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, February 24, 2016
Wednesday, December 23, 2015
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 meetAs 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 rootsGuiding 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|
|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 ClimateEach 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
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.
Monday, September 7, 2015
This post is the text from my opening day speech with my fabulous faculty....
My wife has a healthy fear of sharks. Well maybe that is a bit of an understatement. She actually has a difficult time swimming in a pool at night because she is afraid that a shark will pop out of nowhere and swallow her whole. The root of this fear stems from her childhood, where some older cousins exposed her to the JAWS movie at way too young of an age. Now she grew up in the center of the state, so avoiding the ocean and sharks was fairly easy right up until she met a 20 year old bartender from the Cape who was adamant about living here as an adult.
As a bit of a beach bum and an avid boater, I love spending time on, in and next to the ocean. For the first ten years of our time together, I was able to convince my wife that there were not sharks on Cape Cod. “The water is too cold” I would tell her. She would avoid swimming in open water whenever she could, brave it periodically and was able to enjoy many of the great activities that ocean living provides. However, in the last 7 years or so the rising population of shark bait (seals) has brought more and more sharks to the waters off Cape Cod. And not any old sharks; we have seen a significant increase in Great White Sharks… JAWS sharks.
Another important thing happened about the time sharks were starting to get more and more media attention here on the Cape and being spotted more regularly… our daughter was born. Another thing you need to know about my wife is that she is a devoted mother to our two children and among her many amazing qualities is her desire to raise our children free from the stresses and anxieties of their parents. This creates a bit of a paradox.
As each decade of my life passes and I reflect on the previous decade, I am amazed by my own ignorance and naiveté. Anyone remember your life before kids and how you thought, “Oh wouldn’t it be nice to have kids. Things will be so great all the time. It will be so great to have someone to love unconditionally and that will love me unconditionally”? Now that you are a parent you find yourself just hoping that you can get both kids out the door at the same time and into the car with clothes on their backs and shoes on their feet in less than 15 minutes. Another thing I thought I knew about when I was younger was bravery.
In my teens and twenties I would have told you that bravery was the same as being fearless. I would have said to you, “Brave people don’t worry, don’t get afraid and don’t let anything make them take pause.” At this point in my life, I now realize that this is nonsense. Bravery is not about being fearless; bravery is about acting in spite of fear. Fear and anxiety are normal, healthy emotions that support our survival as a species. It was important for cavemen to experience a rush of fear, or a fight or flight response, when they saw a Saber tooth tiger. This response is controlled by our sympathetic nervous system and this part of our nervous systems can get activated when we find ourselves in new places, when we are confronted with change or are faced with the unknown.
Bravery shows itself when we take a deep breath and start talking even though we are petrified to speak in front of large groups. Bravery shows itself when we hold tightly onto the railing and lean over the Empire State Building to take in the amazing view even though we are petrified of heights. Bravery shows itself when we sit in our beach chair scanning the water and biting our tongues as our children play in the water even though we are petrified a shark is out there looking for a kid-sized snack. Bravery also shows itself when we put ourselves out there in front of others, open ourselves to critique, put our trust in others, leap forward without knowing all the answers, and when we try something new for the first time.
This last list of items is necessary if we are going to become a true professional learning community. One that is focused on doing whatever it takes to meet the needs of students. A school that approaches teaching and learning in a manner similar to a teaching hospital; where we believe that we have something to learn from each other and that our collective power is more than what we can do individually.
I am going to ask this of you this year. I am going to ask this of myself this year. We will not open perfect on Tuesday. We will stumble in places, we will make mistakes and each of us will have to do something initially without something that we feel we can’t do without. On top of that we don’t really know each other and very little that you had become comfortable with in the year’s before this one still exist as you knew them. There are going to be times that are scary… right now as I am listing all this, may be one of those times. That’s ok. We can do it. We can be brave. If my wife can stare down the mighty JAWS for the sake of Kendall and Brady, we can all stare down our sharks here at Forestdale for our students.
So when your sharks start circling and you are feeling scared, when you are anxious that it is not going to work out, when you are worrying that you won’t get what you need or you are about to take a risk, remember that failure is an option. Take the plunge even if you are worried about what is on the other side. It is an opportunity for learning and growth… and remember… in the end , Sheriff Brody won the day.
|Photo Credit: Tumblr|
Wednesday, June 24, 2015
As I have written in an earlier post, we have been blessed by a fantastic team of educators that work with him at school and have seen phenomenal growth in his communication, self-regulation and peer interactions. My wife and I have also tried him in a wide range of activities like baseball, soccer, gymnastics and art classes in attempt to support socialization and help him find his "thing." Shortly after my son was born, I remember thinking about how great it would be to bond with my son over some of my own interests. It may seem a bit cliche, but I envisioned a boy excited about playing sports in the backyard, watching football on the TV together and us tinkering in the garage on daddy's latest project. Nothing we had tried sparked an interest nor created an opportunity for him to be successful at something the other kids might think as "cool."
Now as an educator I know that children's interests evolve over time and that it is not that important to be seen as "cool"; however, as a father I worried about him making friends. I know that ASD will make social situations awkward for him. I worried that he would struggle to reach out and make friends. Without some common interests to draw others in, I worried it would be hard for him to develop relationships with his peers. I also worried about our ability to find something to bond over as father and son.
And then it happened; we found his "thing". What seemed like an innocuous invite from a close friend this winter to go ride ATV's on his parents' frozen pond turned into an amazing opportunity for our son do unlock a hidden passion. He quickly took to the controls, figured out how to maneuver the ATV and was quickly racing around the pond. Once the snow melted, we borrowed the ATV from our friend and made a small course for him at our house. By the end of the weekend, my wife and I were discussing the possibility of purchasing him a 4-wheeler of his own.... he hasn't looked back since. And now father and son have a common interest (even if daddy prefers two wheels to four).
So why do I tell this story? As an educator and a leader, this story reinforces for me the importance of helping everyone (students and staff) find their "thing". Sometimes finding someone's "thing" is easy, it is almost as if they were born to do their thing and they have known it since they were a fetus. For others, the process is more complicated, time-consuming and more resembles a meandering country path that appears to never end. Regardless of differences in the journey, those of us that lead others (whether it be a class of students, department or entire school) have a responsibility to help those in our organization find their "thing" and then help it to grow and find ways that it will support the overall growth of the organization.
Take the Time
Helping others to find their "thing" requires you to take the time to really get to know them. It starts with small things.
In a classroom it means taking the time to know exactly how a student's name is pronounced, how you spell his/her first and last name and who cares for this child when he/she goes home at the end of the day. It means allowing them to explore new experiences early and often in the school year either through real, hands-on experiences or vicariously through literature. And most importantly it means speaking with our students often. We all speak at our students regularly, but it is so very important to take the time each day to speak with a few of our students; to listen to what they have to say, question, express genuine interest and learn.
In a building it means many of these same things. A principal, assistant principal, department head needs to take the time to get to know his/her people. He/she has to take the time to listen to staff in the building, learn about their lives, explore their interests and seek opportunities to connect the staff's personal passions with the needs of the school.
Moment to Shine
Every student deserves to have a moment to shine, a moment where the other kids look at him/her and say, "Wow, I didn't know she could do that!" We had that happen just last week here at our school. During Field Day, one otherwise reserved and socially timid boy stepped up to the Karaoke station and impressed the rest of the students (and staff) with his vocal skills. Had one of the teachers not suggested that we have a Karaoke station and taken the time to get the music and write out the lyrics, that opportunity may never have presented itself.
We owe it to our students to push beyond what we find comfortable, what we enjoy and what we know in order to allow them to explore new areas that may help them discover their "thing". This is most important for our students who operate outside the norm, those students that don't seem to fit in with the rest of the group, whose interests diverge from the pack. And if we, as adults, operate inside the norm, we will have to push ourselves outside our comfort zone in order to meet these children where they reside so that we can get to know them and support their self-discovery.
Monday, March 30, 2015
Twitter is a mechanism that I use predominantly for my own professional learning, but I do have a few guilty pleasures that I indulge in occasionally while on Twitter. One of these is to explore the hashtag 'firstworldproblems.' This hashtag is a lighthearted look at the things we all find ourselves complaining about from time to time. The hashtag is based on the idea that there are problems that only people who live in the "first world" find themselves worrying about. Some of my favorites are: "I am so bummed that the remote car starter in my new car doesn't turn on my heated seats #firstworldproblems" and "I'm going to try to improve my sleep cycle by not looking at a screen an hour before going to bed. #firstworldproblems"
I search this hashtag for a couple of reasons. The primary reason is that when someone posts a well thought-out, snarky or sardonic tweet it brings a smile to my day. However, a secondary reason for monitoring this hashtag is a reminder to myself to keep things in perspective.
As a building leader, I face challenges, roadblocks and problems each and every day. Some of these are my own and some are those that I am helping my staff solve. From time to time, I find myself stuck in the negative, only seeing the roadblocks; losing site of the road ahead for the challenges in front of me.
successes and the joy that came from that day.
I have always felt like this was a good way to approach things and thought that it made a lot of sense; however, it wasn't until beginning to read a book entitle The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor that I realized there is a lot of science to support the benefits.
Research on the brain has shown that the brain develops patterns for how it views the world, deciding what information to let in to be processed and what information to filter completely out as if it never happened. Our brains do this automatically all the time. A simple example of this is when you are in a room for a long time and no longer hear a certain background noise until someone points it out to you. This happens because our brain determines which stimuli to focus on and which to ignore. It is an important survival mechanism that is a part of our evolutionary history. (No need for the brain to be focussing on the dripping noise from the back of the cave when the saber-toothed tiger is entering the cave opening.)
The most interesting part is that this phenomenon can actually shape our reality. "Repeated studies have shown that two people can view the same situation and actually see different things, depending on what they are expecting to see." (Achor, p. 96). If our brains are "looking" for negative things, bad luck, and people out to get us, it will cue in on every instance where it may be happening. As a result, our "reality" is that these negative things are always happening to us. However, if our brains are "looking" for the positives, good luck and people that are supporting us we see those things more often.
I found it promising to read that it is possible to change your brain patterns and therefore change your view of reality. Achor discusses in his book that we are currently bombarded with a lot of stimuli that train our brains to see the negative. News coverage, trolls on the internet, uncivil political discourse and a whole host of other actions constantly bombard us with negative images that train our brains to think this is the way of the world. However we have the power to change this perception.
I have begun to do a simple activity that I got from Achor's book. At the end of each day, I take five minutes to write down three things from that day or my life in general that are good things. Research has shown that this simple little activity will "train the brain to be more skilled at noticing and focussing on possibilities for personal and professional growth." (Achor, p. 101). He also stresses the importance of practicing joyful things, things that make you smile and laugh. Our brain needs practice with these things to be primed to notice them in our environment.
So if you catch me thumbing through #firstworldproblems on my iPhone, know that I am not goofing off. Rather I am practicing some intensive brain training to build a happier, more positive brain that is always on the look out for opportunity and as a result will be more productive.
Thursday, March 26, 2015
A couple of weekends ago my family and I spent a weekend at Great Wolf Lodge in Fitchburg, MA. Now for any not familiar with "GWL" (as my kids call it), it is a destination hotel for families. Essentially once you arrive at the hotel there is no real reason to leave. It has an indoor water park, an arcade, miniature golf, a ropes course, and restaurants to name a few things ... it even has it's very own Dunkin Donuts (praise be!).
The two and a half hour drive home from the hotel gave me a lot of time to reflect on the trip (while everyone else in the car slept). By the time I pulled into my driveway, I had come to thee conclusions about our experience:
- Kids have perseverance - GWL has this attraction called the Magi-Quest. A Magi-Quest is an interactive experience for the kids that takes them all over the hotel complex. The kids start when they receive their wand and are sent to the Quest Stones. From the stones, they are sent on a series of quests and adventures in order to attain Master Magi status. Completing the ten quests and three adventures took us approximately 10 - 12 hours spread over the three days we were there and had us going from one side of the hotel to the other at least three dozen times. My two children (6 and 9) almost killed their parents in trying to complete the Magi-Quest. There were determined to get to Master Magi status (which got them a pin) and they were not
This experience reaffirmed my belief that kids have the capability to persevere; to stick with something until it is done even if it is hard. Our challenge as parents and educators is to create an environment where they value the outcome, value the process, and to help them see the connection between hard work and success.
- We all need a little fun - I have a difficult time sometimes leaving my job at the office. I often find myself thinking about the school or the upcoming transition in the car, the shower, going to sleep, when I wake up, etc. Sometimes it is hard to break that pattern and I have a tough time being just a dad, just a husband, just a guy and not The Principal. However, the longer that I was at GWL the more and more I was able to separate from my job and connect with myself and my family. I am currently reading a book called The Happiness Advantage, written by Shawn Achor a psychology researcher at Harvard. In this book Achor talks about something called the Tetris Effect. Simply stated, brain research has shown that what the brain practices is what it perceives in the world, to the point where it actually shapes our reality.
Therefore, the more we "train" our brain to do fun things, to think positively and to enjoy things that are happening in our life, the more likely we are to encounter things that are fun, positive and joyful. With practice, our brain scans the environment looking for these things and we notice them more often. In just my short time practicing fun things at GWL, I came back to the "real world" more energized, positive and happy.
- Being a little uncomfortable in the short term can lead to great things in the long term - The main attraction at GWL is the indoor water park. In addition to a wave pool, lazy river, and water playground, the hotel also has several large waterslides that start inside the building, travel outside and then dump you back inside the complex. Of my two children, my six year old son can be the more timid about trying new things. When presented with the option of going on the slides when we arrived, he gave us his patented "I'm good" response, which roughly translates to "there is no way I am doing that." My wife and I talked and decided this was something we needed to help him overcome. With a little bit of cajoling and a whole lot of persistence, we got him to start up the stairs with us to the top of the slide. The closer we got to the top, the higher the pitch got in his voice and a little bit of water started to build up in his eyes. We told him that he was safe, that we were there and that we would do it with him. He protested, we insisted, and he ultimately went down the slide with us... and absolutely loved it!
There are a lot of things that kids face for the first time that may seem a bit scary and impossible to overcome. However, as adults we have to work with them to move past the anxiety and embrace the challenge. In school we work to ensure them that they are safe and the failure is an option, but only as an opportunity to learn, grow and try again. As Rutherford B. Hayes once said, "The expert at anything was once a beginner" and sometimes it feels uncomfortable to be a beginner, but that is the first step in any important journey.