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 few 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 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.

Teaching, Time, and Water in a Sieve

"Time flies."  The nurse shook her head and locked eyes with the infant I held in my arms.  She was finalizing paperwork to discha...