First Year in Review

My first year as principal is in the books. At times, I thrived. Many times, I merely survived. I experienced success and adversity. Lessons were learned the hard way. I have much to learn. There is an infinity of room to improve.

There are so many great memories from this first year, so many highlights! I remember pacing the halls in early August planning and preparing. We worked so hard to make sure everything was ready for the students’ first day. The happy faces on the first day were a very rewarding.

Writing words of inspiration on school windows to be seen by all…..

Filling out my first accident report as principal. Luckily, it was nothing serious, at all. And yes, I realize I’m a nerd for even having this picture taken.

My first tornado drill as principal. Safety first!

What a proud feeling the first time I led our first character assembly!

Walk to School Day was a success.

A small town Christmas Tree Lighting…..

There were great classroom experiences, like book tastings.

and thoughtful classroom projects that allowed students to give back to the community. This one in particular raised several hundred dollars to a community outreach center.

Celebrating our 5th graders’ 1,000th day of their school career.

We invited local volunteers to mentor our students, they continue to make a difference.

I’ll never forget these two 2nd graders who began our recycling program. End of year events, like kindergarten graduation were so precious.

I remember the feeling of relief following the panic after locating a misplaced student at dismissal. I’ll remember shaking the hand of every single fifth grader at our promotion ceremony and telling them I was proud of them and how bright their future is. There were tons of memories but overall it sure did seem to go by fast.

Here is my advice to next year’s batch of first year principals.

1. Be yourself. During the year, I caught myself thinking back to how I had seen other principals do things. Did I have to mimic them? Must I do it that way? Did I have to rule with an iron fist? Was I supposed to march around reminding everyone of my new title? I found that the best answer is to trust myself by making the best decision I know to make and to be myself.

2. Resist the test prep mentality. I don’t and won’t ever get fired up to prepare kids for a standardized test. Our job is to provide students with meaningful learning experiences. We are here to provide them for the future and to help them love learning. Educators must not fall into the trap of basing every decision on the test. There are so many more important things us educators do than teaching kids to bubble. Focus on what’s important: teaching, learning, relationships, and growth.

3. Think before you act. My Grandpa said the key to a successful life was making good decisions. Educators make hundreds of decisions per day. There are automatic ones and easy ones. Sometimes the answer is; do nothing. Many times a decision is mandatory or even out of your hands. There are also choices that require deep thought and deliberation. The idea is that you want to be okay with your decision a month from now. Avoid making a decision if you need time to reflect and decompress. Choose wisely.

4. Apologize You are bound to mess up. You are going to get things wrong. People will have their feelings hurt. You will forget things. Preserve relationships. Take accountability. Look people in the eyes and say “I’m sorry.”

5. You have not arrived. What got you here isn’t enough. Keep pushing. The idea is to not simply become a principal. I want to be a great principal. I know this will require continuous improvement. I’m not done learning and hopefully neither are you!

6. Develop a PLN. Find your tribe. You need people to blow off steam with, ask questions to, bounce ideas off of, and to laugh with. The principalship can feel isolated, don’t suffer alone.

7. You need a mentor. A mentor is like the MVP of your PLN. You need at least one person you can trust 100%. You need someone to tell you that your idea is bad. You need someone to nudge and encourage you. I love asking my mentor dumb questions I’m ashamed to ask anyone else. Find someone who will have your back, maybe someday you can return the favor.

8. The job isn’t in the office. I proudly wore out at least 4 pairs of shoes this year. Email can wait. Paperwork can usually wait. The magic happens in the classroom. Choose to be there.

9. Support people. All people have value. Parents send us the best kids they have. Everyone faces their own struggles. Be there for people. Encourage others. Compliment folks for a job well done. Tell people you appreciate them. When someone makes a mistake, offer grace. Listen and consider different points of view. Offer your smile freely. It’s more important to have someone’s back than to get your way or “be right”.

10. It’s all for the students. Adam Welcome says, “schools don’t exist so adults have jobs, schools exit to be awesome for kids.” He couldn’t be more right. We must make school magical for students. Our buildings should be special places that kids looking forward to visiting. Build relationships, teach lessons, take risks, model kindness, and be a role model because our kids need better schools.

Year 1 was an adventure and I can hardly wait for year 2!

#Brake4Turtles

In North Carolina, it is a common occurrence for turtles of all sizes to wander their way onto roadways, especially during spring. Maybe they too are just weary, green travelers making their long way home. On many occasions, I’ve swerved to dodge them or been able to straddle them with my tires.

One morning this past week, on the way to work this very predicament arose. At the last minute, I was lucky enough to spot about a baseball-sized, miniature turtle meandering his way across a two lane and avoid him. I fist-pumped as if I had birdied 18 at Augusta, celebrating the fact that I had not run over my reptilian friend.

What happened next was equally pleasing to my soul. A gentleman in a blue, older model Ford was in the process of turning around. He waved at me. As I too slowed down, I saw in my rear view as he pulled over to the side with his hazard lights blinking. It was the turtle’s lucky day! The nice guy was going to properly escort our turtle friend safely to the other side.

I’m glad to report that in my area it is a fairly common occurrence to see good-natured people stop and play turtle-hero. There pretty much is an informal, turtle-protection society that I’m glad to be a part of.

Turtle-saving is an example of what we need more of in our world. Could tragedies be avoided? Would there be less suffering? It seems we have become less likely to help one another than in the past. We need more folks who are willing to stop what they are doing and do something to help make the world a better place. There will be times when you will need someone to stop what they are doing in order to pick you up. Maybe you will find yourself stressed out and in unfamiliar territory, like a terrapin on a traffic-filled turnpike, in need of a well-timed rescue. There will also be times where you are able to give others a helping hand.

Our world needs more folks willing to slow down, step up, and help a turtle cross the road. Can we count on you?

PBL Year 1

By no means am I an expert on Project-Based Learning. I am a first year principal lucky enough to lead a school in its first year of a PBL initiative. I have learned a lot this year regarding rolling out PBL as a school. We are not “there yet” but our instruction was more impactful than the year before. It’s truly been a fun-filled journey. Making PBL an integral part of how we do things has helped many teachers become reunited with their why. I mean really? Did you become a teacher to dazzle students with worksheets or challenge them to find out why some restaurants succeed while others fail?

1. You gotta start somewhere.

Don’t expect your first unit to be perfect. Your first attempt may to be too ambitious. Your timeline might be unrealistic. Although it captured the adults interest, the kids didn’t get super excited. We learn by doing. “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”- Lao Tzu –

2. Network. Connected educators have a leg up on teachers who only operate within their school. Early in the year, our staff engaged in a Google Hangout with Hacking PBL authors Ross Cooper (@RossCoops31) and Erin Murphy (@MurphysMusings5). They were encouraging and offered us great advice. There may not be other people implementing PBL in your building. However, there are thousands of connected educators on Twitter who are and who’d love to collaborate with you.

3. There is no magic box. PBL from a catalog isn’t true PBL. Folks may be offering a one-size, fits all PBL unit, don’t buy it. Your classroom is unique. The learning styles of your students do not match any other classroom in the world. Do not deny yourself and your students the organic process that PBL can be. Steal ideas and borrow from others but make them your own.

4. Don’t get caught up in fluff. Don’t get mesmerized by a cute product. Be sure your unit has depth. Former college football player turned motivational speaker, Inky Johnson reminds us that it’s “not about the product, it’s about the process.” He was talking about keys to success but it applies here, too. It’s okay if the process is messy and the end product is not much to look at. The point is that the learning occurs along the way, not a culmination or in isolation. Hook your students with an enticing essential question and you cannot go wrong!

5. Bring the outside world in. Who better to help your students solve real world problems than real life people? PBL is a great opportunity to partner with your community. Bring in experts. Invite the Mayor to hear your kids sales pitch. Tour a local farm or restaurant. Form a local panel to provide students with authentic feedback. Skype with an author from around the world. Some of the best guest speakers I’ve seen included parents and local business owners.

6. It highlights standards, not tests. PBL units are rooted in essential questions that force the learner to learn and master standards in order to solve a problem or create a project. An added bonus of PBL’s are that they also serve as an effective distraction from dreaded EOG test prep. We can build intriguing units focused on standards but making test prep anything more than mundane requires an educational miracle. How would you prefer to learn: frickin‘ packets or an exciting, real-world endeavor? Cult of Pedagogy, Jennifer Gonzalez blogged about the young man in the first links video. Check it out here.

PBL may not be the cure for all that ails education but it’s definitely a huge step in the right direction.

Give it Back

My son’s u15 soccer team was on the move. Already up 2-0, they were attacking along the right wing. A carefully placed pass trickled past the last defenseman to an open striker. The ball flew off the striker’s right foot with great velocity landing squarely in the goalie’s abdomen. Not the way he planned on making the save but a goal was not scored on this play. Play continued as the goalie recovered and found air. After the ball was cleared from scoring range, the goalie’s team intentionally kicked the ball out of bounds. This gave time for the goalie to recover and signal he was okay to continue. My son’s teammate then purposely inbounded the ball directly to the other team, as he was urged by everyone to do. He gave the ball back. These actions had been urged by teammates, coaches, and the crowd. The whole sequence of events was a gesture of sportsmanship and one of soccer’s gentlemen-like traditions.

As the scenario played out I smiled and thought of the beauty of the moment. Two teams, in the middle of competition, were happy to exchange a series of exchanges of goodwill. What a great example of how life lessons can be learned through sports! We need more acts like this in everyday life. Our world could use a little less competition and a little more cooperation. We need more helping hands, more smiles to strangers, more second chances, and more words of encouragement. We need to help others up more when they are down. We need to be better sports. So, if you see someone get the breath knocked out of them or maybe they are just slightly overwhelmed with everyday life, offer them empathy, kindness, and whatever else they need to get back along their way. The game of life will go on, be sure to leave your mark on it.

Most Important

I recently made an excellent decision. I took a day off from work. I am the type who dislikes being away from school. When I’m at meetings, I’d rather be walking halls. I enjoy recess more than workshops. I feel guilty when I’m away from campus. The decision I made to attend my oldest daughter’s 4th grade field trip, was an excellent one. Even though it is a busy time of the year, there was nothing more important for me on this day. There was no place else I’d rather had been. I should do things like this more often. You should, too.

What a wonderful time we had that day, too. My daughter helped friends dissect a fish. She held a box turtle. We paddled a canoe together. Some very precious memories were created this day. I was so happy to be there with her.

This couldn’t have happened if I had gone to school. The silly thing is that I hesitated and second-guessed the decision. This field trip served as an excellent reminder that our families at home come before our school families. I feel guilty of the times when my school work or activities interfere with or takes away from my family. We cannot put other people’s children ahead of our own. Balance is a necessity for long-lasting success. Be sure that you are taking time out on a regular basis to be present for your family. I wouldn’t trade the memories we created for anything.

Walk your Why

Your beliefs become your thoughts, your thoughts become your words, your words become your actions, your actions become your habits, your habits become your values, your values become your destiny.

-Mahatma Gandhi

Our daily actions must be in sync with our values. The noble reasons we became an educator must be apparent to others through our daily interactions. We must bleed our mission and wear it upon our sleeve. Folks need to know what we stand for.

I have found it helpful to reflect several times a day upon my actions. I hit the pause button and ask questions like: “Who am I serving?” and “What am I doing for others?” Also, we must have trusted colleagues that we can rely on to call us out if we are not living up to our beliefs. We cannot allow politeness to breed mediocrity. We have to hold ourselves accountable for who we are at school.

It is easy to say things like “all kids can learn.” Do your classroom practices match this statement? What do you do to show this to the world?

As an educator, you believe in creativity. Does the mountain of worksheets on your students’ desk speak to this? Do you like paperwork? Would the assigned tasks inspire you?

You know that the most important part of a school is the classroom. Do you make it out of your office? What does it feel like to be a student in your school?

Your actions allow you to build up capital with your stakeholders. Make your dependability a part of your identity. When others have witnessed who you are through your actions, you earn their respect and support. When stakeholders know you are there for the children and you are not afraid to roll your sleeves up, they will have your back.

Are your actions a symbol of your beliefs? Do you model your mission daily? Is there a disconnect between what you say and what you do?

Only you can answer these questions and only you can do something about it. Let your actions match your why! Walk your why!

What’s Really Important

Most schools are at or around the mid year mark of the school year. So regardless of the grade level that you teach you’ve recently finished a round of exams or tests or will shortly do so. You will also be involved in another round of standardized, local, or state assessments in the spring. In my opinion, our policies, laws, and society place far too much importance on summative and standardized tests. The results drive an awful lot. Great teachers know their focus must remain on teaching and learning. Great teachers know the importance of creating memories through tangible experiences. They teach with enthusiasm and go to great lengths to capture students’ imagination.

I think assessments are important and do hold some value. We must help students prepare. However, assessments are not the most important thing that we do. Assessments are not the mission. Assessments are not why we chose to educate. Test scores are not our sole determination of success. Dave Burgess says “we are in the life-changing business”, we accomplish this by exuding creativity and magic in our classrooms. We must spark interest, fuel passions, and motivate future leaders. Educators must create meaningful learning experiences for students that will impact students long after we are gone. Be sure they leave your classroom with a plethora of great memories. Encourage students to find a reason to love learning. This means that we cannot place too much emphasis on assessments or assessment results. In their mind-blowing book Disrupting Thinking, Kylene Beers and Robert Probst remind us that we cannot allow students to think of themselves as an “H”. Students are far more than just a reading level. Please don’t make them prove their answers each and every time they crack a book. Ask them why they like or dislike what they’ve read. What did it make them think about? Did what they read challenge their thinking?

We can not allow a single test score to define us or our students. We should use data wisely but we cannot allow “testing” to steal our joy and to derail us from our mission. Testing should inform our instruction, not dominate it.

Kids will not remember you as the awesome teacher who prepped them for their big EOG test. They will remember you for dressing in character and using funny voices as you read aloud. They won’t remember that you taught them how to bubble test answers, but they will remember how you transformed your room for a book tasting.

Kids must have the opportunity to love learning. School must be fun. Students need time to explore, solve real world problems, and read without any constraints. Be sure students leave your classroom with a greater love of learning than they entered it with.