Perception vs. Reality

When I began teaching, it was very clear that my undergraduate training had not adequately prepared me for real world teaching. That’s not meant to be a slam against the university; I don’t believe any university program can really prepare you for what you face as an educator. The same was true when I finished my administrator program.

My first three years as an administrator were full of lessons I had to learn, some easy and some much less so. Even though some of those years were the most difficult I’ve experienced in my career, I’m thankful for that experience to set me up for my current role.

One of the hardest but most useful lessons I’ve learned in my administrative journey is that reality doesn’t matter. I’m sure that sounds strange, so I’ll explain. In probably at least half of my conversations with other people (parents, staff, or students), the only thing they care about is their own perception of what really happened. For them, their perception is reality. I can try to explain what actually happened, but what is often the most effective is smile, apologize, and let them be heard.

One time this came up this year was when we sent surveys to families and staff. While the feedback is often positive, there are definitely some criticisms, particularly if the surveys are anonymous. On one particular survey, we heard from several parents that our administrative wasn’t responsive enough with our communication, particularly email. Some members of my team took offense to that. And while it may or may not be true, the fact that multiple families believe we don’t respond quickly enough says we have a problem to fix.

Don’t get me wrong: sometimes, the truth really does matter. Investigations that ultimately result in consequences for students or staff rely on accurate information. However, I’ve noticed that in the course of the investigation, different versions of the “truth” often emerge, most likely because our own “truth” is shaped by our own experience and views about the event.

A big part of this has to do with letting go of being right as an administrator. This was a hard lesson for me to learn and one I still struggle with from time to time. I’ve apologized for a great many things that weren’t my fault or weren’t actually done wrong. But that’s what the situation called for at the time. Because ultimately it’s not about me, it’s about helping them move toward a resolution.

My December Self Care Challenge

Since the pandemic began, some of us have been using the extra time at home to improve ourselves. Working out more, taking up productive hobbies, baking bread, and more. When this thing first started, I had grand dreams of all of the things I would get done with the extra time now that I wasn’t driving to school each day. Working out more, reading tons of books, hiking outdoors, and so on. Only thing was, I didn’t do those things. It was hard to focus on reading and it was tough to get motivated to work out when I was home in sweatpants every day.

My school just returned to distance learning for the second time this year, this time for at least the whole month of December. I’m feeling better about it this time. Between the changes in both my personal and professional life in the last six months as well as the fact that we’ve now done distance learning multiple times, I feel like this time could actually be good for me.

To that end, I started a new challenge this week to adopt some positive habits while I’m home. None of them is particularly groundbreaking, but my goal is to feel at least as good if not better at the end of this than at the start. I’m also using an app on my phone (HabitHub) to track my habits and keep me moving toward my goal.

The first habit I’m implementing is taking vitamins each day. Like I said, not exactly groundbreaking. But I’ve always been inconsistent with these, and I want to be better. So I’m taking vitamins every day to try to give my body what it needs.

The second habit I’m trying out is washing my face at night. This probably sounds odd, I know. But my night time routine often involves falling asleep on the couch while reading or watching TV. When I wake up to go to bed, the last thing I want to do is wash my face. So sometimes I get lazy and I don’t. But not this month! I know the only way I will keep my skin looking great is to take care of it (click here if you want to learn more about the products I love for my skin).

The third habit I’m adopting is movement. I don’t always feel like working out, even though I almost always feel great once I’m done. In fact, most of the time I don’t feel like it. But I know I feel better when I get up and move, even if it’s just taking the dog for a walk. So everyday, some kind of activity will get me out of my office chair and feeling better. Bonus points if it’s outside and I can get some fresh air as well.

Finally, I’m trying meditation. Meditating has never really been my thing, even though others swear by it. I have access to a 21 day meditation series where each day’s session is only about 10 minutes – short and sweet! People who love meditation talk about taking time to breathe and quiet the mind, both of which are fantastic when you have a stressful job in the middle of a pandemic.

So far, I’m on day 5 of my habit tracking and all is going well so far. I’ve even woken up early to exercise twice this week (and I’m not a morning person). Any educator will tell you that distance learning has its definite drawbacks, but I’m choosing to focus on the positive side and embrace the extra time I find myself with. Plus, taking care of myself ensures I’m better prepared to take care of my family and home and my staff and students at school.

What forms of self care are you incorporating these days? Have they changed during the pandemic?

Setting Boundaries and Staying Productive

One of the biggest struggles I am hearing from my teachers right now is how overhwelmed they are with the number of emails and messages they receive on a daily basis. Emails from administration, colleagues, families and students fill up their inbox on a daily basis. On top of that, we have a messaging app that allows parents to essentially text teachers throughout the day.

During distance learning last spring, everyone started increasing the number of messages they sent electronically. Since we weren’t in the building, we couldn’t just stop by someone’s classroom to have a chat. It almost all went through email. It got to be a lot and often teachers and staff felt like they had to be “on” all the time because the school community was now messaging each other at all hours of the day and night.

I felt it in the beginning, too. I felt like I was spending 24 hours a day looking at my computer screen and responding to emails. I wasn’t sleeping well and it was exhausting. Eventually, I had to take a step back. While I wasn’t always closing my computer by 3:30 every day, I was definitely closing it by 5 or 6. It helped immensely.

Now we are in hybrid learning. We’re all still in the habit of sending tons of emails and messages (families included). But now we have kids in front of us from 8:00 to 3:00. We can’t drop everything and respond in real time the way we did when we were all at home in our pajama pants.

Email can be a HUGE time suck if we let it. I know I’m incredibly guilty of leaving my email open all day long and dealing with new messages as they come in. I have my work email on my cell phone and I’m always checking it throughout the day and night. In fact, it’s often the first thing I see after my alarm in the morning and the last thing I see at night.

But that needs to stop. We think by checking email frequently, we avoid the huge pileup at the end of the day. Productivity experts say you should check email far less than we do. We think we’re saving time by responding in real time, when in fact, frequent checking actually wastes more time than it saves (See here).

There are two other tricky parts of email at work: 1) the more you send, the more you get and 2) when you respond immediately, you set the tone for the future.

The first part is easy. If I send an email to five staff members, I will be expecting 5 emails back from that message. And if I have a particularly heavy email day, I can expect dozens of emails to fill my inbox when I return. My solution here is to stop by classrooms when I can or set up a quick Zoom chat to avoid sending so many emails. Another solution is to consolidate the info in a weekly (or perhaps daily if need be) email that goes to your staff with relevant information.

The second part isn’t hard to figure out but it’s sometimes difficult in practice. When we respond to messages immediately or after hours, we teach those we communicate with that we are always available. But that’s not realistic, especially this year with all of the extra demands being placed on us in schools. Our school handbook says we have 24-48 hours to respond to parent communications. But because we so often send off a quick reply, parents now become frustrated if they don’t hear back immediately.

This is where boundaries come in. It is perfectly acceptable (and honestly, necessary) to set limits to when and how people can reach you. Teachers and other school staff are not “on call.” We do not need to be available 24-7. That said, if you are going to change your communication protocols, it’s a good idea to give people a heads up first so they don’t feel like they are suddenly being ignored.

So what’s my plan to tackle this? I’m kicking around a few ideas around goals for productivity and boundaries:

  1. Stop checking email after work. I have provided my cell phone number to my teachers if there is a genuine emergency. Otherwise, send me an email and I’ll read it in the morning.
  2. Stop sending emails after hours and on weekends. Gmail has a “schedule send” button. If I feel the need to get caught up after work hours, that’s on me and my staff shouldn’t be expected to do the same simply because I am. I will use the “schedule send” button if I’m working outside school hours so I’m not setting the example that working late is the expectation. It starts with me.
  3. Set times for checking email. I need to set up my schedule around what I need to do and not let what comes into my inbox dictate my day. I like to check email first thing in the morning and before I leave for the day. It feels good to have an empty inbox when I walk out. I may also consider adding a 3rd time around lunch if the end of day session starts stretching out too long.

How do you manage all of your emails and stay productive?

I Just Want to Principal

I just want to principal (yes, I’m aware I’m using a noun as a verb and I’m okay with it). We’ve been in school in full distance learning for 3 1/2 weeks now, even though lots of my teacher friends just went back for workshops this week. Some things are definitely getting better; students know the routine, are getting better at logging in and completing work independently, and teachers are feeling more comfortable with the tech tools they’re using. And yet, some things still don’t feel great.

I think part of it is that we’re not done planning. Some districts have made the decision to stay in their chosen format for a long period of time. We are planning to switch to a hybrid format in a week and a half. We’ve put a ton of time and energy into planning distance learning, but we don’t get to really enjoy it because we’re right back into planning the next thing.

In the past few weeks, a lot of my time has been taken up with meetings, planning sessions, and schedule building to prepare for the switch. It leaves me with less time for the parts of the job I love, the actual “principal-ing.” I know, I know. Planning and scheduling is principal work, too. But the not so fun parts of our job (like paperwork and difficult conversations) often get balanced out by the better parts of the job (like reading stories to kindergarten classes or seeing kids learning in classrooms). The good stuff makes the less good stuff worth it.

The next few weeks will be a challenge as we put our new plans into place. Fortunately, we have a few days off with the holiday weekend to rest up and recharge. I plan to turn off my computer and take my email off my phone for the weekend. I know I have to take care of myself during this difficult time because I need to keep showing up for my teachers so they can show up for our kids. Isn’t that what principal-ing is all about anyway?

What is challenging you during this difficult school year? And how will you take care of yourself so you can keep making a difference for kids?

This is Hard.

Tuesday was the first day of school, but today was the first full day of distance learning classes for our students. And it was hard.

Don’t get me wrong. We got to see all kinds of little virtual faces light up and smile when seeing their teachers and classmates, hearing them share about a favorite toy or something they like doing. I got to hear about a 3rd grade boy’s cat and his classmate’s followup question of whether or not the cat can do tricks (the answer was no, unfortunately).

I checked in with my teachers at the end of the day via email (because, you know, distance learning). I’ve never had so many teachers feeling so defeated on the first day of school. Exhausted, yes, because we are out of shape for teaching after being away all summer. But not defeated. Not wondering if they can keep teaching this year. We even had a teacher talk about quitting already. This is after two teachers quit before workshops because they didn’t want to teach this way this year.

It’s hard for everyone. Operations teams are trying to figure out how to serve lunch and get kids to school on busses. HR departments are trying to figure out how to accommodate employees with health conditions and fear over COVID. But teachers take their jobs very personally, more so than most. And for them to feel like they’ve failed on day one? It’s devastating.

I am hopeful that tomorrow will be a better day. Kids will have had some practice logging in and knowing where to find their assignments. Teachers will feel a bit more comfortable with the tools they’re using. I hope they can feel like they got a win tomorrow to send them into the weekend on a more positive note.

As a principal, it gives me an almost helpless feeling because I know there are many parts of this I can’t help them fix. I can’t control whether or not students can get online (though I did help a few parents troubleshoot today). I can’t control if the technology works as it’s supposed to. And I can’t bring us back in person, though I know that would alleviate a lot of their stress.

But I will be back at it tomorrow, checking in on them, providing training, problem solving with them, and making sure I can get as many obstacles out of their way as possible. And I am hoping that we don’t lose really good teachers because of all of this.

Twas the Night Before Distance Learning

My students start school tomorrow, but they won’t be coming into the building. I work in a school with a year round calendar, so it’s the earliest first day of school I’ve ever had. And since we’re still in a pandemic, they will be learning from home.

It’s been a strange start to the year. Our entire workshop week was virtual. I met my teaching staff over Zoom. I honestly don’t even know what most of them look like (I’m at a new school this year) because I’ve either seen them in a mask or in large groups on a screen.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad we are starting in this format. The idea of bringing 900+ children into the school right now definitely leaves me feeling panicky. Expecting children to social distance when plenty of adults aren’t doing it, seems a bit ludicrous. And masks for 6 hours a day? Yikes…

But tomorrow instead of seeing all of their big smiles walk through the door, I will see them drive through the parking lot as they pick up their learning supplies. They will have no idea what I look like because I will be wearing a mask myself.

I know our staff will be great, but that doesn’t mean I don’t worry about them. So many in education feel like they’ve been worrying about school since we closed down in March. What would normally be a time for relaxing and recharging for the new year, for many of us, this summer was one of wearing masks, staying home, and worrying about how we would handle school in the fall.

It doesn’t help that we’ve been getting constant pressure from some parents and leaders to open up. I keep hearing this idea of wanting to “get back to normal.” But this year isn’t normal. And it won’t be for a long time. The number of COVID cases in our area keeps going up (we added another 135 in our county alone over the weekend). Teachers are afraid to go back to work, and their fear is justified.

Tomorrow will be my 15th first day of school since starting my career. And it will be one to remember. Tonight I will go to bed, a mix of excitement and nervousness. After tomorrow, the journey begins to discover ways to better support students and teachers from a distance.

New Job, New Uniform

When I got my first job when I was about 14 or 15, I wore a uniform. I worked as a car-hop at the local drive-in. Not a movie drive-in, but a restaurant where customers ordered food from their car and we brought it out on trays which hung on their car windows (thankfully for me, not on rollerskates). Each day when I went to work, I wore a polo shirt with the restaurant logo on it and either jeans or shorts, depending on the day’s weather. Easy enough.

I haven’t worn a uniform for a job since then. I’ve worn many things over the years and my teaching wardrobe varied a great deal over the years. When I took my current job, I thought a lot about what I wanted to wear to work. I wanted to look professional but still be able to be mobile around the building. My students wear uniforms, so I felt like I needed to make sure my look wasn’t too casual.

More than 20 years after my time at the drive-in, I find myself wearing a uniform again. No, I’m not moonlighting in fast food. I’ve simply narrowed down my wardrobe to the point that I wear almost the exact same thing every day. To be honest, it sort of happened by accident. I’ve read before about how important people like Steve Jobs and Barack Obama wore the same clothes every day, with very little variation.  Some of them say it has to do with the fact that they make so many important decisions each day that something simple like their wardrobe shouldn’t be one of them.

I don’t pretend to think I’m as important as either of those two, but I appreciate the fact that I don’t have to spend time and brain power selecting my clothing for the day. If you’d have asked me even last year, I’d have said that a “uniform” wasn’t for me. I liked clothes and variety in my wardrobe far too much.

So what do I wear? Nothing too fancy or complicated. My uniform consists of black trousers, a button down Oxford shirt, a school jacket, and my Dansko clogs to save my feet. I do have multiples of everything so I don’t have to do laundry every day, and I have shirts in both blue and white. I purposely bought 3 different school jackets this fall because I’m proud of where I work and I like being able to show school spirit every day.

If you’re considering trying a work uniform, you might wonder if people will notice that you are wearing the same thing every day. What I can say so far is that if anyone at my school notices, they don’t say anything. In fairness, I think having two different colors of shirts and three different jackets means I don’t have to wear exactly the same thing each day.

Will I wear the same uniform all year? Maybe. As the weather changes, I may need to adjust the pieces I’m wearing since a shirt and a jacket might be too warm. But seeing that winter in Minnesota lasts forever, I should be set for awhile.

Have you adopted a work “uniform”? Would you consider it or is it too restricting for you?

Another Season, Another Change

I realized the other day that I haven’t blogged in quite awhile. So long, in fact, that I’m almost five months into a new job and I haven’t even said I applied. I guess that’s what happens when you get busy. I’ll try to catch up a bit here.

About two years ago when I was in my second year at my last school, I went back to grad school to get my administrator license. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do long term or how long I would stay at my current school, but I figured that anything I would want to do next would require the piece of paper. I already had a master’s degree, so my licensure program was short. I figured by the time I was ready for a new challenge, I’d have my license in hand and that wouldn’t exclude me from any jobs.

I finished my license in August of 2018. Three months later, my school was facing pretty extreme changes, ones that would affect my position a great deal. It became clear in a short amount of time that I was likely going to be looking for something new. In my time there, my position had become much more of a behind the scenes job and didn’t provide me a great deal of student or staff interaction. That was hard, because time with kids has always been the thing that has refilled me when working in a school has gotten tough.

Before I talk about the job I ultimately got, I think it’s important to share that finding a new job, particularly one in administration, is not easy. I applied for 36 jobs this spring. Job applications, resumes, cover letters, essay questions, and interviews can all take a great deal of time. But more than that, each of them brings about a bit of hope that that one might be “the one,” only to be let down when the rejection letter comes.

Fast forward through multiple rounds of interviews, and I was offered my first principal job. A PreK-8th grade school of about 450 students on the East Side of St. Paul. Pretty much perfect. I had to move to the opposite side of the Twin Cities, find a place to live, and find a place for my son to start school (he’s in kindergarten this year). In the course of about two weeks, I left my old school, moved all our stuff (and by that I mean, I hired movers), and then started my new job on July 1st.

I have lots more to say about the last five months, but I’ll save it for another post. I can’t wait to share everything I’ve been learning – it’s a lot!

 

I’ve been a bit MIA…

For those of you who follow this blog (thank you, by the way), you may have noticed that I’ve been a bit absent. I wrote one blog post during the entire 2017-2018 school year; in fact, I’ve only written six posts in the entire two years I’ve worked at my current school. Not only have I not been blogging, but I’ve kind of stepped away from professional social media in general.

In the summer of 2016, I stepped into a new type of role. I was no longer a teacher in a classroom or a TOSA (teacher on special assignment). I was considered an administrator. No matter how much time I’d spent in the classroom before that, I was seen differently now. It wasn’t that I didn’t have things to write about, but I felt as though I couldn’t.

Writing for me is a form of therapy.  I enjoy it and in my most frustrating moments, it’s where I often go to “let it all out.” Sometimes, the posts get deleted after they’re written because they’ve served their purpose by just being written. Other times, if they’re not too “rant-y,” they make it here.

The 17-18 school year was one of my most difficult yet, both personally and professionally. On top of that, I was in grad school (yes, again) going for my administrator license. I spent the summer of 2017 working 50-60 hours every week and then rolled right into the school year and didn’t really slow down.

One of the downsides of working in a small school is that a lot of things fall onto your plate that wouldn’t in a larger school because there’s no infrastructure to take care of it. I’ve often joked that my job description should just read “all the things,” but it’s not far from the truth. In any given week, I might be tackling curriculum adoption, state reporting, student assessment, managing iPads, creating student tech accounts, supervising MN Reading Corps tutors, facilitating committees and PLC teams, overseeing QComp, creating promotional materials for the school, social media posts, website updates, and planning professional development for my staff.

Don’t get me wrong; I love the variety and I’m never bored. But it can lead to some pretty busy weeks. It’s also difficult because many people I work with have no idea about all the things my hands are on behind the scenes. Most teachers, myself formerly included, have no idea what it takes to keep a school running. I don’t say that to shout my own praises by any means, but it sometimes seems like everyone thinks they are the “busiest” and everyone else must just be sitting around.

So, I’ve been MIA because I’ve just been darn busy! But it’s not all doom and gloom. I passed my final interview for grad school last week and am now ready to send in my paperwork to get my K-12 Principal license. I’ve been on two trips already this summer (read a bit about them here: NYC and Florida-coming soon!) and I’ve really been sticking with working my actual scheduled hours. I’ve read three books already this summer (P.S. My Husband’s Wife and The Hate U Give were both fantastic!). I’ve been working out more. I’ve read superhero books to my son and watched him play soccer and t-ball (like herding cats, I tell you). I’ve sat by the pool and just relaxed.

I may have had a slight panic attack on August 1st because that’s when it all gets real and summer feels as though it’s ending real quick. I go back full time on Monday and my to-do list is still miles long. So while lots of other teachers are enjoying the last few weeks of their summer (if they haven’t started already), I’m going back to work so everything can run smoothly when teachers return.

One final note: up until now, this blog has been predominantly focused on educational topics. I plan for that to continue, but I also plan to sprinkle in thoughts about other things that are important to me, such as travel and budgeting. If that causes you to click unfollow, I understand. I will try to tag my posts appropriately so you can decide if you want to read or not. I hope you decide to stay!

Support: What’s Your Definition?

My head has been spinning lately. I’m approaching the end of my admin licensure program and I’m in year two of a new position at my school. Year one was easy: make some simple changes and get big results. Year two is a different story. A very different story.

I’ll spare you all the details that have made this year a challenging one, but one thing that has come up over and over in the past few months is the idea that administrators need to support teachers. I don’t disagree. Everyone wants to be supported in their work, particularly teachers because teaching is hard.

But I’m starting to wonder if perhaps teachers and administrators are working off of different definitions of the word support. The dictionary says that support means “to bear or hold up, to sustain or withstand without givingway, to undergo or endure, to sustain, to maintain.” For what it’s worth, it also lists some synonyms for support: to suffer, bear, stand, or stomach. I’ve worked with some colleagues over the years where I’m sure my principal felt like those words were more applicable in dealing with them. 🙂

I posted a question about this on my Facebook profile a couple of months ago. The responses were not identical, but there were definitely some trends. Most of the answers centered around the things that principals can do to make their teachers feel warm and fuzzy: writing them notes, asking about their weekend, being visible in classrooms, etc. Some also talked about their administrator defending them to parents or other stakeholders.

One concern I hear a lot from teachers is that they don’t get much feedback in their day to day. For me, once I achieved tenure in the district, I got observed (and thus got formal feedback) once every three years. If you ballpark that each school year runs about 180 days, that means my principal saw me teach and gave me feedback on approximately 0.2 percent of the time. Not even one percent! In fairness, this was the system we were expected to work in and my principal was actually in my classroom more than once every three years. Many of my non-teacher friends get evaluated annually; people who stock shelves in a retail store get feedback once a year but people educating our kids don’t? (No offense to retail folks! My point is that teachers need more feedback.)

So, if a teacher definition of support means connecting with them and telling them they did a good job, is that it? And does that work for everyone? And if a principal does those things, does that still allow them to have hard conversations when necessary and give critical feedback as well? Are there other necessary elements of the teacher-principal relationship that are missing.

What else do you need from your administrator?

Jump Start Your Workout (And Your Classroom)!

A couple of months ago, I started working out again. I’m one of those people who works out a lot for a few weeks, then loses interest and doesn’t work out for six months. It wasn’t a New Year’s thing; I started in December instead of with everyone else in January. It wasn’t a weight loss thing either; I just wanted to be healthy and strong.

Part of being successful and consistent in working out is finding a routine that works for the individual. Some people are early morning gym rats like my husband. Others race to the gym after work before picking up the kids. Neither of those worked for me. I found my best time is right after putting my son to bed. I’m awake, I have energy, and nobody else can bug me.

I also had to discover that I hate cardio. Well, I already knew that actually, but I found out that what I really enjoy is lifting weights. Not only that, but just walking or jogging here and there didn’t give me the results I wanted. Now, I still get some cardio mixed in there, but my program is much heavier on weights than anything else. And you know what? My body is not the same as when I started. Most people probably don’t notice, but I notice a difference in how I look and (more importantly) how I feel.

Anyone who has ever tried to lose weight or get in shape will tell you that they struggle with plateaus, those points where they seem to stop making progress. No matter what they do, they can’t seem to lose another pound. The body has gotten used to whatever it is they were doing and has refused to budge. Many trainers recommend cross training and changing things up to continue to see results. Surprise the body with changed routines and it will respond.

In many ways, teaching is the same. It’s easy to fall into the same “plateau effect” where things might feel in control but aren’t really going anywhere. While it’s okay to pause to take a breath during those times, it’s dangerous to get comfortable there. Just like we have to surprise our body with new workouts or foods to jump start our metabolism, we have to jump start our teaching with new ideas and strategies to keep us moving forward.

Teaching on autopilot and expecting results is the same as those people you see at the gym who do the elliptical on a low speed while reading a magazine. Yes, they’re moving, but if they’re really trying to improve, they’re going to have to be on that thing 24 hours a day. Yes, your kids are learning something, but are you really making progress?

If we don’t defeat the plateau in the gym, we keep those last ten pounds in perpetuity. If we don’t defeat it in the classroom, we keep our kids from reaching their highest potential. But remember, just like we can’t just keep doing the same thing in our workout routine and expect to see results, we can’t keep doing the same with our students. If you’re not seeing the results you want, change your routine.

What’s the “ten pounds” in your classroom? What are you hanging on to even though it isn’t working? Take a hard look at what you do in your classroom (and your workout) and only keep what is truly effective. The next time you plan a lesson, stop and think: what am I trying to accomplish and is this the most effective way to get there?

For the record, those are not my arms in the photo. Maybe someday?

MMEA Resources

Here are the resources from the three sessions I’m presenting at the MMEA Mid-Winter Clinic this week:

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bit.ly/MMEALittleHands

 

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bit.ly/MMEAChrome

 

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bit.ly/MMEASubPlans

Wise Words from the Wayward Son

Those of you who know me personally, know my musical tastes are very eclectic. My favorite time to listen to music is in the morning while I’m getting ready. In any given week, you could hear anything from “Piano Man” to Pitbull coming through the door. Earlier this week, my Spotify mix featured the classic tune “Carry on My Wayward Son” by Kansas (I’ll pause while you get that one stuck in your head).

I’ve listened to that song hundreds of times before and I know most of the lyrics, but for some reason I heard a new line this time. In the second verse, the line goes, “And if I claim to be a wise man, it surely means that I don’t know.” This struck me because of everything I’ve been reading, thinking about, and working through the past few weeks.

A couple of weeks ago, I traveled to Stone Mountain, Georgia (home of 30 Rock‘s Kenneth Parcell), for a training dealing with building capacity in teachers. The biggest priority for these trainers was building awareness and reflective ability on the part of the teacher. They described four stages that the reflective practitioner goes through as they develop.

We begin as unaware teachers, practitioners who are doing the best we can with what we currently know. We aren’t aware that there are more efficient ways to do things, better ways to get our kids to learn. As we progress through the next stages, we (hopefully) ultimately end at the refinement stage. This is the “sweet spot” of teaching and learning. Refinement teachers are responsive to their students and their curriculum and can pivot on a dime to adapt to their needs right then in the moment. Every child gets what s/he needs when they need it.

As you can imagine, this takes time and practice to get to this point. It’s important to note, however, that the four stages of reflective practice don’t exactly correlate to years in the profession. I’ve worked with first year teachers who are closer to refinement than some twenty year veterans. It really comes down to how intentional we are in the classroom.

So, back to my bathroom jam. What struck me the most about the lyric was that it reminded me of so many teachers I’ve worked with over the years. The teachers who we view as “experts” often doubt their own expertise. They are constantly growing, learning, changing despite getting better results than many of their colleagues. On the other hand, the teachers that self-identify as experts, or perhaps more accurately, see expertise as an “arrival point” rather than a state of mind, often have much more work to do.

Nobody’s perfect, especially teachers who are fighting an uphill battle to educate children despite difficult home lives, unreliable political climates, and full moon/lunar eclipses/barometric pressure changes. Every year is a new battle with new players and new challenges. None of us can afford to get complacent and think what we’re doing is “good enough.”

I challenge you to find an area, no matter how small, where your teaching could improve and take some solid steps to go there. Not sure where to start? Find a coach, a principal, a colleague who you can process with. Have them watch you teach and give feedback. Pay extra attention to your students and see what needs you discover.

And then go listen to some sweet tunes and dance in your bathroom…

Two Months In

Well, I’ve officially been at the new gig for two whole months now.  It’s been a bit of a blur, but in mostly good ways.  A big piece of that time has been preparing for back to school workshops: 3 days for new teachers plus 6 additional days for all staff.  Most people in my position likely start getting to work on planning August events in late spring or early summer, so I had a bit of a disadvantage in that sense.  Still, I pulled it off (while planning and teaching workshops at two other schools that I had arrangements with previously).

So, now workshops are over and we’ve had students for a week.  I had a couple of “slow” days where I spent most of my day either jumping in and out of classrooms to watch my teachers in action or preparing paperwork for the next few days worth of teacher meetings.  In the last two days, I met with 18 teachers to start getting to know them a bit and start setting some initial plans for our coaching process (in case that doesn’t sound like many teachers, fear not; I meet with the other 30 next week!).

I get a lot of “so how’s the new job?” and “do you like your job so far?”  And the answers are “good” and “yes.” It was a bit intimidating at first to jump into a new place and try to figure things out for a position that’s never existed before. But I’m always up for a challenge!  And the teachers and staff have been extremely welcoming to me in the past few weeks. Several have personally reached out to me and have shared how excited they are that I’m here.  I feel the same way!

I read an article (read it here) not long ago that talked about finding the work you were meant to do.  While I don’t know if I have been working here long enough to know if this is really my “calling,” it definitely feels like a move in the right direction.  The author says your calling happens at the intersection of 1) doing something you’re good at, 2) making people’s lives better, and 3) feeling appreciated (see below).

I still have a lot of work to do and I have a lot to learn, but I’m heading down a good path.  I can’t wait to start spending more time in the classroom watching teachers and helping them to discover their best selves.  And if I can channel my inner musical nerd for a moment, I’d like to quote little orphan Annie and say, “I Think I’m Gonna Like it Here.”

Preparing For That First Year

Think back to your first year of teaching.  For some of you, it’s an easy request as it wasn’t long ago.  For others, you may have to dig in the memory a bit.  I don’t remember my first day of teaching, probably because it was a nerve-wracking blur.  I do remember highlights, though, and that will suffice for now.

As I write this, I’m taking a break from planning a new teacher induction program.  My job is to take brand new baby teachers and help them have a successful first year (and hopefully come back for a second).  I’m calling on a lot of my own knowledge of things that were good and not so good from my own first year (perhaps it’s fortunate my first year wasn’t that great, so I have lots of ideas for what NOT to do), but I’m also consulting outside sources.

One such book is called Your First Year: How to Survive and Thrive as a New Teacher, written by Todd Whitaker along with his two teacher daughters (Whitaker is also the author of books like What Connected Educators Do Differently, School Culture Rewired, and a handful of books talking about what great teachers, principals and others do differently).  The book is a quick read (a must for me) and gives some pretty solid advice for newbies to the profession about how to not only survive but even thrive in the first year of this crazy job.

The authors give a great deal of emphasis to relationship building and classroom management for the new teacher and spend very little time talking about curriculum and instruction.  While some might see this as odd, I think it’s brilliant.  Not that teachers don’t need to plan great lessons (actually, they do), but if you don’t have the respect and cooperation of your students, you can’t expect much magic to happen in that classroom.

Behavior management is one of the most difficult things for first year teachers, though I actually like to think of it as behavior prevention instead.  If I invest time up front with structure, procedures, and respect (not necessarily in that order), I will have very little behavior to “manage.”  There was a running joke between my behavior para and I when I was in the classroom that if I ever sent a student to the office, they must have really screwed up in class!  There were many years I could count the number of students I removed from class on my two hands.  And that was teaching 400 kids each week.

Why?  Because I had routines in place for students to follow so they knew what to do most of the time.  I had lessons planned that kept my students moving and engaged to keep them from having down time (what’s the saying about idle hands….?).  My students knew if they messed up in class, I wasn’t going to tolerate it but I would let them try again when they had pulled themselves back together.

I know the time I have with these new teachers is invaluable.  I also know their minds will be spinning a hundred miles an hour with excitement, anticipation, and honest to goodness fear as they think about everything that is coming their way.  What do I leave them with that is a good use of their time and helps start the year off on the right foot?

What do they need to hear in August and what can wait until later in the year?  How do we give them as much information as possible while not making their brains explode (in a bad way)?  But how do we make their brains explode in a good way because of all of the mind-blowing discussion or ideas?

I’ll be tackling some of those questions and others over the next few weeks.  In the mean time, what would have been the most helpful for you in that first week as a new teacher?

 

Note: Clicking on any of the links in this blog post will take you to Amazon.com for purchase.