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!

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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.

Be in the Building

Last Friday I came home from work after a particularly difficult few days, and I felt somewhat defeated. A lot had gone on, which isn’t so unusual, but for some reason I had been feeling a disconnect. Sitting here and writing this I can come up with twenty different reasons (excuses) why I was feeling this way, but the truth of the matter is I had very few meaningful interactions with either adults or students in my building, and I had definitely not taken the time to observe students engaged in learning, too busy trying to figure out how to de-anchor myself from my desk. And let’s be honest, nobody but me was forcing me to sit at my desk, like so much dead weight, answering emails or fretting over exam schedules. As I reflected on the week and all that had happened, I found myself using Twitter as a way to shout my reflections into the ether on Friday evening, hoping someone in my PLN would offer some sage advice that could be implemented immediately. I actually find that this is one of the things that makes Twitter a very useful tool. Tweets are, at the same time, an act of reaching out to peers and one of therapeutic release. Both roles are equally important. In this case, I tweeted the following:

I have been turning this thought over and over again like so many pancakes waiting to be flipped and cooked on the other side. Each time I’d think I had the best answer, I’d throw some more batter in the pan and start the process all over again. My good friend and fellow newbie assistant principal, Pete Mody, had this simple yet poignant piece of advice to offer up:

“…be in the building. Not in our offices.” The answer has been staring me in the face since I took on this new assistant principal role 18 months ago, of course, yet it seems so far out of reach. It’s so easy for me, and I’ll go ahead and assume many other building leaders, to plant myself at my desk and not move until everything is done. The problem is that everything is never done. And while I sit staring at my computer screen rating another APPR rubric, assigning consequences to students for poor choices (my least favorite part of the AP job, by the way), or analyzing data that will inform the master schedule, for examples, a whole world of activity is passing by right outside my door. There are truly amazing things happening in multiple classrooms, and there are plenty of opportunities for me to get out there and see this learning in action. There are relationships to be built and strengthened, and there are more students to know. However, more often than not, as sad as I am to admit it, these things elude me.

At 18 months in, there are things that I have gotten good at. There are tasks that were difficult when I first started that come a bit easier now. The big task, though, which in my opinion is ensuring that essential learning and growth are happening throughout the building (yes – even assistant principals are responsible for this in a building), has remained a challenge. There’s a lot to manage, yet management can be learned. It’s the leadership piece that is not quite as black and white, and therefore the one that gets relegated to back burner status because it’s not as concrete. In the end, though, I did not get called to manage. I got called to lead, and in order to do that I must recommit myself to the act of leading.

Each new day brings opportunities to interact within a school building. The job of the assistant principal, I am learning, is one of constantly seeking out a balance between office work that needs to get done (discipline referrals, paperwork, schedules, meetings, etc.) and the work that defines who we are as educators, the kind of contact with people in the building that contributes to learning. I need to be better about not defining who I am as a professional by how quickly I get the January mid-term schedule finished or how many discipline referrals I am able to handle in one day. Reflection is key, and as I reflect on this issue I realize that the simple acts of standing up at my desk, walking out of my office door, and wandering through the building will lead to exactly what I am looking for – interaction. And I will be a better assistant principal for it.

How do you find that balance between managing tasks and building relationships at work?