Starting with why

A little over a month ago, I transitioned from the role of assistant principal at Riverside Intermediate School to my new role as principal of Fishers Elementary School. This has been an exciting opportunity for me, but has left me reflecting on what to do as we move forward. My number one goal has been to work on building relationships with the staff and students at Fishers. At the same time however, I’ve been thinking about working on defining a collective definition of beliefs, vision, and mission for Fishers Elementary School as we move forward.

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I have long believed that in order to be able to create a collective definition of our beliefs, vision, and mission, we have to be really clear on our individual beliefs. For that reason, I created what I hoped to be something of an Ignite session defining “My Why” for what I do. I decided to take the slides from that presentation and turn it into a post for the blog. In a recent post (Start With Why) I wrote about how Simon Sinek’s TED Talk influenced some of the steps we were going to take moving forward at Fishers Elementary School.

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A few years ago, Will Richardson (@willrich45) presented at Innovation Exchange. During his presentation, he talked about the importance of having a strong understanding of why we are here. The most successful companies out there are the ones who can clearly define their why. In order to be able to build a collective why, we first have to know our own personal why.

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I am a 4th generation educator, so I guess you could say that teaching is in my blood. My great-grandfather was a teacher, college professor, and administrator during his working career (he also ran a farm, wrote poetry, and published several books). I can still remember visiting the family farm and learning about genetics from the rabbits he raised, or listening to his poetry in the pieces he would share. My grandmother was also a teacher – she taught home-economics, but also worked as a nutrition teacher who would travel to different schools in the area to share her lessons and introduce students to foods they might have never tried before. My mom was also a home economics teacher at the high school level – her lessons didn’t just impact her students, I still credit her as being the reason I love to cook. I think I started to learn to help out in the kitchen when I was in kindergarten!

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When people ask me about my why, the first thing that comes to mind are my own two kids. Lainey and Brody both are curious kids who have things that they are interested in. When I think about what I want for each of them in an education, it reminds me that every kid who walks into a school deserves those same learning opportunities that I’d want to create for my own children.

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As for me, I was your typical elementary kid from the 80s. I loved IU sports, I liked to play with my friends, and school was a place I went to be with those friends. I looked forward to lunch, recess, gym, and dismissal time. Then 5th grade happened. (Check out that awesome 5th grade school picture!) I had Mrs. Gromer as my teacher, and she created a caring learning environment that you wanted to be in every day. We would talk about the most recent episode of The Simpson’s every Monday morning, and she’d use the phrase “blueberry pie” in the sentence of every spelling word. But it was also a time of learning and growth. I think of 5th grade as the year I became a reader, and I’m sure Mrs. Gromer was a part of that! While I can’t tell you everything that I learned that year, I can tell you plenty about how I felt in that classroom! We were a community!

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Mrs. Gromer wasn’t the only one who made me feel special. Much of who I am today comes from teachers like her, such as my fourth-grade teacher Mrs. Rowland (who also attended my Eagle Scout ceremony and my high school graduation), Mrs. Samuelson (who had to put up with me in 1st grade and 6th grade), Mr. Rainey (one of the funniest math teachers I know), and Señora Cease (my high school Spanish teacher). They all created spaces that I felt I wanted to be on a daily basis. Because of their strategies, I wanted to create similar learning environments for my students!

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But not all of my experiences in education were so positive! I’ll always remember my third grade teacher. One day I brought some baseball cards to school (not actually the ones pictured above) to show to friends at recess. During class, a classmate of mine took them out of my desk without my permission. My teacher took them away. I tried to explain to her what happened. I never got my baseball cards back.

One of the things all these experiences tell me – our words and actions have an impact on each student we meet. Our relationships will affect our students longer than we might ever realize!Slide8.jpeg

In 5th grade, we also had an experience to spend the week at Bradford Woods. This was a week of camping with our class, our teachers, and a few chaperones. Our counselors were seniors in high school who led us through all kinds of outdoor learning activities during the week. As a high school senior, I was able to apply to be one of the LOTS (Leadership Opportunity Through Service) Seniors. I was paired with a 5th grade classroom, participated in a variety of activities with them throughout the school year, and then went to camp as one of their counselors. I credit the LOTS Senior experience as the reason I am in education today.

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As a classroom teacher, I wanted to know all of my students, but I would try to make it a point to spend time learning more about the “quietest kid in the class.” Some kids are really easy to get to know, while others make it a bit more challenging. If relationships can have such a huge impact on our students, I think we have the duty to make sure that those relationships are as strong as possible. Our students need to feel that they are seen, heard, and known when they enter our class.

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At the end of my first year of teaching, my principal pulled me aside in the hall. He let me know that he felt I had the potential to be a leader. He encouraged me to look into becoming a school administrator. At the time I thought he was a bit crazy – I felt that I’d been treading water for that whole school year. Over the years of working in education, I’ve had many different leaders. The best ones gave others the chance to lead in their own ways. Eventually I did take the advice of my first principal and sought out my Master’s in Administration and Supervision.

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While I was working on my Master’s Degree, my mentor trusted me to work on special projects including building our school mission and vision. The leadership opportunities he gave me allowed me to grow not only as a teacher, but also in my leadership skills.

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Even in my time as a leader, I still found myself drawn to students who struggled. One of our students from a couple years ago spent a lot of time in my office. In our time together, we were able to build a meaningful relationship and I saw him as a different person than his teachers. The quote above was something he shared with me during one of our marathon sessions of discussion. I know that as a teacher it can be hard to find the time to really get to know all of your students, but especially with the most challenging students, they want to be known, heard, and valued!

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So now back to this quote I started with. One thing I believe we can all agree with Will Richardson on is that we must have a really clear understanding of why we do our work. When we know our why, the decisions about how and what we do become so much easier!

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Now, by no means to I claim to have all the answers, but my why has led me to some conclusions about how and what we do. More than anything, I believe the work we do comes down to our mindset!

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Dreams are important to us all! I know that I have dreams. I’m hopeful that each of you has dreams of your own. I’m sure that as adults, we all know that for our dreams to become a reality, there are steps we have to take and plans we have to make. Encourage your students to chase their dreams, but help them to understand that a dream alone isn’t enough. Students need to know how to plan so that they can make their dreams become a reality.

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Over the past couple of years, I’ve heard a lot of talk around the idea of “following your passions” as a guide for what our students might want to do as they move forward in their life. But here’s what I’m starting to wrap my mind around – following passions may not be the best advice for our students. Right now, my daughter doesn’t seem to have real clear passions, so suggesting that she follow her passions might lead to a blank stare. On the other hand, there are several things that she is curious about. Those are things she could learn more about. Maybe those curiosities will become passions, but maybe they just become a hobby that follows them throughout their lives. Let’s seek ways to encourage our student’s curiosities!

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In George Couros’ book Innovate Inside the Box, he talks about the core of innovative teaching and learning. With Sinek, the golden circle starts in the middle with why, and then we work our way out with the how and what. Just like with the golden circle, innovative teaching starts from the middle and works its way towards the outside. Relationships need to come first, then we build from there to create meaningful learning opportunities.

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According to John Hattie’s work, Collective Teacher Efficacy has the greatest impact on student learning. It’s the belief that we, as a school, as a faculty, as a team, have the ability to positively affect students. As we look around in our building, remember that is your team. We can all be stronger by relying on the knowledge of one another to support our students.

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So, as you start building your own personal definition of why, ask yourself how you want to be remembered – what do you want your legacy to be?

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And added to the question of what you want your own legacy to be, we also want to think about what OUR legacy should be, as a collective.

At Fishers, we have started the hard work of defining our own why so that we can then build a collective understanding of our beliefs, vision, and mission. I can’t wait to share the progress as we work through all of this! It will be a project that will carry on throughout the rest of this school year.

In the comments below, share your thoughts. Why do you do what you do? What is it that drives you to be the person that you are? I’d love to hear what you have to say!

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