Friday, June 30, 2017

Confessions of a New Administrator: Week #4

This summer, I am getting my first hands-on experience at being a building administrator for my site of about 300 1st-5th graders.  I know that summer school is different than the regular school year, but much of the "blitz" I am feeling reminds me of being a first year teacher (and what I expect being a first year administrator may feel like).  One of my personal commitments in blogging is to be honest, open, and transparent (while protecting privacy) about my experiences - and I'm sure that, someday, I will smile looking back at what I was feeling at this time.  Hopefully it can help someone else learn, too!

We have the week of the Fourth of July off, and here's Confession #1: I'm ready for a break!  This has been a wonderful experience and I'm enjoying it, but I will always jump at the chance to rest, relax, spend time with family & friends, and invest in other parts of my life that get put on the back burner when school is in session.

As with any job, I have experienced some of the good, the bad, and the ugly in the past four weeks.  This week has me reflecting on the best and worst parts of my job as an administrator.

The Good

The best part of my job is that I get to see so many great things happening in the school on a regular basis!  I love welcoming students in the morning and being a friendly face at the door.  My favorite practice of late is playing violin or cello to the kids as they walk in, mixing pop/movie music with classical music, and seeing how excited the students are to hear what is coming next (this feeds the music teacher in me)!  I love being a professional problem-solver and figuring out how to make everything run more smoothly for my staff.  The best days are when I get to spend lots of time in classrooms, absorbing the atmosphere and great instruction that is going on.  I love seeing happy and engaged kids, and I love seeing teachers work their magic with the amazing ways they reach students.  I'm filled with pride as I do a walkthrough of the school and take note of the learning, the inquiry, and the care that fills each room.  I love when students call me over to show off their latest creation.  I love making positive phone calls home about how awesome students are, and I love handing out prizes and stickers as a part of our PBIS system and seeing the students' excitement when they are acknowledged for doing the right thing.

I also like working with students who end up in the office for their behavior.  Maybe it sounds strange, because I often end up with kids (or parents, or teachers) when they are at a low point, when things didn't go well.  In these moments, I really feel like I have an opportunity to reach in and make a difference.  I like helping kids think about how their actions affected others, and seeing the connections go off in their brain to hopefully help them make better choices in the future.  Many times, kids who end up in the office are scared and upset - I love making it a supportive place for them that acknowledges that sometimes life is hard, and we need to develop strategies to manage it (there are still clear boundaries and consequences, but they are not handed out in a punitive way).  This is different from the smackdown discipline that is portrayed in the media in the principal's office, and I love changing the narrative about what it means to be sent there.  I love the success stories and when students that I see in the office all the time come back to share what a good day they had.

The Bad (which is not 100% bad all of the time...I'd rather call it The Hard Stuff)

It's not all sunshine and roses, though - there are hard parts of my job too!  One of the worst parts of my job is having to deliver bad news.  If a student makes a poor choice, I have to call the parents and tell them, and that hurts.  In the situations that are hard to handle, were no one knows what to do, I end up having to make the decision (even though I don't know what to do either)!  The stakes are higher, the responsibility is greater, and the ripple effects have the potential to reach farther than when I was a classroom teacher...and I feel that weight!  As a leader, part of my job is to protect the school, staff, & students.  That means that sometimes I take the brunt of someone's displeasure or anger so that someone else doesn't have to.  I am happy to take it for my team, but it's not always fun in the moment.

We don't like to talk about it, but I've learned about threat assessments, suicide assessments, connections with law enforcement, connections with housing & human services agencies, etc.  This is the reality - these things come up regularly.  Some of my kids' stories are heart-breaking, and I hold that when I interact with them.  I hear from families who are struggling and I just wish there was more I could do to support them.  I also see situations when kids have to bear the brunt of their parents' decisions, and it makes me sad for them.

The other situations that make me sad are those where I feel like I can't quite reach a kid.  As nice as it would sometimes be to have a simple formula for everything, kids are people who get to make their own choices, too.  There are times where I can't get a kid to open up and share what's going on, when I can't get a student to acknowledge that they did something that affected others, or when I think we've had a successful resolution only to find that kid back in my office a day (or an hour!) later.  I want to solve every problem that comes my way, but the truth is, sometimes kids just respond better to other people or need supports that are different than what I can provide.  This doesn't mean I stop trying, but I also have to acknowledge that I'm not Superwoman and be willing to seek other options to figure out what is best for a kid...not just best for my ego.

The Ugly

I'm just going to sum this one up by saying school/district politics.  They exist everywhere, and the "higher up" you go in leadership, the bigger picture you have of what's going on, who is jockeying for power, and the different moving pieces related to federal, state, and district funding & regulations.  The most frustrating part is when I am mandated to carry out something that I do not personally believe is best for kids or for the school in general (these mandates come in big and small varieties).  There are times I stand up and fight it, there are times I have to implement it, and there are times I choose to just let things settle and only deal with it if it becomes an issue.  No matter what I do, I will face criticism from somewhere...often from those who only see a part of the overall picture.  I've never loved politics, and figuring out how to be ethical, strategic, compliant, and kid-centered has been a challenge when those priorities are sometimes at odds with each other!

In the end...

...I love what I'm doing, and I wouldn't trade it for the world!  Some of my daily good, bad, & ugly is similar to when I was a teacher, just on a larger scale, but some of it is completely different than what I have experienced in the past.  I'm looking forward to taking a week off to recharge, but then jumping back into the fray to finish out our summer program!

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Confessions of a New Administrator: Week #3

This summer, I am getting my first hands-on experience at being a building administrator for my site of about 300 1st-5th graders.  I know that summer school is different than the regular school year, but much of the "blitz" I am feeling reminds me of being a first year teacher (and what I expect being a first year administrator may feel like).  One of my personal commitments in blogging is to be honest, open, and transparent (while protecting privacy) about my experiences - and I'm sure that, someday, I will smile looking back at what I was feeling at this time.  Hopefully it can help someone else learn, too!

After Week #3, I am looking around and realizing that this new role I have is starting to feel...almost normal?  How can that be?  I don't think my days are any less hectic, but I am learning to adapt to my new role!  Even after just a few weeks, here are some of the changes I am noticing in myself:

  • I am much more comfortable switching gears - instantly!
    I may peacefully be doing paperwork in the office, in my "organizing" mode, and have an unhappy parent walk in, necessitating a switch into "mediator" mode.  Or I may be working with a student who was sent to the office, in "discipline/support" mode, and hear a call on the radio that a student ran off, forcing a momentary change into "searching" mode.  I may be enjoying a lesson in the classroom, going into my more comfortable "teaching" mode, and then have a visitor show up and transition into "outreach" mode.  I've learned not to get too attached to what I'm doing at any one time, and to be ready for something drastically different in the next moment!
  • I am much more comfortable NOT knowing.
    Wait, the principal's supposed to have all of the answers, right?  Wrong.  Often, I come into a situation in the middle of the story and I have to jump in and proceed without knowing all of the background.  This happens with students, parents, and staff.  I tend to be a person who likes to gather the details and then make a plan, but that is just not feasible in many situations.  I'm learning to move forward with confidence, even without knowing exactly what is happening all of the time.
  • I am much more willing to trust my gut.
    With so many different situations coming my way, how do I decide how to handle them all?  If situations are easy, my teachers handle them on their the time they get to me, they have usually escalated.  Related to the NOT knowing, I usually haven't seen these kids through the whole day to determine their triggers or really understand why they are behaving in a certain way, but I still have to do something about it.  I have really been trusting my gut instincts about what supports might help these kids, and more often than not, it has worked out well!  This goes beyond discipline, too...especially in a 5 or 6 week program, I don't have the time to develop long-term relationships (at least for now).  In all of my interactions with students and adults, I am really trusting my gut to tell me what is needed in each situation!
  • I am getting better about not living in fear.
    I know this is an ongoing lesson for me - it is so easy for insecurities and fear to rise up and dominate my day.  Being in a position where I am expected to step up and move past that has forced me to really step up and move past that!  When a parent comes storming into the office, upset, it bothers me less than it used to - I can take a deep breath, smile, greet that parent, and trust that we can work toward resolution (or at least a place were we can be civil with each other)!  When someone makes a suggestion, rather than immediately wondering if they think I'm doing a bad job, I can smile, thank them for the suggestion, and appreciate that we are all trying to make this school the best that it can be.  When I have to make a hard decision, rather than wallowing back and forth and worrying about the consequences, I can take a minute to think about it, look at the facts, and then decide and move on.  I'm not perfect at this, but I have really noticed that these interactions do not stick with me in the way they used to - I spend less time worrying about the future and more time focusing on the present! 
I love being an administrator and watching the magic that happens in the school environment - support staff being incredibly efficient and flexible, teachers bringing out the best in their students, students being so excited about learning.  But another cool part of this journey has been for me to take a moment and reflect on how it has changed me.  Sometimes it feels like we give so much to our work and relationships, and it's good to remember that they give back too!

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Confessions of a New Administrator: Week #2

This summer, I am getting my first hands-on experience at being a building administrator for my site of about 300 1st-5th graders.  I know that summer school is different than the regular school year, but much of the "blitz" I am feeling reminds me of being a first year teacher (and what I expect being a first year administrator may feel like).  One of my personal commitments in blogging is to be honest, open, and transparent (while protecting privacy) about my experiences - and I'm sure that, someday, I will smile looking back at what I was feeling at this time.  Hopefully it can help someone else learn, too!

Week #2 of summer school brought the most important thing: STUDENTS!  

They started last Monday and we had a full day, complete with tie-dye and presentations from the local library.  My days have been moving at a fast and furious pace, but the weekend has been helpful for me to reflect!

14 loads of tie-dye later...

I won't lie, Monday was hard.  

It was so exciting to have 300 kiddos walk in, but there were of course several first-day wrinkles to smooth out, such as making sure kids were in the right place, answering parent questions about transportation and teachers and forms and everything else, and ensuring our guests who were running the tie-dye and library stations had everything they needed.  None of that was a big deal, but then we had a couple of large-scale incidents (the kind that require a lot of paperwork and calling in outside agencies for follow-up) that really threw me off.  My thought process:
"Uh oh, this is not good, this is a big deal.
Everyone is looking at me.
Oh, wait, this is my job to figure out what to do. 
I don't know how to handle this! 
But I'd better figure it out!"
Between these incidents and other smaller-scale discipline issues, I was worn out by the end of the day.  I realized that I had spent a lot of time stuck in a "what a principal should be like" mindset and didn't spend a lot of time being myself.  As a result, I didn't feel very good about the way I handled discipline or how I connected with people.  I went home feeling discouraged and wondering how people actually handle this job on a daily basis.

And then came the turning point of my week.  

I had sent an email out to my staff, thanking them for a great first day (and including updates & changes to make things flow more smoothly the rest of the week), and one of my teachers wrote an encouraging email back.  I didn't realize how much I needed that affirmation until I saw it!  Her words just gave me a little spark of confidence and a reminder that, despite the chaos and issues of the day, there were many things that went well.

Never underestimate the power of goes a long way!

The rest of the week went so much more smoothly!  

I returned on Tuesday with a renewed sense of identity, and promised myself that I would handle discipline in a way that felt like me, not some fake sense of what it "should" be.  And you know what?  The kids responded much more positively!  They can really sense it when you are not confident!  We were able to put some positive supports in place for students who needed a little more, and I was able to spend a lot more time in classrooms, which is exactly the way I wanted it.  There were still plenty of bumps in the road, but I felt much more confident in my ability to handle them.  By Thursday, most of our logistical challenges were worked out so we could just focus on the kids and the learning!

And even though I have been exhausted and my head has been spinning, trying to keep track of everything that I'm supposed to remember throughout the day, I've loved it.  I love working at that fast pace and I love being able to support both kids & adults when they just need a little extra.  As a principal, I feel like I handle the big problems and the little problems (my teachers handle the in-between ones)!  When things escalate past the classroom level, they get to me and I get to deal with them - these are the big problems.  The small, silly things that just take time, like getting a new roll of tape or sorting out T-shirts also become my job so teachers can just pick up and go.  I am learning a lot about how to support a diverse group of people and prioritize the many things that come to me in a day.

What will next week bring?

Well, for one, we have our first field trip tomorrow (for all students), which will be another great adventure to be sure!  I can't wait to see our students continue to learn and grow as we dive further into the program!  For a peek into our last week, see the pictures below:

1st grade tested the strength of different kinds of paper
and recorded their observations!
2nd grade built mazes for hexbots and tested their designs!
3rd grade had to build a bridge to get the car across the river
using spaghetti and marshmallows!
4th grade designed, built,
 and launched their own rockets!
5th grade worked on collaboration & teamwork by going
through the design process to plan a picnic!

Here's to another week of Summer Learning fun!

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Confessions of a New Administrator: Week #1

This summer, I am getting my first hands-on experience at being a building administrator for my site of about 275 1st-5th graders.  I know that summer school is different than the regular school year, but much of the "blitz" I am feeling reminds me of being a first year teacher (and what I expect being a first year administrator may feel like).  One of my personal commitments in blogging is to be honest, open, and transparent (while protecting privacy) about my experiences - and I'm sure that, someday, I will smile looking back at what I was feeling at this time.  Hopefully it can help someone else learn, too!

My #oneword2017: LEAD

We've been planning and hiring for months, but this week, it felt like summer school really started.  Monday and Tuesday were mostly meetings & planning days for me and my clerical support, and today marked the first day with teachers & other staff there.  Here are some of the random snippets from my thoughts of the day!

  • My mind is spinning - I have SO MUCH INFORMATION coming at me from all angles, all the time!  More than anything, I feel like I don't have the experience to process things as they come, decide what is important/less important, or prioritize, so it all just feels important and in my face.
  • At the same time, I love the craziness.  I thrive on the high-energy, fast-paced environment.  It's been great confirmation of my decision to pursue this path!
  • I don't particularly like being up front.  It's so intimidating to have everyone there looking at me, waiting for me to start a meeting or explain some of the information.  I know I don't have to have all of the answers (and it's a good thing!), but I really have to push out of my comfort zone to be assertive and take the lead in these instances.
  • People have amazing ideas.  My staff has been able to fill in the things that I hadn't thought about, and collaboratively, we are developing better and better plans!
  • I hate saying no or disappointing people.  Why can't we just please everyone, all of the time?  I'm learning that this is, unfortunately, a fact of life that comes with the territory sometimes - and I can't take it personally.  Life goes on.  Perspective is a beautiful thing.
  • Office staff/clerical support is so, hugely important, and I am lucky to be working with an amazing person this summer!  Leadership can be lonely, and she has become my go-to person to bounce ideas off of, especially since she has been doing this much longer than me.
  • While it can sometimes be intimidating, I wish people would just be honest with me about how they feel when I ask them.  If somebody says they are okay with it, I tend to move ahead with that as the plan, but it's hard when I hear through a back channel that they are actually really frustrated or uncomfortable with the decision.  Maybe this is a part of my learning - not to take everything at face value, and to learn how to ask the right questions to really get at the heart of the matter and help people feel comfortable sharing where they are truly at.
  • A little encouragement goes a long way!  I am so grateful to my staff members who said something positive to me today - it helped me remember that, even though I have a steep learning curve, there are things I am doing well too!
  • When you are a teacher, your "big day" is when students show up.  As an administrator, my "big day" is when teachers show up.  A lot of my hard work in terms of planning and prepping is finished now, and I am moving into more of a fluid support role to be very present with my teachers (and their students next week).  I am putting in a lot of hours right now, and when I get home, I just need to stare at a wall and decompress, and then put my thoughts down on paper to get them organized...but I'm sure things will fall into more of a routine when we have a regular schedule.
The great news is that I'm loving it.  Really, truly, I am...even in the midst of feeling completely overwhelmed.  That's gotta be a good sign, right ;-)?

Can you relate to any of these?  What advice would you give a new administrator?  

Friday, June 2, 2017

Find the Force #7 (Genius Hour #7): Wrap-Up!

It's amazing what happens when you give students a stake in their own education.  That's what our Force Projects are all about (you can read more about our journey at Find the Force #1#2#3#4#5, & #6).

It’s hard to believe that our Force Projects are over - but the end of the year always is a whirlwind!  I had students complete an evaluation at the end to gather their perspectives on the project to aid in planning for next year.  Here are some of the insights they provided:

*Disclaimer: I’m a bit of a statistics nerd, so the first part of this is very numbers-heavy, with the second part being more anecdotal comments

My thoughts: Overall, they liked it, but this wasn’t quite as strong as I would have liked.  I know that several students commented that they enjoyed the project, but missed the time playing.  Others shared that they felt like some people just used this time to mess around, so it was frustrating to them.

My thoughts: This proved to be an interesting bit of self-analysis, as the students had quite a bit of loosely structured work time.  I would agree that the majority used it pretty well, but there are a few groups I would definitely not rate as high as they rated themselves.  I wonder if they felt like they could be honest on this, or if they worried about it affecting their grade (despite my assurances that it wouldn’t)?

My thoughts: We put a lot of effort into choosing a topic, but as with any new project, there is a learning curve, both for students and me.  A lot of the comments were about wishing they knew exactly what their project would entail before they chose what they would work on.  While I fully understand the sentiment, part of the inquiry process is making a goal and then figuring out what steps you need to take to get there.  I know from talking to my students that they learned a lot about time management, sequencing, and how complicated different projects were!

My thoughts: This is another question I was curious to see the responses to.  This was a true #20time project, where students were given approximately 20% of class time to work on these projects (including their blogging, required reflections, etc).  The project stretched out over the whole year, which was a challenge for some of them in time management.  In the comments, many shared that it felt like they had longer than they actually did, but that the end of the year snuck up on them (can anyone else relate?!?).

We used blogging as a way to reflect on this project. How did that work for you? Do you think this was a good use of time?

  • I liked being able to blog because it helped me stay on track and I liked being able to see what other people think about my project. 
  • I liked the thought of blogging because it helped with sharing your ideas. When you just speak it to a person they may not remember it or not understand the full idea of what you did. 
  • Blogging was so fun, it makes you feel famous even with a orchestra project. It was a way to bring in some of your personality into your reflection but still got us thinking about why we did the project and what we learned. This was a ok use of time because I would sometimes want to practice cello but have to look through blogs. I think if we did just a little less we could still use the blogs but get more time to play. 
  • It helped me reflect on the project, but I don't like writing so I didn't care too much for it. It was fun reading other blog posts however. 
  • No because I never really wrote anything and i change the project so much so i had to rewrite from the beginning to the end every time there was a new project so I would say not really. 
  • Yes, it helped me plan everything I wanted to do and needed to do. Like adding more detail or needing more topics. 
  • I did not really like blogging our project. I would have much rather written a paragraph of what we have done. 
  • I didn't really like blogging that much, because I felt like we could of been working on our actually project rather than a blog that I didn't feel worked for me. 
  • I think it was a good use of time but I would have liked to blog even more because I feel like we did it regularly but not enough. 
  • It worked pretty good. At first I didn't like it that much but then I started to figure out more about how cool blogging actually is.

My thoughts: I tried to pull a representative sampling of the responses I got for this blog.  In general, the positives associated with blogging were that it helped them reflect and stay on track, they enjoyed sharing their ideas with the world (authentic audience!), and that they were able to get feedback on their projects.  The negatives were that it took some of their work time, they had trouble knowing what to write, and they got bogged down by technical difficulties.  Overall, one of my goals was to include more literacy in my classroom through these blogs, as well as engage a more authentic audience.  While this was probably the least popular part of the project overall, I still think it served its purpose, and I would do it again (with some tweaks). 

We connected with other students (in our class and in other classes) through blogs, comments, etc. Did you find this interesting? Do you think it was a good use of time?

  • This was a good use of time because I could tell people what I thought and people could tell me what they thought. This was a good way to improve our projects because we knew what our peers thought.
  • I liked the way it helped get more ideas on what you were doing. It was a good use of time because you can see what other people were doing even if you weren't in their class.
  • It was really cool to give people feedback, and to get some in return. This was not a waste of time, as it helped us shape and change our projects and make sure they were in tip-top shape!
  • I thought the idea was cool, but most of the comments and other things weren't that helpful, so I don't think it was the best use of our time. We could have used more work time.
  • As I said before I did think it was very interesting to see what other kids were doing in other classes, because people can come up with such different ideas that I would have never even thought of before. So I thought it was definitely interesting and very cool. I don't think that this was a waste of time, I think you should definitely do this portion of the blogging for next year students because it was definitely very cool.
  • No, I didnt really want to know what other people were doing.
  • I did not find this interesting. I didn't really learn anything, and it was more of a chore to grade other people.
  • I liked looking at comments on my blog and commenting on others but sometimes people that were supposed to comment on mine never did or were not thinking deep about my Force Project in their comments.
My thoughts: Again, I tried to pull a representative sample here - I always want to be honest about the successes and challenges on this blog!  Overall, students seemed to like the commenting and feel that it helped them reflect and improve.  Some of the most-mentioned positives were that they enjoyed the social component, they liked seeing what others were doing, and it helped them improve their own projects.  Negatives mostly revolved around the varying quality of comments and blogs, feeling like they did not learn much or get meaningful feedback from the commenting.  They did enjoy connecting with @msventurino’s class, and thought it was fun to hear from people in a different state!

Final Thoughts:

There are always things to improve on, but overall, I would say that this first go-around at a #geniushour was a success!  The students’ comments helped give me ideas for how to tweak it in the future, but the basis of the project will largely stay the same.  I will end with a few of my favorite student quotes from their final blogs:

  • “Some final reflections I have on this project is that it was very fun and I enjoyed it. It was very challenging to learn a new instrument and it was fun to learn it it. I made a lot of mistakes on this project that will help me learn for in the future.”
  • “I just want to say I had a lot of fun with this project and this blog is going to be difficult for me to let go.  But for me, our actual presentation was okay. To be honest I loved the process more than the our actual presentation.
  • “I thought the force project was awesome, I had a fun time making it. I really enjoyed this because I actually enjoyed doing homework.
  • If we would've just done normal orchestra throughout the year I would have learned no where near the amount that I learned. I feel it is important to not just know how to play a note, but also know the music. These force projects taught me good music!

Whew, this might win an award for my longest blog post ever!  I hope the reflections and student comments are helpful to anyone else looking at doing a similar project.  I’ll close by saying, “May the Force be with you!” and add this tidbit from one of my 7th graders…


To see some of their projects (the ones that can be shared in this format), click here!

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Adventures in Leadership: Pulling the Pieces Together

As I prepare for the beginning of summer school (Monday for admin, Wednesday for teachers), I have spent a lot of time thinking & planning this week.  Information is coming at me from all angles!  Along with the expected communication about students, IEPs, 504s, Health Care Plans, enrollment, staffing, curriculum, field trips, scheduling, food services, security plans, shopping, supplies, transportation, evaluations, etc, I have also been in communication with...
  • Parents (answering all sorts of questions)
  • Outside organizations (many of whom will partner with us this summer in one way or another)
  • Businesses (who are willing to donate to us)
  • Candidates (I am still short four staff members...)
Needless to say, there are a lot of emails flying around!  It hasn't felt particularly overwhelming to me, but as I have started to put together an agenda for our one and only staff meeting that will take place next Wednesday, I'm realizing just how much information there is - and it's been hard to put all of those puzzle pieces together!
  • What does the staff need to know?
  • What would I want to know if I were in their shoes?
  • How much information is too much? I don't want it to be overwhelming!
  • What about team-building - how can this not just be a laundry list of details?
  • How can I tie this all together in a way that makes sense and helps the meeting flow well?
  • What about all of the puzzle pieces that we don't know yet?

With all of this flowing through my mind, I think I've come up with a workable plan.  The meeting will still include a lot of logistics, but I am also working on developing systems of communication and a staff "hub" where information is stored so everyone knows where to find it later!  And I am bound and determined to make time for at least one team-building activity, even though it feels like we don't have time for it.  If we say to put relationships first with the kids, why should it be any different with the adults?  As we move into the summer, I'm sure I'll fall flat on my face a couple of times, but hopefully everyone will be gracious as I learn!

My closing thought: Being a principal is like putting a puzzle together, trying to take lots of disjointed pieces of information & different perspectives and put it together (even with a few pieces missing) to form a great environment for everyone!