Relationships Matter

This has been quite a summer of transitions for me. Not only am I taking on my first principalship at the middle level with 10 years of high school experience under my belt (gasp), but my wife and I have just finished selling our house while working through the process of buying another house which we won’t be able to move into until the end of August. We have dubbed this our “Summer of Upheaval.” Being temporarily housed in my in-laws’ basement, I have had a lot of time to reflect on the end of my school year, and the end of my run at the high school level. Upon reflection, the biggest thing that stands out for me when I ponder those times that I really struck out is something that we hear repeated often: relationships matter!

During my last week as an assistant principal this year, the superintendent of my former district requested a meeting with me, my co-AP, and my principal to discuss how the district can work to support an increase in graduation rate at the high school. As a school counselor turned assistant principal, this has been one of my big focuses as a building leader, and he wanted to hear any suggestions we might have as a team. I found that as he asked me to talk about ideas and strategies that have worked for at-risk kids in our district, I kept repeating myself. It’s about finding ways to build relationships with all students, plain and simple. In fact, I almost felt sheepish because there was a part of me that was convinced I had to offer up the Holy Grail of programs, that there really is one answer out there that will solve all of our problems. Logically I know that this isn’t the case. There is no way that any one “program” can address the myriad issues facing our students (although putting money back into education to help address these issues certainly couldn’t hurt). However, one thing that I have found that has had the most success for me is showing students that I am a human who does human things, like make mistakes, and I can connect with them as people. I did it as a counselor, and you can be darn sure I did it as an assistant principal, even in the face of some veteran staff members giving me the stink-eye because my first reaction wasn’t to raise my voice, demand respect, or drop the proverbial hammer. Luckily, I worked with building level and district administrators who get it and encouraged this approach.

Back to the meeting- As we read our way through a shared Google spreadsheet that had been created to track what the New York State Education Department calls “non-completers”, a sterile way to lump all students who don’t graduate together into one statistic, it became clear that there is no one story that is the same as the others. Each one of these students had their own personal struggle that had been written over years, not weeks or months, and, surprisingly, I found that I could seamlessly tell these stories back to all to the people in the room with me; I could even share the stories woven by the students that I hadn’t worked with directly because, in schools, these are the students who we get to know without even trying. They are the names that we hear over and over again from teachers and counselors. They are the students that we see regularly in our offices as building leaders, sometimes starting in elementary school, because their behaviors get them kicked out of class. Sadly, all too often they can turn into the name that we groan about when it’s merely mentioned, an entire personality whittled down to nothing more than an emotive reaction. I’m sad to admit that I am just as guilty of doing this as anybody else, and once we get to that place there is little room for redemption. You know these students, and you know their stories because they are every student that ends up on lists like this in schools across the country.

But I believe that it doesn’t have to be this way. We MUST continue the ongoing conversations in schools about how to reach these students before they get to high school, and if they do get to high school, we need to work together to break down the walls that have been built up over time. Now that I’m at the middle level, this is more important for me then ever before. In New York State, students can drop out at the start of the school year after they turn 16. Do you remember the types of decisions you were making at 16 years old? Think on it, and then consider the gravity of NOT taking immediate, meaningful, and direct action to show these students that we are human and we care. In order to stem the tide, we need to get to these kids much sooner than the beginning of 9th grade. We have to have a deep conversation about what we are doing at all levels to keep students and their families engaged. We also need to move past the fear of being ourselves and sharing our lives with these young people who, admittedly or not, look to us for guidance. We are human. They are human. Let’s bring the humanity back to our schools.

Relationships

How will you connect this year with one student who is yearning for a place to belong? I encourage you to share your commitment, no matter the size, on this blog, on your own blog, or elsewhere on social media.

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Be in the Building

Last Friday I came home from work after a particularly difficult few days, and I felt somewhat defeated. A lot had gone on, which isn’t so unusual, but for some reason I had been feeling a disconnect. Sitting here and writing this I can come up with twenty different reasons (excuses) why I was feeling this way, but the truth of the matter is I had very few meaningful interactions with either adults or students in my building, and I had definitely not taken the time to observe students engaged in learning, too busy trying to figure out how to de-anchor myself from my desk. And let’s be honest, nobody but me was forcing me to sit at my desk, like so much dead weight, answering emails or fretting over exam schedules. As I reflected on the week and all that had happened, I found myself using Twitter as a way to shout my reflections into the ether on Friday evening, hoping someone in my PLN would offer some sage advice that could be implemented immediately. I actually find that this is one of the things that makes Twitter a very useful tool. Tweets are, at the same time, an act of reaching out to peers and one of therapeutic release. Both roles are equally important. In this case, I tweeted the following:

I have been turning this thought over and over again like so many pancakes waiting to be flipped and cooked on the other side. Each time I’d think I had the best answer, I’d throw some more batter in the pan and start the process all over again. My good friend and fellow newbie assistant principal, Pete Mody, had this simple yet poignant piece of advice to offer up:

“…be in the building. Not in our offices.” The answer has been staring me in the face since I took on this new assistant principal role 18 months ago, of course, yet it seems so far out of reach. It’s so easy for me, and I’ll go ahead and assume many other building leaders, to plant myself at my desk and not move until everything is done. The problem is that everything is never done. And while I sit staring at my computer screen rating another APPR rubric, assigning consequences to students for poor choices (my least favorite part of the AP job, by the way), or analyzing data that will inform the master schedule, for examples, a whole world of activity is passing by right outside my door. There are truly amazing things happening in multiple classrooms, and there are plenty of opportunities for me to get out there and see this learning in action. There are relationships to be built and strengthened, and there are more students to know. However, more often than not, as sad as I am to admit it, these things elude me.

At 18 months in, there are things that I have gotten good at. There are tasks that were difficult when I first started that come a bit easier now. The big task, though, which in my opinion is ensuring that essential learning and growth are happening throughout the building (yes – even assistant principals are responsible for this in a building), has remained a challenge. There’s a lot to manage, yet management can be learned. It’s the leadership piece that is not quite as black and white, and therefore the one that gets relegated to back burner status because it’s not as concrete. In the end, though, I did not get called to manage. I got called to lead, and in order to do that I must recommit myself to the act of leading.

Each new day brings opportunities to interact within a school building. The job of the assistant principal, I am learning, is one of constantly seeking out a balance between office work that needs to get done (discipline referrals, paperwork, schedules, meetings, etc.) and the work that defines who we are as educators, the kind of contact with people in the building that contributes to learning. I need to be better about not defining who I am as a professional by how quickly I get the January mid-term schedule finished or how many discipline referrals I am able to handle in one day. Reflection is key, and as I reflect on this issue I realize that the simple acts of standing up at my desk, walking out of my office door, and wandering through the building will lead to exactly what I am looking for – interaction. And I will be a better assistant principal for it.

How do you find that balance between managing tasks and building relationships at work?