“Advice for the guy in the tie…”

scottI did some summer reading before I started my first year as a principal and found a few volumes really helpful. One, Secrets From the Middle by Elyse S. Scott, spoke to me particularly, as it laid out advice for new teachers about how to connect with kids. A rookie principal, I wished I had a book like it that was directed at me.

Enter social media.

Ms. Scott lives in the Hudson Valley, and I’m in California, but ours is an increasingly interconnected world and I thought: reach out. A couple of decades ago this would have been a letter. Today I had more resources at hand as I took a look to see if she had any advice for me.

I found her on Twitter, read a couple of articles she’d written, and mustered enough courage to send her a message. Twitter led to email, and when I told her my gratitude for her book and my preparations to start my year as a new principal, and asked if she had any advice for the guy in the tie, she responded with humor, insight, and grace.

Bjorn,” she wrote: “I am humbled by the attention my book has received and that my perspective and insights about middle level education seem to be valued. I say that because I simply did my job the way I envisioned it was supposed to be and always based what I did on what I thought was right for kids. My retirement “look back” has allowed me to see certain truths about the awesome task we have as educators, administrators and teachers alike. Recently, I spoke to education students at a local college and also wrote an article for middleweb- the themes in both cases came down to the simple principle I mentioned in the book- a variation on the golden rule. How I want to be treated as a human being translates into how I treat all others, in my personal life as well as in my educational life. Likewise, I think the most valuable lesson I learned in my positions as teacher, team leader, yearbook advisor, committee member, and Union negotiator is that the only person I could control was ME!

And so…..I think there are parallels there for “the guy in the tie.” (sounds like a good book title!) Just as teachers are facing layer upon layer of responsibility, stress, and accountability, I marvel at the job description of today’s principal! I do not see enough hours in the day for all that is required in the position, even if you have a good person serving as assistant principal. That said, I will give you my “Utopian” view of what a principal should be, and ironically the same factors would describe a highly effective teacher.

loves the educational process
caring and compassionate
can relate to students and staff
is visible
approachable
organized
creative
flexible
good communicator
never complacent/strives to be better
self reflects
grows from year to year
challenges students and staff
strong academic leader

**follows through, follows through, follows through

I flourished most with principals who were organized, good problem solvers, and really understood the pressures of the classroom. The fact that you were in the trenches should serve you well. They were also strong academic leaders who knew that professional development was a necessary adjunct to their visions. They worked as hard as I did and followed through on initiatives.
I was most unhappy working under principals who had one pet initiative and did not see the bigger picture or lacked understanding of curriculum, state standards, and the magnitude of the testing program. I also feel they created a divided faculty by pressuring those in the core who had state assessments but gave a free pass to others who did not.”

It’s big advice, and something I’ve come back to throughout the year. Over these ten months, I know I’ve gotten some of it right and some of it wrong, but as a compass for what a principal should do, this list strikes me as more than capable of pointing me in the right direction. The times I strayed off the wrong way were my own mistakes.

And now, as I near the end of the year, and take a few minutes to reflect on what went well and what I’ll do differently next year, this message from an educator I respect seemed the perfect starting point for a thoughtful revisiting of the year.

Early in the fall, inspired by the teachers at my school and the students I interacted with when I had to pinch hit in a math class when a substitute didn’t arrive, I made a decision that turned out to be defining for me as a principal. I taught.

photo 4 (4)Ms. Scott talks about a love for the educational process, and understanding of the pressures of the classroom. Volunteering to develop a lesson and teach some English classes in the opening months of the school year helped me see my school from a teacher’s point of view, connect with my students in a real and meaningful way, and be recognized as an educator, not just a bureaucrat.

As I look back on it, I think that teaching the kids helped to establish my perspective and identity. I hope and believe it also showed my commitment to those important traits on Ms. Scott’s list: approachability, organization, and creativity.

They’re qualities I value and hope to nurture in my staff. Like Ms. Scott, in my thirteen years in the classroom I was at my best when I was given the freedom to do my job “the way I envisioned it, and always based on what I thought was right for kids.” This year I’ve done my best to be the principal I would have wanted to teach for. I’ve taken pride in the bold choices my teachers have made as they tried new approaches in subjects as diverse as math, English, and ASB.

Not everything went smoothly, of course, but if I look at the challenges that arose (rats in the drama room, broken water pipes, and miscommunication between parents and teachers) as opportunities to keep my center, learn, and improve my own leadership, I can find some measure of success in lessons learned and improvements made.

There are some improvements I’ll focus on in the upcoming school year. This year I didn’t do enough to welcome the many new teachers to my school and help them understand the dynamics of our school community. I’ll work to change that next year, with more opportunities for new faces to get to know each other and ask the questions that will help them feel at home sooner.

I’ll also put more focus on articulating a clear vision for our school. This year I did a lot of listening and working quietly to prompt changes that were good for kids. As I reflect on this school year, and think about the things I’ll do differently when we return in the fall, I know that for me to improve as a leader it’s important for my staff, students, and school community to be able to understand my vision, and for me to communicate that vision well.

Finally, to bring that vision into reality, I need to be ready and willing to have the difficult discussions that keep us all focused on the important work at hand. Honesty and kindness aren’t mutually exclusive, and as I’m able to help those around me reflect and improve, and as I reflect and improve myself, I can can contribute to making this the best school it can be.

And the oil in the engine of school leadership, the rope that binds the bamboo scaffolding of school improvement, is summed up by the last bit of advice that ends that beautiful litany of ideals: a principal who “follows through, follows through, follows through.”

Ms. Scott called her list Utopian, but I’d rather see it as the target I should continue to shoot for. Someday, if our paths ever cross in person, I’d like to buy her a cup of coffee and the best doughnut around, and tell her “thanks” for giving me something tangible to strive for. I’ll get closer next year, and closer than that the year after. Until then I’ll end this first year being the best guy in a tie I can be.

Different

cougar headAt Diegueño we have a history teacher who has taught in the same room since the school opened in 1985. One year he moved his desk. He’ll be back in 2015-2016, an island of constancy in a sea of change.

Truth be told, that “sea of change” business is hyperbolic; we have many folks on campus who have been here for more than a decade, and almost every one of the dozen new teachers we hired last year are coming back. Still, Diegueño is similar campuses to across the state and nation in the sense that change in the adults on campus is a common occurrence.

Some years the changes are big.

Last year we added new teachers in every department, a new counselor, and a new principal. Midway through spring, our principal’s secretary, a fixture at Diegueño for more than ten years and our classified employee of the year, embarked on a late career adventure as she left to open a new middle school in our district. At the award ceremony to give her the EOY certificate she was flanked by her new principal and me. If she lacked the grace and humor she has, it might have been awkward.

More changes loom for the next school year. My attendance secretary will join her longtime office companion at the new middle school, my rock star assistant principal is excited to have earned a promotion to a high school in our district, and my 2014-2015 teacher of the year will take a full year leave to be with her new baby. Someone joked that I needed to stop giving out staff of the year awards.

They’ll all be missed, daily and deeply. And…

As we bid them goodbye, we prepare to welcome new teachers, office staff, a new counselor, and AP. A year from now these folks will be as dear as those who are moving on , but as change fills the air of May, it’s easy to feel, well… a little off balance.

“Lots of changes,” noticed my campus supervisor while we were out on lunch supervision. I could tell his thoughts were on the great people who won’t be here next year. There’s a legitimate tinge of concern whenever strong folks leave; a math teacher waved to me as I walked with my AP this morning saying “congratulations” to him and a smiling “my condolences” to me. But even as I recognized that his thoughts were about those going, I realized that mine were of those people who will be coming to Diegueño in a couple short months.

“Lots of changes,” he repeated, and I answered: “Yeah. It’s exciting. We’ll be okay.”

Looking back on that conversation, I realize that I didn’t quite capture the truth. We’ll be more than okay. We’ll be different, certainly, but in those differences come surprises, new friends, and perspectives we’ve never thought of before. Welcoming new staff to campus is part of what keeps our school vibrant. Articulating who we are and why we do the best things that we do helps us stay thoughtful about our practices and slow down long enough to prevent the “we’ve always done it this way” mindset. Listening to new points of view helps us question what we’re doing and improve.

A certain amount of change is built in to the structure of a middle school. Students are here for two years, which means every June we lose literally half of our student body, and every August we add 500 new students to our Diegueño family.

739580_proof_proportional_redraw (1)Schools do best when there is enough continuity to provide a sense of security, and enough change to prompt open mindedness and growth.

I would have done better in responding to my campus supervisor’s mild concern if I’d had the presence of mind to remember that line from Aristotle: “Change in all things is sweet.”  Sometimes it takes some time for us to recognize that sweetness, but as we allow ourselves, we do.

What remains constant isn’t the individual faces at a school, but the culture that is an accumulation of all those individuals, of what each has brought to the school community, and how the interactions between them has seasoned the salmagundi of the site.

Those who are leaving Diegueño this spring, students and adults, will be missed, even as they leave to make the places they’re going better because of who they are, formed in part by their own Diegueño experiences.

The people coming to Diegueño bring with them energy and excitement, questions and perspectives, passion and purpose. We’ll be different in ways, though some students will walk into that history classroom on campus and see the same teacher in the same room that their parents saw in 1985. The world that is Diegueño certainly isn’t spinning off its axis.

No, the changes that are coming will be as sweet as our attitude toward them. I look forward to the 2015-2016 edition of Diegueño and the surprises the year has in store for us. “Lots of changes,” you might say. I’d answer: “Yes! Let’s go!”

Creative Council

Lincoln did it right, surrounding himself with people who would question his opinion and provide passionate and sometimes contrary perspectives of their own. He didn’t call it a “mastermind group,” as Andrew Carnegie would a few decades later, or a “creative council” as Thomas Edison would dub the diverse personalities in his inner circle. Many of us have our own group of people we bounce ideas off, either publicly through social media, formally in a professional learning community, or informally through phone calls, emails, or meetings over coffee. I’m blessed to have all three, and use them weekly as I navigate the waters of being a middle school principal.

plnMy Professional Learning Network (PLN) isn’t anything formal or particularly unified. Not unlike the ragtag fugitive fleet of the 1978 Battlestar Galactica show, it’s the Twitter feeds and blogs of educators from across the globe that I travel with …in pursuit of that glittering planet of progress. As different as we all are (some working in small schools, some big, some without brick and mortar schools at all), the educators I follow and interact with online each provide me with perspective that helps me be the best I can be. Some I’ve met only a time or two, at an EdCamp or conference; some are people I work with every week, colleagues from other schools and our district office; and some I’ve never met in person, but consider professional colleagues (and even kindred spirits) who I hope to sit down with someday face to face.

There’s a saying that PLNs are like friends and PLCs are like family. We choose our Professional Learning Network, but our Professional Learning Community is usually the result of proximity with others at our school. At Diegueño, I’m fortunate to have a great professional family. Creative, collaborative, and curious, the teachers and others who make up my PLC have the courage to speak honestly, disagree with respect, and stay focused on finding solutions. I’m a fellow of discretion, so I won’t name names, but when “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown,” the voices I seek out for advice always give me much to think about. The common denominator of my onsite creative council isn’t credentialing or position; it’s a passion for helping kids and a commitment to speaking the truth …even if the boss doesn’t share that opinion. Maybe especially then.

Three GoonsAnd for the times I need advice, consolation, or just an ear to hear, a constellation of educators fill my night sky, always pointing true north. Some have never been in the same room: the teacher from Richmond, the assistant principal from LA, the EL Coordinator from San Rafael. Some know each other well: my first admin team consisted of me, Lars, and Justin, and while we can’t see each other every day as we once did, I still lean on them when it matters. Physical distance doesn’t mean as much as it once did, and I know that someone to talk with is just a text, phone call, or email away.

I’m thankful for this interconnected world. Unlike Lincoln, Carnegie, or Edison, my creative council is always there. My mistakes are my own, and I try to use every one to get better, but my potential to succeed is improved by the many, many people and perspectives I have the privilege to know and draw wisdom from every day.

Books, Badminton, and Beautiful Conversation

You know it’s a good meeting when a majority of the parents and teachers are barefoot.

It was our final gathering of the year for the Diegueño Book Club, and laughter filled the grassy area in the center of campus. We threw foam horseshoes without much success, if success is measured in ringers or leaners. If, however, the yardstick for accomplishment is having a good time, we were wildly successful.

The laughter continued as we batted a birdie to one another, our badminton skills inversely proportional to the amount of fun we were having.

There in the quad, beneath the flagpole, parents, teachers, and I were playing. Our smiles and talk of what we’d been like as kids brought us closer together, and the heart pumping lunges to reach that birdie made me feel happy to be at Diegueño, surrounded by great people, and having fun.

photo (7)After our most successful volley of the night, seven continuous bounces of shuttlecock against badminton rackets (it was windy; volleys were tough), we sat down in the shade of one of Diegueño’s trees and shared a jug of water one of our teachers brought from her classroom and a plastic container of chocolate chip cookies. Circled on the grass, we brought out our copies of Stuart Brown’s book Play and started to talk.

We talked about the importance of play, both structured and unstructured, and how different school was today than when we were students. Discussion led to play as it happens on our campus, both in big events like Spirit Day and in classes every week, as students enjoy time and space to be creative, collaborative, and come up with their own approaches to the challenges they face.

Two parents mentioned the “POM” or “problem of the module” that has entered the lexicon of the Diegueño Math Department. Not open ended so much as “open middled,” a math teacher explained, the POM encourages students to notice and wonder, to bring critical thinking to a purposeful challenge, and to work together to find an answer. The result is different than run of the mill “homework,” though the POMs are done outside of the classroom.

I’ll save the homework discussion for another post, but suffice it to say that we all could speak to the difference between daily assignments and more complex opportunities for students to apply the skills they are learning and have learned in class.

The kind folks in our book group listened as I yarned a bit about some of the things I did as a teacher, including Pirate Week and Space Week. Beyond the fun of talking about times when I got to play in the classroom (and beyond), this discussion blossomed into talk of a more academic success we’d seen just a couple of months ago at Diegueño: Pi Day.

Pi Day is really a misnomer; here at Diegueño we celebrated math for a full week in March. Beyond the thoughtful and student driven activities, for me the anticipation, the brainstorming, the excitement to create something fun (and Pi related) were as important as the flashier successes of the event. In the fortnight before the celebration I saw kids engaged, inspired, and showing the sparks of creativity that brought to life unexpected accomplishments.

Acknowledging that not every day can be Pi Day, we talked about everything from PE classes to History, and the value of engagement, hands on activities, and opportunities for the kids to have a voice in how they demonstrate what they are learning. As Brown suggests, “play isn’t the enemy of learning, it’s learning’s partner.” Our group agreed.

Conversation ranged from how we as parents play with kids to the importance of family and community. I won’t tip my hand on all the ideas flying around that tupperware container of diminishing cookies, but as we talked about balance, building community, and helping everyone feel at home, I was inspired by the specific suggestions about how we could do even more to bring parents, students, and all of our school community closer together.

This balance, especially in a world increasingly competitive, and a society that puts extreme pressure on students (as well as moms and dads) around grades, high school classes, and college acceptance, is important, and part of the answer to the question “How can we help families?” comes in the word: play.

I know that as the principal I might raise an eyebrow or two with this next line from Brown’s book, but it resonated with me, and I think with the other folks who were with me on the grass. “Play, by its very nature,” Brown writes, “is a little anarchic. It’s about stepping outside of normal life and breaking normal patterns. It’s about bending rules of thought, action, and behavior.” Within in the safety of school, and under the guidance of adults who care about them, a little unstructured play might just be the balm some kids need to ease the stress they face every day.

This isn’t to say that school should only be games, or that structure is anathema to learning. As our Diegueño Book Club talked, however, we recognized that how we frame what we do on campus (and in the work we assign beyond the schoolhouse walls) matters a lot.

A teacher in our group remembered aloud a quotation from Tom Sawyer: “Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and. Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.” I thought about what that meant to me as someone who has chosen to be an educator. It’s a topic I’ll continue to discuss with my staff and school community.

Reading a book and talking about it at school… I guess I could see how someone might consider that work, but for me, that evening on the lawn, it was most certainly engaging, enlightening, and enjoyable play.

Spontaneity

photo 1 (4)When I looked up, they were playing catch with a pine cone.

Laughing.

We were on the beach, a few plastic shovels and buckets strewn near our towels and umbrella, the perfect place for having fun. It was a spur of the moment trip to the water and we’d forgotten a ball or frisbee; the buckets and shovels had just been in the trunk. After an hour in the car, the kids were interested in doing more than sitting and digging, and following some beachside exploration and the requisite shell collection, they discovered a pine cone and its aeronautic capabilities.

Hearing them laugh, it seemed predestined, more fun than a football.

I sometimes see this spontaneity and unrestricted play a the middle school where I work. Students here handle their academics well, but still have a lot of little kid in them, and they find joy in laughing and playing.

Just this spring I’ve watched students enthusiastically practicing for our talent show, playing board games in our library at lunch, and (on a cold day last week) organizing a potluck in which a group of girls each brought food to share at their lunch table. The laughter from that table brought me over to see them putting aside a huge bowl of salad and getting ready to cut into a giant chocolate cake. Unexpected. Wonderful.

There is energy behind this positive play, and I see great teachers use it as wind in the sails of learning. Sometimes this means giving the kids choice in what they learn or how they show their understanding. Right now our school library is filled with student art and cardboard roller coasters that kids made in science class.

Sometimes teachers allow this sense of play to manifest itself in activities we bring to our student body. One of my favorite things to watch this spring was our playful ASB class working together to come up with games for Spirit Day. They didn’t use all the activities they thought about, but the experimentation was inspiring to see, young people trying out ideas together and having fun.

It is fun to learn to see the world and its possibilities in a little bit different way as we play and create together. Watching students come up with an improv scene in drama or fill the quad with hula hoops and laughter is a highlight of my job as a principal.

The only thing better is to have a chance to join in.

So, as that pine cone landed near me over the weekend, I didn’t hesitate at all when my daughter asked: “Dad, want to play?”

“Rat Attacks”

“Did you know that rats are responsible for more human deaths than all other predators combined?” The class looked at me. “Yeah. Rats!”

I taught reading intervention for three years, and had a hand in revamping reading intervention programs at a few schools as an administrator. Helping struggling readers has always been a passion for me, and with each opportunity to make a difference in this pursuit, I did my best to always remember the fear and wonder of talking with struggling readers about rats.

ratattacksMy rat facts came from a book given to me for a classroom library I could use with my reading intervention class. Titled Rat Attacks, a feral looking creature staring from the front cover, it was my go to book in the opening days of the semester as I showed my students how the class operated.

Together we read about the vicious rodents, puzzled through vocab, and answered questions like those they’d see in the comprehension quizzes they’d take on their own independent reading. That Rat Attacks was almost unanimously agreed upon as interesting, or at least compelling, made it a useful tool. All reading intervention is about engagement.

The first, vital, connection when working with struggling readers is between the teacher and the kids. Students don’t learn to read (or read better) from someone they don’t trust, and when we talk about engagement in a reading intervention class, it must not only be an engagement between the students and the subjects, but also between all of the people, adult and adolescent, who fill the room.

Culture trumps program, and a healthy classroom environment is more important in an intervention class than almost anywhere else.

Within that classroom there must be opportunities for students to engage in reading and writing that is both interesting (to them) and relevant. The independent reading that students engage in as well as their shared experiences should be appropriately rigorous and appropriately compelling. This isn’t always easy, but more often than not I’ve found reading intervention teachers to be some of the most creative and widely read folks I know. Add to that an uncompromisingly student centered approach, and success is sure to follow.

A third component for engagement in reading class is student understanding of the importance of improving. This, coupled with student set goals for increasing reading ability, either built in or teacher inspired, is a cornerstone for progress. Students must know why they’re striving to improve.

When they do, they thrive. Engaged students, who know their teacher is an ally, have access to relevant content, and are inspired to reach goals, do become stronger readers.

They may even learn a thing or two about rats.

Stop pretending…

A passionate and powerful educator I know challenged me to articulate five things we should “stop pretending” in education. It’s a topic that invites a chip on one’s shoulder, so forgive me if the tone of this post seems more Clint Eastwood than Roy Rogers.

Saddle up.

As educators we need to stop pretending that schools are broken. Yes, there is lots of work to do, but that’s true in every pursuit that matters, and we’d do ourselves a favor to hum along with Leonard Cohen as he sings: “There is a crack, a crack, in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” Education is broken in the way an egg is broken by a chef: so it can be remade with purpose.

As educators we need to stop pretending that kids aren’t resourceful. Give a student a legitimate problem to solve, and if it’s meaningful and interesting (or urgent enough), the chances are good she’ll come up with something better than most would expect. We do right by our kids when we assume they are resourceful, and challenge them to show us, themselves, and each other.

As educators we need to stop pretending that quiet classrooms are the best classrooms. I’m not advocating disarray, just exploration. Adventures are supposed to be boisterous, and learning is an adventure. (We promise to put the furniture back in place and not hurt each other. Let us learn!)

As educators we need to stop pretending some kids can’t learn. All do. It’s what they learn (from our lessons and our actions, from they way we treat them and the way we let them treat each other) that we should be mindful of.

As educators we need to stop pretending that we’re victims. It’s easy to say that there’s not enough money, not enough autonomy, not enough respect… so what? We’re educators; what we do matters. Let’s start acting like it. Our struggles, when met with optimism, define us. Our successes, measured in kids, matter more than gold.

So let’s stop pretending we’re not heroes in white hats riding in to save the day. We are. Let’s start riding.