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

 

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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!

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!

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!

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?