Saturday, June 16, 2018

Inside the Trenches of the Principal: The Final Post

11 months.
47 weeks.
334 days.

Around this time of the year, it's commonplace to be asked "How was your first year as principal?" I feel obligated to reply with a simple answer, like "Good," "Great," "Tiring." And while all of those are true, there's so much more to it. You can't measure the year with a word, or a number, or a caption.

I am currently reading a book by my favorite authors, Dan and Chip Heath. My introduction to them was their book Made to Stick, and now I am reading The Power of Moments. In a nutshell, it's about how we are so greatly impacted by significant moments in our life. I suppose when I look back on this year, that's what I will ultimately remember. The moments. There were highs and lows, or as they call in the book, peaks and pits. There were also pivotal moments that changed the course of my direction, which they call transitions in the book. Either way, I think this final post for my first year as principal would be best explained by a few of those moments that have stuck with me most:

1) July 17, 2017: This was my first day on the job. I remember walking into the school for the first time (I had never seen it before getting hired) and the previous principal handing me the keys to the building. It was a surreal moment, but one I will never get out of my head. I was proud, overwhelmed, scared, and exhilarated, perhaps all at the same time.

2) August 28, 2017: The first day of school. The dreams, the planning, the sweat that went into getting the school together in one month was here. We had a block party to welcome the kids back, and I'll remember the faces of these 560 students who had smiles from ear to ear getting to be welcomed back by music, bubbles, and their teachers.

3) First sign language: I was doing my daily car rider name calling and I saw my 1st grader Colin, who is deaf. I had just learned "How are you?" and "Have a good afternoon" in sign language and I told him those two phrases. I know it sounds small, but just having him understand what I was saying was a proud moment and I have latched onto sign language since then. I continue to be a student of sign and will hopefully continue to learn more next year.

4) Morning Choice Bins: In late September we constructed all 31 of our Morning Choice bins. I had promoted Morning Choice so much to other schools and teachers, so now having the chance to do it school wide at Moore was exciting. Seeing those bins lined up across the lobby floor was such a pivotal moment for the shift in our morning routines.

5) Community Day: I had spent several days over the summer when I got this job walking around the neighborhood, introducing myself to local business people. I invited them to Moore to see inside and meet our students. On Community Day, it was my Ambassadors' first chance at putting into place their training by conducting tours of the school for our guests. It was a proud moment to see my 5th grade team put their skills into action.

6) Critical Conversation: I will never forget my first "critical conversation" early on in the year with a staff member. It was hard, uncomfortable, and trying. We made it through, however, and it was really encouraging the positive relationship this other person and I have developed since then.

7) The Amazing Shake: December 1 was our 5th grade Amazing Shake competition! 93 students, 29 judges, and hundreds of interactions between individuals solidified that we were going to teach "soft skills" at Moore and give students opportunities to apply them. The excitement for this competition continued the following week as we had Rounds 2-5 and named a champion. This was all capped off by taking two of my students to the Ron Clark Academy National Amazing Shake Competition.

8) House Party: January 3rd was our first day back from winter break and we welcomed the students back with our "House Party," which was the official kick-off to our House system. The Houses have become a pivotal piece of Moore and will expand to even greater lengths next year. The students and staff have taken great pride in their House and we were able to crown our first House champion at the end of the year.

9) Discipline Data: I was heart-broken at the end of the year to find that our final discipline data had not improved to the degree that I had set or had hoped for. As I sat in my office with my assistant principal looking at the data, I just shook my head in disbelief that all of the initiatives and efforts (Awesome Office Visits, House points, Moore 4, engaging teaching, incentives) had not done more to vastly improve our discipline referrals.  

10) My Birthday: I am not one for surprises being done to me, but I got the surprise of a lifetime when my assistant principal arranged for the entire school to go to the gym and surprise me by singing happy birthday.

11) Book Release Party: Having so many of my staff members and friends there to help celebrate the release of The Limitless School meant a lot, and having the opportunity now to make the book come to life at Moore has been the most rewarding part.

12) Dance Parties: There have been some fantastic spontaneous dance parties this year. From dancing with Ms. Pratt up on her table to having a dance-off with my first grader N'Kya in the gym before Morning Rally, it was always nice to be able to laugh and dance away with my staff and students. 

13) Professional Development Trips: Having the chance to travel with 25 of my staff members to professional development this year has allowed me to bond more with my staff. There were many funny moments and great stories (and adventures if you were stuck in New Orleans!) that have allowed me to get to know my staff more.

14) Room Service Cart: Getting to travel around the school with my assistant principal using the Room Service Cart was always a highlight. Seeing the excitement on my teachers' faces when they had that cart enter their room made my day.

15) Teacher Appreciation Grill Out: On the Friday of Teacher Appreciation Week, I brought my grill from home into school and grilled for about 3 hours for the staff. I have never been so relaxed at school!

16) Spring Break Painting: We have done our fair share of painting this year at the school, but over spring break I had a group that put in some serious hours to create the first mural at the school in the hallways. It's just so much better than looking at white walls!

17) Crazy Clothing: My wife is starting to get angry with me because my crazy clothing is starting to take up an entire closet! From fun suits, to costumes that includes bacon, Avengers, and turkey hats, there was never a dull moment when I got to look ridiculous at school.

18) Special Visitors: It was an honor to host some of my friends from all over the country at Moore, including Michael Bonner, Todd Nesloney, Wade and Hope King, LaNesha Tabb. We also hosted over 300 people on tours, including district folks, educators from my county and others, local business people, perspective families, and community members.

19) Racing: On April 20th I got invited by my Let Me Run boys running club to race their coach, Neb, and Wake Forest football quarterback (and NFL prospect) John Wolford. Needless to say, I got burned in the race, but it was fun to let my students see me in a different light and trying to relive my track days.

20) 5th Grade Celebration Surprise: Admittedly, I'm not the most emotional person in the world. One of my students got me though at the 5th grade celebration. As Eliana was making her speech about her memories at Moore, she said she was going to go "off script," at which point she shared some very special words for me. It really made the tough days, long hours, and endless decisions all worth it.

There were plenty more special moments this year, of course. There were also many other "pits" as well that I am choosing not to dwell on. I've aimed through this blog to share a bit of what it can look like in the principal chair, especially for someone doing it for the first time.

Year 2, like any job, will inevitably be smoother. I have more awareness of what to expect, how to handle issues, and how to get things done. I've been able to bring on amazing new staff members, who are going to help carry the mission and vision forward. But it will also be more daunting in other ways, as we are digging deeper into rigor and raising expectations even more for students, staff, and myself. The work truly begins in year two I believe, and I feel good about the prospects going into it. 

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Inside the Trenches of the Principal: Week 45

It was the final full week for my district. We still have Monday for our final day, but all of the major events and celebrations have taken place. Next week will be my final blog for the school year, looking back at the entire year and trying to figure out what in the world just happened over the past 10 months!

But this past week was a lot of fun. We had our 5th grade celebration, field day, and our first ever House Champion celebration for Sisu. I also did a quick trip to Atlanta to help out at RCA for a day. So all in all, it was a busy, but fun week.

One of the moments that really stood out to me was on the 3rd-5th grade field day. I allowed my PE teacher to have water events, and as I watched the kids as they got soaked, it was the most innocent and joyous laughter and excitement I have ever seen. Scholars who have been the biggest behavior challenges this year all the way to kids who have been the quietest were all laughing together in this ridiculously fun environment.

As I watched the fun happening all around me, I could only think that this is what being a youth should be about. Our students are encumbered with high pressure testing, news of violence in our country, being glued to electronics, and so on. It was refreshing to see them simply being kids for a little bit, laughing, and having fun.

Our first ever House Champion celebration was a success. The Sisu adult leaders did a great job preparing the event and the scholars got to play games, have ice cream, and even duct tape me to a wall! My art teacher (who is in Sisu) also began a new tradition in the hallway, where we now have a "tree of champions." Each year, the winning House will add their thumbprint in their House color on a new branch of the tree.

As Sisu was coming into the gym for their celebration, I made the entire school line the hallway to cheer them on. I decided to do this because I have not been overly impressed with my scholars' ability to show sportsmanship this year, and if we want to make a change, we need to teach it.

So at the last Rally I talked about being a good winner and loser. We have to give scholars opportunities to practice this though, which is why I had them line the halls and cheer on Sisu as they entered the gym. I asked the staff to keep an eye on any scholar who was not showing good sportsmanship during their walk to the gym, pull them out of line, send them to the media center, and they had to write me an essay on sportsmanship and why they couldn't handle showing it. We only had a couple who had to do that. Overall, it was a positive and uplifting celebration for the winning House.

I'm looking forward to year two of the Houses and the many new ideas we've been kicking around for it for next year!

I got to have one of those "career moments" this past week too. During the 5th grade celebration, we had a handful of 5th grade scholars, who were selected by their peers, make speeches. I've been working for weeks with them on their speeches. They ALL did a wonderful job. The special moment for me came, though, when Eliana towards the end of her speech said "I'm going to go off script." I was sitting in the front row with all of the scripts in my hand so I could help them if they got stuck. At this point, I'm freaking out because we hadn't practiced this. But Eliana went on to thank me for being there for her not just when the good things were happening, but when there were tough times as well. It was one of those moments that makes all of the hard work worth it and it reminds you why you do what you do.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Inside the Trenches of the Principal: Week 44

This past week can be easily summed up into one word: TESTING.

I saw so many emotions from scholars and staff this week:
  • Jubilation from the scholar who had to go out on medical leave at the end of last year, began this year repeating the grade, got promoted after the first quarter to the new grade, and scored in the 99% on the reading test! Literally tears of joy were flowing from the teacher and scholar. It was one of the coolest things I've ever witnessed in school.
  • Despair from teachers who had scholars score far below what they know they can score and what their potential is.
  • Confusion from scholars who have only been in the United States for three months, know few English words, and were forced to take a test in English that confuses many native-speakers.
  • Tiredness from scholars who tested for three straight days, some of them taking up to five hours a day meticulously checking over every answer.
  • Excitement when the testing was finally finished.
I could not be prouder of my scholars and staff for fighting through these past several days. I was speaking to one of the proctors on Thursday and said that this isn't an academic test, it's an endurance test. Are we trying to determine if students understand the standards or can stay focused and seated for four straight hours?

Personally, I would much rather see authentic assessments measuring our students' achievement: portfolios, performances, projects. Could our students display their knowledge through different mediums? Could we measure other skills like social and emotional intelligence, creativity, and kindness while we're at it? Frankly, I value those skills far more in the long run than if a kid can divide fractions or tell me the kind of wind to expect from the Gulf of Mexico in July.

I completely understand that these tests are not going anywhere. We're stuck with them. But I challenge any law-maker, any policy-maker to come spend a day proctoring for these tests. Spend a day at a school when a scholar receives a piece of paper telling them that they are in the 1st percentile in achievement. I want them to see real faces with these numbers. Real teachers who have to explain to their scholar that "This test does not define you."

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Inside the Trenches of the Principal: Week 43

Our 5th grade promotion ceremony at Moore is coming up, just two weeks away, in fact. I decided that I wanted to give an opportunity for the fifth-grade students to decide who they would want to represent their class up on stage to make a speech during the ceremony. We had a vote and they selected outstanding students who truly represent the character and work-ethic that we promote.

I met with this group of students this week to begin composing their speeches. I discovered quickly that their memories at Moore and the topics they wanted to write about all had a common theme: people. Not surprisingly, their fondest memories involved a favorite teacher or a group of friends. The remembered both the good and bad moments, but the memories always had those who touched them. Most frequently, it was moments in time that they discussed. "The time that ..." or "I remember when ..."

Even at a young age, these students are reflecting upon their life through those who impact them. You know what did not show up in any of their speeches? The worksheet that they had to finish or the video that they had to take notes on. It's relationships that mattered most to them. As educators, I think this speaks volumes to what we should be valuing in the classroom. A solid academic experience is vital, but it is the relationships that will be carried on with our students as they look back on their time in school.

As my district prepares to take their state assessments this coming week, I cringe thinking about how my school, staff and students, will be measured by a number. Sadly, many individuals will gauge the success of this year on a number. But, I promise you that number does not tell the relationships that exists in those classrooms, it does not tell the cultural changes we have done this year, and it does not tell you the moments and memories that students will carry with them. As my buddy Todd Nesloney frequently states, we are more than just a number!

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Inside the Trenches of the Principal: Week 42

I have two sons: Ryder is six and a half and Maddox is three. Ryder has had a rough month at school. He has an amazing teacher and he is at a great school; he is simply not following directions. He's showing out at home as well with attitude and disrespect. My wife and I are working with him on making better choices and he's facing consequences for his actions. I'm not saying I am a great parent or that I am doing all the right things, but I accept that my child is not perfect and he is the one making these choices.

I explain all this because I sympathize. I sympathize with many of the parents who I meet with or call who also have children who are getting into trouble and not following directions at school or at home. I make calls daily to parents at my school and have to explain that their child got into trouble. The reactions vary, from complete denial that their child would do anything wrong to overwhelming apologies that their child disrupted the classroom. No matter where on the spectrum the parent lies, I definitely understand that it can be embarrassing, frustrating, or an inconvenience when these calls come through.

As a teacher, the challenge is being accountable for 20+ students when one or two are taking up 90% of your attention. As a parent, the challenge is needing your child to be in school so you can be at your job, but also ensuring that your child is not taking away the learning opportunities from all of the other students. And as an administrator, I want to ensure that students are in a safe, productive learning environment.

The reality is I don't have an answer on what to do. I am going to continue holding my child accountable for his actions, and I will continue holding my students accountable for their actions. At my school, we have made big pushes for restorative practices that aim to align consequences with actions. We also try our best to keep kids in the learning environment, since they can't learn the content if they're not in the classroom. As a staff, we've discussed classroom environments and tones of voice, options for discipline, and moving forward we'll be doing training on verbal de-escalation.

I will be spending this weekend with Ryder working on ways he can better respond in class and at home, and hopefully we can end May on a high note!


Saturday, May 12, 2018

Inside the Trenches of the Principal: Week 41

I found out that if my principal gig doesn't work out, I'm going to enter the grilling world. Not that I'm a great griller, but I really enjoy it. I got to spend a few hours on Friday grilling for my staff to wrap up Teacher Appreciation Week. It was a beautiful day and my assistant principal and I threw burgers, hot dogs, and chicken onto the grill and got coverage for our teachers to have duty free lunch outside. My teachers work so hard, and I ask so much of them, so I wanted to make sure there was some way to thank them for everything they do.

I spent the first part of the week in Non-violent Crisis Intervention (NCI) training. I had gone through this training over eight years ago when I taught in Charlotte, so it has definitely been a while, but it was an outstanding course. Yes, you do learn restraints for extreme situations, but the more intriguing part for me was the verbal de-escalation training, which truly makes you reflect upon your approach with children and how to approach contentious situations. It can be easy to let emotions drive decision-making or reactions to situations where the students are being irrational, and this training provided good techniques to make sound decisions in those situations.

Several puzzle pieces were able to get filled this week for next year as I was able to hire a magnet coordinator and instructional facilitator, two key leadership positions in the school, plus two amazing teachers for first and fourth grade. I also received the first shipment of resources for our new multiple intelligenes lab for next year. While there is still much to be done for this year, it's impossible not to get excited for what's to come next year.

We also had our Fashion Show to model next year's dress code changes. One of my kindergarten teachers organized the show and we had a huge turnout by parents as our scholars showed off their fashions. We showed that while there are standard items that need to be worn during the week, we are encouraging the individualization and fun that can be accessorized in celebration of the Houses.

Someone asked me the other day if I was stressed with all of the things that have to be done over the next few weeks, and I honestly replied "no." I love pressure situations, plus I have a great team of teachers and leaders around my school who will make sure that we get done what we need to get done.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Inside the Trenches of the Principal: Week 40

40 weeks!

Not that 40 has any specific significance, but it's round enough to be excited that I've completed 40 weeks of the principalship! In reality, we're in the final stretch, 25 more school days, and the big state test looms above us.

Maybe I am taking the ill-advised approach, but I am not stressing about the state test. As a teacher, I never stressed about it either. In my head, if I worked hard enough during the year, the kids were going to reflect the work that we did. Not every kid's score will reflect their true ability, but by and large, good teaching yields positive results. I am hoping that the same mentality comes to fruition with the school. If we have done our job this year, and we have taught the standards and engaged students in the learning process, the results will come.

This past week was full of celebrations in the district - 4 banquets - and it kept principals and district leaders busy! In between those events, however, I am learning what May feels like as a principal. It's stressful! My days are filled with EVAAS, teacher allotments, recruitment/hiring, student enrollment, staff evaluations, testing, parents concerns, student concerns, budgets/spending, end of year prep, and anything else that rolls across my plate. May feels a lot like September did in many regards. There is a sense of urgency in the air to get a lot of things completed and checked off by the deadlines.

I'll end on a lighter note this week with a solid "inside the trenches" story. I had a kindergarten student with me in the office who needed a snack toward the end of the day. I let him pick from my snack box and he chose Cheetos. Afterwards, his hands were orange and dirty, so I told him to go wash them in the bathroom. When he came back to me, I told him to hold out his hands so I could see them. The student holds out his hands in front of him and I bend down in order to examine if they were clean. Well as my head was near inches from him, the loudest, most colossal sneeze came from the boy. For those who know me, I am not a fan of germs, so I dove backwards faster than a speeding bullet. Naturally, those around the office at that time had quite a laugh, as did I, but it's moments like those that facilitate the laughs and memories (even if tremendously disgusting) that make this the best job in the world.