Monday, July 29, 2013

The Great Balancing Act

cc flickr photo by azjd14

Today was the beginning of the second week of our new school year (yes, I know we start early).  As a school, we are still riding the highs of the "honeymoon period" -- when student behavior is outstanding, teacher morale is high, and stress is low.  I feel like our staff (myself included) is optimistic about the year to come.  Like many schools, we face a lot of challenges, many beyond our control.  We have a high number of students that live in poverty.  Our state isn't exactly generous with their funding of public education.  And, love 'em or leave 'em, the Common Core standards are breathing down the back of our necks.

Its difficult to go too far within education circles without hearing the mantra of providing students with rigorous curriculum and high expectations.  I don't have a problem with the use of these terms, per se, but in many cases (especially in the political arena) that is where the conversation ends.  As if rigor and expectations are enough for meaningful improvement.  Raise the bar, and students (or staff, or schools) will rise to the occasion.  As educators, we know that the reality is that we have to balance high expectations with a high level of support.  This is true at the micro, and macro levels -- from the individual student, to teachers, to departments, to schools, and even districts.  Without adequate support and resources, all of the high expectations in the world aren't enough to overcome the formidable challenges of meeting the diverse needs of our students.

This principal gig has certainly been a learning experience for me, if nothing else.  To be honest, In my first two years, I'm not sure that my expectations for myself, my students, or my staff, have been as high as they should have been.  Here's a secret.  I don't like conflict.  I don't like people to be upset with me.  And, I like to feel like I am viewed as thoughtful, and fair.  Sometimes this translates to difficulty saying no, delegating projects, distributing leadership, or providing critical feedback.  As Todd Whitaker might say, I am carrying around a lot of monkeys -- many of my own making (see Shifting the Monkey).

Whenever, I reflect on this personal kryptonite, I think of a 2010 post, by David Truss, entitled Going to the Hard Places (be sure to follow David on Twitter and add his blog to your feed).   In his post, David recounts the advice of his principal with regard to giving critical feedback:
"If you aren't willing to go to the hard places, then you aren't helping your staff, or your school."
As I embark on another year as a school leader, I am hopeful I can take steps to "go to the hard places" more often, while at the same time providing the support necessary to balance high expectations.  I ask my staff to do the same with our students.  They should demand the same from me -- and I should expect nothing less of myself.  In a way, it may be a significant step toward professional salvation.  Otherwise, those monkeys on my back might eat me alive.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Staying Connected with Digg Reader

Like many, I was heavily reliant on Google Reader to manage my blog subscriptions and keep up with my professional learning network.  As an avid twitter user, I have developed connections with many fellow educators, and I do my best to read about the work of others for inspiration, to challenge my own thinking, and to develop friendships.  Naturally, I was disappointed when Google announced it was shutting down its popular RSS feed reader, and I began looking for a replacement.

After trying numerous potential replacements, I have settled on a rather obscure alternative (and late arrival to the scene) - Digg Reader.  Perhaps my favorite thing about Google Reader was it's simplicity -- something that Digg Reader does an excellent job replicating.  If you are looking for a reader that is rich in features, this may not be your top choice, but Digg Reader has plenty of functionality to effectively manage a large number of feed subscriptions.

Web App

As you can see, the web interface is extremely minimalistic -- something that I appreciate (keeps me from getting distracted by clutter).  Users are able to organize feeds into folders, save them to read at a later date, or share them to Twitter or Facebook.

iOS Application

Digg Reader also has an iOS application that functions almost identically to the web application, allowing users to keep up with their feed while on the go.  Since Digg Reader is relatively new, I am hopeful that the Digg team will continue to add features, and options to integrate with other applications (like Evernote)--while maintaining its simplicity.  But for now, I am sold.  Digg Reader is definitely a viable replacement for Google Reader.

Learning never exhausts the mind.  ~ Leonardo Da Vinci

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Go Fish: The Challenge of Change

cc Flickr photo by azjd14

During a recent summer trip to my childhood home in central Kansas, we took my daughter, and her cousins, fishing at a family friend's farm pond.  Using hot dogs as bait, the kids reeled in large catfish, one after the other (see the video here), about as fast as my brother and I could bait their hooks.  At the end of the trip (and one package of hot dogs), my daughter declared her love of fishing -- proclaiming herself an expert.  I tried to explain that it wasn't always like that, recalling countless hours of frustration when the fish weren't biting, but she wasn't having it.

Sometimes we (and when I see "we" I am certainly including myself) approach change, and improvement, in organizations with expectations similar to my daughter's attitude toward fishing.  Hopeful that it will be smooth, happen quickly, and perhaps unaware of the required time, energy, and resources necessary to be successful.  Significant change requires significant investments.

Successfully navigating the change process has many parallels to REAL fishing:    

  • Know what you are doing - it never hurts to know a thing, or two, about what you want to change, or improve.  Be willing to learn.
  • Patience - most organizational change requires effective planning/preparation, time, and concerted effort.  It doesn't happen over night.  
  • Failure - in many cases, new ideas don't go right the first (or second, or third...) time.  Take it in stride.
  • Persistence - successful change efforts require participants to be willing to continue to try something different until they find something that works.  Keep casting.
  • Accept small victories - not every success is a game changer.  Celebrate incremental progress in route to more significant gains.  
Regardless of my daughters feelings, fishing isn't always as easy as it appears.  Neither is change.

To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.  ~ Winston Churchill  

Monday, July 22, 2013

Out of the Shadows

cc flickr photo by azjd14

After a brief summer break, our students returned to school today.   Never underestimate the opportunity for a fresh start -- it was a good day.  I was only being slightly facetious when I joked with several staff members that I'm not sure I ever feel more effective as a principal than during the first week of school.  I spent the vast majority of my day, out of my office, helping kids.  Among other things, I answered questions, interpreted schedules, served as a tour guide, listened to stories about summer, explained the lunch special, reassured, and encouraged.  It felt good to really FOCUS on kids.

As I watched our students stream through the front gates at the beginning of the day, I couldn't help but marvel at the diversity of the group -- and be a bit overwhelmed at the prospect of addressing the individual needs of all of these kiddos.  Each one arrives in junior high with their own story, their own history -- a shadow, if you will.  Some are well-prepared, supported, and confident.  They are motivated, and eager to learn.  Their shadows are exactly where they should be -- behind them.  For others, the shadows loom large, eclipsing motivation, and extinguishing hope.  For these students, school must seem a bit like the movie Groundhog Day -- a new year without the promise of change.

How do we help these students come out of the shadows?  It starts with caring adults focusing on building connections.  Relationships are a BIG deal, and we have to treat them as such.  Teachers interested in breaking students out of a negative school cycle will:

  • Get to know their kids -- developing a keen awareness of their past (and present) circumstances, without letting it cloud judgement about the student's future.
  • Be diligent about searching for successes.  They will find a reason to celebrate with every child.
  • Consider the strategies, tools, and resources that can be used to learn about the lives of students, and their personal interests.
  • Reflect on how they will reach out to student's who haven't experienced success in a long time.
  • Ensure that every student (within the first week--if not day--of school) walks away with a personal, and positive, experience.
The late Dr. Rita Pierson had it exactly right when she spoke about the challenges, and joys, of working with kids "in the shadows."  Every child does need a champion.  

Relationships won't change everything, but make no mistake about the fact that little will change without positive relationships.  What else can we do to bring students out of the shadows?

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Do Over: 5 Things I'll Do Differently

cc flickr photo by azjd14

I am writing this blog post on the eve of our first day of the 2013-14 school year.  Students return tomorrow.  It is the first post I have written since March 19, 2013 (see When Teaching Gets Tough -- a title that might indicate the reason for the unplanned writing hiatus).  Last year was a challenge.  It was my second year as the principal at Willis Junior High School, and it was a rude awakening to the realities, and demands, of the principalship.  I joked that perhaps, as a first year principal, I was naive to expectations -- moving forward, oblivious to everything I was supposed to be doing.  All of those expectations seemed to catch up with me in my second year.

I recently read a post by David Truss (@datruss), entitled Leadership and Capacity.  His comments really resonated with me and the way I was feeling at the end of the last school year, particularly this quote:
I'm not sure if it is just my personal capacity, or if it is the role of an administrator in this day and age, but I'm really struggling with how much of my job is not about educational leadership, and how much of it is more managerial and even secretarial in nature.
David talks about some advice he was given, suggesting that when things get really busy, it's important to be sure that what falls off "the back of our truck" are "things," and "not people."  It reminded me of the quote by Goethe that has been the tag line for my e-mail for the past year:
Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things that matter least. 
I did not do a good job living that quote last year -- seemingly spending an inordinate amount of time chasing after minutiae and treading like crazy to keep my head above water.  As David suggested happened to him, things fell by the wayside, include my social interactions, reflection, and writing.

In his book, God Can't Sleep, author Palmer Chinchen suggests that living a life of busyness is the equivalent of living life in a fog.  He points out that there is no correlation between hurry and productivity, and that all of us could benefit from practice at slowing down.

So, I have decided that I would like a mulligan -- a do over -- and this school year, here are five things that I will do different (drawn from Palmer's suggestions).

  1. Take breaks.  Whether walking through classrooms, eating a healthy lunch, or just taking five minutes to breath deeply, and relax -- I will focus on taking some breaks throughout the day.
  2. Minimize multitasking.  This is a tough one, since in the educational setting things come at you so quickly, but in most cases, multitasking leads to frustration and less productivity.  Focus is better.
  3. Turn off my phone.  I love technology, but laptops, tablets, and smart phones make it nearly impossible to "get away" from my job.  This school year, I am going to set limits, and shut down -- frequent electronic holidays.
  4. Do less.  I am a list addict.  I have tried every task app and program imaginable, searching for that perfect system that will help me manage all I have to do.  The bottom line is that regardless of what I use, I am always trying to do too much.  This year, I am going to narrow my daily lists, and focus on doing things well.     
  5. Fill the day with what is important.  Too often, I find myself at the end of the day with regrets about what I have accomplished.  No more.  In the school setting, this means maximizing my time with students and staff -- the other stuff can wait.
One of the great things about education is the opportunity to begin anew -- each year is a chance for a "do over."  It all begins tomorrow morning.  I'll keep you posted!

Many of you have likely noticed that this is not my normal blog -- Molehills out of Mountains.  In what is probably an unorthodox (and ill advised) move, I have decided to begin anew -- just because it feels like the right thing to do.  I will be posting primarily about education, but also about other things that catch my attention, and inspire me.  So I begin with an audience of zero, and see where the journey takes me.