Teach Like a Barista…Personalization Matters

Co-authored by Robert Harris and Thomas Martellone

While the following blog entry is not an endorsement of Starbucks over any of its competitors, or is it a criticism of the current state of educational practice, Starbuck’s business model contains some simple suggestions for school improvement.

Every morning, multitudes of educators across America flock to their local Starbucks and frequently wait in  long lines to pick up their favorite specialty coffee drink before the start of their school day. As a note, our individual coffee preferences just happen to be a grande Americano or a grande non-fat cappuccino respectively. 

Shared via http://more-sky.com/WDF-107869.html
Shared via http://more-sky.com/WDF-107869.html

While waiting, it’s impressive to see how adept the baristas are at customizing each person’s drink no matter how complicated the order may be. From a consumer’s perspective, customers look forward to drinking top quality coffee that is worth the wait.  They enjoy an environment that is welcoming with jazz or classical music playing in the background. They know that if they’re hungry or need coffee supplies, there are always additional items for purchase, and finally, they can sit comfortably at a table and take advantage of Starbuck’s free WiFi.

However, from our perspective as educational leaders, there are other valuable lessons we believe classroom educators can take away from the Starbuck’s experience.  In the same way that Starbucks trains its baristas to personalize each customer’s coffee drinking experience, educators should be trained to personalize the learning experience for each and every student in their classrooms. Educators should be learning about their students’ individual needs through daily interactions with them; and based on these needs, should be tailoring and delivering personalized instruction for them.  Collectively, educators spend countless hours interacting with students.  Think about the power of knowing what each student’s needs are, and as a result, personalizing instruction to help them succeed – academically, socially, and emotionally.

In the same way Starbucks hopes to gain customer loyalty by offering a high quality, personalized experience; educators should create high quality, engaging, and personalized instruction so that students look forward to coming to school every day. An engaging classroom  should have a ‘buzz’ in the air very similar to the atmosphere in a Starbucks. Students, like Starbucks customers, should be discussing the books they are reading, sharing their ideas and  theories, and refining their understandings about the world they live in by posing and answering critical questions.  

Shared via https://elearningindustry.com
Shared via https://elearningindustry.com

In the same way that Starbucks offers an array of additional items for sale, educators should provide students with curriculum extensions to support and personalize their learning experience.  Finally, where Starbucks provides its customers with free access to the Internet, schools should be providing students with easily accessible, digitally rich classroom environments. While the most important factor in advancing student growth is still effective teaching; in the 21st century classroom, effective teaching also requires using the right digital tools to personalize instruction.

The next time you’re waiting in a long line at Starbucks, think about teaching like a barista.  Is your student a “grande Americano” or a “non-fat grande cappuccino” drinker, and how will you personalize their learning experience?

Robert Harris is the current Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources in the Lexington Public Schools.  Thomas Martellone is the current principal of Fiske Elementary School in Lexington.



Student Engagement: A Path to Learning

This summer I was fortunate to be selected as a presenter at NAESP 2016 in National Harbor, Maryland on student engagement as a means to increase student learning. Having been in education now for 23 years, and having seen numerous initiatives and fads come and go, I feel as though student engagement is a mindset and a focus that is perennial to good teaching.

Shared from: ww2.kqed.org
Shared from: ww2.kqed.org

Over the past seven years, my current position of principal at Fiske Elementary School in Lexington, Massachusetts has allowed me to continue working with staff and students in ways that promote engagement across the school setting. This, in part, has helped us continue to promote high levels of learning in an already high performing school.

I’m well aware of pedagogy and teaching practices that support learning, having been a classroom teacher and an administrator that focused on and still focuses on well developed lessons, appropriate content and objectives, developmentally appropriate teaching, etc. However, even if all of the above things are in place, if students are disengaged, you will not enter into any significant learning.

So what can schools do to promote student engagement during an era of accountability and heavy data use?  There is really no “silver bullet” to student engagement, however, there are simple and thoughtful things schools can do that will promote engagement and support learning.

Most importantly, relationships should be at the forefront.  James Comer noted that “No significant learning happens without a significant relationship.” It is imperative that the belief about forming relationships permeates your school.  That means teacher to student, administrator to student, teacher to teacher and administrator to teacher.

This does not happen overnight…relationships are cultivated over time and built on trust, respect, and honesty.  I’ve always known the importance of these relationships, however, I feel that over the past several years, I’ve worked to place an even heavier emphasis on them for the benefit of students.

Shared via unece.org
Shared via unece.org

It is crucial that teachers quickly build relationships with students and get to know them as learners and as individuals.  It is also important for administrators to know the students in their school.  I work to try and know every single student in my school.  It is a challenge with almost 500 students, but I feel that it is important to have connections with them and to know about them as much as possible.  I also work hard to know my staff as well.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m best friends with them, however, it means that I know about them as people, celebrating their successes, their challenges, and helping them meet the needs of students.

As we build relationships, we do some of the following activities to promote engagement for all stakeholders in our school:

  • Highlight and promote every student in the school over the course of the year through our “Student of the Week” program.

  • Promote positivity and gratitude with staff through our Golden Owl Award, Give a WHOOT Grams and Thankful Thursdays.

  • Use a student Twitter center as one means to give students voice, share positive information about school and model appropriate social media use.

  • Deliver positive messages to staff and students related to #celebratemonday, valuing students as individuals, and valuing contributions made by both staff and students.

  • Clearly identify expected behaviors and work to support those expectations through our school wide system of PBIS which includes student-administrator lunches, preferred assembly seating and positive phone calls home.

These are just a handful of things we do to promote student engagement.  Our hope is that by working to find ways to engage ALL students, we will capitalize on their level of connectedness to promote and support greater levels of learning.

Shared via slashgear.com
Shared via slashgear.com

Did something here catch your eye?  Want to know more about a specific way we promote student engagement?  You can view my presentation from NAESP2016 at this link: https://goo.gl/iDBAaE , E-mail me at tmartellone@lexingtonma.org  or connect with me on Twitter @tommartellone.  


Principal Support: Staying Connected to Teachers

This past week, I was very busy working across many projects to get our school ready for opening day on August 30th.  It wasn’t unlike any other week I have had prior to a school opening.  Hallways had multiple pieces of furniture in them, supplies were being unpacked, students were being registered, and the usual pre-opening of school business was taking place.  As a matter of fact, after being a principal for 18 years, I’d say that the week was mostly quite familiar.

As I walked through the halls, I stuck my head into one teacher’s classroom to check in and see how things were going.  This particular teacher was new to my school and district the year prior, and despite my wanting to keep teachers where they were, she was reassigned to teach first grade, which meant that she inherited a new room and many materials. As I walked into the room and took a quick survey of everything, the teacher said to me, “You don’t like where my word wall is do you?” We both laughed, as she quickly had gotten to know me and knew that I would give some gentle feedback about the word wall and its placement.  Of course, I shared that I thought the word wall was covering up some valuable “real estate” in the classroom (a 4×4 whiteboard near a small group instructional area) and the teacher agreed, also sharing that she was somewhat stuck with all of the “stuff” in the room and how to arrange it.

Shared from teacherpop.org
Shared from teacherpop.org

I offered to help, saying that I had some thoughts about how she might maximize space in the room and have some varied areas that would support different types of learners and curriculum. I was happy to stay in the classroom for a while and I told the teacher that I thought it would take about 20 minutes.  She was receptive to my help and suggestions and noted that she didn’t want to take me away from my work, which I said wasn’t too much.  I somewhat secretly stretched the truth here….I was buried in work, however, I do love helping teachers and being connected to their classrooms.  And not to be a martyr, but I’d always stop to help a teacher and do my other work later, after all, my job is to support and provide great conditions for teaching and learning.

We went about the room, me making suggestions and visualizing how the room could be arranged, and then both of us moving furniture and placing it around the room to create instructional and learning areas for students.  Each time we’d move some furniture, I’d check in with the teacher to see what she thought of the placement and if she thought it would be conducive to students learning and her teaching.  There were some suggestions that were duds, but most were good and fortunately, she really liked the ideas I had (she seemed to be honest) and I really loved helping set up the classroom.

My goal has always been to stay connected to teachers and kids as an administrator.  It is easy to get pulled away and become detached from what happens or from what the job really entails.  I was actually flattered that the teacher was willing to have me help and I also really enjoyed thinking about how to maximize the spaces around the classroom for learning.  Don’t get me wrong, this teacher was and is very capable and would have gotten the room sorted out and done a fine job.  

Shared from www.chosenchildtx.org/
Shared from http://www.chosenchildtx.org/

I was lucky that she was open to my ideas and that she wanted to include me in the work.  After a short time (more like 45 minutes or so) we got her room situated to the point where things were in place and she was able to picture what teaching and learning would happen where.  I left to go back to the office to work for a while and when I checked in later, she was “unstuck” and busy putting things in place and preparing for students.

My take aways from my classroom help that day were as follows:

  • Always stay connected to your teachers and students. They are your network and your teachers carry out the heavy lifting of your school. You can not risk not working side by side with them.

  • Be willing to offer help, even when your plate is full.  A small gesture goes a long way and you’ll find a place later to get your work finished.

  • Not every suggestion is a great one.  I made some suggestions that were not the best for the teacher and we navigated changes.  Be open to feedback and be flexible.

  • Be purposeful in everything you do.  I was careful as to what I recommended because I wanted to help the teacher maximize space for the sake of student learning.

  • Love what you do!  I still love setting up a classroom and being a teacher, even though I am a principal and lead a school.  I’ll never forget the joy of creating a great classroom experience for students.

I am so thankful that my teacher welcomed me into her room, trusted me enough to know what I’d give constructive feedback on, and then let me be part of setting up her classroom.  I know that she was appreciative of the help, but honestly, I was the one who was most appreciative for her helping me stay connected! It’s always this type of work that makes me love my job and realize the importance of what I do each and every day. For that, I am extremely grateful.

The Blame Game: Start Changing and Stop Blaming

It seems that in this day and age, with what we know about education and learning, we would spend less time blaming people and programs and spend more of our time addressing the needs of children. After all, that is why we got into education isn’t it?

Shared from http://everydaylife.globalpost.com/

On February 6, 2015, Joanna Weiss wrote a piece in the Boston Globe http://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/2015/02/05/will-common-core-lead-joyless-kindergarten/VVkdXi00uKdSJkNRULhlTM/story.html referencing the work and research Nancy Carlsson-Paige, an early childhood education expert. The premise of the article written by Weiss and the research done by Carlsson Page focused on what they deemed would be a “joyless kindergarten” resulting from the implementation of the Common Core State Standards and increased pressures to have students read in Kindergarten, among other skills.


The reality is, that Common Core State Standards are not the root of Kindergarten becoming “joyless”, if that is in fact the case.  In 1957, the launching of the Sputnik by the Russians let to complaints about early education in the United States to include both kindergarten and pre-kindergarten.  As a result, there was increased infiltration of academic skills into kindergarten to help prepare students for later academic success.

Shared via http://www.hist-chron.com/


Again, in 1983 with the publishing of A Nation at Risk, focus was also placed on academics in an effort to help prepare US students to compete with the intellectual capacity of the Japanese.  Later, with the advent of Goals 2000, another push came to make sure that kindergarten students were prepared for academic success.  This followed an increase in kindergarten enrollment in the early 1980’s as well.

How is it that after almost sixty years of increased accountability for kindergarten students, that people are now coming about to blame the Common Core State Standards for a “joyless” kindergarten experience?


In actuality, you could teach a kindergarten student physics if you taught it to them at their developmental level.  Key words: Developmental Level.  Teaching kindergarten students how to read does not need to be devoid of joy or fun.  Skilled teachers should be able to differentiate learning experiences for all children coming in to kindergarten.  For those students coming in knowing how to read, teachers should be able to provide them an experience commensurate with their skills, while those students coming in not knowing how to read should participate in activities that build their love of literacy, are enjoyable, and move them along from where they are at developmentally.

The changing times in kindergarten and education reform came into play a long time ago.  Researchers need to stop blaming those responsible for the Common Core and start placing their focus on how to support teachers and school leaders in providing meaningful, developmentally appropriate teaching and learning experiences for our children.  Common Core’s greatest strength, is that it should unify us educationally, and ensure that children come to us and leave us with a body of knowledge and experiences that prepares them for post-secondary learning and job opportunities.

For further thoughts about Common Core and Creativity and Engagement with students, here’s a piece I wrote almost 2 years ago addressing this.


Misunderstood, but NOT Disconnected

In a recent post adapted from Kate Rousmaniere’s The Principal’s Office, The Principal: The Most Misunderstood Person in All of Education in The Atlantic describes the evolution of the principal since the early 1900’s.  As a current school principal, and a veteran principal of 14 years, I was able to make connections with this post and I was also able to see how other people have formed opinions of the principal’s role over time. That being said, there was one particular point I disagreed with in the article.

Kate Rousmaniere points out in her post that, “Most contradictory of all, the principal has always been responsible for student learning, even as the position has become increasingly disconnected from the classroom.” If anything, I believe that skilled leaders are working harder than ever to stay connected to classrooms and students.

Shared via http://bestquotesayings.wordpress.com

Within the current state of education, which has seen some of the greatest upheaval ever, it is true that the principal continues to be responsible for student learning.  That should not change.  Schools need strong leadership in principals to help navigate changes and keep a steady focus on why we are here; children and learning.

There are many ways to stay connected both in and out of the school house, which ultimately, keeps principals connected to classrooms.  As an educator, I have the good fortune to connect  through my PLN with many other administrators, principals, teachers and educators using social media such as Twitter, LinkedIN, Facebook and About.me.  The rise of technology as a tool for professional development helps many of us not be disconnected from the classroom.

Twitter alone provides a forum where other educators raise questions, share experiences, and offer advice.  Contrary to the belief that principals are disconnected from classrooms, these fellow educators continue to keep me connected to my own school’s classrooms through their advice, questioning and insights into best practice and education reform.  I often find myself reflecting on my own work and learning more that I bring back to my school, to my classrooms, and to my students.

Within my school, I am continually tethered to classrooms, teachers, and most importantly, students. My goal is to know as many students in the school as possible and to know something about each one.  Parents and staff often comment on how many of the 500 students I know.  There are times when I’m surprised myself, as to how much I know about the kids in my school. I can often be found greeting students at arrival and dismissal, visiting them during lunch, interacting with them in the hallways, and in class, asking them what they are learning about, reading, and working on.  My assistant principal and I also have lunch with twelve students every two weeks as well. We are thoughtful and intentional in the ways we stay connected to students.

It is also very important to me that I know what my staff are teaching children. The intent of knowing is not about micromanaging, but as a way to support learning. That may happen through walk-throughs, observations, participating in professional development with teachers, and talking to students when I visit classrooms.  My connectedness to learning helps me keep my focus so that I support both students and teachers.

Cutouts of people
Shared via http://www.chosenchildtx.org/

Do I think it is easy to become disconnected from classrooms?  Absolutely! The demands of the principalship are such that I could be in meetings frequently, interacting with staff outside of the classroom, and doing paperwork and reading responding to emails continually throughout my day.  So what can I and other administrators do to stay connected to classrooms and student learning?  My recommendations would be:

  • Only check emails a few times a day.  I often check in the morning, part way through my day and again at the end of the day. I hate to say it, but even with the huge amounts of email I get, they can wait.  Kids and teachers should come first.

  • Block out time in your schedule to visit classrooms.  Other things may come up, however, if you don’t start with time blocked out, you’ll have no time as something else will always fill your schedule. Ask kids what they are learning when you visit.  Also find time to follow up with teachers to ask questions about their work.  They want to know you are interested and that you support them.

  • Participate in professional development with teachers and staff.  There is no way that with the pace of change in education, that you can remain connected to classroom learning if teachers go off to PD and you don’t participate. This not only helps build your credibility with teachers, it helps you understand the demands they face each day with the work they do.

  • Be a part of a PLN.  Connectedness can not be seen as only within the “four walls” of a school house in the 21st century!  I learn lots from my PLN, often times, sharing great ideas and musings through retweeting.  You don’t need to be the most tech savvy person in the world either.  Start small and you’ll learn and grow.  Make connecting with your PLN a part of your daily routine.

  • Communicate with the greater school community regularly.  This really does make sure you are connected with your school and classrooms.  Parents and families want to know what you’re doing as a school leader and communicating that work means that you have to know what is going on within classrooms and your school.

No principal enters into their leadership role with the intent on becoming disconnected. The demands of the job are such that it could happen easily though. By actively engaging in the role of educational leaders, I hope that principals and school administrators work in ways that provide a level of transparency to the public and the school communities that they serve.  By doing so, it will help with public perception and contribute to the position being more understood, and while doing that, it will help maintain a level of connectedness to students.  After all, isn’t that why we do the work of the principal?

Creativity and Engagement in the CCSS Era

There have been many editorials over the past year or so with strong feelings that creativity and engagement have been taken from students and teachers in the classroom setting.  I had the good fortune this week to have two very excited and proud first grade students come to see me, making me realize that student engagement and creativity are alive and well within the classrooms of my school and within the curriculum based on Common Core State Standards .

(Image source: Fotolia)
(Image source: Fotolia)

I was just preparing to start one of my monthly literacy department meetings, when my administrative assistant came to get me in my office.  Normally, I hold those meetings in our literacy center, however, on this day, I was holding the meeting in my office due to some testing that was being done in our regular meeting space.  I left my office and went out to the main office area, only to find two first grade boys standing there waiting for me, both looking serious with papers in their hands.

Both boys shared that they had done some writing and they were there to share with me.  Knowing that students often times enjoy sharing their work, I invited them to my office where the literacy staff were waiting for me and I asked the students if they would share with me and the other adults I was meeting with.  I was pleasantly surprised when the two boys let me know that they wanted to share some persuasive writing with me!

The first student began to read his piece, which in fact, was about me.  He shared in his piece of writing that he thought I was a good principal and that I helped students.  I wasn’t sure who his intended audience was, but I gave a small chuckle and appreciated the fact that he was trying to persuade someone to think I was a good principal. It was very flattering.

The second student then read his piece, which was writing that was intended to persuade me to buy some soccer balls so that they would have them to play with on the playground.  The student had tried to use a basketball and that didn’t work too well for soccer, thus, his persuasive letter.  After reading his letter, the other student turned to him and told him that he had a soccer ball at home and that he didn’t use it, so he would gladly bring it to school for them to use.

My reading specialists, the K-5 ELA department head and I all shared with the two boys how impressed we were with their persuasive writing.  The two boys beamed as they held their papers in my office and were excited that they not only got the chance to “persuade me”, but that adults were pleased with their writing.  Their teacher later shared with me how thrilled they were to come to the office with their writing and she also was very happy with how much her children were writing in the classroom.

Providing students opportunities in the classroom to prepare them for college readiness does not equate to learning that is not engaging and it certainly does not equate to teachers not using their skills to provide students with creative ways to learn.  The “art and science” of teaching refers to teachers employing their “art”, which is the creative way they deliver content and instruction to students.  The “science” is the following of aligned curriculum, which over time, helps create well prepared students to leave our schools and go forward into the world.

boy writing
(used from Hudson Public Schools)

As a school leader, it is important to foster a culture where teachers feel that they can use creativity in the classroom no matter what standards are being taught and no matter what curriculum is being delivered in a district.  Teachers must have latitude to use a level of professional judgement around what will stimulate learning and engagement for students.

It is also important, that while promoting creativity, that principals have open and transparent dialogue with teachers about what needs to be taught.  Delivering instruction that will support students after they leave our schools is imperative and should be a non negotiable.  In the end, it really is about the art and science of teaching, it is about balance, and it is about using good judgement to provide students engaging instruction within a structured curriculum where teachers are able to use the gifts that we hired them for in the first place!

Mission and Vision: Which Direction Are You Rowing?

Have you ever been part of a team sport?  I’ve never been a person to participate in group sports activities.  Golfing and snowboarding are activities I have enjoyed and continue to enjoy doing on my own.  While I have never participated in it, rowing is one sport which requires a high level of interaction and coordination among teammates.

Every member of a rowing team must be certain to move in a calculated rhythm that helps the team move in a forward motion.  One or two wrong strokes of an oar can result in the team either moving in the wrong direction or not getting to where they need to go, specifically, losing a race.badrowing

Working within a vision or mission are much the same as being part of a rowing team.  A well focused rowing team knows why they are rowing and what they need to do to stay in synchronization.  Every person on that team  knows their specific role and how they contribute to the team.  Additionally, they all know which direction they need to row in, and they know the certainty of what will happen if one of them should be rowing out of sync or in the wrong direction.

School mission and vision statements provide the same framework and structure as a team of skilled, synchronized rowers.  Your school mission statement “brands” why you are there and what your purpose is. It provides, or should provide, the lens through which all of your decisions get made.

Often times, staff have gone through mission writing exercises only to come up with either a lofty or unclear mission statement that worse yet, gets published and no one ever looks at.  If the mission of your school is not clear, how do you make decisions and are your staff focused on why they are truly there?

Similarly with vision, where do you want your school to be heading? What do you want to be known for? A team that thinks they are rowing in the same direction, but in fact, are not, will end up not achieving what they hope, whether it be a rowing team, or a group of educators.

Vision provides staff with a framework around what they want to become and the way they would like to be viewed as they work to accomplish their mission.  Like mission, vision should be visible and should be communicated.  I think of vision statements as “the dreams schools are made of”.  What is it that you dream of becoming so that you can educate children and learn and grow? How do you want people to talk about the work of your school and what do you want to be known for?

A leader’s role with mission and vision is to not only guide the work in their development, but also to build a core group of people within the school that believe in the mission and vision and want to work towards them.  The leader’s other job is to maintain a “laser-like” focus on them as decisions are made around student learning. All decisions should be made within the framework of the school’s mission and vision.  Once a leader is able to generate support and belief in the school’s mission and vision, the work then continues by making that visible, and truly bringing the mission and vision “to life” within the school.


One resource I truly found valuable in working with staff around mission and vision is the text, Professional Learning Communities at Work by Richard Dufour and Robert Eaker.  The book clearly outlines what it is that mission and vision are and helps the reader frame the work around those definitions and the value of mission and vision within a school setting.

Hopefully, you may be thinking about your own school’s mission and vision if you have not done so recently.  You may want to ask yourself, “Is everyone on my team rowing in the same direction? Are we all clear about why we are rowing and where we are rowing to?”  It is a great opportunity to look at why you are doing the work you do, and what you hope to be that will help students learn and grow.  In a time of great upheaval in education, a school’s mission and vision may be just the thing your school needs to help keep you focused on why we all got into this work in the first place- student learning!