Sunday, February 4, 2018

Promise, Perspective, and Potential: It's About the People.


Lately, I find myself thinking deeply and critically about the purpose of education. I'm reflecting on K-12 education: first, my own that I experienced, second, that of my own children, and third, for the 677 students in the school where I am blessed to lead each and every day. In contemplating the complex intersection between school leadership and management, I can’t help but reflect on where leadership and management meets, and how it impacts school culture.

"Management works in the system;
leadership works on the system."

- Stephen Covey


This school year, in some (but not all) ways, I've gone "back to basics". One example of this is a commitment I've made, to write a letter. The letter I have in mind is to the future students in my school. The topic is what they can expect of the education they will receive. This is a personal-professional legacy project, a challenge issued by a leadership mentor of mine. Another example of this year's approach is in response to some unexpected life circumstances that have arisen for a number of staff members. This has created a need to be available to serve their needs, in the interest of some members of our school community, who need my support.  



It's about the long and short view, a confluence of factors revealing a tension between "Leadership" and "Management".





The need to balance between leadership and management presents opportunities, to reflect upon how a leader's decisions impact those who matter most in our work: our students. While there are times when we fall prey to what John Hattie refers to as "the politics of distraction", there is no more important time than now, to identify what we want for our students, and as a result, what will be our focus, as school leaders. Despite distractions, the best school leaders maintain their obligation to keep students' best interests at the forefront of our thoughts, our words, and our actions.

My first leadership mentor is much revered as a keen and perceptive manager of details, no matter how small they may be. Through my early formative experiences in school leadership, I gained a quick appreciation for how close scrutiny of details can serve the organization, and in turn, serve the needs of the students and school community.

During our close work together, I would often listen as my mentor would mutter quotes that stick with me, to this day. For example, when we'd run a fire drill, he'd say, "You play like you practice, and you practice how you play." In a post-drill analysis, we'd dissect where things went well and could've been more efficient. My mentor explained and modeled, breaking down these components, this worked well when practicing for a fire drill. He'd say, "Proper preparation prevents poor performance." We'd look at how much time a drill would take for people in different parts of the building, working with different populations of students. We'd bring people together to conduct our analysis and collectively reflect on what we did well and where we'd commit to doing better next time. Every second counted. Every detail mattered.




These management strategies resonate in my day-to-day management of details, to this very day. Now, when faced with a planned or even an unexpected event, the importance of planning and preparation is at the front of my mind.

However, not every decision a school leader makes can or should be treated as drill practice. Great leaders know this.



How do we message what's most important?

Every day presents a fresh start and opportunity to convey what’s most important to others, through our thoughts, our words, and our actions. These messages may be less about procedural management, are more about snapshots of our leadership vision. They reflect our intentions, our hopes and our dreams for our school community. They represent opportunities for others to see our leadership values and our learning priorities for both students and school community.

"It's about the people, people."  

I smile when I think of these words. The first time I said them aloud was at the inaugural Edcamp Long Island. During the Smackdown. I blurted this response to the question, "What is your big takeaway from our day together?" As anyone who has attended or has been part of planning an edcamp knows, there is an electricity that surges through our personal connections with those whom we've decided to learn with for the day. Often, this feeling continues, into the friendships that result and the learning that flows into our schools and into subsequent professional learning events we attend.

This is where I learned, what we do as leaders: It’s all about the people.

While it’s vital to pivot comfortably between management and leadership in a school building, it’s equally as important to keep vision focused on who we serve, and why we serve.




Looking beyond the drills:
Promise. Perspective. Potential.

Promise

Two decades ago, as a new entrant to the teaching profession, I saw an opportunity to be part of something bigger than myself. Regrettably, in retrospect, my teaching career was more about how I was to impact one group of students: "my students” and “my class". While I made a promise to be a great teacher, looking back, in all truth, it was more about me than anyone else. Today, that promise has evolved. Today, it’s my privilege to serve in a role where I can be part of making decisions that result in positive outcomes for hundreds of students, and a generation of people. While my promise has evolved for the better, my commitment  to the promise for that the future holds steady. It’s helping others to discover and fulfill the promises they make to themselves. It’s no longer about me. It’s about others. It’s about them. It’s about us.  

What promises do you make
to your students or those who are impacted by your decisions?

Perspective

People's perception of a situation is their reality of that situation. Not everyone has had a positive school experience. For some, it was with a teacher or fellow students, and for others, it was a challenging subject area or extenuating circumstances outside of the school day. These mental models often inform the experiences of these people, as adults, and we've got an obligation to meet people where they are, listen to and understand their perspective, and walk with them towards our new reality, together. Conflict resolution is an unavoidable aspect of school leadership. Having the courage and tact to navigate such circumstances is an essential part of maintaining a positive school culture. Whether students have a difference of opinion or adults disagree, it's the role of the school leader to be tactful and respectful in resolving conflict, peacefully and with student dignity in mind. Active listening and maintaining an empathetic mindset not only yields better results, but it also models for others how we can all do this. Honoring what we want for the other party, for ourselves, and most importantly, our priorities for the relationship between us, that is where leadership lives and school culture thrives.

How do you place and maintain empathy,
even in the most challenging of circumstances?

Potential

When I was first afforded the chance to lead the school where I currently serve as Principal, the school was not yet two years old. The vision was set and the master schedule, built for success. Those years prior to my arrival, I would have to imagine, were most challenging - defining the school culture as it found its own level. As teachers blended practices and students shaped and defined expectations, it was then that the seeds were sown. When it became my unexpected privilege, being handed the responsibility as “master gardener”, it was was chance to take a school community to the next level. While this may sound great, as a new principal, it did not come easily at first. For starters, I didn’t quite possess the “green thumb” that was necessary to yield consistently flawlessly abundant “crops” that made up a positive school culture. Fortunately, I as a member of the school community, I, too, am a learner, among other learners. In a school, and in any school and any classroom, when we look close enough, we can see where potential lies. We can nurture it, draw it out, and make the leadership choice to celebrate it. Now, eight years in, I see reasons to celebrate every day. And, I know, the best is yet come.       

How do you grow the potential in others?

Image Credit: Lee Araoz 


“This is not a drill.”

The next time we have a fire drill, undoubtedly, I will smile and think of the words of my mentor: "You play like you practice, and you practice how you play." And as we exit and re-enter the school building, safely and soundly, settle in and get back to the learning at hand, I will remind myself: It's about the people, people. It's about promise. It's about perspective. And it's about potential.

Most importantly, leaders remember: It's about the people.



26 Days of Learning Leadership

Day 1:   Accountability
Day 2:   BRAVO
Day 3:   Collective Wisdom
Day 5:   Evolve

Day 6:   Feedback

Day 12: Learning, Leadership, and Lists

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Optimize (My #OneWord for 2018)

One of the most exciting aspects of becoming an educator who values and appreciates being "connected" is the accountability factor. One annual example of this has been the #OneWord phenomenon, in which educators from across the globe openly commit to one word as a driving focus for the year. It's proven inspirational to read what others share as theirs as much as it's proven to be a source of strength to be able to focus on one word, amidst what is typically a high-energy, demanding lifestyle as a middle school principal. 

My own #OneWord journey began in 2015 with Perspective

It continued in 2016 with Stretch

And it evolved in 2017 with Elevate

This year, I have the added advantage of several blogging communities, which provides numerous accountability partners and mentors. One in particular has been an A to Z blogging project that a group of local connected educator friends and I have engaged in, via social media (Twitter and Voxer) and in person (unconferences, meet-ups,  and conferences). 

Back when this idea was first launched, the goal of the members in the group was to publish a post every two weeks, which would have neatly gotten us through the alphabet in a neat and timely manner. But of course, for those of us who have been around long enough to realize, learning (and life) is anything but neat and tidy. There are obstacles to progress, mental roadblocks, and external "politics of distraction". It's interesting to consider, if we can be forgiving of ourselves to get off track (or sidetracked), can we allow this more for our students and the adults in their lives? 

My #OneWord for 2018 is OPTIMIZE, which can be defined as to "make the best or most effective use of a situation, opportunity, or resource".

Thinking back on 2017, I've learned a lot. But one thing I did not capitalize on enough was having the courage of some of my colleagues who participated in the #ObserveMe movement. That is why it's at the top of my "to-do" list for 2018. 

Why?

Because feedback is one of the most complex, misunderstood, underutilized, and valuable aspects of being in education. As a school principal, it's my responsibility to supervise and evaluate teachers. I view this process as a something between an act of compliance and an instructional coaching experience, in which I benefit as much if not more than the cooperating teacher in the process. One of the challenges to this process is that it's an isolated, all-or-nothing event that has historically been something we have to "get through". One has to ask, is "getting through" something going to yield long-term benefits to any party involved?

This is one of the driving reasons that in 2018, I will look to OPTIMIZE my impact as a school leader. Five core areas of focus for me to do this are:
  • Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Learning
  • Leadership
  • Relationships
I invite anyone who is willing to help me grow and improve as a learning leader to take a few moments to provide me with some good, honest, constructive feedback. Whether we've interacted by way of a phone call or email, a meeting, video call, or presentation, I would love to hear from you. 

One disclaimer to remember, this is not about me. This is about being able to OPTIMIZE my impact for the students and staff in our school, the families and stakeholders in our community, and for one another, to help our profession flourish.



Happy 2018! What's YOUR #OneWord?




Sunday, December 10, 2017

Names and Norms


Making your way in the world today takes everything you've got.

Taking a break from all your worries sure would help a lot.

Wouldn't you like to get away?

Sometimes you want to go...

Where everybody knows your name,

And they're always glad you came,

You want to be where you can see,

Our troubles are all the same.

You want to be...where everybody knows your name.

Isn't it funny how sometimes the most subtle of life events can transform us back to another time? For me, the song lyrics above take me back to growing up in the 1980's, watching Cheers, one of my weekly favorite shows on television with my Dad. Now, I know what you may be thinking. A comedy about a group of adults who meet up regularly in their favorite watering hole. Is that really something a kid should've been watching, and with his parent? Well, let me remind you, this was a simpler time.

One of my favorite characters was a witty king of one-liners, Norm, who was always prepared with a quip, upon entering Cheers. His response, however, was preceded by an important detail, which can be found by watching this three second clip: Cheers Norm .

See what happened there?

Norm was greeted, by name, and routinely so. Welcomed into a familiar community - his community - that allowed him to be comfortable in his own skin. Norm knew he was among others, some of whom shared his life challenges, some of whom could empathize and listen, and others of whom had unique challenges of their own, who can lend an ear or even, relate to Norm's circumstances.

Not that I was thinking about any of this while I was watching and laughing along to the laugh track with my Dad, but now, as a middle school principal, I have a new appreciation for this show.

How often do we go about our lives and our work without stopping to engage in the important things. So often throughout my life, I’ve benefited by the generosity of others. This has reminded me to stop and do this more often. As a result, I’ve recommitted to making sure I am doing the little things that sometimes make a big difference for someone else. If I've spoken to you on the phone lately, or we've interacted via GHO or Voxer this year, or even better, we've encountered one another in person, I want to say thank you. You've helped me do this. So...thank you.

What does this have to do with being a school leader, an educator, or someone fortunate to work with and for children?

Now more than ever, we need to commit to the small things. For example, what if we made the use of names one of our norms?  

In October and again in November, I had the good fortune to chaperone two student trips; one with my teenage son's school and the other with the students at the school where I serve as Principal. Since those trips, I have carried, in my pocket, two laminated pieces of paper, neither of which is larger in size than a business card. One of these cards has the names of students who were in my "meal group" and the other has students' names from my "activity group". I carry these around so that each day, I am reminded to check in with as many of these students by name.


Now, as one might imagine (if you work with adolescents, you know this), some engage with me and respond, some ignore my greeting, a few look at me, like, "Why are you talking to me?" I take none of this personally, but rather feel good knowing that these students are known, and know in our school, they are known. Kids need to hear their names. Greeting them allows me to consider some of the challenges they're facing, remembering their best challenge is my worse challenge, as a kid and now, as an adult. (Remember what I said before, watching Cheers with my Dad was during a simpler time, in the world and in my world.)

If you're lucky like me, maybe your school has an Advisory program or a character education or SEL program of some sort. But don't feel like you need one of these programs to make names the norm.

One of the biggest challenges of school leaders today is what results when we focus on what we "have to do" instead of what we "get to do". Each of the following ideas requires minimal preparation, other than scheduling them on your daily and weekly checklist, and maybe asking for an "accountability partner" to help you.

3 ways to promote an inclusive school community:

1. Opening Doors: One of the daily habits I have worked to build is to meet and greet our students, as often as possible throughout the school day. One of the best high traffic, low pressure meeting places, is where I can hold a door for students. These spots provide the opportunity for eye contact, the exchange of pleasantries, and an opportunity for me to use a student's name and for him/her to hear his/her name. An unintended consequence, I've learned, is that students have begun to hold doors for one another, and for their teachers. A component I’ve added over the years is to incorporate a “pitch counter” which I use as a “hello” or “good morning” counter. In middle school, this has been a fun way to remind adolescents that sometimes we adults need the reciprocal greeting as much as our students need to hear it. You'd be surprised how helpful teenagers can be, especially when you tell them you're "just looking for a 100th person to say good morning to you that day".

2. Name Cards: Keep a list of names of students on an index card in your pocket. Learn these names by asking questions of your school counselor, psychologist, nurse, teachers, and paraprofessionals with whom they work. Refer to the names on the card daily, and update it regularly. This will help, not only as a physical reminder to stay connected with students, but also to reminder that behind each of these names is a unique story. Collaborative leaders are catalysts to those around us, to ensure that students succeed, when they are known, and they know they are known. When we write names down, it seems as though it promotes our using them with greater frequency - that's good for everyone.
 
3. Two-by-Ten: Sometimes we encounter students whose names we know before we meet them face-to-face. You know who I’m talking about - “THAT kid”. Well, that kid needs us more than any of us know, and he’s going to ask for it in many ways that will challenge how we choose to respond. One strategy I’ve adopted for many students (and even some adults) is what researcher Raymond Wlodkowski refers to as, the Two-by-Ten Strategy . Simply put, select one student, and invest two minutes a day for ten consecutive days, speaking about any school-appropriate topic the student would like to discuss. This may take some practice and some artful questioning, but once achieved, the outcome is a personal connection, between a child and trusted adult. Do you have two minutes a day to invest in a child?

Why is this important? It's about building efficacy, in one another and in our school communities. Caring teachers already do this, and with intentional practice, we can all do our part, in building a community of trust.

Peter DeWitt writes in, School Climate: Leading With Collective Efficacy (Corwin, 2018), "Collaborative leaders need to keep in mind that the experience for each student is different when it comes to classroom climate." DeWitt goes on to note that, today, in a not-so-simple time, there are significant issues we can and should be tackling in the safe confines of our classrooms and school communities, among them, issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation. DeWitt continues, "If schools are to be places where all students feel included, then we as educators need to have conversations, read books, engage in debates, and hang up posters and artwork that depict the very students who attend our schools and depict the very population that lives within our country." At it's most basic level, this begins with using one another's name. This is where a "Culture of We" begins.




I’ve written previously about the work of Peter DeWitt and others in My #OneWord2017. It’s important of considering research to confirm or challenge our gut instincts as educators. However, when we look at the vital role Collaborative Leadership plays in impacting student achievement, teacher-student relationships (with an effect size of 0.72) are paramount to the success of individual students and in turn, can be a catalyst for success in our school communities.

Why not make a commitment, right now, to knowing your impact on student achievement and making the most of how you use it?

Cheers!