Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Harvard Day 3: Great Leaps and Safe Landings

Goal setting. I knew we were going to do some of that, and thought to myself, “I’m good with goal setting. I’m task oriented. Set a goal. Get it done. It’s not that hard.”

I think I realized how wrong I was on the first slide of the presentation.

We learned about what Deborah Helsing calls the “New Years Resolution Model of Change” – we say we’re going to do something like eat better or exercise, and we do it for a few weeks, and then we do it less, and then by June we can’t even remember what the goal was in the first place.

I considered goals I’ve set for myself in the last year and how determined I was to achieve them, and then I sheepishly waited for lightning to strike. I realized that something that seems unbearably important to me on one day seems like too much trouble and thus “not a big deal” on another day. The diet analogy works here…just one cookie won’t hurt…I’ll make up the calories by eating well tomorrow…before you know it you’re having ice cream for dinner again. Not that I’ve ever done that ;)

The same can be said for professional goals.

“I’m going to get into classrooms every day” until I’m staring at 100 unread emails.
“I’m going to write positive notes to 5 teachers  every  week” until it’s Friday and I haven’t written any and I’m tired and want to go home.
“I’m going to check on Kid So-and-So first thing every morning” until the buses are late for the field trip and the ice maker is leaking and a parent is on the phone waiting for me.

Helsing had us start with 3-4 goals we have. Then we had to pick one that was very meaningful to us. We wrote the goal in the context of ourselves so that barriers outside of ourselves would not get the way. She gave us the sentence stem “I am committed to getting better at…”

The process she took us through had several steps, and after each we shared with a partner. Perhaps my favorite part of the exercise was the way she stopped and gave several examples before she asked us to do anything. The examples made all the difference in my understanding of the work. I need to remember that when I’m working through professional development planning.

I don’t want to detail every part of her process because I feel like I may not do it justice and I don’t want to misrepresent her work. I will share personally that my exercise shook out like this:
I commit to observing the often small expectations on my campus. For example, we require all teachers to have a safe place and a friends and family board, but I’ve never checked to see that it’s happening. We’re going to work in August to establish some agreed upon consistency in math and language arts. I need to look for those things in classrooms or we’re wasting our time making the list in the first place.

I digressed – I was going to keep this short!

I learned about myself that the reason I don’t do a good job of looking for little things is that I’m afraid teachers will think I don’t trust them. I’ve worked hard to establish trust, and I’m afraid I will erode that if I start doing what can be perceived as “nit picking” little things. So the way I achieve my goal isn’t even about deciding to do it, but it’s rather about overcoming this worry that I will break trust and working to maintain trust even when I’m looking for small, but significant, things.

There’s lots more. We talked about our behaviors and assumptions and how to test them. I was really challenged to think about improving my practice by thinking about what barriers I’m putting in my own way. The challenge included pushing ourselves first in a way that is safe in order to enact greater change and overcome more barriers.  So powerful!

To close, Helsing wished us “great leaps and safe landings.”

I like that. 

Monday, June 27, 2016

Harvard Day 1: Part 2: Inclusion

or, as an alternate title, "There is no autistic McDonalds."

Our first speaker in the morning was Dr. William Henderson. He was incredible. All of the world's people should hear his message.

My paraphrased and hopefully accurate version of his story is this: He was a principal of a school. In his 30s he learned he was going blind. After he received the news, some people encouraged him to move on from principal-ing because some thought it would be impossible to continue without his vision. Not only did he prove them wrong, but he went on to lead one of the most inclusive schools in the country. After his retirement, they named it after him. So he's like, really awesome.

He explained that he sees his challenges just like everyone else's challenges. One thing every person has in common is that we've all been doubted because of something we can't control - age, gender, disability, etc. He inspired me to remember that when people doubt me, I have grit and determination on my side. Specifically, he said to "exude determination and grit." We were encouraged to leverage faith, family, friends, and fellowship when our work is hard and take baby steps to get a little better every day.

His description of how his reading evolved was the most fascinating to me. He described having to enlarge print so drastically that he could only keep a few words at a time on a screen, and connected that to students who spend so much mental effort decoding that meaning is lost. I thought of a lot of kids.

As educators, we don't have to know all of the answers but we have to find multiple ways to learn. We were encouraged to connect with others' struggle by recognizing the ways we struggle.

My oft mantra of "do hard things" fit right into his talk!

Dr. Henderson pointed out some realities that we must confront as school leaders. That "normalcy" is a myth. That 60% of kids in Boston juvenile detention have learning disabilities, and I imagine this is mimicked around the country; this is an educational failure, in my opinion.  That there is no autistic McDonalds; we have to prepare all students for life outside of school, and excluding them from our general education environments simply doesn't do that.

My big takeaways:
1) Some of us take better care of our cell phones than our bodies. To be an effective leader we must practice self-care.
2) If we lower our expectations for students with disabilities we are insulting them and enabling their failure. Instead we must accommodate and maintain a high standard. This reminded me of Liz Murray and Breaking Night.
3) There are multiple ways of being successful and the standard or "normal" way doesn't work for everyone.
4) There are no achievement gaps. Only opportunity gaps.
5) It's true that inclusion won't work for everyone, but it will work for most. Research shows that exclusion to specialized classes simply doesn't work. If we don't create inclusive classrooms we are deliberately going against the research.
6) Inclusion has to be everyone's job.

This post feels a bit all over the place, but I learned so many things in the short time of Dr. Henderson's talk. I know I said it already, but he is inspiring. I am so thankful that I got to learn from him!

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Harvard Day 1, Part 1: "Marginalized"

Our day began with some conversation about people who are marginalized. There was a beautiful tribute to those people who were lost in the domestic terror event in Orlando a couple of weeks ago, and it included a reflection from Maya Angelou that was amazing. I’ll add more on that later.

I made a note to look up what it means to marginalize. It’s one of those words we hear so frequently that I think its meaning gets distorted or evolves into something else. To marginalize someone is “to treat someone as insignificant or peripheral.” Whoa. That kind of got to me.

We were asked to be vulnerable and share if there was ever a time when we felt marginalized. Replace marginalized with “insignificant or peripheral” and I think we’ve all been there. I shared about first moving to College Station. It’s an intellectual community, and I felt like I was the cute little girl from the small town with the too thick accent and people didn’t take me seriously. Some of that was likely my own angst and perception, but certainly not all. I remember what that has felt like at different times in my life, and I certainly didn’t like it. To be treated as insignificant was painful for me, and my experiences are nothing like so many others who experience it daily. That's good perspective. 

Then we were tasked with asking who on our campus feels marginalized. It immediately occurred to me that every teacher who feels like their opinion doesn’t matter, who feels like their job is to listen to other people solve problems and keep quiet, has felt marginalized at my school and at my previous schools. I feel guilty about that. My job as their leader is to make sure it’s abundantly clear that every person matters.  Moreover, that they matter in the context of our work and our students.  

Then I thought of our students. And our parents. I want them all to feel significant and fully part of our school community. No one should ever feel marginalized in my school family. I can commit to that.

Back to the Maya Angelou video we saw. I’m linking it at the bottom. She says such beautiful things about tragedy but also about life. I sat there – Stormy Greeson Hickman from Rice, Texas, in a classroom at Harvard, y’all – and her words beautifully articulated how I feel about this experience today. She said, “One of the things I do [when I do anything of value], I take with me every person who has ever been kind to me.”

Everyone who has ever been kind to me is here and part of this wonderful experience. I can only imagine where I can go with others to whom I am kind, even after I’m gone from this earth. And so I will be kind, no matter a person's race, culture, sexual orientation, religion. My first lesson at Harvard is the same one I learned at home from my parents and since I was a child. That’s powerful stuff. 

Sunday, June 5, 2016

A Good Year

I haven't blogged since November 25, 2015. That's a long time. There are a few reasons this is so:
1) I think people might get tired of hearing about me running. I run now. It's not that special. It's still hard and rewarding and stress-relieving, but not special.
2) My kids are now old enough to not enjoy me posting every hilarious detail of their lives on my blog.
3) My job involves other people's kids, and they also wouldn't appreciate me posting every little thing that happens during my day on a blog. Also, FERPA.
4) I opened a school in the last year.

So let's visit in a little more depth about #4 because it's ridiculous. I didn't do anything.

That's not totally true because I did lots of stuff, but I didn't decide to open up a school and then single-handedly educate 500ish kids for a school year. That was the work of so many people, and I had mostly a supporting role. It makes me a little uncomfortable when it comes up that I opened a school because it feels like I'm taking way more credit than is due. Let me clear that up right now. I am well aware that if it were left to only me nothing would have happened this year like it did.

Now that it's summer, many people have asked, "How did your first year go?" I'm a bit mystified when I try to answer. It seems so trite to say, "Good. It was a good year." It was a good year. Things went well. It felt natural and right and good. Those are the best words I can come up with. Sort of undramatic, I know. It felt like home, and while that lacks drama it holds so much more.

I'll give a sidebar that our STAAR scores haven't come in yet, so if they stink I will feel completely responsible and be a little sick about it, but it will still have been a good year. I preach all the time that those numbers don't define us and they don't; I still want them to be great. 

Back to the narrative...

I decided that now is a good time to reflect on/document some things from my first year as a principal (and maybe laugh at myself a little!). Here goes:

Being a principal without a school and students is boring. For real. The joy and fulfillment I got when there were finally other people around is almost inexplicable. I know I have some real awkward, introverted tendencies, but I also now know without a doubt that I need people.

I can happily and easily speak in front of groups of people. If I ever thought I had stage fright I can be sure now that I just don't. However, I am incredibly self-conscious about other's perception of me. Specifically, any time parents are at school for something, they aren't there to see me. They want to see their kids sing and hear teachers talk about what happens in the school day. I am not ever the star of the show, and that is exactly how it should be and how I want it to be. My job is to be the introducer, the welcomer, the explainer and get out of the way. While stage fright isn't an issue, any time I am in front of a crowd I hear in the back of  my head "Hurry up and get out of the way! Never give the impression that you think this is about you!" This leads me to sometimes not be the best introducer, welcomer, and explainer. I'm working on it!

To that end, principals often have to do things that call attention to themselves. I am always game for some fun, but I am not terribly comfortable with this. For example, when we met our fund raising goal for PTO I had to kiss a snake. It made me a little sick. Not because of the snake (which was gross and icky and freaked me out), but because I had this irrational fear that I was teaching a bad lesson and that children all over the neighborhood would now go out and attempt to kiss random snakes all because I taught them it was an okay thing to do. I went out of my way to make it clear that this particular snake was a teacher's pet and that I had checked carefully to make sure it was a safe snake (I seriously said the words "safe snake" in front of the whole school) and that you should never, ever go near an animal you don't know unless you are with a responsible adult.

Have I ever mentioned that I can be obsessed about the weirdest things?

I also had to lip sync a One Direction song. When I announced to the students that I would do this if we met our goal, I sort of forgot my audience. In case you were wondering, kindergarteners don't know what lip syncing is, and they immediately thought One Direction was coming to our school. I could see it on their faces.

Uh Oh.

So I over-explained and talked about what lip syncing is and how One Direction would not be coming to school and the whole thing was quite a bust. It was like sad music played in the middle of a pep rally or something. So sad. "One Direction won't be here, but you'll have ME pretending to be them!  Won't that be awesome and fun?" Um...not really, lady. Not even close.

Can I call that a life lesson? It was for me!

I put off the whole lip syncing thing because (if I'm being totally honest) I was a little embarrassed every time I thought about it. But I'm a girl of my word, so at the end of the fourth grade talent show my office teammates and I performed our song. There were some technical difficulties with the music, and all in all it was a mostly hilarious, light-hearted thing. It was fun, and I was so glad it was done!

One day in the fall semester, we arrived at school to find it was largely without electricity. We called our operations folks, they came out and did some work, and we got a bit more power. By about ten a.m., we learned that a transformer had blown and would need to be replaced, and in the meantime we would have only 2/3 power. Some rooms didn't have lights, the air conditioning didn't work, the kitchen couldn't cook lunch...it was kind of a hot mess. After some creativity, our district electricians got the kitchen working. I had to work with the central office people to decide what to do, and I pushed to keep the kids at school. The powers-that-be agreed, and I spent the rest of the day telling everyone what an adventure we were having!  Our whole staff rallied, and kids learned all day. After school the transformer was successfully replaced. It was a win, and a true bonding experience for us all!

On the next to last day of school, which also happened to be class party day, there were tornadoes in the area right at dismissal time. That's not great.

We ducked and covered twice, the second time for about 40 minutes. I did an automated phone call to parents telling them that their kids were safe but that we were going to keep them right where they were until the storm passed. Storms don't bother me, and I'm usually the calm one when there are emergencies, so (weirdly) the day didn't really even stress me out. Once again, everyone rallied together. We had all hands on deck when we finally did dismiss in the pouring rain, and we were able to laugh at the terrible timing. The parents were especially great, trusting us to keep their kids safe and being patient. It ended up being another adventure.

If you know me at all, you know I cry at the drop of a hat. Surprisingly, I did not cry in front of the whole school this year. I didn't cry at sing-a-longs or even kindergarten graduation. This is HUGE for me. Unfortunately, it all came crashing down on the last day of school at the fourth grade program. I held it together until the very end when I recognized them as the first fourth grade class of Spring Creek Elementary.

Dude. I lost it. I tried so hard to stay composed, but my voice turned into a throaty, half weeping mess. I told them I had thought of each of them before they ever stepped foot on our campus. That they were a gift to their teachers, to me, and to each other. To go from our school and continue being a gift to those they meet. It is exactly how I feel about them, and I couldn't get through it without melting into a puddle. I suppose there are worse things.

Another item of note is the power of a group email or text with the other elementary principals. I asked LOTS of questions, and someone was always willing to give me a clear, straight answer. I never felt like my questions were silly or being judged. I was so blessed to have a group of people who were helpful and kind. I often tell staff that we're better together than by ourselves, and I was certainly better because of my colleagues.

I also learned to cut myself some slack.  I learned it's okay to know the answer, to know what my gut says, but to still need to talk it out. I am thankful for mentors who I could call any time to say, "I know what the right thing is, but I need someone else to tell me I'm not wrong." I learned that even if people really want a decision right now, sometimes the best thing to do is sleep on it, pray about it, and not rush. I think I'm much more comfortable with that now than I was at the beginning of the year.

And so our first year is done. I hope it's not wrong to say it's anti-climactic. We're all home, doing what we love, giving our best to kids. As great as this year was, I know that next year will be even better. Looking forward to year two is no less exciting than looking back at year one. I don't think I expected that. I'm ready for summer and some time off, but I am still mystified that they really pay me to do this job.

That's a good year.