04 October 2015

The Conflicted Disciplinarian

I stepped out into the office this week to find a kindergartner looking over the counter. He resembled a Kilroy cartoon---just his fingers holding onto the counter and the part of his head from the eyes up. "Are you ready to go back to class?" I asked him. He looked very confused. "I missed my recess again."

Yep, little one. You did. I asked him if he remembered why he didn't get to have recess and he knew it was because he had used his scissors to cut another student in his class. But I could tell that he didn't really understand what that had to do with recess. The connection between action and consequence wasn't clear to him.

The assistant principal and I had talked to the student before lunch. And while it would have been within bounds to suspend the student for the act of "violence," I couldn't advocate for that. First of all, he's five and has been in school less than a month. I don't know that he understands what school is yet...let alone why you might not be allowed to come to it. Second of all, he's five and doesn't have a lot of "tools" for dealing with conflicts he has with classmates.

The story goes that the teacher asked students to put their scissors away, and this little boy didn't. Another student repeated what the teacher said and the boy cut her on the finger. He could have said "Mind your own business." or "You're not the boss of me." or "I'm almost done." or a host of other things. But at that moment, he just reacted the only way he knew how. I'm not saying it was appropriate. I am saying that this is our opportunity to help him learn about other choices and how to use his words to communicate his feelings. Sending him home for a day doesn't do that. Frankly, I had a hard time taking away his lunch recess and afternoon recess, but that's what we ended up doing. The little boy had already apologized to his classmate.

Later that same day, we talked to two first graders that had been fighting on the playground. At some point during the scuffle, one punched the other and received a kick "in the nuts" (as one of the six-year olds stated) in return. Again, we could have suspended the little dudes...but I just couldn't justify it. This is mostly due to their age. I do believe that at age six, a child is old enough to understand that punching and kicking someone else is not okay. I don't believe that at age six that a child can manage all of their relationships effectively. I know plenty of adults who can't, either, but that's a different issue. Is it more important to assign the consequence and hope it makes an impression...or is it more important to use misbehavior as a teachable moment so that they student learns other ways to interact with classmates? Are both necessary?

Seattle schools recently instituted a one-year moratorium on suspensions for elementary students who commit non-violent offenses. While neither of the incidents I encountered this week would have been considered non-violent, I really have to wonder how many suspensions for any reason are necessary for elementary students. I know that there are some times when it is best for the student to have a break to regain some self-control, as well as times when a classroom may need a break from a chaotic student, too. But how many of those are there?

I also wonder about how and when we implement restorative justice as an approach at elementary. If you're five and already struggling to understand that there are more ways to get your point across other than acting out, is a sincere apology enough, knowing that older grade levels will add on to that base?

There's a lot to balance. In the case of the kindergartner, I'm sure the parent of the child who was hurt expects the school to assign a punishment. I'm sure that his guardian, who is homeless, just needs the boy to feel safe and cared for in a stable environment during the day. I'm sure that the little boy just needs to be a little boy.

When a kid gets sent to the office, I'm supposed to be the "bad cop," so the relationship with the teacher is preserved. I'm supposed to be the hardass when dealing with kids who can't even open their own milk cartons. I'm supposed to be judge, jury, and executioner...and that feels like a lot of responsibility, especially when I'm looking at a kid who can barely see over the counter. Maybe I'm just too big of a softie at heart, but I find it really difficult to bring down the hammer on any of these kiddos.

Meanwhile, over at the high school, it's a very different sort of story. Kids who are caught with pot in their backpacks. Kids who are leaving campus during the day to walk around the neighbourhood and smoke a cigarette. Kids who don't go home at night and have worried parents calling the next day to see if they've shown up at school. Kids who know how to push a teacher's buttons and take great pleasure in doing so.

Now what?

At high school, everyone involved in those conversations is world-weary, including the students. While no one admits that they are giving up on kids outright, there seems to be a pervasive attitude that the best thing to do is just find the easiest path to graduation for students. Change their schedule. Put them on the list for alternative school. Send them to ISS for one period a day to do their work there. Send them to counseling. Most of these solutions don't really get at the root cause of things, but are instead designed to put on a patch until the kid leaves school, one way or the other. With a graduation rate around 80%, that's a lot of kids who get the message that school is not the place for them.

I suspect that there are other ways to manage all of this: teaching social-emotional skills, establishing restorative justice practices, allocating resources to keeping older students engaged and on track. I don't know how we put it in place. It's great that we have systems for positive behavior supports, but I don't think this is enough for 20% of our students. What is your school or district doing that seems to be working? How do we as a system make connections between our own actions and consequences?

27 September 2015

Learning All the Time

We're a month into school...and I'm about halfway through collecting hours toward my administrator credential. I'm spending most of my time in an elementary school, but there will be some in middle school and high school. Here are a few things I've learned so far:

I am twice as tired at the end of a day at the elementary school than I am from interning at the high school. The elementary has a principal, assistant principal, and counselor. The high school has 200 more students, but it has three administrators, three counselors, two security guards, one campus resource officer, and fifteen security cameras. In other words, the high school has way more support for watching, moving, and supporting students and teachers. At elementary, if a SpEd kid tries to run away---there goes at least one of your administrators, leaving the other to cover everything else. Meanwhile, nothing else can get done: being in classrooms, preparing safety plans, focusing on instructional leadership, etc. It's not that one grade span is "easier" than another---just that we really need to look at the balance between what we ask administrators to do and the resources provided.

The problems encountered by high school administrators---at least in terms of students---are far more complex and, frankly, depressing. This is not to say that little kids don't have difficult personal lives, too, but they're sheltered from some of it, either through their own ignorance/self-absorption or by adults. Five year olds don't show up drunk or stoned at school. When a kid shows up in the office at high school, there are some seriously messed up things happening in the background.

Lunch duty in the cafeteria with kinders and first graders is hilarious. Lunch duty with high school kids...not so much. At elementary, I spend time opening milk cartons, tying shoes, avoiding hugs from sticky-fingered and sticky-faced small people, and reminding them to walk (not run) to the playground.

A kinder recently asked if he could get his coat before recess. I walked him to his classroom, but it was locked. I suggested that when he got to the playground that he just run around in the sun to warm up. His reply? "But I can't run very fast...because I'm only five." He was so forlorn about it.

Whoever invents something for female administrators to easily carry their radio, phone, and keys will make tons of money. We need some cute little shoulder bag or fancy fanny pack. Get on that, would you?

As a teacher, I was always aware that I was the adult in the room. As an administrator, I see this need tenfold. If you have a defiant fifth-grader who insists he will never ever come down from the monkey bars...you have to outlast him. If you have a high-school student who insists on a testosterone-fueled response to someone staring at him, then you have to outrank him. I don't mean any of this in a cruel way. I just mean that by the time a teacher or someone else in the building has called you to deal with a problem. you have to find an immediate way to show the student that (a) you care and (b) you are the authority. It's best to reach a common understanding whenever you can, but when that is not possible, you get the last word.

Administrators can't fix kids---anymore than a teacher can. Administrators can't fix adults, either, and yet much of the job is centered around adult problems. Parents who are homeless and have significant needs. Teachers who are addicted to drugs or alcohol. Office staff that can't get along. Coordinating with community services. The list goes on and on.

Last week, I was greeted by a second grader with "Hi, Miss Principal Lady!" It made me smile. Although I don't see myself ever officially being a principal, one of the things I am learning is that I could do the job. There's still a ton of things for me to take in, of course, but it doesn't feel insurmountable. In my current administrative role, I only have to know a slice of what a principal knows---but, I have to know that slice for 10 schools and 2 programs, as well as all of the relationships. A principal needs to have a much broader knowledge of school function, but only for one slice of students. A good principal, of course, is much more than what he or she knows---there's a magic to the way that they apply it. That is not something that can be learned, I think...but we'll see what happens between now and end of my internship at winter break. For now, I'm learning all the time.

07 September 2015

Make a Wish

It's almost time to start a brand new school year. Sure, some of you have been back at it for more than a month, but Washington has a kinder, gentler calendar: after Labor Day or Bust.

We had inservice days last week, and I got to hang out with the school where I am doing my administrative internship. I remembered a post from Organized Chaos from a few years ago where her school asked parents of kindergartners what their hopes and dreams were for their children. I loved that idea when I first read it. We are often so focused on what we have planned that we forget to ask everyone in the system about what we want.

So, this year, we asked parents to fill out a card when they dropped off school supplies: What are your hopes and dreams for your child? Most parents responded with ideas about the school year, but a few took a larger view and commented on college or aspirations for life skills. Here is a summary of what they said...
  • Kindergarten: make friends; have fun; love to learn and to be at school
  • Grade 1: make friends; love learning; build social and behavioral skills
  • Grade 2: increase social skills; build self-confidence; be challenged
  • Grade 3: make friends; build self-confidence and self-esteem; stress-free
  • Grade 4: make friends; have fun; build self-confidence
  • Grade 5: make friends; increase social and emotional skills; improve in reading and math
  • Grade 6: make friends; be challenged; stress-free
We were somewhat surprised by these results. They represent about 2/3 of the families at the school. And their biggest wishes for their children's experiences at school have very little to do with academics. Really, I think that's okay---even better than okay. In an era of school improvement, federal mandates, and public accountability, parents are telling us that they hope their kids will be happy and well-adjusted little people. It is the foundation for everything else.

Can the school write a SMART goal around "make friends"? Nope. But I think the data parents have provided are good reason for the school to create a focus on social-emotional skills for kids...something much more than just reading and math. Schools will always have a focus on academics. They can also help nurture the hearts of the communities. From what we see on the cards parents wrote for us, it looks like they're wishing for that, too.

My career turns 25 years old this year. I am excited to be back in a school this fall, looking through the lens of a principal for the first time. My wish is for a year full of learning and professional growth, along with some balance to have more time and opportunity for a personal life.

How about you? What is your wish for the 2015 - 16 school year?

17 August 2015

How Goldilocks Got Her Groove Back

I'm about to start my 25th year in education. That puts me slightly past the halfway mark of my career, and in that time I've had a variety of roles: middle school teacher, high school teacher, elementary instructional coach, district curriculum specialist, state program manager, and now back to a district level role.

Here's a little secret. I have always been jealous of those teachers who stay in the classroom for their entire careers. You know the ones (one of them might be you)---like the 60-year old kindergarten teacher who approaches each new school year with as much energy as when she was 25. I have long admired not only their devotion to the task, but also their contentment with the work. As much as I loved teaching, I never felt at home as much as some people do.

It's my second year with my current job. Last year was a blur. I had a steep learning curve for most of the work and spent a lot of extra time just getting my feet under me. I am looking forward to this year when not everything will be new---even if it is still demanding and time-consuming. More importantly, I feel like this job fits me. It suits my strengths and provides me with challenges that are just the right size. I look forward to going to work each and every day. I don't resent working evenings or weekends, when necessary, because I enjoy the tasks. It's been long enough that any "honeymoon" with the new job should be over. Is it possible that I've finally found the Goldilocks career opportunity? I like my work...I like my environment and the people with whom I work...I like my paycheck and responsibilities. I don't see this as a stopping point on the way to something else or even want to look around for other possibilities. Maybe I will someday, but for now it just feels good to head out the door each morning with a smile on my face.

We have three more weeks until school starts here. There's a lot of work to do between now and then---lots of professional development opportunities, data to crunch, and connections to make. But instead of feeling overwhelmed or sad to see the end of the summer, I feel excited about getting back into the groove of another school year. I hope you all get the chance to feel the same way.

09 August 2015

What I Did on My Summer Vacation

Calling it a vacation is a bit of misnomer. However, for the first time in seven years, I had two weeks off. In a row. It's the miracle that happens when you leave a state agency and go back to a school district. I am an administrator, so my contract is different from when I was teaching. I don't have summers off...but I do get those first two weeks in July. It was luxurious.

But back to my story.

I started work on an administrator credential. (I know.) And for those of you worried about me unleashing myself on some poor unsuspecting school, rest assured that I have absolutely no desire to be a principal. I've seen enough excellent ones now that I have too much respect for that job---I couldn't do it nearly as well. But the credential is important for my current role and with 20 or so years left in my career, I may really appreciate having the additional options that come with just such a piece of paper.

So, on July 1 I started an online program. (I know.) I looked around at a variety of options. If I had the money (~$18,000), there were two brick-and-mortar options that would allow me to complete the programs in a year. I think that if I was just leaving the classroom and had not had any teacher leadership opportunities, I would find a way to do that sort of program. But I've worked as a district and state administrator. That doesn't mean I know how to run a school, just that I understand some of the vagaries that go along with it. So, I picked a competency-based option.

Do you see all those little blue ribbons? Those are all the credits I've completed since July 1. Yep, since that time, I've finished every single course in the program except for my internship (the one in green with the 7 on it). I wrote 30 papers in 35 days and then took a final exam this weekend. Now, I need ~13 more weeks of hours in my job and in a school this fall. Poof. I'm a principal.

It's not much of a vacation. Okay, so it wasn't a vacation at all. But my job is too big to have to squeeze in all of the coursework---I already bring home a lot to do on evenings and weekends. This was also an economic option. I'll complete the entire program for $3000, including books. No travel, no parking or other fees to manage. It may be a budget credential, but the program is accepted for accreditation by the state. I will say that there were lots of opportunities to post on message boards and engage with an online community. I did none of it---just the required assignments. Again, if I was a complete n00b heading into this, I would probably feel differently. As it was, I was grateful to just jump the hoops.

The internship, however, will be a welcome addition when school starts again. I'll be working with and learning from two utterly fantastic elementary principals and am most anxious to have a reason to not be in my office...to be in classrooms with teachers and children. There is one other requirement of the program, and that is to take a Praxis test from ETS for administration. I'll take that this Friday. My state certification office doesn't care about the score---I just need one for the program. I think I can manage it.

It's a beautiful afternoon outside. I should be working on my presentation for this week's administrator retreat, but I think I will grab a bowl of ice cream and sit outside for a few minutes. I can pretend it's a summer vacation.

15 April 2015

The Whole Child's in Their Hands

The unofficial theme of this year's ASCD annual conference was accountability. With new tests rolling out across the US this year, the possible reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (a/k/a "No Child Left Behind"), and continuing focus on teacher and principal evaluation, it's no wonder that accountability is on the minds of every educator. It's a difficult balancing act in public education, however, because of all of the voices that play a role: parents, students, teachers, administrators, district/state/federal officials, communities, and so on. Accountability looks different through all of those lenses. I know that many teachers feel that they are caught in the middle at times.

One session I attended had a series of Ignite presentations around the theme of accountability. One of the presenters implored us to "wholed" her accountable...meaning that we shouldn't limit our judgement of a school to test scores. And while I agree in principle---schools are worth more than annual test---having worked outside of a classroom, I could quickly see how this could backfire. I could easily imagine all of the new reports that would be required for student health, community engagement, and so on. We have to be careful what we wish for, educators.

However, each year one school is selected for the Whole Child Vision in Action award. This year, Magnolia Elementary School of Joppa, Md., led by Patricia Mason, received this honor. Schools that participate in the whole child initiative focus on ensuring that every child learns about a healthy lifestyle, has a safe place to learn, is engaged with learning both in and out of the classroom, has a system of support, and is challenged academically.

I am inspired every year by the award winners. They have a sort of magic---one that cannot be replicated, and maybe not even repeated from year to year---but for a moment in time, they have everyone and everything moving in a significant and positive direction. You can read more about the specifics of their school in the press release from ASCD.

I spoke with the principal and three of the teachers over breakfast one morning. This is the third time that I've had this sort of opportunity and if I could boil down what all of these schools have in common, it would be "Everyone does whatever it takes to focus on students." Too simplistic? Maybe. But it's not just pockets of teachers in a school doing good things. It's all of the teachers...and paraeducators...and secretarial/custodial/food services staff...and administrators. It's students reaching out to parents to bring them to the school. This is no small task. Teachers step up into leadership roles. Principals create the conditions that allow teachers to take on this responsibility and authority.

Something else I've noticed is that these schools don't get caught up in all of the trends. Yes, they pay attention to requirements and test scores, but none of them are active on social media or tricked out with technology. Magnolia only had wifi access points installed the week before they came to Houston. Money, time, and energy all go toward taking care of students and teachers.

Congratulations to Magnolia Elementary!

12 April 2015

Get Real: Passion for the Classroom

I like to believe that all educators are passionate about students, learning, and good instruction. These factors reveal themselves in different ways. I've seen teachers in "supersmall" districts---ones where there are only two teachers---who drive the bus, feed students (because there is no meal program), and be the heartbeat of their community. I've watched teachers in larger districts collaborate with their peers on a regular basis to engage in reflective practice. I regularly read blog posts by teachers from all over the world who share their triumphs and struggles as they work to continually improve their practice on behalf of their students. And, I see it shared at conferences and workshops, too.

At the recent ASCD annual conference, I sat in on two presentations in particular that showed passion for educators at an entirely different level---one which not only conveyed their heart for the work, but inspired and sparked commitment. One was by Dr. Robyn Jackson and the other by Regie Routman.

I read Jackson's Never Work Harder than Your Students five or six years ago and then met her at an ASCD author's event two years ago. (I did get to see her at a similar event last month.) However, this was the first time that I've seen her present. Her topic was "Failing Up." Here was the session description: What do you do when your students are caught in a free fall of failure? How do you help them learn from failure? How do you motivate students who have failed so much they've given up? Learn how to turn failure into a valuable learning experience. Discover specific ways to help students develop resilience, take risks in the classroom, and try, along with practical strategies for turning failures into powerful learning experiences that builds students’ motivation and grit. And while the session was well-paced and the ideas solid, it was her practitioner's stance that struck me. To be sure, she is no longer in the classroom, but I had no trouble visualizing her there...her quiet resolve and unwaivering faith in students' abilities at the center of every move she made. I also appreciated her sense of humanity. It would be easy for her to focus on the success stories, but she shared difficult moments and also very personal stories. This lack of hubris makes the strategies she provides feel much more attainable---that it is not an expert preaching a gospel, but someone that you would have appreciated in the classroom next to you. Someone who shows up each day ready to give it their best.

I had not seen Regie Routman present until last month, either. Years ago, I read her Teaching Essentials book and I remember being struck by her plain talk. There's not a lot of that in education. We like big ideas. We like to dream big. But there aren't a lot of people who work side-by-side with teachers and students who clearly state what the job is and that you need to get it done. I didn't get to talk with her much at the author's event this year, but looking back through Ye Olde Blog, I see that a commenter here in 2011 said that Regie's presentation moved her to tears. I didn't have quite the same visceral reaction to the message, but I will say that she is different from every other expert I've seen in action. The difference is that Routman conducts her work as residencies in schools. She doesn't just tell you what to do, she comes to your school and teaches in your classrooms so you can watch. Instead of a formal presentation, she has hundreds of photographs of student work and video clips of her conferencing with teachers and students with one goal in mind: making literacy the center of classroom learning. She creates and supports sustainable change in schools. Her focus is on the joy that is part of learning---not focusing on a deficit model of what students can't do, but using effort and persistence to help students move forward. Her new book, Read, Write, Lead, is a rich source that reflects her depth of knowledge in the field of literacy, as well as her core beliefs about classrooms and student learning. I have not finished reading it yet---it's so dense with ideas that I am taking in bits and pieces for my mind to "digest" before going back for additional helpings. If you work in a K - 8 classroom, and especially if you are a principal for those grades, I highly recommend that you pick up a copy.

What made these two authors, educators, and presenters different for me was that they weren't in the room to sell anything. They were there to communicate, to reflect, to engage with a community of other practitioners. They didn't try to package and sell the golden bullet. Instead, their unwavering resolve shows that they are in for the long haul and that they will continue their work until every student finds success. It's such a significant and meaningful message...moreso than the "Just add #hashtag!" crowd.

As I go back to work after Spring Break and face the last quarter of the school year, it would be easy to get caught up in the little things---state testing, annual reports, end-of-year budgets, and so on. But both Jackson and Routman have inspired me to do my best to keep my focus on the larger purpose and goals for my work...that every day is an opportunity to make a difference. Maybe they can do the same for you.