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.

“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!

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!

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.