Saturday, December 29, 2018

Pause: My #OneWord2019

“Dad, look how beautiful the sunrise is…”

“Look up, Dad! Look at the stars!”

These are the words of our daughter, that reverberate in my thoughts at the start and end of each day. Celebrating her 18th birthday at the end of
next month reminds me that time moves fast - too fast. In the last several
months, I’ve heard these words most often while in the car - the passenger
seat - as my little girl learned to drive. This of course, is one aspect of
becoming an independent and self-sufficient young adult. (Come to think
of it, she seems to say these words about sunrises and stars most often
before or after she was responsible for safely navigating the roads while
she controls a two-ton moving vehicle.)

Photo courtesy of P.S. Life Happens.

Don’t sweat the small stuff.

Laugh with others...and at yourself.

Carpe diem.

As a middle school principal for the last 9 years, I’ve learned many things,
about myself and my ability to impact outcomes. As part of this, I’ve l
earned the value of time and my ability to use it wisely.

Time is devoted towards “big picture” (leadership) priorities. For me,
this includes holding myself responsible to ensure the emotional safety
and academic opportunity of hundreds adolescents and their nearly
100 caretakers, each day. This, of course, doesn’t count the hours
spent and invested dreaming, worrying, hoping, and planning
towards their success beyond my time with them.

And there are “small picture” (management) priorities. These are the
daily situational decisions school leaders make on a sometimes
minute-by-minute basis.

Undoubtedly, each is important, and intertwined in the daily work
of educators.

On a “good” day, my 41 minutes, 9 periods a day, are managed with precision.
And on a more challenging day, I find myself managing my day...41 seconds at
a time. Either way, the way we choose to prioritize our time is where leadership
and management matter.

This is an important aspect of the magic of being a middle school
principal. While I’ve certainly got more grey hair on my head
than I did in 2010, I also have the honor of knowing, cherishing,
and being part of the stories of thousands of 10 to 14 year-olds,
and the adults who care for them and about them each and every
day.  

When I started as Principal, my daughter was 9 years old.

In 2019, she leaves for her freshman year of college.

Time sure does fly.

Photo courtesy of P.S. Life Happens.

Last Spring, I read the article in Inc. magazine entitled,
based on a 2011 tweet from Randi Zuckerberg that to be successful,
that one must streamline priorities, narrowing them to no more than
three.

Reading this article led me to draw two conclusions:

1. To be truly successful, at least according to the article, I can’t possibly
“have it all”. (Or...can I?)

2. It was time to re-evaluate my idea of work-life balance/
integration/life-fit. Reflecting on 2018, I was overworking,
under-sleeping, distracted, and not present for the most important
people in my life - my family and my friends. It was time for me to
own this outcome. To do so, it was time to make some changes.  


Following what felt like a busier-than-usual school year, I saw
through a few prior professional commitments, and determined that
summer would be a reset for me. While I wasn’t necessarily prepared
to “Pick 3”, if I had to choose, I was starting simple. My overall goal was
not to balance Zuckerberg’s five priorities. It was to begin to live a
less superficial, more purpose-driven life. I was ready to see the
sunrises every morning...and the stars, every night.

In the last six months, I commit (and, in some cases, recommit) to
honoring several personal priorities.

1. Read and Write. Every day.
2. Sweat. Every day.
3. Breathe. Every day.
4. Connect. Every day.
5. Pause. Every day.  

Fortunately, none of these commitments are completely unfamiliar to
me. They ebb and flow at different phases of my life. What I have
noticed, however, is that as soon as I become “too busy”, they’re the first
things to go, replaced by more pressing...more “important” priorities.

One of the books I read in the Summer of 2018 was
the author writes the following about how we use (and can use) an
immutable commodity that we all share: time.

"True time management is about filling our lives with things that
deserve to be there."

This idea resonated deeply with me, leaving me to question how
often I spend time on things I could be otherwise investing time in doing.
Considering how and where I invest my time has led me to pay closer
attention to daily decisions and the impact they have on long-range goals.

Vanderkam adds:

"This is what happens when you treat your 168 hours as a blank slate.
This is what happens when you fill them up only with things that deserve
to be there. You build a life where you can really have it all."



Much like leadership and management tasks, my five priorities are intertwined
as well. They nourish and fuel each other. But one, I find, drives all others. For
me, it’s PAUSE.  
Before, during, and after each of these other priorities, in 2019 I commit
to pause, to consider how I am prioritizing my time.
Pausing to read and write.
Pausing to exercise.
Pausing to breathe in and breath out.
Pausing to connect with those who matter most in my life.
And, pausing to check in with myself, to get on track and to stay on track.   

One thing’s for sure - some of my time in 2019 will be devoted toward pausing
to appreciate the sunrises and to appreciate the stars.  

After all, we only get 168 hours a week. Better make them count.

Author and Founder of P.S. Life Happens.


Read my previous #OneWord blog posts here.
#OneWord 2015: Perspective
#OneWord 2016: Stretch
#OneWord2017: Elevate
#OneWord2018: Optimize

Looking forward to reading yours.

Happy New Year!

Monday, March 26, 2018

Of Robots, Rubik's Cubes, and Responsibility

On Saturday, March 24, it was my privilege to attend the Long Island Connected Educators' Summit hosted at W.E. Howitt Middle School, in Farmingdale, New York. Otherwise known as CELI, this event (the fifth annual), is led by Dr. Bill Brennan and a team of dynamic, passionate, and dedicated teachers, administrators, and students from the Farmingdale School District. This team inspires, both professionally and personally. Make some time to visit the Twitter hashtag #CELI18 and you'll know what I mean. This was a memorable day for us all.

This year, CELI resonated differently for me. Catching up with friends and colleagues greeted one another with handshakes and hugs. Talk turned quickly to what makes us proud and what challenges us. Standing with my cup of coffee, I partook in conversations about "the new job", how different schools prepare for, respond to, and prevent crises, and how we can better address issues involving equity in education. Amazing, when you think how this was free, on a Saturday, and we were among of hundreds of educators, eager to connect and learn together, while we sipped a second (or third) cup of coffee.

As part of Learning Leadership, this month I'd planned to write about experiences of late that have been nudging me to see school differently, and to challenge myself to help and to support others to see it a differently as well. Before Saturday, these thoughts involved robots, the Rubik's Cube, and current societal events that are directly impacting our students and school communities.

The quote below, captured beautifully by Bonnie McClelland, has me thinking.



I had the good fortune to be in the room when these words were spoken, and I've found myself repeating them even since I first heard them spoken during the opening CELI panel discussion. The dynamic young adolescent who expressed it, spoke it proudly in her opening introduction, where  said her name and she told us, "I love robots!" It was at that moment, she captured everyone's hearts and everyone's full attention. It was then that all in the room knew this day would be different. This was only the beginning, our first chance to learn from the wisdom of children, of adolescents, of young adults, and of one another.

The entire day was filled with student voice and educator voice. Thematically, attendees seemed to be reminded that, above all else, we've got a lot to learn, but also that we've got a lot to be thankful for, because there are others around us who are willing to learn with us, and to teach us. I won't attempt to share all of that here, but I do feel it important to express gratitude to Bill Brennan and his planning team. Thank you for knowing your impact, sharing your wisdom, and modeling the way schools can and should work...for all learners.



The tweet above from Eric Sheninger recently caught my eye, tying conveniently to my current line of thinking and the themes of CELI. 

First, I started seeing things differently in my own life.

A 13 year-old who I know well has been involved in FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) since his start in middle school. You may know an adolescent like this. He's at-times, a self-assured leader, and in most cases, he'd otherwise prefer to blend into his surroundings. This year, in addition to programming and designing a robot for competition, his team also presented on how to solve a real-world problem: to use what we know about hydrodynamics to research and recommend how to purify contaminated water that comes as a result of natural disasters. Going to his competitions, you wouldn't know this. There's a deejay, an emcee, referees on rollerblades, concessions. There's a noisy, crowded, organized gymnasium, with hundreds of students and dozens of schools, competing with one and rooting for one another.

A visit to the FIRST website clearly shows what matters most: core values of gracious professionalism and "coopertition" (a combination of cooperation and competition). And these values, they shine through.

"FIRST is more than robots. The robots are a vehicle for students to learn important life skills. Kids often come in not knowing what to expect - of the program nor of themselves. They leave, even after the first season, with a vision, with confidence, and with a sense that they can create their own future." 

- Dean Kamen, FIRST Founder     

With "robotics season" now behind us, I've been thinking, how can we make "school", for students and teachers, more like robotics?

A pre-adolescent I know well has long solved puzzles, played board games, designs and builds anything imaginable. He's gotten into constructing fidget spinners, watching YouTube videos, and then watching YouTube videos about how to design a better fidget spinner. Along comes the return of the Rubik's Cube, and he's moved onto algorithms. The kid teaches himself how to do things and is unafraid of trial and error, designing prototypes, iterations, and of failure. Because he knows, failure is nothing more than a "first attempt in learning". 



Each of these kids I describe shows signs of being a "systems thinker". Each is a problem-solver. Both are cooks and bakers, musicians, mad scientists, and when the mood strikes them, athletes. They are tactile learners and kinesthetic learners. They are readers, but more so when they're able to apply what they read to be meaningfully engaged in learning something new. And, these boys...they're my sons.

As an educator-dad, I've been pleased with my kids'  education since our first Kindergarten experience with our oldest child, over a decade ago. Fortunately, for my kids - like so many other teachers' kids - they're good students because they know how school "works". They're courteous and respectful. They're organized and can manage their time. And most importantly, they're good people, helpful, empathetic, and caring towards others. And, they're also "typical kids". When asked what they did at school, the first response is often, "Nothing". When asked what the best part of the day was, the answer is either, "lunch" or "when the school day was over". This often reminds me, it's my job, as the adult to ask better questions, to delve deeper, and to be patient awaiting a response. After all, I have to remain hopeful that, despite what they may tell me. I have to believe that they did something. Right? 

These kids come from a good home, where learning and hard work are valued. They are well-fed, well-clothed, and have opportunities that they're grateful for being afforded. I'm thankful for them, and am proud of them every day. And at school, they are known and they know they are known. That matters, and it makes all the difference, keeping a balanced message between home and school. 

My intent here is not to brag about my kids. It's to illustrate that, while these are two kids who I know, I am reminded that there are kids out there who are not quite as fortunate, to be known and to know they are known. Some are dealing with more than anyone should be expected to handle, and they do it with grace, with perseverance, and with hope, that someone will make an effort to know them. 

This brings me back to this weekend in Farmingdale. Attendees (myself included) were welcomed with enthusiasm and enthralled by stories of innovation, there were a number of other important takeaways. Embrace change and celebrate mistakes. Approach a challenge, prepared to accept failure (likely numerous times). Think, "We're not there YET, but we will get there, together." This attitude was pervasive among the adults. But possibly more impressive (and adults with a growth mindset are always impressive), were THE KIDS. Having the opportunity to listen to words of encouragement, to learn about robots and makerspaces, and to listen to them close the event by PRAISING the adults is what made this so memorable an experience. Thinking back to the tag line on the FIRST website, serves to remind us all what it's about: "More than robots."

Responsibility

Upon my return home from CELI, I couldn't help but watch the #MarchForOurLives coverage across all news channels. This included the six minutes and 20 seconds of solemnity by Emma Gonzales, one of the students who attends Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. As I watched, listened, and waited intently for Ms. Gonzales to teach us. It was then that I realized that all of our students have something to teach us, and we have an obligation to listen. If we allow ourselves, we may just learn something from what they are willing to share with us.

Whether a student with a Rubik's Cube, with a passion for robots, or some with a life experience that will change the world for the better, we as educators have a responsibility. A responsibility to listen. A responsibility to honestly ask and answer tough questions. And a responsibility to ensure what our students are learning is relevant, so they are equipped with the skills to succeed in the world they're inheriting. If our students' are willing to fail, to try again, and to learn, shouldn't we adults make that same commitment to learning?




Looking for the next opportunity to continue to learn with others across Long Island, New York, and the globe? 


Looking forward to learning together!


26 Days of Learning Leadership

Day 1:   Accountability
Day 2:   BRAVO
Day 3:   Collective Wisdom
Day 5:   Evolve

Day 6:   Feedback

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Quitting

"Dad, I want to quit."


I am embarrassed to admit it, but three weeks ago, this was the basis for this blog post. This statement, uttered by my nine-year-old son, was upsetting to me. After five years of playing baseball, he decided he was done.


He had his reasons:


"Baseball is boring."


"I am afraid to get hit by a pitch."


"I'd rather play basketball...and soccer...and ride my bike...and swim...and play outside with my friends." (All good reasons, that reminded me of what a pre-adolescent considers motivating.)


Selfishly, for me, after 12 years of coaching youth sports throughout each season, in my mind, last spring was not to be my final season, because I was not done coaching, and enjoying all that comes with it. Stepping back, I realize now, had I written about this, I would have made this about me.


But this is not about me. So I didn't write this post.


-----


Two weeks ago, after engaging in a challenging parent meeting, I thought I knew the direction of this post. During a heated and emotional conversation, the parent explained to me, through tears and personal anguish, that his son was suffering. Yes, he has great grades. Yes, his attendance is better than it's ever been. And no, he does not have any blemishes on his school discipline record after all these years. He joins clubs and plays sports. He's viewed as an energetic leader-type who does not take "no" for an answer when it comes to defending something he believes in as being "right". And he is suffering miserably with depression, unbeknownst to anyone at school who thinks he or she knows him. He's seen personal tragedy, and he's seen death, up close, too close for any child or any adult. And all these years later, he struggles, with nightmares, with fear of loneliness and isolation, and with an emotional paralysis, that prevents him from feeling heard, from feeling a sense of self-worth.


This meeting got me thinking about the issues that challenge our students every day, and how, the students who struggle the most may also be adept at hiding their struggles, burying them deep. How many students, outside of school, are facing challenges they didn't create or invite, struggles beyond their control? How many of our students have family members who are battling addiction, domestic violence, and are navigating the complexities of making ends meet for their family? Amazing to consider, kids' resiliency and courage.

And how many of our students depend on school to be a safe and secure place, one which has predictable routines and people who care for their personal well-being. How many of our students rely on school to be the place where they can “check their problems at the door” so they might spend if even just a few hours, focusing on dreaming and working towards a dream of a better life and a better future? So many students, so many stories. We have to ask, how many of these stories do we really know? And how many of these students do we really support? And how many of these students do we truly know and how many know that we know them?

How many do we miss?

How many of our students quit?

And how many adults stand by and let them, without doing what is needed to prevent it from happening? How many adults stand by, and let them quit?


-----


Nearly a week ago, I realized my reason for writing this post.


By now, we learned details about the latest school shooting, this one at Stone Douglas High School, in Parkland, Florida, that has left 17 people dead and 23 injured. We are hearing students and families from this and previous school shootings, speaking out and demanding action. And we hear a refrain of typical responses: mental illness, the protection of Second Amendment rights, and the proposal of increased legislation that will theoretically reduce access to assault weapons, being referred to by some victims' family members as “weapons of war” in the hands of everyday people.


Questions of, “What could’ve been done to prevent this?” and, “What can be done, so that it never happens again?” have made their return, as people grieve and struggle to make sense of another countless school tragedy at the hands of a student.


This reminds me of what has plagued education, and perhaps, society, for far too long. We see a problem that we have seen before and we “admire” the problem. We make excuses and we get distracted by less important priorities. We wait for a student to fail - we watch for these "symptoms" in the form of academic, behavioral, social, or emotional changes. Then, we watch them fail. And then we react, often times, with a high degree of emotion. We perpetuate the problems. And we normalize the response and the outcome.

We do this in education all the time. And when we see it happening outside of education, we accept it, often without acknowledging that it is occurring, and move onto the next headline. When are we going to challenge our thinking on this? When are we going to push back on what may be "human nature"?

This is where we need to shift our focus: from a reactive one to a more proactive one.


Recently, as part of a strategic master schedule planning initiative that is underway in the school where I lead, I read Making Big Schools Feel Small by Paul S. George and John H. Lounsbury. There are several salient points of emphasis. Important to note, this book was published in the year 2000 - nearly two decades ago. And yet, the words may be more relevant than ever.


In a nutshell, the book is about fostering a sense of “smallness” at school. It’s about building and sustaining high-quality and trusted relationships between adolescents and the adults who serve them. It’s about students being known, and knowing they are known. And it’s steeped in research, and includes the opinions of 105 educators, 586 parents, and 1,100 students from 33 schools.


A few key points from the authors:


  • “Small units that nurture long-term teacher-student relationships and counter feelings of anonymity or alienation may be a key factor in preventing school-related acts of violence” (5).

  • “Schools that provide small, close-knit communities have, many believe, the best chance to prevent suicides and the kind of tragic violence witnessed in schools in recent years. Juvenile delinquents almost universally lack a bond with the school or with a teacher” (9).

  • “The social-emotional tone of a school affects whether or not students attend school, how they choose to behave while present” (13).

  • “Young adolescents quite typically feel a sense of alienation, but long-term relationships can counter that by helping students feel that they are an important part of an important group” (14).

  • The more informal contacts of students and advisors over time, the greater the sense of community and less the sense of alienation” (14)

It's hard to imagine that this book was written 18 years ago. It is research based, and endorsed with words and wisdom of experts in the field of middle level education, as well as testimonials from middle schools that are invested in this work of being developmentally responsive to adolescents. 


So one has to ask, why aren’t more schools investing more in this philosophy?


And where are our opportunities to create "cultures of connectedness" in our schools?


Maybe it's because we become filled with a sense of feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenge, by the magnitude of the responsibility.

Well, it's smaller than you think.

Recently, I penned a blog post entitled, Names and Norms, which included a few simple, yet intentional ideas for connecting with kids. While these are just a few small steps, they are indeed important steps that we can and must take, if we are going to reduce feelings of isolation and desperation among our students as well as build community.

When we invest in community-building, we can help to transform the experience of each of our students, as they go from feeling anonymous to a sense of belonging and being important members of a community. There may appear to be a lack of empirical evidence on the benefits of school connectedness. However, if we knew we could be part of building significant relationships, that, as Dr. James Comer wrote, would result in significant learning, why wouldn’t we do it? And what they have to gain, while difficult to quantify, is well worth the risk. Our students have nothing to lose, and everything to gain.


This is our opportunity to live by this quote, prominently displayed in my office, that represents my personal philosophy on why we lead - to build capacity in others.



As a community of educators:

  • Don't we owe it to our students, our schools, and our profession, to act?

  • Isn’t it our profession obligation (if not a moral imperative), to act?

  • And if we don't act, what right do we have to tell our students not to quit, if we ourselves aren't willing to hold ourselves responsible for living by the same expectations?