By Bill Henk – I’ve often thought that my nutty schedule resembles what high school principals must endure almost every day.
Their routines involve early morning duties, full work days, after school tasks, and special evening events that often run late. They also give up a lot of weekends for their jobs. Elementary and middle school principals frequently do the same. In other words, they don’t get to see their families very much.
Neither do I.
And that’s why giving up a Saturday or Sunday for a professional meeting of any kind never exactly thrills me. Oh sure, I work a lot almost every weekend anyway, but at least it’s mostly at home, and I always make some time for my wife and daughter.
This past Saturday carried all the trappings of a weekend commitment that would cut notably into my family time once again. It would take a VERY special event for me to feel differently. And guess what? I got it — in the form of a truly memorable professional development (PD) day for the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS).
Fact is, I really didn’t know what to expect from the MPS Celebration of the Profession. My reason for attending centered primarily on showing support for both the district and the four College of Education faculty members who were making literacy-related presentations, Drs. Karen Evans, Terry Brecklin, Pat Ellis, and Terry Burant. Alhough I’ve attended quite a few MPS events over the years, I’ve only participated in one other professional development day per se, as a presenter myself.
Believe me, that role completely changes one’s experience of a PD event. This time around I participated “merely” as an interested observer. By the end of my visit, however, I left feeling thoroughly impressed, grateful for the opportunity, deeply invested, and appreciated by MPS colleagues to boot. Let me explain.
Early To Rise and a Pleasant Surprise
Around 6 a.m. I dragged myself out of bed — not my idea of a fun way to start a Saturday morning. It had been a long week, and the prospect of driving 45 minutes from my home to Cardinal Stritch University, the site of the MPS professional development day, didn’t amount to one I welcomed. In any case, I said goodbye to my wife and daughter around 7:00 and headed out on my trek.
The drive was uneventful, but parking turned out to be something of a challenge. Why? Because nearly 400 MPS teachers and administrators attended the event! They were all there to learn more about literacy strategies and the Common Core State Standards, and how those entities could come together in the district’s Comprehensive Literacy Plan (CLP).
At the registration desk, everyone in attendance, including me, received a ring binder entitled, “Literacy Lesson Planning Resources” that not only included event info, but more importantly, included all of the Common Core State Standards, materials for unit and lesson planning, and various other helpful content related to text structures, instructional technology, and differentiation, as well as a library guide. No kidding, that notebook alone pretty much made my early morning adventure worthwhile, because I try to keep up with my chosen field of literacy whenever I can.
For the record, under the Common Core adoption, every teacher in Wisconsin will be expected to integrate literacy more frequently and more intensely into their classroom instruction. In addition, their school leaders will be held accountable for seeing that this implementation occurs. That’s why there were plenty of middle and senior high school teachers, principals, and subject area specialists participating in the workshops.
Anyway, beginning at the registration desk, and then all day long a funny thing happened. Every time I encountered an MPS teacher or administrator I knew or met a new professional acquaintance who learned about my job at MU, they reacted the same way. Each one thanked me for coming and for the participation of our Marquette faculty as workshops leaders. It drove home a point I already knew — that MPS always appreciates our College of Education being present to the district.
Also for the record, the morning program included two of our Marquette College of Education alumni. Tina Flood, Acting Executive Director of Curriculum and Instruction for MPS, gave opening remarks, and Peter Jonas, a Professor at Cardinal Stritch gave a very engaging keynote address. Dr. Jonas’s remarks were relevant, funny, and memorable, a perfect stage-setter for an event of this kind.
In between Tina and Peter, Dr. Freda Russell, Dean of the College of Education and Leadership at Cardinal Stritch gave a warm welcome to the crowd. Then she turned the floor over to Superintendent Gregory Thornton who addressed the audience of MPS educators for about 20 minutes.
Make no mistake, Dr. Thornton is an extraordinary public speaker — dynamic, energetic, passionate, and sincere. He spoke without a note, and even so, his comments struck me as being important, timely, potent, and masterfully ordered. When he recounted the deaths of five MPS students this past year, he was solemn; yet he deftly employed humor at other points.
The leader of MPS clearly knew how to connect with his audience, and trust me, that is no small feat with superintendents when they address their professional staffs. Maybe I misread the crowd, but it seemed to me that they really liked and appreciated Dr. Thornton as a gifted, experienced, caring urban educator. Only a popular superintendent, one who takes off his tie and rolls up his sleeves, as Dr. Thornton did that morning, can stir and uplift teachers in the way I witnessed.
Getting Down to Business
After the general session, I participated in a workshop that focused on how “Common Core” teachers might orchestrate daily lessons for their students. The session proved to be a fine one, with the presenters effectively modeling for our group of educators several strategic and imaginative learning activities that promoted deep thinking. Through simulation, all of us gained a much better sense of what teaching and learning under the new paradigm could look like in practice.
There’s no question that I benefited professionally from the session, but most of all I just enjoyed rubbing shoulders with MPS teachers. I found them to be extremely bright, thoughtful, and passionate professionals. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not like these attributes came as a big surprise. However, the teachers’ comments demonstrated uncommonly keen insights, and their questions were astute and genuinely thought-provoking. Honestly, being in their company amounted to an honor for me.
Let’s face it, teachers throughout Wisconsin have had to endure harsh criticism in the past year or so, and none more so than those who toil in MPS. The media would have us believe the exact opposite of what I believe to be true, namely that the overwhelming majority of teachers are knowledgeable, skilled, dedicated, and unselfish. To my mind, these educators qualify as heroes and heroines who fight the good fight every day against the ravages of poverty and a preponderance of other factors that make education in an urban school setting a chronic and formidable challenge.
Even so, the true teacher champions are never looking to make excuses; they come to professional development days looking for answers that they can apply in their classrooms. And I think they got a lot of guidance at this particular event, which I also hope helped to affirm them for the noble profession they’ve chosen to embrace.
Let me conclude by saying that two elements almost always accompany great schools. Admittedly, this is not rocket science, but somehow these obvious factors often get lost in the discussion. The first element is a great leader, and I know this condition to a certainty based upon my 45 years in education. In my entire career, I’ve NEVER ONCE once seen an exemplary school without an exceptional leader.
The second element revolves around having great teachers. You see, in the end, research clearly shows that the most important factor influencing student achievement is the caliber of the teacher. It’s not the method or the curriculum or the type of school or class size or students’ race, culture, or socioeconomic status — or anything else for that matter. Teachers exert the greatest impact. Period.
Given those two elements, you can understand why professional development events like the one I profited from on Saturday are so vitally important. Borrowing a page from the Papa John’s playbook, it’s this simple: Better educators, better learning.
So, to sum up, I congratulate MPS on an outstanding learning opportunity that was well worth my while, but MUCH more importantly, from which school children will clearly prosper.