Saturday, August 4, 2018

Our Collective Selves

Last week, I teamed up with a dear friend of mine to present at a small learning conference hosted by (and for) teachers in my district.  The event helps teachers and administrators launch the new school year with some great professional learning.

All the attendees are colleagues and friends.  They are people I’ve worked with, in some capacity, over the past twenty years—some much more closely than others. As each one walked in the room, I couldn’t help my whoops and grins and hugs. It was more than just the back-to-school-so-good-to-see-you thing:  It was a celebration of many years of being colleagues.  It was a here-we-are-doing-this-together-again thing. 

I’ve presented at conferences all over the place these past few years, and 100% of the time, it has been to people I don’t know. 

And let me tell you something: Presenting to a room of colleagues and friends is a whole lot different. 

Because I know them.  I have known them.  Indeed, sometimes only on a surface level, but still:  I know some portion of their stories, their families, their career path, professional ebbs and flows.  Over there, in the corner:  The teacher who has lost a child.  Over there, against the window:  An experienced teacher starting a new job as an instructional coach, practically twitching with enthusiasm and nervousness.  There:  A heartbreaking divorce and the seeds of a new life rising from the ashes.  There:  Nursing a parent through old age, feeling failure every day.  There:  Listened me through losing a grandparent to suicide.  There:  My “perspective person,” the gal who can make laughter and wisdom rise out of anxiety and pain.  There, there, there.
Yes:  I know them, and they know me. 

When I stand in front of a group of people I don’t know, I am a few degrees removed.  I can tell stories about myself and it doesn’t matter one whit what they think, because I’ll be wheels up in a few hours and never see any of them again.

This time, with these people, I told stories of myself from the beginning of my leadership path, and some of them were unflattering indeed.

It was an unnerving type of vulnerability, standing in front of a room sharing what I‘ve learned—to people who’ve seen me learn it.

The bad decisions, the career missteps, the times when “bad hair day” doesn’t even begin to describe it.  

But it was super-fun, because we were all there, in it, together.  We laughed at our collective selves; asked and answered some great questions; found inspiration from one another.  It was more fun than I usually have as a presenter, perhaps because they smiled a lot more and seemed to “get” my jokes more quickly, but also because of the empowerment that comes with being in a tribe, encircled by a common purpose, inspired by the gift of longevity and time.  It felt like a part of something intimate—us, our district, our kids, our experiences as educators—and something bigger, too—the common commitment to being teachers and learners.

In a couple weeks’ time, our school hallways will be full of students and we’ll be neck-deep in another school year. I can’t wait. 

Wednesday, July 25, 2018


If you're a podcast person, I presume you've found This American Life.  They recently aired a fascinating one called, “Unteachable Moment.”  I’m summarizing extensively here, but the episode was about lessons taught vs. lessons learned, and how the two aren’t necessarily symbiotic.  Which is a fancy way of saying this:  Just because we think we’re teaching something doesn’t necessarily mean anyone is learning anything.  

Or: Our students aren’t learning what we intended for them to learn.

Being a teacher—of any kind—opens us up to a unique kind of vulnerability.  In making a plan for teaching, we pour enthusiasm into a lot of talk about goals, outcomes, objectives, and targets.  We know keeping an eye on the end makes good sense. Ahhh, yes, we know this.  But still—still!—we sometimes flop and flail our way through, only sort-of realizing that what they’re learning is not at all what we’d hoped.  

Just out of college, I landed a short gig teaching Creative Movement to 3- and 4- year-olds at the art center in my hometown.  The regular teacher had quit unexpectedly, and the director was just glad I was willing to do it.  I mean, I had a pulse and everything.  I was desperate for money, and figured it was pretty do-able:  Any monkey could teach kids how to dance and move around. Right?

For six weeks, every Saturday morning, I led what amounted to a 45-minute cheerleading session, where I whooped and whirled around and frantically hoped the kids would follow along, doing something.  I was a train, a snake, a ballerina, a leapfrog, a bunny, and a bird.  We played 4,765 versions of “Follow the Leader” and even more “Simon Says,” though I was the only one who played Simon:  The little people mostly stood there and watched me, marveling at my incessant noise and sky-high pitch.  When class was over, they ran into their mothers’ bewildered fetch-arms and looked over their shoulders at me, in a sort of “Let’s go before she blows” kind of way.

I don’t think I ever stopped to think about the actual intent of the class, much less how to reach for it.  Instead, I just barreled through, hoping—assuming?—something good would come out of it for the students. 


It’s the intentionof our instruction that will bridge the chasm between teaching and learning.  When we seek to first establish intention, thenwe can work on our targets, goals, outcomes.  

In “Unteachable Moment,” the podcast host takes a close look at the recent Starbucks broo-ha-ha, in which the company shut down all its stores for sensitivity training in light of one manager’s decision in a store in Philadelphia.  It asks some hard questions about intention, about taking the easy way “out,” about how sometimes the easy way is better if the harder, more complicated way will bugger up the intention to the point that there’s longer a point at all.

That’s what I’m thinking about today, on the eve of another school year.  I’m going in with a lot of intention that I’ve mulled through this summer. It won’t be just “Follow the Leader” and it certainly won't be "Simon Says."  Nope.  I'm hoping it will be much better. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Butterscotch Candy

I’ve listened to the fabulous Dr. Heidi Hayes Jacobs speak many times, and frequently studied her work.  When she speaks to groups of educators, she always places an empty chair next to her as an honor and representation of the child we must always consider when we think about teaching and learning.   These words are from Dr. Jacobs herself, in the first part of her book, Getting Results with Curriculum Mapping: 

For many years now, whenever I work with a school or district, we begin the workshop or meeting by placing an empty chair in clear view of all participants. We envision that a student sits in that chair. We even use the first name of an actual child who attends the school—perhaps it's Johnny, Maria, Abdul, Megan, Tyler, or Janice. All our work that day must focus on Johnny, and all comments and questions are welcomed as long as they are in his best interest. We may disagree about what is in his best interest, but we do not lose the student as our perspective. Success really does come down to the critical point whereby we are working for specific learners in specific places to meet their specific needs. 

You can—should!— read more here.

Not long ago, I was setting up for a presentation of my own.  The conference hosts had placed little white bowls of candy on each table.  I dug through and came up with a butterscotch; without thinking, I unwrapped it and popped it in my mouth.  Except when I actually tasted the candy, I stopped—it brought me right back to being a student, which makes sense, because I don’t think I’ve actually had a butterscotch candy since I was, like, eighteen. 

Tastes, smells, sounds—they can trigger recall, and transport us right back to a different time; they can make us remember how we felt, what was important to us, what worried us, and why. 

In high school, I loved butterscotch candy.  I remember working my way through a bag of them as I studied for the ACT, using them to keep the anxiety and worry at bay as I prepared for this nebulous exam, and all it meant about what came next—telling myself I’d be okay but believing I wouldn’t.  I kept them in my backpack, treating myself to them between classes, hiding them from teachers who enforced the no-candy rule and sharing them with those who didn't.  It was a sweet memory, laced with the gift of retrospect.

And I thought:  This is my chair.

On the way home from the conference, I stopped and got a boatload of butterscotch candies.  I’m going to keep them in a bowl my office for the next month or so, as I plan and prepare for another school year, keeping with the spirit and insight and wisdom of Dr. Jacobs.  They will represent studenthood—a memory of what it’s like to be sit where they sit.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Book Reports, 1982

Remember book reports?  The old-fashioned kind teachers used to require students do?  My fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Morris, who was seasoned and weary, followed this formula:  

  • ·      Tell the students they will need to choose a book to give a report.  (45 seconds)
  • ·      Take them to the school library.  Stand and chit-chat with the librarian.  (34 minutes)
  • ·      Sit at your desk and read Ladies’ Home Journal while students read.  (5 days.  At least.)
  • ·      Give them the weekend to write the report.  Don’t actually explain how; just tell them to do it.  (12 seconds)
  • ·      Have the students give their book reports in front of the class, one after one after one...  (6 days)

I asked my older sister how to write a book report.  She was in seventh grade, so she knew everything.  “Oh my gaaaaaawwd,” she rolled her eyes and dipped her graham cracker into a glass of milk.  “Please don’t just stand up there and say what happened in the book.  Please.  It’s so boring.  All the other kids just want to put their head down and sleep.  So don’t. do. that.” 

Huh?  That’s exactly what I thought a book report would be.  “Well, then… what do I do?” 

“Outsmart them,” she said.  “Tell them who wrote the book, how long it is, that it was told in the first person or third person or whatever.  You can talk about the character’s point of view.  The theme and moral and main idea.”  Another graham cracker.  “You’ll sound really smart and you’ll get a good grade.”

“What will the other kids say?”

“They won’t say anything,” she snickered.  “They'll be asleep.” 

She was willing to help, so I emptied my change purse—after all, nothing came free with my sister.  She walked away two bucks richer, and I walked away with a solid book report.  I practiced with 3 X 5 index cards in front of the bathroom mirror. 

When it came my turn to present my report, though, the air in the room got thick.  Everyone—Mrs. Morris included—looked at me like I’d grown an extra head.  Theme?   Plot?  Point of view? No other book reports covered those things.  At the end, no one clapped, like they were supposed to.  I slunk back to my desk and waited for my face fire to cool. 

Before lunch, Mrs. Morris stopped by my desk. “I just wanted to know what happened in the book, honey,” she whispered.  She patted my shoulder. “I’m just… I’ll just not give you a grade, okay?”

I mumbled some sort of thanks, but felt deeply, deeply ungrateful.

That night, I yelled at my sister—told her she’d made me look stupid and uppity, and she’d done it on purpose.  Furious and embarrassed, I swore I’d never take her help again. 

She had this way of looking sympathetically supportive and, simultaneously, deeply amused.  I wanted to smack her, but didn’t, because I knew she’d get past the amused part and get to the sympathetic and supportive part.

“Sometimes you’ll get a teacher who doesn’t ask kids to do hard things, and just has everyone do the same thing and get the same grade,” said She Who Knew Everything.  “It’s just the way it is.  So you just have to deal with those things.  But you can still do your best.  You should be the most prepared kid in the room, even if no one appreciates it.”

Those were astoundingly wise words from “just” a teen, but I’ve never forgotten them.  Granted, I didn’t always heed her advice—in fact, sometimes I shunned it, fiercely—but I did think a lot about what she’d said.  I still do, today, especially when considering how teaching has evolved for students as they respond to books.  I think about how we outline expectations for students, how we assess what they do, how we reward independent thinking and risk-taking, how other students in the class respond to the learning of their peers, and if our teaching provides oxygen to the flame of learning. 

We all have early learning experiences we can’t forget.  Some caused angst; others brought triumph.  Some did both. I’m grateful to the Mrs. Morrises of my school years, and to my wise sister, and for the ways I’ve been able to reconcile unexpected opportunities for deeper learning—even old-time book reports.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

What I Do All Summer

Today’s post is for every principal who spends summer hearing others ask, eyebrow lifted:  “You… have to work through the summer?”  Surprise.  Disbelief.  

Yes.  I do. 

Many principals have a contract that provides about twenty vacation days over the course of a year, which, coupled with a few holidays and some careful planning, can amount to a summer break of three weeks or so.  The rest of the time, we’re on duty.

So, yes:  “I work through the summer.”

What’s next, then, is always:

“Wellll….. What do you do?”

Believe it or not, a principal-working-in-the-summer is pretty busy.  Here are some things on my list for the next ten weeks:

Complete hiring.  I’ve done a lot of interviewing this spring, but there are still a couple positions I need to fill.  This means sifting through applicable candidates, setting up interviews, bringing in a team of teachers to help with the interview process, checking references, and recommending a candidate to the Board of Education.  No quick thing, there.

Facilities.  We have about fifteen teachers who have to move to a new classroom next year, for various reasons—but suffice it to say there are a lot of boxes being schlepped from one place to another.   Other things happen with (and to) the building over the summer:  Alarms are tested, floors are scrubbed, furniture is ordered and replaced, and the whole place is cleaned from top to bottom.  It’s not me waxing the floors, of course—but I try to check in with the custodians often so I can support them they take proverbial Q-tips to every nook and cranny of our school.

Summer school.  Students who need some extra oomph with their reading in my district have qualified to attend summer school, it takes place at my building.  Buses will come, teachers will teach, kids will learn.  So that’s happening.  I'm not in charge, but I'll help out if needed.

Finalizing student schedules.  To place students in classrooms for the upcoming school year, I spend a gazillion hours in a state of angst.

We do. 

By “we,” I mean classroom teachers, as well as all the staff who work with special education, gifted, English Language students, and related arts.  In the weeks before school ends, we think about how to best group kids on an RTI plan, with behavior challenges, with health issues.  We try to balance classes with girl/boy ratios as well as cultural and language and economic diversity.   And then—when that is done, I dig into the input from parents, which is currently living is a folder, thicker than my wrist, chock-full of notes from parents (“Please separate my child from….”  “It’s important that my child not be in a class environment that…”)

And it’s tough work, too, because it matters.  I want to get it right.  But all the while, there is a speech bubble hovering above my head reminding me that it won’t be perfect; there will be missteps and errors and many complaints.  

The whole thing—the work, the worry—takes hours.  Hours that add up to days. 

Professional Development.  For me.  I’m super-lucky to work in a district that provides principals PD all summer, and I take full advantage, attending trainings from Human Resources, Operations, Student Services, Public Relations, and everything in between.  Next week starts it off with training for the new program we’ll use for the writing and management of IEPs.  All this PD happens in a small group setting, with time to think and ask questions.  Bam.

I also dig into some good books and blog posts from people who are super-smart about teaching, learning, and instruction.  I plan ways to PD into the coming year, too—I consider conferences that might help me grow as a professional and a principal, find new resources, and study the latest thinking and research about teaching and learning.

Cleaning my office and reflecting on what I find. This summer I will tackle file folders, books, papers, and the stacks of things I’ve shoved willy-nilly into baskets and piles.  I use this time to review the past year, too—what those papers say about what we did, what we didn’t need to do, what we could do better next year. 

Re-connect with colleagues.  I’ll have phone conversations that don’t start with, “Whatcha need?”  Nor will they end in less than a minute with “Thankstalksoonbye.”

Planning.  School doors don’t open mid-August to hundreds of kids without massive amounts of planning. I plan a staff retreat, opening Leadership Team meetings, Staff meetings, parent walkthrough and curriculum night, staff photo and video sessions.  I organize a building schedule and assign staff duties.  I make a staff professional development plan for the year.  Evaluate staff input from previous surveys.  I adjust, adjust, adjust and plan, plan, plan.

Express gratitude.  I write a lot of thank you notes over the summer, and even then, I don’t get to all the people to whom I owe my appreciation.  Summer is a great time to stop and be grateful. 

Eat lunch.  Using a whole half hour.  Or more, even, if I’m feeling zany.  Sometimes, I’ll even go out to lunch, with a friend and a server and everything.

So that’s a snippet of summer. 

I love summer work.  Compared to the rest of the year, the pace is gentle; decisions are not weighty.  It’s busy, but not the kind of busy that makes my mind spin.  It's hope-full, too, because I find myself looking forward with a clear mind, fresh ideas, and renewed inspiration.

This blog post has been a luxury—to use lots of words to answer the “What do you do all summer” question.   I usually can’t go into this much detail.  Usually, when I’m asked, in the line at the deli counter or on a Saturday afternoon at the pool, I just smile and demur, “Oh… a variety of different tasks…” and leave it at that.  Because it would take too long to explain how summer will fill up and fly by.

But now you know. 

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Seeking to Speak Well

When my grandfather was very ill, the doctor came in the hospital room to explain to my grandmother, my mother, and my aunt how he was responding to their medical interventions.  I was there, too, hesitant and wordless in the corner, hoping to help in some way—if only as another heart in a room full of broken ones.

We had no idea what the doctor was saying.  He talked and talked and talked, but his words were like a jumbled box of Legos—we knew they could be put together, if we really tried, and they’d amount to something legitimate.  But we didn’t try:  It was easier to let them land, scattered, and then be still.

In the end, of course, the doctor was trying to tell us that my grandfather was old and sick and dying.  On some level we understood this, even without the Lego words, but he didn’t say it.  He seemed unwilling—or, more likely, unable—to use words we could understand.  He wanted to soften the truth for us, perhaps, so he walled us behind intricate medical terminology.

We needed him to say it, though; it would have helped, because it could have taken our hope to a different place, where it could bring peace, and relief, and a long-awaited celebration of a man and his well-lived life.

Sometimes I fear we do the same in education.  The stakes aren’t as high as those of a physician standing over the grief of a dying patient’s family—not by any stretch—but we educators, too, often falter when we try speaking the truth.

Last month, at a leadership conference in Boston, one of my session’s attendees stayed afterwards to talk.  He wanted my insight after an off-the-cuff remark I’d made about the unintentional consequences of complicated conversations.  He was only in his eighth month of being a principal, and he was floundering, he thought—mostly because he struggled with sharing bad news.  The worst was when he spoke to students’ parents during discipline investigations.  We talked a long time.  He told me he got physically nauseous when preparing to call parents. “I find myself apologizing, talking quickly, contradicting myself,” he said.  “Sometimes I’ll be midway through my speech and realize the parent is confused—they have no idea what I’m trying to say.”  His instinct was to forge on, but:  “When I get to the part about consequences, and I refer to the Student Code of Conduct, it gets really serious, really fast—they are angry and shocked, as if everything I’ve just said was wasted.”

I understood his frustration.  We all do, I think.  

Later, on the plane home, I thought of three reasons educators struggle with saying really hard things to parents about their kids.

Fear of the how.  Since we never know if a parent will support us or fight us, we often don’t know how to approach our message.  Because we are well trained, we know what we should say:  We use words like “support” and “struggling” and “poor choice.”  But oftentimes those words don’t capture the difficulty or gravity of the scenario we are trying to address.

Fear that we’re wrong.  Just like the doctor who didn’t say, “Your grandfather is dying,” we often avoid telling parents tough things about their kids.  We don’t want to say, “Your child was cruel to another person today” or “His behaviors are disturbing to others” or "We don't know how to help her."  Even typing those words here makes my fingers frightened, because I’ve been so trained not to say things that may cause hurt or wrath.  We all have.  And… what if we are wrong?  What if the problem actually lies with us, and how we have connected to the child?  What if our professional judgment is off kilter? 

Fear of the response.  The colleague I spoke with explained a situation in which he had called a parent, known to be volatile and accusatory, known to defect blame to anyone and anything else, to tell her about a scuffle involving her son.  The moment he said the word “scuffle,” she interrupted him with an unstoppable rant.  In the end, he was called names (“racist,” “incompetent,” and “bully” being the most hurtful of the lot), he was threatened, and he was left holding a dead phone line.  No wonder he was scared to tell her the truth.   

So what do we do?

What should my grandfather’s doctor have done?

Nothing differently.  Not then.  He did his best.  And in the end, it was okay, because we knew he’d done his best.  That’s all we can do, no?  And as we grow our administrative skills—communication being part of the package—we get better at being simultaneously kind, honest, helpful, and concise.  After all, that is our goal, is it not?   Speak the truth, and speak it well.

Our Collective Selves

Last week, I teamed up with a dear friend of mine to present at a small learning conference hosted by (and for) teachers in my district.  T...