Sunday, February 19, 2017

10 Lessons I learned as a Principal

12 years in the big chair gave me some insights that I wish I had known in year one.

1. Keep calm: In an argument, whoever raises their voice first has lost the argument. You will never say or do anything in anger that you will be proud of later, and there is a pretty good chance that you can never make up for the damage this anger may cause to a relationship. Even if you are in the right, losing it makes you wrong.

2. Investigate, don't assume: Each person has their own perspective of any incident. A version of the truth, which will in all likelihood be the one that either paints them in the best light, creates the most drama, or points blame to another. The truth is out there somewhere between the lines.

3. Believe in the power of knowledge to change lives: The adage, "A leopard doesn't change his spots" is hogwash and flies against the precepts of education. People change based on new knowledge, and experiences. You touch too many lives to think what you do doesn't matter, or to think that you can't learn how to do something differently. Stick to a growth mindset.

4. Make time to put people first: People matter more than tasks, but tasks still have to be done, preferably on time. You have to put things aside when the myriad of urgent or important matters land on your desk. Pick one night a week, every week and make it part of your routine. Put in a few weekend hours, choose a time that your family knows you will be catching up, like Sunday Night. Find the best times to be out among the community, like drop off and pick up.  If you take the time to go out, even for awhile, at lunch time, you will save yourself a great deal of time in the afternoon dealing with the fallout of lunchtime.

5. Communicate, communicate, communicate:  Never let 24 hours pass without returning parent or teacher calls or emails. Even "Hello, I got your email and will investigate this further and get back to you." 6:00 is a great time to return parent calls. They are home and have had time to consider their upset earlier. About 2/3 of the parents will say that they have already talked to their child and figured out a solution. Never, never respond to an angry email with a long winded explanation email. Call or meet with the person. Somethings are best done formally. Learn the difference between "legal issues" and "annoyed person" and act accordingly. Know when to call for help.

6. Consider Motives: Take time to examine the motivation behind special requests "Kids matter, but my kid matters most" may be the unspoken mantra of parents and teachers. Keep centered on "Best for ALL Students." Take time to explain the "big picture" reason for your choice in such requests.

7. Safety is job one:  It is exhausting and impossible to be the only "security staff" on your site. Make it very clear to every staff member and volunteer that by being an adult on campus they share the responsibilities of student safety. Have students meet to discuss the issues and solutions for playground activities. Invest in programs like Positive Behavioral Supports and Interventions. A positive and kind community is more likely to happen when representatives from all sectors of the school community take part in choosing what being our best selves looks like. Empower others to stand up.

8. Good stuff grows so share it: The book room is never in order for longer than 6 months. Pack rats like to share their finds. Really, we don't need 8000 uni-cubes and a couple of million counting bears, but there they are right next to workbook circa 2001. Keeping within state laws, send it home with kids and move on.

9. It is hard to be impartial. Teachers who open their hearts to kids every day and are hungry to learn more to engage students are just easier to love than teachers that complain about kids, parents and well, everything. Maybe it's normal to be partial to teachers who love kids .. it is about the kids we serve, right? Being impartial is easy for a robot. Try to learn to ignore the squeaky wheel, when it has already been greased. There are a number of "team building" books that may give you insight on how to work with difficult staff. I don't miss having to deal with difficult people.

10. Kids deserve our best, everyday. For that to happen you need to be healthy. Don't fall victim to stress related health issues. Keep good food for you snacks, because sometimes you will have to skip a meal. Try to set a time before lunch to eat your lunch. This gives you time to go out and be with students at lunch. Just walk around, talk to kids, open their milk, play basketball. Be proactive and kind. Be human. 

Thursday, August 7, 2014

5 Tips for a Great First Day for Parents

Everyone has high expectations for the first day of school.  As a former school principal, I know a few things about the First Day of School Blues.  In my 25 years in education, I have experienced  a great deal more parent meltdowns than student meltdowns on the first few days of school.  Remember, your child looks to you for cues to define his/her school as  "great" or "terrible."   Here's 5 quick tips before you hit the blacktop for a GREAT first day. 

Know the lay of the land

Check your school’s traffic policies around drop off and pick up.  There is a flurry of activity close to the bell time, and a driver in school areas should expect to be patient.  It is common in elementary school for a parent to join their child on the first day. We LOVE that, but remember you will not be the only person with this idea, and school parking lots are small.

If you live close, walk in; if you must drive, plan to park several streets over from the school. If your child is in a primary grade, and you are not able to walk in, you might want to team up with a neighbor, particularly if this is a new school setting.  Your school  might already have a "Walking School Bus" or a "Walk and Roll" program that can help you locate other families walking in.   If not, maybe you could start one with your neighbors.

Have a quick exit plan. Teachers want to get started pretty quickly, and long goodbyes may make it harder for your child to get in the school groove. If your child will need to find his/her own way to class, scout out the campus so your child feels comfortable about where to go.

Make the pick-up plan apart of your mapping.  If your child goes home with someone else, be sure to note that in your registration papers, or pin a note to your student's shirt.  If you are walking in, pick a tree or bush and make it "our spot."  In most schools, you will not be allowed to wait a the door for the bell to ring, so let your child know not to expect that.  Be sure your child knows that the school office is a safe place and that the people inside the office are there to take care of students.

Trust that your child is in safe hands

Your child may not get in the “popular” teacher’s class and may have “no friends” in this year’s class. Don’t show disappointment about teacher placement and/or other students in the classroom in front of your child. Children have keen ears and can tune into adult conversations, when we think they are not listening, particularly if we are talking about their life.

Regardless of what the “word on the street” might be about a teacher, your child may have a wonderful year. Remember, the school staff works diligently to create equitably balanced classes for each child. To create balanced classes, school teams look at numerous factors such as work habits, academic abilities, student behavior, and special needs and abilities. In many districts, schools are staffed very tightly and have developed combination classes between some grade levels and there simply is not an option for moving students.  If you ask, you may find that the school is switching students around the first few weeks of school because of student enrollment, and you can put your child’s name into that hat. If you’re “stuck” make it a positive year, volunteer in the classroom, offer to help with tasks, and above all else show respect and professional courtesy to the teacher.

Check out the school website for general information

School offices are understandably inundated on the first day of school, and many things you might want to call about are already on the website. If you have an emergency, then do contact the school, but most general information is on the website, or in written communication you may have already received from the school or teacher.  Unless it is an actual emergency, school offices don't interrupt classes with general parent instructions. If your child has specific health related needs, most school offices are open a few weeks prior to school; call beforehand and ask for protocol regarding student health plans.  They will steer you to the right person.  If you are a returning parent and want to help other parents find their way on the first day of school, contact the school; the school  may be happy to have the help.  The weeks prior to school are the best time to make contact with the school office.

Put “school bound” items near the front door in a special place

Starting the day out right means finding everything. Many parents find it helpful to have a “take to school” spot for children to check on the way out the door. Backpacks, jackets, supplies, and eventually homework can be organized and ready to go prior to going to sleep the night before. Make a few “outfit” choices with your child to be prepared for the first week and store the outfits together in the drawer or closet. For most schools, on the first day of school the student is expected to show up with a backpack. Teachers have pencils, paper and a “supply list” to suggest needs to parents. Don’t worry if you can’t afford things on the list; if you can afford it, maybe send a few extra for those who can’t.  A smooth transition out the door, can set the entire day up for success. 

Have a lunch plan for your child

Most schools have a healthy and affordable lunch for purchase.  This may be less expensive than packing a lunch. If your child will be bringing lunch, he/she can help you prepare it the night before. Most schools do not permit glass bottles, sodas or overly sugared food items because of nutrition laws around the Federal Lunch Program.  Ask your child not to trade or throw away food. Explain that if the unused food comes home, you can be better informed about what to purchase and how much to pack. Also, food allergies are common in schools; talk to your child about respecting the “no nuts” areas and washing their hands if you plan on packing nut butters or processed foods that may contain nuts. If your child has severe food allergies, please let the school know as soon as possible.
Don’t worry if you didn't have time to pack a lunch before school. Drop it off on your way to work.  While most schools don’t allow parents to go to the classroom for drop offs during the school day, dropping off lunch in the office is common place.  Keep your child responsible for their own lunch, by letting them know to check with the office.  Say, “If you don’t have a lunch, check in the office.  I’ll leave either the lunch or lunch money there.”  
If your child was on the Federal Lunch Program in prior years at the same school district, the program rolls over for the first 30 days of school, but you have to reapply each year. You can get information about the program from your local district  or at The National School Lunch Program site. 

If your child is new to a school district, because of privacy laws, there will be no record of prior applications. Fill out the forms as soon as possible and ask how you can make arrangements for your child’s lunch before the first day.  Many school district provide a grace period or a courtesy meal for students without lunch.  

When we are prepared, we have a better day.  Get ready, Mom and Dad.  Our vacation is over, and yours is about to begin. 

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Finding a Great Teaching Model at the Gym

When I met Janet, my Pilates coach, the first thing she said was, "What are your goals?"

We discussed my concerns and all the joints and muscles that were "far below basic" and those that were "proficient" stronger and flexible. She had me do some stretches to gauge my flexibility and lack there of.  

When I said, "Oh, no that would be impossible for me to do."  or "Ouch"  She said, "That's okay, we have other ways to get there."

Then she discussed with me her philosophy and qualifications and told me not to worry, because she had been where I am in many ways and this program had helped her become more flexible and pain free. She explained to me the muscles of my neck and shoulders and how the overuse of some and under use of others are the primary reason for the pain in my shoulders and neck.  Further, she explained how stretching the muscles to lengthen joints, and to move the joint would provide more lubrication for my joints and help ease the pain of movement. 

Let's call our initial meeting, "gathering summative data (existing data that gives us a starting place: NOT the end of learning;  the start of our next steps).

  • Discussed my interest, likes, dislikes.  
  • Outlined my strengths 
  • Defined areas of opportunity for improvement
  • Assured me of her professionalism
  • Explained the road map to relief
  • Knew when to move back a space in initial assessment
  • Let me know that she had empathy and would support me where I was
During our weekly sessions, she always has something a little different for me to try, practicing the skills we began with a bit more of a challenge.  Each week she has a written plan, but if my shoulder gives out, or I have a stiff muscle that refuses to cooperate, she stops and says, "Mmm, let's do this another way." or "Wait, watch me."  As she carefully breaks down each step, joint and muscle I need to engage. 

As time has passed, she says, "Do you remember how hard this was for you?  Beautiful, just beautiful."  She constantly reinforces my efforts, and pushes me to go further saying.  "Do you have one more?" and "Yes, that's it, exactly. See how you engaged your core." 

Throughout each lesson she is "gathering formative data, and letting that data guide her instruction:  

  • Plans carefully 
  • Keeps it challenging but doable
  • Tries a new approach  as needed, seamlessly and without making me feel that I have failed
  • Specifically tells me  when muscles are not engaged that should be
  • Specifically tells me when I am doing something correct
  • Reminds me how much I've learned 
  • Shares in my joy
About 8 months into the program, the pain in my neck that had plagued me for 15 years, or more is gone. Most of my joints which were  far" below basic," are now "proficient" and  "advanced!" I never skip it, unless I'm out of town or ill. 

This machine, the "technology" of the process, did not help me in my on-going quest for flexibility and less pain.  It was the instructional practice of the teacher and her skill in imparting knowledge about not only how to use the technology, but how to change my daily habits.  At the same time, the machine supported my muscles and joints to achieve a greater stretch and more joint usage. Not all technology plugs into a wall.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Letting go of Flat Stanley

One of my favorite teaching stories is the story of Ray.  Ray was Alpha Dog in my little 4th grade class. Though kind and considerate,  he questioned me, again and again, and  in doing so he guided the classroom to success.

It started about 2 weeks into school, I had a wonderful "project based" (circa 1980 something) lesson which was kicked off by reading Flat Stanley. In my "plan" kids would do pamphlets about the area of Texas visited by our little flat friend, write letters back, and talk about why Stanley couldn't really be flat...Reading, Writing, Social Science and Biology.  I had done this unit 2 times in 2 years and was excited, because kids from past years had loved it.

Friday before the kickoff, we finished reading the little book.  Ray raised his hand.... 

"Ms K, I'm sorry but this is a stupid book."

"Really, Ray, what didn't you like about it." 

"If a steam roller ran over a little boy, the boy would not be flat; he'd be dead.  There would be blood and guts all over the road."

I said something like, "Yes, that's what so funny about this book."  

Ray was not amused and the peanut gallery chimed in, "Yea.. this is a stupid book." 

SIGH... So much for my plan .... it rested on humor and good will towards Stanley.

I spent that weekend revamping my plans ... SPORTS.. Matt Christopher fiction and  non-fiction sports books.  Human body muscle connection for Science   ... and we wrote the teams in the major cities of Texas.  It was a great, most of the sports teams sent a nice note back.  The kids enjoyed the sports venues and could identify major cities by the teams that played there. Concepts of  "Human Body"  "Our State" and "Writing Letters" done, done and done.  I learned the power of Non-fiction for students. 

This particular class held 2  non-readers. Ray taught them to read that year.  His interest and excitement was contagious, because guys wanted to be in "his group" and he was a good reader, they stepped up their game.

Here's what I learned

1. Don't be afraid to scrap a plan and start over.  If students aren't interested you may be "teaching" but they aren't learning. 

2. You aren't the only expert in the room.  Ray taught his friends to read.  If you have kids who love to teach others, let them!

3. When questioned, be opened to being wrong! I had a poster that said "The teacher is never worng"  and later as a principal, we sang a song "I like me" which was about how we all make mistakes.  Different can be better!

My dad once told me, "If you're on the right track, don't be afraid to be questioned. If your argument is strong, then it will stand; if not, then accept that you could be wrong."    Don't be afraid to be wrong.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Retiring the Book Report

We need to retire the "Book Report" Common Core will ask student to "Analyze" not summarize. Add to this the emphasis on non-fiction reading, and those cute dioramas that creative mothers "help" their child produce and coat hanger mobiles will at last be retired.  If all of the students in a class have book reports that look alike, the teacher has asked them to mostly remember (the parts of a book) and understand to identify and describe. As an administrator I have long said, "Any time all of your students are doing the exact same thing to "create" you are preparing them for factory jobs that do not exist,"

By simply allowing students to respond to a book in a manner that is self chosen already rises the Depth of Knowledge to evaluation when students must make a decision based on the criteria of what they must share. Here's a little list of  non-digital ways to respond to literature: 50 ways to respond to literature 

Going Digital

Here are a few tools that can help step up a book response, fiction or non-fiction.  The teacher would set the expectations with a rubric of must haves, but students would drive the look and feel and vision of their analysis of the reading.

Create a Video Cast:

You don't need a fancy camera to do a video cast.  An IPad, computer with a camera, smart phone or a small camera with video option should do the trick.  The student would create the backdrop and they may either do a head shot of just show their images.

Besides IMovie here are some video presentations applications:

Explain Everything
Show Me

Create an Infograph

My favorite Web 2.0 tool of the moment is  consider the many ways students could use an interactive map like the one below to respond to literature.. Fiction or Non-fiction .. writing follows a path. The elements of this visual are easy to manipulate, copy, delete redesign into a personal reflection.

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Create a Wall

Padlet is a great Web 2.0 tool for creating a "wall"  This is essentially a visual rich web page that relates to a subject or theme. Here's an example of a Non-fiction collection on Caesar 
Fakebook I have not tried this tool myself, but a few friends have reported that they used it to have students create a "Fakebook Page" for a character in a book or a Historical Biographic piece. 

Goodwin, Bryan, and Kirsten Miller. "Research Says / Nonfiction Reading Promotes Student Success." Educational Leadership 70.4 (2012): 80-82. ASCD. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Web. 2 Feb. 2014. <>.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Digital Citizenship

I liked the simplicity of the definition for Digital Citizenship found at written by Mike Ribble, “Digital citizenship is the norms of appropriate, responsible technology use.” It is the determination of  those norms that takes time and effort and should be decided within the community.  
  • What is appropriate and responsible use? 
  • What do students need to know to use technology responsibly? 
  • How will we protect our students?
The article divided Digital Citizenship into  9 digital themes,  These ideas might be used to help define the specifics of appropriate and responsible digital behavior.

Also of interest in this article is the concept of “REP’s” (Respect, Educate, Protect)  and these ideas could be intertwined with the expectations for behavior defined in a school's behavioral matrices.  (e.g. Be Safe, Be Respectful, Be Responsible, Be Caring).

"Respect Your Self/Respect Others
- Etiquette
- Access
- Law
Educate Your Self/Connect with Others
- Communication
- Literacy
- Commerce
Protect Your Self/Protect Others
-Rights and Responsibility
- Safety (Security)
- Health and Welfare"

Before reading the above article,  the aspect of access and opportunity for all may not have been included in my definition of “Digital Citizenship”.  However, it is clear to me that technology can either help bridge the gap in our community or widen the inequality. It is my opinion that 1:1 digital tools for all students will support equity for students.

For now this is my definition of Digital Citizenship:

Digital Citizenship includes the defining of a community's standards for  1) Appropriate and responsible use of technology 2) On-line behavior that mirrors or exceeds off-line behavioral expectations 3) Seeking and sharing knowledge of the processes and procedures in using technology 4) Providing adequate resources to support community members’ access to technology resources. 

A school or district's definition for Digital Citizenship should encompass universal access, socially and educationally appropriate and responsible use of technology, and providing and acquiring the education needed to be safe, proficient and ethical users of all resources. These concepts cannot be assumed, school districts must be deliberate to include these skills in their curriculum.