what a principal does all day. Click on the following list to check out his list:

http://drspikecook.com/2012/01/30/what-is-it-like-being-a-principal-are-you-in-meetings-all-day/#.USK3gx3IElh

Pretty incredible, huh? And, amazingly enough, he probably got at about 50% of what a principal actually does. But rather than putting together a “Part II,” I instead discussed some of the most important aspects of being a principal. To use a baseball analogy, it was my “keeping your eye on the ball” list. I have since gone back to my original list and made some updates.

1) 21st Century Skills: Take a look at any school’s vision and mission and you can be sure that it will be rooted in the belief that schools must prepare all students with the necessary 21st century skills for success beyond high school. “Survival skills” (@DrTonyWagner) such as problem solving, critical thinking, collaboration, communication, adaptability, and initiative are a major focal point at DFHS and they serve as the foundation of what we value instructionally as an IB World School. For principals, it’s perhaps even more important that these same 21st century skills are applied each day. As noted in the introduction, there is no day in the life of a principal that is exactly the same. In fact, the only certainty is that tomorrow will undoubtedly include “a twist” that is either unexpected or unlike anything that has happened before. So either you love that about the job, or you hate it. For me, that’s what I love best because it’s on those days that the “principal instructional manual” gets pushed aside and the real world skills come into play.

2) Focusing on Students: Principals can become so easily bogged down with issues and minutiae that they can lose sight of why we are really here in the first place. Don’t let that happen! A general “self-check” for principals is to consider how each issue either impacts or furthers the education of the students in that respective school. If it doesn’t, then chances are it is time to turn the wheel and head in a different direction. In doing so, principals (much like guidance counselors) must have a big picture view of all students and advocate for the whole child accordingly. This includes success inside of the classroom, the social and emotional well-being of all students, and of course involvement in extracurricular activities that enhance the experiences of all students. The best principals attend concerts, sporting events, academic competitions, and much more while working constantly to differentiate the school’s offerings so that there is “something for everyone.”

3) Safety & Security: No matter how you look at it, student safety is by far the most important responsibility of any school leader. When parents send their children off to school each morning, they do so with an ingrained trust that their children will be “safe” and protected. From lockdown drills to debriefing with key security personnel as “real world” scenarios unfold both locally and nationally, it is the responsibility of principals to ensure that everyone is prepared for any and all emergencies in order to protect all students in the best possible way. In doing so, principals must not only know their building and campus both inside and out, but must have clear protocols in place to ensure efficiency and immediate response during any emergency. For us, that means strategically placed security cameras, protocols for entering and exiting the building, and clear roles and responsibilities for all members of our staff and security team. Unfortunately an emergency is only a day (or minute!) away, so it is imperative that all members of the organization can respond with little to no warning.

4) Building Management: Unfortunately, “old school” managerial skills are too often overlooked when schools are looking to select a principal. This has been particularly true in recent years as more and more attention is being place on both classroom instruction and the shift that is occurring in all schools as a result of increased testing and the common core. While I’m not suggesting that instruction should take a back seat in any school, I’ve seen schools flounder with leaders who possess great instructional minds but little in terms of organizational and managerial skills. It is critical that principals have clear routines, procedures, and protocols in place for all aspects of building operations and to ask “what if” to all potential scenarios and adjust accordingly. Central to this is the importance of having a strong assistant principal (@careim2) as well as a staff who both carries out these tasks and makes sound recommendations for ongoing improvement.

5) Instructional Leadership: There was once a time when a principal’s primary function was to serve in a managerial capacity. That time has long passed. In fact, the paradigm has shifted so dramatically that it is now a general expectation that principals possess a broad and deep understanding of curriculum and instruction and act as “lead learners” in schools. This of course begins by establishing and articulating a clear instructional vision and includes all aspects of curriculum design, the CCSS, assessment, educational technology, and differentiation. Principals also need to negotiate the top-down push for increased standardization with the importance of teaching for meaning and the development of the “real world” skills that are needed for life in the 21st century. Schools with leaders who lack this skill-set are likely to remain stagnate while hovering in the realm of “bad” or at best “good.”

6) Getting Inside the Classroom: Visiting classrooms and supporting teachers with practical feedback is perhaps the best form of instructional leadership and professional development that a principal can provide. It is also the best way to get the true pulse of the school and the needs of the students. Too often, principals pay “lip service” to the idea of getting inside of the classroom and then spend most days dealing with issues behind closed doors. Of course, getting out of the office is sometimes easier said than done, so it is important to build time into the schedule each day to make sure that it happens.

7) Empowering Others: Perhaps the best advice that I ever received about the Principalship was from my former principal in New York City. As an assistant principal, I took on everything, micromanaged all aspects of the building, and basically had a direct hand in all tasks that required completion. She warned me at the time that this approach would ultimately sink me as a principal. While the adjustment was difficult at first, I have seen our school and organization rise to new levels in recent years as more teachers and staff members are empowered in all areas, including professional development, building protocols, and academic programs and initiatives. At DFHS, this has been especially critical as our school completes year three of our 1:1 Chromebook program while simultaneously preparing for our IB Middle Years Program (MYP) authorization visit this fall. I’ve written several posts over the past year on this topic, including two on “the power of empowering.” Check them out!

Please feel free to comment and share some ideas of your own!

Embracing IB for All: Our Story

The following piece is a guest post by DFHS IB Coordinator Marion Halberg (@MegHalberg) that was published on the IB Community Blog under the “E2 Excellence and Equity” category.

IB Learner Profile: IB Learners are Inquirers, Knowledgeable, Thinkers, Communicators, Principled, Open-Minded, Caring, Risk-Takers, Balanced, Reflective

 

Dobbs Ferry High School is a small public high school just north of New York City. Students who live within our village’s borders attend the schools in the district. The high school has approximately 440 students. Of these students, 13% receive special education services, over 3% are currently below English proficiency and receive ESOL services, a larger percentage are former English language learners and received ESOL in elementary and/or middle school, over 4% speak a language other than English at home (that’s an under-reported number due to recent changes in demographic data collection), and approximately 15% are eligible for free or reduced lunch (which is typically under-reported at the high school level).

When the IB Diploma Programme began in 1998, it was a small, elite program adopted to attract and enhance the high academic achievers in the district. It was very successful but really only engaged a small portion (approximately 10-15%) of the student body and didn’t address the needs of the school at large. Students as well as teachers who were not involved with IB didn’t relate to it and really didn’t understand why we had IB. In truth, we weren’t an IB World school at that time, we were a school with a small IB Diploma Programme. This continued for many years, with push-back often coming from the community asking why we weren’t offering A.P. courses and why we invested so much in IB. Today, every student in 11th and 12th grades takes IB English and IB Math because that’s all we offer. In addition, most students take at least one other IB course but usually more and approximately 25% of the graduating students each year are full Diploma candidates. In the May 2016 session, eight of our full Diploma Candidates don’t speak English at home, five were born outside the United States, two participated in our district’s ESOL program before high school and three entered our district in middle or high school. Our salutatorian, who earned the diploma, took ESOL in our elementary school.

How did this happen? Looking back it is clear that when we truly began to understand and embrace the IB Learner Profile, we were able to change and expand IB for all of our students. If you do that, everything else will follow. Here are some key steps we took on this journey.

I confess: When I began working at DFHS the year after IB was authorized, I was one of the teachers who would turn and stop paying attention when IB was discussed at faculty meetings. If we didn’t teach a course, we weren’t engaged at all with the program. And we really didn’t understand it either.

Although many things evolved along the way, one big change happened when school leaders practiced open-mindedness and encouraged me to become the Diploma Coordinator. I am an ESOL teacher and I also coordinate the district’s English Language Learning program. I was a most unlikely choice to be involved with our Diploma Programme because I didn’t teach an IB  course and most of the students with whom I worked did not access the program at that time. With my appointment, colleagues began to see that someone who wasn’t even marginally involved with the program could be very involved and interested in IB. As I began to attend training and develop my own understanding of IB, I realized how well the philosophy meshed with my own belief that all students deserve and should have equal access to what everyone else has. And that’s the belief of so many at DFHS. This open-mindedness really was the beginning of a complete expansion of IB at DFHS. That was about six years ago.

Coinciding with this, our school leaders, with the benefit of a donation to fund it, began sending teachers who weren’t teaching IB courses to training. This was perhaps one of the most important ways to build not only the strength of the school’s IB identity but also the strength of the academic program. Teachers in ninth and tenth grades began to see what they were preparing their students for when they got to the Diploma Programme.They became knowledgeable, really for the first time, about what the DP really is. In faculty meetings we began to use the language of inclusion. “We’re all IB teachers because every student we work with is going to be an IB student!” And we backed that up by sending just about all teachers 9-12  for training. New teachers to our school are sent for training. So are administrators. Counselors are the gatekeepers of the program and when they attend training they really learn about university recognition and how IB is good for all students. Counselors are the ones on the ground helping students and parents understand the courses and diploma offerings. They are key to helping students practice balance and recognize whether going for the full diploma or taking several courses will be a better match for the student. Dobbs Ferry sent our first counselor for training in 2011. We had already had the program for 13 years! Now, all of our high school counselors are IB-trained. And they are completely behind IB for our students.

Dobbs Ferry HS for a very long time has been a model as a full-inclusion district. Throughout the K-12 program there are classes and courses taught by co-teachers who work and collaborate for all the students with whom they work. Another decisive move was to send our special educators and content teachers together for subject training. In addition, some special educators have participated in the continuum three workshops on special needs.

This universal training of our educators allows us to support students with IEPs and 504 plans and gives them access to the Diploma Programme. In addition to a full inclusion model which means that IB English and IB Math courses have sections with co-teachers, we have taken advantage of IBO’s own evolution in terms of granting accommodations to those with special needs. We file for those accommodations and have worked with IBO on several cases recently that were more complicated but we wanted to give students the ability to access the program through taking the courses and completing the May papers. And that’s important: Accessing the program doesn’t necessarily mean being a full Diploma Candidate (although it might). Access means being able to take courses and explore interests through the taking of IB courses. Being balanced and caring and principled applies to all of us in the school community.

A couple of years ago when IBO opened TOK to students beyond Diploma Candidates, we jumped on board and have opened the course to all our students who are interested in taking it. Two years ago we added Spanish Ab Initio because we saw a need in terms of both students entering our district without the background knowledge to participate in our current Language B offerings and also an opportunity to allow former English language learners and special education students who may have been exempt from language in middle and early high school to participate. This move allowed a transfer student to access the full diploma which previously would not have been possible. We have already seen an increased demand and anticipate adding more sections in the future. The expansion of Group 6 subjects also makes the DP accessible to many more students. Our art and film students, although some may be gifted artists, is also open enrollment and many students take these courses with absolutely no previous experience.

We also began celebrating the IB Learner profile very openly. Throughout the year, a student-of- the-month ceremony celebrates students in different subject groups who, based on teacher endorsements, embodies some aspect of the IB Learner Profile. We use the language of the Learner Profile in other award ceremonies, at commencement ceremonies and as often as we can. Many teachers in ninth and tenth grades begin their opening days of the school year with activities that ask students to think about how they themselves connect to the Learner Profile.

Engaging the community was a very crucial piece on the road to becoming an all IB school. When our current Head of School and new superintendent arrived in 2011, we were at a crossroads. Although we had already set into motion the idea of “IB for all” and were saying it publicly, we hadn’t effectively communicated this to the community at large. Parents were very concerned because we would speak publicly about IB for all students but we didn’t explain the way we would support students who had special needs or those who were perceived as not academically ready for the rigors of IB. People really thought that we were just going to put all students in IB classes and let them sink or swim. Nothing was further from the truth but we didn’t effectively communicate how we were going to transition to an all-IB school and how we were going to make access possible for all students. On the other extreme, parents of students who were typical full Diploma students at that time were asking why we didn’t offer AP courses (which they were more familiar with) and how was attending an IB high school going to help their children.  We learned a lot from that. And the way we responded made all the difference. At that point, we could have moved forward or possibly lost hold of our goal to enhance and improve our IBness. So we listened to our community and encouraged them to ask us their questions. Our superintendent engaged community members in book chats around Tony Wagner’s The Global Achievement Gap. What came out of those and a very well-attended and hard-looking community forum at the end of that year was the agreement in the community about what we wanted for our school and for our students. And when we looked at the list of the things we wanted, we realized, all of us, that the IB Diploma Programme was the perfect fit to provide DFHS students with the skills and attributes of  a 21st Century learner. But we wanted to provide this education in a principled and caring way. And as an additional result of this inquiry and reflection, we also began to move toward adopting the Middle Years Program in grades 6 to 10. In October we will have our authorization visit for MYP. Obviously, we have strengthened our connection to IB and we truly will be an all-IB high school (and middle school). Engaging as both inquirers and communicators made this happen. It was difficult but very important.

Some important challenges to keep in mind:

Don’t just focus on the scores. Previously, most of our students going for the full diploma were easy to identify– we were usually sure they would be able to meet the demands academically. Of course, scores are important and community members are often focused on scores.  Now, that’s not always the case. Sometimes we have students who go for the full Diploma and don’t get it. But what those students got in the process will serve them ten-fold in the future. And, sometimes, taking two or three IB courses is taking a risk for a student. We are willing to take the risk to offer IB courses and the opportunity to be a Diploma Candidate to all of our students no matter the results. This helps our students become risk takers, too, in the best sense of the term.

We began asking our graduates how their IB experiences had served them in freshman year of college. We began looking at assessments and worked during shared collaborative time to understand where our students did well and where they had gaps. We mapped backwards to 10th and 9th grades so that by the time students were in their 11th grade courses, it wasn’t such a great difference from the kind of work/assessments that they had already been experiencing. Being reflective across the curriculum, across the school and with our alumni has helped us learn about the strengths and weaknesses of our work.

Another thing that helps us to reflect on our practice is the visits we receive from other schools hoping to understand IB better as they explore becoming authorized schools. Although we were the first, now our county has many IB schools. We receive frequent requests to host visitors from all over the New York Metro area from schools who are seeking information and first-hand knowledge of our Diploma Programme. Each time we receive visitors, we have another opportunity to reflect and communicate our beliefs and experiences. We also host a roundtable each year as part of the regional organization to which we belong (GIBS). These roundtables are a terrific way to share best practices with regional colleagues. We always learn something from these collaborations.

But reflection is ongoing. We are again looking back at this journey but also looking forward. We’re all thinkers, too. Where do we want to be in the coming school year, next year, five years (when we will have our next five-year self study)? We already some directions we want to take. We’d like to expand our CAS program and encourage more students (if not all) students to participate. We know there’s research that shows that students who are on the receiving end of community service get even more when they themselves participate in service to others. We want to make that happen and recognize that access and equity in CAS will be community building in many ways.

In addition to celebrating the Learner Profile for students, we plan to begin celebrating staff who also embody attributes of the profile. We want teachers and staff to know that we value their caring for their students and colleagues, their open-mindedness to try new things, their risk-taking even when sometimes outcomes aren’t what was anticipated. We don’t want our teachers to be reduced to scores and evaluations. They are whole people educating whole people.

And throughout our 18-year IB journey there have been many colleagues and experiences that have helped to move us forward. It’s not just one moment in time but rather different initiatives along the way (like aligning math 6-12 which led to the addition of Math Studies in 11th and 12th grades) and a previous self-study evaluation that cited us and moved us to offer most of our courses over two years that have all contributed to where we are today. And we will continue to evolve.

As we move toward full authorization of our MYP program, we are very excited about how being an all-IB school has become a reality for Dobbs Ferry High School. There are some links and contact information below. Please feel free to reach out. We love to share our story!

Here’s a link to our story: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SV9Nkkj3KrY

Here’s a link to our Head of School’s Blog: “On Principal with John Falino” https://johnfalino.com/

Find us on Twitter:

Dr. John Falino, Head of School: @johnfalino1

Marion Halberg, Diploma Coordinator: @MegHalberg

Candace Reim, IB Administrator: @careim2

Dr. Lisa Brady, Superintendent of Schools @YoleBrady

Doug Berry, Asst. Superintendent of Curriculum & Instruction: @dfdcidberry

Erin Vredenburgh @ErinVred

Jennifer Hickey, MYP Coordinator: @MsHM211

 

Gearing Up For The Job Search: 10 Tips For Interviewing (Updated!)

It’s that season again. The calendar has turned, spring is upon us, and schools are once again beginning the process of hiring for next year. I was reminded of this last night by a former colleague who called me for some advice as he begins the process of interviewing for a new position. Similarly, my school is filled with wonderful teaching assistants and permanent substitute teachers who are now in the midst of searching and interviewing for teaching positions for September. I wrote a post about this about a year ago and thought that it was worth going back and updating it with some new thoughts. For some, there is perhaps nothing more stressful than the daunting task of interviewing for a teaching or administrative position. While school districts continue to make budgetary cuts and many cities remain in a hiring “freeze,” we are seeing thousands of certified teachers who are without a position and hundreds of resumes for a single position. It’s certainly a “buyer’s market,” so it is critical that candidates distinguish themselves from the rest in order to land a coveted position. Above all else, the place where this happens is in the interview.

Over the years, I’ve been on both sides of the table and have met hundreds (thousands?) of applicants as both an assistant principal in New York City and now a principal in Westchester County. I’ve seen candidates who have “knocked it out of the park” and many others who have struggled mightily. There’s certainly a fine line, but what I’ve found is that those who struggle to present themselves in the best possible way typically do so because they are either under prepared, overly anxious, or unfamiliar with how to effectively interview for a position.

So as you prepare for your next interview, don’t go in “cold” or feel defeated before you even enter the room. Instead, consider the following ten tips and you will hopefully be well on your way to a position that is right for you…

1) Understand the Process: When interviewing for a teaching or administrative position, it is rarely the case that the first interview is the last interview. In most instances, candidates will participate in a process that will include an initial screening interview, a committee interview (parents, students, teachers, administration), a demonstration lesson (for teachers), a performance task (for administrators) a writing sample, and a final interview with district administration and/or the Board of Education (administrators). Of course, there are no absolutes and the process (along with the length) will vary based on the time of year, the location (suburban vs. urban), the degree of urgency on the part of the school, and of course how well you are doing in the process.

2) Know Your Interviewers: It’s always a good idea to get a sense of who will be conducting the interview as opposed to going in blind. By finding out who you will meet with in advance, you will get a sense of the different constituencies that may be represented (parents, students, teachers, etc.) so that you can better anticipate the types of questions that you will receive. Visualization is key and will absolutely help to reduce anxiety both before and during the interview.

3) Know Your Resume: Simply stated, do not put something on your resume if you are not prepared to talk about it. When conducting initial screening interviews, I will always work off the resume as opposed to a list of pre-determined questions. I can still recall the candidate from a few years back who noted on his resume that he was a member of ASCD. Interested since I too am a member of ASCD, I asked him to tell me about a piece that he recently read in Educational Leadership that had informed his practice as a classroom teacher. Instead of a response that focused on the latest in research and practice, I unfortunately received only crickets and a blank stare.

4) Prepare for the Interview: The biggest mistake that a candidate can make is to walk into an interview unprepared and with a plan to simply “wing it.” If this is your plan, there is an increased likelihood that you will stumble on certain questions, your thoughts will be disorganized, and you will leave out important points that may distinguish you from the other candidates. When interviewing for a teaching position, for example, you are absolutely going to get questions that fall under one of the following headings: curriculum and instruction, assessment, classroom management, student support, special education, and parental communication. Embedded in these headings will be questions that are specific to your discipline, including content-based questions, the CCSS, differentiation, educational technology, and examples of best practice. The best way to prepare is to go online and search for typical interview questions (there is no shortage) and begin to practice responses to different questions that you may receive. The trick of course is to know the “big ideas” of what you want to convey so that you can adapt to variations of these questions while not sounding rehearsed and robotic.

5) First Impressions: While this feels like one of those “goes without saying” pieces of advice, the truth is that candidates often blow the interview before it starts by showing up dressed in casual attire. As an interviewer, I’m instantly thinking that if the candidate arrives casual to the interview, imagine how s/he will dress after a year on the job. My advice on this one is to keep it simple. Invest in a nice dark colored suit (or two).

6) Opening Question: Regardless of the position, one certainty is that your first question will sound something like this: “Tell us a little bit about yourself, your experiences, and why you think that you are a good fit for our school.” Now that you know it’s coming, think about what you are going to say. Too often, I have seen candidates stumble over this seemingly innocuous question and never recover.

7) Answering Questions: There is a bit of an “art” to answering questions in an interview since only a certain amount of time is allotted and it’s likely that the attention span of the interviewer will be somewhat limited given the long list of candidates waiting to be interviewed. The best advice that I can give is to avoid long-winded answers that circle around the question and ultimately leave the interviewer wondering if the question was in fact answered. Instead, concentrate on remaining concise while connecting your ideas and thinking to specific examples and/or experiences. This is where the preparation comes in. Furthermore, don’t panic if you get stumped with a question and don’t be afraid to admit that you are unsure about a certain aspect of a question. If you come in well prepared (see #4), chances are you will be relaxed, confident, and able to respond to unexpected questions in a fairly reasonable way.

8) Asking Questions: You will likely be given an opportunity to ask some questions at the end of the interview, so it’s a good idea to come prepared with a few. This is also a good way to show the interviewers that you have done some research on the school and that you are genuinely interested in the school and not the idea of getting a job in general. During this final phase of the interview, it is important to avoid peppering the interviewers with too many questions that are either irrelevant or inappropriate given the respective stage of the process (see #1). Also, avoid questions about money or what your schedule will look like if you get the position. Again, inappropriate. Instead, ask questions that reveal something about you and your work ethic. Here’s a good one: “Do you have a mentoring program for new teachers?” Here’s another: “What types of professional development opportunities are available for teachers in the district?”

9) Be Yourself: Despite the temptation, it is critical to refrain from providing answers that you think the interviewer wants to hear if those answers are contrary to what you believe. This is a sure fire way to come off as disingenuous and, if you are truly unlucky, with a position in a school where you are not a good fit. This is especially critical for administrators.

10) The Intangibles: There’s so much more to getting the job than looking good on paper and having all of the “right” answers. As a Principal, I am always on the lookout for teachers who are smart, cutting edge, flexible, student-centered, growth-oriented, empathetic, articulate, approachable, composed, confident (not arrogant!), collaborative, organized, independent, dependable, and always professional. That’s about it. Is that you?

Parting Words…

It goes without saying that finding a full-time job in education is a challenge. You need to know your stuff, have great timing, and be a little bit lucky. As you go through the process, you will likely send out a countless number of resumes, will go on many interviews (hopefully!), and will find that looking for a job can quickly become a full-time job. If you are a teacher and have in fact advanced to a demonstration (“demo”) lesson, here’s some additional tips:

https://johnfalino.com/2015/03/19/gearing-up-for-the-job-search-the-demo-lesson/

Hopefully you will get the first job that you aim for and will be on your way to a long productive career. More likely, you will face some rejection despite your qualifications. That’s okay! Just stay positive, don’t give up, and proceed with the knowledge that your hard work will pay off and that you will ultimately land the job that is right for you. Good luck!

Placing Teacher PD in the Hands of Students

The importance of providing professional development for teachers that is varied in format and differentiated in nature cannot be understated. At DFHS, we are continually thinking outside of the box with regard to professional development in an effort to keep things fresh, keep learning relevant, and to build community within our school. This mindset has prompted us to get involved with a variety of formats and approaches to professional development, including EdCamps, menu-based workshops, subject specific training via departments, interdisciplinary planning, and of course outside training through the IBO and other professional organizations.

As an IB World School, we emphasize the importance of having students take ownership of their learning while developing the necessary 21st century skills to succeed at any task beyond the walls of our school. This message is implicit in our district vision of developing “independent thinkers that are prepared to change the world” and it is a mindset that we as a faculty have with regard to our own professional learning. Most recently, we pushed the professional development envelope a bit further by going directly to our students. Specifically, we asked a group of students from our Legislative Branch (student government) to design three professional development workshops for teachers in the area of educational technology based on the needs of students. The students identified the topics, planned the sessions, and then led the respective workshops. In doing so, the teachers became students and our students became teachers.

Prior to the workshops, I led the faculty in a mid-year reflection that focused on how our students, faculty, administration, and school community have embodied the vision and mission of our district during the first semester. It’s always good practice to “check-in” with teachers in this way and I typically do so at the opening, midpoint, and end of each school year. It allows the teachers to see how all of the smaller parts within the school contribute to the whole while helping to keep everyone working toward a common purpose and unified goal. At the conclusion of this meeting, I set the context for the upcoming student-led professional development workshops by connecting what our students (and teachers) would be doing to our district vision and mission. I also pointed  out that every teacher sitting in the room had at some point touched the lives of the students who would be presenting. These are all of our students, and our teachers have armed them with the necessary skills to make a true difference in their local community. This was an opportunity for our students to put those skills to use in a real world context that could make a difference for all students in our school.

The workshops that our students designed focused on areas such as Google Classroom, social media, educational gaming tools, iMovies, website design, and more! The sessions ran for 45-minutes and each teacher attended two. The feedback that I received has been overwhelmingly positive. Here’s some examples:

  • “I thought the PD was fantastic. It was great to hear about what they enjoy and how we could make class more interesting. Plus, they were VERY knowledgeable about the topics they presented!” (@AdamoBiology)
  • “The students were very honest with what they enjoyed and what other teachers have done to make learning more engaging for all students.” (@k_galante)
  • “The students were incredibly poised and prepared. It was clear that this was important to them. I was impressed with their critical thinking skills–even when presented with problems or issues they hadn’t considered. I would welcome more discussion and joint problem solving with this (or any) group of students.” (@MsSarahStern)
  • “The workshop on Google Classroom was very eye opening for us. More often than not, we tend to follow our own routines without being so mindful of how other teachers use technology. As useful as Google Classroom is, I did not realize how much confusion it caused our students. It was also great to get a student perspective on how to use it more effectively.” (Mr. Math)
  • “The students were spirited, well prepared and overwhelmingly engaging. I am excited to implement the ‘live’ option on Quizlet and I will use Kahoot to review vocabulary and literary terms. I also plan to play around with Canva and Weebly for presenting information to my students.” (@CastellanoD1)
  • “I actually wanted to find a new way to incorporate infographics in class and the first group introduced us to Canva, which I look forward to using. I was impressed that both groups I attended knew not just to deliver information but to give teachers the opportunity to play around with the technology. It was a positive experience and I was proud of our kids.” (@Ms_Confalone)
  • “The website building and iMovie session was great. All the guys were very knowledgeable and did a great job within the limited time they had. I have already put the learning into use at dfbasketball@weebly.com. (@ScottPatrillo)
  • “The students were prepared, creative, knowledgeable, risk-takers! It was an excellent opportunity to hear their perspectives on the dynamics of the classroom, and to offer some interesting alternatives to our methodology. Go students!” (@MicheleIrvine1)
  • “Research has shown that students perform better with teachers who gain a deeper understanding of how students learn best. It was also so empowering for these students to ‘show off’ their skills and bring knowledge of what they know to their own teachers.” (Ms. Social Worker)
  • “I thought the student-led PD workshops were great. It was beneficial to hear the students’ perspectives on how things work and what to use in the classroom. I am even going to use some of the new sites with my students on our next project.” (@HealthyWing)

Seeing our students in action and our teachers so enthusiastically supporting them was perhaps as good of a moment that I have had as a principal. Our teachers are open-minded risk-takers who demonstrate the very qualities from the IB Learner Profile that we work to instill in all of our students. This was a true community building opportunity for us as a school and it stressed the importance and belief that we can all learn from one another. This gets to the very heart of what it means to be an IB World School, and it is the driving force behind our mission to instill a passion in our students to think globally about issues so that we can lead change and make a positive difference locally.

To the Graduates of 2017…

The annual “yearbook caption” is always a challenging writing assignment.  I typically approach this task by identifying the theme of my final commencement address and then writing an abbreviated version for the yearbook. Space on the page is tight so it’s important to choose words thoughtfully.

This year’s theme of togetherness and unity is perhaps more pressing than ever. As the world seems to be even more divided following the presidential election, our students will now have a direct hand in creating a world that promotes peace, togetherness, and a better tomorrow. This will not only require creative solutions to complex problems, but also putting political affiliations aside so that we can attack each of these problems in a united way. There’s a great deal of work to be done, and I have no doubt that our graduates are up to the challenge.

With that, here is the latest draft of my “caption” to the Class of 2017…

 

To the Graduating Class of 2017,

The year 2017 is a significant one for not only you, the members of our graduating class, but also the nation as a whole. The results of the presidential election in many ways challenged the very fabric of our nation. Though we witnessed a peaceful transfer of presidential power, a long-standing tradition that sets the United States apart from most other countries, our citizens struggled to remain united as so many gathered in protest at countless political marches and rallies.

Despite the division in our nation, the graduates of Dobbs Ferry High School set an example of how a diverse student body with different political views could join together to build togetherness and unity within a school community. As graduates, you have been prepared with an international education that is rooted in the IB Mission of creating a “better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect.” This mission is embedded into all aspects of our curriculum and has been at the heart of the education that you received. The urgency of this mission is now greater than ever, and it’s incumbent upon each of you to promote this message and to lead the next generation of global citizens in pursuit of world peace, harmony, and togetherness.

It has been an honor and a privilege to work alongside you for the past four years, and I’m looking forward to seeing the many great accomplishments that will come from the members of the Class of 2017. While a great deal is being asked of you, always remember that you have an entire community that stands beside you and believes that you can lead the change that is needed to promote unity. We wish you all the very best.

John J. Falino, Ed.D.

Why MYP? The Path to Authorization

I am pleased to share that our middle and high school recently received authorization to become an IB MYP school after a three year process that included a great deal of curriculum design, in-house professional development, and outside MYP training. Though our school has had the IB Diploma Program since 1998, the  shift in instruction and planning was both noticeable and immediate as teachers quickly transitioned to planning units and lessons using the MYP curriculum planner. In addition, all teachers now identify and communicate via an “opening slide” the following information for each lesson: Area of Inquiry (Essential Question), ATLs, Key Concept, Related Concept, and Global Context. In this respect, the MYP has provided further consistency across the disciplines while allowing students to better understand the connections between the different subject areas.

I wrote two posts last year that aimed to answer the “Why IB?” question by looking specifically at the IB learning standards, key skills that are emphasized, and of course the importance of providing a curriculum that is rooted in international mindedness and global awareness. In an effort to better align to the DP while aiming to best prepare students for an ever-changing global society, the IB recently introduced a number of changes to the MYP. In many ways, the changes to the MYP are a representation of what all schools should be doing, regardless of philosophy, both locally and abroad. There are countless reasons why a school should support (or at least explore) a shift to the MYP. Here’s the top five…

It’s Fully Inclusive: Perhaps the most validating and comforting aspect of the MYP is that it is driven by a philosophy as opposed to a set of content standards. Given that, the fully inclusive MYP is designed to provide all students with rich inquiry-based experiences regardless of the level of the courses (honors vs. non-honors) that they opt to take. All students in the MYP complete the personal project, assessments are authentic and varied, and support is provided both inside and outside of the classroom to ensure that all students are fully successful. This ongoing commitment to equity and access distinguishes the IB from other “college-level” programs.

The MYP “Core”: Similar to the Diploma Program, the MYP is driven by a set of “core” principles that are embedded into all aspects of the program. This includes the IB Learner Profile, key concepts, approaches to teaching, global contexts, and of course the all important community and personal projects. Whereas the community project is designed to engage students in community service that allows them to “think globally while acting locally,” the personal project is a culminating MYP experience that allows students to research and apply their learning to a specific area of study. This year, ALL sophomores at DFHS will complete an MYP Personal Project and they will be the first class to receive an MYP School-Based Diploma. In addition to providing students with “real world” opportunities that “round out” the educational experience, both the community project and the personal project mimic the DP CAS and EE requirements and will ultimately help to prepare more students for the Diploma Program in grade 11.

Coordination & Continuity: Too often, there is a lack of coordination and articulation among individual schools that make up a school district. Teachers typically have limited time to coordinate with colleagues in other buildings and, in some instances, different philosophies drive the respective schools based on the belief systems of the principals who lead them. In this regard, the MYP makes perfect sense. In Dobbs Ferry, it is our belief that the MYP will not only further align our middle and high school, but will also ensure that all students are regularly engaged with rich inquiry-based experiences that promote critical thinking, real world application, and deep understanding. Furthermore, it provides a specific framework in terms of content and skills so that all coursework is properly aligned in grades 6-12.

Focus on Instruction: When I started at DFHS six years ago, our first professional development session was guided by the following question: “What are the qualities of an effective lesson?” This simple yet loaded question prompted a good deal of debate at the time and ultimately served as the jumping off point for all future professional development at our school. As I’ve noted in past posts, there is nothing more important than what is happening inside of the classroom. For school leaders, this has shifted the paradigm of leadership from managerial to instructional and has prompted teachers to rethink how they approach all aspects of teaching and learning. While content acquisition is certainly important, the emphasis has shifted to include learning experiences that allow for self-direction, application, and problem solving. This concept is at the “core” of the CCSS and it’s what IB Schools have been doing since the program was founded in 1968.

Interdisciplinary Teaming: While interdisciplinary grade level teams can be seen as a “given” in most middle schools, the challenge is to find high schools that provide a structure that allows teachers to collaborate in this manner on a consistent basis. By moving to MYP, the high school schedule is designed with the understanding that students must be prepared for an “interdisciplinary” world that continues to change with each passing day. In doing so, MYP teachers connect their disciplines by identifying both key concepts and related concepts while having students examine the global context (“the why?”) of what they are studying. Transitioning high school teachers to this mindset does not occur overnight and requires a different degree of understanding from teachers who may have difficulty thinking outside of their discipline. At DFHS, we introduced interdisciplinary teams four years ago and have reached the point where we will have comprehensive interdisciplinary units in place for next year. See “Embracing Process in a Product Driven World” (Post on 11/11/13) for more on the importance of focusing on process when introducing teachers to the idea of interdisciplinary teaming.

Please feel free to comment! Your thoughts and experiences with the regard to the MYP are both valued and help

A School Leader’s Post-Election Mindset: Togetherness, Unity, and Acceptance

The results (and aftermath) of the presidential election have certainly prompted a good deal of discussion in schools across the nation. Students have led protests, walkouts, and peaceful gatherings in an effort to promote peace, understanding, and tolerance. At DFHS, emotions have been running high regardless of the candidate that students supported respectively.

Despite the differing political views that our students might possess, we continue to focus on building togetherness and unity within our school community. As an IB World School, our focus is always on the IB mission of creating a “better and more peaceful world” and we see recent events as an ideal opportunity to further promote that message. In doing so, the IB Learner Profile is embedded into all aspects of our school, including our curriculum, behavioral intervention strategies, school events, co-curricular clubs, and the course offerings that we have for our students.

A point of pride for us at DFHS is the increasing diversity that we continue to see in our community. This trend is one that we welcome as it adds to the richness of our student body while allowing us to further promote international mindedness within our school. In terms of instructional programs, our ELL program is led by our our IB DP coordinator. This helps to further promote unity and inclusion of all students into all aspects of our school. Furthermore, we have a vibrant International Club, a Friends of Rachel Club (anti-bullying), Model UN, GSA, Political Debate, Fundraising, Habitat for Humanity, and many other student co-curricular clubs that promote togetherness, a safe environment, and the importance of embracing multiple perspectives and points of view. We are also proud to have been named a “No Place for Hate” school by the Anti-Defamation League for the past three years.

The Role of the School Leader

Perhaps the most important role of school leaders during these highly emotional times is to create a school environment that is fully inclusive, respectful of all points of view, and most importantly safe and comfortable for all students. While this clearly needs to be the mindset for school leaders each day of each year, the events of the last week have certainly placed some school leaders in uncharted waters given the complexity and nature of what has been happening. Here are a few tips on how to create a balanced and safe environment that is respectful of all:

  • Provide Leadership and Direction: While I will always trust the the professional judgement of the faculty and their ability to remain neutral and balanced despite their political views, it is important to provide a message to the staff that promotes unity and understanding. As the IB Head of School, I framed my message within the vision and mission of the IBO. A similar approach would work for any leader of a non-IB school as well. In addition, school leaders need to provide mentoring and guidance to teachers (particularly new teachers) about how to lead what can become volatile and emotional discussions so that no students feel ostracized or intimidated. This might also be a worthwhile professional development for the staff either immediately or at any time during the school year.
  • Avoid Politically Charged Narratives: While it’s important to spread a message that promotes peace, unity, and togetherness, it’s equally important to be mindful of politically charged statements that can be construed as coming from the “left” or the “right.” At our school, we have student- generated signs and quotes that are posted throughout the building that reinforce community and tolerance without identifying with particular political issues, groups of people, and/or causes. This non-divisive approach helps to unify all students around the core beliefs that we all hold as caring human beings as opposed to creating an “us vs. them” feeling throughout the school.
  • Capitalize on the Teachable Moment: Our students discussed the election results and their perspectives in their classes the very next day. Some teachers are still engaging their classes in these discussions. I had the opportunity to sit in on several of these classes and was proud of how respectful our students were toward one another. The most important reminder (and challenge) for teachers is to lead balanced and curriculum-based discussions around a topic that continues to generate a great deal of passion and emotion. This election is one of the best “teachable moments” that we have had in many years. Schools need to embrace the moment and not shy away.
  • Organize Events that Build Community: Earlier today, I had a conversation with several of our sophomores who are interested in finding ways to further promote unity and togetherness so that all students, regardless of political perspective, feel connected and welcome in our school community. We identified a number of potential ideas, including an assembly, a dignity board, school-based events, and positive messages to display in our hallways. Our International Club is also encouraging all students to wear safety pins as a symbol of solidarity and unity. One thing that we know is that students always rise above and find positive ways to channel their energy and passion. Schools not only need to encourage this, but must also provide positive and tangible outlets for students to rally around.  
  • Address Negative Behavior: As always, any type of negative behavior by students needs to be addressed immediately so that it doesn’t fester and/or grow into something bigger. This is a basic tenet of behavioral intervention and student discipline. In the event that students do promote divisive rhetoric (whether it’s hate fueled or not), school leaders need to tackle these incidents right away and capitalize on them as teachable moments. The counseling department certainly needs to be included in these discussions as well as classroom teachers where applicable. What’s most important in this regard is that a safe environment is created with zero tolerance for hurtful words or behavior that is designed to instill a divided culture.

A school leader’s genuine attempt to unify, or to solidify, the culture within his or her school community during a challenging time will undoubtedly have a positive, long-lasting, impact on the organization as a whole.  Times like these require reassurance and acknowledgment of what makes a school great; the faculty, the staff, and most importantly our students.

What are some to the things that have been happening at your school to promote understanding and unity? Please share!