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!

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.

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.