Connecting in 2016

Something amazing happened to me two days into 2016, but bear with me here because there’s some lead-up before I jump in and tell you about it. As soon as I had time to process it I knew I had to write. Then, as I began writing, I realized that this experience is more than a “can you believe it” story. In fact, it fits into a bigger picture, a shift in mindset that I want to focus on in the new year. This shift focuses on being in the moment in order to make and maintain stronger connections with the people around me.

I’m getting ahead of myself.

It all started with this picture (click the link for a larger version) and story that I posted on my personal Instagram account while traveling in southern Italy this past summer. Make sure you read the text next to the photo. It will become important later.

Firas

I have always believed that the best part of leaving your comfort zone and visiting someplace new, whether that place is another country or simply another county, is meeting the people who inhabit that place. Making positive connections with strangers from other cultures or people who live in a different environment will usually (and hopefully) lead to a new perspective. No matter how big or small this revelation is, we are most certainly made better for it. A dose of new perspective changes us. It can eradicate hopelessness, open minds that were undoubtedly and indefatigably closed, or even reveal parts of ourselves that we may be uncomfortable with. This is how we become better people. This is how we STOP being governed by fear and start understanding that most people are on the same journey that we are no matter where they’re from.

Imagine how surprised I was then when, yesterday afternoon, I got a message via Instagram from the very gentleman in the picture above, Firas from Lebanon, a person who drifted briefly into and then just as quickly out of my life, someone who I met 4000 miles away from my home and never expected to interact with again. This is the power of our connected world. It turns out one of his Italian friends that he had been visiting when we met stumbled across my photo while scrolling through images tagged with his village. After his friend sent him the link, he felt compelled to send me a message telling me how much the photo and what I wrote meant to him. I was so shocked I nearly dropped my phone! What were the chances??

But then again, this is 2016. We have so many more ways to come into each other’s lives now. It takes as much effort to talk to the person sitting next to us as it does to talk to a person sitting in a cafe in France or a classroom in Hong Kong. We have so many opportunities to connect, and we never know how that connection might come full circle in the future.

That’s why my #oneword, my focus, and my mantra for 2016 is “connect.”

I will focus on developing deeper connections with those already in my life both personally and professionally, by being present in the moment, by listening rather than simply waiting my turn to speak, and I will look to make connections with new people who can help to broaden my perspective and push me out of my comfort zone into the space where learning (and sometimes failure) happens.

Thanks to Firas for unknowingly reminding me that resolutions do not have to be measured physically, but instead can be about a mindset. I’m truly excited about 2016. Now, let’s connect!

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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.”

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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.

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.

Never Having to Say “I can’t.”

Connect

As Connected Educator month wraps up, I’ve been reflecting on what that particular word actually means to me. Often we talk about it in regard to our students and whether or not they are making the essential links between what they have been taught and what they are currently learning. “Are they connecting yesterday’s review to the new information I’m presenting today?” I’ve used it in discussions that center around students or families who are having a difficult time seeing value in what we do in our building. “How do we keep parents apprised of our priorities and connected to our school culture of growth through learning so that they can reinforce it at home?” As 21st Century lead learners we use it to denote how we interact with other professionals via social media. “I am a connected principal, and I have a burgeoning PLN!”

Certainly, all of these uses are correct and appropriate to what we do as educators. However, recently the idea of being connected spoke to me on a much deeper level. This weekend was an intense few days of talking, sharing, and learning via two different, but equally important, professional development opportunities. While I packed a great deal of activity in to three days, my mind keeps coming back to the same idea: Being connected means never having to say “I can’t.”

EdCampUNY

It’s been a little over a year since I hooked up with a (best kind of) crazy group of risk taking educators and we started talking about bringing the EdCamp model to Upstate New York. It literally evolved out of one of those “Hey, why don’t we do this here” kind of moments. One person said it, and we all tumbled like dominoes. I really struggle to put into words how valuable the relationships that have developed out of this process have become to me as a person and professional. During the year since we began planning I have very unexpectedly (but certainly not unhappily) transitioned from a high school assistant principal to a middle school principal, and this group has been there for me, supporting my learning, every step of the way. Whether we were laughing together on a Google Hangout or Voxing while driving back and forth to work, I know that I can turn to any one of these individuals (Lisa Meade, Vicki Day, Christina Luce, Peter DeWitt, and Patti Siano), and they will have my back. They are role models in every way, but especially in the way that they fear neither taking a risk nor failing and starting over. They hold a special place in my PLN, but an even more special place in my heart, and I will say that over and over to anyone who tells me that meaningful friendships cannot be forged via social media.

In the end, my biggest takeaway from our first Upstate New York EdCamp was that it doesn’t matter how many people are in the room. What matters is the conversation. We are small, but mighty. We learned about makerspaces, instructional tech tools, best literacy practices, and ways to connect at-risk boys to school. We taught a room of 35 educators how to participate in their first Twitter chat in real time (thanks #satchatwc). The discussions were rich, and everyone in attendance had something to share. This is the beauty of the EdCamp model. But most importantly, the thing that matters more than anything else to me, is the fact that I made new connections and strengthened relationships that I thought were already pretty solid. Special shout-outs to my partner in innovation, Matt Hladun, for opening doors and web filters (among other things) at our site, Queensbury HS, and to Jon Harper and Ross Cooper, who went above and beyond to make long trips from out of state and consistently elevated the level of conversation throughout the day. Meeting you both was a true highlight!

EdCamps bring out the best in us as people and professionals. They get us to think outside of the box, connect us as human educators, and they bring the conversations front-and-center at the ground floor level, which is something that state education departments across the country can’t quite seem to do. We took charge of our own learning, engaged in a tremendous leap of faith in some regard, and it paid off exponentially. I couldn’t be more proud!

Check out our day, and keep your eyes peeled for #EdCampUNY2015!

EdCampUNY

Stay tuned for upcoming Part II of my weekend PD extravaganza reflection: #SAANYS14

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!