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.

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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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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! 

 

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!