Learning Lessons by Saying Goodbye

This past weekend was one that I’d like to forget.

My wife and I had just returned last Sunday from an amazing 17 day trip to Rome and Southern Italy where we rented an apartment, living like locals, eating, exploring, and eating some more. One experience was better than the next, and we had the opportunity to share this with several close family members who had never been to Italy before. Exposing them to the wonders, both culinary and historic, of this special country and culture was right up our traveling alley. We came home energized, relaxed (despite all that we fit into the trip), and ready to take on the new school year.

Then we walked through our front door.

Our six year old boxer dog, Olive, was ready to greet us. We couldn’t wait to see her. We don’t have children of our own, so this dog, she’s our life. As we entered the house, we immediately knew something was off. She wasn’t as energetic as we expected. My wife and I both noticed it, but in the excitement of arriving home to our extended family and friends waiting for us, we said nothing to anyone, including each other. Overnight our fears were intensified. Olive drank what seemed like gallons of water and couldn’t seem to hydrate. I immediately called the vet Monday morning and brought her in. A few hours after our visit the doctor confirmed that Olive was indeed sick. She had developed lymphoma and had multiple tumors in her chest and digestive tract. The cancer had also caused her kidneys to function abnormally, but this was potentially reversible. To say we were devastated at this news is an understatement. We jumped into action.

Over the course of last week we were told that, while not curable in dogs, lymphoma was very treatable with chemotherapy and steroids. We would be able to buy her six to eight more months with us, and while we were saddened by the prospect of losing her so soon we could at least take solace in the fact that we could make her comfortable and would have time to say goodbye properly. “How lucky we are to be in a position to pay for treatment”, we thought.

As you have probably guessed by the title of this post, Olive never recovered. She spent five days in the vet clinic, very well-cared for, but unwilling to eat with kidneys that wouldn’t respond to treatment. We visited her every day, and finally on Friday we decided that barring a miracle we would have to make the most difficult decision to end her beautiful life to prevent more suffering. Unfortunately that miracle never came, and, with broken hearts, we sent our little girl over the Rainbow Bridge on Saturday afternoon, one of the hardest things I have ever had to do.

As I thought about the injustice of this situation and navigated the roller coaster of emotions over the course of the week, I considered how hard it was for me to be truly “on” at work as we prepare for the start of school, and I thought about how tough it would be to sit in my office today without crying because our home is so empty.

Then I thought about our students. There are approximately 700 6th through 8th graders in my building. Many come to school with baggage, some unimaginable, on a daily basis. I thought about how I was reacting to my co-workers around me out of grief, and how they couldn’t really understand my pain. Or perhaps, I thought, I should be embarrassed because, after all, this is a dog and not a person. If I am an adult who is thinking this way, imagine what our kids think when confronted with challenging life circumstances.

How often do we take the time to truly talk to our students about what is going on their lives? How often do we demand their attention, their courtesy, without understanding what is happening at home or (even worse) DESPITE what is happening at home? How often do we demand it when we don’t give it in return because of something trying that is occurring in our own lives?

As we start a new school year in September here in Upstate New York, I know that I will be considering these questions much more regularly as I interact with students in my building. Relationships matter more than anything else in our line of work. Taking the time to listen, to get to know our students, and to check in with them privately when they seem out-of-sorts might be the magic wand that keeps them believing that school is where they need to be. Build relationships first and curriculum second. Build relationships first and common assessments second. Build relationships first and gather data second. Ultimately it is an investment worth making early.

I learned so much about myself over the six years that Olive owned me, and, it turns out, that even in saying goodbye she was able to teach me one more thing.

Ol

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.”

Making Assumptions

Something happened last week, and as soon as I got back to my office I knew I needed to write about it. Bear with me while I share. I was observing a class, and at the midpoint the students got into pairs and were tasked with finding evidence in a nonfiction text to support a claim; It was good stuff, and I was happy to see them ready to undertake their sacred duty as students. This particular class has been working with a text about the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911. The question they were considering was “Could the Triangle Factory Fire have been prevented?” About halfway through the activity, during which all of the kids were hard at work and focused, I heard a student call my name from across the room. When I looked up, I saw that it was a young man named Griffin. The dialogue went something like this:

Griffin: “Hey Mr. Dawkins!”

Me: “Yes Griffin?”

Griffin (pointing to a blinking apparatus on the ceiling): “What are those things for?”

Me: “You know Griffin, I don’t really know, but aren’t you supposed to be working with Ashton right now? Why don’t you get back to that.”

Do you see what I did there? You probably do, and you’re likely shaking your head in disappointment. I certainly am as I rehash the scenario in my head. I’m embarrassed to admit that I was so caught up in the fact that I was working through an evaluation rubric, focusing on teacher and student interactions, that I made an assumption about Griffin’s motives for asking me that question. I decided, out of reflex, that he was distracted and stalling. I could tell you all of the reasons why I made that assumption, including previous interactions with Griffin, but none of them are important. Any educator worth their salt would have understood that what Griffin was actually trying to do was make a connection between how we protect ourselves from fire in schools (the apparatus in question, I later discovered, was a carbon monoxide detector), and how the owners of the shirtwaist factory failed to protect their employees back in 1911. Luckily for Griffin (and for me), his teacher identified his thought process, and she saved him from my misplaced attempt at redirection. I, in turn, learned a lesson, and potentially harmed a relationship with a student by not stopping to think before responding.

I did apologize to Griffin for passing judgement before pausing to listen. Whether it resonated with him or not, I’m not sure. Moving forward, I understand that none of us are immune from letting assumptions about students get in the way of what is actually happening. And we all know what happens when you make assumptions. Our past experiences with a child should never determine how we interact with them in the present, especially at the middle level when they are still figuring out who they are and what they stand for. What I have vowed to remember is that every situation is different, stopping to listen should always be a priority, and every student can surprise us. I have Griffin to thank for reminding me of that.

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.

“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….

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