Saturday, July 29, 2017

The Start of Something New

For the first time in five years, I will be in a different position to start the school year. I am stepping out of music teaching (for now), and taking on a new role as an ed tech specialist for the district. Starting this new adventure has seen me going through the usual waves of trying something new...from excitement to insecurity...from feeling overwhelmed at the amount of learning that needs to happen to feeling comfortable in my new role...and from being hyper-observant and sensitive to just enjoying myself!

As I have been experiencing this, it's been a great reminder that every year, we have hundreds of students who are starting at a new school, in a new grade, and sometimes even in a new city or state (or country!). Transition can be challenging - how can we help our students with this change? Here are three things, based on my experience, that can make a huge difference!

1. Ask questions!

Asking questions can really go both ways. On one hand, it is obviously important to give new students the chance to ask their questions! Some of this can occur during regular classtime, but especially for those who are more introverted, it is invaluable to have a backchannel as well. This might look like notecards to write questions on, an invitation to email or leave a private comment on a learning management system, or even just a quick individual check-in. Giving them the opportunity to ask questions will help ease their concerns and build their confidence as they learn the ropes.

On the other hand, it is also important to ask them questions and give them the chance to share! Since they are probably spending lots of energy fitting into their new environment, it can be refreshing for them to get to share a bit of their background and experience, and you might just learn something from them as well!

2. A little encouragement goes a long way!

New students are confronted with uncertainty all day long. Encouragement is important for all students, but a little affirmation can make a huge difference for those who are wondering how they fit in. Be on the lookout to give these students a little extra boost to let them know they are welcome and valued. It doesn't cost you anything!

3. Trust.

Everybody likes to be treated with trust. Some people feel like you must earn it first. I would rather go with the philosophy that you have my trust, until you give me a reason to not trust you any longer. There is a certain security that comes with knowing you don't have to try to prove yourself. Sometimes, our new students come with a long file behind them that can affect how we view them. Make an effort to give them a fresh start - you never know, if you treat them with trust, they may just rise to the occasion!

What classroom practices do you employ to welcome new students? How can you help them feel at ease right away in this new school year?

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Confessions of a New Administrator: 6 Takeaways from 6 Weeks of Administration

Summer Learning has come and gone, and I'm left reflecting on the experience. It is so hard to come up with an answer when people ask me, "How was being a summer school principal?" I struggle to consolidate the thousands of moments into a neat, tidy answer! So here's my best attempt: 6 takeaways from 6 weeks as a summer school admin.

1. Communication is key!

If there's one thing I got practice in this summer, it was communicating. With kids, with parents, with teachers, and with district personnel! Clear communication was essential to proactively avoid issues and make sure we were all on the same page, plus it helped cut down on fears of rumors or hidden agendas or any of that negativity that can eat away at school culture. One thing I resolved at the beginning of the summer was to keep my staff in the know, and from comments I heard, I think (hope!) I did a fairly good job of that.

Communication also included having to be the messenger for things I did not agree with. Newsflash: this is hard. It's hard to be honest when sharing an unpopular message while not throwing others under the bus. Through being open in the rest of my communication, though, I hope I was able to share these things in an authentic yet respectful way.

2. Prioritizing is life-saving!

On the first day, I'm pretty sure I had a deer-in-the-headlights look all day long as everything was coming at me. I didn't have filters to sift through it all and everything screamed, "URGENT! TOP PRIORITY!" No one can run at that level of stress and anxiety forever - we have to learn to prioritize!

If I were to characterize the biggest change in my practice from the beginning to the end of Summer Learning, I would say that I did a much better job of figuring out what really needed my attention right away and what could wait for a few hours or a few days. I thought a lot about what was urgent vs. what was important and how to make time for the important things that may not be so urgent. I also grew more comfortable with the fact that while one person might think something is hugely important and urgent, my role as the principal was to hold all of the needs in balance, and sometimes that one thing had to wait.

3. Fight to spend time with the kids!

Why did most of us become teachers? Because we love kids! And that certainly didn't change as I became a principal! It was easy to get caught up in the to-dos needed to make things run smoothly and completely miss out on the moments with students. I had to make it a daily priority (see #2) to get out of the office and spend time in classrooms or meeting kids on their way in or out. It was worth it!

Sometimes it was challenging to feel like this was the best use of my time. That might sound crazy, but if I was in a classroom where a teacher was rocking it and had everything under control, it was easy to think, "What am I doing here? Why do they need me?" The truth is, they didn't need me...but I needed the reality check of what was going on in the classroom, and the kids (and teachers?) really did appreciate seeing a principal who was involved in their learning. They can never have too many positive adult examples around!

4. Conflict is a reality, and that's okay.

Let me be honest for a second here - I don't like conflict. It's hard, it's messy, and I'd rather avoid it. But it's a daily reality in our jobs, and even more so in a position of leadership. There are so many people I was working with, and all of them had different perspectives on any given issue about the school! And most of the time, those perspectives were born out of a really good place of wanting the very best for the students and the school! There are just many views on how to get there.

As the principal, I had to be willing to stand up and make decisions that I knew would disappoint some people. I was the one who talked to parents when they were upset. I got to defend my teachers (it's amazing how much easier it is to step into conflict when you feel responsible and protective of your people). I'm certainly not advocating for creating unnecessary conflict, but I grew much more comfortable in handling things when they came, not taking it personally, and focusing on the issue and the solution rather than getting stuck in the problem.

5. Structures make the world school go 'round.

One of the hardest parts of being a principal is that so much of my job was proactive. When things were going well, it was evidenced by, well, a lack of problems. Usually, that meant that good structures had been developed and set in place so that things just ran themselves! Often, I didn't even notice that the routine was working or that it was making a difference, because it "just happened".

Most mornings, I went out and played violin for the kids as they walked into school, and often, they came in and glanced at me and went straight to breakfast. One morning, I had a lot of paperwork to do and thought, "Oh well, they're hearing the same songs every day anyway, they probably won't even notice if I skip it today." Boy, was I wrong - I heard about it that day! This is a frivolous example, but it struck me because it demonstrated how much the simple routines meant to the kids, even if they didn't show it.

When good systems were set up, people did what they were supposed to, and everything ran smoothly. When a kink in the system appeared, it quickly devolved into chaos! Systems thinking is a skill I need to continue to cultivate, and I saw the importance of it and the impact it can have on large numbers of people this summer.

6. Get comfortable with living with ambiguity!

One of the most immediate differences I noticed, moving from a teaching job to an administrative job, was that I couldn't plan my day. As a teacher, I figured out lesson plans and I had the structure (see #5) of class periods, lunches, and recesses to guide my day. As a principal, all of that was thrown out the window! Although a lot of my thought-work was proactively planning, my day-to-day was reacting to whatever went on! I never knew if it would be an easy day or a hard day - it just depended on what happened. This was quite a shift in thinking!

I also had to get more comfortable with ambiguity in general. So many situations came up that did not have black and white answers! I had to live in the tension of the "where we are aiming" and the "where we are now". I had to balance the needs of different teachers and different students and various subgroups of each, none of which was clear-cut. I also had to be comfortable letting go and letting people find their own way - some more quickly than others. Although it was tricky at times, this was the beauty of leading and learning - the messy, trial-and-error process that results in growth.

Disclaimer: If I were to add #7, it would be that a positive attitude works wonders, especially in a leadership position, because it affects everyone you meet...but that wasn't so much a new learning as something I was able to keep up from my teaching 😃. Find joy in every day!

I am so grateful for this opportunity, and I know these lessons learned will follow me wherever I go, including in my new role in the district. What would you add to this list as top takeaways from beginning in administration?

Friday, July 21, 2017

Confessions of a New Administrator: Week #6 (The End)

It's hard to believe summer learning is now over!

How can I sum up my thoughts and reflections in a quick blog? When I think back to the beginning of the summer, I was in a completely different place. I have learned and grown so much, and I feel so much more comfortable in the role than when I started. I was actually sad for everything to end yesterday - even in six short weeks, we had developed a school routine and culture that won't ever quite be the same again. 

I'm still processing a lot of the experience and will probably blog later with more reflections, but this final week made me think quite a bit about leading vs. managing. I found myself dreading the last day, not only because it would be full of goodbyes, but because I realized I would be busy in some of my not-so-favorite ways.

When I'm a principal, I love leading out by spending time with my staff and students. Interacting in the hallways, being in classrooms, and helping problem-solve issues are some of my favorite activities. Even the work of visioning, thinking through what needs to happen to prepare for the next week, and setting things up is enjoyable - it's a process that is full of optimism and dreams! I also don't mind the discipline part (most of the time), because it is really reaching kids where they are at.

My good morning welcome ritual with the kids

On the last day, I knew I would be doing a lot of managing. We had several programs in the building taking care of their final follow-up. I'm so grateful for these partnerships, but it meant that I was doing a lot of coordinating and making sure all of that went well. Parents were invited to an open house, which was also fun, but included a lot of showing people where to go and making sure kids were signed out if they left with their parents. At the end of the day, there was the packing and double-checking the inventory lists and rooms to make sure everything looked good, and then finishing up final paperwork. I don't want to sound like I dislike the mundane tasks, but I would rather be engaging and enjoying the stuff that makes up education rather than making sure everyone and everything is in the right place at the same time. I know it is important, it's just not as enjoyable!

All packed up and ready to go!
As the last day approached, I was sharing this with a friend (@msventurino), and she said something that stuck with me all day: "Enjoy it with those kiddos. I know you won't have a ton of time to be with them while you're tying up loose ends, and I know you'll make little windows of time." That became my focus - finding little windows of time to really engage in the midst of the management. It certainly helped the day feel better, and I was able to really soak up the relational time (which is what I will miss the most)!

In the end, through all of the leading and managing, it was an amazing experience. I got a sweet note from the parent of a 1st grader that was the best encouragement and affirmation I could ask for to end the day.

"Thank you for opening your school to (student) this summer. I've never seen her so excited or engaged to attend school. This is a testament to your leadership. She loves to remind me that her summer principal has the best name. Thank you for being such an ideal example of leadership and compassion."

Thank you, everyone who made Summer Learning 2017 amazing! Even as we all go off into new adventures, I know that the memories and the lessons learned will stick with me!

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Confessions of a New Administrator: Week #5

This week has been the smoothest yet, and full of #eduwins! I'll share a handful of them below:

  1. We had constructed a safety plan for a student to help him regulate & stay safe in school. He had a couple of days without any issues, but the real victory came when we had to put the safety plan in place and it worked like a charm!
  2. A different student was having a very rough morning, and I was called to the classroom to help support her. After encouraging her that just because a mistake happened in the morning, it didn't mean the whole day had to be bad, she begrudgingly made it back to the group. Later in the day, she was in the office, beaming and turning in a LEARN ticket (our PBIS system)!
  3. Another student has spent quite a bit of time in the office and also suspended due to his behavior earlier in the summer, but I haven't seen him this week. I pulled him aside to check in with him, and some of his comments included:
    "School is more fun when I am good."
    "My friend told me, it's like you're a different person, you're nice and more fun to be around."
    "My friend [who he often got into trouble with] and I talked, and we decided that we're going to keep being good next school year."

    (I know it's not necessarily that easy, but it was encouraging to hear him realize the benefits of his improved behavior!)
  4. Yet another student has had a number of behavioral issues this summer, and I haven't quite been able to figure out the function of her behavior or how to reach her.  She has a contract about being able to go on field trips based on her behavior, and unfortunately, she missed the last one.  She had a great week and was so close to earning her field trip, but once again, I got a call asking for support because she was being defiant. I decided to try something new and actually give her what she wanted (a break from everyone) if she asked appropriately.  After a bit of time, she followed the teacher direction to take at least one step into the room, ask politely for a break, and wait for the teacher's answer before taking her break. That was the first step, but the next question was if she would actually come back to the group after the 5-minute timer went off.  I swung back by the classroom just as it beeped, and...she did it! Yes! She kept her field trip :-).
  5. One of the parts of my role that is new to me is doing teacher evaluations. It has been so much fun talking with teachers and hearing about their perspective on the summer. I was especially encouraged by one who shared that she feels like she has grown professionally this summer, especially in being willing to give up control in the classroom and let the kids figure things out themselves. Yes! Even if nothing else happened this summer, I think that moving people along that spectrum from being more teacher-led to student-led would be worth it!

Of course, it wasn't a perfect week. I still had kids get into fights and one teacher walk by a [hidden] wasp's nest and get stung 17 times (she's okay, though). Nevertheless, I've really been able to see the gratification that comes through those times where you feel like you've really reached someone! These are the moments that keep you going through tough times, and I am so grateful for how many we had this week!