“Do you really like what you’re doing?”

A couple of weeks ago I was walking around one of our schools during the day which I try to do often as a way to clear my head and connect with the energy of an actual building. As an assistant superintendent you probably won’t be shocked to know that it’s easy to get stuck in my office, emailing away until the end of time, only to set foot in a school if I have a meeting or observation to check off the list. Having worked as a building leader for six years, I definitely need the shot of energy that comes from being around students of all ages engaged in the hustle of a school day. As often happens when I walk around a building, I was engaged in several conversations ranging from academic programming to individual student concerns. One conversation, however, has stuck with me, and I continue to roll it around in my brain days later. After moving through the typical greetings and small talk (I hadn’t spoken to this particular teacher in some time), they asked me a question that is posed to me fairly often when the asker is a colleague who knew me in one of my previous leadership roles.

“So, do you really like what you’re doing, Tim?”

This is an innocuous question on the surface, and I don’t believe that the teacher meant it any other way. However, whenever I get hit with this particular inquiry my brain wants to react with a canned response before I even have time to consider it. Usually it’s telling me to say, “Yes, I absolutely love it!” Other times I hear myself saying, “I’m really enjoying the learning curve of this role and the opportunity to connect with so many students and adults throughout our district.” Those are both accurate responses. I do love being an assistant superintendent, a position I never expected to be in at this point in my career, and I do enjoy the learning that happens every day because I now work with folks at all levels, K-12. But there are deeper answers to this question that I don’t often get into because mostly I don’t want to bore the person asking it. Then I remembered, this is why I have a blog!

There’s an assumption in the layers of this question that I believe most folks are unaware of. The assumption is that this is a joyless job laden with administravia, small on student contact, and big on adult management which makes it difficult to enjoy. I know it’s there because when I answer that I’m truly enjoying my role they typically respond with, “…Really?” or “I wouldn’t have guessed that.” They usually follow with a clarification that my personality is more well-suited for direct student contact work, and this role just doesn’t provide that. And that is partly true. There is paperwork, organizational tasks, and many forms that need to be filed in order for our district to be in compliance with state regulations. I’m responsible for many of them. Along with overseeing curriculum and instruction, in our district of 500+ employees, I’m also basically the HR department. I do engage in my fair share of conversations around day to day to management tasks, and sometimes it feels like that pile never gets smaller. And the meetings. So many meetings. It’s a lot. And yet it’s also my responsibility to make sure that these things don’t define me.

Right now I have the benefit of having been the middle school principal in my district for four years, which means that most of the students in grades 8-12 know me, at least peripherally. That has given me a leg up on both maintaining previous relationships and building new ones, yet that won’t always be the case. Do not underestimate the power of learning, knowing, and remembering students names. This is important as a building leader and I believe it is even MORE important as a district leader. It is one of the simplest ways to let a student know, “I see you, and I remember you.” Saying hello is fine. Saying hello followed by the student’s first name has led to many impromptu conversations that have allowed me to reconnect and find out how things are going. And when you show student that you remember them and ask how things are going, the will be honest. Sometimes too honest! I’m not going to pretend that I am anywhere near perfect here, but I’m working on it, and it has made a huge difference for my connection to our biggest asset, the kids we serve. Something else that has helped me stay connected is the act of mentoring. Again, I have worked from previous relationships I built as a principal, but I believe anyone can do it. Actually I believe that setting regular one-on-one time with students to be another advocate for them, to check in on their progress, and to help them organize and prioritize their learning life is more beneficial to me than it is to them! It also helps me to connect with instructional staff in a different way. When we collaborate around helping a particular student find their path to success, with all it’s bumps and detours, we all grow together.

So, yes, this job is different than any I have previously held in education, and it does have the capacity to remove me from the day-to-day challenges of life in a school building. I see how anyone in a district level position could get distracted by the seemingly endless time demands, mandates, and meetings. It’s easy to let a narrative created by others be, “He just doesn’t understand what goes on here.” Actually, that will likely happen no matter what, so just keeping plugging away. Connect with folks on a personal level. Get to know them. Learn their names. Write thank you notes. Send handwritten messages of support. Set specific times to check your email each day. Get out of your office! Be around kids.

District level leadership means we set the vision and tone for an entire population of kids and adults. Without connecting to the people and places those decisions affect, we will never be able to completely do our jobs. You make the position what it is. Make sure that, whatever you do, your choices allow you to answer the question, “So do you really like what you’re doing?” with an emphatic and honest, “I really love it!”

Saying Thank You: The Undergraduate Years

For the most part, I’ve lived a charmed life. Despite the daily challenges of being human that we all inevitably deal with, I was born lucky, and my adult life has been pretty full with success. I am especially blessed when I reflect on the path I’ve taken professionally. I was lucky enough that people who knew nothing about me beyond a 1 hour interview were willing to take a chance on me as a 24 year old guy with a masters degree in school counseling burning a hole in my pocket, and I’ve never looked back. There have been many people along the way who have nudged, bumped, pushed, and even hip-checked me forward, all the while giving me the strength to continue my education and set (what didn’t always feel like attainable) professional goals. They believed in me, and it has made all the difference.

I want to give thanks, publicly, because it’s just so easy to gloss over the importance of saying it in the busy push-and-pull of life. So I’m starting a series of posts on my blog that do just this, say “thank you.”

———————

For those of you who know me personally, it might be hard to believe that I entered my undergraduate studies fully believing that I was bound for medical school. What I do now is so far from that that it seems absurd to even suggest it. But it’s true. There I sat in the fall semester of 1998, my first college class as a freshman in a 400 person lecture hall, heading down the road as a biology major along with what felt like 1000 of my closest friends. And the journey began.

It lasted three semesters.

I was foiled, like many before me and surely many after, by Introduction to Organic Chemistry. The. Complete. Worst. It was in the fall of 1999, my sophomore year, that I knew everything was wrong. I had struggled through all of my science classes, pulling Cs, barely getting by as a student that I didn’t even recognize, and hating every moment of what was supposed to be my passion. I went to Organic Chem on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays with one of my roommates who insisted that we always sit in the front row. At 8:30 AM. It was academic torture. I needed a change, and it needed to happen fast. I wanted to feel connected to what was going to be my life’s work. After much self-reflection and driving my friends crazy as I worried about “giving up”, I decided that what was missing was a connection to people. I needed to work in a way that would directly impact the lives of others.

Enter the School of Education and Human Development and Jill Seymour.

It took one meeting with Jill, the sole academic advisor for the Human Development Program and the beacon of hope for so many within a larger University system that just didn’t have time to care about my personal journey, and I knew I had found my home. My family and friends couldn’t figure it out. I had always talked about being a doctor. What was I going to do with a degree that would surely leave me with a career in human services living paycheck to paycheck? Had I really thought about what I was giving up? It was a time in my life where I felt like I was bungee jumping without the bungee. What if I was really screwing everything up?

When I needed direction most, Jill was there as a gentle guide who listened to me, laughed with (and at) me, and ultimately helped me navigate the senselessly complicated intra-university transfer process. She must have immediately picked up on my inherently nervous nature, always willing to meet with me and reassure me that she’d walk with me down my chosen path. And she did.

My years as a student in SEHD were good ones. I served as a peer advisor, helping students like myself navigate the program and welcoming potential students through admissions events. I experienced a satisfying and challenging internship at a nearby inner-city high school counseling office, and I was always surrounded by people who believed in the good work that we were readying ourselves to do. Two-and-a-half years later, in May of 2002, I graduated on-time with a much improved GPA and a bachelors degree in Human Development, and I headed right into my 60 credit masters program at a new university, never looking back.

Fast-forward 16 years and I couldn’t be happier with my decision to change my major, and, in turn, my life. I’ve had a very rewarding career in education. Of course there are things I could have done differently back then (I still kick myself for not pursuing a foreign language), but I can honestly say that without Jill’s calm and intuitive guidance I would not have had the confidence to make a sharp turn three years ago down this new path away from school counseling and into school leadership. I know that she will forever be a part of the collective voice in my subconscious that guides me.

I truly believe that we are who we are, in part, because of the people that we meet along the way. I got lucky when I met you, Jill. Thank you for everything.

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.”

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.