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! 

 

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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.

One Word

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!