Tuesday, July 29, 2014

First and Lasting Impressions #ptchat

As our journey together on #ptcamp comes to an end, and our "cabin" groups are finishing a week together, one common theme keeps coming to my mind, first and lasting impressions.  Let me explain why this seems to be the foremost take away from my experiences over the last five weeks.  But first, a brief story about our latest 8th grade graduation and the short speech I shared with our 8th graders, their families and friends, the staff members in attendance, and all others who attended the ceremony.

My message was about first and last impressions.  The last impressions were about how the 8th graders grew as learners and became better and more mature people during their time in Merton.  I will remember seeing their growth and will do my best to keep those positive images close.  The first impressions were about the 8th graders move to the high school, whichever one they will be attending, and how those first impressions really say a lot about someone.

If I could share my message again, I would change it to "First and Lasting Impressions."  I realize now that our first impressions must be followed up by lasting impressions.  Many of my new Voxer friends not only "talk the talk" but they "walk the walk".  In an effort not to forget anyone or their impactful stories, I won't mention any names, but their stories will stay with me for a long time to come.  These impressive educators have developed an atmosphere in their schools where everyone is respected, opinions are shared, and students are kept in the forefront of all that they do.

It is now my passion and focus to open up our school to better and deeper family engagement.  I know that I will "steal" some ideas from the group and I hope that a few of my thoughts and ideas have resonated with those whom I have learned from all summer.  Here are my first steps to improve the engagement of all of our families.

  • Develop a family engagement committee (staff and families) that will work together to improve the culture and atmosphere of our school to make it more welcoming.
  • Provide opportunities for families to share their time and talents with our students.
  • Be intentional about having conversations with families when they visit school for conferences, concerts, sporting events, or dropping off or picking up their children during the school day.
The first step is something new for our school.  The second two steps are things that I need to improve upon.  We have had families share their time and talents in the past, but there is so much more that I am sure they would be willing to do for our school.  Honestly, some of my conversations are shallow "How are you doing?" types of conversations.  When families come into our school, I need to be intentional, asking for feedback even and especially when it might be difficult to hear, to make our school better.

So now I need to begin, before the school year even starts.  I will develop a family smore for each grade level, sharing information about each grade level and the staff who will be working with their children, to be sent out next Friday.  I will also be interacting with as many families as I can during our Open House and working on finding ways to support them during the school year.  I will also ask them how they might be able to support our school as well.  My hope is that these efforts, in concert with families and staff, will help our school become a partnership school.  With the staff and families in our school, I'm sure that we will get there.

Friday, July 25, 2014

What would I do without my PLN?

This is, by no means, a rhetorical question.  I must admit that I rely on my PLN (Personal/Professional Learning Network) nearly every day.  Sometimes it's for a serious question- How would you handle this situation?  Sometimes it's for a laugh- Anyone know someone who has hilarious "auto corrects"?

But seriously, my PLN is my source for so many answers, thought provoking questions, sharing, and fun.  I love to learn but sitting in a classroom, listening to a professor lecture, reading "last year's thoughts", having shallow discussions with classmates, and writing papers that seemed more like regurgitated information really weren't getting it done for me.  Then, thanks to @chris_reuter and his introduction to Twitter, my world of learning opened up in a big way.  It started small, with following a few educators and following a Twitter chat or two, and now it's a big deal for me.

My social media PLN, people I have connected with on both Twitter and Voxer, has opened my eyes to new ways of thinking, stretched my thoughts and beliefs on education, and provided suggestions for improving my educational practices and the educational practices of those with whom I work.  Because of Twitter, our school has done a book chat for Teach Like a Pirate written by Dave Burgess, celebrated #eduwins, and developed an #edcamp style professional development afternoon for staff.  My PLN helps me to become a better principal and lead learner each and every day.

My PLN validates me, challenges me, makes me laugh, makes me cry, and ultimately makes me a better person.  Before connecting on social media and developing a PLN with so many great educators and leaders, I was a loner, afloat in an ocean with little direction except for that provided by the waves that moved me in a variety of directions.  With my PLN, I have a rudder, paddles, and a direction.

What would I do without my PLN?  I'd still be drifting aimlessly, searching for a direction.  Thanks to those of you in my PLN for accepting me for who I am, for molding me each and every day, and for sharing your wonderful thoughts and ideas.

Blogs from my PLN about this topic.
Amber Teamann
Tony Sinanis

Monday, July 21, 2014

"They are there and they care" Week 4 #ptcamp

Thanks to Chad Caddell and his thought provoking words on Monday, July 21st, I was inspired to begin this post before reading both of our assigned chapters.  Chad shares with us each and every day about the great things going on his school and the true care and love he has for each of his students.  It is not fake or contrived but instead is as real as it gets.  That is the true meaning of an advocate in our schools, someone who wants only the best for their child and is often the voice for those who are unable to communicate their needs, dreams, and struggles.  Advocates come in all forms- parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, neighbors, teachers, teaching assistants, you name it.  The fear of the word advocate is one that we must remove from our thoughts.  Replace advocate with partner and think of the possibilities that will exist.

As is mentioned on page 151 of Beyond the Bake Sale, advocates do the following things for students.

  • Set high expectations and follow the child's progress
  • Help with goal setting and future plans
  • Steer the child though the educational system
  • Intervene for the child when they are under pressure, have a problem, or are being treated unfairly
  • Get assistance when needed
  • Monitor the child's out-of-school time
  • Line up other activities
These advocacy skills may need to be taught or fostered in our families for each child to have a better chance at success.  Imagine if we could have a get together (sounds so much better than "meeting") to discuss each of these aspects of advocacy.  There are plenty of school staff and family members who have experiences that they could share regarding each of these aspects.  This is when the true partnership can begin.

Another line on page 171 also caught my attention, and it relates to the "fear" that can sometimes occur when advocacy is mentioned.   "Teachers deserve to know how cultivating a two-way relationship with parents (insert "advocate" here) will help improve student behavior and performance.  They need specific training and coaching about how to do this.  Telling them to "just do it" without training and support won't work."  The same is true when we discuss how to improve how people advocate for our students.  We must find ways to provide this support that can bring together teachers and families to foster this partnership.

Advocates are truly partners with schools and will improve education for all of our students.  As I think about the students I work with every day, I am trying to determine who are advocates for each of them.  Some have strong families who visit school often.  Those are the visible advocates.  Some have strong families who rarely visit schools.  Those are the invisible advocates, but they are just as strong.  It may take some time to realize these advocates exist, but they are there.  Reaching out to them is necessary and oftentimes difficult, but we must begin to make the effort.  The students that I worry about the most are those without family advocates.  They need us to advocate in school for them, stand up for them, and get to know them.  We are all advocates for these students, and we must continue in this role.

It takes me back to Chad.  He has a true love and energy for his students.  I can see him reaching out to them each and every day to provide the support they need, both in school and out of school.  All of our students need an advocate like Chad.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Looking Through the Window or Looking In The Mirror #ptcamp

During the summer of #ptcamp, an awesome book chat of Beyond the Bake Sale initiated by Joe Mazza (@Joe_Mazza), the Leadership Innovation Manager at Penn, one comment has jumped out at me and slapped me square in the face.

Are you looking out through the window or are you looking in the mirror?

The comment slaps me in the face every day while I take part in the Voxer chat or read someone's blog.  And the slap hurts.  Every time.

Image from dreamstime.com

The look through the window is so much easier.  I look out to see what others can do for me, for our school, for our students, for our staff.  Looking out the window is passive.  Frankly, it's the easy way out.  But sometimes I need help with my ideas or for someone to tell me my ideas just aren't practical.  The view out the window, however, can guide us as we look in the mirror.

Image from dreamstime.com

The look in the mirror is much more difficult.  It's all about you and what you can do.  You can still ask for help from others, and you should, but it starts with you.  I think it's a good idea to check your own pulse before you check the pulse of those with whom you work or your family partnerships.  Ask yourself these questions-
What should we start?
What should we stop?
What should we continue?
I have a habit of hearing a good idea (and there are so many in our #ptcamp discussions) and I want to get it going in my school- RIGHT NOW.  I really need to step back, look in the mirror, and determine whether it fits in our school.  If it does, then I need to look out the window and ask for help from others.  But it all starts with that look in the mirror.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Bias, relationships, and involvement #ptcamp- Week 3

There are three topics in chapters 5 and 6 of Beyond the Bake Sale that resonated with me.  The first of these is bias.  I have been involved in training for a new teacher effectiveness system and the instructional coaches, principal, and superintendent I work with have spent the better part of the last two days watching videos of teachers we don't know and calibrating their abilities within the classroom.  Bias comes into play in each one of these videos as we "meet" the teachers and students in these videos for the first time.  We know our own teachers and students and whether we'd like to admit it or not, we have bias regarding our own staff and teachers.  We all can name the teachers and students that provide us with a positive mindset when we encounter them.  And, unfortunately, we all can name the teachers and students that occasionally provide us with a negative mindset when we encounter them.  The same can be true of families and our bias toward them, both good and bad.  I recently read a blog post by Lori Desautels entitled Perspective: A Game Changer in the Classroom and in Our Lives that speaks to bias and how we might be able to change our thinking.  Her three main points, in case you don't have time to read the entire post are as follows:
1.  Recognize Triggers and Challenges
2.  Show a Different View
3.  Offer a Fresh Start
We must keep these points in mind, especially offering a fresh start.  I do my best to provide a fresh start for all students, staff, and families each day.  It isn't easy, but it can be done.

The second topic, found on page 115, is that "all families, no matter what their income, race, education, language, or culture, want their children to do well in school- and can make an important contribution to their children's learning."  I think that we often lose sight of this, especially when families don't visit the school very often.  But all families, whether we realize it or not, want what's best for their child.  And they'll do anything they can to help make sure that they are successful.  It's all about building relationships and learning how families and schools can support one another.  I recently read a blog post by Jennifer Hogan that would be great to share with all of our staff and have them be honest in answering.  The blog post, entitled How Would Your School or District Answer These 5 Questions About Relationships?, is a wonderful place to start this discussion.

The third topic, found on page 125, is that, "We can't go in with this single vision...of what parent involvement looks like or we miss the fact that all parents want to be involved.  There just may be a different script for how they do it."  We all have some families who are involved at school with everything and anything.  They rarely say no to a request.  We all have some families who are never involved at school because of a variety of factors- work schedule, their own school experiences, feeling that the school is asking for them but for someone else to be involved.  And then there is everything in between.  In our recent Voxer chats, we have heard the constant reminder of the variety of ways families can be involved.  We must reach out, not just with an email, an updated website, a tweet, or a blog.  We must meet them at the door, both before and after school, or pick up the phone and give them a call.  It's difficult to say no to someone when they ask you in person.

So what does this post have to do with dealing with issues of race, class, and culture?  Knowing your biases, building relationships, and involving families are the best ways of dealing with these issues.  We must remember that our families give us their best children and are doing their best to support their children.  We must do whatever we can to support our families in this venture.  That's when this partnership will succeed.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Living the core beliefs, with trust #ptcamp

I must start with this- I love the conversations we are having on Voxer.  Although I haven't added much too far due to being on a family vacation, I have listened to and read every Vox.  When I have been able, I have even commented a time or two.  Reading Beyond the Bake Sale has provided us all a common language and allowed for us to share all of the great things we are doing in our schools.  It has also helped me put more of a focus on the best ways for our school to partner with parents.  Thank you for stretching my thinking as well as validating my thoughts.  And now on with the assignment.

Core belief 1- All Parents Have Dreams for Their Children and Want the Best for Them
This is my favorite of the core beliefs.  I have never met a parent who didn't have a dream for their child.  Being a father, I want my daughter's life to be better than mine.  At times I push her a little further than maybe I should, but it is because I love her and want her to live up to her potential.  I guess you could say I'm just like any other parent.  And that's what I remember every time I speak with a parent about their child and the concerns they might have.  Now I'll remember to include this question in every conversation- What are your dreams for your child?

Core belief 2- All Parents Have the Capacity to Support Their Children's Learning
I think we sometimes forget this about our parents.  They are all doing the best that they can do for their child.  They might not attend every school function, including conferences, but they are all there to support their child.  I know that I need to provide more information to parents about our curriculum, but I don't know how best to do this.  We have had parent nights for math and Readers' and Writers' Workshop, but they haven't been very well attended.  Some of the ideas I have heard in our Voxer conversation will hopefully spark more attendance and conversation to help our parents provide more support for their children.

Core belief 3- Parents and School Staff Should Be Equal Partners
This is a belief I hold but I have work to do to help all of our staff believe this as well.  I work with a great staff but sometimes their is a fear of parents that comes from previous experiences.  I'm hopeful to develop a Parent Advisory Committee this year to help foster this partnership.

Core belief 4- The Responsibility for Building Partnerships Between School and Home Rests Primarily with School Staff, Especially School Leaders
I truly believe that in order for a partnership between school staff and parents, I must make it a priority for both the staff and parents to develop this partnership.  I know that I can't do it alone, but there are many great parents and staff in our district who I'm sure share this same belief.  I will be having a table at Open House to try to get this started, but I know that a personal invitation will be much more successful in getting this started.

The three-point joining process seems simple enough, but each of the three points involves trust.  Building trust is not an easy thing to do.  And once trust has been broken, it is even more difficult to rebuild the trust than when it was initially developed.
1. Welcome parents into the school.
We all welcome parents into the school, but do they really feel welcome?  How they are greeted when they enter the school is just one facet of this point.  It goes beyond this, though.  Parents need to feel welcomed at any time, whether its to volunteer in a classroom or the library or during parent meetings or conferences.  I love the idea of having the children invite their parents or significant adults into their classrooms.  This seems like a great way to start making our parents feel more welcome in our schools.
2. Honor parents' participation
I know that our teachers and staff thank parents regularly for their participation, but we still can do this much more often.  We have a volunteer breakfast, but this is no more than a one-time event.  We need to make sure that we honor parents' participation more than just once.  We should honor what they do on a more consistent basis.  A personal phone call would be a great start.
3. Connect with parents through a focus on the children and their learning
Right now, we do this only during parent/teacher conferences or when there is a concern about progress.  Why don't we do this when students have done something well?  That would definitely help foster parent communication and engagement.  My favorite phone calls are those that I make with a student when they have been successful.  There is always apprehension on the other end of the call as, unfortunately, I don't make these kind of phone calls often enough.  Maybe I need to take the lead and make more of these phone calls to show staff and parents the benefits or positive communication in building trust.

I guess I have just reiterated Core belief #4-  The Responsibility for Building Partnerships Between School and Home Rests Primarily with School Staff, Especially School Leaders.  Let the new partnership begin!

Patience- Where can I find some?

Patience is a virtue.  Until I read the definition on Wikipedia, I had no idea that it came from Psychomachia, a poem written in the fifth century.  Fortunately my internet was working well so I didn't have to be too patient to find the definition.  It may be that I do have patience, but I don't know if I exhibit it often enough.  When I want something to happen, I want it to happen sooner rather than later.  With everything that I've learned from my PLN on Twitter and Voxer, I sometimes just need to stop and make things a priority.  So that's where my patience needs to begin.

I enjoyed a post from Joe Sanfelippo (@Joesanfelippofc) recently entitled Learning to Lead that made me think about my lack of patience.  It also caused me to determine the three things I will work on this year.
1. Celebrate a risk with a staff member or student.
2. Model energy and excitement.
3. Share out the great things our Merton family is doing.
I truly believe this will help me with being more patient.  Everything that I do as a principal every day can be done with my focus on these goals.

Celebration of risk is a great way to show the importance of learning something new.  Modeling energy and excitement may seem contrary to patience, but if I choose a few items to focus on (Readers' Workshop and family engagement come to mind), hopefully the staff and students will focus on these items as well.  Having fewer things to focus on will help me maintain some semblance of patience.  Sharing out as much as a I can about all that we do in Merton will help me to pause and be involved in classrooms, allowing me to be more patient.

As many of my friends and co-workers will tell you, I can't stay seated for very long.  I always need to be doing something.  I just spent the last week in Myrtle Beach and couldn't just relax on the beach without jumping in and going boogie boarding every 15 minutes.  But I can feel my patience increasing while writing this post.  I was able to sit for 15 minutes to write on my Chromebook.  Maybe I can be patient after all.

The idea behind this post came from my Voxer family.  Here are posts from some of them.
Jessica Johnson
Melinda Miller
Tony Sinanis

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Principals are people, too.

As I sit in a condo in Myrtle Beach today, watching my daughter and her friends fix their hair and makeup for a dance competition, I realize that I am just a normal person who is a principal.  Now I always felt that way, but some things just bring the realization into more clarity.  Being a dad at a dance competition is one of those things.  So are mowing the lawn, snow blowing the driveway, grocery shopping, and going on vacation.  It's at these times that we are most human to our students and parents because they see us in a different way than when we are at school.  My wife and friends joke about how long it will take until I see a current or former student.  I was given a hat by our real estate agent that just says "NEIGHBOR" on it that I wear to subdivision parties.  And you know what?  I think it's great that students and parents see me as just a regular person.
What do regular people do?  They do great things for and with each other.  They take risks and fail.  They take risks and succeed.  They agree.  They disagree.  They come together.  They ask questions.  They determine next steps.  When regular people have a focus, like what is best for a school, imagine what can happen.  So is it bad for me to be just a regular person?  I think it's the best thing for our kids and our school.

The idea for this post came from my Voxer family.  Here are some of their posts.
Jessica Johnson
Melinda Miller
Curt Rees
Joe Sanfelippo
Tony Sinanis
Amber Teamann
Leah Whitford
Tom Whitford
Tim Lauer