Category Archives: Educational Leadership

Child in school staring out the window

Kindness and Understanding IS Discipline

Last week, I accidentally clicked on the bookmark for this blog. I was gutted at the date of the last post. Really? Has it been THAT long? This is absolutely pathetic. I made a commitment right there to get back on the writing horse. I need this therapy now more than ever. 

Since January, I have taken a bit of a reflective journey on my educational beliefs. At least I have tried. As an assistant principal, I spend the bulk of my days in reaction mode. I am working with kids who have made poor choices, helping to solve problems from low staffing to actual mini catastrophes of nature. The stories that can be told by middle school assistant principals are often ones seemingly straight out of a sitcom. Don’t get me wrong. I love it. It just doesn’t leave a lot of time to plan and execute the systems of change about which I am so passionate.

It is no secret that education is seriously hard right now. The sheer amount of students who require far more time and resources than a school can provide is astounding. Difficult behaviors have always been a part of our days, but now there seem to be so many more students who just don’t know how to “do school.” We can blame parents, the COVID pandemic, learning loss, and even lack of staffing, but the truth is, we still have to find ways to reach these students. 

One system I am definitely passionate about is teaching behavior, especially since that is the largest part of my job. My partner and I have spent hours collaborating, creating, and revising lessons and applicable learning modules for student behavior. We have also spent even more time beating our heads against the wall for the 10 percent of students at our school who consistently cannot seem to stop breaking the rules. 

As much as these students continue to break our hearts, we know that their hearts and souls have been broken so many more times than ours. Each and every student that sits in our offices, be it mine, my partner’s, or our principal’s, we take the time to listen. We hear their stories. We hear their parent’s stories. The trauma and tragedy so many of these students have lived are completely unfair and no amount of detention or suspension is going to fix that.

Schools are criticized constantly for not taking a hard line on discipline. The things we have seen students do in the past few years are worthy of harsh consequences. I can’t argue with that, but no consequence a school can dish out is going to change behavior. Behavior is a form of communication. No student shows up to school wanting to misbehave. It is a reaction to some sort of lagging skill. (A GREAT book to check out is Lost at School which explains this way better than me). Schools have to focus on finding out what skills students are lacking– be it academic, social, or emotional– and create a plan that addresses those discrepancies. These students are lost and need guidance from adults to change.

I am fortunate to work at a middle school that has three amazing counselors for our 950 students, as well as two assistant principals. Along with our principal, we have a team that cares deeply for the well-being of our kids. We often wonder if we are too lenient with punishments because we know the trauma and hardships of our difficult students. To some, I’m sure we are. But I’d rather a student leave my office knowing someone cares about them, than the opposite. I treat my students as if they are my own children. You can disappoint me 500 times a day if you like, but I will still forgive you, love you, and route for you until the end.

So, as educators what can we do to “fix” what is happening in our schools? My answer: just keep trying to do whatever we can. That is all we can do. Well, and pray that our efforts will someday make a difference.

school bus

The Highs and Lows of Driving a Broken Bus

Recently, I was asked what I thought were my highs and lows of this school year. Taking a moment, I realized for someone who is normally reflective and contemplative, I had not even given myself the chance this year to do either. It seems that this year was more like driving a bus at high speeds, on fire, with its wheels falling off. No time to stop and think. No time to breathe. It was truly the hardest year of my 18 years in education. I know I am not alone in this. Please. Hug a teacher and anyone who works in schools. Just ask the custodians about the side effects of this year. Flying carrots, bags and packaged food debris, and the amount of food waste, made for extra messy campuses. But I digress.

I was able to quickly find my low. It was the only time where I felt it. I internalized it all. It was the only moment that I knew I could do nothing to help my teachers and students. It was the week of the mask protests. What started as five to eight kids in the library, quickly started to gain momentum. My admin team, counselors and I were taking turns trying to provide students with the curriculum. We were talking to our parents, trying to not make enemies of our families. Many of those conversations were not pleasant, with so many people filled with emotion. Yet, this was not our fight. We only wanted what was best for all children, while following the direction of the state. By day three we had over 50 protestors and by day five a quarter of our school was showing up in the multi-purpose room, ready to join. A few were truly protesting, but as these things go, many saw it as a way to hang out with their friends and not go to class. There was little learning happening that week. It was truly the most frustrating and lowest moment of the year.

Nonetheless, I will always remember the highs. These are too many to list, for sure. I can assure you that most include my admin team and counselors, as does the one that stands at the forefront. My biggest success this year was standing at promotion and looking out at so many faces of kids who grew academically and emotionally this year. In August, we had a fight on the second day of school. The second day! And it didn’t stop there. From fighting, to “Devious Licks” vandalism, to foul language and bullying, there were a lot of students who sat in my office, along with my partner’s, and my principal’s office. A lot. There were a lot of parent meetings. A lot of meetings with students and teachers. A lot of counselor referrals. A lot of tears were shed, parents and students alike. My partner and I learned more about restorative practices this school year than I learned during the last five years. We were fixing those bus tires while the bus was on fire and still moving. We began to get very creative with our thinking. We had students work with our Functional Skills classes, gaining empathy and responsibility. We had students research the history of words and apologize to other students that were hurt. There were days and months of students watching videos, reflecting, responding, and apologizing. For many students, appropriate behavior became their most important subject in school.

Our teachers were putting in overtime, too. Working with students to build relationships, reteaching expectations, and simply not giving up on kids. I must add as well that we have two new, phenomenal counselors on my site. In my career, I have never seen two people work as hard as those counselors did this year. (I keep telling them that it isn’t always like this!) The efforts we made with students were immense. I am so proud of the work we put in, the creative thinking involved and the commitment my staff had to meet the needs of every student.

I am so grateful for the work this year and the knowledge that resulted from all that work. Of course, I am looking forward to a smoother year, a year where the bus is already in good shape, and we just need to add gas. Although, if the bus happens to break down, I am not concerned. We have the tools ready to work on it!

Cartoon Panic

Zero Days Without Being Yelled At

I have been reading a lot of articles lately about schools. None of them are shocking. Anyone who has taken a step in a school this year knows it. This is the worst year of education most of us have ever seen. The kids are not okay. The teachers are not okay. Even the overly patient para educators, librarians, custodians, and secretaries– none of them are okay. We are still in the midst of a global pandemic, trying to navigate what has happened before and what continues to wreak havoc. We keep trying to carry on and “get back to normal,” but we really need to stop and recognize, this year is not normal.

I made a joke once that I need a sign in my office where I can note how many days it has been since I have been yelled at, kind of like the OSHA signs for injuries in a workplace. I may not be able to note a day. My front office staff, some of the kindest and most understanding people you’ll ever meet, get hit the hardest. Not a day goes by that someone doesn’t complain about policies or Covid restrictions, often very unpleasantly. My staff smile and nod, knowing that the frustration is not personal. Still, it breaks my heart that they are treated this way.

Having this last week off to spend time with family and friends and being able to take a step back from things, I realized just how stressful school is right now. The muscles in my back actually relaxed a bit this week. Don’t get me wrong. I love my job. I get to have great conversations with students, help teachers with everything from tech support to class coverage, and basically problem solve all day long. It is never boring and usually quite rewarding. Nevertheless, more than ever educators are getting beat up. They are dealing with behavior from students that is unusually difficult to manage and time consuming. They are dealing with frustrated parents. Plus they have their own stress– with quarantines for their own children and the uncertainty of the availability of substitute coverage.

My point in writing this is not to tell the same story that schools are not okay, but to say, we must continue to support educators in any way we can. That means every person that works on campus. From the gardening staff to the attendance clerk, they all show up to serve our students. Each of them value an education for every child. We all want schools to stay open and continue to bring some normalcy to our communities.

Please, just be kind to all who show up to work.

And if you need to yell at someone, call your friendly assistant principal. You can yell at me. Anytime. I’ll gladly take it for my team.

Kids Jumping

Learning Loss is the Least of Our Worries

“It is not important that my students like me. It is important that they respect me.” In 1995, when I went on my first interview for a teaching job, this was an answer I was instructed to give during my credential program. After decades in the classroom, and now two years in administration, I can honestly say how absurd that statement is and frankly, a load of crap. Students absolutely need to like a teacher, but more importantly feel loved in return. Otherwise, minimal learning will happen.

“I've come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It's my personal approach that creates the climate. It's my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess tremendous power to make a student's life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a student humanized or de-humanized.”-H Ginott

My oldest just graduated from high school. Yesterday, we were sitting around chatting and I asked her who her favorite teachers had been through the years. For each she mentioned, I followed up by asking her why. Overwhelmingly, her answers included words like “learned a lot in that class.” But she then continued to include ways the teacher showed kindness, understanding and created an environment of fun. When I ask students at my school the same questions, I get similar answers. Of course the ones sitting in my office because of an issue in class spill the opposite story. I can’t tell you how many times troubled students will say, “The teacher doesn’t like me.” While this can be unpacked a million ways, the truth is, this child does not have a positive relationship with the teacher. The teacher is not solely to blame, but as educators we at least need to seek out the reasons why.

How often do we have students who come to us broken? Too often. I recently read What Happened to You?: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing by Oprah Winfrey and Bruce D. Perry. Dr. Perry mentions it is estimated that anywhere from 30%-50% of children in the public school system have significant early trauma. Many students have never learned how to regulate themselves. I’m sure every teacher can picture a student like this from memory. We have tried so hard to get this student to do their work and not interfere with the learning of others. Unfortunately, we fail over and over. This student needs far more than the classroom teacher who gently encourages. This student needs a village, a community.

Now I am not going to spend days (because I could) explaining every small nugget I learned from this book. I will simply point out one– we as educators have an important job to do in building a community for all children. Dr. Perry emphasizes that to build resilience from trauma or even social isolation (which we have seen this last year), students need a group of people who help regulate them. They need friends. They need adult support. They need a community where they feel they belong. They need teachers who care about them. This is what we need to do the minute every student steps foot on our campus this fall: build a supportive community.

“Either we spend time meeting children's emotional needs by filling their cup with love or we spend time dealing with the behaviors caused from the unmet needs. Either way we spend the time.”-Pam Leo

As educators we know this. We do. But this coming school year the focus will likely be dealing with the “learning loss” of the COVID 19 Pandemic. We might feel overwhelmed to jump right into math and reading lessons. First, though, we must deal with the social deficiencies our students (even the ones who were on campus) endured this past school year.

So, on your summer to do list add: (1) Plan time to build community and relationships the first weeks of school and of course, (2) READ (or listen to) What Happened to You?: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing. Your students and you need it.

E-mc2 written on chalkboard

Distance Heroes

Today is National Teacher Appreciation Day, and it is my first as an administrator. I wanted to take a moment to share how enormously impressed I am with the teachers at my school, my district, throughout the state, heck the whole world! Being on the other side of the classroom, observing from the back, I am constantly impressed by the commitment teachers show each and every day to kids. Our kids. But now? Now, I am blown away with what teachers have done.With little notice, tech experience, or knowledge of the pedagogy behind distance learning (yes, it is different), our schools are open for kids, staffed with open minds and open hearts.

My admin team meets with our teachers (via Google Hangouts) weekly. When I ask teachers how I can help, the first answer is always, “Can you get the kids to complete work?” Getting kids to do any work and just show up has been such a challenge for most teachers. So many kids struggle doing work at home. Homes are either not a great environment or just have too many distractions. It’s hard for us as adults, but kids have a hard time even seeing the benefit of turning off Netflix, putting down the video game controller and learning about Reconstruction or the physics of a roller coaster. Of course, in the defense of all students, especially teenagers, it is Spring after all. 

Another significant struggle teachers are facing is that they did not sign up to be online teachers. They are in this job because they love building relationships with kids. As my neighbor told me about her 5th graders, “I wasn’t done with them.” They didn’t get to do the last three months of school which are truly the most fun for teachers. It is when students show us what they learned. It is the time of projects, presentations, and all the gems that fill teachers’ buckets. Spring is the best time of the school year. Hosting a Zoom call is not exactly the Spring showcase to a year’s worth of student growth.

Through this all, our teachers have been persevering. They’ve learned Zoom, FlipGrid, EdPuzzle, Google Classroom and all the ways to keep track of the onslaught of digital submissions and email threads. They’ve reached out to kids via phone, email and even driven to houses. Above all, teachers love their students. Quarantine isn’t going to stop that love from radiating from the homebound classrooms. Whether it’s from bedrooms, closets, or kitchen tables, teachers are proving once again that they are my heroes. So, thank you for caring, thank you for adapting and thank you for loving our kids. We appreciate you!

Hand up in tall grass

The First Five Months

The common theme on social media seems to be reflecting on this last decade. Well, this isn’t one of those posts. Yes, it is a reflection, but as an educator, Winter Break is the perfect time to take a moment, breathe and look back at the first half of the school year. (For the record, though, I had a pretty darn good decade–started it as a stay at home mom and finished it as an administrator. Crazy.)

After a long career as a teacher, I took the plunge in August and went to the dark side. I landed a sweet gig as an assistant principal at an awesome middle school in my district. Don’t get me wrong the “sweet” has nothing to do with it being easy. It’s just a great place to work. 

Still, I get asked often about my new adventures. Mostly, these three questions:

So, why did I do it? Teaching is amazing. I loved planning lessons and getting to know my students, among the many great things about the profession. In addition, I’m a systems person. I love programs that benefit all and are efficient for the implementers. Heck, that’s why I’ve always been a fan of Universal Design for Learning. I wanted to affect positive change on a larger level than just my classroom. Don’t get me wrong, I was always that squeaky wheel when I was a teacher, but now I have time to focus on bigger ideas and creating systems to help all. It’s incredible.

Is it what I expected? When I’m asked this question my answer is normally yes and no. I’ve been in education long enough to understand how things work at most levels. What I didn’t expect was how incredibly reactionary the job can be. You might start the day with a good size to-do list, but you may have five different situations that develop in the first hour. As a teacher, I was far more in control of my day. Honestly, though, I’ve grown to love the craziness. The spontaneity is one of the greatest parts of the job. It’s awesome.

Do I like it? Without a doubt, I LOVE it. I spend my days helping people: kids and adults. How many people can say that about their job? My greatest fear was that I wouldn’t get to build solid relationships with kids, like I did in the classroom. That fear was seriously off the mark. I get to have longer, more meaningful conversations with kids that really need those connections. I never had time for that as a teacher! It’s fantastic.

If it isn’t already apparent, I’ve had a pretty good first five months. I can’t wait to see what the next five will bring. Long live the dark side!

Red light saber