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!

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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!

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.

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.

A Personal Announcement

I sent an email out to my high school colleagues yesterday, and I want to share it here as well. Rather than re-write an entire post, I figured it would be easiest to share the email here. It was difficult enough to write it the first time! This announcement shines a rather bright light on one of my previous posts, and it continues to prove that a growth mindset can work wonders if you let it!

It is with both overwhelming excitement and poignant sadness in my heart that I am writing to let you know that earlier this week I accepted the position as the Middle School Principal in the South Glens Falls Central School District pending board of education approval this coming Monday evening. The last several weeks have been a whirlwind for me, and it has been a relatively private experience as I moved through the application and interview process. I will admit that I’m relieved I can finally let you all know, as it’s been tough trying to keep a secret from those of you who have been my friends and colleagues for so long.

 

Queensbury High School has been my home for the last ten years, and I can’t believe how quickly that time has passed.  I am so lucky to have been given the chance at 24 years old to begin my counseling career in this building, and it has been a deeply satisfying, sometimes harrowing, always interesting experience learning the ropes of building leadership alongside you. Some people say that moving from faculty member to administration within your own building can be difficult, but my experience has been just the opposite. Thank you for so easily accepting me in this role. Now I am eager to begin my journey at the middle level, a place where I believe my experiences as a school counselor and assistant principal will serve me well. I can honestly say that this opportunity came out of nowhere, and I have some big shoes to fill left behind by Mark Fish as he takes on the role of Superintendent of Greenwich Central Schools. It’s funny how plans can change when you least expect it.

 

Luckily, I still have several weeks left here in the building, and I promise the master schedule will be done before I go! I look forward to talking with you all in person.

 

In Friendship,
Tim
I couldn’t be more excited about this opportunity, this new door that has been opened for me. I have a great deal to learn as I move from high school into the middle level, but again I turn to the power of my PLN and their seemingly unending collective knowledge. Stay tuned for more posts as I dive into this new adventure. Wheels up, here we go!!

School Leader Mentoring in the 21st Century

When we were brand new educators, working with students for the first time, we had established mentoring programs to give us the necessary structured support from colleagues because, let’s be honest, we likely wouldn’t have asked for help out of fear of looking like we had no clue. I was extremely thankful for my mentor when I was first hired as a school counselor nearly 10 years ago. He helped set me on a path to success through discussion, intelligent questioning, organization, and historical knowledge of my new school community. The importance of this experience in shaping the counselor, the professional educator, that I became over 8 years has not been lost on me. In schools we make it a priority to focus time and resources on developing and maintaining teacher mentoring programs. We understand the importance of providing that resource to new people coming is as a way to keep them connected, provide an outlet for growth and development, and most importantly to retain the best people to instruct our students.

In contrast, something I learned very quickly as I began my first year as a high school AP is that the same importance on establishing mentors for new building leaders is not necessarily there yet. It’s only a just-emerging practice. In the summer that I was hired and moved from counseling office to main office, I was the sole building leader for an entire month. There was some transition in my building as people moved on to new positions, and there I was. Granted that month was July, but there was still a great deal to learn. I was running summer school for the first time, assigning the dreaded teacher duties (study halls, hall duty, cafeteria duty, etc.), learning an entirely new aspect of scheduling software that I had been using for years, reviewing requests for summer curriculum work, and the list goes on. Sure, I had a year long internship under my belt with a wonderful principal mentor, but now she was gone, too. There is a huge difference between having someone at your side to fall back on when you aren’t sure how to move forward and all of the sudden being the “go to” guy.

Amazingly that summer I held it together through some otherworldly grace, for sure. And I certainly learned a lot. Meanwhile, what I discovered beyond the nuts and bolts of the job was that there is nothing more important to a developing school leader like myself than the opportunity to connect with mentors. Unfortunately, there’s this idea that I’ve encountered out in the world of education that the expectation for building leaders is to hit the ground running and have all the right answers. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.

Luckily, my second year as an AP has been the year of my PLN, and I’m so thankful for it. From the early days of branching out on Twitter to connect with fellow educators through various chats (#NYEDChat, #SatChat), to attending the NASSP Annual Conference in Dallas, TX and learning in person from some of those people I had connected with online, I have devoted this school year to developing professionally by embracing the power of social media. And in my quest to connect, what I’ve discovered, quite serendipitously, is that I have come away not with simply other educators to talk to, but with multiple mentors, professionals who have my back, tell me when I’m wrong, and very much want to see me succeed in my endeavors. Do you understand how powerful this feeling is? In 2014 your mentors don’t have to be in the office, or even in the building, next door anymore. They don’t have to be provided by your district in an official program. They can be in another district, in another state, and even in another country! They are waiting to be found.

Recently I had an amazing experience with three building leaders that inspired me to write this post. I have had the pleasure of working with Lisa Meade (@lisameade23) multiple times in person. I’ve interacted with Tony Sinanis (@TonySinanis) on Twitter in various chats, and Don Gately (@donald_gately) jumped on board to help me out simply because he was asked by Lisa. He’d never interacted with me at all! I was in a new, uncharted situation that called for some discussion, reflection, insight, knowledge, advice, and feedback, and these three leaders gave up family time on a Monday night to participate in my own personal Google Hangout mentoring session. Here we were, four professionals from different parts of New York State, jiving face-to-face about education without having to travel at all. Our discussion was just as robust as it would have been if we were sitting in the same space. It’s a revelation! Its a revolution! It’s my current answer to building leader mentoring.

My point is we no longer have a reason to feel like we’re working in a vacuum. This is especially pertinent for those folks who may be the only administrator in their building or district. We have so many more options now than we had even two or three years ago to connect with other lead learners to receive regular feedback on decisions we’ve made and decisions we have yet to make.This is just another reason to get connected. Take control, develop your PLN, and find your mentor. He/She/They are waiting!

Breakfast of Champions and the Power of Yet

As I end my long weekend in the same place that it started, an airplane, I have a million thoughts swimming through my head about NASSP’s annual conference. I’ve been to many conferences in my 10 years in education, but I can honestly say that I have never had the experience at a conference that I did this weekend in Dallas. From the opening thought leader session with Dr. Laurie Barron (@LaurieBarron) interviewing Dr. Carol Dweck and Daniel Wong about changing our mindsets, to the numerous breakout sessions, smaller learning labs, ongoing Twitter chats, and the closing thought leader session where Simon T. Bailey asked us to consider what we would do if we couldn’t fail, this was a weekend filled with ideas meant to challenge and inspire. Everywhere I turned I was overwhelmed with the amazing things going on in schools across the country, and I am most certainly excited about returning to my building refreshed and ready to engage the school in continuing to build and develop our community.

An interesting thing happened on my first morning, however, and I’ve been considering it as I moved from session to session, listening to the presenters discuss overcoming challenges in order to achieve their goals. Having come to the conference on my own, I was placed at a table with another singleton attendee at breakfast on Friday morning. There had to be over 1000 people at this conference, and table space was a bit tight in the hotel’s restaurant. Since I was alone, I figured meeting someone new could only enhance my conference experience. I definitely got more than I bargained for. As our conversation moved from introductions and general pleasantries to the business of the weekend, I was confronted with the idea that my background as a school counselor would not serve me well as an educational leader at the building level. You see, in New York State counselors do not have to be teachers first in order to be certified to work in schools. Instead, I earned a 60 credit masters degree in school counseling and did a year long, 900 hour internship in a public high school before beginning my career. My breakfast partner, a long-time principal from the West Coast, felt it necessary to tell me that I am at a pretty hefty disadvantage because I haven’t spent time building lesson plans, writing curriculum, and instructing in a subject area, and unfortunately teachers would never really take my attempts to improve instruction and learning seriously because of this. In her words, they would always look at me through a lens of doubt. It was that plain of a statement. I had no idea what a long hard road I was in for, and I’d better start doing everything I can to address my educational shortcomings.

This was certainly not an “aha moment” for me. Of course I’ve thought about this very topic many times over the last few years, first as I jumped into my educational leadership certification program, then as I started to consider applying for jobs, and finally as I took on my role as assistant principal in the summer of 2012. I consider myself lucky to work in a school district that has trusted my skills enough to promote me to this role and has confidence in me to regularly take on active challenges within my high school. However, the voice in my head is often a little bit louder than reason, and this individual had done her best to sow the seeds of doubt. They sprouted one by one in the fertile environment of my mind. Am I really qualified to be a leader of teachers? How important is real-world classroom experience when it comes to identifying whether or not students are engaged? Am I doing everything I can to develop the skills that I need to be a better assistant principal? And most important, do my colleagues on the frontlines, the teachers that I’ve worked with for 10 years, trust me to continuously move things forward? On their own, these thoughts are certainly worthy of consideration. All at once and they have the potential to ignite a firestorm of self-doubt. I thought I was sitting down for some oatmeal and egg whites, and the truth is I got a whole lot more than I bargained for.

I don’t begrudge my breakfast partner her opinions. She doesn’t know me, what I bring to the table as an educator, how I build relationships, or even what the educational landscape looks like where I’m from. I definitely don’t believe that she was saying these things to be malicious. I imagine she saw a young administrator by himself, looking to be a better leader by attending a large national conference, and she felt it was her duty to impart some personal wisdom. At least that’s how I’m choosing to look at it. Regardless of her motives, this has been a perfect opportunity for me to embrace a growth mindset. Afterall, I had just heard Dr. Dweck speak the previous afternoon. I could choose to fix my mindset and allow this one person’s characterization of the struggle before me to define my steps forward down a path that would surely be wrought with frustration, anxiety, and potentially regret, or I could give myself permission to consider the word “yet.” She was right. As a second year assistant principal I can’t even remotely begin to know everything I need to in order to be the instructional leader that I want to be…yet. I am not ready to take on the role of the principalship…yet. Fortunately, I have the opportunity to engage in activities that allow me to explore my strengths and weaknesses. I will continue to connect with an entire world of school leaders that know more than I could ever hope to via my ever-growing PLN on Twitter. I will continue to learn all there is to know about education in the 21st Century, and when someone confronts me with the idea that a task is going to be very difficult to achieve, I will make a choice to move forward, not backward.

Matthew Willis, NASSP’s National Asst. Principal of the Year for 2013, challenged a room full of APs yesterday to “make a commitment to being intentional” about everything we choose to pursue. He talked about embracing those people who are our biggest opponents because they make us better versions of ourselves, and he showed us that if you are committed to something that makes things betters for students, you can’t go wrong. This post is my commitment. I will be intentional about confronting the challenges that face me every day. I will confront those challenges that confound all educators with drive and determination, and although I may fail more than once, I know that through the “Power of Yet” I can reach the summit of every mountain worth climbing. Afterall, I’m posting a blog from 30,000 feet in the air. Anything is possible.

What would I do if I knew I couldn’t fail? Exactly what I do each day, and that’s a pretty amazing feeling.