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:

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!


School Safety: Letter to Parents (#neveragain)

Dear Parents,

I met with our students and staff this morning to discuss school security and the national #neveragain movement that is now taking place to ensure student safety. The safety and well-being of our students has always been the first priority for us in Dobbs Ferry. To that end, we have implemented many security protocols and resources over the past several years and meet regularly to discuss additional measures that we may take as a school. Specific changes that have occurred include a full security plan that is re-evaluated on a regular basis, full-time security officers, security doors, reduced entry points, lock-down drills, a high school Dean, cameras throughout the campus, regular police presence in our schools, daily walk-throughs by the DFPD at various times each day, and much more.

This morning, I spoke with our students about the importance of having our voices heard with regard to the national discussion on school safety. As an IB World School, we strive to develop civic-minded citizens who “think globally and act locally.” This mindset is ingrained in the fabric of our school and puts us in a position of strength to make a real difference on both a local and national level. Our high school student-body president also spoke at this morning’s assembly and provided details of how all students can have their voices heard. The members of our student government (“Legislative Branch”) are now soliciting input from our students and will meet to generate ideas for how our school community can work to promote positive change both locally and nationally.

As a principal and parent of three children, I am fully aware that there is absolutely nothing that is more important than keeping our children safe. Please rest assured that our high school will always be dedicated to ensuring that this is our first priority. Dobbs Ferry is a small, close-knit town that can truly make a difference on a broader scale. It is my belief that our students are truly poised to lead the way in this endeavor.  


John Falino

Authentic Intellectual Experiences: The IB MYP Personal Project

The following guest post was written by DFHS teachers Mallory Cairo (@MsCairoHistory), Connor Cohn (@MrCohn9), and Erica Curran @dfsciresearch) and is part of a larger series of posts around “authentic intellectual experiences.” DFHS is a true “IB for All” school and is looked upon as a model public school by the IBO for how to best promote student access to the IB DP. We present annually at the IB World Conference on this topic and regularly welcome guests from districts in the region who are interested in learning more about how to best implement the IB DP.

In 2016, DFHS became authorized as an IB MYP school and all sophomores completed the MYP Personal Project for the first time in 2017. The IB MYP has further allowed DFHS to promote access to the IB DP while providing our students with rich academic experiences that will prepare them for success beyond the walls of our school. This post was written by three of our “rock-star” teachers who have played a direct role in the implementation of the personal project.


We live in a moment in human history in which we can access a mind-boggling amount of information, oftentimes with the small devices that live in our pockets and our hands. It’s not often enough that we stop to ask ourselves, as educators, but also as citizens, how do we engage with that information? How can a person begin with an idea or a datum and take it from a discrete piece of information to a logical conclusion? How can we assure that our students are able to confront the information they will be bombarded with for the rest of their lives in a meaningful, effective, and thoughtful way? Oh – and also – what do students actually want to do with their time?

Enter the MYP Personal Project (MYP PP). Dobbs Ferry High School implemented this aspect of the MYP curriculum for the first time during the 2016-2017 school year. At DFHS, all students complete the MYP PP while enrolling in an enrichment research course during their sophomore year. The Personal Project is the culminating task of the IB MYP.  Each part encourages students to reflect on or display a different component of the learning and research process, from identifying an inquiry question to researching the question, chronicling the information they find in the report, and somehow showcasing it in the product. The MYP PP is performance-based, authentic, and a true reflection of the the IB skills that students develop over the course of the MYP. It also prepares all students at DFHS to further access the IB Diploma Program (IB DP) starting in junior year.

The benefits of the MYP Personal Project Research Class:

When DFHS moved through authorization for the IB MYP, a great deal of consideration was given to how to best have all students complete the Personal Project while not overloading their workload and/or increasing stress in the sophomore year. The ultimate decision to enroll all students in a sophomore research course that was modeled after Science Research Year 1 proved to be a good one as students not only had time to complete the project, but also had an opportunity to learn research skills across the disciplines that moved well beyond the MYP PP.

There are additional benefits to integrating the personal project within a sophomore research class. The structure of an every other day class allowed the teacher to guide them in brainstorming, researching, and completing their projects.This class takes advantage of two current (research-based) trends in education: interdisciplinary study and student choice. The project gave our students and faculty a chance to collaborate across disciplines and grade levels as students conferred with faculty from both our middle and high school about the research questions they had formulated themselves.

Differentiation at Its Finest

Perhaps the greatest feature of the MYP PP is that it is truly differentiated based on student interest. As a result, it quickly becomes an endeavor that students care about, connect with, and ultimately “own.” Students not only work with faculty members to choose a topic, but also demonstrate their understanding by designing a product that best suits their learning style and areas of strength. In terms of topic selection, the flexibility that the MYP PP provides in terms of “choice” gives educators a great opportunity to scaffold “how to choose.” To students, bridging the gap between what they do in school and what they do at home was sometimes difficult. Lessons during the month of September were mainly exploratory, giving students an opportunity to grapple with their choice in order to create a research-based project around their interests.

The flexibility in terms of choice resulted in some truly amazing products from our students, including but not limited to: a video essay about Chance the Rapper’s impact on inner-city Chicago, a remade car engine, a live action lesson on American Sign Language, a live action dog show, and a video essay about “filler” words in the English language – all projects that attest to both the interdisciplinary and self-directed nature of the Personal Project. In May, we held our first IB Personal Project Expo for all of the members of the Dobbs Ferry community. It was a true “coming together” for our town and built even greater momentum around the amazing work that we are doing at DFHS.

Final Thoughts

The MYP PP provides a brilliant opportunity for students to choose something that interests them, grapple with informational sources, and to interact with the community to showcase their hard work. Having students design their personal project via an every other day class is an incredibly useful tool that allows a teacher to guide the research process. The skills from this project are highly transferable, from Global 10 to everyday adult life! Students build critical thinking skills that allow them to assess information and pursue long-term logical arguments. Allowing student choice will ultimately create more independent learners, and the Expo Night during which students showcase their work is a fabulous evening to celebrate achievement. We are already looking forward to our 2018 Expo in the coming months!

The IB Connection: DFHS Science Research

Guest Blogger: Erica Curran (@dfsciresearch) is the Science Research Coordinator at Dobbs Ferry High School in Westchester County, NY.

The science research program at DFHS continues to grow and is currently on par with the most competitive programs in Westchester County. We hired a new science research coordinator, Erica Curran, three years ago and the program has continued to reach new heights as a result. Each year, our students choose specific areas of scientific inquiry and design college-level research studies that are shared locally, nationally, and in some cases internationally. Recently, one of our graduates, Blake Hord, had his work published in The Astrophysical Journal. Please click on the link below to read Blake’s abstract:;

A few years back, Ms. Curran wrote a piece on the science research program at DFHS and the types of skills that students develop through the program. An excerpt from her original piece is below… 

As an IB World School with a science research program that continues to develop and grow, it was also immediately clear to me that students are not only prepared for the rigors of science research due to the IB, but are are also more able to get the most out of their science research experience due to the many “intangible” 21st century skills that they have developed along the way. Some of the specific 21st century skills that students develop through both programs are as follows:

Ownership and Problem Solving: The IB Program describes IB students and teachers as “lifelong learners who develop an intrinsic ownership of their own understanding of the world around them.” I have found that the Science Research Program is able to instill a sense of true excitement and ownership of learning in students as well. The ability of students to choose the topic that they wish to engage in from any number of areas allows them to investigate real-world issues that they find applicable and important. They are also able to delve deeply into areas that would not otherwise be addressed in their academic careers and become “experts” in their respective area by developing an understanding of their topic that rivals all but researchers specializing in their field.  

Critical Thinking and Creativity: While there is a solid structure in place to support and assist students in their skill development in science research, students are ultimately in charge of their own project. They develop their own questions and find their own resources while attempting to answer them.  No two projects are ever the same. Since students are developing their understanding of a different topic, they often become the person most suited to answer the questions that naturally arise. Again, there are mentors and instructors there to support and guide; however, the questions that arise in science research programs are not the kind that can be answered by Google. They are the types of questions that may never be fully answered, though tremendous knowledge can be gained just through the action of attempting to answer it.

Collaboration and Communication: The summer internship aspect of the Science Research Program is integral to the ultimate success of students. Giving the students the support and guidance of top researchers, scientists, and engineers in their field allows each student to have access to experiences that would not otherwise be available to them. Students are required to work closely and effectively with not only each other and their mentors, but often with graduate students and college administrators and other personnel involved with their project. The students learn that research cannot be accomplished in a vacuum or on one’s own, but that it requires significant cooperative work from large groups of individuals all looking at different aspects of the same large, global issue.

Additionally, a large focus of the course is focused on developing each student’s ability to present and communicate their ideas and findings in ways that multiple levels of audiences can access and digest. The student becomes a very real part of the global community that is investigating and researching their chosen topic. Learning how to become a true participant in the global scientific conversation that is occurring in the scientific community is an opportunity that is unique to this program.

Technology & Analysis: Science research students required to become experts in the most commonly used software in colleges and the workforce, such as Microsoft Word, Microsoft PowerPoint and Microsoft Excel. In order to compile and analyze data, generate reports, and present their findings, these tools are significantly depended on. Additionally, each student is exposed and often required to utilize cutting edge technology in their field of research. Tools such as FMRI machines probes that the students find necessary to answer the big questions they have found.

At DFHS, we are fortunate to run two exceptional programs that work in concert with one another. As a result, we find that our students develop into internationally minded individuals who not only posses strong skills in research, but also the necessary 21st century “survival” skills to excel in whatever path they pursue upon graduation. Does your school offer both the IB DP and Science Research? If so, comment below! We’d love to hear your thoughts!

Remembering Coach Mac: “Do What I Mean, Not What I Say”

The following piece has been co-authored with DFHS Dean Scott Patrillo. Mr. Patrillo has taught middle and high school social studies in our district since 2001 and is currently our modified football, varsity basketball, and modified track coach.

History and tradition. Two words that fully capture what Dobbs Ferry is all about. From the murals that adorn our hallways to the our football games at Gould Park, DFHS holds a proud history that truly sets our school community apart from all others. In fact, our school Facebook page regularly welcomes comments and “likes” from so many of our former graduates and community members. Everyone wants to stay connected to Dobbs, and so many graduates choose to stay so that their children can walk the same streets and attend the same schools that they did as kids. There is truly no place like Dobbs Ferry, and perhaps no individual better captures what our town is all about than the late James “Coach Mac” Mackenzie.  

In May of 2006, tragedy struck the Dobbs Ferry Community when we lost our football coach, teacher, mentor, and friend Coach Mac. This loss was not only difficult for his football players, but also the student body and faculty of our high school. Coach Mac made an impact on every individual he encountered here in Dobbs Ferry. His personality was infectious. He had a larger than life aura and it was impossible for any person he met to forget him. Many would say it was his unique look and the “handle bar” mustache. Others might say that it was the fact that he would be wearing shorts on a sub-zero degree day in January. Those that knew him best though would argue that it was because he made every single person he came across feel important.  He made people, no matter who they were, where they came from, what their situation may have been, feel they mattered. He represented caring, unity, togetherness, and community. He represented the very best of Dobbs Ferry. He represented what we are all about, and what we always strive to be.

Coach Mac was also legendary for his sayings. He may have been second only to the immortal Yogi Berra in this department. A favorite was “Do what I mean, not what I say.” His starting quarterback knew this one better than anyone. But the one we remember best here at DFHS is “Who’s better than you?” That saying summed up better than any other what Coach Mac was all about. No matter what anyone has told you, no matter what you might think, “you matter, you’re important, and I care about you.”

So in the summer of 2006, just prior to the start of school, the students at DFHS wanted to do something to honor and thank Coach Mac for all that he had done for them and for this school.  They decided to name our annual field day in his memory, and the following year, on Friday, September 21, 2007, Fox 5 NY had its morning show Good Day NY broadcast live from our turf during our second MAC Day. The school spirit could be felt everywhere throughout town. It was a fitting celebration of Coach Mac, and a wonderful way for our school and community to show everyone what Dobbs was all about.

Fast forward to present day and our school is now prepared for our twelfth MAC Day. This year, and in the spirit of Coach Mac, our students have united to raise money for the victims of the hurricanes from the past month. In doing so, they chose the non-partisan “One America Appeal” because it speaks directly to what Coach Mac was all about–togetherness, community, and helping others. Our current students are already part of our school’s rich history, and they hope to inspire future generations in the same way that past generations have inspired them.

Promoting Togetherness, Unity, and Acceptance in an IB World School

The results (and aftermath) of last year’s presidential election continue to prompt protest, division, and unrest throughout our nation and the world. Just yesterday, a number of players from the NFL refused to stand during the national anthem in a form of protest while other protests have sadly turned violent like the one in Charlottesville this past August. At DFHS, post-election emotions were also running high and our classroom discussions reflected that passion. Our students debated the various issues and, as true IB learners, remained open-minded and respectful of various perspectives and points of view. This is a regular occurrence at DFHS.

Soon after the election, several groups of students inquired about creating co-curricular clubs that espoused specific political agendas with allegiance to particular political parties. As the Head of an IB World School, I did not support the creation of these types of partisan clubs due to their exclusive and potentially divisive nature. As an IB World School, our focus is always on the IB mission of creating a “better and more peaceful world” and the events of this past year have provided us with an ideal opportunity to further promote that message. In doing so, the IB Learner Profile is deeply 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. When talk of the elimination of DACA heated up a few weeks back, we took the opportunity to further support ALL of our students regardless of background. In addition, we invite all of our students to join one of our many co-curricular clubs, including our vibrant International Club, Friends of Rachel (anti-bullying club), 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 four 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 past year 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.” This is specifically the reason why I did not support the creation of partisan-based political clubs that support a specific political party. Following last year’s election, our students generated signs and quotes that were posted throughout the building to reinforce community and tolerance without identifying with particular political parties, 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 and the discussions are ongoing based on events that happen daily. I had the opportunity to sit in on several of these post-election 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. Last year’s election was 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: As part of our upcoming annual school-based “MAC Field Day,” all of our students have joined together to raise money for the victims of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma through the non-partisan charity “One America Appeal” that is directly backed by our past five former Presidents.  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!

Surviving (and completing!) Your Doctoral Program

Ask anyone who has successfully completed a doctoral program about their experience and they will have a story. I know that I have one. Ask anyone who has not and they will also have a story. Their stories will probably be a bit longer. Maybe. The truth is that completing a dissertation is singularly the most challenging task in education. You don’t have to look far to find individuals who entered a doctoral program, failed to complete the dissertation, and now are going with the fall back title of ABD (All But Dissertation).

A recent study by the Ph.D. Completion Project estimates that the ten-year completion rate for doctoral students in the social sciences is 56 percent, and that the number of ABD students continues to increase worldwide. I was part of those negative statistics for a long time. After completing around 90 credits at Teachers College, I took on a new job and had my share of “life getting in the way” moments. Sure enough, the dissertation was put on the back burner and soon my TC career was a thing of the past. Thankfully, Manhattanville College created a program for individuals just like me who were ABD and were interested in finishing the dissertation once and for all. I enrolled in 2014 and successfully defended in January of 2016. In all, the process took me 12 years from when I started at TC in 2004. Phew.

So how can doctoral students avoid becoming just another negative statistic? Here are a few suggestions that I wish I had been told before I got started. Unfortunately I had to learn the hard way…

1) Understand The Doctoral Program: Perhaps the greatest obstacle for students entering a doctoral program is getting past the fact that they have gone through a lifetime of schooling, were likely overachievers all the way back to their first undergraduate class, and have been conditioned to do whatever necessary to earn an “A” on each paper and class. While that level of dedication can certainly be helpful if channeled correctly in a doctoral program, it’s important to recognize that getting an A in all courses will mean nothing without the successful completion of the dissertation. Period. When I started at TC, I didn’t realize that approaching my courses (and program) in the same manner as I had my courses at the master’s level was actually leading to a “hamster on a wheel” effect as I amassed credits but, ironically, made marginal progress toward the successful completion of the degree. When the time came for dissertation seminar, I was essentially starting from scratch and quickly realized that I was still miles away from the finish line. I wasn’t alone on this point, and not surprisingly I saw students pulling back and falling off one by one…adding to the long line of “non-completers” and becoming yet another statistic.

2) Take Courses That Build Your Base: Please don’t misunderstand the point above to mean that the courses that you take at the doctoral level are not important. They are critical! A strong core of courses will not only provide a deep understanding of research methodology, which will be vital when designing a study down the road, but will also transform you into thinking like a critical researcher. This last point is really what it’s all about. So the trick in the early stages is to choose courses that support what will potentially be your research base. In order to do that, you need to be thinking about your dissertation, reflecting upon potential “problems” and questions that need to be answered, and building a base of research that will serve as the potential underpinning of your study.

3) Start Building a Literature Review: Yes, start building your literature review on Day 1 and keep building it until you have narrowed your research problem and research questions to a point where you are heading toward developing your official proposal. The Literature Review is the heart of any research study. It provides the context, the rationale, and answers that critical “who cares?” question. It is also the most daunting part of the dissertation for any doctoral student because the sheer volume of studies can just be overwhelming. Professors often say to “just keep reading until the findings start repeating or trends can be identified.” While that doesn’t seem like very helpful advice, the truth is that it’s the only advice because there is no shortcut. A good literature review can take over a hundred hours to write so the key is to start building one right away. For every study read, log the bibliographic information along with the key findings in a table and keep building the document as you go. You will be happy you did when the time comes to develop and narrow your topic.

4) Stay Focused on the Dissertation: Perhaps the biggest (and most obvious) part of successfully completing a doctoral program is writing your dissertation, so make sure that everything that you do leads to that outcome! In addition to choosing courses and analyzing research that support the necessary academic base that is needed, it’s important to prevent (or limit!) distractions that might get in the way of its completion. Life always seems to get in the way for doctoral students. Whether it’s a new job, starting a family, or a million things in between, there are bound to be distractions that pull you away from writing. While it’s impossible to fully prevent these “life getting in the way” moments, the key is to compartmentalize them so that the dissertation is given its proper place and attention. A dissertation is singularly the most independent task that you will take on. There are no “due dates,” professors will not call you daily to see that you are working, and universities allow the process to drag on for years if that’s the path you choose.

5) Build The Right Committee: This starts with choosing a dissertation sponsor (“committee chair”) who has expertise that will directly support the writing of your dissertation. This can be with regard to content knowledge, methodology, or a combination of both. It’s also super important that you have a sponsor who is responsive with feedback so that you can keep going. The faster you get the feedback, the better off you will be. Once you have a sponsor in place, you should look to round out your committee with individuals who will fill in any gaps that may be lacking so that you are best supported. Just be sure to be thoughtful about selecting committee members. One bad choice can lead to lots of headaches.

And finally…

Just Do It.  

Stop reading this blog right now and start working on your dissertation. Stop procrastinating, stop asking questions, stop thinking, and start researching and writing. Be like Mike. “Just do it.”

Updated for 2017: What’s Most Important on Opening Meeting Days?

It’s hard to believe that the start of another school year is quickly approaching. As school leaders are putting the finishing touches on a summer that was filled with scheduling, staffing, professional development, and a multitude of other tasks that go along with ensuring the successful start of a new school year, teachers and staff are starting to return from a much needed summer break with renewed optimism and a high degree of positive energy as they prepare to meet their new students in only a few short weeks. For school leaders, the first official meeting days for teachers (prior to when students return) are viewed as a critical time to review important school procedures and for professional development that is in-line with the instructional agenda. But what do teachers need? This question is asked far too infrequently and, if unaddressed, can literally sap all of that positive energy in only a few short days. I’ve seen it happen. Last year I wrote a similar post on this topic and am now coming back to it as we prepare to welcome our staff back for another year.

Here’s a short list of some of the things to consider as we prepare to welcome our teachers back. Once again, the narrative has been updated based on the new initiatives and work that we are doing at our school…

1) Collaborate and Plan: Prior to the opening days, it is important to collaborate with leaders in the building to design a practical plan that is both in-line with the vision and mission of the school while giving teachers what they “need” for a smooth opening. This year, I met with our school’s department leaders to not only create a plan for the opening, but also to create departmental and school-wide instructional plans for the upcoming year. In the past, we looked to the work of @JohnCMaxwell since our department leaders’ ability to lead “from the middle”  plays a pivotal role in the overall success of our entire organization. This year, we examined Todd Whitaker’s (@ToddWhitaker) What Great Principals Do Differently and focused our discussion on the importance of making instructional decisions around the individual needs of our teachers, students, and community. 

2) Fulfill Basic Needs: School leaders too often get lost in all that “needs to be covered” and lose sight of the basic needs that teachers have in order to get the year started in a smooth and positive fashion. Think Maslow on this one. “Basic needs” include: supplies, enough desks, working computers and technology, working copiers, paper, textbooks, class rosters, working email, internet access, and of course a clean classroom.

3) Be Available: While this one might seem obvious, there are often a variety of issues and questions that staff members may have as they prepare for the first days of school. Therefore, it is critical that all school leaders (including teacher leaders) are “out and about” and highly visible to both welcome staff and address small concerns before they turn into big ones. While this a fundamental component of effective leadership all year long, it is especially critical on the first days of school.

4) Share the Vision: An opening faculty meeting to reconnect is essential for building a strong community and sense of togetherness among the staff. In doing so, it is important to lead the group in a discussion of past accomplishments while providing a renewed sense of excitement, direction, and purpose. A discussion of the “vision” of the district is also a good way to “connect the dots” for teachers so that they can make better sense of what may at first seem like competing instructional initiatives. At DFHS, for example, we are now a fully authorized IB MYP school, we have an ever-growing IB DP that is guided by our belief in the importance of equity and access, we continue to expand our  1:1 Chromebook program, and are now prepared to implement digital portfolios for the first time. In order to avoid what can easily be perceived as a “flavor of the week” situation within the school, it’s important to connect all of the smaller parts to the larger vision of the school (and district) so that they can be viewed interdependent as opposed to exclusive of one another.

5) Allow for Teacher Collaboration: The first days are a critical time for colleagues to collaborate as they prepare to meet their students for the first time. This one falls under the “basic needs” umbrella but goes beyond supplies to what is most important of all: students. During the opening days, teachers need to meet with co-teachers, counselors, and department members to review student IEPs, analyze student data, plan upcoming lessons, design pre-assessments, and a variety of other tasks. All of this “upfront” work is essential and will make a tangible difference for each student if it is done thoughtfully and carefully.

6) Time, Time, and More Time: The idea that teachers need (and want!) as much time as possible should not come as a surprise since there is such a high degree of preparation that goes into getting ready for the first days of classes (see above). Given that, it is surprising that school leaders often “miss the boat” on this and instead inundate teachers and staff with meetings that run too long and professional development that would be much better received a week or two into the school year. Think quality over quantity and plan accordingly.

Why IB? (#IBORL2017)

This year’s IB Global Conference (#IBORL2017) in the beautiful city of Orlando is buzzing with energy as IB educators are sharing their stories, experiences, and examples of best practice. As a school leader, it’s always rejuvenating to attend this conference and being here with colleagues from my home district only adds to the experience. In addition to “spreading out” to as many sessions as possible and sharing notes via Google Docs, we are also thrilled to present at this year’s conference on the topic of “IB for All” (Friday, 3:45, Palazzo C). It was an honor for us to be chosen and we are looking forward to adding to the “IB Story” while having the opportunity to expand our own professional network.

In 2013, I wrote a piece after the conference in New Orleans that attempted to answer the “Why IB?” question. Four years later, it’s not much of a question for me. It’s more of a no-brainer. Since that conference, our school (and district) has not only doubled our overall participation in the IB Diploma Program, but we are now fully authorized in the IB Middle Years Program (MYP). To put it plainly, we are “all in” with regard to IB and we believe that all of our students are better prepared as a result of attending an IB World School.

So “Why IB?” Here’s why…

It Promotes International Mindedness: The curriculum and pedagogy of the IB focuses on international perspectives while emphasizing the importance of students exploring their home culture and language. A fundamental IB principle is for students to “think globally and act locally.” In Dobbs Ferry, this mindset has prompted our students to make incredible contributions within our village while allowing them to focus on the implications of their actions on a global level. Over the past few years we have also seen a rise in both new students and exchange students from around the world who have chosen to attend our school because we are an IB World School. This new development has not added to the richness and diversity of our school community, but has further allowed our students to examine all core disciplines from multiple perspectives and respective “ways of knowing.”

21st Century Learning: The theme of this year’s conference, “Inspiring Communities,” speaks once again to the IB’s commitment to preparing students with the skills needed for success beyond the brick and mortar of schools so that they may make a difference in all corners of the world. Approaches to Learning and 21st century skills such as adaptability, problem solving, initiative, curiosity, communication, and collaboration are at the heart of the conversations at this year’s conference. The world that students are now entering is radically different from only a few years ago as this generation will now compete for jobs and services that are yet to exist and probably won’t for at least another ten years. The IB Program was ahead of its time from its inception and is now “taking off” due to the ever-changing demands and an increasingly interdependent global market.

Beyond the Common Core: While taking even a cursory look at the IB standards for learning, one would notice that the goals and core values of the IB are in genuine alignment with the aims and desired outcomes of the common core. In fact, the IB was one of five programs that the developers of the CCSS looked to as an example of exemplary learning standards. Both the IB and the CCSS are aligned in that both focus on inquiry, text complexity, evidence-based arguments, real-world application, and deep conceptual understanding. Interestingly, the CCSS are not a major topic of conversation at this year’s conference since the transition was such a smooth one for all IB World Schools. This was certainly the case in Dobbs Ferry as well.

The Program is Fully Inclusive: Perhaps the greatest quality of the IB Program is that all students receive meaningful and equitable access to the curriculum. At our school, for example, all students enroll in at least two IB DP courses, we have doubled the number of exams that we have registered students for over the past three years (average of 3 per student), and all students will fully access the MYP and complete a Personal Project. In addition, the qualities that are outlined in the IB Learner Profile are embedded in all classes in grades 6-12 and are central to the vision and mission of our district.

The Research is Growing: A great deal of research has been conducted by the IB and outside agencies to determine the degree to which students are prepared for success in the more competitive colleges and universities in the world. Findings repeatedly show that IB students are not only accepted at higher rates, but graduate within four years at a higher percentage and with higher overall grade point averages. This point has been verified to us by our own graduates who come back to our school each year to discuss the high level of preparation that they had as a result of the IB DP and how, in some instances, they felt “over-prepared.” Check out the post “Why IB: Student Perspectives” (12/20/13) for more on this.

The IB Community: IB teachers are members of a special community of educators from around the world. As such, teachers are able to network and collaborate with colleagues that are both local and overseas. This year’s conference is just another example of that. In addition to traditional “training,” all IB teachers participate in roundtable discussions with colleagues from local schools and have access to the Online Curriculum Centre (OCC). This resource provides IB teachers with resources, updates, support areas for special education, access to online subject specialists, and an opportunity to connect with other IB teachers.

IB for All: A Special Educator’s Story

Sarah Grosso is a Special Education (English) teacher at Dobbs Ferry High School, NY, and will be a member of our presentation team at #IBORL2017 on Friday in Palazzo C at 3:45 (“IB for All: The Dobbs Ferry Story”). As part of the DFHS mission of promoting IB for All, all students at DFHS enroll in a minimum of two IB DP courses with approximately 25% of our students pursuing the full IB Diploma. Sarah is a special education co-teacher in our IB English SL courses. Here’s her story…

My name is Sarah Grosso and I am a special educator at Dobbs Ferry High School in New York. I am dual certified in Special Education and English. I co-teach both year 1 and 2 of the Standard Level Language A: Literature course. I am honored to be here and enthusiastic to share with you my amazing and unique experiences working within the IB curriculum.

I began teaching at Dobbs Ferry back in 2008. This was a time when the IB program was isolated and included only a small elite group of students. Being that my role was as a special educator, it was foreign to me. In 2010 there was an open opportunity for all teachers to become trained in the IB. Two of my close colleagues in the English Department encouraged me to go to a training with them. We traveled to Toronto for my first immersion into the world of IB. The training was eye-opening. Sitting through close-reading exercises and grappling with literature in a multitude of ways was so relevant to the non-IB classes that I taught at that time. This experience strengthened my ability to be a true co-teacher in the classroom and also showed me how to make all of my students better prepared to analyze literature.

Bringing Language A: Literature at the standard level was presented at an English department meeting in 2013 by Dr. Falino (@johnfalino1) and Ms. Halberg (@MegHalberg). The English teacher part of me was excited to have the opportunity to finally teach an IB course. The Special Education teacher part of me was apprehensive due to our model of full inclusion. Would my students be able to successfully navigate this rigorous curriculum? Would I now co-teach courses that were both fully inclusive and IB?

My co-teacher and I launched the first year of the Language A: Literature SL course in the fall of 2014. Dr. Falino granted us paid summer professional development days to work together and break down parts 1 and 4 of the course in a way that would be meaningful for all of our students. We spent time looking for common language between the 10th grade non-IB curriculum this group of students had received and the new curriculum. We created homework menus that asked students to analyze the literature through the IB guiding questions. We created mini-writing tasks that modeled the World Literature Paper, and we created templates and models using the assigned 10th grade texts to model new ways of collecting and analyzing evidence from the literature.

During the year we spent our planning periods creating differentiated activities to make the material both manageable and challenging. I spent a great deal of time building templates for students with special needs so that they could access the curriculum and successfully complete the assessments. We had the students complete mini-presentations to prepare for the Individual Oral Presentations at the end of Part 4 (Semester 2). What I came to learn so quickly in this endeavor is that IB fits with special education masterfully. At the midyear point we had 100% of our students complete the World Literature paper at the Standard Level. At the end of the year we had 100% of the students successfully complete an Individual Oral presentation. The summer planning time and common prep time for my co-teacher and me were essential ways the administration supported us in this endeavor.

My favorite moment during that year as a special educator was watching one of my students complete his Individual Oral Presentation. He chose to demonstrate his knowledge of The Great Gatsby in an analytical format. This boy had been dealing with significant speech and language deficits his entire life. He put so much effort into organizing his information and also practicing to ensure that he scored well on the presentation portion. This particular student’s presentation outshined many of the general education students in the class. He was confident, funny, rehearsed, and knowledgeable. At the close of our first year I felt in my heart that this student truly and completely embodied the traits of an IB learner. I was ecstatic when I was scheduled to co-teach the second year and see these students through the second part of this curriculum.

Last year our IB Coordinator offered me the opportunity to attend a training on the IB Approaches to Learning. Here I gained a fresh way to go back and look at my current units and see how I could enhance them with 21st century skills.

This year I was asked to teach a section of Life Skills for students with significant cognitive needs. The Director of Special Education for the district encouraged me to include the IB style of teaching into this course in order to enhance our fully inclusive philosophy. I started the year teaching our students about the IB Learner traits. We created songs surrounding each trait and did posters of pictures that symbolized each trait. As we moved through units such as stress management, appropriate dress, and conversational skills, I asked the students to evaluate what type of trait they were currently demonstrating. My ATL training really came into play when planning lessons for this course. Thinking about these approaches as I designed a new course applied even to students with significant cognitive needs. When we started the year, no one in the class even knew what IB was. Now concluding our first year of this course, all of our students can tell you his and her strengths and weaknesses as they pertain to the IB Learner traits and are better equipped with 21st century skills due to lesson designs using Approaches to Learning.

One of my students from that class who is classified with Autism was also in my IB SL Language A: Literature Year 1 class. For his Individual Oral Presentation he chose to demonstrate his knowledge of Tennessee Williams’s play ​Cat on a Hot Tin Roof​ in a creative format. He started off by singing Frank Sinatra’s song “My Way”. He then did a presentation where he compared quotations surrounding the character of Big Daddy to each stanza of Sinatra’s hit. The class cheered when he was finished and he dropped the mic.

This is our third cycle of running the fully inclusive standard level English and we still have not had one single student with special needs fail to complete any of the assessments. Taking this course as well as the IB Math studies course has given our students more confidence to embrace challenges and to feel less isolated from their peers. It has also encouraged some students with 504 plans and IEPs to demonstrate the risk-taker learner trait by enrolling in other IB courses, such as TOK. So my apprehensions in my role as special educator have quickly faded. I enjoy attending IB roundtables in my unique role and sharing my experiences to others who may be nervous about embarking on a similar journey.