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?

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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!

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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!

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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.

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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?

 

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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