Lisbon Elementary School on August 31, 2015.

Welcome Back!

I am thrilled to welcome you back for a wonderful new school year. We’ve worked hard over the summer to make this school year even better for our staff and the students we serve.

I am committed to leading this great school system with a call to action grounded in equity. Every child has individual needs that require different supports, which is why we must place equity and responsiveness for every person at the foundation of all decisions and actions. We must take care of our most vulnerable young people by believing that every child can and will learn.

Here in Howard County, we understand that to teach a child well, you must know a child well. This week, the Howard County Public School System (HCPSS) is supporting schools in building meaningful relationships through community-building classroom engagements. Teachers throughout HCPSS will offer lessons and activities that:

  • establish classrooms as communities
  • emphasize each individual’s contribution to the classroom community
  • set up norms for respectful, trusting and safe engagement in the community
  • and define equity and what it looks, sounds and feels like in our community.

In my first few months, we’ve already been on an amazing journey to set the course in preparing every Howard County public student for the best possible start in life. I invite you to watch the video below to hear how we can create a more nurturing and inclusive environment that empowers every student to achieve.

Thank you for everything you do to prepare each student for a happy, healthy and prosperous future.

Please join in the first week of school celebrations by sharing photos on social media with the hashtag: #NewDayHCPSS.

Mecah Washington, Paraeducator, Ducketts Lane Elementary School

The Importance of Paraeducators

The Howard County Public School System (HCPSS) is fortunate to have a team of tremendously talented and dedicated educators in every school. Paraeducators–who provide extra individualized attention and instructional assistance–are critical in ensuring every public school student in Howard County succeeds. The Board of Education and I have a shared commitment to support staff, as we recently added 87 paraeducator and media paraeducator positions to next year’s budget.

Our belief in the paraeducator’s importance for student learning and behavioral outcomes is well founded. As cited in “Supercharging Student Success,” learning increases when an excellent paraeducator is paired with a great teacher. Students, including those at risk and with learning disabilities, can improve academic performance with the support of a paraeducator. The assistance provided by paraeducators greatly benefits teachers, enabling them to provide more individualized instruction with students. Paraeducators also encourage connections among students, parents and schools.

I invite you to get to know our paraeducators. They help our schools shine every day. For example, Muhammad Bilal has inspired Running Brook Elementary School students for a decade, both in the classroom and after school through the Bridges Over Howard County program. Jerard Rucker brings his background in mental health and social services to his special education paraeducator role at Hammond Elementary School. Ducketts Lane Elementary School special education paraeducator Mecah Washington builds strong connections with her students, so they can find their voices and receive a quality education.

Our paraeducators are outstanding, and the school system understands we must do our part to maximize their effectiveness. That is why we provide our paraprofessionals and all educational support professionals (ESP) with ongoing, differentiated professional learning.

The Office of Teacher and Paraprofessional Development and Support offers ESPs year-round opportunities including conferences and an online ESP Canvas Community for discussion groups, self-paced learning, personal growth resources, technology tools and more. Additional professional learning sessions are available throughout the year for special education paraeducators and student assistants.

Every child deserves highly effective educators. I couldn’t be more grateful to our classroom support staff, who ensure that every child has the best possible start in life.

Diversity tree hands pattern

Empowering Strengths to Transform School Culture

Originally published on Gallup Strengths Center – March 23, 2015

Picture of Rachel Edoho-EketRachel Edoho-Eket is the Kindergarten Instructional Team Leader at Ducketts Lane Elementary School in Elkridge, Maryland. Her top five strengths are Maximizer, Arranger, Communication, Developer and Achiever.

Last spring, I attended a training on the strengths-based initiative that our school would implement this year. I was surprised to learn that we would focus on what is strong, not what is wrong. This idea presented a huge shift in my mindset because, historically, teachers have been trained to identify areas of weakness and provide remediation rather than pinpoint areas of strengths and provide reinforcement. But a shift in mindset alone was not enough to transform a school and a culture. The following is a glimpse into the intentional experiences we created and explored to truly bring strengths to life in our school.

Name tags with student strengths

Students receive name tags, created by Ms. Katherine Kidd, that list their top three StrengthsExplorer themes.

Before we began implementing this initiative at our school, each staff member took the Clifton StrengthsFinder assessment to identify our top five Signature Themes. As staff began to discover their personal strengths, I immediately noticed a shift in the culture throughout our building. Teachers were talking openly about their strengths, providing examples of how they use their strengths both personally and professionally and comparing their strengths with colleagues. Our focus centered on ways to use our natural talents and to do what we do best every day. Ongoing professional development, individual coaching sessions, and team building were essential components to ensure that staff remained highly engaged and applied the principles within each instructional team.

Our kindergarten team possesses a wide range of talents and strengths. As we engaged in strengths-based conversations, we realized that the key to our effectiveness was the direct result of our strengths in action. For instance, my top Signature Theme is Maximizer. This means that my primary talent is to focus on the strengths of others to stimulate personal and group excellence. My colleague’s top Signature Theme is Restorative. This means that she is very strong at figuring out areas of deficit and resolving problems. Upon closer examination, we discovered that her strongest talent is my weakest strength! Many people would assume that because of our seemingly opposite strengths, we would clash often, but this is not the case. In fact, because these are complementary themes, we have the ability to offer multiple approaches to solve common problems more efficiently and productively. Just as teachers are finding more ways to engage with strengths, students in fourth and fifth grades have taken the StrengthsExplorer assessment to reveal their three strongest talents and abilities.

Grow Strong Bullentin Board

This board displays pictures of the kindergarten staff, along with each teacher’s top five themes.

One of my favorite components of the strengths-based initiative is its emphasis on identifying and cultivating student strengths. Our school has implemented a number of school-wide activities to empower students to begin to use their personal strengths every day. We have a series of weekly videos that focus on the “Five Grow Strong Weeks,” students have “table talk” conversations about their strengths during lunch, and there are strengths nametags on desks and families receive suggestions to help foster their children’s strengths at home. In our classrooms, teachers are using strengths to teach in innovative ways. In Amanda Pagnotta’s fourth grade class, student cooperative learning groups are now structured according to individual talents and strengths.

“Each member of a cooperative learning group represents a different talent. I then assign jobs to each student within their specific strength to use when participating in the activity. For example, a student with the strength of Presence may be assigned the role of presenter while a student with the strength of Achiever can help keep the group on task — it varies with the activity chosen,” said Pagnotta. In her reflections, Pagnotta affirms that, “When creating cooperative groups by this new ‘strength’ formation, students feel a greater sense of responsibility and purpose. In addition, they demonstrate more confidence because they have a role that directly ties to one of their top strengths. This allows students to apply their strength, and helps the group achieve the task at hand.”

When we first began the strengths-based initiative this year, I certainly underestimated the transformation that would take place in our school’s culture. Now that strengths are highlighted and encouraged on a daily basis, I regularly hear conversations framed around talents as opposed to deficits. As teachers, strengths provide a larger frame of reference for understanding our students, our colleagues and ourselves. For students, strengths-based education offers an opportunity to build upon powerful inner talents that will continue to develop throughout life. These experiences are indeed essential because they will transcend any other lessons, unit plans, or projects that teachers can provide in school.

Jody Zepp

Traits of a Good Teacher: Insight from Maryland T.O.Y. Jody Zepp

Guest blogger Jody Zepp shares her insight on the most important characteristics of a good teacher. Zepp is 2014-15 Maryland Teacher of the Year and a government and psychology teacher at Hammond High School.

I believe a teacher is someone who is willing and humble enough to drink from the instructional wells of those who have preceded us and continue to be nourished by them.

I come from a family of educators. My father was a professor and my mother was an elementary school teacher. My oldest brother is a high school teacher and my older sister is an elementary school teacher. Each provides inspiration, encouragement, and perhaps most important of all, the never-ending sense of wonder that truly is teaching.

So when I was asked to outline some of the characteristics that I think are commonly found within great educators, I think that faith, experience, compassion, conviction, and confidence are among the chief elements needed to inspire young people to reach their potential.

Faith: It is imperative that teachers demonstrate a sustained belief and faith in all students, and be mindful not to give “gotcha” tests or grade students on behaviors. We must recognize that among our “regular” students are, in fact, “advanced” students and advocate in their behalf. Students cannot talk about a future until they can see one.

Experience: In psychology, we talk about learning as the relatively permanent change in behavior as a function of experience. So it is the experience that precedes all else when it comes to learning. I have found that very little significant happens in the classroom apart from relationships; therefore providing a learning experience must begin with relationships – relationships of trust, relationships of never-giving-up, relationships of walking-with-your-students.

Compassion: Carl Jung suggested that, “If we have to deal with the human soul, we must meet it on its own ground and we are bound to do so when confronted with the real and crushing problems of life.” We do have to deal with the human soul in the classroom and we do have to meet it on its own ground. Our students bring a multitude of real and crushing problems of life into that doorjamb every single day. If we are not bound to confront them as teachers with humanity and understanding, then we will never be able to establish a human experience from which to learn anything together.

Conviction: The degree to which a teacher is disheartened is adversely affected in the classroom. A heartened teacher, on the other hand, knows that students can see a future when they are empowered in the classroom, when they feel a sense of self-actualization with academic progress, when their learned self-fulfilling prophecy of failure is no longer perpetuated, when the “stereotype threat” is lifted, and when the teacher is walking that talk. A heartened teacher is dedicated to a student’s fundamental right to learn, is moving “regular” students to advanced classes, is not going to give up on their struggle to succeed on state and college exams, is not going to allow students to fail on his or her watch, does not want to see what will be a fifth generation of girls in the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women. A heartened teacher is salient in conviction about her belief that education is an equalizer and that the best for the best of students is the best for all students. As John Stuart Mill stated, “One person with a belief is equal to a force of 99 who have only interests.” That is what I live with my students every day as I go to the mat on principle on their behalf.

Confidence: Great teachers are secure with who they are and why they are. They are fearless about their passion and are willing to capture learning no matter how zany the method or activity. They engage in raw, often uncomfortable, introspection on a daily basis and reflect on how well their instruction can be measured, and, therefore, how the instruction needs to be modified, differentiated, and adjusted accordingly. Great teachers understand that the student experience in the classroom transfers directly into the testing environment, so great teachers do not begin the day with “What am I going to do today?” but rather, “What are the students going to learn today?” Great teachers understand what I call “the pedagogy of the heart,” because experiencing something in our heart helps us to live it more effectively and to teach it more effectively. We want great learning and we want learned greatness.

Learn more about Jody Zepp and her experiences as Maryland Teacher of the Year.

Increasing Engagement By Focusing on Strengths

I am excited to have a guest post today from HCPSS Coordinator of School Counseling Lisa Boarman. Lisa has been in education for almost 35 years and with Howard County for 25. Below, she reflects on Howard County Public Schools’ successful professional development training with Gallup, an initiative that’s a created an energizing strengths-based culture in the district.


LisaBoarmanPhoto_web_250Increasing Engagement By Focusing on Strengths

By Lisa Boarman, HCPSS coordinator of School Counseling

Do you get to use your strengths every day? Many people have to drag themselves out of bed each morning because they go to a job where they’re not using their strengths. Using your strengths every day is critical to engagement and productivity. It’s not rocket science but in a school setting, an engaged teacher will create engaged students, which will ultimately impact student achievement. According to Gallup research, students become less engaged as they progress through school. Howard County Public Schools is partnering with Gallup to increase staff and student engagement to reverse this trend.

In August, I had the opportunity to attend a three-day training at Gallup headquarters in Washington, D.C. to become a Strengths Coach. As part of the training, we took the StrengthsFinder 2.0 to identify our five dominant talents. What an eye opening experience! Gallup says that a strength is the ability to consistently provide near-perfect performance in a specific activity. The key to building a strength is to identify dominant talents, then complement them by acquiring knowledge and skills pertinent to the activity. I am fortunate that I work in an environment where I get to use my strengths every day. My number one strength is Maximizer. Being a Maximizer means that I am committed to excellence. I focus on what is strong and work around what is weak. I value quality as much as quantity. I want to take things from good to great. If you ask my colleagues if this strength is accurate for me, they would chuckle because it’s SO accurate. I’m constantly looking for ways to exceed the current standard. I don’t waste time fixing weaknesses. I always want to do my best! Discipline is another one of my strengths. I love to make lists and stick to them. Focusing on my personal strengths is empowering

Since the training, our school counseling leadership team, including our secretary, has taken the StrengthsFinder 2.0. We display our top five strengths on our office doors with a brief description of each strength. Knowing each other’s strengths helps us work more efficiently and effectively. One of us has Arranger as one of her strengths, which means she’s skilled at putting all of the pieces together to get the best results. Another team member has Harmony as one of her strengths. She always tries to find a point of common agreement in any situation. As we work as a team, we try to take on responsibilities that allow us to utilize our strengths. It’s amazing how much more satisfied you are with your daily work when you get to use your strengths. On the rare occasions that I don’t get to use my strengths during the workday, I go home feeling exhausted and drained. The next step is to help students understand their own strengths. This year, our counselors will be rolling out StrengthsExplorer® in Naviance and we’ll be training counselors on how to use the results with students.

Since attending the training at Gallup, I find myself looking for ways to help people identify their strengths. Focusing on strengths helps all of us to be more productive and more engaged in our work, and learning about strengths has energized me and makes me excited to go to work each day. Try using your strengths every day and see if it makes a difference for you.