Saturday, September 19, 2020

The IEP

 A couple of weeks ago, I found out that one of my refugee kiddos was on an IEP, and I was angry!

Let me back up a bit...this student went to school in my state for kindergarten, then moved out of state for 1st grade. He has moved back now for 2nd grade, and brought an IEP with him. With a diagnosis of a learning disability. Maybe it's just me, but 1st grade is pretty early to be labeled with a learning disability, especially for an Emerging Bilingual (English Language Learner) who did not have many opportunities to learn in any kind of formal setting before kindergarten.

Once I calmed down a little bit, I tried to put my finger on what was bugging me so much. A friend asked me, "What does this mean for him?" In truth, it means that he will probably get more help and more interventions. And have a label. It's really not the worst thing in the world.

But I think my anger was a reflection of a greater worry about the role of the education system in perpetuating stereotypes or injustices in our current society. Why is this student automatically labeled as having a disability? Reading his current IEP, have we truly explored whether his slow progress in reading is a result of a disability or the fact that he is learning English or that he has moved around quite a bit and that has disrupted his education? Does he truly have a learning disability, or is it just the easiest and most convenient thing to do to put him on an IEP?

And lest you think I am paranoid, we have statistics to back it up. Do you know that, in my state a couple of years ago (when I could find the data), students who are Black are 2.18 times more likely to be identified with an intellectual disability compared to their non-Black peers? And 2.02 time more likely to be removed from the classroom for discipline issues? That's a problem, friends. You can view these statistics and more on this sheet.

I talked to my student's current special education teacher, and she said that the team would do a full review, since our state qualifies students differently than the other state does. I shared my concerns, and tried to share that if he truly has a disability, that is fine...I never want to be one of those people who is like, "Not my kid!" I just want to make sure we are really considering all of the factors and not jumping to conclusions because he is a student of color who is behind. I felt much better after talking, and feel confident that his school will take an honest look at his strengths and challenges and data to determine what the most appropriate course of action is.

For my part, I know I will continue to speak up and advocate in little and big ways as we wrestle with everything going on in our society right now. Sometimes it is showing up at a public protest, but sometimes, it's speaking to a teacher about one student's IEP.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

#LessonsinLeadership: Stepping into Hard Conversations

 The concept of not backing away from tough conversations is not new. I remember reading Crucial Conversations when I was first beginning my leadership journey and really appreciating a lot of the concepts, even though I was just starting to think about when I had been in some of these "crucial conversations" with my principals and what that had felt like.

Fast forward a couple of years, and I find myself realizing that I step into many conversations every day, and my words and action matter. This is true for all of us, but it carries even more weight when I am in a conversation where I am in a leadership position and I'm talking to somebody on my team.

Several days ago, I stepped into what I knew would be a hard conversation. It was the end of the day, I was coming from a meeting on a politically charged issue, and I was asked to join this meeting at the last minute. I probably could have said no, but I knew that wouldn't help, so I said yes. As expected, the meeting was emotional and hard. I have the utmost respect for everybody in that video call, and I believe we have a good relationship, but that doesn't make it any easier when I am the one having to deliver/reinforce an unpopular message. I walked away feeling very unsettled, unsure if my presence had made things better or worse, feeling the loneliness of leadership, and just feeling really sad about the situation.

Luckily, I work with some pretty awesome people. Over the course of the next few days, I received several texts and emails from people in this meeting saying thank you and that they appreciated my leadership, that I clearly cared but held onto the integrity of my position and what I needed to share. What?!? It sure didn't feel good in the moment. But apparently it did do some good for me to be there. (Side note: I wouldn't assume that everyone feels the exact same way, but at least it made a difference to some!) These words from my colleagues were a welcome encouragement and have actually given me confidence to continue to dive into hard topics, rather than running away from them.

The lesson to be learned: hard conversations will occur in life. There's no way around it. But approaching them with love, empathy, honesty, and integrity makes them go a little more smoothly. So I will continue to try to hold that space and that stance in all of the conversations that come this next week, month, and year!

Saturday, August 15, 2020

#LessonsinLeadership: The Greatest Compliment

Quick post today...my brain is too full to say much! Earlier this week, though, I led a PD session for about 200 teachers. Let's just say that coming back has been pretty overwhelming, and I could feel the tension and anxiety and fear and worry and exhaustion (and maybe excitement?) in the virtual room as we gathered. Most of the questions are ones we don't have answers to yet.

As I was going through the exit ticket responses, this one caught my eye:

I appreciate your positive approach.  It helps bring me back to a better mind space! You are an excellent teacher!

Teacher. That word hit me. Sometimes I feel like moving to a district admin position is like going to the dark side. But this teacher saw and recognized me as a teacher.

That was the greatest compliment I could have received this day!

Saturday, August 1, 2020

#LessonsInLeadership: Relationships Matter

If I had a nickel for every time someone said, "We don't know" in the past couple of weeks, I'd be rich.

All kidding aside, this is a time full of unknowns in life, and education is no exception. School leaders and parents are all trying to make decisions with minimal information (and/or information chat seems to change every day).

If there's one lesson I can pinpoint in all of this, it is that a little bit of listening and personal conversation can go a long way.

In the past several weeks, I have received numerous emails, texts, and phone calls from the teachers I help lead in my district. Many of them want to know if we can talk. And my answer is always yes.

I have been struck by how many of these conversations have ended with something like, "Thanks, I feel better now after talking to you." The truth is, I don't really have more answers or give people a whole lot of new information, it's just that we take the time to connect on a human level. We can talk through their individual situation, given the information that we both have at hand, and think about what it means. These conversations may take up some of my time, but the investment in people, in my team, is well worth it. I firmly believe that people will feel more comfortable, less anxious, and be better employees, teachers, and humans when they know that they are in a caring environment!

Contrast this with other situations I've seen, where the directive has been, "The leader is overwhelmed right now, so unless it's urgent, don't reach out." I get it -- this is an overwhelming time, and sometimes we need to focus on other things. But do you notice how that puts up a wall? It communicates that other "stuff" is more important than the person who is looking for help. And even if it is said with the best of intentions, it creates a less comfortable and more anxious working environment.

Even worse than that is when nothing at all is said. When people feel like they are just shouting into the void and not getting any answers. That can feel like, "You issue/question/situation isn't even important enough for me to acknowledge." Does that keep your team engaged and headed in the right direction?

I'm not perfect, nor do I have time to say "yes" right away every time. In fact, one of my recent emails sounded something like this: "I would love to connect, but I need to focus on preparing for teachers to come back next week. Could we try to schedule something after that?" Keeping the door open while politely protecting my time & top priorities for this week was my goal. And I received a very understanding response!

Connection matters. The more uncertain the future, the more people just want to know someone is out there who cares. Be human first, and a worker second. And 99% of the time, it will actually help your work turn out better, because your team is engaged, empowered, and spending more of their time focusing on what needs to be done rather than wondering what the leader is thinking!

Go forth and lead through relationships!

Saturday, July 25, 2020