Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Curse

Being a school principal can make me feel like I have the curse. That’s right - I said it - being a principal can be a curse… especially when you also happen to be a parent.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my job. In fact, I think I have the best job ever - I get to hang out with amazing kids, educators and families every single day and have fun at the same time. I get to greet kids in the morning as they enter our building with music blasting over the PA (a new thing we started this year thanks to a suggestion from Lisa, a reading teacher in our school); I get to sit on the rug during whole class meetings/lessons and see things through the eyes of my kids; I get to watch passionate educators try innovative instructional techniques to best meet the needs of kids. Is it always sunshine, roses and rainbows? No but it is pretty awesome the majority of the time and as great as that is, it also makes other aspects of my world a lot more complicated and difficult - especially when it comes to parenting.

I have heard some educators who are also parents refer to this phenomenon as the curse… the curse of looking at things through your parent eyes as an educator. No matter how hard I try, when it comes to Paul and his educational experience, I can’t separate the parent from the educator and invariably I compare what I see in Paul’s school to what I see unfolding in our school and that can be tough at times. I am not saying that our school is better or that his school is inferior but what I do know is that I am often thinking things like… Oh, we don't do things that way at our school… or… If Paul was a student at Cantiague we would have done this to best meet his needs as a learner… or sometimes I am just left scratching my head and asking WHY?

For example, Paul recently started middle school and they were having their Meet The Teacher Night event, which started at about 5:30pm on the fourth day of school (after a four day weekend). Unfortunately, according to Paul, they did not send home a notice about the event until the day it was taking place. I am not sure if this is how most schools conduct business but I kept thinking that this type of communication alienated some families and that is not how I am used to doing business as an educator. How would the working parent even find out about the event if they didn’t get home until after it actually started? How would the single parent arrange child care with such short notice (granted, a middle schooler could probably stay home alone)? How would the parent who didn’t speak English be able to arrange for a translator to join them with only hours notice? The questions went on and on and ultimately I found myself judging the school for how they handled everything because I was comparing it to our Meet The Teacher Night event at Cantiague. Even though I felt like I could offer the school some feedback on how they could have tried things differently I didn’t want to be THAT parent… the educator parent who thinks they know better. Hence the curse… you can see things from both sides but you can’t always affect the same type of change as a parent as you do as an educator because you don’t want to be THAT parent… the educator parent who thinks they know better.

This has never been more difficult for me than it has been over the last few weeks. And to be honest, it has been incredibly frustrating because for the first time I felt like the fact that I was a school principal was a curse… I wish I knew less… I wish I was uninformed… I wish I could just assume my son’s school was doing its best and move on… Ignorance is bliss, right? Well, it’s too late for all that because I know too much - I have been an educator for 20 years and I have seen a lot in that time. So, I am going to try hard not to get frustrated moving forward; instead, I have made the following decisions about how to manage being a parent who sees things as an educator first…

  1. I am going to be THAT parent when necessary and advocate for my son if his needs as a learner are not being met because I want him to have access to the best educational experience possible;

  1. I am going to support Paul at home as a parent… help him with his HW when appropriate… discuss books with him when possible… push his thinking when necessary… offer him feedback on his writing to help enhance his craft. I am going to do my best to support the efforts of his school;

  1. I am going to support Paul in his efforts to advocate for himself and to express himself if he feels an injustice has occurred;

  1. If I feel like Paul’s school should have handled something differently, I am going to offer my feedback… not all the time but when I think it could be helpful to the entire school community;

  1. I am going to learn from Paul’s school… I am going to try and replicate the awesome things I see (I am hoping there are many of these opportunities this year) and I am going to make a list of what not to do at Cantiague based on things that I would have handled differently.  

Although I am sure I will add to this list as the year unfolds, I am going to embrace the fact that being a parent and educator isn’t necessarily a curse; instead, it is going to be treated as an opportunity!

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

On The Carpet

This post is co-written with Adam Welcome who is Principal at Montair Elementary School in Danville, CA.

As the educators in a school building, it is often easy to focus on the adult issues and needs within the community because that is the lens we use to look at things on a regular basis. Are our kids at the center of what we do? Yes. But, are we really looking at things through the eyes of our children? Are we getting down to their level (literally) and looking at things as they see them so we can better understand and appreciate their needs? Do we know what they see? What they feel? If not, then the time has come for us to refocus our lens and reconnect with our kids… possibly by getting on the carpet!  

How do you connect with kids? How do you get to know your staff? Building relationships with students and adults (teachers, aides, custodians, secretaries, etc.) on your site is paramount.

Screen Shot 2015-09-02 at 9.41.33 AM.png

First off, visit classrooms every single day (assuming you are in the building) and have your finger on the pulse of what’s happening. You can’t support teachers in their work and students in their learning from your office while responding to email. You must be present and that starts with classroom visits. With that being said, visiting classrooms is the first step - a critical one - but just the first one!

Step two involves understanding the difference between being visible and being engaged as educational leaders. Just walking in and out of classrooms to be seen without much interaction does not contribute to the building of relationships - does it make you visible? Sure… on some level. Does it make you an engaged leader who is advocating for the needs of your students and staff based on what you learn from seeing healthy relationships rooted in respect and trust? No because just being visible isn’t enough to really connect with kids and staff!  

Screen Shot 2015-09-08 at 5.14.11 AM.png

We need to ask questions; we need to listen to what is happening; we need to be engaged; we need to connect; we need to offer feedback and not in a judgemental/evaluatory way… no, no, no - that is not going to work. We just need to connect and build those relationships and the healthiest way to do that is to be present, to be visible, to be engaged and to be a good listener. Stronger relationships will take the work deeper and farther in the long run, investestment now pays huge dividends later!

Have you ever had that Principal that stood in the back of the room with a clipboard? Didn’t talk with anyone, wrote notes down furiously and then left the room? That’s not the best way move a school forward and build an innovative mindset. Leaders must be on the ground floor of their school, hanging on the carpet with kids is the place to be. There really is no better vantage point than that of the children. We see what they see; we hear what they hear; we feel what they feel; and most importantly, we understand what they need and what they get as learners. Ultimately, that is our job - to be the person who removes the roadblocks and helps the students and staff best meet their needs by providing them access.

Screen Shot 2015-09-08 at 5.13.36 AM.png

Don’t be that disconnected evaluator in the back of the room with the clipboard! We are not dealing with factories, conveyor belts and widgets… we are dealing with learners and teachers… we are dealing with people who are looking to learn and grow… we are dealing with our community who needs to trust us as the educational leaders who are seeing and understanding things through their eyes!

Be that leader with your smartphone in hand, taking photos of students in action. Tweet those moments to share with your community and make each day at school open house. Flatten the walls of your school and create high levels of transparency between the school and the surrounding community! When parents see you engaged, see you on the ground floor connecting with kids on the carpet, they can see how much you care and how your focus is on the children. A stronger community with everyone on the same page sharing a common vision, is a more powerful team for our kids.

If not us, then who? If not now, then when? The leader of a school must innovate, bring new ideas, modeling that learning comes first, see where the gaps are, fill those gaps with solutions and move the team forward.

Henry Ford revolutionized the automobile industry in the early 1900s! By being involved, being hands-on, being innovate, not listening to the naysayers, by breaking away from the mold and building his own road. Henry Ford was on the ground floor of his production line, his hands were dirty, he communicated with his employees, and he built a massive enterprise. He wasn’t sitting in his office disconnected, he was the change, he made the change, he was on the “carpet” connecting with people and igniting the change!

Check out the new #principalsinaction hashtag happening on Friday’s. Leaders from around the country will be Tweeting and sharing what they do at school! Be on the ground floor, be engaged, be involved in teaching/learning and watch your school grow!

Screen Shot 2015-09-08 at 5.13.48 AM.png

Monday, September 7, 2015

What's The Point?

While having lunch with my son the other day, I brought up the subject of school because the start date was only a few of days away and he was about to enter middle school. The whole notion of middle school is somewhat unreal to me... where did the little baby who fit into the palm of my hand go? Was he really ready for middle school? Am I ready for middle school? Would he be successful in middle school? Would kids be nice to him in middle school? There were literally dozens of questions swirling in my mind - most of them stressing me out a little bit - so I wanted to see what he was thinking and feeling about the whole situation. 

I started by asking him what he was most excited about and he said... "Seeing my friends! That is definitely the best part of school - getting to see all my friends in one place." He went on to explain that he wasn't particularly stressed out about starting middle school but in general was sad about the summer ending, which I guess is consistent with the way that many kids at this point in the year feel... dreading the end of summer and the start of school and all that comes with it. 

Still, as the educator who loves school and has devoted much of my life to learning and teaching, I had to push the conversation further. After an exchange that was somewhat like pulling teeth Paul finally said, "Dad, I know you are a principal and you like school and everything but I am a kid and I just don't love it. I feel like I can learn a lot more while I am not in school. The truth is, I don't understand the point of school. What's the point? Everything that I am interested in and connects to my world doesn't ever come up in school, so what's the point?" 

Needless to say, I was kind of speechless (which, if you know me, doesn't happen often). I didn't know what to say or how to respond. I didn't want to be that parent who simply said... "School matters because I said so and you have to go to school because that is the law...blah, blah, blah!" or something along those lines. That would not work with Paul. Would he accept the answer and shrug his shoulders in passive agreement? Yes, but would he really have the answer to his critical question... what's the point? No. That was a hard thing for me to accept because I believe a good education is the gateway to whatever it is an individual wants to pursue in life but if Paul fancies himself a YouTuber right now (his current obsession - check out his two channels here and here) or a future movie director (or chef depending on the day you ask him), then I am not quite sure that I can give him the best answer to his simple question... what's the point?

As I reflect on this experience it made me think about the work that we do each and everyday within our schools and how we go about helping our learners understand the point so they can answer the question (what's the point?) themselves. The truth is, I am not sure if we have given that as much thought as it deserves. Yes, we can talk about project based learning and growth mindset and "real life" learning situations but maybe for one minute we just pause and think to ourselves... what's the point? What's the point of the lesson? What's the point of our teaching? What's the point of the learning? What's the point? Maybe instead of trying to come up with fancy exit slips for the purposes of formative assessment, at the end of the lesson we just ask our kids... what was the point of that learning experience? If we can push them to reflect critically on a learning experience maybe they won't be left scratching their heads and wondering themselves... what's the point?