Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Learning Leadership: Looking Back and Ahead

This summer will mark seven years since I launched my first blog post as part of what was then a new blog, Learning Leadership.  At that time I was a relatively new Principal, curious about the connections between learning and leadership.  As an educator, a husband, and a dad, I've made plenty of mistakes along my journey.  And, I've remained committed to a process of reflection, growth, and improvement in (and eventually out) of a global pandemic.  Serving as Principal in a pandemic has drawn my attention to the importance of and delicate balance between leadership and management in an organization.  

Writing is something I've always enjoyed.  As a kid, I was captivated by words and ideas, and how when woven together in just the right way, they create meaning.  Throughout my youth, I explored reading various genres and writing in various formats.  Then, as a teacher and eventually, a school administrator, my writing consisted mostly of "work writing", in the form of report card narratives and observation reports.  So five years into being a Principal seemed like the perfect opportunity to rediscover my voice, so I started a blog.

Around this same time, Twitter caught my attention.  It was a unique platform, ranging somewhere between a learning tool to a community space for me.  My openness to learn and my thoughts and ideas were welcomed.  Through blogging, I'd found that I was able to unpack and process my thoughts, embracing vulnerability along the way.  My blogs, open and honest ventures, often connected to a larger theme I was learning about or trying to figure out.  Maybe best of all, I wasn't alone, in fact, there were lots of other people across the globe, I found, who used the space in very much the same way.  No agenda other than to learn, together.    

Those days, there were times when I was writing for others, but mostly, I wrote for myself.  I found that through the writing process, while consuming (and sometimes all-consuming), Helping myself left me better equipped to help others, day-to-day.

Not sure why, but I rarely, if ever go back and reread or re-post old blog posts I've written.  And I also rarely reflect on the title of my blog, Learning Leadership.  But I do often vividly remember what I've learned.  Thinking back to what I thought I knew, about myself, my role, and my place in the world, I can thoroughly appreciate how much I've grown through the years, as a person.

Moving forward, the blog theme may change a bit, because, after all, I'm changing.    

Like the baseball field that is left to overgrow, a visit to my blog will reveal a need for some maintenance, some attention, some TLC.  There's a lot that's happened and is happening in the world since I've published my last few posts.  And while I've written with various degrees of consistency over the years, while I can also admit, "I've been busy doing the work", and "too busy to write about it", I must also confess, that's a bit lazy and a cop-out.  We're never be too busy to learn and give. 


Writing is something I need to do.  I need to publish more regularly.  

And while I commit to do it for myself, if choose to hit, "Publish", and one person reads what I've written, and is moved to think, learn, or lead differently, then it was worth it.  Maybe I could use a little help with that.

So I'm going to start writing again.  Sometimes I'll save it as a draft, read it the next day, and click delete.  And other times, I'll publish it.

So for what it's worth, I'm back.  And if you're willing to read and to engage with me, I'm here for it.  Maybe I'll share something that resonates, matches something you're learning about, or moves you to action.  If that happens, let me know, so we can struggle, grow, progress, and maybe even thrive together.  

I'm still and always will be learning leadership.   

Looking forward to learning, together...again. 

Saturday, September 5, 2020

The Comeback

"The comeback is ALWAYS stronger than the setback."

Each year since my first year of teaching, now 24 years ago, I lose sleep leading up to the opening days of school. I want to prepare and plan so I can make a good first impression and start the year off right. That torturous, exhausting ritual has followed me through my 13 years at the elementary school and has since become my middle school principal routine for the last 11 years. 

This year is different. I’ve lost sleep for the last six months. I've struggled to find the words to capture the energy and the magic of the first day of school in 2020. 

This has had me worried.

Then yesterday I got a text message. My uncle, my mother’s youngest brother, sent me a text message and some photos.

They were photos of my first best friend, and one of my first teachers, my grandfather. James Tuohy, or Bumpa, as we’ve known him. 23 years ago, in my first year of teaching, I learned that he died unexpectedly after a long and happy life. Hopefully by now we’ve all had this person in our lives. 

From the day I was born, Bumpa was by my side. He was there when I was a sick kid in and out of the hospital. He was there when I graduated high school and when I wanted to attend the college of my dreams, he helped to finance that. This made my dream, to become a teacher, possible. 

Then later, when I became a teacher, he would brag to everyone willing to listen that I, his “Bupsa Boy '' was a schoolteacher. It’s funny now I think back and remember with a smile the times that he even referred to me as “the Principal Teacher”. Sometimes I wonder what he knew or could see, back in 1997.

But I digress.

I’d like to read you the text from my uncle.

“September 2, 2020 [yesterday] marked the 75 Year Anniversary of the Japanese Signing of the Declaration of Surrender on the USS Missouri docked in Tokyo Bay. This marked the end of WWII.

These photos are from Bumpa’s WWII scrapbook of that day. He served in the South Pacific from 1943-1945 on the USS Benevolence and was on board the Missouri with other sailors and Marines to take witness.

Just to put things into perspective, He was only 19 years old when this photo was taken and had already fought in a war. Makes me so proud to know where we come from !!!! We come from good stock.

He was part of history, and he hardly ever talked about it. Only once in a while.”


Why do I share this with you all? And now?

Because on Tuesday, we will have the opportunity to learn people’s stories, the stories of 9 ½ to 13 ½ year-olds. So much of the work we do, the real work, once people’s basic human needs are met, is learning the stories of our students. When we learn their stories, we begin to understand the world through their eyes.

So, together, let's devote 2020-21 to learning the stories of others. Our students. Our parents and guardians. Our community members. Our colleagues. One another. Ourselves. 

Since March 13, I’ve learned so much about all of you and about our story.

I learned the value of communication.




And Relationships.

I learned the role of trust and listening. And how all the qualities, how they all contribute to a school culture that supports adolescents. Each and every one of them.

I learned everyone has a story. Because our students need us, and they need us to know and understand and appreciate and value their stories. Where they come from. Where they’ve been. And where they are going. Some students missed school and their friends. Some students experienced hardship and personal tragedy. And others, who we’ve seen struggle in school, thrived while learning from home. Let’s think about the mindsets of each of our 660 returning students on the first day of school.

Now more than ever, they need us. They need to know we care, to see we care, and to feel and appreciate that we will always be by their side, and in their corner.

Now here’s the catch. if you spoke to my grandfather at any point in his adult life, you’d likely never know what he experienced, the history he experienced..

His generation - the Greatest Generation - went on after experiencing the fear and uncertainty of war - to carve out new jobs and careers, neighborhoods where they started their adult lives and had families. Lives in which there was a deep meaning and purpose in their everyday life and work.

Humble, unassuming. Hardworking and kind. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Kind of reminds me of our students and so many families here in HB. 

That’s the potential we all have starting right now, starting on September 8. To be someone’s favorite teacher. Their go-to person. Their reason for coming to school.

We have an rare and special opportunity to teach and influence the next Greatest Generation. Like the country looked to kids like the teenage Jimmy Tuohy in the 1940s, we are going to be among adolescents who will inherit the 2020s. Pre-teens, and teens, who will look to us, their teachers. They are going to need us and not know how to ask for help. They are going to come to us with stories some we know, some we think we know. And others, we haven’t learned yet.

When our first class, post closure, comes through our school doors on Tuesday, we will be challenged in new and unimaginable ways that our education courses and our decades of our teaching careers haven’t yet prepared us to face. 

We also, if we open ourselves to the possibility, will have opportunities to learn like we have never learned before. If we approach this school year with patience and humility, and extending and modeling grace towards one another, our students and families, and even to ourselves, we will grow, we will progress, and we will succeed, together.

This will require and demand patience, courage, willingness and ability to learn from those we are used to “teaching” first. We will need to lean on and help one another. And we will need to listen and learn from each other, and of greater importance, from our students.

Like when I was 23, this new school year, my 11th as your principal will be “first year”.

Stories of overcoming adversity, of making progress in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges, they’re all around us.

And we have a choice. We can choose to live and to teach like we did in the 1990s, the 2000s, or even February 2020.

Each of us, in our own way, has experienced the last half year. Some hardships, some personal loss and tragedy, some celebrations. That’s us. Now let’s think of our students.

So this is our challenge: Let’s commit and recommit to resisting the urge to teach “on the surface”. Instead, let’s admit to ourselves and our students that we are learning right alongside one another. Let’s make it our first priority, while we establish and build new habits and routines - whether it’s how we enter and exit the school building, how, when, and where to use the restroom, proper hand washing, social distancing, or face coverings. Let’s keep the focus on that which matters most - the idea that all kids need and deserve our attention towards meeting their basic human needs - in classrooms that are safe and healthy, with nourishment, and opportunities to learn with one another and with you.

In closing, I will leave you with this thought. On March 13, we bravely faced a setback that we did not see on the horizon. And at the end of June, we celebrated our 8th graders together. In July and August, we regrouped, and we learned that we can take a lot more than we sometimes give ourselves credit for being able to take. But there’s something else, there’s the comeback.

And the comeback is ALWAYS stronger than the setback.

Thank you for all you do for our students and our middle school community. Together, we will make this a memorable year of learning and growth for our students and for one another.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Leadership Opportunities

Usually, I blog about my Learning Leadership journey - school, family, or professional learning - "safe" topics. Sticking to topics I have some degree of confidence in "knowing what I know" has worked for me. The topic of this post is different. So I ask any readers, old or new, to please extend me the grace and understanding as I learn. Thoughts and prayers to the family of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and also to Christian Cooper, for the calm poise demonstrated in Central Park. Thoughts and prayers to our police officers who protect and defend in service of others, all our essential workers, and the families of those who are among the over 100,000 lives lost due to Covid-19.

Thank you for reading.


"All progress happens in uncertain times." 

- Ozan Varol, Law Professor, Author, Rocket Scientist

Over the course of the last 11 weeks, we've heard time and time again, through sickness, tragedy, hardship, struggle, and inconvenience, that there are many leadership opportunities that exist. Covid-19, the economy, the school closures, the federal, state, and local government, politics, public education, among many other topics, are all part of this dialogue. Even within our schools, countless opportunities to take a step back and look more closely at practices, some of which we do because as they saying goes, "We've always done it that way". These are among the categories that have presented these "opportunities" for leaders to rise up and model strength, to reassure, to create conditions, to navigate and often, remove obstacles so others may be successful. In recent weeks, each of us has seen and experienced some of the best and worst leadership responses in all sorts of situations.

I am fortunate. So, so fortunate. As someone who was raised in a hardworking middle class family, I am now a husband and father in a middle class family, living in a middle class neighborhood. I have my health, career security, and quite honestly, want for nothing. I proudly serve as Principal in a school where I am part of a cohesive team, with strong leaders, role models, and partners around me who all work towards a common goal. The students where I lead make me proud, their families make me proud. Proud, because they remind me of friends and family members I've known, growing up, who work for everything they have. That's a special quality that takes a kid far in life; I've seen it time and again, especially as an educator. I am lucky, I am fortunate, I am blessed.

The news, of late, has been difficult to follow, nearly impossible to digest in bite-sized pieces. As a New Yorker, I've closely followed the 11:30 am reports issued by Governor Andrew Cuomo, during his daily press conferences, in which he provides updates on daily Covid-19 death rates in New York, while messaging the importance of "flattening the curve", providing PPE to our essential workers, and that we wear facial protection in public. Never one to hold back, the governor speaks about the important role that science, data, numbers, and facts play in decision-making. I've chosen to follow the news of the global pandemic sparingly, doing my best to make sense of it all, and make decisions in the best interest of my family. For the last 11 weeks, I've worried, lost sleep, while intentionally maintaining some semblance of personal discipline towards my own physical and social emotional wellness. Despite what the governor says, being "New York Tough" isn't quite as easy as it sounds, when part of a soundbite.

Then on Monday, May 25, we learned the name George Floyd, a 46 year old man who was killed in police custody, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. 

This news felt...different. Maybe it is because, in a global pandemic, we've had significant every day distractions removed, clearing the way for other thoughts to occupy our attention. Maybe it's because of the extensive video footage or media coverage. Or maybe it is because of society's reaction to this event, the death of another unarmed African American male. The news of George Floyd was tragic and unfathomable, particularly in light of the global pandemic. I struggled to make sense of it for several days, finding myself drawn into the depths of the 24 hour news cycle. But I remembered this feeling; it was not unlike the feeling of when hearing the news of the September 11 terrorist attacks, or school shootings, at Columbine, at Sandy Hook, and at Parkland. Only now, we don't have our school community to tend to, to grieve with, and to process action steps towards learning together and making a difference.

Feeling fortunate for the positive distractions that comes with seeing students and families (who were visiting school to retrieve their belongings because of forced school closure due to Covid-19), on Friday evening, I was overcome with an overwhelming sense of guilt. I had come to realize, in reflecting on that term, "leadership opportunities", that I had, in fact seized one, by going to school for the first time in ten weeks, to see students. While my initial intent was to help, I started to think that was an act of selfishness. I had chosen this "leadership opportunity", it had not chosen me. Going to school, it turns out, was the easy. I have and am a member of a great team, I was embracing the privilege I have, as Principal.

But I could not stop thinking of a student who I met long ago. An African American student who I watched grow up, through elementary school (when I was there as a teacher and new administrator) and on through middle school, when I became Principal. He was misunderstood, an African American child and later, adolescent, in a school world that did not look like him. I made a point to find ways to connect with him, through sports, through "guy stuff", and through books. After reading Jason Reynolds' Ghost, I made sure to tell him about it When he looked surprised that I had read it, we talked about the characters, and which reminded me of him and why. And when I had the chance to hand him a copy I had purchased, his eyes lit up. We wound up reading and discussing the Track Series, forging a special connection, through literature. Maybe it was because he had a certain view of the way people saw him that differed from me. I saw him as an adolescent and a reader, and as someone who was trying to fit in and not stand out, all for reasons beyond his control.

This is who I could not stop thinking about when I heard the news surrounding the name, George Floyd. An enormous sense of sadness and guilt filled my entire being. I didn't know what to do with this energy, what to do to process my own feelings, so I could help others. What I did know was that I had to start somewhere. This was one of those leadership opportunities we've been hearing about. 

On Friday night, I recalled all that I'd learned as a participant in the Leading Equity Virtual Summit organized by Dr. Sheldon L. Eakins, Ph.D., attending numerous sessions involving ways educators can begin to embrace a mindset towards diversity, equity, and inclusivity. After thinking about this all week, I discovered the latest video clip from Dr. Eakins, and his honest reflections, as a black man, raising a black son, and how the series of recent events impact and challenge our morals, as human beings, and for me, as a white American male.

I didn't sleep at all that night. 

Instead, I couldn't help but be glued to the footage, recapping the events and now, the beginnings of the aftermath. All I could do was think about that student. Think about how he was feeling during a global pandemic. Think about how we felt on a day-to-day basis, walking around a school that doesn't serve his basic human needs as a young black male. Think about how we all convince ourselves that we do understand him, his personal journey, how he sees the world through his own eyes. How we (how I) unknowingly failed him, countless times, when all he needed was for someone, anyone, to understand him, to just listen. 

On Saturday morning, social media seemed exceptionally quiet, more so than a typical energetic, ambitious Saturday. If there were people using these spaces to reflect on the state of affairs, it didn't seem to be happening in the same space where I was. Maybe people, like me, were sorting things out? Or maybe it was something else. What I did find was a video that, in a strange way, I needed to see and at that moment. 

It's called, "A Conversation with My Black Son"

Watch it.

This was my first step on the road to understanding this differently. Reflecting back to being a young boy myself, and later, the father of young boys. To think, the only dialogue we've had that are remotely resembles this involved the awkward "birds and bees" talk. (Admittedly, neither of which I handled well, first as an adolescent boy nor later as a father of adolescent boys.) To think black parents speak to their black sons about the appropriate manner in which they are to handle themselves when interacting with law enforcement, left me feeling...shaken. 


Then I came across the short clip of Jane Elliott, the American anti-racist activist and one-time third grade teacher. Watching this brought me back to being a nineteen year-old aspiring teacher. I remembered sitting in an college classroom as part of my teacher education program, learning about her "blue eyes, brown eyes" exercise that she conducted in her class on April 5, 1968, the day following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

"If you, as a white person, would be happy to receive the same treatment that our black citizens do in this society, please stand."

Watch it.

This got me thinking, how, several decades after reading about Jane Elliott, I too, became a third grade teacher. How hard I worked to earn that chance, but now I think about being a white male and the impact it had on my chance to do this. I realize this is where my white privilege started as an adult, or rather, this was where I first realized it. In the last quarter century, I have yet to show the courage, to raise questions like those from Jane Elliott, to myself, let alone anyone else.

Then I had he good fortune to discover this tweet from Bill Ferriter (@plugsin). Some besides me was thinking about this, reflecting, processing, and looking for answers. For as much criticism as social media spaces face at times, this exchange reminded me that there was good out there, and sometimes all you had to do is look a little deeper, below the surface, past the superficial platitudes. While my questions remained and increased in number, I was not alone.

This also got me thinking again about the amazing author, Jason Reynolds, about my former student again, and the power of literature to help us when we need it most. So I downloaded All American Boys, jumped on my bike, and started pedaling. 

I listened and I pedaled, and I reflected, until the narrator stopped reading. 

Maybe it was the stillness of a beautiful May morning, the vitamin D, or the adrenaline from getting my heart pumping, or (most definitely), the words of Jason Reynolds, as they flowed through my earbuds on into my heart. But I came back home feeling...different. Yes, I had found meaning in the story and empathized with the characters. And no, I had not yet done nearly what was accomplished in this book. Despite my unsettled feelings about all that is happening in the world right now, I knew I had to do something, especially as a white male, who is the same age as George Floyd. Our stories were different, but in the end, we wanted many of the same things in life.

So, I will focus on being a part of and creating space where people can:

  • Seek to understand.
  • Empathize.
  • Learn from the experiences of others.
I'll repeat that cycle, adding actions to my intentions, as I learn and grow.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Good Things...

No doubt, the experience of a global pandemic has been challenging for so many people, in unimaginable ways.  While by no means have I been impacted to the degree so many we learn about every day in the news, this experience has removed certain distractions, clearing the way for deeper reflection and time to consider what really matters, as well as what we may have taken for granted up to this point. Each day, I find myself noticing these things. Sometimes I feel guilty for not seeing them before, and often, I am grateful for having a second chance to reflect and appreciate things differently.

By comparison in my life, one element absent from my daily routine since mid-March is my daily drive to and from work. Fortunately, I've been able to fill that time with productive and meaningful things, despite a closure that prevents me from leading a school full of students, staff, and middle school life. Only now, since I've resumed a modified schedule, as the world looks to reopen, have I realized the important space my commute occupies in my life, particularly as a learner.

This particular drive has been a part of my life for two and a half decades. And in all that time, I'd rarely given it too much thought. It was a 45 minute drive, to and from work, that I "had to do". We all get 168 hours a week. Roughly eight of those hours for me was spent in the car. In recent times, I'd come to see this as  my spending the equivalent of what is (on a good day), a standard work day, with my eyes on the road and my hands on the steering wheel.

Eight hours is significant. Think about what we can do in that amount of time. Get a recommended night's sleep. Read one or more books, or write a daily journal or blog entry. Exercise or meditate daily. Share regular meals or conversations with our loved ones. I have previously written on this topic in my #OneWord2019 post, Pause. In fact, one of my favorite aspects of his post is that it involves my daughter, driving the same route as my commute, with me seated in the passenger seat. (Another blog for another time.)

I've gained so much perspective and time to reflect on why I am grateful for being fortunate, lucky, and blessed in life. However. one down-side that's presented itself on a regular basis since mid-March has been coming to re-imagine how I'd make up my "learning time". I'd accepted long ago that if I was going to be driving, I could also be learning.

Prioritized meaningful professional learning has long been something I "get to do". Whether it's being an active member of several professional learning communities, listening to audio books and podcasts, or having a phone conversation with a friend, colleague, or mentor, my eight hours on the road would be for learning, I "have to" drive to and from work. I "get to" learn.

One podcast worth your time is called The Science of Happiness. Now, admittedly, I am someone who enjoys learning about self-improvement techniques, to improve myself for others, and share with others, I know this may not be for everyone. Reading and listening to this content always seems to help me to reflect more deeply, understand and empathize with the human condition, and, equip me to help others. 

More than usual these days, I find myself contemplating the words of Dacher Keltner, Ph.D., who poses the following thought to open the podcast:

"Imagine your body had a happiness button, with a direct line to your brain. And every time you pressed it, you felt a jolt of joy, satisfaction, and contentment. You could get happy in an instant, whenever you want. Would you use it? Would you press the button?"

While there is no "happiness button", one small way that we can offer ourselves some "space for grace" during a pandemic is to "just write". One topic on which to focus is identifying "good things" that are happening, despite challenging circumstances. This episode of The Science of Happiness podcast will help frame your thinking, if you wanted to get started today.

In the coming days and weeks, I am going to share some examples from my life. Keeping a journal or blogging are by no means a substitute for the services that a licensed mental health professional can offer. However, three good things can help bring some positive focus to the simple joys in our lives.

Here are just some of the "good things" in my life:

  • Daily exercise
Since January, I've re-engaged in daily exercise. Then back in February, there was an article being shared at school by a number of male staff members regarding male heart health. This got me thinking about how, just last year I competed with students in a "push-up contest" in the common area we shared in a 40 person cabin on an overnight class trip. I had said I would do double the number of push-ups that the student who could do the most in the cabin. Well, as you might imagine, when one 13 year old did 30 (and I had to do 60), I had my work cut out for me. Surrounded by a pack of cheering adolescent males, I pulled off 43. While there was no one more impressed with my feat that I (after all, I did the number of push-ups equal to my age at the time), nonetheless, I had lost to a kid. Reading this article, resuming a regular fitness regimen, and having the time to reflect on this fond, fun memory has only really been possible because I'm distracted less or perhaps, differently. (Oh, and by the way, I can and do my 40 push-ups, as part of my daily workout.)

  • Hydration
For the first time in my life, I'm hydrating properly. Drinking half my body weight's worth of water, in ounces has long been a goal of mine, and now, as of January, I'm doing it. At the risk of making a completely unscientific statement here, educators don't drink enough water. It has everything to do with fearing the need to use the restroom within a 41-minute block of time (or worse even, if you teach a lab science, a dreaded 84 minutes, sans the luxury of two minutes of passing time)! As a school leader, a teaching period is no excuse for my lack of hydration. In fact, this has been a goal since I attended my first Edcamp Long Island session, where the facilitator addressed a packed room on The Checklist Manifesto by Dr. Atul Gawande and how "drink more water" was among the items on his daily checklist. Now, I can't for the life of me figure out why that memory stands out, to this day. But, as a result, years later, I am drinking more water.

  • Family Dinners
The Schug Family has always sat down together for nightly family dinners. Having two working professionals and three busy, growing children, at middle school, high school, and college age, we've somehow managed through the years to eat together, almost every night, in fact. And in this age of having to focus on "Device Free Dinners", now it seems, more than ever, it's been nice seeing one another's faces, asking "What was the best part of your day?", and listening, even through the lively commotion of simultaneous, unrelated conversations that occur between us. While this routine (and device-free) has been a long-standing tradition in our home, I have a renewed appreciation for what I can learn, by listening.

Daily exercise, hydration, and family dinners. Not necessarily topics I'd ever imagine writing a blog post about, but they've turned out to be three good things.

What are three good things happening in your life right now?

Friday, May 15, 2020

Watch the Horizon

"Find it, set your eyes on it, and watch the horizon."

This message was delivered to me in a most unexpected way, and from a most unexpected source. These words have remained with me, as leadership and learning wisdom, especially through uncertain times.

The first time I heard these words, I was likely somewhere between falling off, getting back on, or (least likely) standing upright on a paddle board. We were in the Pacific Ocean. 

Paddle boarding, enjoyed by many, has long been an activity I've strategically avoided. As relaxing as most people find it, I have found quite the opposite, as it's brought the worst of my anxiousness and fear (and the exhausting efforts to manage these feelings) out. 

And now, I'm doing it in the Pacific Ocean...and not well, I might add.

But this was vacation, a once-in-a-lifetime celebration of love, of family, of togetherness. I was with the four people who matter most in my life. Also accompanying us was a California surfer, originally from Idaho, now living in Maui. This guy maneuvered a paddle board better than I can walk. And he would become one of the best teachers I've met, the right person at the right time.  

The guide had sensed my apprehension almost immediately. And while I had just wished to be left alone, to fall off my paddle board seven times and get up eight, this guy would not let me be, to mutter and wallow in my own self-pity. He'd decided, I was going to be a paddle boarder, whether I liked it or not. He had seen this before, knowing, this had little to do with a paddle board. 

So as the four others glided effortlessly and playfully on their boards, this guide remained patiently by my side or within my line of sight. He saw something in me that he knew I hadn't...yet. He saw that I was drowning in my own negative thoughts and self-talk. He was committed to do what he had likely done for dozens of people before me - not giving up, continuously encouraging, and remaining by my side. He refused to let me quit on myself, no matter what.

He could sense that I was at times, reluctantly reassured by his approach. Seeing me get back up one more time than I had fallen down, he challenged me to find the horizon, telling me this would help to stabilize by shaking lower half, that was causing my imbalance that inevitably ended in a splash. 

"Find the horizon, set your eyes on it, and watch."

I will never forget the feeling that led up to my first successfully paddle board. The moment my eyes found the horizon. The rhythmic breathing, in through my nose, out through my mouth, "following my breath", a helpful skill I developed through running and meditation (neither of which was done on a paddle board). I  The voice in my head, telling me the whole way to watch the horizon. As these words replaced those that were in my head before, the shaking of every muscle left my body, replaced by my new mantra, as I set my eyes steadily on the horizon. 

I was paddle boarding. And I had an unexpected teacher with unexpected words of wisdom, to thank for it.

That day, no exaggeration, I likely fell off my paddle board no fewer than 100 times. But I got up 101 times. And I had a tool to use, moving forward, now with others who, like me, would prefer to be left alone so they could give up. My wife and kids, despite the playful ribbing associated with the repeated predictable splashes coming from my direction, told me that they noticed that I never gave up. I told them that I never stopped finding an setting my eyes on the horizon.

I have long been convinced that we are surrounded by opportunities, and by people willing to help. All it takes is an awareness of these opportunities, an open mind and heart, and a willingness to be vulnerable, to fail, and to grow. In turn, this has served to remind me to be that person for others.

In times of uncertainty, we can sometimes feel as though we are alone, paddling, in the middle of the ocean. Struggling to stay afloat, struggling to see the horizon. But we can also remind ourselves of countless opportunities to progress, and the willing guides who accompany us on these journeys, those who remind us to look for the horizon.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

How do you build belonging in your school and your school community?

This post is a collaboration between a group of middle school leaders from across the country. Periodically, these passionate and dedicated middle school principals share their thoughts on issues of relevance for those "in the middle". 

Dennis Schug, Middle School Principal, Long Island, NY

EVERY ACTION presents opportunities for us to demonstrate our values. Where I stand and where I visit throughout my day. How I interact with students, staff, and visitors. Announcements on the PA system. Scheduling my priorities (versus prioritizing my schedule). It all matters.

But what's most important to me is simple. It's to foster a sense of belonging for each student, promoting regular opportunities for each to be known, and to feel that they are known by a caring adult in our school community. I am proud to lead this work, but I am not alone. In fact, I can still hear my grandmother's voice saying, "Many hands make light work."  

As I reflect on this week, three examples come to mind. This week I: 

1. Established a routine to check in and check out daily...with a kid who needs positive reinforcement.

2. Participated in a entirely by students.

3. Worked with a student in need, identified and removed his obstacles, and watched him shine.

No doubt, I beam with pride over ongoing school-wide initiatives such as Start with Hello Week, Unity Day, and the Kindness Challenge (to name a few!) and the positive impact these have on school culture. But it's these small moments that make a big difference.

Like those most challenging puzzle pieces (the ones that are tough to find or figure out how they fit), when we discover their place in the puzzle, we realize how magnificent it feels when they all have their place.


Donald Gately.  Middle School Principal, Long Island, NY

The feeling of belonging is arguably one of the most critical variables in the success of a young adolescent at school. Think about the places where you feel most safe, belong. Ideally, we feel that we belong when we’re with our family, our closest happy, willing to take risks. These are all places where you feel that you friends, our partners.  The climate at the ideal Middle School should
resemble these settings. 

A practice that interferes with this sense of belonging is suspension. Suspension is a “time honored” practice that schools utilize in cases of severe violations of the school for a period of days or sit in what’s called “In-School Suspension” a code of conduct.  Typically, a child is required to remain home from room sat school where they complete assignments provided by their peers and from most of the adults in the school. If we agree that a sense of teachers.  In both instances, the child is separated from the rest of his belonging is crucial for middle school kids’ success, it is difficult to we need to teach right from wrong, consequences are fine,  but can we find consequences that have the effect justify this practice.  When children misbehave, even in ways that are significant, this is the time we need to embrace them, not isolate them. Yes, of increasing this sense of belonging rather than corrupting it? 

Many schools, including ours, are employing restorative justice approaches to school discipline. In a typical example, which actually occurred at my school suspending them out of school, the students participated in a restorative recently, three students were found to have vandalized a bathroom. Instead of circle along with their parents, some teachers, classmates, and, most and our awesome assistant principal stayed after school with them one day to importantly, members of the custodial staff. They also wrote letters of apology make cookies for the custodial staff. This was so much more powerful and effective than any suspension could have been.  I am extremely excited  about the potential of restorative justice approaches to school discipline.  

Chris Legleiter. Middle School Principal.  Leawood, Kansas

The key to a successful school  year is the quality of relationships within the school and the school community. Great leaders recognize they must continually work on building great culture where everyone in school the school. feels like they belong and the school community feels connected and supports

The question is how is this achieved? While there are many components that lead to everyone feeling like “this is my home”, the one key aspect that is incorporated with these components is how the leaders must model the desired behaviors. Let’s take a look at how this is achieved:

- Leaders understand the importance of leading with positivity.
- Leaders are vulnerable with staff and students by sharing personal examples that connect through emotion and stories. This helps drive continual growth through trusting relationships.
- Leaders lead with grace and kindness as they are the first to congratulate the hard work of others and also the first to apologize when something does not go according to plan. 
- Leaders find ways to get student voice within the school by having regular “feedback loops” with students to listen to their ideas.
- Leaders implement methods to support whole child initiatives by recognizing students for great character, support inclusivity and daily SEL work.
- Leaders have consistent opportunities to share with parents the work of the school so they are informed.

Leaders understand how they treat others and develop an inclusive school community is the foundation of their work. This takes intentional efforts through modeling the desired behaviors and leading with vulnerability.


Brenda Vatthauer, Middle School Principal, Hutchinson, MN
Middle school adolescent perception is real, well in their mind it is real.  At times, their perception misses the mark, is twisted, is off, but it feels “real” to a middle school student.  To help middle school students grow and enrich their learning (academically and social emotionally), a sense of belonging is a must.  A sense of belonging, can be perceived with many factors of influence, by both adults and students.  The feelings from their perception can distract or enhance growth and development in middle school.  To help build a positive sense of belonging, thoughtful consideration should be given to the following:

Be Real-Let your personality show through your “title” at school.  Attend student events, cheer, show you care and be real through expression. Your body language speaks a thousand words and students can read it well.  Step out of your comfort zone and be genuine with the students.   

Make It Personal-When you work with students, use examples that they can relate to.  Focus on them, their interests, their talents, their routines, their cultures.  By making conversations personal, you are making a connection and helping them feel a sense of belonging. 

Listen-We have two ears and one mouth for a reason, to listen more than we speak.  Listening to students is so important.  By listening, we not only learn about them, but they feel valued.  Listening also may include asking questions to allow more of the message to be drawn out and to gain a deeper understanding.  This also leads to a greater sense of person to person “connection.” 

Know Student’s Names-Being new to the middle school, I have to admit I struggle with names.  It is a work in progress for me, but necessary.  It’s ok to creatively create your own reminders to help remember student names. Students feel valued when they hear their name.

Welcome Student Voice in Decision Making-A true sense of belonging is when student voice is encouraged when decisions are being made within the middle school.  Students will work harder, perform at a higher level and feel a stronger connection to the school community if their ideas can be part of solutions.

Be Visible-Being visible in the hallways, classrooms, during lunch, recess, before school, at the bus loading and at extra-curricular activities shows connection. This communicates a you, walk by you, not say “hi” but they will see you.  Over time, a continual visible presence will powerful connection to all students.  Some middle schoolers will “ignore” help connect a sense of belonging with each other.

Create Check-Ins During Homeroom/Class-One of the most powerful ways to establish a sense of belonging is to routinely allow time for circle check-ins within each classroom.  Many character traits are developed throughout the year if staff take the time to create a sense of community and belonging through circle check-ins. 

How do you build belonging in your school and your school community?


Read the previous installments of the Middle School Collaborative: