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.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Face Down Your Shark

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. 
How does one raise two children on the Cape to love and appreciate the beautiful place we live, to enjoy the ocean without fear while being deathly afraid of sharks?  How do you let your kids swim and play in the ocean when you think any minute JAWS is going to spring from the deep blue and take away your children?  How is she able to plunge into the waves with them, not knowing what is swimming on the other side?  The answer is simply that my wife is the bravest person I know. 

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

Finding Their "Thing"

Followers of the blog will know that I have written about my son before.  Those who know me personally will know that I talk about both of my kids often.  While both of my children are fantastic little human beings, my son is faced with an additional challenge in his life.  About three years ago, he was diagnosed with what was then called Asperger's Syndrome and is now labeled Autism Spectrum Disorder.

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.