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.”

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School Leader Mentoring in the 21st Century

When we were brand new educators, working with students for the first time, we had established mentoring programs to give us the necessary structured support from colleagues because, let’s be honest, we likely wouldn’t have asked for help out of fear of looking like we had no clue. I was extremely thankful for my mentor when I was first hired as a school counselor nearly 10 years ago. He helped set me on a path to success through discussion, intelligent questioning, organization, and historical knowledge of my new school community. The importance of this experience in shaping the counselor, the professional educator, that I became over 8 years has not been lost on me. In schools we make it a priority to focus time and resources on developing and maintaining teacher mentoring programs. We understand the importance of providing that resource to new people coming is as a way to keep them connected, provide an outlet for growth and development, and most importantly to retain the best people to instruct our students.

In contrast, something I learned very quickly as I began my first year as a high school AP is that the same importance on establishing mentors for new building leaders is not necessarily there yet. It’s only a just-emerging practice. In the summer that I was hired and moved from counseling office to main office, I was the sole building leader for an entire month. There was some transition in my building as people moved on to new positions, and there I was. Granted that month was July, but there was still a great deal to learn. I was running summer school for the first time, assigning the dreaded teacher duties (study halls, hall duty, cafeteria duty, etc.), learning an entirely new aspect of scheduling software that I had been using for years, reviewing requests for summer curriculum work, and the list goes on. Sure, I had a year long internship under my belt with a wonderful principal mentor, but now she was gone, too. There is a huge difference between having someone at your side to fall back on when you aren’t sure how to move forward and all of the sudden being the “go to” guy.

Amazingly that summer I held it together through some otherworldly grace, for sure. And I certainly learned a lot. Meanwhile, what I discovered beyond the nuts and bolts of the job was that there is nothing more important to a developing school leader like myself than the opportunity to connect with mentors. Unfortunately, there’s this idea that I’ve encountered out in the world of education that the expectation for building leaders is to hit the ground running and have all the right answers. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.

Luckily, my second year as an AP has been the year of my PLN, and I’m so thankful for it. From the early days of branching out on Twitter to connect with fellow educators through various chats (#NYEDChat, #SatChat), to attending the NASSP Annual Conference in Dallas, TX and learning in person from some of those people I had connected with online, I have devoted this school year to developing professionally by embracing the power of social media. And in my quest to connect, what I’ve discovered, quite serendipitously, is that I have come away not with simply other educators to talk to, but with multiple mentors, professionals who have my back, tell me when I’m wrong, and very much want to see me succeed in my endeavors. Do you understand how powerful this feeling is? In 2014 your mentors don’t have to be in the office, or even in the building, next door anymore. They don’t have to be provided by your district in an official program. They can be in another district, in another state, and even in another country! They are waiting to be found.

Recently I had an amazing experience with three building leaders that inspired me to write this post. I have had the pleasure of working with Lisa Meade (@lisameade23) multiple times in person. I’ve interacted with Tony Sinanis (@TonySinanis) on Twitter in various chats, and Don Gately (@donald_gately) jumped on board to help me out simply because he was asked by Lisa. He’d never interacted with me at all! I was in a new, uncharted situation that called for some discussion, reflection, insight, knowledge, advice, and feedback, and these three leaders gave up family time on a Monday night to participate in my own personal Google Hangout mentoring session. Here we were, four professionals from different parts of New York State, jiving face-to-face about education without having to travel at all. Our discussion was just as robust as it would have been if we were sitting in the same space. It’s a revelation! Its a revolution! It’s my current answer to building leader mentoring.

My point is we no longer have a reason to feel like we’re working in a vacuum. This is especially pertinent for those folks who may be the only administrator in their building or district. We have so many more options now than we had even two or three years ago to connect with other lead learners to receive regular feedback on decisions we’ve made and decisions we have yet to make.This is just another reason to get connected. Take control, develop your PLN, and find your mentor. He/She/They are waiting!