Live, From New York…

As I reflect on my own personal writing habits, I realized that even though this space has been very quiet, I really am writing blogs every week. It’s just that my audience is smaller in that I only share with my building staff. So, in an effort to return to reflection in this space, I’m diving back in. This is a longer version of a reflection I shared last week in my weekly Monday Message:

Last night I had a dream, and it’s stuck with all day. It was one of those dreams that was normal enough to potentially be real but just odd enough to make me wonder what in my subconscious had triggered it. Somehow I had secured a spot as the host of a quickly approaching episode of Saturday Night Live, yet nobody had told me that was the case. I found out through a television commercial. Now, I’m certainly not one to shy away from a microphone (a statement that shouldn’t shock anyone, so I’m told), but this was too much for me. I don’t even watch SNL! In line with many of my dreams, however, I was left searching for very essential details that would allow me to prepare for this situation that I was completely unprepared for. What pop-cultural itch did I scratch for the populace that would put me front and center like this? I encountered people over and over again who couldn’t understand why I was so anxious, and they offered no help. They were more excited by the after-party that I would be entitled to attend as host.

Unfortunately my world television premier was rudely interrupted by a rogue early morning real-life text message, so we’ll never know how badly I bombed. Here is yet another reason to buy a real alarm clock and turn my phone OFF.tumblr_mwuwy77akc1rvkvumo1_1280It’s rare that a dream stays with me so clearly after I wake up, so my mind has wandered back to it several times today. I thought about the emotions that felt so real: the anxiety, the excitement, the confusion, and the anticipation. Then I realized how closely this dream and these feelings can be linked to what we do each day that we step through the front door of school. Although we surely have a general idea, based on experience, what our days will be like, we can never be truly prepared for the unpredictable nature of our work. Some days we may even wake up feeling completely unprepared for what lies ahead. But isn’t that also what makes this so satisfying? Each day is an opportunity to approach a situation from a different perspective because we deal in the world of people, not things. That unpredictability, a breeding ground for fresh perspectives and new ideas, is exactly what allows us to learn and grow from past stumbles.

Only special people can do this difficult but rewarding job! And, unlike in my dream, we are able to lean on each other for support because we’re all in this together. None of us works in isolation. Sadly, there’s also no after-party, just the quiet moments where we’re left to reflect on the difference, small or large, that we may have made in a student’s life that day. I’ll take what I can get!

As we head full-on into the school year, I’m honored to be with you, fighting the good fight for kids, once again. And while I suppose I could wish you all a “predictable week”, I’d hate to jinx it. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go work on my opening monologue for this year’s talent show. It’s only eight months away, and I want to be prepared!

Eating My Frog

Each Sunday I sit down to write my weekly staff memo in a newsletter format, titled (unoriginally) my Monday Message. I have always loved the process of writing in any form, and this communication-as-reflection approach has really helped me to focus on my priorities as a new principal. I am able to share my hopes and dreams, innovative instructional approaches that I steal from others, my continued vision for our school, and my many mistakes (this part is hard but arguably the most important).

Every week I tell myself that this is going to be the one that I spend more time out of my office in classrooms than I do sitting at my desk. Sometimes I write out the commitment in the Monday Message in hopes that building staff will hold me accountable. And every Friday I sit down and realize that I failed to meet my goal. It turns out I am the only one who can hold myself accountable.

I’m not afraid to admit that the biggest part of my problem as a second-year building leader is time management. Everything feels like the MOST important thing! Especially when it comes to reading and answering emails. Knowing that I have an email in my inbox is like a little parasitic e-worm that wriggles itself into my brain’s worry-center and stays there until I am able to address it. What happens if I don’t get back to them quickly? What happens if I am caught unaware of a brewing issue because I didn’t check my email? What happens if I don’t send that bit of information out as soon as I think about it? I know that I need to set aside specific times of the day to deal with email, but I have yet to train myself to do it.

Then I sat in a team meeting with a group of teachers, something I did last week with every grade level in order to FORCE myself up-and-out. At this particular meeting while talking about a difficult student, one of my veteran teachers used a phrase I had never heard before: Eat your frog. I laughed and immediately asked her to explain what she meant. She told me it is something that they say to each other a lot in her family. Basically, it means to attack the thing you want to do the least, first. I LOVED IT! In that moment it spoke to me in so many ways. Later she sent me a link to this article by Brian Tracy, and it made even more sense.

Brian-Tracy-Quote

The more I read and re-read the article, the more I realized that I have MANY frogs that need to be eaten, and I definitely ignore them until absolutely necessary! Desk-work should rarely, if ever, take priority over people-work, and yet I let that happen a great deal. I need to re-prioritize what is most important for me as a middle school principal. The first frog I will eat? Understanding that to be the best instructional leader I can be I have to ACTUALLY be in the middle of instruction. In other words: Walk away from my desk when it feels like I absolutely can’t. The second frog? Making a list of those tasks that are the biggest and/or most difficult, and tackling them ASAP.

I miss so much learning, disguised as getting work done, by holding myself prisoner at my desk. I miss learning from my students experiences and from the institutional knowledge of building staff. Getting out of the main office was the best thing I did last week. Of course I understand that part of being a principal means that there is desk-work, but I also know that there are other times in the day when it can get done. My work day might start a bit or earlier, but the benefits far outweigh the morning-bleariness. I’m very sorry frogs of the world, but I’m coming for you. I can only hope that you actually do taste like chicken….

 

Connecting in 2016

Something amazing happened to me two days into 2016, but bear with me here because there’s some lead-up before I jump in and tell you about it. As soon as I had time to process it I knew I had to write. Then, as I began writing, I realized that this experience is more than a “can you believe it” story. In fact, it fits into a bigger picture, a shift in mindset that I want to focus on in the new year. This shift focuses on being in the moment in order to make and maintain stronger connections with the people around me.

I’m getting ahead of myself.

It all started with this picture (click the link for a larger version) and story that I posted on my personal Instagram account while traveling in southern Italy this past summer. Make sure you read the text next to the photo. It will become important later.

Firas

I have always believed that the best part of leaving your comfort zone and visiting someplace new, whether that place is another country or simply another county, is meeting the people who inhabit that place. Making positive connections with strangers from other cultures or people who live in a different environment will usually (and hopefully) lead to a new perspective. No matter how big or small this revelation is, we are most certainly made better for it. A dose of new perspective changes us. It can eradicate hopelessness, open minds that were undoubtedly and indefatigably closed, or even reveal parts of ourselves that we may be uncomfortable with. This is how we become better people. This is how we STOP being governed by fear and start understanding that most people are on the same journey that we are no matter where they’re from.

Imagine how surprised I was then when, yesterday afternoon, I got a message via Instagram from the very gentleman in the picture above, Firas from Lebanon, a person who drifted briefly into and then just as quickly out of my life, someone who I met 4000 miles away from my home and never expected to interact with again. This is the power of our connected world. It turns out one of his Italian friends that he had been visiting when we met stumbled across my photo while scrolling through images tagged with his village. After his friend sent him the link, he felt compelled to send me a message telling me how much the photo and what I wrote meant to him. I was so shocked I nearly dropped my phone! What were the chances??

But then again, this is 2016. We have so many more ways to come into each other’s lives now. It takes as much effort to talk to the person sitting next to us as it does to talk to a person sitting in a cafe in France or a classroom in Hong Kong. We have so many opportunities to connect, and we never know how that connection might come full circle in the future.

That’s why my #oneword, my focus, and my mantra for 2016 is “connect.”

I will focus on developing deeper connections with those already in my life both personally and professionally, by being present in the moment, by listening rather than simply waiting my turn to speak, and I will look to make connections with new people who can help to broaden my perspective and push me out of my comfort zone into the space where learning (and sometimes failure) happens.

Thanks to Firas for unknowingly reminding me that resolutions do not have to be measured physically, but instead can be about a mindset. I’m truly excited about 2016. Now, let’s connect!

Responding To the NYS Common Core Task Force Report

A collaborative post by Lisa Meade and Tim Dawkins

The release of the Common Core Task Force Report from Governor Cuomo’s office has created some interesting news and even more interesting social media posts. While it is tempting to rush through the talking points of this document, we must remember that these are recommendations, not an immediate change in regulations. There are, in fact, 21 recommendations set out by the Task Force in the report. It would be easy to begin predicting all of the possible ways that things could change for us and for our students. But, any prediction, at this time is premature. And as we have seen in the past, however, trying to predict how things will play out in Albany is never an easy call.

We were relieved to see that some of the negative examples they shared (teachers being required to use modules in whole, automatically placing students in AIS based on one state test score, not providing IEP accommodations, etc.) did not occur in our buildings or districts. That’s one of the things that makes jumping on “throw away all things Common Core bandwagon” difficult. As with many things in life, this is not a simple black-and-white issue.

It’s  important to remember the NYSED’s Education Commissioner, Mary Ellen Elia, served on this task force. Before this report was completed, she had already spoken around the state about the need to slow down. Her office also provided us our first opportunity to provide feedback on CCLS. (You may even have completed the survey that was shared.)

Throughout this report and even in an additional report released by NYed Voice Fellowship the call has been made for the establishment of a “transparent and open process” rich with educator voice. This is one of the most exciting themes to be reading about! It feels like FINALLY stakeholders are starting to listen to each other (especially those above us in government and policy positions). The next tell tale signs will likely be gleaned from the Governor’s State of the State address in January, the release of additional information from Commissioner Elia,  and upcoming  Board of Regents Meeting.

It would be very easy for all of us to jump into the “what happens next?” conversation. Admittedly, it may be tempting to focus on this report as the document that is going to immediately shift the negative rhetoric that has been so present in discussions about education these days. However, we must keep in mind that some of what we have seen in implementation has been good. Let’s not lose sight of that! Educators continue to work hard to ensure that students are getting a diverse and rich classroom experience, and that will continue to be the case.

As for what happens next? We’ll keep our focus within our schools knowing that we will capably respond to any new regulations as they are presented and when they are finalized. This response will be what it’s always been: Our very best efforts to do the best we can every day.  

Saying Thank You: The Undergraduate Years

For the most part, I’ve lived a charmed life. Despite the daily challenges of being human that we all inevitably deal with, I was born lucky, and my adult life has been pretty full with success. I am especially blessed when I reflect on the path I’ve taken professionally. I was lucky enough that people who knew nothing about me beyond a 1 hour interview were willing to take a chance on me as a 24 year old guy with a masters degree in school counseling burning a hole in my pocket, and I’ve never looked back. There have been many people along the way who have nudged, bumped, pushed, and even hip-checked me forward, all the while giving me the strength to continue my education and set (what didn’t always feel like attainable) professional goals. They believed in me, and it has made all the difference.

I want to give thanks, publicly, because it’s just so easy to gloss over the importance of saying it in the busy push-and-pull of life. So I’m starting a series of posts on my blog that do just this, say “thank you.”

———————

For those of you who know me personally, it might be hard to believe that I entered my undergraduate studies fully believing that I was bound for medical school. What I do now is so far from that that it seems absurd to even suggest it. But it’s true. There I sat in the fall semester of 1998, my first college class as a freshman in a 400 person lecture hall, heading down the road as a biology major along with what felt like 1000 of my closest friends. And the journey began.

It lasted three semesters.

I was foiled, like many before me and surely many after, by Introduction to Organic Chemistry. The. Complete. Worst. It was in the fall of 1999, my sophomore year, that I knew everything was wrong. I had struggled through all of my science classes, pulling Cs, barely getting by as a student that I didn’t even recognize, and hating every moment of what was supposed to be my passion. I went to Organic Chem on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays with one of my roommates who insisted that we always sit in the front row. At 8:30 AM. It was academic torture. I needed a change, and it needed to happen fast. I wanted to feel connected to what was going to be my life’s work. After much self-reflection and driving my friends crazy as I worried about “giving up”, I decided that what was missing was a connection to people. I needed to work in a way that would directly impact the lives of others.

Enter the School of Education and Human Development and Jill Seymour.

It took one meeting with Jill, the sole academic advisor for the Human Development Program and the beacon of hope for so many within a larger University system that just didn’t have time to care about my personal journey, and I knew I had found my home. My family and friends couldn’t figure it out. I had always talked about being a doctor. What was I going to do with a degree that would surely leave me with a career in human services living paycheck to paycheck? Had I really thought about what I was giving up? It was a time in my life where I felt like I was bungee jumping without the bungee. What if I was really screwing everything up?

When I needed direction most, Jill was there as a gentle guide who listened to me, laughed with (and at) me, and ultimately helped me navigate the senselessly complicated intra-university transfer process. She must have immediately picked up on my inherently nervous nature, always willing to meet with me and reassure me that she’d walk with me down my chosen path. And she did.

My years as a student in SEHD were good ones. I served as a peer advisor, helping students like myself navigate the program and welcoming potential students through admissions events. I experienced a satisfying and challenging internship at a nearby inner-city high school counseling office, and I was always surrounded by people who believed in the good work that we were readying ourselves to do. Two-and-a-half years later, in May of 2002, I graduated on-time with a much improved GPA and a bachelors degree in Human Development, and I headed right into my 60 credit masters program at a new university, never looking back.

Fast-forward 16 years and I couldn’t be happier with my decision to change my major, and, in turn, my life. I’ve had a very rewarding career in education. Of course there are things I could have done differently back then (I still kick myself for not pursuing a foreign language), but I can honestly say that without Jill’s calm and intuitive guidance I would not have had the confidence to make a sharp turn three years ago down this new path away from school counseling and into school leadership. I know that she will forever be a part of the collective voice in my subconscious that guides me.

I truly believe that we are who we are, in part, because of the people that we meet along the way. I got lucky when I met you, Jill. Thank you for everything.

Learning Lessons by Saying Goodbye

This past weekend was one that I’d like to forget.

My wife and I had just returned last Sunday from an amazing 17 day trip to Rome and Southern Italy where we rented an apartment, living like locals, eating, exploring, and eating some more. One experience was better than the next, and we had the opportunity to share this with several close family members who had never been to Italy before. Exposing them to the wonders, both culinary and historic, of this special country and culture was right up our traveling alley. We came home energized, relaxed (despite all that we fit into the trip), and ready to take on the new school year.

Then we walked through our front door.

Our six year old boxer dog, Olive, was ready to greet us. We couldn’t wait to see her. We don’t have children of our own, so this dog, she’s our life. As we entered the house, we immediately knew something was off. She wasn’t as energetic as we expected. My wife and I both noticed it, but in the excitement of arriving home to our extended family and friends waiting for us, we said nothing to anyone, including each other. Overnight our fears were intensified. Olive drank what seemed like gallons of water and couldn’t seem to hydrate. I immediately called the vet Monday morning and brought her in. A few hours after our visit the doctor confirmed that Olive was indeed sick. She had developed lymphoma and had multiple tumors in her chest and digestive tract. The cancer had also caused her kidneys to function abnormally, but this was potentially reversible. To say we were devastated at this news is an understatement. We jumped into action.

Over the course of last week we were told that, while not curable in dogs, lymphoma was very treatable with chemotherapy and steroids. We would be able to buy her six to eight more months with us, and while we were saddened by the prospect of losing her so soon we could at least take solace in the fact that we could make her comfortable and would have time to say goodbye properly. “How lucky we are to be in a position to pay for treatment”, we thought.

As you have probably guessed by the title of this post, Olive never recovered. She spent five days in the vet clinic, very well-cared for, but unwilling to eat with kidneys that wouldn’t respond to treatment. We visited her every day, and finally on Friday we decided that barring a miracle we would have to make the most difficult decision to end her beautiful life to prevent more suffering. Unfortunately that miracle never came, and, with broken hearts, we sent our little girl over the Rainbow Bridge on Saturday afternoon, one of the hardest things I have ever had to do.

As I thought about the injustice of this situation and navigated the roller coaster of emotions over the course of the week, I considered how hard it was for me to be truly “on” at work as we prepare for the start of school, and I thought about how tough it would be to sit in my office today without crying because our home is so empty.

Then I thought about our students. There are approximately 700 6th through 8th graders in my building. Many come to school with baggage, some unimaginable, on a daily basis. I thought about how I was reacting to my co-workers around me out of grief, and how they couldn’t really understand my pain. Or perhaps, I thought, I should be embarrassed because, after all, this is a dog and not a person. If I am an adult who is thinking this way, imagine what our kids think when confronted with challenging life circumstances.

How often do we take the time to truly talk to our students about what is going on their lives? How often do we demand their attention, their courtesy, without understanding what is happening at home or (even worse) DESPITE what is happening at home? How often do we demand it when we don’t give it in return because of something trying that is occurring in our own lives?

As we start a new school year in September here in Upstate New York, I know that I will be considering these questions much more regularly as I interact with students in my building. Relationships matter more than anything else in our line of work. Taking the time to listen, to get to know our students, and to check in with them privately when they seem out-of-sorts might be the magic wand that keeps them believing that school is where they need to be. Build relationships first and curriculum second. Build relationships first and common assessments second. Build relationships first and gather data second. Ultimately it is an investment worth making early.

I learned so much about myself over the six years that Olive owned me, and, it turns out, that even in saying goodbye she was able to teach me one more thing.

Ol

Energized By Connections

I feel like I could sleep for days, and, yet, I am more energized than I have been in quite some time. That’s because I just returned from the ISTE 2015 conference in Philadelphia a little over 36 hours ago, and I’m still reeling from the experience. I should be catching up on much needed sleep right now, but I have to write about the privilege of being able to attend a conference that draws around 20,000 people each year and the privilege of working in a district that understands the value of such things. Looking back, it’s mind-boggling how much activity you can fit into 4 days if you have comfortable shoes, a backpack, and a decent sense of direction! I checked my step counter, and I walked an average of 12,000 steps every day, and I only got lost in the enormity of the Penn Convention Center once. Needless to say, my calves would like a vacation. 

Learn from these folks (from L to R): Steve Guditus (@sguditus) , Me, Jill Bovee (@cheneybovee), Lisa Meade (@lisameade23), Christina Luce (@christinamluce), Ross Cooper (@rosscoops31), Starr Sackstein (@mssackstein), Tony Sinanis (@tonysinanis)
   
This was my second ISTE experience in as many years, and to be quite honest I wasn’t sure how this year could top last year in Atlanta. Amazingly, it did. How? One word: Connections. My experience this year was much richer compared to last year because so many of my Internet and real-life PLN was there to share it with me. Even better, some of my Internet PLN became my real-life PLN when we met in person on the last day of the conference. It was truly awesome to be in the presence of folks whom I have developed such a deep respect for through the use of Twitter and Voxer. Whoever says you can’t form meaningful relationships through social media has never met these truly warm, decent human beings. 
  
Pork sandwiches from DiNic’s for breakfast with Ross Cooper (@rosscoops31) and THE Pernille Ripp (@pernilleripp)? These are my people!
 Tom Whitby (@tomwhitby) said something very profound during the final session of the conference that I went to, the Corwin Connected Educators Panel. He said “If you are not connected, then you are not relevant. We don’t need irrelevant educators in this system.” That statement sums up this entire experience for me. Whether I was listening to the servant-leader storytelling of Chris Lehmann (@chrislehmann) and his teachers as they talked about 10 years of educating the youth of Philadelphia in a magnate school with one of the highest special education populations in the city, or getting choked up by the passion driven leadership of George Couros (@gcouros) as he pushed us to be innovative risk-takers, I knew that I could continue the conversation beyond the walls of his conference because I am connected. These presenters, and many others, are accessible to me through multiple social media outlets, and that allows me to tap into resources that may not have been so easily accessible even five years ago. 
Two of my favorite #middleleaders: Lisa Meade (@lisameade23) and Steve Guditus (@sguditus)
  I am so lucky to be a middle school principal. I am so lucky to have access to some of the best minds in education through a device that I can hold in the palm of my hand (the same one that I’m writing this blog post on, incidentally). I am so lucky to know that, as a new school leader, people who have never met me in person have my back. And I smile knowing that there will always be new opportunities for us to meet face-to-face, hug, and say thank you. I can’t wait until we can do it all again! Until then, I’ll see you online.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Dr. Tony Sinanis (@tonysinanis), NYS Principal of the Year 2014