Monday, August 18, 2014

Looking for Symptoms of Rage in #Ferguson, Try #CCSS

Today I am honored to turn over my blog to a guest writer - Felix Gil. Felix is an educational leader in New Jersey and a classmate of mine at the University of Pennsylvania where we are entering the final year of our doctoral studies. Felix took this opportunity to share his perspectives on the issues in Fergusson as they relate to our roles as educators and leaders...

I believe the US should adopt a common set of standards, and general recommendations for when those standards should be met in the course of a student’s K-12 career.  Clarity of instructional goals supports improved instruction, as such I believe adoption of the Common Core can improve educational outcomes.  However, it can’t be standards alone that is expected to improve how much our students learn. I support the standards, but I do not believe they are the silver bullet many hope.  They will not be a balm for what ails public education in areas of concentrated poverty and – in many settings – racial isolation.  I argue that that – poverty and racial isolation - is the root cause of the all too referenced “crisis” in American schools.  Here I echo thinkers like Diane Ravitch, who has powerfully argued aspects of this point.

None of the most noted educational reforms proposed and executed since “A Nation at Risk” was authored in 1983, including that very report, has meaningfully addressed poverty and racial isolation.  Until we as a nation tackle this concern I fear we will continue our sad march, with occasional respites as we celebrate a small success here or there.  I think it’s high time that as a profession we debate the issue of poverty and racial isolation, and as profession begin to advocate for systemic reforms that extend beyond the classroom, rather than passively accepting the reform du jour. 

If we accept the simple reforms without speaking the truth, its so easy for politicians to blame us for the “failure” of our schools when they are courting votes and need a wedge issue.  Moreover, we will be contributing to a system of that has done and continues to do real and lasting damage to whole swaths of our country; a system that oppresses the poor and many racial minorities.  I would argue that the police in Ferguson, MO, are part of that system.  Are schools part of the system too?


Eventually we may understand what actually led to the recent shooting in Ferguson, a shooting that as we all know has given rise to demonstrations and, unfortunately, violent action.  However, the emotions unleashed by this shooting respond to generational grievances and practices that still disadvantage many minorities and specifically, in the case of Ferguson, blacks.  These are practices that are systemic, cruel, and are ultimately a form of violence.  Overzealous policing is part of that system.  Courts that routinely sentence minorities more harshly than whites for the same crime are part of that system.  The dismantling of affirmative action programs, even though we know discrimination exists is part of that system.  

By accepting weak-willed, incomplete efforts, like the Common Core (#CCSS), as the “solution” to educations’ problems, without speaking the truth, I fear that as educators we may unintentionally be part of the system as well.  It does not matter if as an educator you are in a public or independent school, urban, suburban, or rural district, rich or poor – as educators we have a responsibility to raise our voice.  

Let’s do it!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

#SAVMP: Our Perspectives

Over the last year I had the honor of participating in the #SAVMP, which stands for School Administrator Virtual Mentoring Program. As part of this experience, I was lucky enough to paired with John Fritzky and Andrew Sharos - I learned so much from them! As a wrap up to that experience, we wrote a three part blog post where we each answered a question about #SAVMP...

1. Why did I sign up for #SAVMP?

Andrew: When I first heard about #SAVMP, I knew it was a great opportunity for me to learn and grow as a school leader. I was interested in connecting with people from outside my PLN and outside my district. I did not know what to expect when we first started but I knew that I had absolutely nothing to lose by signing up. 

John: I saw a post on Twitter from George Couros about developing a mentorship program for new administrators.  At the time I was finishing up my Educational Leadership program and wanted to continue to learn from others, I knew this would be a great way to continue my learning.

Tony: I was entering my ninth year as an elementary level building administrator and for the first time in my career, I genuinely felt like I might have something to offer a new or aspiring educational leader. The possibility of mentoring someone was of interest to me because as an educator I feel it is my responsibility to support and encourage those new to the field - to possibly help them avoid some of the landmines I hit during the early stages of my career and meet with greater levels of success. Also, it was clear to me that being paired with people through a mentoring program meant that I would do a lot of learning myself and that is always a priority for me. The appeal of #SAVMP was that it was using Twitter as the platform for the mentoring experience and that definitely spoke to my interests and made me feel like it would be much more manageable.  


2. How did #SAVMP help you learn and grow as an administrator?

Andrew: I am one of those people who claim, “I have never won anything in my life”... until now. I won the lottery by getting Tony Sinanis as my mentor. He immediately reached out to me through twitter and we began learning together right away. He gave me feedback on my blog posts and encouraged me to stretch my thinking as a school leader. I think more than anything, #SAVMP exposed me to a different type of school leader than I have observed in my career. There’s power in learning from someone across the country who works with a different population. There’s agency in a process that encourages sharing of ideas and leadership styles. My interaction with my mentor provided all of that, and more. As I began to interview for different administrative jobs, I scheduled Google Hangouts and phone calls with my mentor. Tony was an amazing asset to have in my corner- always coaching me on the logistics of answering questions but also giving me the confidence I needed to be successful. 

John:  By taking on a mentor who is completely outside of my own school, district, and state I knew it would allow me a chance to look at education, and leadership through a completely different lens.  When I was partnered with Tony Sinanis, I knew I was extremely fortunate.  Tony reached out to me and immediately began to develop a relationship with me that went beyond the world of Twitter.  Tony invited me to his school to see how his school functions and what a typical day looks like for him.   I was immediately blown away.  It is easy for someone to state what they believe on Twitter or in a blog post, but it another thing completely to turn those beliefs into reality.  That is what Tony Sinanis has done at Cantiague Elementary school in Jericho, New York.  We spent the entire day in classrooms and I was treated like a celebrity by the student just because I knew Mr. Sinanis.  The students at his school absolutely love him because Tony sees them as children, not test scores.  He knows EVERY student’s name and can talk to them about their individual interests.  I left Cantiague knowing I had a great of work to do to build these types of relationships at my own school.  However, I was comforted by the fact that I had seen a great school in action and if Tony could do it, so could I.  Throughout the year I would throw questions at Tony about how he would handle different situations and no matter how busy he was, he was always able to get back to me and give me a piece of advice.  


Tony: From my vantage point, it is clear that I learned so much more from Andrew and John than they did from me. Their enthusiasm, passion and willingness to take risks in their current roles was an incredible inspiration for me. They provided me opportunities to dialogue about leadership, the current landscape of public education, pedagogy and a bunch of other topics that I am incredibly passionate about and love discussing. Through our conversations and exchanges - whether through email, Voxer, text, in person, through a GHO, I was able to deliberate with them and broaden my point of view and perspectives, which helped me become a better leader and educator. I have done a lot of research about the idea of social learning and the power of learning through social interactions with other like-minded people and the #SAVMP became just that for me - I was learning something through every interaction I had with John and Andrew and was fortunate to be associated with them. Being that I technically had the title of mentor in this relationship, the highlights for me were the successes that Andrew and John experienced this year - John successfully completing his first year as a building administrator; Andrew securing his first administrative position; John pushing me to participate in national podcasts with our kids; and Andrew becoming a father. These are just some of the highlights and in the end, it is an honor to be associated with these incredible educators who have become friends and mentors for me.   


3. What will the #SAVMP program mean for you going forward?

Andrew: I am so thankful to Amber and George for helping me connect to some great leaders in our field. I would love to continue on as a #SAVMP mentor or mentee to continue learning and blogging. I was not able to answer all of the blog topics every week so I am excited to double back to some of them in the future. I would also like to start a mini-admin mentoring program in my own school district using #SAVMP as a model. 

John:  I am grateful for the opportunity Amber Teamann and George Couros provided me with, to connect and learn from Tony.  I feel as though we have developed a stronger relationship than I could have ever expected when I started this program.  Moving forward I feel like I am just as lucky to be connected with Andrew.  I was lucky to have Tony as a mentor and hear his words of wisdom, but having Andrew to learn with will be an added bonus that I did not foresee when I started #SAVMP.   I can’t wait to schedule an #Edcamp where the three of us can get together face to face for the first time.  

Tony: There is no doubt that going forward the #SAVMP experience has left an indelible mark on me - both personally and professionally. First off, a special thank you to George Couros and Amber Teamann for facilitating this experience because once again, they helped push me out of my comfort zone and gave me access to experiences that helped me learn and grow. Second of all, I now have access to two awesome educators from different parts of the country who I can rely on for support, perspective and ideas and that is definitely a critical part of the PLN. Finally, participating in #SAVMP has given me two new friends who make my world a better place - I cannot wait until the next time I get to collaborate with John and Andrew! ROCK ON!

Check out Andrew's AWESOME Blog Here!

Check out John's AMAZING Blog Here

Monday, August 11, 2014

#EdCamp: What's The Point?

I recently had the pleasure of attending my third #EdCamp experience - #EdCampLdr, which took place at the University of Pennsylvania Law School in Philly (thanks to my friend and mentor Joe Mazza for organizing this awesome learning event). All in all, it was an awesome day because I had the opportunity to reconnect with friends, connect in person for the first time with a bunch of awesome educators from my PLN and be actively involved in the whole #EdCamp experience from the morning set up to the SMACKDOWN at the end of the day that I co-facilitated with my friend (and co-author) Joe. 

I also had the chance to lead three different sessions during the day - one on #StudentVoice with Jimmy Casas, Brad Gustafson and Joe Sanfelippo; another on Branding with Joe; and a final "panel discussion" with Joe, Tom Whitby, Spike Cook and Brad Currie, who are all authors from the Corwin Connected Educators Series (Joe and I co-authored the book on branding in the series) focused on the topics covered in our books. 

Yes, it was a wonderful day and at the end of the day, I was left thinking about how it could be better, how it could be different and an overall question about the point of #EdCamps. I was fortunate enough to attend this event with a friend who is not very connected (yes, he knows where to find "The Twitter" but doesn't really use it) and was experiencing his first ever #EdCamp. It was awesome to hear his take on the whole experience at the end of the day... 

 - WOW there were so many passionate educators taking time out of their summer vacations to travel from thousands of miles away to be here...    

- This whole experience seems to be one of the best examples I have ever seen about the power and importance of self-directed learning...

- The organic way this whole day unfolded blew me away - although a lot went into organizing the event there was no certainty about how it would unfold and yet it was a success...

- There were so many passionate educators in the room who were willing to share anything and everything without question or hesitation...

- Every PD experience should contain features of the #EdCamp model - we need this in our schools and districts now...

- I learned a lot and I am hoping to be able to implement some stuff at school when the year starts...

- The only thing I am wondering about is the heavy emphasis on technology and sometimes I think the technology tool or tip became the focus as opposed to the conversation or overarching topic... is that always the way?

There it was... the pin that popped my balloon! He put into words exactly what I was thinking about when the whole event was over - are #EdCamps just about sharing tech tips and tools? Has the experience become about technology? If so, I am concerned because we are doing exactly the opposite of what many members of my PLN tweet about... "It is not about the device or tech tool - it is about what we do with it to enhance learning for everyone in the community!" But wait because we might have been doing that exact thing - focusing on the newest and coolest tech tools instead of thinking about the learning and teaching unfolding in our schools and how those could be enhanced. I was left thinking... what's the point of #EdCamp?

After a few days of reflection and discussion during which I also reached out to Kristen Swanson, one of the founders of the whole #EdCamp movement, I was able to consider the #EdCamp experience from multiple lenses and came to some decisions about the point of #EdCamp. Although there was a relatively "heavy" tech focus at #EdCampLdr that wasn't what most people will remember from that day - it is definitely not what I will remember that day. What I remember is that I was in a room with hundreds of like-minded, passionate and enthusiastic educators who excitedly self-organized to share, connect and enhance their craft. I remember the exchanges, discussions and conversations. The conversations generally revolved around learning and teaching; around thinking and inquiry; around innovation and a different way of doing things; around passions and interests. 

You see, a week later I can better understand the point. The point of #EdCamp, in my humble and limited opinion, is an important one - it is an opportunity to take control of our professional and personal development and dive deeper into the ideas and topics that interest us and support our passion for all things education. #EdCamp is ours - those of us who embrace self-directed learning opportunities control the #EdCamp experience. The point of #EdCamp is to be in a space with other passionate educators who are in the business of enhancing their skills in the hopes of impacting students and the entire learning community in a positive way. 

#EdCamp is about learning and as educators isn't that always the point?  

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Rut

Dear Fellow Educators,

As I sit down to begin officially preparing for the upcoming school year, there are a lot of ideas and questions floating around in my head (there is way too much going on up there). How will the school year go? Will our community, especially our kids, be happy? Will the master schedule get done? Will I need to hire that last minute teacher? You know the questions as I am sure some variation of one or all have been permeating your mind too. Aside from all the questions there have also been some important thoughts and reflections. 

What I have been reminded of recently is that change, evolution and growth are important things – both in the personal and professional arenas. I have also come to understand that my personal development (such as mastering the whole laundry thing or experimenting with cooking) impacts my professional development as well and that is an important thing. Growth is growth; evolution is evolution; and change is change regardless of where it is happening because it shapes us in all areas of our lives and in the end, we control the power to grow, evolve and change, which can help us avoid the dreaded RUT (thank you BJC for forcing me to reflect on this point)!


As we all know, it is incredibly easy to get stuck in a rut and miss the opportunity to learn something new, experience something unique or try something different. Sometimes we just get comfortable or complacent; sometimes we are just tired and don’t want something “new” in our worlds; sometimes we are overwhelmed and stability is the only thing keeping us from going over the edge; sometimes we aren’t comfortable with the prospect of failure; and sometimes we just don’t know where to begin. Whatever the situation, context or variables, a rut is something most of us have experienced at least once and getting out of a rut can be a challenge. Well, worry no more because I am here to share a little secret with you… we have the keys to avoiding a rut within our collective grasps each and every day within the walls of our schools.  As educators, especially at the elementary level where all my experience rests, we have hundreds of opportunities each day to avoid the rut because we are surrounded by kids! We are in the company of excited, engaged and passionate little human beings who want to learn, do, share, think, work through failure and try new things each day! That’s right my friends… our kids are the keys to avoiding the rut; our kids are the best inspiration; and our kids can be some of the most awesome teachers and role models if we give them the space. Our kids are the opposite of a rut because they want to learn something new; they want to experience something unique and they want to try something different! 

So, as we prepare for the 2014/15 school year (our seventh together), let’s look beyond our evaluations (we know we are more than just numbers and ratings), our standardized test scores (we know our kids are much more than these singular data points), the Common Core State Standards (they are just the floor and we are always reaching for the ceiling) and worksheets (yes, please, let’s try and reduce the number of worksheets this year) and let’s focus on learning from our kids – a.k.a. The Rut Avoiders – and creating a safe haven for them, and us, to take risks and avail ourselves to learning something new, experiencing something unique or trying something different

So, what can you do differently this year to avoid the rut? There are hundreds of things but here are some suggestions that have worked for me...


1) Embrace social media and use it as a space to learn without the constraints of physical barriers!

2) Begin branding your space - ask yourself the following questions... What do I believe in? What do I stand for?

3) Encourage your students or staff start a blog and gain access to a world-wide audience!

4) Take your newsletter into the 21st Century and turn it into a blog, smore or weebly - have fun!!

5) Differentiate PD for your staff and encourage teachers to share their expertise and passion with each other!

6) Embed a SMACKDOWN into some portion of each of your Faculty Meetings - thank you Lisa Meade for that awesome idea!

7) Encourage your staff or students to share 30 second Shout Outs where they spotlight something awesome about a peer whether verbally, through an email or even a blog post - thank you Amber Teamann for that amazing idea!

8) Take your office or classroom and get rid of the desk and make yourself more visible and mobile - proximity and presence impact learning! Thank you Melinda Miller for that one!

9) Spend five minutes listening to a kid - not the kid that always talks to you - the quiet one who avoids your gaze! Those 5 minutes are critical to laying the foundation for a healthy and sustainable relationship!

10) Share your passions and interests with your students and colleagues - these become infectious to those around you!

The list can go on and on (please feel free to leave suggestions in the comments section below) but you get the idea... tap into your surroundings to avoid the dreaded RUT!!

Sincerely

Tony Sinanis

Lead Learner 

Sunday, July 13, 2014

PLN Redefines PD

There it is... The PLN = PD... And for those of you who don't know what the letters stand for here it is... the Personal Learning Network equals Professional Development! My words of wisdom... My profound moment for the day. Done!




Ok... so this may not be too profound and not so wise because most of you reading this probably realized this idea a while ago but this was crystalized for me over the last couple of days while at the National Association of Elementary School Principals (#NAESP14) Conference in Nashville. NAESP '14 was my first presentation at a national conference - needless to say, I was beyond excited and totally nervous. I was fortunate to be invited to speak on the Power of Branding and the importance of telling your school story (check out the resources from that presentation here). Don't get me wrong - I have presented on this topic before but never on a national level. Furthermore, the presentations I had done in the past were never really that "fun" for me (let alone the attendees) and I never felt like I hit the "sweet" spot were the overall experience was not only powerful but that people left the room inspired to try something new. That all changed over the last couple of days.

So, we all know the feeling of being at a conference with members of your PLN - I recently read a great post by my dear friend Amber Teamann on this very topic after going to ISTE a couple of weeks ago - but this experience was really different for me at NAESP. Yes, it was AMAZING to hang out, connect, share, learn from and just laugh with some of my favorite people on the planet - Todd Whitaker, Peter DeWitt, Melinda Miller, Joe Mazza, Erin Simpson, Jeff Zoul, Jenny Nauman, Vicki Day, Eric Bernstein, Dan Butler, Kathy Melton and Don Jacobs just to name a few - but I felt the power of my PLN on a whole other level during the morning of my presentation!



You see, my presentation was happening at 8am on a Saturday morning. I was pretty convinced that it was going to be relatively empty because who the heck wants to be at an 8am session on a Saturday, which also happened to be the last day of the conference? I was guessing that some of my friends would show up to support me but the truth is, I wasn't really looking forward to the session. That's right people - I wasn't really looking forward to my own session.
 



Well, that all changed after members of my PLN started entering the room. Suddenly I started to get kind of excited about the possibilities because, after all, I felt like I had prepared a pretty slammin' presentation. With that being said, I didn't let myself get too excited because there weren't too many people in the room at around 7:50am. Before I knew it though, the room started to fill up and I was getting pretty psyched and I knew it was going to be different. Whenever the levels of enthusiasm start overflowing, I like to have music on so I decided that I would play some for the audience before the presentation kicked off. And if you know me at all, I am not talking about music you hear in an elevator - I am talking about loud music that makes me smile and want to sing along (don't worry, I didn't sing). So, I played songs like Happy, Problem and even pulled out an oldie but goodie... Jump Around by House of Pain. That's right - Jump Around! And you know what? Someone actually started jumping around on their way into the room and people were throwing their hands up and singing along to the song. It was AWESOME! The whole feel and tone in the room had changed and people were engaged, laughing, talking and smiling - I was definitely feeding off the positive energy in the room and was pumped about the presentation.




Fortunately, the 2 hours that followed went pretty well. I was able to follow the outline I prepared; I created opportunities for people to share at their tables and exchange idea; I was able to spotlight a few tools/resources that people could use to tell their stories in their own schools; I was able to have my friend and co-author, Joe Sanfelippo, join us from his home in WI for about 15 minutes (we used a Google Hangout) and he shared his perspectives as a superintendent; and I was able to end it by sharing a link/QR code to a google doc that featured resources that could be useful when thinking about branding your school. Overall, it was a pretty decent presentation and I think the people had a good time and actually learned something. Was it perfect? No! Were there things I wanted to do differently? YES! But, all things considered, I think it went well and it was clearly different than any other presentation I had done before. Why you ask? Because of my PLN!




Remember the idea that the PLN = PD? Well, that is what happened for me that morning. The presence of various members of my PLN in the room gave me a level of confidence and excitement that had been lacking before. They brought a certain energy and enthusiasm (and silliness cause they always make me laugh) to the room that shifted my frame of mind and boosted my confidence. They helped me access a whole other skill set during the presentation that made it go much better than it would have gone had they not been in the room. They reminded me of the importance of interactions and conversations and how those impact learning so I did as much of that as possible during the presentation. They reminded me to speak with confidence because I was an "expert" on the presentation topic. They reminded me to inject just enough humor (not too self-effacing) to keep the tone positive and fun in the room. And that is just the tip of the iceberg but the bottom line is that the PLN impacted the experience and helped me be better. 

Even though members of my PLN were technically in the room to be learning from me, I was learning from them. They were helping me developing my presentation skill set. They were helping me access and bolster my self-confidence. They were reminding me about effective presentation techniques - no one wants a "SIT and GET" experience! They were giving me the best Personal/Professional Development I had received in a while. You see, the PLN helped me realize that the definition of PD must be broadened. No longer can we think about PD in very concrete terms - it is not about a document or packet that you get at a conference and take back to your school and stick on a shelf. PD is about both personal and professional development. For example, that morning I learned that I need to access my self-confidence during a presentation because it will impact everyone in the room and the experience. Although this is a "personal" thing, it is an area I needed development in and it will not only impact me on a personal level but will also shape future professional experiences. My PLN, made up of some of the most amazing people who I respect and learn from each day, became my PD and started redefining the parameters of PD. I am no longer looking at PD as PROFESSIONAL development - I am seriously looking at the blurred lines between PERSONAL and PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT thanks to my amazing PLN! 

So, if you haven't done it yet, get connected and build your PLN because you will suddenly have access to the BEST FREE and PERSONALIZED PD in the world!  

    

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Really, We Wrote a Book



If you told me a year ago that at this point I would have co-authored a book with Joe Sanfelippo on the importance of school branding and telling your school story, I would have two reactions... I would have laughed out loud (LOL) and I would have asked, "Who the heck is Joe Sanfelippo?" Seriously... who is this Joe guy? Just kidding... everyone knows that he is the #GoCricket guy!

Truth is, although Joe was a member of my PLN at the time, I wouldn't have considered him a member of my inner circle at that time. We periodically exchanged tweets and participated in the same chats every so often but we never really connected beyond those 140 characters. Then, out of the blue, he sent me a message on Twitter and we exchanged phone numbers and started talking. He was preparing for a trip out east last fall (he and his family came to NY) and was planning on attending #EdCampNJ, which I was going to attend too. Through this connection and the few interactions that followed, we were ready to collaborate on something new and exciting - we decided to do a session together at #EdCampNJ on Telling Your School Story/Branding Your School. 





That is when everything changed - Joe went from a random member of my "outer PLN" (there is a future piece coming about how the PLN is stratified based on my research) to someone who has become like a brother from another mother! Joe is a colleague who I respect tremendously and learn from each day. As a result of that session in Jersey, we connected with the moderators from #edtechchat (Thank you Tom, Sharon and crew) and they gave us the platform to build on this session and on the next day continue the conversation through a well attended Twitter chat. We were suddenly giving voice to the Power Of Branding across the country and educators from every corner of the nation were talking about branding and the importance of telling the school story. People were buzzing about telling their story before someone else tells it for them and thus, the power of branding was born!

Now, how did this connection and experience turn into a book you ask? Well, the awesome, amazing and brilliant Peter DeWitt had the idea for a series of books (he is working with Corwin) based on the experiences of Connected Educators and he wanted us to be part of that series. Needless to say, we were shocked, honored and excited to be included in this group! We said YES without even reading a contract or considering the expectations and demands of writing a book or even really thinking about what we would write in the actual book... we just said YES! Well, a google doc, a few text messages, phone calls and months later, our book was done! Check out the cover...




So, if you are an educator you NEED to consider your brand... whether you are in the classroom or running or school or leading a district, you NEED to consider your brand! What do you stand for? What do you believe in? Does the brand promise you are making to the community match the brand experience? If you are not sure or have not considered these questions the time is NOW!! Read our book (you can click HERE to pre-order your copy) and get ready to BRAND YOUR SPACE and TELL YOUR STORY!!

Monday, July 7, 2014

Patience: A Principal's Pal

Although I have a bunch of strengths and weaknesses as a Lead Learner (aka - the principal) one of my biggest initial challenges was accessing patience when I needed it most. I had the tendency to react to situations, often with an emotional layer, and thus would create new problems because of my less than patient and reflective reactions (this is still a problem for me sometimes). But here is the reality my friends... no educator, let alone principal, can be successful with kids if they aren't patient. That is the bottom line!


from scriptmag.com


Fortunately for me, becoming a father in 2004 helped me develop some levels of patience that never existed within me. After Paul was born I started to see that if I was going to be successful as a parent I needed to be patient, reflective and logical whenever possible. Paul taught me what really matters in life and even though I have been sleep deprived ever since he was born (almost ten years my friends) I was suddenly able to access some amount of patience with greater ease than ever before. Unfortunately, I was still struggling with dipping into the patience pool while at work. I am not sure if it was about maturity or experience or what but being patient at work was not as easy as being patient with Paul at home. Fortunately, as a result of a very difficult situation, that all changed in the spring of 2008...

It was Friday, May 2, 2008 when the call came at 7:30am. Initially I didn’t answer the call but then my secretary came down to my office and explained that it was the mother-in-law of one of our teachers and she insisted on speaking with me. This teacher, Mary (not her real name), had just returned to school the day before from a three-month maternity leave. Her son, Joey (not his real name), was born in late January and she struggled with whether or not to return at all that school year but because excessing was a possibility, she needed to maintain her seniority. I assumed the call that morning was to share that something had unexpectedly come up with the baby and that Mary wouldn’t be able to come to work. After congratulating the woman on the birth of her first grandson, I asked how I could be of assistance and she quietly responded, “Mary died last night.” 

Needless to say I was in shock and all I kept muttering was how sorry I was for her family and for Joey. This was the most challenging experience I had as an educational leader thus far in my career. This 31-year-old young mother who had just returned to work the day before was now dead and it was my job to figure out how to tell the staff, her fourth grade students and the community. How could I explain that this young woman we all loved and adored had died? We had all seen her the day before and she was beaming and looked to be in perfect health and now she was dead.

After allowing myself about 30 minutes of crying in silence, I immediately started developing a plan of action. I was only in my second year as an administrator so the first person I called was one of my mentors – a principal of 30 years. He dropped everything he was doing and came right over to my building to help me enact the plan. I started by calling the central office administrative team and informing them of her death. I then announced that there would be a short emergency staff meeting at the end of the day. Next I spent about an hour walking around the building and visiting classrooms like I did everyday. Walking around the building that day felt surreal and I struggled to fight back the tears. Luckily it was a bad allergy season so I chalked up the red eyes and sniffles to my allergies and no one questioned me. 




Slowly, throughout the morning, members of the district administrative team started arriving in our building for support. In retrospect, although I appreciated them being there, I think their presence raised concerns among the staff because they rarely visited and certainly not as a whole team. With the help of two of my colleagues I drafted a letter that we sent home to the families of Mary's students explaining that she had died. Being that we felt death was handled differently within the various cultures represented in our community, I asked that the families please explain to their children over the weekend that their teacher had died because we would start the day on Monday with a class meeting where the children would have a safe space to share, reflect, emote or just sit quietly if necessary. I then had our Main Office staff make contact with one family member of each of Mary's students to ensure that they knew about the sealed letter coming home in their child’s backpack that day and that they would be certain to read it and address its contents. 

Before I knew it, the end of the day had arrived and our entire staff was gathered in the library for our emergency meeting. After thanking them for juggling their Friday afternoon schedules to be together, I uttered the following words, “Somewhere along my studies I read that a community is defined by the way it handles tragedy and adversity. Well, today, we must handle a heart breaking tragedy and my hope is that it brings us together as a community so they we can rely on each other’s strength to come to grips with this devastating news - Mary died last night.” 

At that moment I learned about the importance of patience at work, especially when dealing with tragedy. On that spring day, I didn’t allow myself to react; instead I tried to respond in a patient and thoughtful way. On that spring day I learned that being a principal was rarely about addressing my needs but instead it was about supporting our entire community in a patient and gentle manner. On that spring day I learned that patience can be a principal's pal and necessary best friend.