Middle School Principals’ Collaborative: Beginning of the Year Essentials

This post is a collaboration between a group of middle school leaders from across the country.  Periodically, these passionate and dedicated middle school principals share their thoughts on issues of relevance for those “in the middle“.

Topic: The 2019-20 school year started over the past month across the country.  What are some “essentials” for middle school educators, teachers or leaders, at the beginning of the school year?

Donald Gately.  Middle School Principal, Long Island

For me, it’s important to do something new every year.  There is a truism that we needn’t do new things just for the sake of doing them.  To keep things fresh, I need to always be trying new things, at least that’s how it works for me personally.  This is actually my 18th year as a middle school principal, I know this because my second day as a brand-new principal was September 11, 2001, it was a tragic and challenging start to my career.  This year, inspired by one of my colleagues, Anthony Ciuffo, we implemented with our staff an initiative we’re calling “Learning-Edge Buddies”. Here’s how it works: At our first faculty meeting, each member of our staff responded on paper to the following prompts: What are you going to try for the first time this year or what are you trying to get better at? What’s your plan?  What are some things you’re going to do differently?  Next, each member of the staff crumpled up the paper into a “snowball” and tossed it at someone across the room; pick up the snowball and throw it again.  Everyone picks up a snowball. That is your learning-edge buddy. Your role is to be a cheerleader and supporter for your colleague / new friend as they travel on a learning journey this year.  A simple and elegant idea that so far is working beautifully. So many of our teachers have commented that their learning-edge buddy drops them little notes, maybe a small treat, an e-mail, a pat on the back, just to keep each other on track and accountable to somebody besides ourselves.  I’m excited by this initiative. Wondering what we will do next year!

Dennis Schug – Middle School Principal, Long Island, New York

Remember being 13? Who among us, given the opportunity, would actually choose to return to this…dare I say, unique time of life?

These questions stick in my mind every September, facing a new school year, lying at the core of my approach with new (and returning) students, families, and staff. Whether for the first time, or a second or even third decade in middle school, September is the time to re-evaluate our memories and perceptions of life in middle school, to reset our perspectives. 

Middle School is amazing. Minute to minute, day by day, and month by month, there is this indescribable energy permeating every square inch of space of the building. As adults charged with finding ways to guide, steer, and sometimes harness this energy, a willingness to accept this challenge represents a key to success with adolescents. Catch the lightning in a bottle, and celebrate when you do. 

Middle School is complicated. Personal identity, evolving friendships, and puberty. While these are some of the “typical” struggles associated with adolescence, coupled with real-world issues,  this makes middle school tough to understand, leaving kids (and even sometimes adults) to wonder, “Am I the only one who…?” 

September presents a chance for renewal, a rebirth of sorts. Provided the chance to, not necessarily walk in our own shoes again, but to walk alongside a 13 year-old, that’s where the magic is, the privilege of Middle School. And that’s for us adults as much as the 13 year-olds who we serve.

Chris Legleiter – Middle School Principal, Leawood, KS 

The school year is an extremely busy setting but also provides great opportunities for educators to positively influence and impact others. The middle level is unique as kids are striving to grow as learners, develop independence and find their social place among peers. Educators that thrive at the middle level use the following “essentials” within their work:

  • Foster Effective Relationships – This is the most important factor in a successful classroom and school. It’s all about the people and how do we support and encourage each other. 
  • Effective Instructional Leadership – Both teachers and administrators are instructional leaders, and a primary goal must be student learning. We must always learn new strategies to enhance our work.
  • Focus on Growth – The School year is long but does move by quickly. All educators must focus on getting better at their craft thru learning new practices, becoming connected with other educators, reflect upon the work and adjust as needed.
  • Develop Others – The best schools exist because of its people. They also have a collective efficacy that “we are all in it together “ for kids. We must build others up and focus on “being the best for the team, not the best on the team.”
  • Show your passion – All educators go into teaching because they want to make a difference. We must let others see our enthusiasm, energy and positivity. Those things are contagious and it’s great when kids see the adults having fun in their roles as it creates a “community”. 

The school year is a marathon, not a sprint. Teaching is hard as everyday matters but it is great because every day matters as we can impact kids. Be You and Be the Difference.

LaQuita Outlaw – Middle School Principal, Long Island

You spent the summer thinking about all the different things you would try to be better this year than you were the year before. Your desire to inspire students is at its peak. Before the feeling passes, find a way to harness the excitement that you have at this very moment. Grab a pencil (or a pen – whatever your preference) and record the fine details of what makes you smile. The children’s genuine admiration as they look at you when you speak. The way their eyes follow your every moment as you introduce a new topic, or even the surprise in their eyes when you show them something they’ve never heard before. Think about the conversations they’re having with their peers around the task you’ve given them, or the work that they’ve produced, which far supersedes anything you ever imagined. It’s these moments that will carry you through the difficult times of the year.   

Use the list that you generated to the sheer joy that brought you into education. There are an endless number of ways to capture, or reignite, the beginning of the year bliss. Here are some to consider:

  • Take a picture that sits on your desk as a reminder of the moment that brought you joy.
  • Celebrate children! A note home to the child’s family, or a certificate that celebrates an accomplishment will bring you back to why you do what you do

Brenda Vatthauer – Middle School Principal, Hutchinson, MN

What Are Your Hopes and Dreams

Each year I look forward to connecting with students, parents and staff when they return to school in the fall.  I ask students “What Are Your Hopes and Dreams” and listen carefully to their responses. This question can become a “coaching” conversation by asking several follow up questions helping each student think about their future.  The real power behind the question comes when 8th grade mentors have a conversation with incoming 6th graders about their hopes and dreams. This is not only a mentoring connection, but an opportunity for growth. 

Parents can play a significant role by carrying out the discussion at home, driving to soccer practice or out for a meal together.  Middle school is a great time for parents to engage in the “Hopes and Dreams” conversation with their child. Teachers can promote this at Open House in the fall by posting a welcome on their SMART board stating “What Are Your Hopes and Dreams.”  The visual allows for a great conversation starter.

I would encourage you to continue the discussion by asking your staff what their hopes and dreams are for the upcoming year.  Ask staff to share their thoughts at a staff meeting before school starts. This allows an opportunity for risk taking and builds school culture at the same time.  We are never too old to have hopes and dreams for the new school year.

Jay Posick- Merton Intermediate School, Merton, WI

The beginning of the school year is when we need to focus on the 3 R’s-

Relationships with students

Relationships with staff

Relationships with family.

Most of the interactions we have before the school year starts are with our staff.  It’s important to provide our staff time with one another and it’s also important to spend time with our staff.  It doesn’t need to be, nor should it be, all professional development. It’s time to talk about our expectations for our students and for one another.

Once the students are in the building, it’s important to connect with students as much as you can.  Greet them when they arrive. Connect with them in the halls. Eat with them at lunch. Play with them at recess.  Learn with them in classrooms. And say good-bye to them as they leave for the day.

Building relationships starts with the first email you send, either at the end of the summer or as the school year gets started.  We have used flipgrid to have our staff share a brief video. Open House and Family Information Nights also bring families into our schools.

Relationships are developed over time in 15-30 second increments.  Make the 3R’s a priority for the start of the school year and there’s a great chance it will be your best school year ever.

Ted Huff – Educational Consultant / Retired Middle School Principal, O’Fallon, MO

As educators, it is essential to remember what it was like to be a middle school student. Picture yourself back in 8th grade. Two essential questions ring true: First, Will I be accepted? And second, Can I do the work? If we empower our students to confidently answer both questions with a resounding “Yes”, then our students will be prepared to have a successful year.

Building positive professional relationships with our students begins with the first days of school. Dedicating the first few days of school to relationship building, academic work won’t begin until the first full week of school. During Character Connection Class (our academic lab) teachers and students work together to foster a collaborative and accepting community through a variety of them building activities. This is continues throughout the rest of the school year. During the “academic” and elective classes, the teachers also focus on class relationships. Here they share the importance of getting to know their students before jumping into curriculum work. 

So goes the first week of school, so goes your school year. Start off on the correct foot by building a foundation based on relationships.

Laura Jennaro – Christian Education Leadership Academy (K-8) , Pewaukee, WI

I love the start of a new school year!  With it brings an opportunity for a fresh perspective and a positive approach.  We educators, are the luckiest people on earth; we get to inspire youth everyday.  While blessed by this endeavor, we also accept great responsibility. It is essential for educators, to embrace this responsibility in the following three ways: show up, be curious about your people, and lead by example.  

SHOW UP  When I show up, I am present and engaged in the moment.  I am not multitasking; I do not have my phone out; I am listening; I am interacting.  I am curious. I seek to learn with and from you. In what ways can we show up?

BE CURIOUS  Stories connect us.  I enjoy learning the stories of my people, be it staff, students, parents.  Commonalities create an invisible bridge over which relationships are developed.  How do you learn other’s stories?

LEAD BY EXAMPLE  It is not enough to talk the talk, we must walk the talk.  Model what is expected in all that you say and do. Inspire others with your actions.

Setting the tone for a new school year is essential, and not always easy.  Remember to give yourself grace as you embrace this new school year and the opportunities it provides!

My One Word 2018

It is January 1st 2018. This past week I have taken time to gratefully reflect on 2017, for which my #oneword was Breathe. It was on my lips at all times. I consciously took time to breathe, whether to take in a moment or simply to pause the busyness of life. I was able to manage the stresses of moving our family and taking on a new role in a new school district. Last year I need to breathe. Last year I used my own version of the process to find my word and it worked for me. However the challenges that I face everyday give me pause and as I contemplate my #oneword for 2018, I realize I need something more.

This year’s process was much more intentional than last December. I took some time to ask myself what I need. As I thought through what I need it became clear that in different situations I need different things, which led me to divide my needs into categories of work, family, friends, and faith. I was able to generate words describing what I need to be my best me. Some of the repeated words were love, caring, empathy and consistency. The next step for me was to answer the question “What is in my way?” I wrestled with this one as much of what is preventing me from having what I need is in my mind. I realized that my deficit-thinking can be a barrier to the important work that I do, as well as, the interactions that I have with my family. These thoughts led me to the next question of “What needs to go?” That was an easy one! Negativity, self-doubt and guilt all quickly came to mind.

I let all those words and thoughts marinate. I read. I spent time reconnecting with friends and family. I was present. I reflected. I prayed. All the while thinking about the questions I had answered. All the while seeking my word for 2018.

I considered many words including intentional, seek, hope, love, positive, give, and strength. If you have completed this process you will know that it is not easy! And yet in the midst of these potentially wonderful words, another emerged…

Screen Shot 2018-01-01 at 8.42.41 PM.png

Definition of Courage (Dictionary.com) noun

1. the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty,danger, pain, etc., without fear; bravery.

2. Obsolete. the heart as the source of emotion.

While the definition of courage alone is compelling the Latin root cor of courage held a truth I couldn’t ignore: “from Latin cor “heart” which remains a common metaphor for inner strength.” I need inner strength which comes from my heart.

Why courage?

I need courage to parent. I have to be able to face challenges with my children without fear. I must hold firm to my beliefs while my kids challenge me. Especially with my middle schooler! This is uncharted territory. Being brave is not easy. I also need to be vulnerable so that they can learn with me, from my mistakes. I will be courageous, to dare greatly, without shame, just love.

I need courage to carry out the work that I am passionate about. I need courage to lead with my heart. I have to be brave as we work together to change what school looks like. I don’t have all the answers, no one does. Courage will look different at different times. At this moment in time, I will have courage to stay the course.

I need courage to run. I may fail; I set goals anyways. I know that I am capable of far more than I have accomplished and to that end I will be courageous and train harder. I will have the courage to trust the plan, when temptations to veer off arise.

I look forward to living courageously through 2018. 

Celebrate Monday?

#celebratemonday

This is not the typical way we ring in the new week. If you have a chance check out the hashtag either on Twitter or as a Google Search. American’s traditionally don’t celebrate Monday. Why not? I found an interesting take on this idea on a blog from the Huffington Post. Ed Harrold says,

“Monday is the “beginning” of another cycle of work/life balance; or imbalance. If your life is not moving in the direction you would like, Mondays really probably don’t feel very good. They could be a representation of everything that’s going wrong. If that’s the case, we’re reliving that weekly. And, the energy that it takes to bring us back to neutral is exhausting.”

Interesting perspective. I wonder if people feel this way, do they equally dislike Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday? Imbalance is not fun. I know. I seek balance each and every day. It is illusive. When I think I am really knocking it out of the park at school, meaning communication is timely, meetings lead to action, and I am able to be in classrooms, there is nagging worry that I am neglecting my family. When I feel fulfilled by my time with family, meaning we spent time creating a memory, talked openly and laughed together, I worry that I did not do enough for my staff and students. Do you see how this can be a vicious cycle? I digress, so what about Mondays?

There was a time that I did not like Mondays.

When I was in school: Mondays meant an end to the freedoms of my weekend; the need to tolerate the mundane tasks of school.

When I… Hmmm… When… No… Only when I was a student in school? Let me qualify that statement. It is true that when I was a student, I did not always like school, but not in its entirety. There were good years, really good years. There were bad years, especially when I had to take classes whose relevance to my life was unclear or I had a teacher who I did not believe cared about me. This topic could easily be its own blog post! Since I have been a working professional, however, I haven’t dreaded Mondays.

When I taught, I looked forward to the excitement of a new week! I loved hearing about my students weekend adventures during Monday’s morning meetings. I was excited for the lessons I had prepared, especially when there were lab activities. I enjoyed eating lunch with my team and hearing about their weekends. As an administrator I look forward to the possibilities each day holds. As each day is unpredictable, it is a wonder to see how it unfolds. I get excited to see staff and students. I enjoy the sharing we do in our advisory group! I look forward to seeing the team progressing towards our goals. It seems to me that I have been blessed! In my office you will find these words “Do what you love, love what you do.” No truer words describe my feelings towards my career choice. Which is why #celebratemonday was not something I thought much about.

What is celebrate Monday?  Here is an excerpt from Team ISTE’s article on 10/10/2016

Nearly four years ago, Sean Gaillard spent a snow day catching up on some reading. Little did he know that an idea that would come to him that day would spark a movement.

Gaillard, a former North Carolina high school principal, an ISTE 2016 presenter, a BAM Radio Network blogger and now an education adviser for Buncee, was reading School Culture Rewired: How to Define, Assess and Transform It when a few words in bold print struck him: “What if we celebrated Mondays?”

The authors, Steve Gruenert and Todd Whitaker, were writing about creating an uplifting school culture for students and teachers. Along the way, they raised a question about what it would look like if instead of anticipating the weekend (TGIF and the like), we flipped it, and instead looked forward to Monday.

After spending some time reflecting on the idea, Gaillard says he had a “genius moment.” He began to wonder how he might make that happen at the school he was working for at the time and how he could lead the movement.

“I was trying to get teachers involved in PLNs (professional learning networks) and using social media, and I thought about creating a hashtag and using it as a way to highlight the best practices of our teachers to uplift them and, by example, encourage kids to be responsible digital citizens,” Gaillard explains.

And with that, #CelebrateMonday was born.

This got me thinking… how can we #celebratemonday? How can we let our students know that we are thrilled to have them back with us after the weekend?

How can we make Monday the best day of the week?

 

Being thankful isn’t always easy

As I sit here, following a weekend full of family fun, I want to reflect about how much I have to be thankful for. I really want to reflect. I need to reflect, to focus on this thankfulness. I need to because I often forget to count the blessings that have been bestowed upon me. I need to because it is easy to not do. Right now, this is hard. I am fighting it. I. Don’t. Want. To.

There are days that I get frustrated. Frustrated at the challenging work I am engaged in. Frustrated with not having enough time with my family, to be a mom and a wife. Am I enough at home? Do I spend enough time with my kids and husband? Frustrated with myself for not being enough at work. Are we engaging in the right work? Is our focus clear? Do I make every decision because it is best for kids? That feeling of not enough is insidious. It pervades my thoughts. Am I ever enough? Right now? Probably not… yet. I am still transitioning to this next chapter in my life and I work at it everyday. Some days I make more progress than others. I surround myself with incredible people who lift me up and who I learn from. I ask questions, seek to understand and laugh along the way. And for that I am thankful!

images-1.jpg

I am thankful for the people in my life, those who have been here for the long haul and those more recently acquired. I am thankful for my family who provides me a stable base from which to grow and explore. Who also cherishes our moments together and memories created over all else. I am thankful for their love of adventure and willingness to be in the moment. I am thankful for my friends, including those who have come and gone, yet impacted me in some way. Those friends who I don’t talk to as much as I would like, yet when we are back together, feels like yesterday that we saw one another. I am thankful for their understanding that life sometimes gets in the way, but they know that I value them. I am thankful for my education family, both near and far, old and new, who push my thinking and make me a better leader everyday. I am especially thankful for my newest education family at WMS for trusting me as we navigate these new waters!

I am thankful for change. That might sound strange. Who likes change? I do. Even as a teacher I liked that each year was a fresh start with new students. I enjoyed the challenge of keeping my teaching fresh and fun for our learning community. As an administrator, I enjoy the fact that everyday is different and I can’t predict how it will go! It keeps me on my toes! Change is good for me. I am not talking change for change sake. I am talking necessary change to improve our educational practice. Change that focuses on teachers and students building relationships with one another, exploring the best ways for us to engage our learners, and being brave enough to reflect on what we do and adjust course. I am thankful to work in a district that understands that “doing school” is not the work we should be engaged in; we need to transform school for our kids. Now that is an exciting proposition.

While there are times that I don’t feel I am enough, I am thankful for those around me who help me refocus on what matters. I am thankful for the opportunities that have been afforded me both personally and professionally, and I look forward to what is yet to come. I often say to my family, positivity is a choice, you can choose to be negative towards a situation or you can choose to positive. I think thankfulness is a choice too. I chose to be thankful.

What do you choose?

Every Opportunity

Everyday we are blessed with multiple opportunities to build bridges with other humans. These opportunities may be as simple as sharing smiley “Good Morning!” in passing, to greeting each student as they enter our classroom, to having a conversation about a family member’s ongoing health issues. Whatever the opportunity, take it!

Reflecting back on my teaching years, 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?

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, I taught to the middle and it 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 each student, at the door, everyday, 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. We developed our classroom social contract together. 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, who were also evolving. I also had a supportive and consistent Principal this time too! I took every opportunity to talk to my students, to learn about each of them and make it clear that I cared about them.

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 Whitnall Middle School is evolving too! We have had quite a whirlwind year of changes between the new master schedule, larger class sizes, embracing a push-in special education model, team and content collaboration, as well as trying out co-teaching. Sometimes it is difficult to see what has remained constant.

Every Opportunity

We are still able to take every opportunity and make it meaningful. We have every opportunity to build a bridge and develop a relationship with our students. We have the opportunity to be in the hall or at our doorway during transition times to check in with students or have a quick conversation. We have the opportunity to greet each student when they enter our classroom so that they are seen and know that we care. We have the opportunity to launch students to their next class with a positive message. We have the opportunity in any supervisory role (lunch, recess, before school and after school) to engage students in a conversation.

It is up to us to take EVERY OPPORTUNITY to get to know our learners! It is up to us to be purposeful with every interaction. We need to take the time. It is worth it.

Relationships.png

Why Together is Better

I imagine most you have heard the acronym for TEAM – TOGETHER EVERYONE ACHIEVES MORE. I posted this acronym in my classroom and we used it as a sort of mantra. My students and I were a community of learners. We took time to share good news with one another everyday. I greeted my students at the door everyday. We held each other to our collaboratively derived social contract everyday. We knew that we could build upon one another’s strengths and come to a better product together, rather than alone. We truly lived the acronym Together Everyone Achieves More.

That acronym was played out this weekend while participating in #thefall50, a 50 mile relay run in Door County. 480 teams of two or more runners converged on the Door County peninsula to cover 50 miles at 1895 feet of elevation gain against 15-30 mph headwinds in under 10 hours!

Screen Shot 2017-10-17 at 5.06.16 PM.png

This event was a true TEAM activity

TOGETHER

Our team woke up and drove to the start. A quick photo of all five of us together was taken just before I dashed to the wave start. The first wave was off at 7:45AM. The course is beautiful! The fall colors were at peak intensity, the lake could be seen through the trees and I befriended a fellow runner who continued to pass me and be passed by me during our leg. 5.4 miles and 49 minutes later, I ran into the exchange point to the cheers of my teammates handing off the bracelet to our second leg’s runner. While I was happy with my effort, I knew that I had two more legs to go, so I rehydrated, lightly stretched and we were off to support our teammate. We found a spot along the route to cheer her on, so we stopped and waited for her to arrive. This was no idle waiting game, we rang our cow bell loud and proud for every runner who crossed our path! We cheered for the young and old, fast and slow, team or solo runner alike. When our teammate came we may have been a little more emphatic because we knew the together we would achieve more. We piled back in the car to meet her at the next checkpoint at which we exuberantly greeted her!

This cycle continued throughout the day. Any combination of four teammates in the support vehicle while one pounded the pavement. We strove to find opportunities to cheer one another on along the route. As the day progressed the wind picked up. We tackled each hill and each windy stretch with gusto. We came into each checkpoint with a smile, knowing that we were in this together. We began the day together and we would end the day together.   

EVERYONE

All along the course were brave solo runners, traipsing each of the 10 legs of this 50 mile course on their own. There 75 men and women who committed to completing the entire 50 miles as a solo entry. However, that designation may not be entirely accurate. The teams who entered were obviously together. You could see paint on cars indicating team names and progress. While solo runners came to a checkpoint, they did not hand anything off, rather they were wrapped in support by their team. Some had spouses, family members or friends meet them to provide hydration and energy options. A common theme emerged. Everyone had a team that supported them! Running 50 miles in under 11 hours is not something you can do on your own. These teams are critical for everyone’s success.

ACHIEVES

There were some amazing achievements at this event. Team members ran their fastest legs they have had. Solo runners finished in 7 hours. I conquered one of the toughest courses I have faced this year without letting my self-talk get the better of me. I stayed positive, counted my blessings and took in the beauty that surrounded me. I ran without any technology. I looked for inspiration in my surroundings and my fellow runners. Each leg I ran, I worked to catch up to others, and one by one I passed those unsuspecting competitors. I even struggled through a side ache, annoying enough that it would have forced me to walk a few years ago. I was able to achieve because I knew my team was counting on me and they would be there to support me when I needed it.

MORE

What is more? More is better. More is improvement. More to a runner is farther, faster, stronger. More is making the impossible a reality. More is running my last leg the fastest of the day! More is digging deeper than you think you can and achieving more than you dreamed. More is encouraging the runners you pass. More is being encouraged by the runners who pass you. Saturday #theFall50 morphed from 480 team and 75 solo entries to one team, united in the quest to conquer these tough 50 miles, supporting all participants along the way.

Teams achieve more than individuals.

download-1.jpg

In all aspects of life.

Sometimes the support is obvious, sometimes it is subtle.

Embrace your team.

You will not regret it!

Leading by Example

Leadership is complicated. Leadership is a serious responsibility. Leadership drives change.

Those statements scare some away, as leadership is not for the faint of heart. And there are some who embrace the complexity, responsibility and change. I definitely fall into the latter category.

Last week I was asked if the job of principal is too complex? Initially I thought complex, yes, but too complex? It is only as complex as you make it! Being a leader requires you to know “who you are, what you stand for and lead by example,” a quote whose origin is unknown and that I shared with my students every Friday to launch them into the weekend.

So who am I?

I love my people. I am a firm believer in the need for a trusting culture to support the sweeping changes that need to take place in education today. I purposefully take time each day to ask staff how they are doing, leave positive notes, and make good news calls home. I value building relationships with all members of my learning community so that I am better able to serve them. I am a learner who has learned that our public educational system, which has changed very little over the past 100+ years, needs a major overhaul. We can do better for our children, but we have to be willing to step out of our comfort zones, take risks, and make mistakes. No longer can I accept classrooms where desks are in rows, worksheets as common practice and where one paper-pencil test is considered a valid assessment, as being best practices. Students need opportunities to struggle, ask deep questions and seek answers. Classrooms should be a hive of active collaboration where a teacher facilitates learning, rather than dispensing knowledge. It is imperative that educators today remember that we teach children, not content and what may be good for one may not meet the needs of all. I am a connected educator, who is constantly learning from my tribe. I read, ask questions, join Twitter chats and am part of multiple Voxer groups with educational leaders and experts from across the country willing to share advice at the drop of a hat. “Many hands make light work” and see some amazing things happening in education across the country! I am a collaborator who prefers to have multiple team members at the table. We are stronger together. The most successful changes that I have been a part of were when the many voices came together in consensus. It is a beautiful thing!

What do I stand for?

  • I stand for learning.

I LOVE learning. I value learning. I model the joy of learning. I expect teachers to make learning fun for our students. If learning is not valued and enjoyed, it is not learning. It is compliance, the enemy of learning.

  • I stand for kids.

ALL kids. ALL kids deserve a joyful education regardless of the color of their skin, religion they practice, gender, learning challenge they are working to overcome, or behavior they display. They are all our kids. Are the decisions we make based on what is best for kids? If not, then it is time to rethink!

  • I stand for acceptance, kindness and love.

I accept people for who they are, beautifully made through their life experiences, challenges and baggage. I hope others choose to accept me and all of my flaws. Kindness is essential in every interaction. We are all doing the best that we can, so the least we can do is speak kindly to one another. “Love wins, love always wins.” Words I live by, shared by author Mitch Album.

  • I stand for inclusion.

Inclusion in programming for our students. Inclusion in social groups, both students and staff. My dream is to work in a school where everyone belongs and exclusive groups don’t exist. We are better together. Period.

How do I lead by example?

I teach an advisory class. I supervise lunches and dismissal. I am in classrooms everyday. I make a good news call of the day to a student’s parents. I play with students at recess. I ask students how they are doing and greet everyone I pass in the halls. I check in with staff to see how things are going. I provide ongoing feedback to staff members. I challenge the status quo. I ask a lot of questions. I listen. I learn. Constantly. I work to be better and do better, always improving. I find ways to say yes.

So, is the job of principal too complex? Not too complex, but definitely complex! So all you leaders out there, (yes WMS staff, each one of you is a leader whether you realize it or not!) take a moment to reflect on the three questions identified above: who are you, what do you stand for, and how do you lead by example?

Friday quote.png

The Importance of Relationships

Last week, Chris shared his answers to to an old blog post by George Couros called “5 Questions You Should Ask Your Leader”.  As I contemplated my blog post this week, I kept coming back to these questions and thought it might be nice for you to have my perspective on these questions too. If you recall at our last staff meeting, I may have mentioned that this year I am leading differently than I have in the past. One of my goals is to be very clear about my values and beliefs. Where in years past I may have held back sharing my truth, this year I am embracing vulnerability and being completely open. I look forward to talking more about these ideas

  1.  What are some ways you connect with your school community (fostering effective relationships)?

I believe that relationships are The Most Important aspect of our work! Relationships cannot be overstated. We need to connect to our students, their parents, and our colleagues. The best way that I have found to connect with the school community is to be available. I strive to be out of my office for the majority of the day, and I know I can be better! I also believe that effective communication helps develop relationships, which is why the Friday Focus and In the Middle are important for our front office team to develop. I hope to continue sharing my truth through these weekly communications.

 

  1.  What are some areas of teaching and learning that you can lead in the school (Instructional Leadership)?  Instructional leadership is such an important aspect of my position. I understand that there are also managerial aspects to an administrator’s role. Finding a balance between these responsibilities can be a challenge and when it happens I can provide leadership in the following areas:
  • Community Building in the Classroom (Capturing Kids Hearts, Love and Logic)
  • Establishing Respect and Rapport
  • Coaching Cycles/ Formative Feedback Loops
  • Curriculum Development (UbD)
  • Technology Integration
  • Relevance
  • Formative Assessment strategies
  • Student motivation
  • Transition programming

 

  1.  What are you hoping teaching and learning looks like in your school and how do you communicate that vision (Embodying Visionary Leadership)?  

My hope is that we, collectively and inclusively Love Our People, all of our people. This starts with our colleagues including teachers, aides, custodian, office and kitchen staff. This includes ALL of our students, students who are typically programmed, those who have a support program in place such as a 504 or IEP, and especially those who push us away. If we treat one another with respect, we are modeling a lifelong skill that will benefit our students for the rest of their lives. We also develop trust with one another. Trust is the foundation for success. We can do it alone, but it will be much better if we do the work together. I also want learning to be messy and uncomfortable. As I shared in our first round of grade level meetings, there will always be barriers to overcome, so let’s practice overcoming challenges in school. I believe in communicating this vision in everything that I do and say throughout my day. We will continue to develop these skills as a community through our staff meetings, class meetings and communication home to parents.

 

  1.  How do you build leadership capacity in your schools?  

Everyone in this school is a leader. Whether or not you realize it, you lead every single day. Your leadership has a profound impact on those around you both staff and students. I will strive to provide opportunities for you to channel your gifts through informal and formal roles in the building and for the district. I look forward to seeing some of you step into these roles as the year progresses and look forward to supporting your growth as a leader in this building.

 

  1.  What will be your “fingerprints” on this building after you leave (creating sustainable change)?

My “fingerprints”? I prefer our fingerprints. What will we do to create sustainable change? I believe we need to establish an inclusive, positive and supportive building culture. What do I mean by that? Peter Drucker wisely said “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” If we want to do anything well we need to be sure that our culture is inclusive, positive and supportive, otherwise all efforts of implementing strategy such as PBIS, will be for naught. At Whitnall Middle School, we struggle with pockets of positive culture. These pockets are exclusive groups within our building who support one another in ways that I would expect us ALL to support one another. If culture is defined as “the attitudes and behavior characteristic of a particular social group” then our culture is currently exclusive. Either you are in or you are not. I am not a fan of exclusivity. I believe strongly that as a public institution we need to be inclusive and inclusive across the board. The students that walk in our doors are ALL of our students and we will work hard to do what is best for ALL of them. The staff that walk in the doors are ALL of our colleagues, none better or worse than another, all bringing gifts and talents to share. We are all working towards the same goals and if we unite our efforts there will be no stopping us! If we remain divided, we will never reach our full potential. With a positive, inclusive and supportive building culture for ALL, we will truly be able to soar to great heights with personalizing learning!

Culture.png

A shift in my thinking…

What a whirlwind the past three months have been! We moved. Twice. I started a new job while the kids started in a new school. Our family grew closer as we spent lots of time together during our fun filled, jam packed summer vacation! I continued running, clinging to this semblance of normalcy like a life preserver. I read. A lot. Hoping to find answers to my questions in the pages of a book. I even continued my personal professional development by attending my first National Principal’s Conference in Philadelphia. Talk about stress! I think the only thing that lands on the most stressful life situations list that I didn’t do this summer was get married! PHEW! It was crazy, exhilarating, emotional and completely worth it. And through it all, I felt a shift.

A shift in my thinking. A shift that shook me to the core.

We moved for many reasons, the primary of those being to be closer to family. Both sets of our parents are getting older. While they continue to live independently, my husband and I felt very strongly that we need to be available to them for whatever assistance they need. While we miss our friends, this was the best decision we could have made for our family. We were even able to live with my mom for a few months while we found our home! A shift in my thinking came with this decision. We originally moved away from family for ME. For MY career. I guess I never realized how egocentric my thinking had been. I always believed that I served my staff and students; I see now that I did not truly serve them. When I thought I always put my family first, I did not. This decision was one in which I truly put my family first.

Summer brought its fair share of fun, sun and laughter. Even though I started my new position July 1st, we made a commitment as a family to not let it get in the way of our adventures. We fished, tubed, water skied and rode some crazy water slides together. We camped, hiked, played games and sat around the campfire together. We reconnected with old friends and found some new ones along the way. All the while, I felt different. I felt a shift. In the past, vacation meant a mix of family time and keeping up with work as I was able. This year was different. When we were together, we were together. No distractions. Work could wait. I was present in every moment. I didn’t even take that many pictures! We just were. I was able to breathe. My family was grateful for this adjustment and we grew closer.

Reading and running are my staples. I need to run, almost everyday. When I don’t, I get in a funk. It is time to reflect, meditate, contemplate and connect the dots. Some of my best ideas come during a run! Some people eat soul food; running is my soul food. I also need to read, everyday. It may be a fiction piece or a professional resource, no matter which reading it is, it feeds my soul. Often I am able to combine these two loves with audio books! I fondly remember listening to The Serpent King by Jeff Zetner and sobbing through a pivotal part of it. I can only imagine how I looked drenched in sweat on a summer morning, struggling to breathe and crying my eyes out! I wouldn’t trade it for the world! That may have been the start of this shift inside me. In the past I would have been embarrassed, but this time I embraced the emotion.

Oh Philadelphia! How I miss you! I had never attended a National Conference of any sort, nor would I have attended a national conference if it weren’t for my tribe. My #momsasprincipals tribe thought a meetup would be awesome at the National Principal’s Conference. They were right! Since I was leaving one district to start with another, I did not know how to navigate this trip, but I knew that I needed to get there, no excuses. So I booked the trip, paid for out of my own pocket and do not regret one second! That leap of faith alone demonstrated a clear shift in my thinking. I have never travelled alone before. I was meeting a friend, @lmstump, who I had never met face to face, at the airport to sit together on our flight. I was rooming with a friend,  @HutchJessica, whom I had never met before. I don’t know that I would have allowed this experience become a reality, had I not been feeling the shift. All I knew was that I needed to get to Philly and I am better for it!

76e36f128a20623f7fb89d2926287161.jpg

All of these situations contributed to the person (wife, mom, leader) that I am today. They have also significantly influenced my approach as a building leader. I felt a shift in my priorities, specifically the importance of relationships. Being an introverted person, this can be a challenge. A challenge completely work the discomfort. I also noticed a shift in my attitude, trending positive! They say what you put out in the world comes back to you and I have noticed a difference. I even noticed a shift in my confidence. Being a relatively new administrator I often leaned on others ideas because I did not believe my own heart; I am believing in my heart and it is working! 

 

Let’s start at the very beginning

To plan or not to plan, is NOT the question. We all plan. We plan vacations. We plan what we wear. We plan date nights. We plan out our carpooling schedules! SOME plan more than others. How we plan might look different but it happens.

download-2.jpg

Planning is an important aspect of many different activities in which we take part on a regular basis. My family believes that eating dinner together on a daily (or as close as we can) basis is important. We enjoy each other’s company, share events from our day and laugh together. We learn about and from one another. If we did not plan (set time in our schedules) to eat together daily, it would not happen. If we did not plan our meals (so that there is variety and some favorites), it would not be enjoyable because inevitably some would complain. If we did not plan a weekly grocery shopping trip (to gather all ingredients to have on hand), it would be stressful and last minute. If we didn’t have a routine of sharing, our conversations would not be as open, for fear of judgement. IF we didn’t plan, family dinner would not happen! 

Planning is critical for success in all areas of life. I am an avid runner. I truly enjoy getting out on the trails! I work hard to be stronger and faster. I can’t just go out and run though! I have to do some extensive planning in order to be able to run 30+ miles per week and not get myself injured. I had to research training plans (not to much to soon), decide on what equipment suites my needs (shoes – support is critical, socks, clothing, reflective gear, GPS watch, headlamp – for the early morning jaunts!), get enough sleep (not enough sleep = rundown, weak immune system), eat well (balanced nutrition provides energy) and schedule the actual runs (the BEST part). This is not an easy task, but I do it because I LOVE to run. Running gives me some time to myself to reflect, think and clear my mind. When I don’t run it feels like I missed out on something. I even track my progress so that I can see my improvements! 

Those are just two examples indicating the importance of planning. Some of this planning can be done in isolation, but to sharing the task is much more effective! To plan for our dinners we brainstorm meal ideas together, create a shared shopping list on Google Keep, and prep the meals together. The kids set the table, the parents prepare the food and everyone is responsible for clearing the table. Okay, so that only happens in a perfect world, but we are working towards this utopia, but we know why we plan our dinners.

I used to plan my running in isolation. THEN I GOT INJURED. I sought out friends, fellow runners and experts through Google, Facebook, Twitter and Voxer to get advice. At the time, I did not realize that I was building a tribe whom I could tap into whenever I had questions. The funny thing is I don’t even remember what it was like to not have people to bounce ideas off of! I know why I plan my running.

I know that planning is important.

I can see how collaborative planning can be highly effective.

So, how do these lessons apply to the classroom? Why did I plan my lessons?

I planned my lessons so that I would have a well thought out idea of how the lesson should go. I planned lessons so I could think through possible misconceptions or points of clarification. I planned lessons so that I wouldn’t forget anything. Plans provided me a jumping off point, a place to start. Where we ended depended upon the group, the day, sometimes the weather! I needed that jumping off point because if I didn’t know where were going, how would the kids?

Is planning lessons what is best for our kids? Might it open our eyes to new possibilities? Is this process one way to model what we are asking our students to do?

Why else do we plan? For ourselves? For our kids? For our sanity?

Why do you plan?