Mission Statement

mission statementI have the task of writing my personal mission statement before our first district wide administrator meeting next week. My mission statement is one that has been with me since my first year as a site administrator, buffed and buffeted by reality, but true to the first time I wrote it down almost a decade ago.

When I heard that we would be sharing our statements, my first thought was that my own might sound naive in comparison to the others around me. Smart, innovative educators fill our administrative ranks, and I know the room will be populated with thoughtful and detailed statements as filled with meaningful content as they are lyrical. Mine is honest, but walks the line of idealistic.

I thought a bit about how I might tune my own statement up, adding something about technology, about my PLN, about the common core. I thought about my audience: those smart women and men who would be reading it blind and looking to connect it with its author.

My own statement, while true to what I believe, doesn’t reference the latest in educational research or comment directly on the opportunities technology brings to us. It doesn’t speak directly to community or school safety, both big ticket items to me, and both growing in importance with every week I lead.

It’s short.

My insecurities began to bubble up.

And then… I found myself having coffee with a fellow principal, someone I’ve known for a while and respect a lot. He listened briefly to my thoughts and then cut to the chase. He shrugged. “Be true to you,” he said, effectively ending the discussion.

Be true.

I finished my coffee and let his words sink in, and it seemed to me that a personal mission statement is just that.

I’d been wrong about the audience. Certainly others should read it; I do right when I put it out publicly for teachers, students, parents, and others to see, but it’s something personal. I’m the target audience. I’m the one that statement should guide. More than being a document for the world to see, it’s something I should look at every day, something that should inform my decisions.

As that wise friend said over coffee, it needs to reflect who I am and what I do.

So here it is.

“I believe that I can make a difference. By working hard and treating others with respect, I believe that I can help create a place where students, teachers, parents, and others in the school community can succeed, and this success is no less than a better life.”

Take it for what it’s worth. For me, it’s true.

Waffles in Pismo Beach

photo 1 (23)Toward the end of the road trip I asked my kids what they’d liked best. They didn’t agree on most things; my six year old son told me he liked kayaking and swimming; my nine year old daughter liked seeing her cousins and visiting Los Padres National Forest, but they both had one surprise (to me anyway) in common on their lists: breakfast.

When pressed, it wasn’t the easy access to bagels or free flowing juice that had them in agreement. It wasn’t eating in  different breakfast room every couple of days, all filled with families loading their plates with carbs and half listening to Good Morning America. What put breakfast on the top five list for both kids was the same thing: making waffles. It took my wife to explain to me why. “Bjorn,” she said, “It’s because they get to make them themselves.”

As an educator I should have picked up on that right away. It’s not that my kids don’t like butter and syrup, but they loved filling the batter cup, pouring onto a hot griddle, flipping the mechanism upside down, and watching the timer tick down.

It’s the same operation we see in great classrooms, students doing more than passively loading their intellectual plates with education’s equivalent to carbohydrates. Students want to do, to actively participate in their own learning. They need teachers to avoid getting burned by the griddle and know how much batter to begin with, and at the end of the process they want to show these adults they respect the golden waffle they’ve produced.

photo 3 (15)Not every day in every classroom can be filled with big events like building a robot or acting out a dramatization of The Outsiders, but students can be involved in creating their own education, and when they are it elevates meaning, supports relevancy, and pushes up rigor.

As a principal I want to work with my students to help them see how they can actively participate in making their school they place they want it to be. Just as they roll up their sleeves and engage meaningfully in classes, I want them to pour the metaphorical batter, flip the waffle maker, and end up with something golden.

Mindset

I’d heard about mindsets, read articles, attended workshops. Friends who are educators had talked with me about Carol Dweck’s work, and I’d bobbed my head. My wife, her masters degree in psychology, had discussed the importance of the ideas Dweck put forth in her book “Mindset” (especially when I’d experienced setbacks and was glooming my way around the house). I thought I’d heard; I know I’d nodded, and I believed I had a pretty good idea about the importance of bringing a “Growth Mindset” to my life and work. Then this summer, on the doorstep of a new principal job, I made it a project to add “Mindset” to my summer reading list. Finally I started to listen.

This notion of “Fixed” and “Growth” mindsets, that had been buzzing in the air around me for almost a decade finally landed on my nose and began a conversation. In Dweck’s short book (perfect for July, the educator’s month for reading) I saw both a clear explanation of these two ways of engaging in the world and great examples that brought the importance of acting mindfully (as an educator and as a parent) home.

In the “Growth Mindset” I recognized some of the people I admire: a student who delivered his graduation speech on his journey to the US from a small village in Columbia, learning English as a third language, after Spanish and his own native dialect; a football player I coached who lacked the initial physical ability he needed to start on the team, but worked hard and learned from his struggles, ending up a very good player; and a student who took the Beginning Drawing class I taught, doubting her abilities until she saw progress, then progressing beyond the rest of the class as she realized how much she loved putting pencil to paper. These students had inspired me, and as I saw a way to look at the common denominator of “Growth Mindset” (with a focus on learning from mistakes and embracing adversity as a way to get better), I realized how important it is to cultivate this way of engaging with the world both in myself and in my school.

These students were not deterred by failing. They were not demoralized by not getting things right. Instead, all three, like so many whose lives are made richer because of their perseverance and positive attitude, stuck to the belief that they could improve, they would make progress, and they would not be defined by setback. We sometimes say that “all children can learn,” but these students lived it. Dweck’s examples are fantastic, but these students brought “Growth Mindset” to life for me.

I also clearly saw the “Fixed Mindset” (viewing challenges as threatening and failures as catastrophic) and recognized more of this in me than I’d like to admit. As a student, an athlete, and a young teacher, I worked hard, but felt like things either came easy or were tragic failures. I believed that I was able to succeed not because of the work I put in, but because I was somehow simply a good student, a good athlete, a good teacher, and that when I wasn’t successful the cost was more than a low grade, a strikeout, or a lousy lesson plan; I felt like the failures were me.

This, coupled with an upbringing filled with more love than responsibility, helped to foster in me a way of looking at the world that made challenges tough. And challenges always come.

In the face of those challenges, I’m fortunate to have great support, a wise wife, and enough brains to realize that the best way to succeed was to stick to it, whatever it is, and not lose hope. As a person who strives for optimism and wants to continue to learn, “Mindset” reminded me to stay focused on engagement, not the fear of failure, and learning, not the measurement of success. I think I’ve gotten better about this as I’ve gotten older, and know I want to continue to grow as I move forward as a parent and a professional. A “Growth Mindset” is something I can choose.

Reading Dweck’s book was also a nice reminder of how important it can be to go back to the source of things. The discussion of mindsets had been going on all around me, but it wasn’t until I made the time to pick up what she’d written that I really got it. I know many folks reading this will have already read her book, but for any like me who thought the summary was enough, I encourage you to spend the time to read “Mindset” and see if you feel the same inspiration I do.

I am inspired, and now feel compelled to take the student-supporting work back to my school.

The challenge, as I relate it to the work I do, is to collaborate with the teachers, parents, students, and staff at my school to create a culture that goes beyond talking about “Growth Mindset” and rolls up its sleeves and actually gets to work. As we learn together we foster this way of thinking. As we prepare for life (not just tests) and view the education process as more than a series of exercises and exams, we grow. And as we recognize that we all can get better when we’re held to high standards and supported to reach those rigorous goals, we bring out the best in education.

I’ve got a lot to learn about what this looks like every day, but I’m fortunate to work with some pretty great people (some of whom will be getting a copy of “Mindset” as a gift in the very near future), and I’m ready to learn from both successes and failures along the way. Dweck describes the culture created by a “Growth Mindset” as “an inclusive, learning-filled, rollicking journey.” There’s a freedom in that, and one that I look forward to bringing from my beach reading in July to my work in the fall.

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Discipline and Progress

A lifetime ago I wrote my master’s thesis on Michel Foucault and his social theories as applied to a high school classroom. Specifically, I argued that an English classroom in Oregon that I observed provided examples of Foucauldian power relations as outlined in Discipline and Punish, The Order of Things, and Power/Knowledge. It was 1994, and the world stood uneasily on the cusp of the digital age. School looked much as it had when Foucault wrote his major works, and much as it always had in America. How times have changed.

As I reflect on my path to being a site administrator, informed by my interest in challenging the status quo and always conscious Foucault’s assertion that “every educational system is a political means of maintaining or modifying the appropriateness of discourses with the knowledge and power they bring with them” (Foucault 1971), I’m encouraged to find that what the twenty-five year old beginning teacher I was saw as ominous and constraining has changed. The skeleton of education, which Foucault describes as controlling pupils through a variety of means remains, but it seems to me, at least in my present position as an administrator (Foucault would cringe) at a suburban high school in southern California in 2014, that the flesh and blood of the school has undergone major changes. The forty five year old administrator I am, sees this as progress.

In many ways the school as Foucault described it looks no different than it did in 1994, or 1964, or 1934; bells ring to announce classes, students find their seats in desks, teachers (at least the good ones) welcome their pupils at the door of the classroom. Assistant principals still exist, as do behavior referrals, suspensions, expulsions, and in some cases even panoptic security cameras. But something else exists there too. I’ll risk calling it freedom.

Foucault noted an assortment of manifestations of power in the school, structures which limited individual freedoms, including the division of bodies, segmenting time, and controlling activity. Looking at these, albeit briefly, shows a softening, due in great part to the influence of technology both beyond and inside the schoolhouse.

Students are still divided into grade levels and subdivided into particular classes, but their connectivity to each other transcends folded paper notes and being paired to check homework. Linked via social media, sometimes in ways that alarm those struggling to keep them apart, students today are harder to divide; many educators ask if we even should. And while twenty years ago one might have imagined a student body represented by a stack of sugar cubes, today’s students are a collective syrupy amoeba of interconnectedness. From the right perspective, no less sweet.

Classes still begin and end, time segmented by a bell schedule,  but increasingly learning extends beyond the time designated for any particular period. This work outside “class time” doesn’t look like yesterday’s homework. Instead, teachers routinely “flip” classrooms, students watching lectures at home online and returning to work collaboratively in the classroom. Facebook pages and Twitter accounts have sprung up for classes, and students’ access to their teachers (via email or school sanctioned social media) increases apace. Even within the classroom times have changed; more and more tests aren’t timed, as many educators acknowledge that mastery trumps speed; some teachers encourage students to use personal electronic devices to take real time polls in class or do instant research; and a host of educational apps jostle for teachers’ PD time along with more traditional brick and mortar topics.

The control of activity, masquerading as a positive social order, remains a staple of education; students must follow rules about what they can do, when they can do it, and where they can be, but…

At my school students have opportunities to take classes that have them outside the confines of traditional classrooms. They might be making movies or taking photographs on our large campus, building sets, playing guitars on the lawn, or composting in the science quad. Students in Surf PE or AP Environmental Science find themselves on the beach, and students in Fitness Walking or Child Development might not even be on campus. In addition, online learning has changed the nature of education, allowing students to earn English credit from their kitchen table, or get ahead in math credit while sitting at a coffee shop blocks from any traditional classroom. Increasingly school does less to control students’ activity, and more to honor the academic work they do in “real life” contexts.

This isn’t to say that Foucault, or anyone looking for examples of the power relationships between individuals and institutions wouldn’t find much to write about in a modern high school, but academically the strict segmentation of time, space, and activity that existed in the institutions that informed his work in the sixties and seventies looks different now. More Google than gulag, schools today challenge us to recognize the freedom than can propel students beyond the confines of the status quo.

Foucault’s idea that “It is not possible for power to be exercised without knowledge, it is impossible for knowledge not to engender power” may still hold some truth, but the nature of how that knowledge is developed (developed rather than acquired) has shifted. Students are increasingly not what Foucault would describe as “docile bodies,” but are active participants in directing their own education. At its best school has changed, become more connected, broken down the non-loadbearing walls, and emerged as a place where possibilities outnumber policies.

Foucault would be curious to see what happens next. I know I am.