“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!

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.