The PE Teacher

I look up at the clock with its seconds-hand tic-ticking away the last few precious minutes of kid-free time I have.  It’s 1:56PM.  In four minutes I have to pick up my students across the vast pavement by the dirt field where they have their weekly Physical Education class.  I would give anything for just a little bit more time to get all my materials set up just right, so I can survive this last hour of school without a single misstep, like not having enough copies or forgetting where I put the cup of extra sharpened pencils I kept ready to fend off any excuses not to complete work.  But Mrs. Snow the PE teacher was a gruff, grumpy woman and you didn’t mess with her.  I picked up my students without fail at exactly 2:00PM each Tuesday and Thursday.

The PE classes of my middle school days were filled with awkward glances in the stuffy, dark locker room while our teacher would fuss about with paperwork and attendance behind a caged in office, careful to look down and away and never at us changing.  We would squirm in large t-shirts subtly wiggling in and out of our Umbros so no one could catch a glimpse of the various bodily changes we were so desperate to hide.  Trotting out to an expansive gym or the plush field directly behind it, I remember learning to toss a Frisbee back and forth, hoping my name would never be called to do the rope climb, clutching my side from cramps as we ran the mile and dodging the boys flirtatiously as they grabbed the yellow nylon strips on Velcro belts that swung from our sides during flag football. 

None of these physical education staples were a part of my students’ experience at Belle Haven.  They got a giant dirt pit surrounded by a chain-linked fence and that was about it.  Mrs. Snow was an elderly obese woman with dangerously thin ankles who never stood vertically if she could avoid it.  Her supplies, if you could call it that, consisted of a rusty shopping cart from the local Safeway and a handful of old basketballs, most of them never fully inflated to the point of being able to conduct a productive game of any kind.  The most I had ever seen my students do in her class was walk around the dirt field around the edges.  A few of the more energetic and athletic boys ran, their thin legs making a swooshing sound as the black denim fabric brushed together in the Bay Area heat.  That was just one of the many unfortunate things about Mrs. Snow’s PE program: no locker rooms, no changing and a mandatory school-wide uniform policy of black pants and white collared shirts meant some sweaty, stained and smelly adolescents finishing out their day in room 115 with me.  Most of the students walked slowly around the field, in pairs or clumps.  Mrs. Snow would sit on the broken green bench off to the side, occasionally calling out for them to “hurry up!” but most of the time ignoring them completely.

On this particular day I noticed something different.  As I approached the dirt field it occurred to me Mrs. Snow wasn’t in her usual, reclined position of utter indifference and resignation.  Today she was hunched over, her back bobbing up and down a bit too enthusiastically.  Something was in front of her, but what?  A few students sat no more than ten feet away, huddled around something else.  As I moved swiftly closer to them I can make out the faint tune of a popular video game.  What were they playing?  Animal Crossing?

“Hello, Mrs. Snow!” I call out.  “How were my students today?”

“Uh?!” She snorts and jolts around, completely unaware of the time.  Her face has a smear of something white on it.  In front of her I see what had her so captivated this period.  On her lap sits a half-eaten birthday cake in a clear white plastic tray, the kind you pick up at Safeway the day of your child’s birthday and drop off at school with a balloon and some plates.  I can see the red gel frosting on top of the white, at one point wishing Jose a Happy 12th Birthday.


7 Steps to Delivering on Your School Master Schedule (Hint: Start Now!)

As published originally at

So much of a site administrator’s work is responding to what’s happening right in front of them right now. Sometimes long-term and strategic thinking and planning the school master schedule can seem like something for the back burner. However, waiting too long to get started is a mistake. Here are the top seven things all school leaders need to know and do when it comes to delivering on your school master schedule:


1. Start now.

The best time to begin discussing next year’s master schedule is as early as January. This gives you a nice stretch of time to hold discussions with community stakeholders about possible changes for the following year. I like to start scheduling discussions by asking, “What’s working for our students? What’s not?” Teams of teachers write their individual ideas on sticky notes, and we group these together to determine larger themes.


2. Know your schedule’s value.

Time is money. How students and staff spend their days in your building is critical in your work as an instructional leader. The design, maintenance, and management of your master schedule needs to fall squarely on your shoulders. I’ve seen too many principals place scheduling responsibility in the hands of a school counselor, a secretary, or even the PTA president. It’s okay to share the workload. It’s not okay to absolve yourself of the strategic thinking and decision making in your schedule’s design.

3. Communicate that student needs come first.

What does it look like to place adult preference second to student needs? If you’re trying to squeeze in more time for daily acceleration and intervention, are teachers willing to trim down lunch? Are your most qualified, superstar veterans willing to let go of an honors literature section and take on reading intervention? Ask teachers what they want to do to make room for kids’ needs. You might find their input to be valuable and team-building.

4. Know when to be transparent.

Ensure decision making around scheduling is transparent to everyone affected. Start by issuing a timeline of key conversations. Make clear what you plan on doing with input gathered and how decisions will get made. Is the whole process in the hands of your leadership team? Are you making the final calls? Be up front about this.

5. Shift from magic wand to Rubik’s Cube solutions.


I use a photo of a magic wand to emphasize how badly I want to grant everyone’s wishes: grade level release time, more co-taught sections, more electives. However, these solutions depend on a magic wand that can make funds magically appear from nowhere. The key is to get staff in the mindset of solving a Rubik’s Cube. What colors need to shift so we can align all of our priorities? Which programs or positions need to change to fund those extra co-teachers?

6. Set priorities.

Virtually every solution is possible. Grade level common planning time? Sure! Student access to all electives? Yes! The key is having your leadership team determine priorities. Have them take the schedule themes gathered and divide them into two categories: essential and important. Rank the essential ones and put the important ones aside. If ensuring grade level common planning time comes at the expense of 6thgraders accessing advanced band, you will have a clear rationale in place.

7. Hold one-on-ones.

Once you’ve gathered input and determined priorities, it’s time to design the skeleton schedule. Make some time to meet individually with staff or with each grade level and department team to talk through this design. Walk them through priorities set by your leadership team. Show them what their day and what a student’s day will look like. Use visuals. Leave time for questions. Make sure everyone leaves for summer vacation with a clear idea of what to expect next year.

As a school leader, I am passionate about master scheduling because it is one of the biggest drivers for achieving student equity. I love engaging teachers in these conversations because it is a concrete way to practice placing student needs above our own adult preferences. By starting early, being transparent, and setting priorities, you will be well on your way to truly mastering the master schedule at your site for next year.


4 Gifts Teachers Really Want (for the Holidays and Beyond)


Originally published on the GGMG City Blocks Blog at

With just a few days before the winter holidays commence, it is likely you have already purchased some kind of token of appreciation for your child’s teacher. Whether it’s mug full of candy, a gift card, a candle, or a lovely donation to your school’s holiday gift fund, you know how hard teachers work day in and day out and your gift comes from the heart.  

First of all, let me say on behalf of public school educators everywhere, THANK YOU! It is always nice to be appreciated and who doesn’t enjoy a little something here and there? The truth is, there are a number of ways you can show this appreciation year round and maybe spare your wallet and precious SF real estate from needless clutter. Here’s what most teachers really want from their students’ parents:

On Time, Daily Attendance

This seems so simple and, in fact, more of a legal obligation that a “gift.” Really, though, there is nothing more depressing than having a tight lesson plan, classroom materials that you put hours into the night before ready to go and a half-empty classroom at the start of the morning bell. This is the time of year when parents start to slack off and it shows on the attendance sheet and in the tiny little empty colored squares on the classroom rug. So much of teaching is performance, standing up in front of a group, orchestrating a roomful of eager minds towards mastery of a concept, that performing in front of a sparse audience is just deflating. Get your kids to school on time!

Notes or Emails of Recognition

Students rarely give detailed feedback on how a teacher is doing, but as parents we see their impact all the time at home. Whether your child is reenacting an interesting science experiment he did at school by your kitchen sink, or maybe playing classroom with a group of stuffed animals and imitating the teacher’s routines, you can probably tell a lot of the specific little ways your child is benefiting from her experience. Share this with your child’s teacher! While you’re at it, why not share it with the school principal? Principals can get so tied down in their office that it’s hard to see the classroom magic as often as they’d like. Getting a little positive note about a teacher’s impact can help prompt a school principal to visit and provide some positive praise as well, or a little shout out at the next staff meeting. No one goes into teaching for the pay, but knowing these specific little lightbulb moments are happening even after school hours because of our own hard work? Priceless.

Classroom Wishlists

Veteran teachers are saavy enough to be on websites like Amazon and DonorsChoose, so this one is pretty straightforward. Pay attention to whether the teacher has an account like this and then meet the need. Some teachers have regular newsletters where they simply state an item or two they are collecting for a project, like paper towel rolls or magazines. Younger teachers may or may not have explored this concept of asking from parents just yet. I know I didn’t during my earliest years teaching. So if you don’t have a clue but want to donate some useful items anyways, I can tell you I always needed the following for my class: Clorox Wipes, boxes of tissues, pencils (already sharpened!), colored copy paper, and classroom sets of these items: small scissors, glue sticks, crayons, markers, colored pencils, watercolors etc. Yes, schools have supply budgets and teachers have access to these, but these also vary from school to school and many times the time lag of getting a need met compels teachers to spend their own funds anyways.

Volunteer! Or Not

A teacher’s desire and use for parent volunteers varies greatly from classroom to classroom. I know of some teachers that go as far as training parents to lead small group centers and work on foundational reading skills one on one with students, and some who barely reach out to have parent chaperones on field trips. Neither is the gold standard for parent involvement and both can turn into tremendous assets or downfalls of the classroom.  If you haven’t really found a window into volunteering for your kid’s classroom and you’re fretting you might not be doing your fair share, fear not. Managing parent volunteers takes desire, skill and experience and some teachers may have simply decided it’s not for them. If this is truly important to you, look for opportunities to engage that’s a bit out of the teacher’s way, such as when your child’s class is at an elective class like art or PE, supervising recess or helping with a school-wide event. Otherwise, let go of any guilt or preconceived notion you had of being the perfect parent volunteer and use your newfound hours to squeeze in an extra workout.

So in summary, what do teachers really want? Appreciation, recognition, to be noticed for their artistry, and respect. Like The Five Love Languages, this can come in so many forms, so try them all. Thank a teacher in person, via email, through a box of donated classroom items, or in a few hours of volunteering. One of them is bound to find its way into your child’s teacher’s heart and show her how much she is valued in your family!

Jennifer Kuhr Butterfoss is the mom of two children and has been a school administrator with the San Francisco Unified School District for over eight years.  She also does some education-related consulting and journalism on the side.  She is the author of the upcoming book Entering the Lions Den: A School Leader's Guide to Building Trust, Inspiring Others and Not Getting Eaten in Year One.  You can find out more on her website

A School Leader's Top 6 Insider Tips for Choosing a School

Published originally on the GGMG City Blocks Blog at:


As a school principal in San Francisco, I spent Wednesday mornings at 9:45am meeting up with hordes of potential Kindergarten parents in our cafeteria to do a little Q&A session for the final 15 minutes of their tour. Most groups asked the same questions about art, music, science and how the school responded to bullying.

Parents wanted to see colorful, high quality art on the walls, clean facilities, and warm classroom environments where they could picture their child thriving. They checked out sites like Great Schools and fretted over test scores and demographics. When I entered the madness of touring and the SFUSD lottery for myself last year, I had the benefit of an “insider’s” view. Cute, clean facilities were only a small part of my lens, test scores and demographics even smaller.

Here are the top 6 things I considered when selecting a school for my own child:

1. Three or more classrooms per grade

If a school only has one or two classrooms in Kindergarten, then you and your child are committed to the relationships that form over the next six years. This can be a wonderful thing for many families, as they grow close, really get to know one another, and create the classroom bond that can be so magical in elementary school.

But what happens if your child develops a little frenemy? What if a clique emerges that your own kid is not a part of but has ongoing issues with socially?

When a school has at least three or more classrooms in a grade, these issues never dwell for more than a single academic year. The new school year provides a natural opportunity for teachers to thoughtfully break these dynamics up and give all the students a chance to forge new bonds and start over. And trust me, they do.

2. A single language pathway

I was all about Spanish Immersion for my own child. My family is Colombian and nothing would have made my heart sing louder than the sounds of my own daughter speaking fluent Spanish to our relatives far away, or dazzling them at our next family reunion. But unfortunately many schools only have smaller “pathways” in a single site, alongside English Plus classrooms.

From a school leader’s point of view, the effects of this have been very challenging and include everything from trouble getting teachers equal or similar resources to implement school-wide initiatives, an additional challenge for teacher collaboration, and an inability to mix up class groups each year (see the bullet point above). I did pursue immersion for my own child, but only at schools that had the pathway school-wide.

3. Positive adult culture

As much as we want to imagine that schools are magical, happy places where each and every adult is 100% about the students, every school is run by human beings and human beings sometimes have conflicts with one another. Some schools have strong adult cultures under stable, consistent leadership where trust is extremely high and conflicts are worked out proactively, intentionally, and out in the open. Other schools have struggled with staff turnover and leadership transitions that can make relationships more fragile.

I paid close attention to what I saw, heard or knew about staff cultures and made sure to select schools where I felt confident these were the strongest. What’s the best way to find this out if you don’t have a mole on your side? Step inside the staff lounge if you can and pay attention to the feel of it. What’s posted on the walls? Who is in there? Do you see evidence of the latest potluck lunch, sign ups for the upcoming school event and systems in place to keep the area clean? Or has the place become another storage facility with piles of old, discarded classroom materials?  Are staff members smiling, making eye contact and greeting you in the halls or hurrying past and looking frazzled?

4. Legacy of leadership and existing leadership

A school leader is critical in setting the tone of the school. They often serve as a buffer between their hardworking teachers taking on change after change and the school district that is doling out mandate after mandate. When there’s a shift in leadership, this buffer becomes temporarily weakened and mandates are put on staff without ample finessing and massaging that would otherwise help things roll out more effectively.

Even with a new principal in charge, the legacy of leadership has either set this individual up for success or not. And the new principal is either up to the challenge or not. Principals do come and go, so I didn’t base my decision on who was the sitting principal at the time. Instead, I considered past principals at that site and the longevity and legacy of leadership they have left behind.

5. Teacher collaboration time

A teacher’s time is so precious and so valuable, I am always asking how this resource is used in schools. Given the many competing demands on teacher time, many schools try to ask as little of them as possible in terms of structured, data-driven collaboration or attending too many meetings. The thinking tends to be that given sufficient time to lesson plan, grade, and make materials individually, collaboration and sharing will magically happen more informally. But this leaves collaboration at the mercy of chance, proximity and collegial relationships that are vastly different everywhere.

Students and families tend to experience very different educational expectations from year to year if teachers aren’t given regular, weekly, structured opportunities to collaborate under a common vision for instruction.

6. Commitment to inclusion

Finally, on a more personal level, our family was starting to learn about and cope with my daughter’s complicated, chronic illness that was just beginning to make itself known in preschool. It placed an additional burden on her two preschool teachers who were absolutely wonderful and on top of it throughout our ordeal. I knew that going into the public school system, the adult to child ratio was about to get much larger, so I had to put my feelers out there and seek out schools that had high levels of inclusive practices. Inclusion often means additional adult support in the classroom.

Also, like many San Franciscans bearing witness to the continuously shifting demographics of our city, I wanted a school that was intentional about relationship building amongst the parent community. How is the school ensuring differentiated support groups for parents who might represent a minority at the site? Are there multiple ways for families to meaningfully interact and forge bonds across difference? Yes, PTA fundraising is critical and can do wonders for a school site, but when it comes at the expense of marginalizing certain families that cannot attend an expensive gala or make large, public donations, the effects are unintentional but just as harmful. I cannot say for certain that any school’s PTA has completely figured this challenge out, but I do know of many that are at least asking these hard questions, being intentional and reflective about them, and trying their very best to create amazing opportunities for our kids in a manner that includes parent groups of all backgrounds.

The above six criteria existed in a wide range of schools, in all different neighborhoods, and with a wide range of test scores and demographics. Many schools in the Mission and Bayview are starting to see the fruits of their structured teacher collaboration time and more consistent, long-standing leadership, while schools in other parts of the city may be experiencing more transition than before.

Ultimately, choosing a school is about knowing yourself, your child and the values your family holds near and dear. This is different for everyone. Regardless of where you do end up, know that as school leaders, our deepest desire in working in schools is to serve our students and families well. I hope these insights help you consider another vantage point when touring prospective schools. Wishing all of you the best with the lottery this year!

The Case for Clear Objectives

As seen from @mitchmosbey on April 2014 with the question: How do you post YOUR objectives? #satchat #satchatwc

As seen from @mitchmosbey on April 2014 with the question: How do you post YOUR objectives? #satchat #satchatwc

I'm not sure how many people describe the prospect of going into a meeting, any meeting, with any sort of positive emotion.  You never here, "YES! I have FIVE meetings today!"  Its usually with a groan or an eye roll.  For many people, meetings = time suck.  There's nothing worse than attending a meeting and feeling trapped, with no way out and an unclear purpose of structure.  Imagine how students feel when they walk into a classroom and their purpose is also unclear.  They know they are there to learn, but what?  How are they supposed to know what they are learning?  I cannot tell you how many prenatal classes I took while pregnant where each week our purpose for being together was completely unclear (other than the obvious bloat in our bellies).  Instead, the facilitator rambled on about her own birth story, participants shyly asked a few questions and I tried as subtly as possible to check my email on my phone.  For any class, workshop or gathering, I would like to make a plea for clearly established, posted, communicated and dissected learning or meeting objectives.  What should the group be able to do or learn by the end of their time together?  Write it up on some chart paper, a white board, the top of your meeting agenda or the first slide of your presentation.  Be specific.  Start with "Students or Participants will be able to...." For an absolutely beautiful example of this in action, check out literally the first 5 SECONDS of this teaching video I found on Youtube.