Why 100 Positive Phone Calls Home?

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When I embarked upon this journey of making 100 positive phone calls home, I had no idea the impact this simple gesture would have on our learning community.

The process was simple, lookup the contact information, make the phone call and share the positive message with a parent directly or leave a voicemail message. Most conversations started something like this:

Me: “Hi, is this ________.?”

Adult: (audible intake of breath followed by a nervous/ hesitant) “yes it is.”

Me: “Hello, this is Laura Jennaro, Principal of Milton Middle School, how are you today?”

Adult: “(pause/ sigh)…ok…” the dread apparent on their tongues.

Me: (Although I was tempted to sound stern and make them think it was a discipline call, I just couldn’t do it! The smile on my face could be heard in my voice and did I have a wide smile when I made these calls. Ear to ear!) “Well I just needed to let you know that Mr./Mrs. ______ was bragging to me about how great ______ is and I wanted to tell you about it!”

Adult: (audible exhale on the other end of the line or a nervous laugh) a surprised “OH!?!

This is the fun part…when I launched into sharing the great things the teachers shared with me about their children. We smiled together, laughed together and I often learned something positive in return!

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Through these conversations my bucket was filled to overflowing and judging by the responses of the parents, including follow up emails and voicemails from those I had to leave a message for, their buckets were overflowing too!

The most surprising realization I had, came after I heard “this is the first positive call I have ever gotten from a school. Thank you! Thank you so much!” time after time. Oftentimes these words were accompanied by sound of tears in their voices.

This was unchartered territory for many of these parents. These 7th and 8th grade parents were hearing how much we value their child as a member of our learning community for the FIRST time. EVER.

These kids are 12 and 13 years old. They have been in school for over half of their K-12 experience, 7-8 years and not once have had a positive call home? How could that be?

Shouldn’t we be showering our children with love and praise? Shouldn’t we be sharing the joy with parents and family members? Are we not celebrating the positives? Have we become entitled, expecting too much? Or have we been focusing on the wrong things? Have we forgotten about the work of the heart? 

Had I not pushed myself to tackle a seemingly impossible task, I never would have learned the power of a positive phone call home. There is no looking back now. I will keep moving forward, striving to provide a better experience for our kids.

We need both our hearts and minds to learn, without one, you cannot have the other.

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Kids today are different, or are they?

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How do we meet the needs of all of our students? As a classroom teacher I did everything I could to meet the needs of all learners inside my four walls. Occasionally I would need assistance, but I worked very hard to build strong relationships with my students and we usually worked it out! As an administrator and lead learner, I am working my tail off to meet the needs of our learners within these walls, so why do I feel like I am coming up short?

Kids are different.

When I first started out in the classroom we functioned in a pretty traditional manner. I worked with students to engage with my hands on science curriculum and only contacted home when I felt necessary. The majority of my students were compliant. They did what they needed to do to earn the grade that they wanted. I knew very little about my students. Therefore my curriculum lacked differentiation. It was a “one size fits all” model that seemed to work for the kids and myself. Looking back I cringe at that reflection of my first four years of teaching. Bur before I beat myself up, knowing that hindsight is 20/20, I have to give myself credit for doing the best that I could with the resources I had.

At that time my PLN was the teachers on my team and floor with only a few whom I really sought advice from. The principal who hired me was let go my second year for questionable ethical practices. We had an interim principal for the remainder of that year, then welcomed a newbie principal the next. I would say three principals in four years makes for an interesting set of circumstances.

Four year later I moved into a new role, in a new district. I made some changes to how I approached teaching. Gone were the days of lecture, notes and labs. I wanted to know who my students were and what they believed about themselves. I was adamant that we needed to establish a classroom community and build strong relationships with and among my students. I greeted them everyday at the door, shaking their hands when they entered the room. We shared good news everyday and most days I would launch them on their next hour with a quote or short story. I even incorporated a loose version of Monday Meeting along with weekly team building activities. I was evolving to meet the needs of my learners, which were also evolving. I also had a supportive and consistent Principal this time too!

It was evident that my students needed a safe place. My students needed to know about me. My students needed to understand why what were doing was relevant to them in that moment. They needed to know that I cared more about them than about what I was teaching them. We were evolving together and having fun doing it.

I believe our team at Milton Middle School are evolving too! Our staff understands the importance of relationships. Our building goals reflect this understanding and are based on data we had gathered over the past two years. We all agreed that this focal point is critical in all classrooms. We understand more than we ever have about establishing a classroom community and the trauma sensitive classroom. We are finding our way.

Kids are different.

Or are they?

Have kids changed or do they have a voice now? Have kids changed or do we look at education differently? Have kids changed or have we changed?

I don’t think kids have changed. I think we have changed, for the better.

I have never been one to make New Year’s Resolutions. I set goals for myself but usually as the need arises or when I want to gain a little focus. However, this year I was inspired to think of one word on which to focus my energies on this year. One word for 2017.

It started with my friend Onica, @O_L_Mayers, who shared her experience of one word with her family in 2016 with the Moms as Principals Voxer group. I started thinking what my one word would be if I chose one. Then one word was everywhere. People were tweeting about it. Blogs were written about it. It was being spread on Facebook! I could not stop thinking about my one word and loving the words that my friends and colleagues were choosing for 2017. It was a sign. It was many signs. I knew that I needed to get with the program and choose my one word!

Wherever should I start?

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With my family of course.

I shared this idea with my family and they were up for the challenge. I spoke to my husband at length about it. I shared my struggles from this year. We talked about many words that came into my mind. At this point it was still an idea. I needed to make it a reality. So, the whole family watched a video clip of Jon Gordon talking about one word on the today show. We all agreed to choose one word. The kids knew their words almost immediately! How I wish I had that clarity of thought! I needed some time.

I took Jon Gordon’s advice and spent some time looking within. What do I want for 2017? What do I need? How can I continue to grow and improve? A mental list began forming. Words that piqued my interest. But which ONE?

Then I looked up. My faith, spirituality, and religious beliefs drove my desire to filter this list. What is truly important? How could I set a goal word that embodied this truth?

Lastly I looked out. What do I want for my family? For my school? How can these desires help me hone in on my one word?

After multiple weeks of thinking and talking about this illusive one word, I was able to choose to…    

BREATHE

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I breathe everyday, so what will this one word mean? I imagine much more than inhaling and exhaling… What do I want it to mean? Breathing embodies my desire to slow down. It will help me focus on moving forward with thoughtfulness. Breathing will provide space to be present and experience the joy of truly being in each moment. How will I live it? Time will tell…

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Experiences That Bind Us

A Reflection of 2016

So much has happened in 2016. From finessing our co-teaching program to team attendance at all professional development opportunities, I have seen the power of a team in action. I cannot think of a better way to help a team grow together than providing common experiences! 2016 was a year focused on relationship building because relationships matter. Everything else will fall into place IF we take the time to let our students know that we care about them. And who can forget about the schedule change we lived through? I am so proud of all of the feats we have accomplished in 2016 at Milton Middle School and I want to share with you some of the highlights!

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In the fall of 2015 our special education department adopted and committed to a co-teaching model. It was in 2016 that the teams hit their stride and started to shine. As you know change can be difficult, but with the right supports in place we can ease into it. The purpose of moving to a co-teaching model with one special education teacher and one regular education teacher leading the class was so we could have more special education students with their same aged peers in classes throughout the day and it would also allow us an opportunity to explore new teaching methods not possible with only one teacher. As a team we committed to scheduling teams with daily common planning time, quarterly release time to dig into their data and plan together, as well as coaching support from administration, including our student services director! All I can say is this dedicated team should be extremely proud of themselves as they are closing the gap between our regular and special education students and learning from one another in the process! Each member of this team has a voice at the table, which is what has made this process so valuable.

Scheduling at the middle level can be challenging especially when you have shared staff and are busting at the seams in our building. So, we added 10 minutes to our school day, effectively lengthening our advisory time. We then developed a team who collaboratively came to the conclusion that advisory was going to look very different in the fall of 2016. The team met multiple times in the spring of 2016 to determine that advisory would not only be for character education, but also for intervention, a universal “Red Hawk” Time curriculum, and extension activities. The Red Hawk Time priorities were set and volunteers sought to participate in summer curriculum writing. Teams of 2-3 teachers developed the curriculum and rolled it out to staff in August. We are living it and tracking of suggestions for improvements that will be made this coming summer. Overall both staff and students appreciate the changes that were made in a short time! Reflecting upon the process, although it felt a bit rushed at the time; the process was worth the struggle. I may have gotten the ball rolling, but never did I imagine the product that we created together!

2016 was a year of teams attending conferences together. No single teacher went to a conference alone. Teams of two to ten teachers, depending upon the conference, attended various opportunities to further their understanding of the importance of literacy. Our Social Studies department was able to work close to home and participate in a two part conference provided by our CESA, a branch of our state education agency; while our Science team and a handful of our English department learned from teachers at Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey’s Health Sciences High and Middle College in California. Talk about an inspiring look at how another school does business. This fall our Building Leadership Team embarked in a four part workshop series called Working on the Work to help us hone our leadership skills! We have completed two of the four sessions and each time I see our team grow stronger and think deeper about our beliefs as a building staff. Our entire 10 member English team was blessed with an opportunity to learn from Donalyn Miller (for a whole day!). The energy was palpable throughout the day as the team reflected upon their practices. They went from 10 individuals to 10 members of a team moving in the same direction. I cannot tell you how strongly I believe in the power of the team! This year I have learned to value opportunities to learn together, rather than sending one to try and share their experience.

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As I wrap up this reflection, I could not publish this post without reflecting upon our renewed commitment to our building goals this year. As a staff we knew that the focus needed to be on relationships and that is what we are living! Although building relationships had been on of last year’s written goals; we were not actively pursuing it. It wasn’t until this school year that we started to challenge one another to move past the status quo and ask each other questions to be sure that we are doing what is best for our kids. We felt the importance of these relationships when members of our Milton “family” took some hits this year, losing family members, as well as a, former student but we leaned on one another through the pain. Staff are talking about kids differently as we learn how to create trauma sensitive classrooms and get to know our kids. Staff have also opened up to students, modeling vulnerability, while students follow suit. This positive momentum is very exciting and I look forward to what is to come!

What do all of these experiences have in common? None of them would have happened without a team. I cannot put into words how much I value the members of my team. Nothing I have ever accomplished was done without the support of a team. My family team, my work team, my Professional Learning Network including #momsasprincipals and #principalsinaction have all inspired me to try things that I never would have imagined I could! 

 

 

Our School’s 12 Days Before Winter Break

This year I was inspired to lead a 12 Days before winter break for my staff by many of the great leaders I am connected to on Twitter and Voxer. I spent weeks gathering ideas before landing on the sequence you will find below. I spent hours preparing for the various tasks that required assembly or setup. It was a labor of love.

Why did I take the time to plan and carry out these 12 Days of Christmas? Because I was able. Because I want my staff to know how important they are. Because we need a little joy during this stressful time of year! I shared out the ideas on the Friday before the week began through our weekly staff bulletin and I have to say it was a success! If you ever feel the need to lighten the load for your staff an event like this is truly worth it.

This year, beginning Tuesday, December 6th through the last day of work December 22nd, we want to show our gratitude and thanks for being such an amazing staff by celebrating the “12 Days Before Winter Break” goodies and fun. We appreciate each and every one of you for all that you do to make MMS a family. We hope that you enjoy your 12 days of fun!”      

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On the 11th day before winter break my principals gave to me…

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On the 10th day before winter break my principals gave to me…

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“We are so grateful for all that you do! We know that this is an insanely tough job, but appreciate all that you do to not only get your kids better, but to become better yourselves. The hardest part of being a teacher is knowing that you never truly know that full impact of what you do. You make a difference!”   

On the 9th day before winter break my principals gave to me…

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On the 8th day before winter break my principals gave to me…

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On the 7th day before winter break my principals gave to me…

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On the 6th day before winter break my principals gave to me…

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On the 5th day before winter break my principals gave to me…

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On the 4th day before winter break my principals gave to me…

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On the 3rd day before winter break my principals gave to me…

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On the 2nd day before winter break my principals gave to me…

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On the day before winter break my principals gave to me…

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Reflecting on this process, in an effort to learn from the experience, I know that the staff really enjoyed the “spirit days” where they could wear jeans. The best part about that is it is free! The coffee, tea, hot cocoa bar was a HUGE hit, especially since it happened to fall on a frigid morning that forced us to have a late start! Ugly Sweater Day was full of smiles and I am going to add a competitive edge to it next year (thanks to @GustafsonBrad). However, when the dust cleared and everyone left for their break my favorite day was handing out the thank you notes. I connected with each of my staff members, the half that I wrote the notes too, and personally thanked them as well as wished each of them a Merry Christmas. People came back to me throughout the day thanking me for taking the time to write such meaningful notes. Each was personal and took some time, but it was well worth it. My bucket if full going into this winter break and I believe my staff’s buckets are full too!

 

Thankful

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I am truly blessed. I work with amazing people everyday. I am able to see students shine everyday. I am able to connect with amazing, passionate educators from across the country everyday. I am able to spread the positivity everyday. I am able to ask questions. I am able to model. I am truly blessed.

I am thankful for a career that I am passionate about and co-workers who are like minded and believe in improvement. I so appreciate my partner in crime, Matt, who is not afraid to ask the tough questions. Who is willing to look at current practice and wonder how it can be better. Who is willing to try and model different approaches to challenging student behavior. I am grateful for Crystal, who always is calm and collected. Who models kindness and empathy during the most volatile times. Who knows just what to say to de-escalate both students and staff. I am thankful for Joe, who persists through difficult situations. Who is willing to have tough conversations with staff and parents about their students. Who bridges the divide between school and home. I am thankful for our team!

I am thankful for our amazing and passionate support staff. They ensure that the office is a welcome place for all who enter. Every customer is an provided absolutely top notch interaction and if the answer is not available, they investigate and promptly follow up with parents, students and staff. I am grateful for Emily, who is a master coordinator. Who remains positive through stressful times. Who understands the importance of perception and does everything in her power to model what is expected of office staff. I appreciate Elizabeth, who always makes you feel just like the person she wants to see. Who truly embodies the adage “service with a smile.” Who is passionate about providing a welcoming environment to all who enter. I am thankful for our team!

I am truly blessed. I appreciate working with others who are service oriented. I am grateful for our collective attitude of how can we make each other’s jobs easier. I am thankful for our team!

Borrowed Space, Borrowed Time

What is your favorite part of the beginning of the school year? Is it taking the time to paint your classroom in the color scheme of your choice? Or is it planning for the first few days of setting the tone and building classroom community? Is it creating new bulletin boards that indicate your theme for the year? Or is it labelling your organizational system so that students can easily find materials? Take a moment and think of your favorite task. Now ask yourself why it is your favorite task?

So?

Is it your favorite because you are making the space your own? Personalizing it if you will. Is it your favorite because you get to let your personality shine? That sense of complete ownership and accomplishment is fulfilling in and of itself. Now you feel ready to welcome in the kids! You probably enjoy walking into the space you have created for yourself and your students everyday.

Now take a moment to imagine how you would feel walking into the unknown? You are a middle school student who needs to learn new routines, expectations and locations of your classes for 8 different periods a day. You may have changed classrooms some in elementary school, but you never had to travel by yourself to the opposite end of a building! Now you need to keep track of 8 different notebooks and folders and make sure that you have a pen or pencil for every period. “What about my calculator? Do I need that today?” You worry about getting the different teacher’s rules mixed up. Worry about losing your pencil and being scolded for not having it. Worry about disappointing your teacher because you are not prepared. That sounds stressful! My heart is racing just typing this scenario and to be honest, I would still have challenges, as an adult!

So, why do we do this to ourselves? To our kids? How is this system like any other that they will experience outside of their time in public education? How is this preparing our charges for the challenges that they will face in life. Regardless of the fact that the United States public education system is the single slowest system in our country to change, we can do better.

We can support our learners as they adjust to the transitions that they need to make during their educational careers. We can be kind. We can be empathetic. We can ask the kids how we can make this experience better for them. We can reach out to parents for insight about their child. We can provide the same environment we hope is provided everyday for our own children. We can bring the joy to learning and let go of the details that get in our way.

It must be hard to feel like you are just passing through. It must be hard to feel like you are just borrowing a chair, desk or table space. I must be hard to view school as time you are borrowing.

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So, let’s change that perception. Let’s be the kind, empathetic, and supportive educators we see ourselves to be. Let’s bring the joy, everyday to every child we encounter. Let’s create opportunities for students to have ownership over their space and time. It will be time well spent.