The First-Year Principal

It’s August, and that means it Back-To-School time! In my lifetime, I’ve had 36 first days of school when you combine my years as a student and as an educator. That’s a lot of first days. None of them have prepared me for this year.

You see, this is my first time starting the year as a building principal. I moved into the role last December, but often joke that for all intents and purposes I only had one grading period as the principal, and the first half of that was spent with a map of the school in my pocket so that I knew who was the teacher and which grade level classroom I was walking into. Then came March 13, 2020. We shut down for Covid-19, just like so many others. We went home with the hope that we’d be able to return after our scheduled spring break at the beginning of April, but the Governor of Indiana changed those plans for all of us by closing down all schools for the remainder of the school year.

Beginning in mid-May, those of us who worked in the office were able to return to close out the school year, but there were not teachers on-site, and there were no students. The school was a quiet and dark place most days. Really, it didn’t even feel like school.

During June and July, our administrative team would meet each Tuesday to review our plans for the coming year, work towards reopening, and begin planning for a new school year. We had a reopening plan. I spent my first week back working on schedules for lunch, recess, related arts, all while trying to think about how to keep students appropriately physically distanced. We revamped several aspects of our schedule so that not as many students were entering the cafeteria at the same time. We were thinking about how to map out our hallways so that there would be fewer traffic jams of students. We were registering new students. We were responding to parents who wanted all students to wear a mask at all times. We were responding to parents who never wanted their child to wear a mask.

Then came July 17th – we received word that the school year would be starting virtually in our school district. While the work we had been doing all summer wasn’t a complete waste – we need to have plans for when we are able to open the building – we had to make a quick pivot from the mindset of how to safely open a school to how to start the school year in a virtual setting. As a large suburban district (and like so many other districts all over the country) we are doing something that has never been done on quite this scale – opening public schools in an entirely virtual setting, during a global pandemic, and in a moment of awakening for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Did I mention I’m a first-year principal?

Luckily, I work with an amazing team of educators, and they were up to the task!

As a new principal, when I came into the position, I was walking into a building that I quickly realized needed to take some time to revisit the work of a mission and vision. When I brought this up in staff meetings, nobody mentioned to me that the school had a mission and that it was on the wall outside of the office. That was a sign to me that the mission that was on the wall didn’t have a true meaning.

Through some vision setting activities during staff meetings, in working with our PTO, and working with our school leadership team, some clear patterns arose. In conversations around our building, it was clear that our staff valued three key ideas:

  • Relationships
  • Equity
  • Learning

These three words will guide the work we do all year.

On the first teacher day last week, we opened with a staff community circle. We valued the time to rebuild relationships and community after a school year that was cut short. This was relationship work.

Cornelius Minor (1)On Tuesday we spent the morning in our PLC Teams watching a presentation from Cornelius Minor thinking about how we can “Lean into the idea of possibility” for this school year, and discussing in our PLC teams how we can create equitable learning opportunities for our students even when they aren’t present in our school building. This heart work was so powerful and tied to our beliefs in both equity and learning.

On Wednesday, I spent much of the day meeting with each of our grade-level teams to talk with them about how they were feeling. What questions did they have, what support did they need? While we certainly spent some of our time discussing logistics that people were worried about, I also heard about the thoughts and ideas that each team had come up with in order to build relationships early with their students. I heard ideas they had to provide equity in their learning opportunities. But most of all, I heard a staff that couldn’t wait to see their kids. This was more relationship work and continued work on learning.

In starting a virtual learning school year, our district plan provided us with a unique opportunity that no teacher ever truly gets. On the first two official days of school, our teachers spent the day meeting in an individual Zoom call with each one of their students. By lunchtime of the first day, I had already heard from many of our teachers how great it was to start the year this way. Several were asking if this is something that we could do every year. You see, when else in the first two days of school would you be able to have a 15ish minute long conversation with every one of your students? And when would that time be uninterrupted by the other students in the classroom?

As I write this today, we are in the first week of our true virtual learning schedule. I promise all of you that I would much prefer to have each and every student in our school building every day, but since that isn’t possible we are trying to make the most of the situation we’re in. Every student is participating in reading, writing, and math every day. They will also have their related arts every day. Some of the instruction is coming from pre-recorded videos created by our students, and some of the instruction is coming as live individual/small group instruction on Zoom. And while we are doing this in a way that we have never done before and it feels so much harder than anything else we’ve done, I’m excited by the possibilities that this time will afford us.

And even more so, I am so excited to see the teachers of our school embodying our three words: Relationships; Equity; Learning.

My work on antiracism

My work on antiracism

There has been a LOT going on since my last post. I’m venturing into an area that I’ve written on before, but it’s one that I can’t seem to leave behind – the concept of equity.

For the past few years, I have been on a journey of learning about the systems and structures that are in place in our society today, and how those systems have impacted many of the colleagues, friends, students, and the families I serve. That learning began long ago but was really brought home during my participation in the Undoing Racism training that all district administrators from my school district participated in during the summer of 2017. The learning has included multiple meetings and conversations with colleagues in our district as well as outside of it. It has included presentations from outside voices in the equity space (just in the past year that includes Kelly Wickham Hurst, Cornelius Minor, Dr. Paul Gorski, and Sarah-SoonLing, just to name a few). And much of my continued learning has come from books that help me to not only understand more about my own privilege but also about the oppression that I can never fully understand because it isn’t my lived experience. The stories of Amaud Arbery, Christian Cooper, and George Floyd just to name a few recent examples have reminded me yet again of the privilege I have and the oppression that some feel.

In the district that I work, we have defined equity as the concept of giving each individual what is needed to succeed within our global society. With that as a mission, the recent events of our world have left me feeling that I cannot remain silent. I needed to do something.

So today I sat down at my computer and I typed an email to my staff, sharing with them much of what appears above. I wanted them to know that I support them and the work that they do, whatever it may be that they are going through. I know that there are some on my staff that have to deal with the type of oppression that has led to racially motivated violence all over our country. I also know that there are some on my staff who are still working to come to grips with the privilege that we have, and the potential guilt that may be felt as a result of that. And I also know that there may be some who have not yet been able to examine the place of privilege that we live in, and want/need to learn more.

Copy of Copy of Master - Insta_FacebookIn my current position, I recognize my own power and privilege. I want to take advantage of the platform that I have. So as I was thinking about how to help be a part of the solution to tearing down the systems that oppress others, I shared with my staff a list of books that I thought might help them on their own path. I’ll share that list with you here. In order to support my staff in their learning, I also let them know that they were free to pick any of the books below, or any other book on equity that they wanted, and forward me the invoice so that I could buy it for them. I challenge my fellow administrators to seek ways that they may be able to use their budgets to support the continued learning of our collective staff. The education system is one that was built on inequities, and the only way to change it is for those of us inside the system to fight for better systems.

Just like my staff, I encourage you to look over the list of books below and select one or more of them to read so that you may also learn and grow at this time. I believe strongly in the role that white allies will play in making a difference moving forward. Hopefully, these titles will help you identify some potential opportunities for your own learning.

Stamped

Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You. This book is actually considered a Young Adult Nonfiction piece. It breaks down the history of our country and helps us to better understand why we are where we are now. The writing style of this book feels almost conversational.

White Fragility

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism. Many people believe that in order to be a racist, you have to be a bad person. What this book taught me is that good people can have racist ideas and actions. This belief about racist = bad leads to a lack of meaningful dialogue between the races.

Waking up white

Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race. As a white male, I don’t think I recognized the role race played in my life until fairly recently. Debbie Irving, the author of this book had her own “aha” moment. This is a story of one white person’s journey in learning about how race has impacted her own life.

How to be an antiracist

How to be an Antiracist. This is the one book on this list that I have not yet read, so I can’t give a meaningful background of the book, but I am planning to participate in a book study with some of my former colleagues this summer and look forward to learning more from Dr. Kendi.

You should know that with the exception of Waking Up White, the books on this list may be on backorder because of the number of people recommending them. I also encouraged my staff to look in multiple places for these books, starting with https://bookshop.org/ because it supports local and independent book shops, and as an added bonus, currently the prices for these books seem to be better than the prices on Amazon.

Finally, I shared with my staff that we will have a lot of work to do this fall. We will need to build a community back up that has been torn apart by a global pandemic, and one that has been hurt by the racially motivated violence that has been going on for a long time but has become so visible this week. We don’t know how long either of those things will continue to influence our lives or the lives of our students. I encouraged my staff to be thinking about what we can do to make sure that each one of us feels safe and accepted for who we are, as well as what we need to do to create identity-safe spaces for each child who walks through our doors.

I’m curious to hear what titles you might add to this list? What books am I missing? What other ideas do you have about how we might change the system, or prepare for a return to some kind of normalcy in the fall. I know I have much more to learn and would appreciate your thoughts and ideas.

Where do we go from here?

Better Normal

Last week I was on a Zoom call with one of the grade-level teams at my school. We were talking about celebrations and struggles that have come during emergency remote learning. For a long time, we have been aware that our system of education is full of inequities for our learners. During this team meeting though, one of the teachers shared an insight that really blew me away. She was talking about how her classroom Zoom calls have shown to her inequity in a whole new way. Some of her students “never have a quiet background” when they are on a call with their class. Some of her students seem to be managing their learning entirely independently while others have consistent support from their parents. Because of the current context of her emergency remote teaching, we have had the opportunity to come into the homes of our families, even if only in a virtual way. It helps us understand that some of our students may never have a quiet background or the support they need even in normal times. These inequities have caused this teacher to reflect on all that she does in the classroom moving forward. She’s already starting to make changes.

Now, before I start talking about the potential for change that comes from what is happening, I want to first share that I am completely aware of the struggles that those who are “in the trenches” are going through. I’m not the one providing emergency remote learning for a group of students. I am not the one who feels personally responsible for the students in my class meeting the standards that they need for their current grade level. I see the struggles that our teachers are going through because of the conversations I have had with teachers in my school and watching the work that my wife, who teaches first grade, is putting in. I’m trying to meet each person where they are and offer them the support they need by asking them how they’re doing and what they need.

Every chance that I get to talk with my staff, I make sure that I check in on them. I know that we (admin, teachers, families, students) have all been thrown into a difficult situation for which most of us were unprepared. I know that there are teachers dealing with illness in their family. I know that some of our teachers are trying to take care of their own children while teaching their class. I know that there are teachers feeling completely stressed about what is happening in our world. I am constantly asking teachers what our leadership team can do to help them with whatever is happening. At the same time, I encourage our teachers to check in with their students and families every chance they get. There are two questions that I hope are used to drive these conversations: How are you doing? and Do you need anything? For many of our teachers and families, that’s exactly what they need. I know that our families are also may be going through struggles. Some families have members who are ill, others may have lost their jobs, or had hours cut back. Some may simply be going stir crazy because we can’t get out and be with our family and friends as we might normally do. Whatever we can do to support them will only help build bridges between our school and our families.

But I also know that sometimes through moments of struggle, we can find great opportunities. Recently I was on a webinar led by George Couros, Katie Novak, and AJ Juliani. One of them (I honestly can’t recall which one) shared a quote from Donna Volpitta, the founder of The Center for Resilient Leadership:

Resilience is… about “bouncing forward.” Resilience doesn’t mean getting back to normal after facing a difficult situation. It means learning from the process in order to become stronger and better at tackling the next challenge.

Copy of Lobster
Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle

When we think about the learning cycle, an important piece of that cycle is taking time for reflection. It’s something that we often don’t do well, for ourselves, or for our students. How many times have you walked away from a conference feeling like you’ve had so much shoveled into your brain that you don’t even know where to start with putting your learning into action? How often do you try to cram as much as possible into your teaching, not providing students time to reflect, only to find that you have to go back over that learning the next day or next week? Reflection is where growth comes from!

Last Monday I met with the PLC Lead Team from my school. There were several important things for us to talk about in the current situation, but one of the things that I shared with this leadership team was something I wanted them to take back to their PLC. I wanted to make sure that all our people spent some time reflecting on these three questions:

  • What have you learned during emergency remote learning that you want to keep doing when you get back to school?
  • What have you realized that you should stop doing when you get back to normal?
  • What things do you wish you would have done prior to this time of emergency remote learning?

Ultimately, I think it’s important for us to try to find some of the good that has come from our current situation, and then ask ourselves how we make sure that continues to happen when we return. What does school, and more importantly, learning, look like when we return? Where do we go from here? I don’t know that I have all the answers, but we’ve been given the chance to try some new things out, and I hope we look at this as if it were an experiment. We can try things, see if they work, iterate, and test again. Then we identify our successes and try to replicate in other areas.

A few of the things that I’ve gathered in conversations with teachers involve the motivation of students. Several people have noticed that doing things the same way we’d do it at school simply won’t work. There is a reason that TED Talks are only about 15-20 minutes. It has a lot to do with the amount of time a person – even the adults at a TED Conference – can focus on topics. If adults need things broken down into 15-20 minute chunks, we can’t expect our students to sustain for 30-45 minutes of lecture via video. Some of the things that I think learners need right now are choice, ownership, and empowerment:

  • Choice in what it is that they are expected to learn, or choice in how they show what the know.
  • Ownership in the selection of an issue that matters to them.
  • Empowerment to seek out their own geeky interests in the topics you have already been learning about, or that relate to your content or standards.

Another issue that’s come up with this new way of learning comes in the form of feedback to students. Right now we have many students participating in asynchronous learning, submitting work when it’s finished, and then waiting for feedback from one person. I’ve watched my wife spend hours a day responding to student work on Seesaw – she’s teaching first graders. I imagine that this feedback issue gets harder the more complex the content. I’ve always loved the quote “What are you doing for the kids that they could be doing for themselves?” Through the utilization of Flipgrid or discussion board formats in your learning management system, you could make the kids part of that feedback loop. If you use the concept of a Single Point Rubric (more on that in this post from Jennifer Gonzalez of Cult Of Pedagogy), kids can easily give one another feedback on areas for improvement of examples of ways that kids have exceeded the standard. I also feel that self-assessment with a single point rubric can be so valuable because it causes students to reflect on their work and learning. More often than not, they are harder on themselves that even you might be!

While these are shifts that may make emergency remote learning easier, they are shifts that could also support learners when we are able to return to school, whenever that may be.

What are your thoughts? Have you reflected on the three questions above? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

What’s luck got to do with it?

Recently I was listening to an episode of the TED Radio Hour. If you’ve never heard it before, this show takes a theme, then pulls clips from a few existing TED Talks that tie in to that theme. The host, Guy Raz, interviews the speakers about how their talk ties in with the theme. One of the recent episodes was titled Luck, Fortune, and Chance, and one of the segments in particular got me thinking about the work we have been doing around Equity in my school district. You can listen to just the segment of the show here:

https://www.npr.org/player/embed/697809215/699112445

Mark Sutcliffe, a talk show host from Canada who is also an entrepreneur and runner gave a recent TEDx Talk on the role that hard work and luck play in our stories of success. Our society has traditionally put an emphasis on the idea that hard work can lead to success. The reality is though, that this is not true for all.

Hard work is an element of success in life, but it’s not the essential element… The secret sauce is luck.

Sutcliffe shares that he won the genetic lottery the day he was born. Because of the makeup of his family, their experiences, education level, socio-economic status, and so much more, Mark had an excellent starting point on the day he was born. Not everyone has those same chances. As a runner, Mark makes the analogy between our starting point in life, and the starting point in a marathon.

If you’ve ever run an organized marathon, half-marathon, or possibly even 5k, you’ve started the race with a timing chip attached to you in some way. When the starter at the front of the race says go, the timer starts for everyone that is right at the start line. But if you’re anything like me, you probably aren’t at the front of the pack. In the last half marathon I ran, it was almost 20 minutes between the time the starter said go and the time I crossed the official start line. Thanks to the help of that timing chip, my time didn’t officially start until I crossed that start line.

Sutcliffe shares that life isn’t quite like that. There is no computer chip that levels the playing field. As he points out, if you’re born as a visible minority, a member of a lower socio-economic class, with a physical disability, with a mental illness, or of a different sex, then you start your life further back. And, as Sutcliffe goes on to point out, “You carry that disadvantage your whole life.”

I was raised as the child of a middle class, college educated, white family. I remember conversations about the key to being successful was through my effort. I remember sitting at the kitchen table and being told that if I worked hard in life, I would be more likely to be successful. And when I think about the life that I have led, I know that I have worked hard to get to where I am. But as I come to grips with what I am learning in my work with equity, I’m beginning to realize that not every one of my students starts at the same point. Merit does not drive all success in life, and what Sutcliffe is trying to get at is that when you start your life in one of those lucky situations, chances are pretty good that we will continue to be lucky throughout our life.

In the actual TED Talk the Sutcliffe gave (linked at the end of this post), he shares his plan to run his next marathon starting 3 hours after the official start time. His reason: he wants to remember that anyone who starts life at the back of the pack is likely to get a lot less help and support. He knows that he will most likely be running alone when he runs this marathon.

Some of our students are the ones who are starting the race a little farther back. As the people in their life who make it our goal to help them learn and grow, we have to keep remembering that some of our students may have started their life a little further back in the pack. As a result of that starting point, they may need a little more support in order to be successful.

And some of you may be thinking of someone who likely started further back in the pack and led a truly successful life. Sutcliffe shares that “When the winner comes from the back, it’s an exception, not a rule.” Hard work simply doesn’t do it all.

This past weekend, as the ideas for this post were bouncing around in my mind, the following tweet showed up in my timeline:

Before my work with equity, I probably would have said something very similar. I would have believed that everyone started on an equal playing field. The reality is though, and I think Sutcliffe’s talk does an excellent job of putting it into words, is that not all of us start at the same point. As one of the “lucky ones” who got to start near the front of the pack, I now make it a point to take Sutcliffe’s suggestion of what to do with our luck: be humble; kind; and generous. I can help those who may have started a little further back than me. I do it because it’s fair, it’s smart (there’s a cost of others not having the same opportunities that I do), and it makes me happy.

What are your thoughts? As you reflect on your starting point, where were you in relation to the start line? Do you believe that you have led a lucky life, or is your position in life based solely on hard work and effort? What steps to you take to help level the playing field? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

If you’d like to listen to the entire episode of TED Radio Hour that the idea of this post came from, you can find it here:

https://www.npr.org/programs/ted-radio-hour/697805275/luck-fortune-and-chance

And if you’d like to see Mark’s full TED Talk, check it out here: