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!

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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

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

“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!