Each year, my mom ventures to Ireland, to visit with her cousins. While this has been a lifelong dream, she only started the tradition two years ago. This particular year, she returned from her adventure with a gift that sits on my desk: a paperweight.
The cast etched into the paperweight appears to be two people, facing one another. Either between them or behind them (depending on how you see it) appears to be an an obstacle, maybe a road or a river. While there is story unto itself regarding the meaning of the etching, I couldn't help but relate the symbolism to the journeys we take on the road to Learning Leadership.
The title of the image is Journeys & Meetings.
Maybe you look at this and see two different people, facing one another. Or, maybe you see this as one person, looking at a mirror image of himself or herself. Regardless, recent weeks have taken me on new personal-professional pathways. This time has also given me pause, to look back on what I've learned in the last school year.
In the days that followed the end of the 2016-17 school year, the 3rd Annual Edcamp Leadership: Long Island was hosted at St. Joseph's College in Patchogue, New York. And then last week, I was fortunate to be invited to serve as a facilitator at the AMLE Leadership Institute in San Diego, California. But this post is not specifically about either of these two events, or the hundreds of passionate educators with whom I've learned. Rather, it's a first attempt to fuse what those who I met in recent times have helped me discover, about who I am and may become, as a school leader.
One of my very real fears headed into this past school year was that I wouldn't be as familiar with our middle school students as I once had been. I mentioned to my Faculty at our final meeting the year prior that I was concerned I wouldn't know our students, their names, and their stories.
Because I've been on a fortunate journey my entire career, which has now spanned two full decades.
As a teacher for the first half of my career, I'd gotten to know families of students quite well, in ways only a teacher can. Each experience resonated: the successes, the struggles, the failures, and the progress.
As I transitioned out of the classroom and into administration, the students who I taught were the students who I supported as an assistant principal. Then, when the middle school where I work as principal opened, my first students were my first seventh and eighth graders. It was rewarding to see these students (and their families) again, as "our kids" shifted from childhood into adolescence. As a new middle school principal, to enter into a new unfamiliar role, it was uniquely comforting to know that some of the same students who learned to love reading, writing, and math in my classroom, were among the students who would help me learn how to lead as a school principal. In recent years, as members of the last class I taught graduated high school and embarked on the their own life journeys, I've been confronted with some complex emotions. The school I had devoted myself to for two decades left me feeling isolated and alone.
Then this year happened.
This year, I opened myself up to the idea my professional journey could take me places I couldn't anticipate or imagine. Like my mother, following her lifelong dream to travel the countryside and meet her family, I too, could commit to new meetings, and new journeys.
Outside of school, I've fortified my professional priorities to become a highly effective principal, so our school community (and all it's members) can thrive. While there are, no doubt, parameters outlined in rubrics and offered through isolated snapshots of feedback, being "highly effective", I've also come to realize there are many, countless in fact, educators among us who engage in highly effective practices. And maybe best of all, they are also willing to open their doors, their minds, and their hearts, to willingly engage in dialogue that supports and promotes the improvement of other leaders.
Here are three things I've learned so far...
Love what we learn, working with teachers.
The void I feared heading into this year was filled by my effort to connect, personally and professionally, with each of my teachers. What this has taught me is that we should assume that teachers want nothing but the best for our students and our profession. I've also learned that teachers are always willing to help, but that it will look different, teacher-by-teacher, and I need to be aware that I'll have to ask at different times and in different ways. While I'm not there yet will every teacher, every day we are that much closer to understanding one another. We share common priorities: learning, caring, professionalism, collaboration, and a value for clear two-way communication (to name a few). My teachers this year have taught me to do what I've often told them, when they'd ask what I expected: Enter new situations with an open mind. And know that we all enter our school building with the best intentions for our students and for one another.
What have you learned this year,
from approaching new learning with an open mind?
Embrace learning the stories of others.
Simply put, some of my best days this school year have been talking to students one-on-one, but really, REALLY listening to their stories. Thematically, the most meaningful stories I've heard this year have involved adolescents overcoming obstacles. A ten-year-old, who overcame an illness and a prolonged hospital stay. A 13-year-old, who challenged himself to ride his his bike for 40 miles, to challenge himself physically and mentally. A teacher who is navigating family illness and personal loss. And a father who is advocating for his daughter, because even though it may not come across this way, he only wants the very best for his daughter's academic future. These are among the dozens of stories I've heard, and the hundreds of stories that are out there yet to be learned.
This year, I've moved from a stance in which I am primed to react or respond, to one of active listening, in hopes that I can better understand the root of their concern for a child. I've come to appreciate and value the time spent with my staff, especially one-on-one; it's helped me realize, there is so much more to those who come to school and teach kids. Personal stories, shifting family dynamics, struggles and successes, all shape who we are and they impact what we bring to our interactions with students.
What student's, parent's, or staff member's story has helped you understand how others see the world?
Resist isolation. (Remember, we are not alone.)
This year, I've had my share of unexpected family health struggles and a few unanticipated professional challenges. Being willing to embrace wearing my heart on my sleeve, remaining tenacious and true to myself, listening to the stories others have shared, and striving to surround myself with people who inspire me to be better has focused me and continues to drive me. Best of all, as long as we make time to nourish our relationships, the connections we've made will only flourish. They've provided a frame of reference, a standard to which we can apply to new relationships. Tuning into what's important, cross-pollinating professional learning, and honing in on what works will nourish us. It's good to know I'm not alone in thinking about this. To paraphrase a tweet I read recently (about hiking and mountain climbing):
"...remember...the best views are not only at the top. Enjoy the journey."
What is a view you've enjoyed, along your journey?
My Journeys & Meetings from this year continue to have a profound impact, on how I treat others and how I see the world. They've provided context and vision for the next opportunity to learn; to learn about serving others, fueling our profession, and driving myself on the road to Learning Leadership.
What Journeys & Meetings lie ahead in your future?
This post is dedicated to those who are part of my journey: my School Family, my Edcamp Long Island Family, and my AMLE Leadership Institute Family.
And of course...my own Family.