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.  

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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

One Year in a Moment

I sent this message out to my staff today in my final “Friday” Focus of the year (does it still count if it’s on a Wednesday?), and I thought I would share it here as I dive back into the world of refection through blogging.

“Of course I have to end with one more Friday Focus, and I’m not changing the name even if it is Wednesday. I thought this would be an appropriate place to spend some time reflecting on my first year with all of you, what I’ve learned, what I want to do better, and what I’m looking forward to. It’s a longer one, so be warned (skimming is OK – I’ll never know).

1) What I’ve learned

Middle school is so much more than anyone who has never spent time in one could ever hope to try and explain. I was, admittedly, very nervous about being able to connect with this age group when I started back in July. I, like so many other people, had preconceived notions about middle school based on my own personal experience (i.e. my big ears story), and after getting to know high school students over the course of 10 years I was concerned about how long the adjustment period would last. While I was excited to embark on this new adventure, it truly was an adventure because I had no idea what to expect. Happily, I quickly learned that our students are multi-faceted, three-dimensional human beings who have so much to offer if and when we give them a voice. Of course that’s not to say that some of the middle school stereotypes aren’t true. Yes, it can be challenging navigating the at once placid and rough waters of early adolescent emotional development, and the opportunities for teachable moments are plentiful, but I have certainly learned that our students are also quite capable of deep observation, caring gestures, and meaningful contribution to the school community. I’ve also learned that people who work in middle schools are utterly passionate about working with this age group. I am regularly in awe of your ability to balance the ups and downs of the middle school classroom while still accomplishing your academic goals on a daily basis. Middle school educators are the rock stars of the educational world as far as I’m concerned. Each day is a fresh opportunity to try again and get it right, and that makes all of the difference for our kids.

2) What I Want to Do Better

In a word: Everything! This has been such a learning year for me. Now that I have gone through an entire school year and received meaningful feedback from multiple sources (sometimes gently and sometimes not-as-gently – both important for the growth process), I am ready to spend the summer considering how I can continue on my journey of improvement. My office whiteboard wall “to do” list has been growing, and the building priority list that you have provided to me through our End of the Year Google form will definitely keep me busy as we make the transition to 2015-16. Believe it or not, I really am excited about September as I think about the possibilities. I appreciate the leeway you have given me this year as I have gotten my footing. Your understanding and patience when things haven’t always gone as smoothly as they have in past years has been greatly appreciated.

3) What I’m Looking Forward To

To be honest, what I’m looking forward to most is continuing to create opportunities that foster meaningful relationships and dialogue with staff and students now that I have gotten through the craziness of year one. I am so excited about the implementation of my mobile office (I really wasn’t kidding). I realize that I am at my best as an educator and leader, and my day is most enjoyable, when I am in the world and not at my desk. I’ve already been checking out desks-on-wheels with ample storage. I just might need to install a bicycle bell so people can hear me coming! Stay tuned for a principal on the move!

I was chatting with a teacher on the way into the building this morning, and we got on the topic of people’s perceptions of middle school being shaped by their own experience. I try to keep this in mind whenever I am talking with others about what we do. Luckily, you all have made it easy for me to shine a light on why middle schools are essential pieces of the educational puzzle. Thank you for the good work you do daily. Thank you for keeping kids engaged and excited about their education. Thank you for making this building a warm and welcoming place for our students who look to us for such things (there are more than you know), and thank you for growing along with me. Have a wonderful summer. Rest, read, replenish, and be well.”

Making Assumptions

Something happened last week, and as soon as I got back to my office I knew I needed to write about it. Bear with me while I share. I was observing a class, and at the midpoint the students got into pairs and were tasked with finding evidence in a nonfiction text to support a claim; It was good stuff, and I was happy to see them ready to undertake their sacred duty as students. This particular class has been working with a text about the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911. The question they were considering was “Could the Triangle Factory Fire have been prevented?” About halfway through the activity, during which all of the kids were hard at work and focused, I heard a student call my name from across the room. When I looked up, I saw that it was a young man named Griffin. The dialogue went something like this:

Griffin: “Hey Mr. Dawkins!”

Me: “Yes Griffin?”

Griffin (pointing to a blinking apparatus on the ceiling): “What are those things for?”

Me: “You know Griffin, I don’t really know, but aren’t you supposed to be working with Ashton right now? Why don’t you get back to that.”

Do you see what I did there? You probably do, and you’re likely shaking your head in disappointment. I certainly am as I rehash the scenario in my head. I’m embarrassed to admit that I was so caught up in the fact that I was working through an evaluation rubric, focusing on teacher and student interactions, that I made an assumption about Griffin’s motives for asking me that question. I decided, out of reflex, that he was distracted and stalling. I could tell you all of the reasons why I made that assumption, including previous interactions with Griffin, but none of them are important. Any educator worth their salt would have understood that what Griffin was actually trying to do was make a connection between how we protect ourselves from fire in schools (the apparatus in question, I later discovered, was a carbon monoxide detector), and how the owners of the shirtwaist factory failed to protect their employees back in 1911. Luckily for Griffin (and for me), his teacher identified his thought process, and she saved him from my misplaced attempt at redirection. I, in turn, learned a lesson, and potentially harmed a relationship with a student by not stopping to think before responding.

I did apologize to Griffin for passing judgement before pausing to listen. Whether it resonated with him or not, I’m not sure. Moving forward, I understand that none of us are immune from letting assumptions about students get in the way of what is actually happening. And we all know what happens when you make assumptions. Our past experiences with a child should never determine how we interact with them in the present, especially at the middle level when they are still figuring out who they are and what they stand for. What I have vowed to remember is that every situation is different, stopping to listen should always be a priority, and every student can surprise us. I have Griffin to thank for reminding me of that.

A Holiday Reminder

As a middle school principal and former school counselor, the last two weeks have reminded me of something that is very important for us all to reflect on as the holiday season is thrust upon us. This is a difficult time of year for so many of our students. They are bombarded with the picturesque visions of what a family is supposed to be, what new toy or gadget they are supposed to have sitting under a perfectly decorated tree, or what family gatherings are supposed to look like knowing that this just isn’t their reality. Few things sting more for our students than a sense of loss, and that loss is not always black and white.  While we all want to focus on the wonderful things about the month of December, too many of our kids are living in an amplified version of already difficult situations at home because the adults in their lives are also struggling with the same issues. Unfortunately this holiday discord translates to amplified behaviors in the classroom.

Although moving through this time of year in schools can be filled with hidden triggers that lead to unforeseeable emotional reactions from both kids AND adults, we must work hard to find a balance. We need to be, more than ever, the most reliable people at a time when even consistent parents’ patience is tested. Here are some things to consider as we ramp up to the holidays:

  • Be Predictable

Few things turn a good situation bad more quickly than unpredictable behavior from a person who is supposed to be a representative of all that is calm and stable in the world. I don’t know about your school, but in ours we regularly talk about safety. You can’t have safety without reliable plans and predictable behavior. The stress of the holidays can leave adults feeling cranky and irrational. As difficult as it is to “on” all the time, it’s never more important then when things are at their most stressful. Whether we want to admit it or not, our students look to us to make them feel safe and secure. Be that person for them.

  • Be Understanding

Life happens. We know this. As adults we get busy and make decisions about what is important in the moment all of the time. Let us not forget that we live in a gray world where things don’t always get done on a schedule. Couple human nature with a home life that even in the non-holiday times may not allow for bucketloads of concentration or privacy, and you’ve got a recipe for things to be forgotten. I’m not saying you should throw all expectations out the window, but don’t forget that even the most diligent student can be focused on other things this season.

  • Be Aware

Notice changes in your students behavior. It’s December, and by this point you should know your students’ routines, mannerisms, and personalities pretty well. It’s likely that a drastic shift in mood or a change in the way a student socializes indicates that they are struggling with something. Take the time to listen and be present with them. Engage in conversations with the mental health professionals in your buildings: school counselors, psychologists, or social workers. This is not the time of year to assume that another adult has noticed and taken action.

  • Be Mindful

Words are powerful. Words carry weight. We can easily destroy a hard-earned relationship with a simple passing phrase said without care or consideration. Maybe we’re having a bad day. Maybe we’ve convinced ourselves that we’re just joking. Maybe this particular student is truly pushing the limits of good behavior. It doesn’t matter. I’m a firm believer that sarcasm does not belong in the classroom no matter the age level. Even if it backfires “only” one out of ten times, that is one time too many. No student needs to head into the holiday break with one more reason to feel disconnected from school.

  • Be Kind

Kindness trumps everything else. You won’t convince me otherwise. We can never truly know the struggles that people are facing, but I’m willing to bet a year’s salary that choosing to be kind to them can change their perspective. I think we can all agree that often it feels like we live in a society devoid of kind words and actions. Turn on the news at any moment, and you’ll see what I mean. Our students are constantly tuned in to this world of up-to-the-minute, streaming information. In many ways it’s all they’ve ever known. What better time of year than right now to take the time and show them that the world isn’t all anger and shouting? Remind them that there are opportunities to be kind around every corner. We are always setting the example for our students. Choose to model kindness.

Are these five things the answers to all of your amped up, pre-vacation, holiday behavior woes? Probably not. However, doing just one of these in earnest might change the trajectory of a student’s day. In my eyes, nothing could be more important.

Best wishes for wonderful holiday and a relaxing break! See you all in 2015!

Never Having to Say “I can’t.”

Connect

As Connected Educator month wraps up, I’ve been reflecting on what that particular word actually means to me. Often we talk about it in regard to our students and whether or not they are making the essential links between what they have been taught and what they are currently learning. “Are they connecting yesterday’s review to the new information I’m presenting today?” I’ve used it in discussions that center around students or families who are having a difficult time seeing value in what we do in our building. “How do we keep parents apprised of our priorities and connected to our school culture of growth through learning so that they can reinforce it at home?” As 21st Century lead learners we use it to denote how we interact with other professionals via social media. “I am a connected principal, and I have a burgeoning PLN!”

Certainly, all of these uses are correct and appropriate to what we do as educators. However, recently the idea of being connected spoke to me on a much deeper level. This weekend was an intense few days of talking, sharing, and learning via two different, but equally important, professional development opportunities. While I packed a great deal of activity in to three days, my mind keeps coming back to the same idea: Being connected means never having to say “I can’t.”

EdCampUNY

It’s been a little over a year since I hooked up with a (best kind of) crazy group of risk taking educators and we started talking about bringing the EdCamp model to Upstate New York. It literally evolved out of one of those “Hey, why don’t we do this here” kind of moments. One person said it, and we all tumbled like dominoes. I really struggle to put into words how valuable the relationships that have developed out of this process have become to me as a person and professional. During the year since we began planning I have very unexpectedly (but certainly not unhappily) transitioned from a high school assistant principal to a middle school principal, and this group has been there for me, supporting my learning, every step of the way. Whether we were laughing together on a Google Hangout or Voxing while driving back and forth to work, I know that I can turn to any one of these individuals (Lisa Meade, Vicki Day, Christina Luce, Peter DeWitt, and Patti Siano), and they will have my back. They are role models in every way, but especially in the way that they fear neither taking a risk nor failing and starting over. They hold a special place in my PLN, but an even more special place in my heart, and I will say that over and over to anyone who tells me that meaningful friendships cannot be forged via social media.

In the end, my biggest takeaway from our first Upstate New York EdCamp was that it doesn’t matter how many people are in the room. What matters is the conversation. We are small, but mighty. We learned about makerspaces, instructional tech tools, best literacy practices, and ways to connect at-risk boys to school. We taught a room of 35 educators how to participate in their first Twitter chat in real time (thanks #satchatwc). The discussions were rich, and everyone in attendance had something to share. This is the beauty of the EdCamp model. But most importantly, the thing that matters more than anything else to me, is the fact that I made new connections and strengthened relationships that I thought were already pretty solid. Special shout-outs to my partner in innovation, Matt Hladun, for opening doors and web filters (among other things) at our site, Queensbury HS, and to Jon Harper and Ross Cooper, who went above and beyond to make long trips from out of state and consistently elevated the level of conversation throughout the day. Meeting you both was a true highlight!

EdCamps bring out the best in us as people and professionals. They get us to think outside of the box, connect us as human educators, and they bring the conversations front-and-center at the ground floor level, which is something that state education departments across the country can’t quite seem to do. We took charge of our own learning, engaged in a tremendous leap of faith in some regard, and it paid off exponentially. I couldn’t be more proud!

Check out our day, and keep your eyes peeled for #EdCampUNY2015!

EdCampUNY

Stay tuned for upcoming Part II of my weekend PD extravaganza reflection: #SAANYS14

The Power of Good Morning

Good morning. It’s a simple phrase that we are taught to respond to from a very young age. Many of us say it out of habit, forgetting the actual meaning behind it. We take it for granted. But in my experience, there can be great power behind that daily greeting, especially in my role as a middle school leader.

One of my loftiest goals this year as a first year principal is to be present in the building, in the halls, and in individual classrooms more often than I am in my office. I say “loftiest” because it is very easy to get bogged down with the minutiae of leadership (paperwork, emails, more emails, requests for funding, etc.). While I am always learning how to keep my day balanced, I know that it could tip toward eyes-locked-on-computer-screen at any moment. That’s why I start every day planted somewhere around the front entrance of my building, ready to greet each student that walks by. I strive to make an individual impression on the kids. This is how I practice their names. This is how I make sure that they know they are truly welcome and someone notices them. This is also how I remind them that it is important to make eye contact and respond verbally to someone when they speak to you. I think that this is of particular importance at the middle level. We have this tendency to convince ourselves that once kids hit middle school they want to remain anonymous, left to wander from class to class with their heads down, unnoticed. In my short experience at the middle level, this couldn’t be farther from the truth.

As a brand new principal, saying “good morning” to my students each day has helped me build relationships in more ways than one. By being present in the front of the building throughout the morning, I am more easily able to identify those students who are having a difficult time getting to school on time each day. Being front and center allows me to see a pattern emerging among students, and it gives me the perfect opportunity to walk and talk with them about what may be causing them to show up late. I’d much rather have the conversation with them now instead of waiting until their names come up in a meeting later on. It’s one more way to show students that they are noticed and that they are important.

Finally, taking things one step further, getting outside, and greeting kids as they are getting out of their cars allows me to be one of the first adults that they see each day. I want my students to identify me with the school as a whole, not just as the mysterious guy in the main office who sometimes comes into class with a Chromebook and types stuff while their teacher is talking. I want them to use feel like they can use me as a resource, and I want to be the first happy face they see as they start their day. I also want their parents to see me as accessible, human, and as someone who takes an interest in their children from the moment they step foot at school. It’s amazing what a small wave to the person in the driver seat can do to solidify that essential relationship between home and school. I also want my students to know that regardless of what happened yesterday at school, today is a new day, and school CAN be a positive place.

Saying “good morning” has become a ritual that I truly look forward at the beginning of each day. October is Connected Educator Month. While the honorable goal of #CE14 is to help us deepen our professional relationships through engagement of social media, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that saying “good morning” each day speaks to a different type of connection. It gets me and my students started on the right foot, and it sets the stage for positive relationships. We can only expect from our staff what we do ourselves. This is one way that I lead by example. Give it a try. I’m sure your email will forgive you.

“But aren’t you the principal?”

It’s my first 6th grade orientation as a brand new principal, and it feels like it’s about 9000 degrees on this late August evening in the gym as I sweat through my suit. I’m approached by a mother of an incoming student who has a question. She wants to know how to find out what team her daughter is on since the new schedules we just switched to this summer don’t list team names. For a moment I freeze. I definitely do not know the answer to this question. I should know, right? I’m the principal! As I smile outwardly, inside I’m trying to come up with an answer to what is seemingly a very simple question. Except I’m brand new, and I have absolutely no idea. I decide to be honest and tell this mother that, in fact, we’re going to have to find someone together that can answer her question. She is stunned. “But aren’t you the principal?” she asks me. “Yes. I’m Tim Dawkins. Nice to meet you.” I say. “And…you don’t know the answer to this?” she responds to my introduction, a bit startled. “No, I’m new like the students,” I tell her “but I’m really good at finding out who does!” WIth that we locate, together, one of the school counselors who did know the answer, and all was right again. Everything but that nagging feeling that I SHOULD have known the answer…..

Throughout my life I have struggled to maintain a growth mindset. There. I said it. Anyone who knows me well would likely agree. I was always that kid who wanted to be able to understand something new immediately, and when I wasn’t able to, it was easier for me to throw my hands up in the air and walk away rather than practice until I got it right. Throughout childhood and well into my teen years I often heard from my parents “Stop saying ‘I can’t! You can, you just don’t want to try!” I am convinced that this is the reason why I’m so dismissive of my math skills to this day

As I’ve grown into adulthood I’ve become more rational when I’m faced with something I don’t quite understand, although not without varied amounts of pep talks from mentors and very understanding PLN members. Reminding myself that everybody has their own learning curve has been very important. Reading Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset, was a huge eye opener for me, too. Of course I still get frustrated, and people have to remind me that I will get it eventually, but I have been much more willing to be open to the idea that not everything is meant to come easy. This has never been more true than during the summer of 2014.

I’ve written ad nauseum about all of the self-induced, very positive but also challenging changes in my life this summer. What I’ve discovered as I wrap up the “Summer of Upheaval” is that connecting with other professionals is a must. Of course I knew this prior to this summer, but my transition into a middle school principalship has really pushed me to find multiple ways to connect with thought-leaders, practitioners, and mentors in the field of middle level leadership. Luckily for me, there’s Voxer.

Voxer has allowed me to connect with multiple individuals within the field of middle level education, and as I’ve connected with them I’ve been able to connect them with each other. Now, I have this burgeoning group of middle level leaders from across the country that are constantly sharing new and innovative ideas, asking questions, and showing me that it’s OK for the principal to not have all the answers, all in an active and ongoing Voxer chat! Plus, actually being able to talk to one another and then listen when it’s convenient is the best of both worlds! Voxer is the technological embodiment of the Growth Mindset. It allows me to embrace the “Power of Yet”, turn to my middle level colleagues, ask how they approach something, and move forward with their help. With Voxer, I never have to feel like I am going it alone. If I can’t find the answer, I have collective knowledge than can help me over any hurdle. Plus, they make me laugh. What could be better?! Voxer has truly changed my professional life for the better, and I encourage you to explore the possibilities for yourself ASAP!

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.

Change and the Chance to Say Goodbye

Note: I’m writing this in the air over the East Coast as I make my way to Atlanta for ISTE 2014.

Today is June 28th. In a flash, the halls of my high school are quiet. Students have begun that glorious bit of childhood called Summer Vacation. The last faculty meeting of the year, an opportunity to recognize our achievements, our highs and lows, and our colleagues who are moving on, was a success. Graduation, my tenth as an educator, was the celebration that it’s always meant to be. Classrooms are being emptied of items so they can be cleaned and refreshed for September, and planning for summer instruction is in full swing.

Transitions are quick in the world of education.

We say goodbye to people who worked in classrooms next to us for decades in the midst of a rush to make sure we’ve entered final grades, handed in keys (if you do that sort of thing), and accounted for textbooks. Soon enough we are on to orienting new teachers, planning new curriculum for the fall, analyzing state and local test data, and ensuring the building is ready for the upcoming school year.

Then, suddenly, we realize we never even had a chance to say goodbye.

I am the walking definition of bittersweet these days. It seems that each time I complete a task or participate in one function or another I quietly remind myself that this will be the last time I do it in my current role, at my current school; the school where I got my start, my professional home for 10 years, a place where I was given the chance to grow, take risks, fail, and ultimately forge my own path. As I ready myself to transition into a principalship in two weeks at a new school, with a new level of kids, and in a new district, I am experiencing a combination of excitement, nervousness, reflection, and a little bit of sadness. How do I rectify the idea of walking away from the people who have played a part in making me who I am today, something that I recognize as a type of grief, with the notion that, in order to grow, I need to embrace this new challenge? So far I’ve done it by recognizing that, second only to teachers, data illustrates that as the principal I will be the person in the building who will have the most educational impact on student learning. I will be able to set the tone for my building, to open the doors for teachers to provide new opportunities for all, and THAT is an amazing feeling!

Working in the field of education is unlike any other job out there. When a building has a strong culture of collaboration and support, it can be the most rewarding thing in the world. Educators can form strong bonds as they weather the ebb and flow of unfunded mandates and today’s answer to all of our woes (instructional, behavioral, etc.). Once those bonds are formed, it takes a lot to break them down. To leave my own bonds behind to explore the unknown of a new culture can be downright frightening for sure, but if we never leave comfortable behind, we’ll never know what we’re truly capable of. That’s what I’m telling myself these days.

Transitions are quick in the world of education. How we prepare for those transitions defines the path we will travel. Sometimes those transitions mean moving into a new classroom or teaching a new class. Sometimes the transition means deciding it’s time to retire. But nearly always, a transition means willingly diving in to a new endeavor head first because the opportunity presents itself where you least expect it. I am prepared to embark on a new path, to take my head-first dive, and I know I will have ten years worth of relationships behind me, pushing me, whispering in my ear “Listen first. Talk second. Act third.” That’s why I don’t really need to say goodbye as I pack up and walk out the door for the last time. Those people, these relationships, will always be with me. And for that I am the most grateful man in the world.