“Do you really like what you’re doing?”

A couple of weeks ago I was walking around one of our schools during the day which I try to do often as a way to clear my head and connect with the energy of an actual building. As an assistant superintendent you probably won’t be shocked to know that it’s easy to get stuck in my office, emailing away until the end of time, only to set foot in a school if I have a meeting or observation to check off the list. Having worked as a building leader for six years, I definitely need the shot of energy that comes from being around students of all ages engaged in the hustle of a school day. As often happens when I walk around a building, I was engaged in several conversations ranging from academic programming to individual student concerns. One conversation, however, has stuck with me, and I continue to roll it around in my brain days later. After moving through the typical greetings and small talk (I hadn’t spoken to this particular teacher in some time), they asked me a question that is posed to me fairly often when the asker is a colleague who knew me in one of my previous leadership roles.

“So, do you really like what you’re doing, Tim?”

This is an innocuous question on the surface, and I don’t believe that the teacher meant it any other way. However, whenever I get hit with this particular inquiry my brain wants to react with a canned response before I even have time to consider it. Usually it’s telling me to say, “Yes, I absolutely love it!” Other times I hear myself saying, “I’m really enjoying the learning curve of this role and the opportunity to connect with so many students and adults throughout our district.” Those are both accurate responses. I do love being an assistant superintendent, a position I never expected to be in at this point in my career, and I do enjoy the learning that happens every day because I now work with folks at all levels, K-12. But there are deeper answers to this question that I don’t often get into because mostly I don’t want to bore the person asking it. Then I remembered, this is why I have a blog!

There’s an assumption in the layers of this question that I believe most folks are unaware of. The assumption is that this is a joyless job laden with administravia, small on student contact, and big on adult management which makes it difficult to enjoy. I know it’s there because when I answer that I’m truly enjoying my role they typically respond with, “…Really?” or “I wouldn’t have guessed that.” They usually follow with a clarification that my personality is more well-suited for direct student contact work, and this role just doesn’t provide that. And that is partly true. There is paperwork, organizational tasks, and many forms that need to be filed in order for our district to be in compliance with state regulations. I’m responsible for many of them. Along with overseeing curriculum and instruction, in our district of 500+ employees, I’m also basically the HR department. I do engage in my fair share of conversations around day to day to management tasks, and sometimes it feels like that pile never gets smaller. And the meetings. So many meetings. It’s a lot. And yet it’s also my responsibility to make sure that these things don’t define me.

Right now I have the benefit of having been the middle school principal in my district for four years, which means that most of the students in grades 8-12 know me, at least peripherally. That has given me a leg up on both maintaining previous relationships and building new ones, yet that won’t always be the case. Do not underestimate the power of learning, knowing, and remembering students names. This is important as a building leader and I believe it is even MORE important as a district leader. It is one of the simplest ways to let a student know, “I see you, and I remember you.” Saying hello is fine. Saying hello followed by the student’s first name has led to many impromptu conversations that have allowed me to reconnect and find out how things are going. And when you show student that you remember them and ask how things are going, the will be honest. Sometimes too honest! I’m not going to pretend that I am anywhere near perfect here, but I’m working on it, and it has made a huge difference for my connection to our biggest asset, the kids we serve. Something else that has helped me stay connected is the act of mentoring. Again, I have worked from previous relationships I built as a principal, but I believe anyone can do it. Actually I believe that setting regular one-on-one time with students to be another advocate for them, to check in on their progress, and to help them organize and prioritize their learning life is more beneficial to me than it is to them! It also helps me to connect with instructional staff in a different way. When we collaborate around helping a particular student find their path to success, with all it’s bumps and detours, we all grow together.

So, yes, this job is different than any I have previously held in education, and it does have the capacity to remove me from the day-to-day challenges of life in a school building. I see how anyone in a district level position could get distracted by the seemingly endless time demands, mandates, and meetings. It’s easy to let a narrative created by others be, “He just doesn’t understand what goes on here.” Actually, that will likely happen no matter what, so just keeping plugging away. Connect with folks on a personal level. Get to know them. Learn their names. Write thank you notes. Send handwritten messages of support. Set specific times to check your email each day. Get out of your office! Be around kids.

District level leadership means we set the vision and tone for an entire population of kids and adults. Without connecting to the people and places those decisions affect, we will never be able to completely do our jobs. You make the position what it is. Make sure that, whatever you do, your choices allow you to answer the question, “So do you really like what you’re doing?” with an emphatic and honest, “I really love it!”

The Power of Circling, Part 1

The thing that I miss the most now that I have moved from a building leadership position into the district office is the opportunity to connect with students on a daily basis. My role in our district changed quite a bit when I made the jump this past July, and each day is a learning opportunity for me. While I definitely have to search a bit more for that regular contact with students and the special kind of busy-ness of a school building, I have been loving exploring my role as someone whose primary job is to make sure adults have the means to meet the needs of our students. I’ve definitely discovered a passion for helping teachers create Future Ready learning spaces that everyone can be proud of.

When I think about what it means to be future ready, my mind tends to wander beyond the classroom as much as it’s focused on actual instruction. One area of shifting perspective in our district that I’m particularly excited about is our growing focus on Restorative Practices and all that the approach brings with it in the way of building relationships, strengthening communication, and amplifying student voice. We have been on a restorative journey for several years now, a timeline that should not be surprising to folks who have been paying attention to the shifting educational tides across the country and, indeed, internationally. As with any change, slow is fast, and getting the right people on the symbolic bus is a delicate and deliberate process. This is especially true with Restorative Practices.

The central idea of RP (or RJ – Restorative Justice – if you are coming from a juvenile justice perspective, where this work started) goes against everything we, and generations of students before us, learned in our own schooling experience. It’s certainly a departure from our focus on punishment and incarceration in the 20th and early 21st Centuries. So many of us have existed in a world where the only solution to harm is swift and immediate consequences that often look like pushing away, isolation, with little room for discussion around the offense and closure for the offended. If you look at statistics around graduation rate, suspension, and other “zero tolerance”-type consequences, you know that this is not a sustainable approach for any of us. (See: Are Zero Tolerance Policies Effective in the Schools? An Evidentiary Review and Recommendations)

I think that bears repeating. We have existed in a world where our focus has so often been on punishing the offender that we haven’t stopped to think about the importance of giving a voice to the individual or individuals being harmed by the action. In schools, this typically involves at least two students coming back together at the end of a suspension with the expectation that they will exist in the same space WITHOUT conflict. It’s an ideal thought, but what’s the reality? The reality is that there is a broken relationship there, with conflict often further encouraged by outside sources (friends, acquaintances, difficult-to-ignore social media which even adults struggle with). What are we doing as schools to interrupt that conflict and show our community that we value discussion and problem-solving? Restorative Practice is a definite path to that.

I reflect on my own journey as a building level school leader, and there are definitely times that I wish I could go back and have a “do-over” when I think of interactions with students who broke the rules. That do-over would likely include more of an opportunity to process the “whys” of the situation, rather than moving from action to reaction. I admit that, as a young high school assistant principal, some of my decisions were driven solely by how adults, mostly my own colleagues, would perceive me; A poor reason to make most decisions when it comes to students.

Now, in my 7th year of school leadership, having worked at both the high school and middle school level, I’m more certain than ever (and also more confident than ever) that a restorative approach as part of a comprehensive response to disruptions of the code of conduct is essential to not only help students learn from their mistakes but also to give those who were harmed a voice. It’s one of the best things we can do to keep our most disconnected students on a path to graduation and successful adulthood. Not to completely pull the rug out from anyone side-eyeing this post, I also believe that this approach should be deliberately partnered with our more traditional responses to discipline in schools. I agree that sometimes a student needs to be removed from a particular situation due to challenging or dangerous behaviors. But I also believe that all parties involved should have the opportunity to add their voices to the discussion in order to teach about building or re-building relationships, the keystone to any well-managed classroom. That is surely the only thing that will lead to a student’s success, and ultimately isn’t that why we are all here?

Stay tuned for a series of posts in the future focused on restorative work. Coming soon – classroom circles and doing proactive work to avoid reactive consequences. Want to learn more about Restorative Practices/Justice in public education? Check out these resources:

  1. The Skidmore College Project on Restorative Justice
  2. The International Institute For Restorative Practices
  3. Restorative Justice in School: An Overview (Cult of Pedagogy – one of my favorite education blogs)
  4. The South Glens Falls Community Coalition for Family Wellness (Yes, that’s me in the videos. A shameless plug, but a basic introduction to the work we are doing.)

Insur-mount-able

At the end of June, I decided that I needed to shake myself up. I’d been feeling complacent and bogged down by routine, and I wanted to shoot for something I’ve never considered in the past. So I let the world know on Facebook (it is 2017, after all) that I wanted to become an Adirondack 46er, someone who can claim to have hiked all 46 of the High Peaks in the Adirondack Mountains. Then, I promptly spent all summer STRESSING over not having moved one step forward. What if I can’t do it? I’ve never hiked a day in my life, and these mountains are almost all over 4000 feet! What if I embarrass myself in front of friends and acquaintances? What if I get halfway up my first mountain and have to turn around? My point is, I scared myself into procrastination and let the entire summer slip by without stepping one foot on a mountain. Just the IDEA of hiking a high peak had stopped me in my tracks.

Luckily I have friends who are 46ers, and they cleared the way for me to get over myself. So on this past Sunday, at approximately 11:00 AM, I stood with them at the top of Phelps Mountain, the 32nd highest peak in the Adirondacks. Was it sunny? Nope. Was it warm? Nooooope. Was it raining for most of the way up? Yup. Once I got up there none of that mattered because I had just done something that I couldn’t even have imagined myself doing even a week ago. Of course, as it goes, the hike down was beautiful. The skies cleared, the rain stopped, and temperatures rose. I was completely dry by the time we reached the car at 3:00 PM. And, in that moment, I felt like I could do anything.

 

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Phelps Mountain Summit, 10.8.17

 

This sounds hokey (I can hear the eye rolls through the screen), but at the top of that mountain, I really did think about our students. I thought about how some feel the same way about coming to school each day as I felt when I saw the “Phelps Mt. – 1.0 miles” sign at the bottom of the trail. How am I going to do this? Or even how I felt as I was driving the two hours in the dark up to the High Peaks Region at 5:00 AM – It’s attainable for other people, but not for me. Fortunately, I have two great mentors who had been through it all before. They helped me set goals prior to the hike and even as we were on our trek up. They reminded me that it is always about the next step and the next step and the next step. They checked in with me, and they let me set the pace. Now, knowing I can do it, I’m excited to plan my next adventure. Success leads to future success. Please remember that this is the kind of impact you have each day as educators. Do not discount the power of walking side-by-side with a struggling student. The goals you set with them do not have to be huge. Just knowing you are there, keeping them on track, will be enough for many. And then the journey, despite the rain and fog, will be worth it because they did something they didn’t think they could.

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Cold, wet, tired, happy, and on top of a mountain

 

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 Panorama: Surrounded by High Peaks at Marcy Dam

 

Responding To the NYS Common Core Task Force Report

A collaborative post by Lisa Meade and Tim Dawkins

The release of the Common Core Task Force Report from Governor Cuomo’s office has created some interesting news and even more interesting social media posts. While it is tempting to rush through the talking points of this document, we must remember that these are recommendations, not an immediate change in regulations. There are, in fact, 21 recommendations set out by the Task Force in the report. It would be easy to begin predicting all of the possible ways that things could change for us and for our students. But, any prediction, at this time is premature. And as we have seen in the past, however, trying to predict how things will play out in Albany is never an easy call.

We were relieved to see that some of the negative examples they shared (teachers being required to use modules in whole, automatically placing students in AIS based on one state test score, not providing IEP accommodations, etc.) did not occur in our buildings or districts. That’s one of the things that makes jumping on “throw away all things Common Core bandwagon” difficult. As with many things in life, this is not a simple black-and-white issue.

It’s  important to remember the NYSED’s Education Commissioner, Mary Ellen Elia, served on this task force. Before this report was completed, she had already spoken around the state about the need to slow down. Her office also provided us our first opportunity to provide feedback on CCLS. (You may even have completed the survey that was shared.)

Throughout this report and even in an additional report released by NYed Voice Fellowship the call has been made for the establishment of a “transparent and open process” rich with educator voice. This is one of the most exciting themes to be reading about! It feels like FINALLY stakeholders are starting to listen to each other (especially those above us in government and policy positions). The next tell tale signs will likely be gleaned from the Governor’s State of the State address in January, the release of additional information from Commissioner Elia,  and upcoming  Board of Regents Meeting.

It would be very easy for all of us to jump into the “what happens next?” conversation. Admittedly, it may be tempting to focus on this report as the document that is going to immediately shift the negative rhetoric that has been so present in discussions about education these days. However, we must keep in mind that some of what we have seen in implementation has been good. Let’s not lose sight of that! Educators continue to work hard to ensure that students are getting a diverse and rich classroom experience, and that will continue to be the case.

As for what happens next? We’ll keep our focus within our schools knowing that we will capably respond to any new regulations as they are presented and when they are finalized. This response will be what it’s always been: Our very best efforts to do the best we can every day.  

“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!

Change and the Chance to Say Goodbye

Note: I’m writing this in the air over the East Coast as I make my way to Atlanta for ISTE 2014.

Today is June 28th. In a flash, the halls of my high school are quiet. Students have begun that glorious bit of childhood called Summer Vacation. The last faculty meeting of the year, an opportunity to recognize our achievements, our highs and lows, and our colleagues who are moving on, was a success. Graduation, my tenth as an educator, was the celebration that it’s always meant to be. Classrooms are being emptied of items so they can be cleaned and refreshed for September, and planning for summer instruction is in full swing.

Transitions are quick in the world of education.

We say goodbye to people who worked in classrooms next to us for decades in the midst of a rush to make sure we’ve entered final grades, handed in keys (if you do that sort of thing), and accounted for textbooks. Soon enough we are on to orienting new teachers, planning new curriculum for the fall, analyzing state and local test data, and ensuring the building is ready for the upcoming school year.

Then, suddenly, we realize we never even had a chance to say goodbye.

I am the walking definition of bittersweet these days. It seems that each time I complete a task or participate in one function or another I quietly remind myself that this will be the last time I do it in my current role, at my current school; the school where I got my start, my professional home for 10 years, a place where I was given the chance to grow, take risks, fail, and ultimately forge my own path. As I ready myself to transition into a principalship in two weeks at a new school, with a new level of kids, and in a new district, I am experiencing a combination of excitement, nervousness, reflection, and a little bit of sadness. How do I rectify the idea of walking away from the people who have played a part in making me who I am today, something that I recognize as a type of grief, with the notion that, in order to grow, I need to embrace this new challenge? So far I’ve done it by recognizing that, second only to teachers, data illustrates that as the principal I will be the person in the building who will have the most educational impact on student learning. I will be able to set the tone for my building, to open the doors for teachers to provide new opportunities for all, and THAT is an amazing feeling!

Working in the field of education is unlike any other job out there. When a building has a strong culture of collaboration and support, it can be the most rewarding thing in the world. Educators can form strong bonds as they weather the ebb and flow of unfunded mandates and today’s answer to all of our woes (instructional, behavioral, etc.). Once those bonds are formed, it takes a lot to break them down. To leave my own bonds behind to explore the unknown of a new culture can be downright frightening for sure, but if we never leave comfortable behind, we’ll never know what we’re truly capable of. That’s what I’m telling myself these days.

Transitions are quick in the world of education. How we prepare for those transitions defines the path we will travel. Sometimes those transitions mean moving into a new classroom or teaching a new class. Sometimes the transition means deciding it’s time to retire. But nearly always, a transition means willingly diving in to a new endeavor head first because the opportunity presents itself where you least expect it. I am prepared to embark on a new path, to take my head-first dive, and I know I will have ten years worth of relationships behind me, pushing me, whispering in my ear “Listen first. Talk second. Act third.” That’s why I don’t really need to say goodbye as I pack up and walk out the door for the last time. Those people, these relationships, will always be with me. And for that I am the most grateful man in the world.

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.