Educational Leader, Manager or Detective?

Expat Educator Detective

As I’m finding my proverbial feet as administrator, I’m logging small notes about the things I do everyday. My original idea was to track the percentage of activities that are leadership-related and the percentage that are management-related.

I’ve created a third category: percentage of time Playing Detective.

The role of detective goes beyond ‘finding out who is at fault’. When you get to the heart of a situation, you get to the heart of a child. You create a school culture that values honesty and looks out for the needs of individual children.

When playing the detective role, the line between behaviour management and school leadership becomes blurred.

Beginning the Investigation

Picture five-year-olds playing their first soccer game – a game affectionately known as “beehive soccer”. If you grab a group of younger students to tell you what happened, you’re gonna be circled by students all talking at once and doing their best to prove to you that they and their close friends are all in the right and another person or persons are all in the wrong. Getting to the truth is about as likely as getting that soccer ball out of a beehive of players.

Calmly state, “Hmmm. This sounds very important. Let’s first get back to class then I’ll sort this out.” Insist they stop talking and walk with you back to class.

Walk them to their teacher(s). Smile. Ask the teacher if he or she would be so kind as to sit the young people far away from one another and not allow them to talk to one another until they’ve spoken with you.

Keep Them Separated

Yes, keeping them separated keeps the students from continuing the verbal brawl in the learning environment. But there’s another reason: Your goal is to get all the stories to match.

If students have opportunity to talk or write notes or sms one another before you talk with them, it’s more likely they will corroborate an alternate version of reality that keeps them out of trouble and keeps you from getting to the truth.

Conversations with the Students in the Brawl

“Tell me what happened” is an inefficient way to start a conversation with younger students (older ones too!). You’ll get the students’ sides of the story, details of which are carefully selected as to avoid any personal responsibility.

Instead, begin with “So tell me who all saw the [encounter].” Visible confusion. After all, the student expected to unfold a dramatic story of all the wrongs perpetrated against him or her. Now the child has to think outside of him- or herself.

After the student names five or six people that were at the scene, ask “When I ask [other student in brawl + witnesses] about the story – and I will – what do you think they’ll tell me?”

The student’s body language changes. Not only are you forcing the youngster to step into the shoes of the other person in the brawl, the student knows that you’re gonna find out more than a quick “he said – she said” version.

Take notes on what the student tells you and repeat the story back to him or her. Then ask, “Is there anything else the others will tell me? Are you sure? All the stories need to match.”

Take Them to the Scene and Bring Stuffed Animals

It’s much easier to re-construct a story when you can have the children at least partially re-enact the scene. “You were standing where? Then what happened?”

Holes in the story quickly emerge. “Hmmm. If you were yelling at him from here, how is it that he pushed you off the bridge? You weren’t anywhere near the bridge?” Gulp. “Can you grab the stuffed animal like so-and-so grabbed you?”

The other advantage to taking the individuals to the scene is that they get out of your office and are allowed to take a walk. A Head of School office is a very scary place for many kiddos. You’re heading out to their turf.

Conversations with Witnesses

By the time you get to the witnesses, the emotion of the situation has died down and students’ ever-brilliant teachers have been able to redirect them into the classroom activity. You have most of the stories, but there are a few holes in the story left to fill.

The conversation with witnesses starts something like this: “I’ve talked to a number of people and will talk to at least [x-number of] others – so whatever you say won’t be traced back to you. The stories need to match. I already know the bigger parts of the story, I just need you to confirm what I already know and fill in a few missing details.”

These phrases accomplish a few things. First, the student relaxes because you’re talking to lots of people – no one can trace back to him or her as the ‘rat’. Second, whatever story they’ve rehearsed in their heads suddenly becomes null and void. It’s not about taking sides, it’s about filling in details.

Take the witnesses to the scene and use the stuffed animals to recreate the parts of the story that have matched. Ask the witness to stop you if the story seems incorrect. Ask questions in the parts of the story that seem less certain.

When You Don’t Know Where to Start

So what if you don’t know either who did something or who witnessed an instance? Vandalism, for instance, often goes unreported. One thing to try is to go into a classroom and hand all the students a half sheet of paper (same colour, same shape, same everything).

Tell students you’re going to ask them to write something and you’d like them all to use either pencil or pen so whatever they write will not be traced back to them.

Explain the situation in general detail. You might say, Many of you know of a situation that happened today in the cafeteria. I’ve been thinking about the poor custodians who will be spending extra time cleaning and of the money that will be required to repair damages. We know that some of you actually saw the instance and that you may be afraid to come forward. 

All of you will write something on the paper. You will either write “I do not know anything about what happened in the cafeteria. Thank you for asking and have a lovely day” or you will write a few sentences that will help us understand what happened or who we need to talk to. The key is that everyone writes. Names are optional. 

After explaining the procedure, you can speak to the unknown culprit.

If you were involved, this is a time for you to show courage. You can talk to an adult at school later today or you can simply admit it on this paper. I can assure you the consequences will be far less if you come forward than if we have to spend additional teaching/learning time investigating. Everyone makes mistakes. We’re here to help you make things right again.

By ‘making things right again’, students hear you using the language of Restorative Practice – an alternative way of helping students understand how their actions affect others (and a future Expat Educator post).

Is an Educational Detective role counted as Leadership or Management?

The detective role could be delegated to teachers. It’s behaviour management.

But getting to the bottom of what really happened takes time – instructional time – from other students. I remember being a teacher and giving a class mind-numbing worksheets so that I could get to the bottom of an important incident. How much total instructional time would be lost if I left this all to the teachers?

If part of my role as educational leader is to remove obstacles to teaching/learning and encourage teachers to get make the most of every minute of instructional time, I need to take an active role in these situations.

When students are unkind to one another, whether as an instigator or retaliator, the instance should be taken very seriously. As a teacher, I admit dismissing instances that I should have taken more seriously. I couldn’t both supervise a classroom and take the care necessary to understand a complicated situation. There was no way I could take students back to the location of the trouble much less counsel them about alternative future choices.

The detective role allows us to effectively communicate to students (and teachers) that kindness and honesty are at the heart of the school. We also communicate that the school honours teaching and learning time. Hence, the detective process becomes a leadership activity that helps communicate and model the school culture we want to create.

Keeping the Teacher as Leader in the Mind of Students

The risk in becoming so heavily involved as detective is that you may become the ultimate authority in the minds of students – a role you want to have remain with teachers and parents.

To avoid taking power away from the teacher and parents, end the investigation by pulling the culprits out of class to confirm the final story. Then, prepare them to retell the story to their teacher and parents. Help them through the specific apologies they need to make to one another. Then hand over follow-up responsibility to the parents and teachers.

End the conversation saying something like You guys have been really courageous by telling me the truth and I know you’re not mean boys/girls. You just did something wrong and it needs to be made right. I’ll let your teacher and parents decide the best consequence for this, but I know the consequence will be lots less severe because they will know both sides and know that you were honest.

Help with Parents

If an instance is big enough for me to get involved, I give a call to parents. Having gone through the whole detective process, I can relay the story with a great degree of certainty. Also, I can say that all parties were honest about their contributions to the problem and they are sincerely remorseful.

The phone call or entry into the student diary does not accuse their chid or tell the parents their child is ‘bad.’ The communication simply relays a story and lets parents know that a follow-up conversation and, possibly, a few extra hugs may be needed that evening.

Future Situations

More than a few kiddos at my school know the drill. When taken to my office, their initial retelling ends up being very, very close to the full story. They know I’m gonna get there eventually.

I’m not angry. I’m genuinely concerned for their wellbeing. They know that too. I can use our time together to point out patterns and refer them to the chaplain or counsellor.

One of the things I love about my new role as administrator is the flexibility to talk with students during these important character-building moments. Yes, other important things get pushed aside – but nothing is more important than creating a culture of honesty and forgiveness. School mission statements mean nothing if they are not communicated in action.

How much time do you spend Playing Detective? What have been your experiences?

photo credit: paurian via photopin cc

Top 10 Posts of 2012

Expat Educator MovingThe year 2012 marks the end of another chapter in my expat life. I say good-bye to Hong Kong and relocate to Australia. You can look forward to hearing about the wonderful ideas I get from Australian colleagues. You may notice I’ve re-set my spell-check to the Oxford Dictionary as a step in getting accustomed to a slightly new form of English :).

As 2013 begins, I want to thank you for taking time to read my posts this past year. In case you missed them, my most popular posts of 2012 are listed below. I hope they will help as you plan for the New Year.

As I reflect on the posts I’ve read this year, the very best was written by a professor, Darryl Young, who spent a year teaching High School math. His thoughtful reflections make for a post I wish would go viral.

The most popular Expat Educator posts of 2012:

Expat Educator Electronic PortfoliosStudent Electronic Portfolios: A Model

Electronic portfolios continue to gain in popularity. Portfolios can be done using Evernote and Edublogs. Student Electronic Portfolios: A Model demonstrates how Google sites can be used to display student work.

Expat Educator 1_1Keeping Students Engaged in a 1:1 Project-Based Classroom

Aren’t computers a distraction? is a question many have asked. Distractions can be minimised with a few specific classroom management strategies. Read more…

Expat Educator Flipped ClassroomCan All Classroom Lessons be Flipped?

Yeah, this is a rather unpopular opinion in the online teacher community. I argue that individual lessons can be strategically flipped, but using the flipped model for every lesson is unwise. Read more…

Expat Educator SMART goalsPreparing Parents and Students for Fall Goal-Setting Conferences

My first few years of teaching, I prepared for parent conferences by figuring out what I would say. When I stopped leading the conversation, students began making more personalised, meaningful goals. Read more

Expat Educator First Year OverseasTop 10 Lessons Learned the First year Overseas

Moving to new countries comes with challenges. Rereading this post reminded me of those challenges as I embark on my new adventure.

Expat Educator Civil War JournalsA Low-Tech Project Students Treasure: Civil War Journals

Even if you don’t teach about the American Civil War, tea-stained bare books can be used to create projects that look rather authentic. Even after High School, former students tell me that they still have their 5th Grade Civil War Journal. How often can you say that about a project? Read more…

Expat Educator Report Card CommentsReport Card Comments: Outlines and Examples

You probably just finished your comments. You might find it more helpful to read how you can pre-plan to make comments more manageable next semester. As for the outline, read on…

Quick Formative Assessments

Google forms and Google docs are tools that allow for quick, ongoing formative assessments. Both you and students’ peers can give powerful feedback during the entire writing process. Videos on this post show you how. Read more…

Student News Videos: An Alternative to Newsletters

If you really want parents to pay attention to your communication, have students write and present the news. This post takes you through the process of creating the videos. Read more…

Expat Educator Problem Solving 1Math Problem Solving Series: Classroom Procedures

Problem Solving skills are tricky to teach. This post began a five-part series on everything from procedures to assessments. Read more…

Are there any topics you’d like to discuss in the New Year? Please tell me in the comment box.

If you find these posts helpful, please consider subscribing to Expat Educator by adding your email address to the box below. You will be the first to get all the posts from 2013.

photo credit: angloitalian followus via photopin cc

How to Plan a Memorable Parent Night: Classroom Videos

Call it “Open House” or “Parent Night”, this one evening greatly influences the relationships you will have with parents.

Last year, I posted on how to get parents involved in Parent Night. Parent involvement keeps the night active. But, at the end of the night, parents want to see what their children are doing in school.


Videos help parents become a “fly on the wall”, watching their child’s typical school day. Below are two of the videos I used at this year’s Parent Night. (Note: Skips and gaps exist due to students being edited out of the videos. Parent permission was granted by all students represented in the videos below.)

Video Footage

Throughout the year, older students can have experience taking good pictures and gathering video footage. While establishing routines at the beginning of the year, it tends to be less hassle for you to take the video footage yourself. Also, a camera in the classroom works magic for classroom management.


Ask students, “Why do we study music?”

Blank stares usually follow. As far as many students are concerned, school consists of a series of random activities or tasks that teachers plan. It’s interesting to ask students to address on their video the reasons they study what they study.

The next question for the students: “What do you think our parents want to know?” This leads into an authentic discussion of voice and audience.

Finally, students should address both what they do and what they learn. Most groups miss one or the other unless it is highlighted. Why do we play math games? For what purposes do we use computers in the various subject areas?

Students usually want to open iMovie right away. Help instill the idea that “Content is King” by requiring scripts be approved before any video clips are imported into the movie-making program.

Group script-writing can be tricky. While students can create scripts on Google docs, the system backfired this year. Google docs works better for asynchronous work. Consider having each team member write a draft script on paper, compare scripts, and combine the best of the best into one script. You might also have one team member type for 15 minutes, then pass the script to another team member so that each member gets 15 minutes to add to the initial draft.

The key question for students: Does your final script address all the questions a group of parents might have about what we do and learn?

Choosing Video Clips

Consider breaking the script into three or four parts so that each child team member can work on a proportional part of the video. Putting together four mini-videos is easier and more time-efficient than trying to have four people work on one computer.

You may have noticed that, in the videos above, some clips were used numerous times. Oddly, students had close to 100 clips to choose from as they matched their scripts to pictures.

If possible, leave one or two days for editing and revision of videos so that students can discuss ways to keep this from happening.

Edits and Revisions

Some things you will want students to note for edits/revisions:

  • Are any clips repeated? What other clips might fit?
  • Do the pictures match the words?
  • If you have music or sounds, do they fit the tone of the presentation?
  • Are there any embarrassing moments that should be clipped out (i.e. nose-picking and such)?
  • Do you see any hand-waves or other gestures that don’t match the purpose of the presentation?
  • Are any volume adjustments needed?
  • What do you think about the pace of the film?
  • Have you kept last names out of the credits?


Parent evaluation forms indicate that they appreciate the students’ videos more than anything else. They see their children happily learning.

As the year progresses, the class will become more adept at creating quality multimedia presentations. Keep videos like the ones above. Show them again at the end of the year. The class will be able to see how far it has come!

What do you show parents when they come?

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Classroom and Student Blogs: Advice from the Masters

I’m a big fan of learning from the masters. We look to the masters when learning art, music, literature, sports – even prayer and meditation.

This post is dedicated to the blog masters – those who post advice for teachers with classroom and student blogs. Wisdom of the masters + personal experience has led me to embrace the following pieces of wisdom:

Bookmark Great Examples of Kid Blogs

Before diving into blogging, you should check out some examples of classroom blogs and kid blogs. Bookmark your favorites – you can use the great ones as examples for your students.

Many know Adora Svitak from TED talks. She keeps a blog.
A Second Grader’s blog: Nick’s Picks
A Third Grader’s blog: Jarrod’s Awesome Blog
My Fifth Graders:
Blogs by High School students in Norway are linked to Ann S. Michaelson’s site

Need more? Check out the Edublog Award Winners.

Start with a Classroom Blog

By “classroom blog”, I mean the one that you control.

No need to fear first steps. Online real estate is free. If you want to start slowly and deliberately, consider signing up for the Edublog Teacher Challenge. The challenge takes you through blog setup in a step-by-step fashion.

You can play around with a couple different formats. I’ve tried Blogger. Blogger is easy because it links to your Gmail account. The cautions with Blogger are twofold: Google may “suggest” to students that they check out blogs that are inappropriate. Google, by nature, will also have advertising.

Consider going through Edublogs. When students write on Edublogs, they are only exposed to other education blogs – blogs with safe content. My only complaint with Edublogger is that you cannot keep track of the users who sign up for your blog. I hope they will add that feature – I want to know the email addresses that receive direct email feeds.

Other teachers have successfully used Kidblog.

Generally, professional bloggers use WordPress. You can start with a site. Like blogspot, WordPress is open to everyone in the world (not just kids). But, my experience is that users are more committed to good content.

Video tutorials are available to help you get started on Blogger and WordPress.

Unsure about what to put on your class blog? Here are 65 ideas.

The two most Twitter-mentioned classroom blogs are Mrs. Yollis’ Classroom and Leopold Primary School (Australia). Use their posts as examples.

Begin the year by teaching Good Commenting

I don’t recommend giving students personal blogs too early in the year. Students should demonstrate responsibility first. I like the steps that teacher Kathleen Morris takes with her students.

Prior to writing full blog posts, students need to learn how to write quality comments.

Video tutorials exist to help students make comments on WordPress and Edublog sites.

Video tutorials also exist to help students make comments on Blogger sites.

A colleague of mine started student comments with a discussion about responsible use.

One of the biggest reasons to have a classroom blog is for students to practice commenting in a controlled environment. I don’t find that students post inappropriate things, but I DO find they type their last names. I both delete the last names and conference with children who sign with full names.

Helping Student Get Started

One of the easiest ways to help students get started is to have them sign up for the Edublogs Student Blog Challenge. Students receive emails with links to instructions on how to make their blog look great. And, students link up with other student bloggers.

Getting Parents Involved

Next year, I want to make a more concerted effort to get parents involved. A few of my students’ parents have made nice comments on student posts. Kathleen Morris has been far more intentional and has experienced the subsequent success.

Let parents know that students LOVE to receive comments. Comments are one of the biggest motivators for students to continue writing.

If you Want to Assess

I don’t formally assess student blogging. I want blogging to become something students want to do. Instead of formally assessing students, I point out to them ways in which I see their writing improve.

That said, sample rubrics are available.

Safety Stuff

The biggest lesson is to keep identities anonymous. When commenting, students should not use full names. When students create blogs of their own, they should be careful with the “About Me” page. I encourage students to put a Wordle on their “About” page – using words they would use to describe themselves.

I highly discourage names attached to pictures.

I don’t tend to advertise the location of my school. Viewers could deduce the location from the school uniforms, but the name of the school shouldn’t show up in Google searches.

Mrs. Ripp has a great post guiding students to think about how the Internet is like the mall. She also includes a letter to parents regarding safety.

Who do you believe are the master blog teachers? What have you learned from them? What links would you recommend?

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Student Photographers and Picasa Slideshows

My most recent post has been featured on The Edublogger. The post is entitled Picasa Slideshows: Giving Parents a Glimpse of School.

Here are the highlights:

For a more detailed explanation of each step, please visit The Edublogger. And, consider subscribing to Edublogger site posts – especially if you want to start class blogs or student blogs.

Here are some great posts to get you started or take you to the next level:
Five steps to starting a class blog
Setting up student blogs
64 Ideas for class blog posts
14 steps to meaningful student blogging
Blogging can help teens who suffer from anxiety
Getting parents involved in blogging

While I’m still in the beginning stages of class and student blogs, the Picasa slideshow inserts have been a big hit. One step at a time…

Happy teaching!

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