Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Words


I will never forget that moment. The moment my son's friend used the word gay in a derogatory way as I walked by them. The instant I heard that word as my son clearly heard it too and our eyes locked on each other and then there were no words. Silence. Just silence between two people who were uncertain about how to respond or how to handle the moment.

Yes, this did happen and although it left me feeling a variety of emotions (it was an unsettling experience), it also gave me this amazing and important opportunity to engage in a conversation with my son about how he felt in that moment. Was he uncomfortable? Was he upset? Was my sexuality a source of discomfort for him? What did he wish happened instead? We also talked about how he might handle a situation of that nature when it happens again... not IF, but WHEN because it will definitely happen again. 

You see, from my perspective and experiences, the derogatory use of words like gay or faggot (or retarded or girly or the dozens of other terms) is common place in our society, especially for children in their intermediate schooling years. Heck, I was guilty of using this type of language too when I was his age. But, what words could I help my son access today so he could handle that moment of discomfort when it arises again in the future? We discussed possible responses that he was comfortable with that would communicate his feelings about the specific term or situation. We even role played and practiced using certain words or phrases. We took a potentially painful situation and made it a teachable moment that hopefully empowered my son to successfully navigate an experience of this nature in the future. 

Unfortunately, I am not sure if all the children in our schools have the words to handle uncomfortable situations, personal attacks or just ignorant behavior on the part of their peers. With all this talk about college and career readiness and the implementation of the common core state standards (a questionable experience thus far) and the focus on high stakes testing, I am worried that we are not attending to some of the "life skills" our children need to navigate certain situations and experiences. Specifically, I am worried that we are not taking the time to expose our children to the words they may need to handle a challenging situation. Yes, there is a lot of emphasis on the social and emotional literacy of our students.  We talk a lot about perseverance and grit and how if our kids were taught to embody these attributes, they could meet with success regardless of the obstacles life threw their way. We also talk a lot about things like anti-bullying programs or the Bucket Filling philosophy or the importance of our children being UPstanders and not a bystanders. But, in thinking about how these programs/ideas/concepts generally manifest themselves within our own schools, my concern is that we are focusing too heavily on what not to say or do instead of devoting the time to the words our children may need to handle a difficult exchange, peer or situation.

From my narrow and limited perspective, I think our children need words. They need space to think, reflect, discuss and deliberate. They need the opportunity to role play about how to handle derogatory statements that belittle someone because of their race, class, gender or sexuality. Our children need the words to give voice to themselves as individuals. Our children need the words to express their comfort and discomfort. Our children need the words to successfully question and engage with people or contexts that are unfamiliar to them. Our children need the words to advocate for themselves. Our children need the words to communicate their feelings and needs. 

Do I think equipping our children with words is solely the responsibility of our schools? Absolutely not! I see this as a joint venture between home and school... between families and educators... between adults and children. If we want our children to be college and career ready... actually, scratch that because college and career are just a fraction of our lives; if we want our children to be life ready, we need to give them access to the words.              

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Point of Pontification

Has Twitter just become a place for people to pontificate? Do people (myself included) just like to get up on their little 140 character soap box and say stuff without engaging in a dialogue with others? Or is this something I am just noticing because of where I am in my Twitter journey? I am not sure about the answers to any of these questions but they have definitely been on my mind after participating in a couple of Twitter chats over the last few weeks and reflecting on my own use of the medium.

I realize that being a connected educator means that I have access to ideas, perspectives and resources from around the world, which is an amazing thing! I also value the friendships that I have forged with members of my PLN, who I have come to rely on for "conversations" and on going dialogue thanks to Twitter. Whether I am discussing a Lunchroom DJ idea with Brad Gustafson or reflecting on a different way to tell our school story with Joe Sanfelippo, my PLN has become a source of inspiration and motivation.  

With that being said, on the flip side, I have also seen Twitter be used as a space where individuals are just pushing an idea; or going on and on about a topic that is important to them; or simply looking to call someone else out. Whatever the case, I feel like I am noticing more and more people who are not necessarily looking to engage, discuss and deliberate, which I recognize is challenging to accomplish in 140 characters, but instead just looking for a space to sound off. My awareness to this phenomenon (might not be the right word) was heightened during two chats I recently tried to engage in - last week's #ptchat, which focused on the recent events in Ferguson and race, and last week's #NYedchat, which focused on the concept of STEAM. Both topics are ones that I am interested in and was excited to participate in but when I did, I experienced two things... 

The first thing I noticed was that some people were not looking to unpack an idea and better understand it through an exchange; instead, they were looking to react and push back on something they may have misunderstood. Granted, I realize this happens often because with Twitter tone is lost and thus at times the intent and meaning get fuzzy - this has happened to me many times. But, before we push back and react, shouldn't we engage in an exchange to deepen our understanding? Shouldn't we check our own understandings and interpretations before being offended or reacting? Doesn't deliberation help us broaden our point of view and enhance our thinking? Isn't that what we should model for our kids each day? 

The other thing I noticed during these chats was that some people were just sharing what can best be described as cliches (I am guilty of this too) and there was no tweet following the cliche to substantiate the idea. Sure, it's great to sound like the inside of a fortune cookie; sure, it is easy to point out all that is wrong with public education; and sure, it is simple to tell everyone else what they should be doing in their classrooms but what does that really look like? I am not quite sure because I am often left looking for the idea to unpack the cliche. 

In the end, maybe it's just me: My tweets; my perspective; my exchanges; and my understandings. Maybe I am guilty of the above and I am just becoming aware. Not sure what the deal is yet but what I do know is that I am going to try and avoid the point of pontification and instead, focus on exchanges that will help me enhance my craft.    

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Educate With Heart

Although I have no research to support the following statement, I will always stand behind it based on my own experiences... if we keep our heart at the center when educating a child, the chances that we impact that child in a positive way increase exponentially! Do we need educators to be smart? Yes! Do we need educators to be hard working? Yes! Do we need educators to be patient and flexible? Yes! But without investing, sharing and educating with our heart, we will put a limit on how deeply we can reach a child.

I recently received a thank you note from a third grader who commented on the fact that because I am always positive when he sees me, he always smiles. WOW! 



This little guy thinks that I am always positive and that has a direct impact on him and his disposition when he is around me. That is AWESOME! Does he know how hard I work? Maybe... but that's not what he commented on. Does he know how flexible I try and be? Maybe... but that's not what he commented on. He commented on my positivity, which led to his smile. Trust me, I don't feel positive every single day but when I am in our school and surrounded by our kids, I am able to let go of most of the negativity and a smile is almost always the end result. Yes, I try and smile as much as possible when I am around my kids because I value the relationships I share with them.

Relationships. Smiles. Heart. Transparency. Insight. When we can embrace that these concepts should be as much a part of our educational philosophy as differentiation, standards and instructional techniques, we could take the connections with our students to a whole other level. Healthy and positive relationships with our students should always be our goal. Relationships rooted in trust, respect and heart can take a nice classroom and make it an extraordinary space. When our kids know that we value, respect and love them, they will develop higher levels of self-confidence and feel safe enough in their environment to take risks with their learning. 

So, if you are an educator, here are some tips about how you could educate with heart...

1) Share your passions, interests, fears and everything in between with your students; share yourself!

2) Smile! Each day, especially the really difficult ones, should feature smiles from the educator because if the educator is smiling, then the chances that the children will also be smiling are pretty high!

3) Talk to your kids... every single day! Not just about their homework, tests or assignments... talk to your kids about their lives outside of school; about their passions, interests and fears; talk to your kids and listen to them every single day!

4) Love your kids... yes... even if love doesn't come naturally to you, find it somewhere in your heart and soul and wrap your kids up in that love... they deserve it and will access it if and when they need it!

5) Build time into the educational experience for everyone to explore their passions and interests. When children are empowered to take control over their learning and direct it on some levels, a different buzz permeates the space!

6) Be transparent with your kids... tell them when you are having a rough day because of the flat tire on the highway or the sick child at home. Tell them when a lesson goes wrong. Tell them when you're getting frustrated. Whatever the focus, just be transparent with your kids because you will be surprised to see how many of them will show tremendous empathy and compassion!

7) Give your students voice in the learning community!

8) Have fun as much as possible. Don't save the fun time for Free Time on Friday; instead, give the kids a chance to have fun during math, reading and writing each and every day because when kids are having fun their brains release endorphins, which increases their availability to learning!

9) Make sure your children never feel like a number or data point because they are so much more than a summative assessment!

10) Put your heart at the center of everything you do within your classroom or school because trust me, the children will notice!

So, the next time you walk into your classroom or school, remember to educate with heart!       

Monday, November 17, 2014

Privilege

Growing up I never thought of myself as white. I don't know why but I never quite fit in with the white people in my community. Am I probably the palest person in my world? Yup. Could anyone really get any whiter (physically) than me? Probably not. But, as a child of Greek immigrants and a first generation American, I never found it easy to associate with the "white" kids in my neighborhood. The white kids were the kids who didn't speak another language; the kids whose parents did not speak English with an accent; the kids who didn't have to go to parochial school to learn about a "foreign" language and culture; and the kids who ate things like hamburgers and hot dogs while we had spanakopita and lamb. The white kids were just that... white. And even though I was paler than most of them, the connections with the white kids were few and far between. 

Instead, when I was younger it was easier for me to establish connections with the kids who weren't white. My best friend growing up was Dominican. The kids I played baseball with on most afternoons were Colombian. The kids who seemed to understand my world were other immigrant children. This trend continued as I entered high school. I went to Jamaica High School in Queens and the kids I bonded with there were from the Caribbean, Pakistan and Guyana just to name a few. The connections with white kids still didn't happen easily and consistently. And when people asked me what I was, I always said Greek... I never saw myself as white or caucasian. 

But, the truth is, I am white and my whiteness has afforded me certain privileges that many of the people around me growing up could not easily access. Did I realize I had privilege growing up? No. Did I realize when I went to the local market with my friends after school no one ever watched me while we all walked around? No. Did I ever realize that when I sat in a room with the pool of newly hired teachers in NYC in 1997 almost all of them were white? No. I never realized the privilege my skin color afforded me each and every day when I left my home. 

My consciousness of this privilege really didn't surface until I started my doctorate about three years ago. That's right... I spent the first 37 years of my life completely oblivious to the white privilege that likely impacted the trajectory of my whole professionally journey. I spent 37 years not really understanding all the people who are marginalized each and every day in our world who will likely never have access to these same privileges. I spent 37 years completely oblivious to the fact that white privilege meant I never had to worry about things like the achievement and opportunity gaps. Yes, even though I spent most of life not identifying with the white people in my world the truth is that I am white and because of that I am viewed a certain way by those around me.

So, why am I writing about my white privilege? Because I needed to reflect on my journey; because I needed to acknowledge that white privilege does exist and it impacts things that happen in my world each and every day; because I needed to think about the perceptions I assign to people; and because I am hoping that eventually I can better engage in the difficult conversations I think are needed for our country to grow and evolve.        

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Three

I am currently in my 10th year as an educational leader... one year as an assistant principal and nine years as a principal. The journey started around the time my son was born and as we get ready to celebrate his tenth birthday in a few weeks I was recently lamenting about how quickly he has grown up and how I miss the days when I could literally fit most of his body in the palm of my hand - I wish I could turn back time and experience those moments again. 

Then I started thinking about my time as an administrator... a principal... an educational leader... a lead learner and I thought to myself... WOW... ten years? Already? Where did the time go? I remember the first few months in my new position where the days usually ended with me in tears because administrative prep school had not really prepared me for the day to day aspects of leading a school. The crying staff member going through a divorce; the child who explicitly described being beaten by a parent; the substitute teacher who was likely still drunk from the night before (yup... that happened); or the parent who cursed me out because of the color of my skin. Yup - no college or university program could have prepared me for those experiences and although those moments hurt, just like holding my son in the palm of my hand, I would not trade them for anything. Truth is, I love being the lead learner of an elementary school - the kids, the staff, the community, the events, the day to day smiles and jokes - I LOVE it! Is it always sunshine and roses? Nope. Is it always easy to do the right thing? Nope. Is it always fun? Nope. But if I could turn back time, I would do it all over again... being an educator is my dream job and it rarely actually feels like a job! 

Now, after almost twenty years of experience working in schools, I started to reflect on what I think the keys are to being successful; being happy; being effective; and being what everyone around you needs at any given moment. After a lot of reflection on what has worked for me as an educator over the last 20 years or so, I have narrowed them down to THE THREE...

1) BE THE EARS... the. most. important. part. of. the. job. is. being. a. good. listener! This is it - this is the bottom line! Everyone around you needs to be heard. Kids need to be heard. Teachers need to be heard. Parents need to be heard. Secretaries need to be heard. Colleagues need to be heard. Supervisors need to be heard. You have to be the ears for all these people... and you can't just listen to them... you really have to actually hear them. Hear what they are saying; hear what they are feeling; hear what they want; hear what they need; hear every word they are saying to you because it is not about you... it is about the other person. You may not be able to successfully solve and address every problem; you may not be able to make everyone happy (scratch that... you will not make everyone happy but that's OK); you may not feel great after listening but regardless of the end result, when someone feels heard, at least one need has been met. Remember, our kids, staff members and families have lives beyond the four walls of our schools and those lives impact them while they are in school so we must be attune to those lives by LISTENING! 

2) BE THE VOICE... this can mean so many different things but for me it means advocating for the needs of those around you and celebrating all the positive things happening in your space! Your kids, staff and community need you to be their voice; they need you to fight for what they need; they need you to address their needs even when it's not easy; they need you to be their voice... especially your kids. Our kids are often the ones who go voiceless in the educational experience (educators and family members often seem to think we know better) and we need to empower their voices and amplify them and sometimes that means becoming their voice. Additionally, take the time to tell your story and brand your space! Branding, which typically is a “business world” thing, is exactly what our schools need today and when I say branding, I am talking about creating an identity by telling your story! There is so much bashing of public education in the media today and the landscape of public education is not a pretty one but as educators - whether a superintendent, classroom teacher, support specialist, or the Lead Learner of the building - we still control everything that happens in our schools. And since we control what happens in our schools (even with state/federal mandates and policies, the final execution is our call) we know there are awesome techniques/approaches/etc. unfolding in our schools so let’s spread the word; let’s brand our schools; let’s BE THE VOICE! (By the way, if you would like a step-by-step guide for branding your space, check out the book I co-authored with Joe Sanfelippo and you can order it here: The Power of Branding and check out the site for some free online resources to support your efforts to be the voice). 

3) BE THE CULTURE... A long time ago Todd Whitaker taught me that if the principal sneezes, the whole school community catches a cold. Although I wasn't sure I agreed with that concept initially the longer I have been in the position, the more I see that it is a reality. As leaders, whether of the school or the classroom, we set the tone for the space. What we value and put emphasis on becomes the priority and eventually permeates the classroom or building. If we focus on mandates, policies and test scores, then that will set the tone in the building... that will become the culture of the space. So, decide what is important to you... decide what you believe in... decide what you stand for and communicate it loudly and clearly because you are the culture of the space! For me, it comes down to one thing... doing what is in the best interest of children, even if it is not easy. I lead with my heart and am proud to stand behind my beliefs and decisions because I think they are in the best interest of a child. For some more tips on BEING THE CULTURE check out this other post I wrote a couple of years ago - Leader With Heart!

So, from my vantage point, if you want to be a successful educator, you need to consider THE THREE... Be the EARS; Be the VOICE; and Be the CULTURE! 

What did I miss here?? Please let me know in the comments section, which will help me learn and grow!

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Avoid It

As I have shared in the past, I am currently in my third (and final) year of the MidCareer Doctoral Program at the University of Pennsylvania. As I reflect on the experiences I have had with different professors over the last three years here are some things I have learned to AVOID as an educator and specifically as an educational leader...

1) Don't "reprimand" the whole group if only a few people haven't met your expectations! As a leader my monthly collection of lesson plan books come to mind. I ask that lesson plan books are submitted by Thursday and invariably, about four or five people do not turn them in by that afternoon. So, on Friday, instead of emailing the entire staff and reminding them to turn in their plans, I only email those who have yet to turn them in - there is no need to "punish" or "reprimand" the whole group because of the actions of some. This is something classroom teachers must remember as well - don't punish the whole class when only a few students are struggling to meet the expectations.

2) Don't waste people's time just because you want to hear yourself pontificate! Be concise, specific and keep the information simple so people get exactly what they need - they don't need the whole back story or the "bird walk" you may take while presenting information. Give people what they need to know and keep it short and specific - be respectful of other people's time. As a classroom teacher, try and keep the mini-lesson at 15 minutes or less - don't go on and on and on and lecture after it is clear that you have lost your audience. 

3) Don't make people do "things" just because they have always been done that way. People deserve information/activities that are relevant, current and tailored to their readiness levels. If you are doing the same lesson on November 30th this year as you did last November 30th, then you are just focused on doing what you have always done instead of meeting the needs of those in front of you. As a leader, if Faculty Meetings have always been a time and space for sharing administrative "odds and ends" don't just keep doing it that way - flip the faculty gathering and turn it into a personalized PD experience. 

4) If it can be communicated in writing (an email, tweet, google doc, memo, etc.) then put it in writing! There is no need to call a meeting (staff meeting, class meeting, administrative meeting, etc.) just to review information that can easily be shared (and understood) in writing. Again, be respectful of people's time.

5) If you ask people to do something (a homework assignment, an activity at a PD session, etc.) then you need to place value on it by offering feedback. If it is important enough to do, then it should add some value to the world of those being asked to do it... and often, that comes in the form of feedback or a follow-up conversation to help us enhance our craft.

6) Read your audience and realize when the "train has come off the track" and your lesson, presentation or activity is not meeting the needs of the audience. We should not just keep moving forward because that is what we planned... it must be about meeting the needs of our staff, students, etc. not just following a lesson plan. We must focus on the learning - not just the teaching!

7) Give your students, staff and community a voice in the process - listen to what they have to say so you can best understand how to meet their needs and support their goals. It is not about you... it is about them.

8) Access the expertise around you and play the role of the "guide on the side" to allow students, staff or community members be the facilitators of learning. We don't know everything and we don't always need to be the "sage on the stage." The people around us are smart, amazing and interesting - let's tap these awesome resources.

9) Remember that one size does not fit all and that everyone does not need the same exact thing at the same exact time. Let people express their understandings, passions and interests in different ways!

10) Keep things in perspective and find the humor in a situation whenever possible. Whether facilitating a discussion, or analyzing data, or dealing with a discipline issue remember that this too shall pass and we will soon move on to the next issue. 

These are just some of the things I have learned to AVOID over the last three years in my experiences as a full-time doctoral student that have helped me be a better educational leader. Have you thought about what you need to avoid as an educator? If not, take some time and reflect on what to avoid...  

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Dear Teacher

Please note this piece is not directed at any of my son's teachers - it is a general letter to all educators about the hopes I have for my son's (and all kids') education...   

Dear Teacher,

I can only imagine your reaction as you see this note from me... the dreaded note from a parent. A parent who also happens to be an educator - trust me, I know how I feel when I get one of those notes or messages. Well, before you start getting defensive and thinking about how you might respond, please just hear me out and understand that this is not about you or me... it is about my son and my hopes for him.

You see, as a fellow educator, I am always hesitant to send you any notes or make contact via email or the phone because I don't want to be THAT parent; I don't want you to think I am trying to tell you how to do your job or that I think I know better; I don't want you to think I don't understand my son's areas of need and his strengths; I just don't want to be THAT parent but today I realized my own concerns or fears are impacting my ability to be an advocate for my son and I can't allow that anymore. So, that is why I am finally reaching out to you... not to complain; not to share my opinions about your work as an educator; not to be negative or critical. No, I am not doing any of those things - I am just sharing my hopes for my son as it relates to his educational experience.

While my son is in your care during the school day, my two biggest hopes are that he feels safe and that he is happy. Yes, I want the educational experience to be a happy and joyful one for him. I realize school cannot be all fun and games (we are lucky if the current landscape of education allows for any of that) but he should find some joy in his learning during the day - he should get excited about something that he is experiencing (aside from lunch and recess). I know you are a great teacher and you clearly reflect on your teaching but during that process, please don't forget to reflect on my son's learning - help him find the joy in school! As for his safety please understand that I am not just thinking about his physical safety because I am concerned about his emotional well-being too. Trust me, I know you do your best to ensure it but please understand that this little boy is my heart and soul so his safety is the most important thing because I really believe if he feels safe, he will avail himself to learning, thinking and growing.

While my son is in your care during the school day, please make some time to connect with him or simply check in with him. I know you are busy and that there are a lot of kids in your class but if you could just make some time to talk to my son - really talk to him about his passions, interests and experiences - I think he will learn to trust you and value you in a different way. He is an amazing kid and while he may not always be the model student (I know he talks too much and rushes with his work) he has had many life experiences that have shaped him and impacted his trajectory and I hope that you learn about those experiences too - not just the curricular experiences. I think if you talk to my son, really just talk to him, he will make you smile, laugh, think and maybe even enlighten you on any given subject (likely something to do with video games). So, even if it is once a week or once a month, please make some time to connect with my son - I really think it will be worth your time.

While my son is in your care during the school day, please share all the amazing things happening in your classroom - trust me, your families want to know! I would love to know what happened in social studies today or what the morning meeting looked like or about the trip you went on. I don't want to know so I can sit back and judge you or criticize your work- no! I want to know so I can be part of my son's learning experiences. I want to know so I have an entry point for discussion with my son. I want to know so I can support your efforts outside of school. Please don't wait until weeks after something has happened to share it with your families because we can be an amazing resource and we can support, or even extend, the learning in school. Trust me, I ask my son about school every single day but getting information from him can be tough at times so please share all the awesome experiences unfolding in your classroom as often as possible!

While my son is in your care during the school day, please take the time to check his work - both his classwork and the homework. I know you are really busy and every minute of the day is accounted for but please place value on the work you expect my son to do. I am not asking for extensive feedback (that would be awesome whenever you have time) but I am asking that you at least look at his work - really look at it with your own eyes - so you can get a sense of how he is doing and so that he knows the work is important to you. My son wants to please you so if he knows homework is important to you and that you will check it every single day, he will approach it differently - he will be more careful and thorough with his work.   

Finally, while my son is a member of your classroom community, please remember that he has a life outside of school. He has family, after-school activities, friends and passions that he wants to devote time to and wants to experience. Yes, I know homework is important but please help us maintain balance because as we both know, life experiences are really important in a child's development too. So, while I understand you have to address the state standards and that you are preparing the children for the many assessments they will encounter, just remember that my son has a life outside of school that is really important to him. I know school is a priority, and I will always support your efforts but my son's life experiences are really important too and I don't want them to be compromised because of a homework assignment or project.

So, I am hopeful that this note was received in the way it was intended - an opportunity to share my hopes for my son's educational experiences. This note is not about you or me - it is about my son and what I hope school looks like for him. I hope you understand that I am not trying to be THAT parent and I don't think that I am asking for anything unreasonable. I believe you want the best for my son too so if I can support your efforts or if you simply want to follow up, please let me know.

Thank you for taking the time to read my note and for making my son's educational experience a priority - your efforts are greatly appreciated.

Sincerely,
A Hopeful Parent  

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Donkey Kong

Video games… they were my life growing up and I was hooked from a young age. I remember the first summer my father took me to Greece to visit my family. They lived in a tiny village on a mountain top in Northern Greece - there was no hot water and indoor plumbing was a relatively new thing. Most of the men in my family are lumberjacks and the women tend to the farm animals, children and home. I was an 8 year old boy living in New York City who suffered from ADD so you can imagine how traumatic the summer setting was for someone who was used to having access to anything and everything. 

In preparation for the trip, my dad took me to an electronics store to get a little something. Well, that was the first time I ever held a video game in my hands… it was the flip version of Donkey Kong and after playing for about 3 minutes I was HOOKED! I played that video game for hours every single day that summer (my father had enough forethought to buy extra batteries because it had special batteries) and was really good at the game - the challenge, experience and fast pace spoke to the way I was wired.

Upon returning from my trip, I dove head on into the world of video games. I eventually had various game systems and dozens of games that I spent hours playing and trying to master and win. I was definitely engaged and my focus was hyperfocused on this world of video games. Unfortunately, there was no place for that outside of my home and definitely not at school. School was for sitting in rows, reading from a basal, sitting quietly for hours and only speaking when spoken to by an adult. Needless to say, my attentional issues made success in this context extremely difficult. My parents were contacted consistently and my report card reflected someone who was a failure - both in the academic sections and in the personal growth sections. But I knew I wasn’t a failure - it was just that no one took the time to find out what I was interested in; what I was excited about; and what I was passionate about in "real life."

As you can imagine, these experience as a child definitely shaped my philosophy of education. The role my family played in my life. The fact that my family allowed me to immerse myself in my passions and interests (I think it was more about keeping me quiet than fueling my passions but it’s all good). The fact that my schooling experiences, especially at the elementary level, were extremely frustrating, unsuccessful and challenging for me. All this, and a lot more, is at the core of my philosophy about education and specifically about being an educational leader.

These experiences are what motivate me each and every day. I want our children and staff at #Cantiague to have the opposite type of experiences as I had in my formative years. I want to know about the whole child and adult - what do the lives of our children and staff members look like outside of school and how does it shape the experiences in the classrooms. 

This year, building on what we have done in the past, we have embedded many opportunities to get to know our kids and their passions and interests outside of school. We have experimented with #GeniusHour where children have done everything from creating with play-dough to planning for a passion based research project/experience. Many of the children have also had the opportunity to share their passions, interests and loves through the writing workshop experience where they generate heart maps to help spark ideas for personal writing pieces. We have also tried more Bring Your Own Device Days, which the children get really excited about and cannot wait to collaborate and create. Whatever the case, we have tapped into our children’s passions and interests because we want to support the development of the whole child - we refuse to just focus on test scores and the traditional academic areas!  

I don’t have any hard data to show that this shift in instructional focus at #Cantiague has had any sustainable impact on our kids’ learning but what I do know is that many of our kids are happy, excited and invested in coming to school each day. I am stopped on a daily basis by kids who share how excited they are to experience things like #GeniusHour, experimenting with the flipped classroom (watching videos at home) and sharing their voices through the video updates or classroom blogs. Many of our kids love coming to school because they feel like their voice matters and they know we value their perspectives.

Why do I share this piece? Because I think as educators (especially those of us in leadership positions) we need to think about our children - the whole child - not just the one sitting in our classrooms. Not just the academic learner. Not just the test score. We need to know what sparks the interest of each child and we need to tap into those passions and loves to help shape the academic experience. We need to stop doing things because they have always been done that way. We need to stop focusing on teaching and shift the focus to learning. We need to stop focusing on covering the curriculum and getting through the textbook. We need shift the focus to the children, their voices and learning in general.

Let’s find the Donkey Kong video game loving kid in every child and tap into that love and harness it and unleash it in our schools!

Monday, October 13, 2014

Empathy & Trust

The need for trust and empathy is something I understand on a very personal level. Last year, my whole world shifted after I came to terms with my sexuality - realizing that I am gay and saying the words aloud was quite a journey (a challenging one at times). My entire life changed (as did the lives of those most important people in my world) and I didn't want anyone at school to know because I didn't want them to think I was different or that my work would suffer. Of course, everyone around me knew something was going and without me even asking for it, they all showed me a tremendous amount of empathy and they offered me all the trust I needed to eventually share my journey with them. In the end, my ability to successfully navigate the year was built on the trust and empathy that permeated our community. 

Why do I share this very personal experience with the world? Well, after almost 20 years in the world of public education it took a personal journey to understand that we don't need much to create positive learning environments for children; we don't need much to enact sustainable educational reform; and we don't need much to create an educational community where all members feel valued and important. After 20 years of working with children, educators and families, coupled with my own coming out experience, I have come to believe that if we take a little empathy and sprinkle it upon some trust, chances are we are well on our way to success. Success in life; success in work; but most importantly, success within any educational community. This is what we need most in our schools today... empathy and trust. I used to think that my kids needed my sympathy because they led lives that were much more difficult than my own; I also used to think that the only way we would have a productive year in our classroom is if my students respected me. Yes, sympathy can be useful at times and yes, respect goes a long way, but, without empathy and trust, there will be no success. 

There needs to be trust between educators and families; there needs to be trust between students and teachers; there needs to be trust between administration and staff; there needs to be trust between the community and the faculty; there needs to be trust between the principal and the children; there needs to be trust everywhere within an educational community if we are to meet with any success, implement any innovative changes and create contexts where taking a risk with one's learning (adult or child) is the norm and not the exception. We need to trust that everyone within the organization is dedicated to doing what is in the best interest of children and that we will each carry our "load" towards that goal. We need to trust that when we make decisions that are in the best interest of children, even when they are not easy decisions, we are doing what is right. We need trust in our schools if we are to be successful in a sustainable and meaningful way. It doesn't matter how many test prep workbooks we buy or how many devices we get into the hands of our students or how affluent our community is because without trust, there will be limited success, growth and evolution. It is becoming clearer to me each day that many of the efforts in the world of education reform fail because of the lack of trust. We need trust in our schools!

Of course, trust doesn't come with the clap of your hands or the mere wanting of it. Building trust takes a lot of work. Trust comes from being transparent; trust comes from being collaborative; trust comes from communicating expectations, hopes and vision; trust comes from seeing feedback as an opportunity to enhance your craft (not get defensive); trust comes from conversations about our practice; trust comes from working together to do what is in the best interest of a child; trust comes from the relationships that we foster and nurture in our schools. Trust takes time and effort!  

Trust is just half of the equation though... because without empathy, trust alone will not lead to as much success. We need to show everyone in our schools and communities empathy, even when we think they don't deserve it or when it is incredibly difficult to find the empathy within ourselves. I am not talking about sympathy here - people don't generally benefit from pity but they can benefit from the empathy we exhibit when we try and walk in their shoes. 

The tough thing about empathy is that we don't often know when those around us actually need it most because they are hesitant to share. Sometimes they are embarrassed for others to know they are going through something; sometimes they are unable to verbalize it; sometimes they don't want people to view them as weak or different; and other times they just don't want to talk about it. 

The emotionally disturbed child who tells you she hates you and throws a book across the classroom needs empathy; the little homeless boy who who cries all day and is living in a single room at the local motel with his two siblings and parent needs empathy; the second grader who lost her parent to a terrible illness needs empathy; the new student who just came to the country and doesn't speak a word of English needs empathy; the socially impaired child who is going home to a parent who can't understand him needs empathy; the staff member who is going through a divorce and struggles to figure out child care each day needs empathy; and the list goes on and on for those who need empathy from someone they can trust. 


Whatever the situation or variables, figuring out when someone needs empathy or a trust-worthy supporter can be tough so let's play it safe in our schools and show everyone a little empathy and work diligently to create an environment where trust is part of the foundation. A few months ago I was struggling with coming to terms with my sexuality and successfully navigating an unfamiliar landscape. In the end, if it wasn't for the empathy and trustworthiness of those around me, I may not have been as comfortable as I was in saying, "My name is Tony and I am gay." 

From my perspective, if we take a little empathy and sprinkle it upon some trust, chances are we are well on our way to success within our schools.     

Monday, September 1, 2014

Now I Am An Eleven

Just last year I shared some really important news with the world - I was a nine. That's right - a NINE - not a ten or a fifteen or a twenty - a NINE! I was rated a nine out of twenty - less than half and by someone else's standards, considered barely effective. Rated "barely effective" by someone (or something) who has never seen me work, never watched me navigate my building nor asked people in my community about me as an educator. A nine! 

What am I talking about you ask? Well, last year I wrote all about how the NYS APPR and evaluation model and process had changed and my growth score, according to NYS, was a nine. Now, don't get me wrong, a nine out of twenty isn't terrible and even though it precluded me from receiving an overall highly effective rating, I was named the 2014 NYS Elementary School Principal of the Year so I must have been doing something right. Truthfully, I was fine with the nine and I had moved on... until last week when I found out I am now an ELEVEN! I should be jumping for joy, right? I moved up two points! Now I am closer to being in the middle of the effective range (albeit still closer to barely effective). Now I am more than half (11 out of 20). Now I am double digits. That's right folks, this year I have been rated an 11! Why do you ask? How did NYS come up with this number? What work did I do to be rated an 11? The truth is, I have no idea how my rating was determined but I do know that I will wear my 11 with my pride!

Ok, so I am being somewhat facetious but there is a reason for my tone - I think it is ridiculous. This portion of the educator evaluation plan, as it is being used, seems ridiculous to me. The idea of rating teachers using the Value Added Model (which has not been proven to work well) based on growth from one test to the next, which has been different every year, seems to make the process somewhat unreliable from my limited vantage point. Do we train 17 year olds on quiet side streets to get their licenses and then take them to a NASCAR race track to actually pass the road test? No! Why? Because that wouldn't be the best way to assess their skill set; the skill set that they will need to successfully navigate most of the roads and terrain types they will encounter in their driving lives. 

We can also safely say that rating educators on how children perform on ONE test, predominately composed of multiple choice questions, is not the best indicator of whether or not said educators are effective in their daily work to facilitate teaching and learning. And don't even get me started about the fact that we overwhelm children with dozens of multiple choice questions on one day and then determine whether or not they are college and career ready based on how they answered those multiple choice questions. What college or career do you know that wants really great multiple choice test takers? Not many that I know because these multiple choice questions don't necessarily tap into the readiness levels of all learners - they don't give all learners a space to show what they know.

Fortunately, there are many things that we do control in the world of education - things that can directly impact children each day to ensure that they are safe, happy and open to learning. So, in honor of my ELEVEN, here are 11 things that I think we control that can have a positive daily impact on children...

1) Educators need to take the time to establish relationships with the children in their space because effective instruction can be built on functional relationships rooted in trust and respect. There is research that speaks to the impact of positive relationships on student academic performance! 

2) One size fits all instructional approaches and techniques do not work so differentiate in whatever ways possible to give all children access to learning regardless of readiness levels. And I am not going to sit atop my soapbox and tell you what differentiation looks like because I think effective differentiation is one of the most challenging feats to accomplish but please, oh please, for the children who need "enrichment" don't just give them more work! Differentiate in ways that are meaningful to you and your students.

3) Educators should try really hard to love their students and create a safe haven for them because school should be the place where children feel protected, valued and empowered!

4) Failure, for all learners, students and educators alike, should be embraced as an opportunity to learn, grow and enhance your skill set. Don't punish learners who fail - celebrate the learners who are willing to take risks and think outside of the box.

5) Educators should try and give children some time during the week to research, explore or think about the things that bring them joy and tap into their passions (i.e. - Genius Hour)... Passion Based Learning is a thing and it can help take learning to another level in any classroom or school.

6) Make your classroom, school or district a JOYFUL space because when learners are happy, they feel good about themselves and are able to more readily avail themselves to thinking, considering and ultimately learning! As educators, we should share the things that bring us joy because that can influence the tone of our learning spaces in incredible ways. I really believe that if there is no joy at the core of our learning spaces, then no matter how good our teaching is or how much we have prepared, the results will be limited.  

7) Not all children need the same thing, at the same time and that is OK! If one child needs to be rewarded as part of an intense behavior plan then go to it, even if the other children question why they aren't being rewarded. Don't forget, fair isn't always equal. This also reminds me of why things like Zero Tolerance policies don't work... each child; each situation; each variable is different and we must take the time to understand these differences before taking action.  

8) Be thoughtful about homework - don't just give it because it is what has always been done or because all the other teachers on your grade level are giving it. Give homework that is meaningful to children and then, the next day, make sure you, the educator, check it and provide meaningful feedback. If you are not going to check it or offer feedback then don't assign it. There is very little research that shows a positive correlation between homework and student performance in school yet for some reason there are many educators who still pile on the homework... why?? Just be thoughtful because for many of our children and their families after school is their only time to decompress, explore personal interests and reconnect so let's not compromise that time just because that is what we have always done!

9) Give students voice in the educational experience... let them have input in upcoming units of study... let them discuss books they have read... let them generate the rubrics used to assess their work... let them assess themselves... let them decide what activity should come next... let them give you feedback on how you are doing. As educators we should always want to get better and the best feedback will likely come from our students who live us each day!

10) Remember that not every child and family is the same. Just because one family returns everything on time, responds to your emails immediately and volunteers for every event while the other family is always late, doesn't show up and may even forget to send something in for their child's birthday don't pass any judgements -  instead, take the time to learn more. You may even need to invest more in that family who is struggling to juggle everything because you don't know what they have sacrificed to live in your community and attend your school. All the families in our communities are different and the sooner we embrace that reality, the more we can accomplish in our efforts to do what is in the best interest of children!

11) As educators we should never lose sight of what matters most... our students. Everything we do, even when it isn't easy or goes against the popular opinion, should always be in the best interest of children. 

I could certainly add many more items to this list but because I am only an ELEVEN, I think it is appropriate to stop at number eleven. You see, I may not be the best principal in the world and I may not be the most effective educator on the planet (after all, I am only an 11 out of 20) but what I do know is that we, as educators, have the ability to impact our children in incredibly positive ways each and every day based on the decisions we make in our classrooms, schools and districts. So, let's get out there and create awesome learning spaces for our children and forget about the policies and mandates that are trying to reduce us to a number. Take it from me - I am Tony Sinanis and I am an eleven!