Fostering Positive Staff Morale

google-76522_960_720By Nick McDaniels

Lately, I have been listening to Laszlo Bock’ book Work Rules! on tape (I don’t want you to think I actually read during the summer). Mr. Bock is the Senior VP of People Operations at Google. While I rarely ever read or listen to self help, better-your-life, or better-your-company texts, this one, because it came out of Google, a company with a reputation for doing things differently in a lot of ways, but particularly as an employer, struck me as one that was worth checking out.

Some of it is certainly preachy, in that way that my generation, millenials, are preachy, by stating opinions as truth but being so cut-your-heart-out honest about everything, that everyone just wants to believe your words.

But some of it, the honesty of it, the statistical, research-based approach of Google’s People Operations, gave me a ton to think about that I could extrapolate to a school setting.

One of the thoughts I had while listening to Mr. Bock was inspired by his description of how Google’s employees, Googlers, helped shape one another, positively, through well-structured ways the Google allows co-workers to provide feedback to one-another.

In schools often, we don’t structure such time very well, or, if we do, it is done in a mentorship capacity, where there is still a veteran/novice dichotomy.

So I started to think of ways in which staff members of a school, operating at the same employment level (i.e. as teachers), could help support one another to improve staff morale.

Well, teachers, because the job is so challenging, often have to put their head down, work as hard as they can, just to take care of their own responsibilities. Because of this, they are often not able to support or lift up one another. This creates silos of isolation, which crushes morale, as everyone struggles alone.

As one simple suggestion, school administration, or a group of teachers, on a bi-weekly basis, could place blank greeting cards in teachers mail-boxes, and encourage, even by modeling, teachers to take the time, once every two weeks to write a nice note to a colleague. Perhaps, the note could contain a congratulations, a thank you, a note of support. Such a gesture, if structured in a regular way and performed consistently, would undoubtedly find its way ingrained into the school’s culture and would, in my opinion, boost morale. The key is though, that the effort must be structured and supported collectively, must not be mandatory, but must be made easy-to-complete.

This is, of course, one idea of the many that could flow from the important lesson of allowing same-level employees to support each other, improve each other, and build a positive staff culture through well-structured and consistent mechanisms.

I’m excited to think of more ideas in line with this thought. If you have one, please leave a comment.



In search of a career…

CareersBy: Dhanya Nair

I wasn’t too keen on studying career counseling this summer, however it turned out be a valuable experience as it led me to carry out some self-exploration. The course also made me think consciously about the process of choosing a career and the way in which our careers affect and are affected by our unique life circumstances. Choosing a career/vocation is one of the toughest developmental tasks faced by teenagers and young adults, in my opinion. Our choice of career not only impacts our quality of life; it also influences the narrative we build about ourselves.

I grew up in India, where career decisions more often than not involve the entire family. Career choices in India are often influenced by the needs of the family; if a family needs financial stability, then the children of the family, especially the older ones, are encouraged to find a vocation which would ensure a steady source of income. The Indian education system, according to me, also plays a role in truncating career options as it encourages students to choose between the sciences and arts during high school. I was a very confused teenager when it came to choosing a career because I felt a sharp lack of congruence between my inherent abilities and the expectations of my family. There continues to be a lack of adequate career exploration among Indian teenagers and young adults and this saddens me a lot.

In contrast, the American education system does offer more scope for exploring careers and seeking personal fit with various occupations. However, America is becoming increasingly diverse and hence there is a need to combine personal agency with students’ cultural background. There is an increasing body of cross-cultural research in the field of careers, and I find this very encouraging. However, I feel that several of these studies do not include a historical perspective regarding the development of attitudes to careers in a particular culture. For example, several research studies show that among first and second generation Asian immigrant adolescents, considerations of prestige and financial stability are paramount. I would like the consumer of this information to also take into account the colonial history shared by many Asian countries, in the post-colonization period most citizens of such nations found that a career in fields like medicine or engineering, which were important for nation-building, were the surest paths to attaining prosperity.

As I reflect on ending this piece cogently, I think about the social nature of humans. At no point in time are we isolated beings, our actions constantly influence and are influenced by people around us and our social milieu. As a result, we find ourselves in a constant state of flux. As a future counselor, I hope to be able to help students and youth realize the importance of embracing their unique life experiences, life-transitions, and uncertainty as strengths and resources to draw from when making career choices.

What constitutes a “real parent”?

family-492891_960_720By Sabrina Bartels

One of my nieces on Rob’s side recently met my parents during our move. When I saw her the next day, she whispered to me, “Brina, why don’t you look like your parents?”

It’s funny that she would ask me this, since it is something I haven’t thought about in quite a while. When I was her age (around three,) I remember fixating on the fact that I don’t look a thing like my parents. It wasn’t a secret – I’m Asian, and my parents are Caucasian – but it was a thought that constantly nagged at me. While all my other friends could say that they looked just like their mom when she was a baby, or that he had his grandmother’s eyes, I could just meekly offer that I have my mom’s love of cooking.

What really brought all of this wondering to a head was when people would ask me the question I hate the most in the world: “Who are your real parents?” They would ask me this after that all-important talk about genetics in middle school, when my dad dropped me off at soccer practice, or when I introduced my friends to my mom. My friends’ eyes would widen as they took in my parents’ blue eyes, my mom’s pale skin, my dad’s height. And then they would whisper that question to me in the back of the car, in the hallways, over the phone.

I have a lot of students who experience the same thing, but in slightly different situations. Some of my students are raised by their grandparents, or other relatives. Some are adopted, like me. Some live with foster families; some live in homeless shelters without either parent. There are students raised by stepparents, and students raised by older siblings. And sometimes, there are a lot of tears and wondering “Who are my parents?” There is confusion about who to call dad, whether it’s okay to call a stepparent by their first name, whether grandma can sign the permission slip that asks for a parent’s signature. It brings up this constant question of who qualifies as a parent, and what that term “parent” means.

So, here is my answer.

Your parents – and let me emphasize the fact that I’m saying YOUR “REAL” PARENTS – are the people who love and care about you. They are the people who are there for you whenever you need them, whether you have a fever of 102 degrees at 3 in the morning, or just need someone to talk to. They are the ones who teach you how to ride a bike, and who instill those morals and values in you. Your parents are the ones who sacrifice so much for you, but yet never really feel like it’s a sacrifice because it’s for your good.

I’m not a parent yet. But here’s what I always thought: being a parent goes way beyond just being called Mom and Dad. It’s what someone does and how they act that makes a person a parent. Whether the person you call Mom is the one who gave birth to you, or the person who raised you as far back as you remember, it doesn’t matter. Mom and Dad are titles that you, as an individual, get to bestow upon the person you feel is your mom and dad. You can choose who you want to give that honor to. That could be your biological parents. It could be your adoptive parents. It could be your foster parent. It could be your grandparent.

For me, my “real” parents are the parents who raised me. They are the ones who taught me right from wrong. My dad is the person who, when I was five, drove out to Madison to find a stuffed animal of my favorite cartoon character. My mom is the person who would stay up all hours of the night helping me with my homework and college applications.

And as for looking like my parents, I have come to terms with the fact that I will never have my dad’s height, or my mom’s eyes. However, there are a lot of other things I have that are just like them:

  • I have my dad’s love of sports, particularly football.
  • I have my mom’s passion for cooking.
  • I have my mom’s attention to detail.
  • I have my dad’s sense of humor.
  • Like both my parents, I can be fiercely stubborn, especially when it’s something I really believe in.
  • I hate onions like my dad.
  • I love art like my mom (though I am nowhere near the artist she is!)

My students have learned that being like someone can go beyond just looks. It goes beyond genetics. It can also be the lessons you’ve acquired through the years, and the habits you’ve picked up from those who raised you. The people who have done all of these things for you are your real parents.

For the Love of Reading

books-933333_960_720By Stephanie Nicoletti

Recently, I have been participating in a book club for  The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller. She discusses how important it is for students to have an actual love for reading, and how teachers can instill that in their students.

When I look back at my own elementary reading experiences, I think of everyone reading the same book in a whole group setting followed by many worksheets. I often wonder how much more I would have enjoyed school if these classroom practices were NOT around:

Reading Logs: As an adult reader I never track how much or how long I read. I find time to read because I simply enjoy it. I think if we want our students to love reading and read on their own, willingly, we need to promote this in the classroom. Sure, we want to hold them accountable, but this can be done through book talks and book clubs.

“You HAVE to finish this book!”: There are so many times I have not finished a book because I simply did not like it. I remember vividly in school, even high school, being required to read and finish a novel that I hated. Children should be allowed to abandon a book when they are just not that into it. This takes tapping into student interest to make sure book abandonment doesn’t happen on the regular.

One Size Fits All: The days of a one size fits all curriculum are over with ranging levels and high achieving standards. Using one book with a class and follow up worksheets will not allow for student growth and achievement. Children are so different than they were in the past and need to be engaged all of the time. When engagement and differentiation work hand in hand, the possibilities are endless.

So what should we do? I cannot sit here and preach all of the problems in reading instruction without giving a solution. The solution is choice. This is what students want the most, let them choose the books they want to read and when. There are so many things we expect of our students that we would never do ourselves.

Confessions of a Secret Montessorian

By Claudia Felske

I’ll be sharing a right of passage with my son this year: he’ll be entering high school, and in a few short weeks, I’ll be his teacher. (I suspect you’ll be reading a post or two about how that goes!)  He’ll also face another transition as he leaves behind his 11 years of Montessori and takes his first step into public education, a slew of new beginnings for mother and son.  

Wait, did you catch that? You might want to re-read the previous paragraph because couched among some fairly cliche sentiments about rights of passage was a raw admission. Did you detect the hypocrisy? Did you smell the sacrilege? A public school teacher blogging all this time about public education while sending her own child to a Montessori school! The shame!

ncm group

I remember the first time I tried to explain it to someone. I was on lunch duty, standing next to a colleague and friend of mine who asked where Eliot would be going to school. He was maybe 5 at the time. “He’ll keep going to Nature’s Classroom Montessori for now,” I remarked, going on to explain how we had never planned on sending him to a private school, but that because Montessori had been such a perfect fit for him, we couldn’t imagine pulling him from a place that had become home. I explained how I felt hypocritical about it as a public school teacher who believes in public education. I added, hoping for redemption, that he would likely be coming to our high school when the time came. She laughed at my very long and defensive answer. “Sounds like the perfect place for him,” she said and meant it. I exhaled.   

It’s true that Eliot has the questionable fortune of being born to two public school teachers. It’s true that we never planned on going the Montessori route. It’s also true that initially we felt like traders sending him to Montessori over our local school district. See, here’s what happened: when Eliot was 3, counting ceiling tiles when we picked him from daycare, it was clear he was ready for a more challenging environment. When a friend told us about Nature’s Classroom Montessori, we went for an observation and never left.

That day, we observed Miss Erin’s room, which we quickly dubbed “The Zen Room.” It was an amazing sight: 3, 4 and 5-year-olds manipulating objects to learn numeric concepts, tracing and placing alphabetical letters into stories, preparing their own snacks, cleaning their work spaces. The level of independence and engagement was astounding. It was an environment in which Eliot soon thrived.

As parents and as teachers, what we saw that day was what we both had struggled to create in our own classrooms: independent learners fully engaged and invested in their own learning. And what we saw wasn’t the doing of an individual teacher; it was the systemic use of Montessori methods in the Montessori environment. We were in awe.  
We watched Eliot’s first class concert later that year. As his classmates proudly belted out their songs, some clapping, some waving to their parents, there stood Eliot, not saying or singing a word. When we talked to his teacher afterwards, she was not at all concerned. He’ll come around when he’s ready, and she was right. And that’s what it his Montessori experience has been like: we’ve watched him grow through the years from a non-singer to concert emcee his final year. This was a school where his social-emotional well being was as important as his academics: through the years we all worked (teacher, parents, and Eliot) on his ability to work in groups, take responsibility for his actions, and organize his work.

How could we pull him from Montessori? We couldn’t, and didn’t. It was simply the best place for him. Maria Montessori said “One test of the correctness of educational procedure is the happiness of the child.” And by that measure, he wasn’t going anywhere.

You may be asking yourself What exactly is Montessori? Here’s a crash course: In the early 1900’s Maria Montessori, an Italian physician studied children who had been deemed non-learners.  Through careful observation, she created an environment in which they thrived. Her method, now known as Montessori, provides flexible and carefully constructed work space and materials, utilizing a constructivist philosophy where children engage in “practical play,” learning through discovery with teacher guidance rather than direct teacher instruction.

7I asked Eliot today what Montessori did for him. “It made me, me,” he said, with an implied “duh!” (he is 14 after all). Details that stick for him? Journaling in nature. Being farm manager. Playing William Shakespeare. Studying marine biology in the Florida Keys, and indigenous cultures in New Mexico. Explaining the cube of quadrinomials. Historical simulations. Writing and acting in plays. His magnum opus paper.

So here’s the weird part, where past meets present; alternative meets traditional; mother meets son.  Any teacher or administrator in education today will recognize the following buzzwords (causing some perhaps to shudder a bit): personalization, student-centered classroom, problem-based learning, standards-based grading. Open any educational journal or attend any educational conference, and these words will dominate the articles written and the sessions offered. These concepts—here’s the weird part—are and always have been evident, in mastery form, in the Montessori classroom. They are the pmf-wordle-largerreasons my husband and I were in awe that day when we observed “the zen room.”

The truth is Montessori has much to teach us. As a teacher, It is my hope that as personalization, student-centered classrooms, and problem-based learning continue to be examined, the best of Montessori will trickle into the public school realm. As a mother, it is my hope that they will continue to be part of Eliot’s high school  experience in my classroom and others. 

Ready or not, Eliot, here we go.


Week Five Reading Olympics — Closing Ceremonies

By Charlotte Adnams
Students waved farewell to the end of the LIVE TO DREAM program on Thursday, July 14!

The LIVE TO DREAM Summer Reading Program ended this week with a celebration of all of the students’ hard work in the program. Students enjoyed an ice cream party on the Wednesday before the program’s end date, in honor of their progress on their assessments. Each student earned the ice cream and varying toppings by proving progress as they moved up in their various reading and writing assessments throughout the five-week program. On Thursday, July 14 the 60 second and third grade students were joined by Marquette’s mens basketball team and returning special guest, Tragil Wade, for field games and lunch at Central Mall. The students spent the their celebration tossing water balloons with their MUBB partner and racing golf balls on spoons across the field.

Marquette men’s basketball joined the students at Central Mall for water balloon games and competition.

The students had a fun day after a month of growing in their reading and writing skills. The Dwyane Wade LIVE TO DREAM Summer Reading Program gave the students a platform to learn and excel, enhancing both their reading and writing skills. It was an experience of confidence and growth that these sixty young students will remember and grow upon in their future.

Our readers are #1!

As I was able to watch the learning process and the growth of the students, I want to say a special shout out and “great job!” to the twelve Wade Coaches, each of their mentors, everyone who worked with and supported the program within the College of Education, and the Wade’s World Foundation for this program and its impact on the students. Though I saw only glimpses of the program throughout the five weeks, the dedication and commitment to these students’ growth was evident in all aspects of the program. Until next year!

Social Thinking: Building up your social skills brain

27561744813_fce19082af_zBy Sabrina Bartels

For the past two Wednesdays, I’ve been fortunate enough to participate in a professional development opportunity centered around Social Thinking. Two of our speech and language pathologists have been hosting it, and it has been amazing!

The concept of Social Thinking was pioneered by Michelle Garcia Winner, and revolves around social skills. The curriculum involved is targeted towards our students who are usually average to above average intelligence, but struggle with interacting in social situations. Some students may be rude, or very self-centered, or have very big reactions to very small problems. The majority of the time, these students don’t understand that this is not a typical reaction for the situation.

I am a big fan of the TV show “The Big Bang Theory.” I could watch that show morning, noon, and night, and still find things to laugh about. If you know the show (and even if you don’t,) you have probably heard of Dr. Sheldon Cooper, played by Jim Parsons. Sheldon is someone that often comes up in our Social Thinking class, since he frequently demonstrates social skills deficits. He appears very self-centered; he often turns conversations with his friends to focus on himself. He can be rude towards his friends, saying that they are not as smart as him. He can also perseverate on little things (one memorable episode involved him chanting “You forgot your flash drive” for several minutes!)

But with Sheldon, and with the scenarios we discuss in our professional development, people who have these deficits often don’t realize it. Or, if they realize it, they are not sure how to handle it. I think in particular of a student I had this past year, who really seemed to struggle with making friends and being appropriate in social situations. To join conversations, he would shout, or make loud, obnoxious noises to get other people to notice him before joining in on the conversation. It mystified his teachers and me; he was a brilliant student who took some advanced classes in middle school. How was it that this smart kiddo didn’t understand that he couldn’t just honk like a goose to join a conversation?

It wasn’t his fault. And he didn’t disobey our directives to start acting like a middle school student when he did these things. He was trying, he really was. But after taking this class, I realize this went way beyond a behavioral thing. It was something he just struggled to understand, and he needed someone to teach and reinforce his social skills.

Also, picture yourself in a middle school. Think of all the different social situations that come up. Think of all the goofy, yet still acceptable behavior that you may see. The tricky thing about social situations is that there is no one statement that can account for every single social situation you are in. Sometimes, it’s okay to tease your best friend, but sometimes it isn’t. Even think about this in your own life. For example, my husband and I went to “rival” colleges: Marquette and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. We constantly tease each other about who went to the better school. We do it in good fun (and it helps that both my in-laws were Marquette grads as well!). However, if someone else would say the same things to one of us, there is a good chance we’d be insulted. It’s so hard to instruct someone about their social skills, since there are so many nuances.

This class has really opened up my eyes to some of the additional challenges students face. I think about my students who were seen as rude or mean, but they didn’t realize how they were coming across. How many of my students flew under the radar in this regard? How many of my soon-to-be 6th graders have a hard time being successful in social situations, and are frustrated that they can’t seem to get the hang of it? Using Social Thinking is definitely something I want to remember, and possibly even try with some of my students.

If you are as interested in Social Thinking as I am, you can check out the official website of Social Thinking here.

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