Monday, December 4, 2017

What I Have Learned in Four Years as a Principal

This is a post that I wrote for the Massachusetts School Administrators Association blog...

When I think back to what I thought I knew about school leadership and where I thought the most influential levers in school improvement lay, I almost laugh out loud.  Each principal enters the role of principal for the first time with his/her perspective of what the job entails, beliefs about how best to influence change and a set of priorities for his/her leadership agenda.  However, experience has shown me that most of us did not have a realistic or complete picture of the role of principal.

I also have gained just enough wisdom to know there is a lot I have left to figure out.  I actually wish that I could have a conversation with "Five Years from Now Me" to see how much of what I believe today will shift as time passes.  That being said, I do think that there are a few things that I have learned in my first four years as a principal that will stand the test of time.

# 1 - Perspective

I have found that a huge part of being a successful school principal is being able to consider the other person's perspective.  Whether it be an upset student, irate parent, reluctant staff member or another member of the district admin team, I have had my most successful conversations and done my best problem solving when I am able to step outside my viewpoint and consider the other perspective.  Considering the other perspective does not mean doing what everyone one else wants, however, it does mean forcing yourself to suspend your own beliefs for a period of time to understand where your conversation partner is coming from.

In my first four years I have found that one of two things will happen when I do this.  First, I may find myself thinking about something in a new way that either affects the way I decide to move forward with a decision, or changes the decision itself.  Second, I may not change my mind at all, but taking time to understand how the other person sees the situation helps me to maintain a positive relationship with that individual.  Additionally, considering their perspective can help me to understand the root of their beliefs and address those if necessary.

I have also learned in my first four years that no matter how hard I work at understanding where my conversation partner is coming from as a principal, the majority of time my conversation partner will not be giving me the same courtesy.  I have come to know that most often when you are having a conversation in the principal's office, the burden for keeping the conversation on track, respectful and inclusive of all perspectives falls at the feet of the principal.

# 2 - Patience

Change is slow.... really slow!  Sure, there are some things that I was able to quickly improve during my first year as a principal, but there were all low-level, procedural changes (parent drop off and pick up procedures, schedules, duty assignments, etc.).  But real substantive change around big issues like instructional practices, culture, morale, teacher leadership, curriculum and a comprehensive approach to social emotional learning take a long time to fully implement.

Additionally, I have learned that you can only try and make a few substantive changes at a time.  There are always more things that need to change (most not your ideas but ideas that come at you from central office, the state, parent groups, staff suggestions, etc.) than you can possibly execute successfully; therefore, I have learned that the principal has to make decisions about what should be worked on now and what needs to be put off to a later time.  Which brings us back to the section above; when you put off someone else's idea you need to first expend significant energy ensuring you understand why this idea is important to them.  Acknowledging the values and beliefs that drive their idea, help this person feel heard and gives you a chance to share the "why" behind your decision... even though most times your partner in this conversation is not going to work as hard to see things from your perspective ;)

# 3 - Almost Everything is Connected

When I was in graduate school, I remember reading Peter Senge's book The Fifth Discipline.  At the time, I remember thinking something along the lines of, "Well this is a nice little read, but I am never going to need any of this stuff when I am a principal."  Well that was a silly thought.  The longer and longer I do this job, the more connections I see and the more I can appreciate a Systems Thinking perspective.

In the very first chapter of his book Senge states the book is designed for "destroying the illusion that the world is created of separate, unrelated forces."  As I went back and re-read that chapter in preparation for this post, I now wish I had paid closer attention to it when starting as a principal.  I think of all the energy I have expended thinking about challenges and areas for growth as single problems that have no effect on one another.  Take for example my approach in the past towards staff morale, school culture, social emotional learning and academic achievement, seeing these as unrelated issues that needed to be addressed individually (more on this below).  I was naive not to see how this individual cog is a piece in the complex system that is a school.

Whether intended or not, decisions that we make seemingly in isolation have an affect on many other aspects of the school system.  Systems thinking encourages leaders to think about these interconnections before taking action.  To look for places of high leverage and applying pressure to these levers that will deliberately affect the greater system in positive ways while simultaneously looking to remove obstacles that will slow progress within the system.  The most surprising revelation for me has been how this plays out over time. I have noticed on three different occasions so far this year ways that some decisions I made three years ago are starting to affect other large aspects of our school.  In these particular cases they have been positive, but that is not because I had foresight in my choices.  Perhaps I am just lucky, or perhaps it was Divine Providence; regardless it is a reminder that nearly every decision affects more than it's isolated context and because change is slow it may take some time before that is realized.  

# 4 - Its More Than Just Academics

So raise your hand if you got into leadership because you believed that if you could just somehow spread the "magic" that was going on in your classroom as a teacher, then you would have the recipe for a high performing school.  Since I can't see if you hand is raised, I am going to assume some version of this truth is evident for a majority of us.  We wanted to influence a larger number of kids by leaving the classroom and improving instruction across a building.  For me that meant rigorous unit design, common instructional practices, common formative assessments, regular assessment analysis and more time on learning.  I believed, fed by a lot of what I was reading in graduate school, that I could ignore all the other "unimportant stuff" as a principal, focus on these areas and the school would soar...

Then, six months into my first job as a principal, the decision was made to close my school, reorganize the district and move me to another school; so began a lot of thinking on my part on things like staff culture, building trust, building relationships, visioning, family engagement, political strategy and a complete overhaul of operational procedures.  My eyes were quickly opened to the many roles that a school principal plays during his/her tenure: visionary, advocate, punching bag, therapist, voice of reason, friend, enemy, task master, planner, stalwart, referee, instructional leader, fixer, energizer, coach, lawyer, and many more that I have yet to experience.

Once our new school of over 650 PreK-2 students opened, it became glaringly obvious that we had missed something important in our planning and preparation.  We had failed to adequately prepare for the social and emotional needs of our students; failed to have a way to support them in being ready to learn each day.  I began to learn about the struggles that so many children face each and every day outside the walls of our schools.  I saw the ways that systems that were supposed to be there to protect children get tied up in their own bureaucracy and create roadblocks and inefficiencies that affect children.  I started to understand that the idea of "this is not the school's responsibility" was not only a naive viewpoint, it was borderline neglectful to our students.  Can we ignore this element of the school experience and just focus on academics?  Sure.  However, we do so at our own peril and this decision of non-action is likely to affect staff morale, school culture, academic achievement and more.

Now don't misinterpret what I am saying, academics, teaching and learning still represent the main purpose of schools and educational leadership.  However, I view academic success as the product of a wide variety of inputs.  Like the gears in the image above, we can get the achievement gear spinning correctly if all the other gears are malfunctioning.

What Does the Future Hold?

That is a great question.... I would love it if someone could tell me.  Like I said in the beginning, I wish I had a time traveling phone booth like Bill and Ted (sorry if that reference went right over your head), because I would love to chat with future me to see how much of what I believe now will be changed by experiences I have yet to have.  Regardless, the principalship has been one of the greatest learning experiences of my life (second only to fatherhood), and as Einstein once said, "Intellectual growth should commence at birth and cease only at death."  I look forward to the next four years of intellectual growth and where that takes me.  

Friday, September 1, 2017

Taking the Time to Observe and Learn

(This is the opening day speech that I shared with my staff this year)
So last year, my son Brady started playing football.  Now, we have tried Brady in all sorts of team sports in the past, soccer, baseball, gymnastics, etc. but nothing ever stuck.  And when I say that nothing ever stuck, I am not referring to his skills within the sport.  Rather, I am talking about the bond and connection that he felt with the sport, the team and his teammates.  He had never shown a real desire to go to the next practice, never got excited about game day and was definitely not sad to see the season end.  That all changed with football. 

I have shared before the experience I had with Brady at the end of the football season last year and how that made me feel as both his father and an educator.  Brady, on his last day of practice last year, was filled with tears at the end of the football season and as his father I couldn’t have been happier.  I was so pleased that he had made a real connection to both other adults in his coaches as well as to the kids on his team.  He felt truly as a part of a community, something that had never happened outside his family or his classroom before.  It was a huge step and I was so happy for just that.

As this football season began, I entered a little worried.  It was some of the same coaches and other new ones, some of the same kids and other new ones.  It was almost a year later.  A year for him to forget how to play the game.  A year to forget how to be a part of a team.  A year to forget about being a part of a community.  My worries grew when, at his first practice, he did not want to join a group of boys tossing a football around before the start of practice.  He was anxious, telling me that he wasn’t sure if those kids were supposed to be doing that, that he wasn’t sure if they were Mites like him.  Despite my best efforts to move him off this anxiety, and get him unstuck from his beliefs in that moment, he would not move.  I started to think to myself, well last year was nice and maybe we can get back to that point by the end of the year, but we are going to have to start over…. Then the coach blew the whistle.  Brady put on his helmet, ran out to join the group and joined right in on the first drill as if practices had never ended last fall. 

I was blown away.

As the first two weeks of the football season progressed, I dropped Brady off at practice, and picked him up after.  I asked how practice was, got the obligatory “good”, and asked if he was having fun… which he was.  That was enough for me at the time because I didn’t know any better, didn’t know any more and was unconsciously limited his potential. 

One day last week, I dropped Brady off and then went for a run.  After finishing my run, I decided to go and watch some of his practice.  As I watched the last hour of his practice, I noticed that Brady spent about 45 minutes either holding a blocking pad or sitting out.  I started to think about why this was the case and started to develop theories in my head.  As the practice continued, the theories honed into a belief that this new mix of coaches was making some assumptions about a kid with Autism and was limiting him and his participation based upon that.  The longer I thought about it… long into that night… the more and more upset I got.  It kept me up that night.

This attitude and belief system that blamed the coaches and their ignorance of my son’s needs carried into the next day.  I approached the head coach at the start of the next practice and explained what I had seen and that, as I put it, his mother and I didn’t want Brady to be the team mascot, that he was capable of being coached and if they needed any help with better understanding him, I would be happy to help.  As I sat and watched this practice I started feeling vindicated…. Like “Ha, I told them.”  However, as the end of practice neared, I noticed the same pattern occurring where Brady was sitting off to the side as the team was practicing their plays for an upcoming scrimmage.  I started to get angry again, I thought to myself, “How could they make assumptions like this about him?”  “How could they predetermine his potential and use those predeterminations to set limits on him?”  “He is 8 years old, no one knows what he is capable of?”  And then it hit me…. Like a punch right in the chest. 

I was getting mad at them, but I was blaming the wrong person.  I started to ask myself some questions like, “What have you learned about football in order to help him be successful?”  “How many practices did you watch last year?”  “How many practices have you watched this year?”  What have you learned about the fundamentals of football in order to help Brady practice and develop those skills?”  “What have you thought about Brady’s potential to be a contributing member of the football team?”  “How much have you invested getting to know something that he has shown passion about and understanding why he is passionate about it?”  “How well have you gotten to know your own son in this area and how can you be upset with the coaches for not investing in your son the way you want them to, when you haven’t either?”

Woof!  That was a tough moment.

I spent the next set of practices watching closely; listening to advice the coaches on all three teams were giving to the players on tackling techniques, proper hand positions when blocking, proper pre-snap stance, etc.  Then I started to watch Brady in relation to what I was learning and ask him questions that were helping me get inside his understanding.  I paid close attention to how Brady was performing against the criteria the coaches were establishing and then provided him with direct feedback after practice and gave him techniques to use to monitor himself during practice.  The difference in his performance was almost instantaneous. 

Now this is a nice story of fatherhood, but what does this have to do with our school and this coming year?  This example from my life drove home a point for me; one that has been swimming around in my head since last spring.  I have been thinking a lot for the past 5 to 6 months about how we as a school can best meet the needs of our kids.  I have thought about this challenge in relation to our students’ academic success and growth as well as their social and emotional and behavioral growth.
Each year, we are faced with more and more complex challenges that our students and their surrounding environments present.   So how, in a sea of information, theory, best practice and research do we determine the best way to meet the needs of the students in front of us?  I argue that the best place to start is to just observe.  The second our students walk with the door at the beginning of the year, we all feel a pressure to move them towards the exit.  Whether it is pressure from the state, the district, me as the principal, parents, our own internal conscientious need to support student learning, we all feel this pressure to get to the learning.  To start teaching; for if we are not teaching, we are not teachers.

I want to ask you to resist that initial urge at the beginning of this school year.  I am challenging you all to become detectives.  To learn all that you can about your students, before you jump into teaching them.  And then I ask that you keep that curious, inquisitive, investigative attitude about your students all year.  The gold standard for a detective is the fictional character Sherlock Holmes. 
Sherlock is renowned for his inquisitive mind, attention to detail and analytic mind. One quote from Sherlock Holmes says, “It’s my business to know what other people don’t know.”  I challenge each of you to know your students in a way that no other person knows them.  Just like my experience with Brady, we need to take the time to learn before we can best teach.

This year I want us, collectively, to better know our students.  I challenge each of you to think about the information that you normally collect on your students and consider two things.  First, how can I get to know my students in a way that I have never done before?  What can I learn about them that would help me understand them as little people with wants, desires, hopes and dreams that I might be able to inspire and foster in my work with them?  Second, how can I better organize this new information along with the information I normally collect so that it is helpful to me in my decisions?  What new ways could I look at old information to better inform my work with students?  How, like Sherlock Holmes, can I know what other people don’t know?

I argue that this small emphasis on observation can and will make a significant impact on our ability to meet the needs of our students more effectively and more efficiently.  We all work so hard to best meet the needs of our students, but what if we are expending our energies in the wrong direction because we didn’t take enough time to question before jumping in?  What if a small change in the way we get to know our kids is enough to make learning stick with some of our trickiest learners and actually make our lives easier?  Can we find new ways to reach students and inspire them that we have not yet in our careers?  Can we reach students that present challenges we have never seen before?  Can we ensure each child in our school believes this school community is interested in knowing him or her as a person?  I believe we can and I believe we owe it to them.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Why Do I Write?

I spent some time recently reflecting on my relatively short career as a principal.  The reflection came about as I prepared for a presentation that I am scheduled to give next week at the Literacy for All conference in Providence, RI where I will be discussing ways principals can use their own writing to support literacy initiatives in their schools.  In preparing the presentation, I found myself thinking a lot about my own writing... specifically why I write.  As I considered this idea, I decided that writing in my life falls into three general categories.


There is a certain amount of writing that we all have to do out of necessity.  We may need to write a list, fill out an application, send an email, draft a proposal, dismiss a child from school or any of a wide variety of things that come up as part of our personal and professional lives.  Most adults are not able to escape at least some point in their day when they need to communicate something in writing.

Agreement and Understanding

There are other times, depending upon our specific life circumstances, when we have to write things down as a way of cementing an understanding, sharing information, communicating a message or providing direction.  For example, I have two children (aged 8 and 11) that, if allowed, would spend every free minute in front of some type of screen.  Left to their own devices (pun intended) they would bounce from television to Xbox to Kindle Fire for each of their waking minutes, shutting themselves off from the rest of the world and from the family.  

My wife and I have decided that this is not the way we want to raise our children.  Instead, we have chosen to ensure they have more balance in their lives and as a result have put adult limits on the amount of "screen time" they are allowed.  After much conversation, we decided to create a system where our kids could "earn" screen time based upon the completion of certain activities (playing outside, exercise, reading, chores, etc.) that would translate to a set number of minutes that they could "spend" on screen time.  After discussing the new expectations with the kids, we decided that we should type them out and post them on the refrigerator to ensure we all had a common expectation and common reference should there be any confusion.

Personal Reflection

In preparing for my presentation, I came across this quote from Anais Nin, "We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect." As I read this quote for the first time, I felt like it did a great job of encapsulating the way I feel about the power of writing.  For me, I find that taking the time to write is the best way to both do my thinking in the present and reflect upon the learning and life experiences that have brought me to that thinking.  

Those that know me well, know that I spend a lot of time thinking.  Some may even say that I perseverate a bit :-/  There are very few points during a day when I am not considering something I have read, an action I have taken, an upcoming conversation or any of a hundred other things.  The problem that I run into is that my thinking also bounces around a lot. Part of it is the way my brain works and part of it is the nature of being a principal.  The principalship throws new and interesting challenges at you multiple times a day.  Often those challenges are complex and need to be considered from more than one angle before a decision can be made and often my thinking bounces from one challenge to the next.

Additionally, principals have a responsibility for enhancing the culture within their school and community.  Leaders are key factors in championing the values of the organization, communicating them to all the stakeholders and ensuring that the organization lives up to those values.  In order to do this well, a leader has to take the time to organize his/her own thinking.  The message being communicated can not bounce around, meander or get lost.  This is where I find writing so helpful.  

Writing forces me to slow down, to consider my words carefully for their meaning, to organize my message, to consider my audience, and to follow my thinking to some sort of an end.  I use this type of writing a lot.  Often, it is never published.  It is only for me; it is a way to process my thinking and I find the practice helps both the writing I do publish as well as clarifying the messaging I do with oral communication.  I have also found that writing for this purpose makes me better at the first two purposes I have laid out.  

Sharing of Ideas

As each year passes in my life and in my time as a leader, I grow a deeper understanding of the ways that our communication affects our relationships.  If we agree on the definition of communication to be a two way sharing of ideas, of both taking in the ideas of others and the sharing of your own ideas then we can see  how integral communication is to building strong relationships.   I have learned that taking the time to write ultimately helps me in my communication skills which in turns strengthens my relationships.  The written word allows us the time to experience our thoughts in the moment, as we type them, while simultaneously bringing previous life experience, thoughts and ideas to bear on our current thinking.  

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

May the Force be With You!

In preparing for my opening day speech for my staff each year, I always look for a theme that can help support our school culture and give us a continual message that carries through the year. Throughout the summer, I struggled to find a theme that would work for the upcoming school year until attending a conference in August. The conference focused on student mental health in schools. During one of the keynotes, Charles Appelstein was discussing the importance of building relationships with students and he reenacted a famous battle scene from Star Wars as part of his speech... at that point I had my theme.

In preparing for the speech I did a little homework on the Star Wars franchise to see if I could figure out its overall value, figuring it had to be high for Disney to pay over $9 billion in 2012 just for the rights to the franchise. In reading, I have learned that the franchise has stacked tens of billions of dollars on top of each other through movie ticket sales, games, toys, TV series, rentals and clothing since the first movie came out in 1977. It has been an international phenomenon for multiple generations and has captured a whole new audience with the release of the 7th movie in the series this past year.

Given that understanding, sometimes I forget that there are people that have never seen the movies and therefore the reference to “May the Force be with You” may be lost on some. Therefore I thought I would highlight some of the main points/themes in the movies to help the larger point of this post and my speech make sense.  

So, the first thing is that Star Wars is science fiction and takes place “a long time ago, in galaxy far, far away.”  The Star Wars franchise is also constructed on a classic good vs. evil story line and this mystical thing called “The Force.” The Force is best described by a main character in Star Wars, Obi-Wan Kenobi, “Well, the Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It's an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.” Now there is a light side to the force and the dark side to the force. The light side is the side that Jedi’s use. They are a best described as monk-like knights. They are the good guys. The bad guys are the Sith and they use the dark side of the force. This dichotomy creates a classic good vs. evil story line. 
Good vs.

So now that you have at least a rudimentary understanding of the a main theme and element in the Star Wars saga, let us return to the statement “May the Force be with You.” This phrase is used by the Jedi to wish each other luck and positive outcomes in the face of an impending challenge. It was a call to the light side of the force and the victory of good over evil, to resist the temptations of the Dark Side and to remain positive in the face of evil. 

As we start a new school year, I wanted to remind the staff to continue the great work that we did last year to create a school that is warm and welcoming to students. We discussed our need to keep a strong focus on the power of building relationships with students and the impact that it can have on their learning. I told them, "There will be many times throughout the year when the pressures of our life and our job will mount and become heavy upon us; times when these stresses will pressure us to react to students behaviors with punitive actions. It is in these times, when we are at our worst that we have to choose to respond to the child’s behaviors instead of react to them." 

Responding instead of reacting means that as a child raises his/her voice, we lower ours instead. It means naming the child’s behavior or choice as the thing that we are disappointed in or upset by, rather than the child him or herself. It means monitoring our own body language and body position.  For example, when a child is becoming out of control,being sure to approach him or her slowly, in a calm manner, with a relaxed posture.

I said to the staff, "We can not allow ourselves to be seduced by the Dark Side. The Dark Side is the place where we yell at kids, where we use cutting sarcasm, where we set limits on kids based upon our hang ups, beliefs and opinions. The Dark Side is where we only make some of our students believe that we really care about them… the “good” ones. The Dark Side is the place where we don’t make our students feel like we have the greatest job in the world and the distinct privilege of educating them."

So what do we do when we feel the lure of the Dark Side? What do we do when a child says something to us or does something to us that feels disrespectful or hurtful? What do we do when we are up to our eyeballs in paperwork and assessments? What do we do when we don’t feel supported in our work? What do we do when our personal life has turmoil and is putting pressure on us? 

I went to a presentation this summer by Charles Appelstein, a renowned clinical social worker who authored the book No Such Thing as a Bad Kid. He talked about the importance of developing a strong Observing Ego (an ability to look at situations without putting ourselves in the situation) and provided practical strategies to use; one of which inspired this speech. He offers these five strategies to keep our cool under pressure in the face of the Dark Side:
  1. Think of the struggle in terms of time limits. Like if a child has been pushing your buttons all day take a look at the clock and see how much time until the end of the day or until your next break from that child and tell yourself, “I can do anything for 90 minutes.” 
  2. Visualize the end of the day and driving home. Think about driving home with a big smile on your face proud of the way you chose to respond to the students instead of react. 
  3. Think about the future. Think about how your decision to respond now will build deeper relationships with your students going forward and make your life easier in the long run. 
  4. Think about at M.A.S.H unit: When I am at my worst, I need to give my best.  Here he references the television show where even when the doctors were dead tired and wrung out, that when the helicopters arrived with new wounded soldiers they had to be at their best to try and save lives.  
  5. And my favorite, Use the Force! – Draw from the positive energy of friends, colleagues, memories, family, etc....  whatever it takes to resist the Dark Side. 
The harsh truth is that only we can control our own behaviors. We won't because someone tells us too.  It is not because everything in our lives are going to work out perfectly so that we have nothing to worry about. It is not because we are only going to be sent perfect students that really don’t need to learn anything from us and never need reminders, encouragement, support or stability. It will only happen when each of us chooses to make building positive relationships with the students of our school a priority. When we take the time to consider how our behaviors may affect the students we connect with each day.

This video was shared with me by a kindergarten teacher and encapsulates the effect our interactions have on our students from the point of view of the student.

I closed by saying the following to my staff, "So as we go into this school year, let us be Jedi Knights in the way we interact with kids.  Set ambitious goals for your students and support them in getting there, get to know your students, their lives, their interests and their motivations, build positive energy in your learning environment, talk with your students. Disney world advertises itself as the “Happiest Place on Earth.” Let’s take that crown from them and make Forestdale (our school) the Happiest place on Earth. And as you move forward this year and face the challenges that will surely come “May the Force be With You!”

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

What I Learned From My Kids and Snowboarding

During the last few days of the February School Vacation, my family and I spent a few days in Lincoln, NH.  As a part of this trip, my two children (ages 10 and 7) attempted snowboarding for the first time.  During my journey as a parent, I have come to know that I often learn a lot about myself and life by watching my children learn new things.  This trip was no different.

Happiness does not come from the conditions - I have been skiing or snowboarding for over 20 years and in that time have skied all over New England and Colorado.  In those travels, I have experienced all sorts of snow conditions and have self-admittedly developed a bit of snobbery about the snow conditions.  I am always comparing the conditions to some of the best days I have experienced and if they don't live up, I am disappointed.
I think part of this is natural and occurs to all of us.  Whether it is the snow conditions or some
other aspect of our lives, I think we all sometimes find ourselves measuring the quality of an experience by the conditions we find ourselves in.The day my kids learned to snowboard the conditions were tough; the mountain was crowded, icy underneath and covered with hard-packed, granular man-made snow.  These conditions were making myself and many other seasoned skiers grumpy.  However, as I picked my kids up from their lessons at the end of the day, they had smiles from ear to ear and all the talk for the rest of the weekend was about how much they loved snowboarding.  They helped remind me that our enjoyment of life events and the joy we find in general need not be tied to the conditions surrounding those events.  Rather, my kids showed me that the experience itself is where the fun and smiles are.

Learning can hurt sometimes -  Anyone that has watched someone learn to snowboard knows that it is a lot like watching a toddler learn to walk... a lot of time is spent picking yourself up off the ground.  There is no denying it, learning new things can often be very difficult.  Some things are harder to learn than others and the process can sometimes be frustrating and painful.  
For some children it may be learning to read that they are finding difficult, or building a strong
sense of number.  Other children may experience hurt feelings as they are learning to interact with their peers socially.  Regardless of the learning situation, my children continue to show me that learning includes difficult lessons sometimes and that as a parent, as much as I want to, I can not protect them from all those instances.

​Easy things can become difficult when new challenges are added - For my birthday this year, one of my family members generously gave me a GoPro camera.  I brought it to the mountain to capture all sort of video of my kids' early experiences with snowboarding.  Being new to using the camera I do not think I attached the bracket correctly to my helmet, as it fell off part way through the day.  So when I went to pick up my kids from their lesson and take them down a trail, I had to use my hand to hold the camera and film them while snowboarding next to them.  
Now, while I am certainly not going to be competing in the Olympics, I do consider myself a pretty competent snowboarder.  However, the second I tried to add the skill of video recording to snowboarding, it was as if my legs forgot what they were supposed to do.  It is funny how sometimes the simplest change to an activity we are familiar with can make it feel completely new and unfamiliar.  
In retrospect, I should not have been surprised by this as it is something that we see all the time in education.  A student may be doing just fine with their reading progress in their early years.  She may be able to read grade appropriate books with fluency, make meaning of the text and use multiple strategies to figure out unfamiliar words.  Then she may encounter something new (like dialogue for example) and for a short
period of time present like a "struggling reader" as she learns how to assimilate this new print concept into her reading repertoire.  However, with a little patience and quality coaching from a teacher, the child is able to integrate this new concept into her reading and return to the same level of fluency and meaning making.
This is the learning process and it never ends.  Psychologist Lev Vygotsky described this area just beyond what we currently know and understand the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) and determined that it is in the ZPD, with proper support and coaching, is where the highest levels of learning occur.  Simply put, struggle is part of the learning process and our role as adults is to provide just enough support to students to help them muddle through until they have mastered the skill/concept themselves.

Who knows what adventure next awaits the Smith clan, but I am sure whatever it is, I will leave it having learned more from my kids than I will have probably taught them.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Planting the Seeds

Last month we celebrated my daughter's 10th birthday... it is a big deal when you turn double digits in case you didn't know.  In thinking about how big my little girl has gotten, I also found myself thinking that her birthday signals a decade of parenthood for my wife and I.

Now we will both be the first to tell you that what we now know about parenting is still far outweighed by what we still have to learn, but we do benefit from many lessons learned.  Additionally, we have had the distinct privilege of watching our beautiful (if I do say so myself) baby girl grow into the young lady she is today.  Only the passage of time has allowed us to look back and see how some of the decisions we made years ago have influenced who she is at ten.  We can now see how some of the seeds we planted when she was one, two and three have begun to blossom and support her independence, courage, caring and sense of self.  These seedlings of personality are likely to experience periods of drought and other challenges as she heads into puberty, but I feel confident that the roots are strong.

Where work and home meet

As the first four months of this school year come to a close, I can see many parallels to the experiences I had as a new father.  In many ways our school started brand new this year.  While almost all the staff in the school worked as a part of the district last year, this is the first time that they were all organized together in one school focused on students in grade PreK-2.  While this reorganization posed all sorts of logistical challenges, it also created an amazing opportunity to create new traditions, set a focused vision and develop a common set of governing values.

Just as I floundered through a sea of uncertainty as a new father, having no experience to draw from, I have felt equally uncertain about my decisions leading the staff through this change.  Ten years from now I will be able to look back and see how decisions I am making today will have impacted things yet to come. However, as I sit here today it is very hard for me to measure my impact as a school leader.

Sprouting some roots

Guiding me through my work as a principal have been some fundamental core beliefs about schooling along with my beliefs about leadership.  Among my beliefs as a leader is the notion that leaders play an integral role in establishing both the vision for the organization as well as fostering a culture that is both supportive and empowering.

If leaders are able to successfully articulate the school's vision through continuous messaging and through their decision making process while encouraging staff to take risks, stretch themselves professionally and be creative, then innovation is possible.  If innovation is possible, then the whole school can continue to grow and improve indefinitely.

In the past few months some pretty amazing things have started happening in the school.  Before our school year even began, a teacher approached me about creating a whole school project that would
BOKS Fitness Program
help to set the stage for developing our school community.  Through her leadership we know have over 30 classroom puzzles hanging in the school symbolizing how each student (individually decorated puzzle piece) comes together to form a classroom community and how those classroom communities form our school community.  In the fall a group of staff members in the building decided to start a before school club focused on physical fitness and positive peer to peer and adult/student interactions.  Later in the year, a staff member took it upon himself to revamp lunches at our school.  Now, under his leadership, students are treated to stories at lunch, sing Happy Birthday to each other and occasionally listen to musical numbers from their favorite Disney movies.

Dot Project
In another example, a grade one teacher organized all ten classes around a project inspired by the story The Dot by Peter Reynolds.  She used the story to articulate an important message in our mission statement about perseverance and maintaining a Growth Mindset towards learning.  Another group of grade one teachers invited parents and students to the school for a night event.  Students dressed in their pajamas and read with their parents as the teachers shared ways that the parents could support reading at home.
Holiday Gift Drive

As we approached the holiday season, a group of staff members organized a holiday gift drive.  The gift drive provided gifts for over 25 needy students in our school, supporting our mission to be "a family of learners."  This was in addition to a student and police department effort to raise toy donations for Toys for Tots.  Very recently our music teacher took our school's mission statement and used it to create a school song.  She taught the song to our grade two students and they sang it for the school at a recent whole school meeting.

The Right Climate

Each of the above occurrences were generated by staff members and their successful implementation was all staff driven.  They all support the overall vision and mission of our school, helping us to truly stand out as an early learning center focussed on educating children both as learners and citizens.

Leaders must foster an environment that encourages staff to try new things, take risks and dream big.  People in the organization need to know that their ideas are valued and that they will be supported when they take risks.  Additionally, leaders must be clear on the vision so that staff have the big picture and are able to hold their ideas up against it.  Lastly, leaders must have the courage to challenge the things that run against the school's vision and mission.

In this type of environment leadership is dispersed to anyone with a good idea.  The world's most successful organizations are not that way because one person is able to do all the innovating needed in the organization, lead each innovation project and ensure successful completion.  Rather, their successes are due to the collective work of a variety of members in the organization all moving towards the same goals in an environment that encourages them to contribute in meaningful ways.  Should school leadership be any different?

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

At the Core

Our staff today began the undertaking of developing our school's core values.  After doing a lot of reading around the development of organizational values, I learned that there are many conflicting theories on the best way to develop organizational values.  I struggled for months trying to identify the best path to follow in my attempt to lead the faculty through this work.

It was not until I had a chance encounter with a fellow principal that my eyes were opened to the path, a path that worked with where I am as a leader, where we are as a newly formed school and where we are on our journey as a learning organization.  Inspired by the advice I received from my colleague, I shared today with my teachers my three Core Values as a principal.  These are values that are foundational to who I am as a principal.  In addition to sharing them with the faculty, I felt I should share them publically and put them out for the world to see, so that I am held to my beliefs.  

We will work collaboratively over the coming months to add upon this foundation and develop a "default position" as coined in this article.  A set of beliefs that we will always fall back upon when decisions need to be made, conflict arises and the "stuff hits the fan."

I value ... 

Every child championed  

We are a school and we are here to serve children. We have needs and wants as adults here in the building and they need to be valued and respected; however, they should never subjugate the needs of a single child in this school. This does not mean that we cater to every whim or want of our students, but that each of us is committed to doing everything in our power to meet student needs. We believe that we have the power to change the course of a child’s life and know that we have the power to control our own adult actions in this effort. Therefore, we know it is a waste of our energies to blame the child, the family, the community or society; we look instead to the things we can control. We examine our practices as educators and look for adjustments we can make to meet the child where he/she is.
The video below from a TED talk by Rita Pierson does an amazing job of capturing the spirit of my belief and inspired my heading for this paragraph.

We are never done 

Excellence is something great schools always pursue, but never attain. Schools are learning institutions and as such the school as a whole and every member in it must be committed to learning. That means that we must all be committed to continued growth for our students and ourselves. Whatever bar we set for excellence, we must all know that the bar will move once we reach it, because there is always more to learn and we are never done. As Albert Einstein once said, “Intellectual growth should commence at birth and cease only at death.”

Safe and Happy

Our school should be a sanctuary. It should be a place that students and staff look forward to coming to. As a place where students are championed, everyone shares in a common belief that their work is meaningful, staff support each other, smiles are the norm and the future is bright. This positive energy is present in all we do; it is felt by visitors and lifts students’ spirits. We are a family that is always excited to add new members, build new relationships and deepen our existing relationships.