Why Do Words of Affirmation Mean so Much to Me as a Principal?

I read a blog post last week where the blogger said it was a form of therapy for her to write her blog.  This might be a little bit of that for me.

I also know that sometimes we ask questions there are no answers for.  That might be the case for me here.  

I know that flushing things out in the writing process can add clarity to thinking.  Maybe that will come by the time I get to the end of this piece.

Today was Boss’s Day.  Our staff knows me very well.  I found outside my office IMG_6247.jpgdoor a great surprise of vitamin water, a convenience store gift card, and protein bars.  Those are some of my favorite things.  There was also a pile of cards with all types of comments, thoughts, appreciation, gratitude, and words of affirmation.  When I started to read their words and cry as I normally do (must admit I like a good cry), I looked around and noticed something.  I have saved all the notes from this same day last year.  I have cards saved on top of my shelf from as long as 4 years ago spanning a couple of different school districts.  It dawned on me that I read those things, frequently, almost daily.  Come to think of it, I have an email folder titled “happy” where I’ve saved emails that I go back and read occasionally.  They make me smile due to past moments of pride or joy.  Do I have a problem?  Or have I just uncovered something in these moments of reflection?

I started to think about offices or workspaces of others I know.  They don’t always have those things hanging around.  Why do I seem to NEED them when others don’t?  I’ve IMG_6245.jpgnever seen myself as lacking in self-esteem or confidence so I truly don’t think that is the reason.  In other aspects of my life, that outward showing of appreciation doesn’t seem as necessary as it does at school.  To go even further, it didn’t seem as impactful to me in my role as a teacher as it does now as a principal.

It’s an odd reflection to have on Boss’s Day (I prefer Leader’s Day).  I don’t think it makes me better or worse in my role than anyone else.  Maybe just different.  How different?  I’m not sure.  I certainly need to do some more thinking on why those words of affirmation have such a big impact on me.  But I must admit, those words brought a lot of smiles to my face today!

 

 

It’s Just a T-Shirt

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We recently ordered over 800 “Jamestown Pride” shirts for our staff and students.  Big deal, right?  Lots of schools order shirts.  What makes these shirts so special?  Well, let me use these shirts to illustrate a little about what really happens in a school that most people will never see.

Many of us in the public school system have used the phrase “it takes a village to raise a child.”  There are so many things that happen behind the scenes to make a school successful.  Many people work daily to positively impact the lives of students.  They don’t do it for any credit or recognition, but because it’s the type of people they are.  I often think articles of clothing have a story behind them.  Here is the story behind these t-shirts, which I really think, is a story about all the people impacting our school system.

Chapter 1 – Shirts cost money.  In our case, the money comes from a PTA fundraiser.  The beginning of the “Jamestown Pride” shirts actually started during the 2017 walkathon when we raised over $25,000.  Those funds are only successfully raised when there is a partnership and trust between the school, PTA, and parents.  When those pieces exist, like they do here at Jamestown, we can run one big fundraiser a year.  Building that trust takes great PTA volunteers who really develop a shared vision collaboratively with the school.  It also takes a community that holds public education in high regard and parents that show commitment to our school district over and over.

Chapter 2 – Once that money is raised, school starts and the steps towards getting the shirts to kids by the first Friday in October begins.  Our students returning from our student leadership team are in charge of coming up with the design.  Those student leaders collaborate to develop a design that epitomizes who we are as a school.  That process took a few meetings, students doing work outside of school, and sacrificing recess time.  Once the design was ready to be reviewed, members of the PTA, our two administrative assistants, and the administrative team gave the final input and send the artwork to the company.  Our partnership with that local business employee and how he understands the needs of our school is an important step in making the turnaround time happen.

Chapter 3 – The next task is getting sizes for the over 800 students and staff members of Jamestown.  Our two administrative assistants started the first week of school, creating google docs and communicating with parents.  They talk with kids, email and call parents and check-in with teachers.  They take pride in getting every single size right, for every single person.  Teachers jump right in to make sure to help with sizes that we don’t get right away. 

Chapter 4The shirt order is finally turned in and a few weeks later they arrive back at school.  Once they are here, a large sorting party must occur to make sure the 800 shirts are delivered to staff and students between our two schools.  Teachers, paraprofessionals, PTA members, and other staff members volunteer their time to make sure shirts are sorted and delivered.

Chapter 5 – On Friday, those 800 bright yellow shirts will be on full display.  There will be school spirit, colors, and community pride flowing everywhere.  Everyone will notice the shirts, some might even comment on them, but many of us will know all the people in our school system that work together to make these shirts a reality

PTA volunteers, our community, parents, student leaders, local business employees, administrative assistants, teachers, and paraprofessionals.  This example is about a simple t-shirt, nothing life altering.  But in every school building, on every school day, examples like this take place.  The next time you see some of those people, thank them for all they do for kids.  So many people are committed to making a positive impact on the lives of young people, which is just another reason that this is truly the greatest profession in the world.

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What I Learned From 67 Home Visits

Education is a profession built on relationships.  The better we create relationships with our students and families, the better we will be in supporting them.

Moving to a new school district (Hudsonville) put me in a spot where I didn’t know as many names, faces, and stories as I did after 18 years in Cedar Springs.  A couple months ago I decided to try something I’ve never done before to address that.  I sent a welcome video to all the parents of our soon to be 3rd-graders.  In that video, I offered to visit them at their home in August prior to the first day of school.  I shared that my purpose was simply to get to know them, talk with them, and start a relationship prior to open house.

I had done some home visits as a teacher, but never to a large group as a principal.  Our school is an upper elementary that houses grades 3-5, so I started with 3rd-graders, as they would be new to our school.  Later in the summer, I also extended that offer to students of new download.jpgfamilies to our district.  I wish I could say it was a well-organized and tactical approach, but it wasn’t.  I simply sent out a google doc to all 100+ families and they signed up with on a day and time (between 4-9 pm), their child’s name, parent names, and address.  67 people signed up and I made 67 home visits in a 2+ week stretch.

Here’s a little summary of 5 main things I discovered.

1. People were very appreciative that I made the visit

Over and over again I was thanked for taking the time to stop at their house.  Some were shocked, others surprised, but universally appreciative.  I hope this has set the tone that our school is willing to go above and beyond to develop a relationship with their family.  Most 8-11-year-old kids still think their principal is cool!  That was fun to hear.  We have a lot of school of choice students and their parents make long drives to get their kids to our school every day.  That was humbling.    

2. I learned some things about kids I may not have learned in their 3 years at our school.

One of the things I asked each and every student was, “tell me something about yourself that not a lot of people know or is special/unique about you.”  The things they said and items they showed me gave me a perspective into their lives that I might have otherwise not gained.  I’ll never forget the one student who showed me the birthmark of a heart on her hand and told me her mom says, “it’s a kiss from God.”  I will remember the student who showed me an inactive grenade from WWII and how it led to our discussion about his love for history.  I would’ve never guess one student could put her tongue to her nose, a kid fessed up to farting a lot, and we have a couple of future chefs in the group.  I now have specific conversation topics for so many kids as they begin school.

3. Parents shared with me questions about our school and ways we might be able to grow in their eyes.

I asked each parent:

– What is something our school system is doing well that you’d like us to continue?

– What questions, worries, or concerns do you have about this upcoming year?

– What is something you’d appreciate more of, or differently, from our school system?

I’ve asked those questions before in my office, classroom, or hallway.  But when I asked it to them in their living room, I believe I got more honesty and transparency.  That gave me great insight into what is important to some families and not as much to others.

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4. I learned the stories of so many families.

We are getting a lot of 3rd-graders who are the oldest child in their family.  That speaks to the number of youngsters we have all around Jamestown!  We have so many families who have been in their homes for less than 3 years.  That directly reflects in us being one of the largest growing townships in the state of Michigan.  I know about some challenges families have had, many of their celebrations, and more about where their family is in the journey of life at this time.  Knowing those stories will help us to develop trust, collaboration, and bonds with so many of them.

5. ALL parents want their child to succeed in school.

As educators, sometimes we make the mistake and form assumptions about parents based on small pieces of information.  We think because they don’t help with homework, they don’t care or because they don’t show up for conferences, the school carnival, or the walkathon, they don’t want their child to be successful.  That’s simply not true.  I walked into homes of every socioeconomic status you could imagine and every single one of them cared deeply about the success of their child at school.  I admit that they are armed with different tools, skills, and strategies to support their child at school, but they all care.

Yes, I drove around in circles for a couple weeks.  I got lost a few times.  People noticed me and wondered why I kept driving thru their neighborhood.  I was pretty tired when I hit the pillow those nights (having July off doesn’t prep you well for 14 hour days).  But, to be honest, I’m really excited to do this again next year!  I have ideas on how to find my way into homes that didn’t signup this year.  I am going to leave something about our school with each family when I stop.  It’s just one step along the way of trying to live up to the phrase, “If you are going to be unlike any other school, you have to be willing to do things other schools won’t.” 

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If You Are Going to Be Unlike Any Other School, You Have to Be Willing to Do Things Other Schools Won’t

I’m sure you’ve read variations of this quote before. As we head into the 2018-2019 school year, this quote came to me, has stuck in my mind, and isn’t going away.

“If you are going to be unlike any other school, you have to be willing to do things other schools won’t”

It’s not about competition. It’s not about being “better” than another school, as I’m not sure how you measure “better” anyway.

It is about growing. It is about better serving the needs of our students, staff, and families. It most certainly is about changing things in education that keep up with the needs of today’s society. Some of it comes down to what you are willing to sacrifice, what risks will you take, and getting a team of people to do that together. Our students, staff, and families don’t deserve ordinary. They deserve extraordinary. To achieve extraordinary status you have to perform extraordinary acts.

I’m sometimes asked about what our school theme is for the year. People want to know what is the pitch, marketing slogan, brand, that we will work towards.

This year, it’s not necessarily a theme, but more of a mindset. Maybe even a challenge. 

“If you are going to be unlike any other school, you have to be willing to do things other schools won’t”

That’s the challenge. I issue it to you, to me, to educators everywhere. As you plan, look into the school year and think about that statement.  Look at it from a school perspective, as a principal, a teacher, a teaching team, a grade level, a department. What things are you doing that others aren’t?  What would be on YOUR list? Next, what impact is that having on students, families, staff? How can you continue to provide it and even improve it? From there, how can you grow your list? When you look back on the school year, what will be on that list? What was added this year? Your list may contain some things that you have done before combined with some that are completely new.  

I’ve always been enamored with chasing greatness. I’ve read, studied, thought, and perseverated on what it takes to be great in so many walks of life. One of the ways to make progress in that pursuit is to do things that others simply won’t do.  I’m certain of that. As this school year begins, that’s where my focus lies. 

“If you are going to be unlike any other school, you have to be willing to do things other schools won’t”

Two Practices I Encourage You to Change in Your Elementary School

Changing traditional thinking and practices in our school system isn’t always easy.  In my 20 years in elementary education, I’ve stumbled across two practices that I think would help students and staff if they were changed.

For some background, I worked for 10 years in a PreK-1st-grade building, four years in a 2nd-3rd-grade building, four years in a 4th-5th building, and the last two in a building that houses students in grades 3rd-5th. The first of these two things is more suited to upper elementary while the second I believe applies to all elementary schools.

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 1. Traditional practicePlacing a student on a class list and leaving them in that class for the next nine months no matter what. I know that we all have great practices in place when developing class lists. So much time, effort, and thought goes into creating balanced class lists. We code students based on behavior, academics, and other needs. We consider personality matches between student and teacher. Hours and hours of thought and our very best work goes into class lists. Having said that, is it really possible we bat 100% on those predictions? Is it possible there might be a better match for a student than the one we hypothesized in the spring? We certainly know that a new mix of kids can lead to students displaying different behaviors than the previous year. That doesn’t even take into account move in students and how they impact the classroom dynamic.

1. My thinkingBe willing to make changes! Just because you put a student’s name next to a teacher’s name last May shouldn’t mean the student HAS TO stay in that classroom for nine months. We sometimes fear the impact on the student and the stigma of moving classrooms. When doing so, we underestimate the resilience of kids. We underestimate that the fresh start might be exactly what THEY want. One possibility is to transparently share with parents that your school will be looking at class lists in October and again at the holiday break to see if adjustments need to be made. What stops you from having a student spend 1/4 of the year in each of the four classrooms in the grade if change is a positive for them? In my experience, exploring a move only applies to 5-10% of students in any given grade. But if we can improve the school year for a handful of children, isn’t it worth it?  In my experience, when we have been able to get the student, parent, current teacher, and new teacher all on board with the move, we have had really positive results.

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2. Traditional practiceKeeping teachers in the same grade level even if the chemistry within the grade level isn’t great. I get that we aren’t big on change in education. I know the merits of learning a curriculum inside and out and how that positively impacts the instruction delivered. There was a time where teachers could shut their door and teach. That time is over. Collaboration is better and more frequent than at any time in the history of education. Because of that, the chemistry, collaboration, and working relationship within a grade level must be better than it’s ever been.

2. My thinking Be willing to move your staff around to find the right mix. First and foremost, I’m not talking about moving teachers against their wishes. I’m not talking about moving ineffective or minimally effective teachers. I’m talking about teachers who could be even better when on a team that fits their needs. I think the business world has this right.  People are moved to new desks, different teams, various departments, relatively often. We can learn from that. I encourage principals to look at the strengths of their individuals, the mix of their teams, and be willing to make changes that will allow grade levels to be better than they’ve ever been before. 

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10 Ways Principals Need to Support Teachers

I am now 9 years removed from the classroom. I am very aware of that amount of time and the impact it can have on a building principal. Some of the most common errors I believe that building principals make, myself included, stem from times when they are out of touch with what is really happening in the classroom. If a principal is asking a teacher to put up learning targets, essential questions, and success criteria, along with shaking every student’s hand, monitoring the hallways, checking their email, responding to parent phone calls, and having a “hook” ready between each class period or subject, I’d suggest they may be out of touch.

How do I best combat that? I talk to teachers. Lots of teachers. I listen. During the school year, I try to get the pulse of our staff consistently. I work to create a culture where teachers can come to me and say, “Andy, that’s asking too much” or “that’s not realistic.” Not to whine or complain, and not all the time, but when they truly feel like it doesn’t make sense. In the summer, I have friends who are still teachers all across the state. I listen to them. I ask about their celebrations and challenges. That allows me to reflect and make sure I’m in tune with what life is like in the trenches for a teacher in 2018. download.jpg

All of that leads me to this list. As with every blog post I’ve ever written, there are items on this list that I feel like I’m really good at and there are also major growth areas. I’m sure my staff could identify them quickly! There are many aspects to being a principal, but supporting staff in a way that allows them to be their best, ranks very high on the list. If I’m doing these 10 things, I’m well on my way to doing just that.

1. Become an expert at the teacher evaluation processIt’s the #1 complaint I hear from teachers. It must be a collaborative growth model. If it’s to check a box, or based on 2-3 classroom stops a year, or provides summative and not formative feedback, it’s not going to go well. Make sure teachers see it as worthwhile time spent to reflect, collaborate, and improve their practice.

2. Build the why togetherIt’s not about my vision alone. It’s about our vision, a shared vision. Whether it’s a mission statement or not is irrelevant. Make sure your focus is clear and work done directly aligns to it.

3. Handle discipline collaboratively. I will NEVER understand the model of kid does something wrong, the teacher sends them to the office, the principal assigns punishment, life goes on. Speak to the people who know that child best, their parents and the teacher. Don’t be in a huge hurry. Coming up with the best restorative practices and/or clear consequences is what is most important. Using more than one brain when doing so has helped me in many ways.

4. No job is too small or too big for the principal – Be willing to do just about anything when the situation calls for you to do it. There is no real job description for the principal position. You must make the really tough, big decisions.  In addition, you might need to clean puke, wipe tables, give a hug, pick up trash on the playground, whatever it takes. Model for everyone that it’s “we” when it comes to all components that help run the school

5. Give grace / Don’t sweat the small stuff – Your teacher has been early to school for 140 straight days. They are late for understandable circumstances. Don’t write them up. Teachers are people. They make mistakes. Have open and honest conversations about how you can help. 1 teacher responds to an email inappropriately. Don’t fire off an email to the entire staff about the appropriate use of email. Have a conversation with that staff member. Give grace, remember the big picture, build trust, support people.images.jpg

6. Family first. Always – Don’t just say it. Live it. Make sure that your staff WANTS you to take care of the needs of their family first. That allows them to be the best employee possible. Don’t make them feel guilty for leaving on Friday at 4:00. Encourage that healthy balance between school and home which decreases teacher burnout.

7. Be transparent about your weaknesses/mistakes. In addition, share your plan to do something about it – Show that you are human. When you make a mistake, own it. If there is a part of your practice that is not what it needs to be, share that. But also let people know of your plan of action to make that better. 

8. Provide valuable PD – #2 complain behind the teacher evaluation process that I get from teachers is that PD is not impactful on their practice. You aren’t just the instructional leader, you are the lead instructor and facilitator. The learning experience you provide should match what you expect teachers to provide for students. Engagement, relevance, collaboration, thinking, application. That simple.

9. Treat everyone with respect, in every situation, every day – That includes the parent or student who is “F-bombing” you. When you set that example for others in your building, it’s an easy one to follow. Every parent, student, staff member, or guest who walks into your school is one that you can show respect towards.  

10. Be the loudest cheerleader for positives happening in individual classrooms, grade levels, and the entire school – This allows you to “have people’s back.” Remarkable things are happening in each classroom, each day. Scream those from the mountaintop in whatever way you can. George Couros puts nails it when he puts it this way:

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Well, there’s my 10. As I reflect, I think I am on the right track in 5 of them. At least 2 I’m brutally average and 3 I really need to do a better job of. Supporting your staff in whatever way they need it, which allows them to be their best, directly impacts students every day.

Was This School Year a Success? 5 Questions to Ask Yourself As the School Year Ends

The first few weeks after school ends are a great time to reflect upon the past year. For me, I often need a structure, a coaching conversation, or specific questions posed to engage in reflection that truly impacts my work.  Here are a few that have supported my thinking as either a teacher or principal over the past couple years.

1. Can you think of the names of 5 kids that NEEDED you this year and you were there for them?  What did you provide that had such a huge impact?

2. What specific staff members did you play a role in supporting this year and how did you do it?

3. What 3 parts of your practice did you improve upon?

4. What did you do to positively impact the culture of your school?

5. What is something about your craft that you didn’t make the strides that you hoped to? What is your action plan to address that for next year?

Take a moment. Consider those questions. Even write down your answers. They may lead to some specific next steps or you may tuck them away and revisit in August.

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