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


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 considered to be important (research is still out on that one) 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.

A Hopeful Parent