Early Mornings and Dominoes

I’m all in when it comes to Twitter. This has been the case for a number of years. I believe that it is one of the great equalizers of our time. Not only can you connect with your friends and family, but it opens doors to possible conversations with folks who were previously unreachable, thought leaders in science, journalism, politics, and of course the odd celebrity interaction here and there (I’m certainly not above sending a fanboy tweet to my favorite NPR anchor now and then!). While I definitely take issue with the sometimes knee-jerk reactionary antics that it can encourage en masse, in general I find Twitter to be an outstanding communication and personal connection tool, and we’re lucky to have free and unfettered access to it.  However, it was only at the beginning of the 2013-14 school year that I discovered how much Twitter could truly enrich my professional life. Needless to say, I am a much better leader today because of the outstanding individuals locally, nationally, and internationally that I’ve been able to “talk” with via social media. It was Twitter chats that got the ball rolling for me. At this point, if you’re reading my blog, you probably know all about the myriad chats that are out there for educators. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, let me know in the comments and I’d be happy to talk your ear off about it.

Yesterday afternoon I was invited by my good friend and respected middle level leader Lisa Meade (@lisameade23) to participate in a chat at 5:30 AM today. This chat is called Breakfast Club, although I think Bleary-Eyed Coffee Club might be a more appropriate moniker, and it is the brain child of New Jersey middle school teacher Scott Capro (@ScottCapro). The chat consists of a 15 minute window where participants discuss one daily question. The questions are crowd-sourced via Google Doc, and anyone can sign up for a day. Along with the list of questions, participants can contribute to a growing playlist of inspirational music to go along with the chat topics. I have to admit that when Lisa first invited me, I thought to myself “Whoa, I may have to draw the line here! These chats are getting out of hand. I need my beauty rest!” However, I decided to trust my friend, as she has never lead me astray before, and I set my alarm for 5:15 AM (the extra 15 minutes was so I could hit snooze at least once).

Wow. What a great way to start my day as an educator. Here’s how the chat started:

And we were off! 15 minutes flew by, but it was the perfect amount of time for me to make several new connections, and I can’t descirbe how refreshing it was to wake up to positive talk from inspirational educators rather than my usual cocktail of soul-sucking international news and in-my-own-head-worrying about the upcoming challenges of the day.  Meanwhile, there were a surprising number of participants for 5:30 AM on a summer morning!

For me, this topic invoked the idea of not only standing up for kids because it should be our #1 priority as educators, but also of setting the example for others, both our students and the adults in our buildings.

Kudos to Scott Capro for championing this idea, and thanks to Lisa Meade for lovingly badgering me into participating. I can’t guarantee that I’ll be at every #BFC530, but you can be darn sure that I am going to try to participate as much as possible. This chat is just getting off the ground, but I have a feeling that when the school year is upon us we will see a growing number of voices joining in on a daily basis. After all, who can’t use a little bit of inspiration for breakfast? Check out the chat Storify for a clearer picture of what went on this morning, and remember….

photo (8)

Relationships Matter

This has been quite a summer of transitions for me. Not only am I taking on my first principalship at the middle level with 10 years of high school experience under my belt (gasp), but my wife and I have just finished selling our house while working through the process of buying another house which we won’t be able to move into until the end of August. We have dubbed this our “Summer of Upheaval.” Being temporarily housed in my in-laws’ basement, I have had a lot of time to reflect on the end of my school year, and the end of my run at the high school level. Upon reflection, the biggest thing that stands out for me when I ponder those times that I really struck out is something that we hear repeated often: relationships matter!

During my last week as an assistant principal this year, the superintendent of my former district requested a meeting with me, my co-AP, and my principal to discuss how the district can work to support an increase in graduation rate at the high school. As a school counselor turned assistant principal, this has been one of my big focuses as a building leader, and he wanted to hear any suggestions we might have as a team. I found that as he asked me to talk about ideas and strategies that have worked for at-risk kids in our district, I kept repeating myself. It’s about finding ways to build relationships with all students, plain and simple. In fact, I almost felt sheepish because there was a part of me that was convinced I had to offer up the Holy Grail of programs, that there really is one answer out there that will solve all of our problems. Logically I know that this isn’t the case. There is no way that any one “program” can address the myriad issues facing our students (although putting money back into education to help address these issues certainly couldn’t hurt). However, one thing that I have found that has had the most success for me is showing students that I am a human who does human things, like make mistakes, and I can connect with them as people. I did it as a counselor, and you can be darn sure I did it as an assistant principal, even in the face of some veteran staff members giving me the stink-eye because my first reaction wasn’t to raise my voice, demand respect, or drop the proverbial hammer. Luckily, I worked with building level and district administrators who get it and encouraged this approach.

Back to the meeting- As we read our way through a shared Google spreadsheet that had been created to track what the New York State Education Department calls “non-completers”, a sterile way to lump all students who don’t graduate together into one statistic, it became clear that there is no one story that is the same as the others. Each one of these students had their own personal struggle that had been written over years, not weeks or months, and, surprisingly, I found that I could seamlessly tell these stories back to all to the people in the room with me; I could even share the stories woven by the students that I hadn’t worked with directly because, in schools, these are the students who we get to know without even trying. They are the names that we hear over and over again from teachers and counselors. They are the students that we see regularly in our offices as building leaders, sometimes starting in elementary school, because their behaviors get them kicked out of class. Sadly, all too often they can turn into the name that we groan about when it’s merely mentioned, an entire personality whittled down to nothing more than an emotive reaction. I’m sad to admit that I am just as guilty of doing this as anybody else, and once we get to that place there is little room for redemption. You know these students, and you know their stories because they are every student that ends up on lists like this in schools across the country.

But I believe that it doesn’t have to be this way. We MUST continue the ongoing conversations in schools about how to reach these students before they get to high school, and if they do get to high school, we need to work together to break down the walls that have been built up over time. Now that I’m at the middle level, this is more important for me then ever before. In New York State, students can drop out at the start of the school year after they turn 16. Do you remember the types of decisions you were making at 16 years old? Think on it, and then consider the gravity of NOT taking immediate, meaningful, and direct action to show these students that we are human and we care. In order to stem the tide, we need to get to these kids much sooner than the beginning of 9th grade. We have to have a deep conversation about what we are doing at all levels to keep students and their families engaged. We also need to move past the fear of being ourselves and sharing our lives with these young people who, admittedly or not, look to us for guidance. We are human. They are human. Let’s bring the humanity back to our schools.

Relationships

How will you connect this year with one student who is yearning for a place to belong? I encourage you to share your commitment, no matter the size, on this blog, on your own blog, or elsewhere on social media.