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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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.”

Making Assumptions

Something happened last week, and as soon as I got back to my office I knew I needed to write about it. Bear with me while I share. I was observing a class, and at the midpoint the students got into pairs and were tasked with finding evidence in a nonfiction text to support a claim; It was good stuff, and I was happy to see them ready to undertake their sacred duty as students. This particular class has been working with a text about the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911. The question they were considering was “Could the Triangle Factory Fire have been prevented?” About halfway through the activity, during which all of the kids were hard at work and focused, I heard a student call my name from across the room. When I looked up, I saw that it was a young man named Griffin. The dialogue went something like this:

Griffin: “Hey Mr. Dawkins!”

Me: “Yes Griffin?”

Griffin (pointing to a blinking apparatus on the ceiling): “What are those things for?”

Me: “You know Griffin, I don’t really know, but aren’t you supposed to be working with Ashton right now? Why don’t you get back to that.”

Do you see what I did there? You probably do, and you’re likely shaking your head in disappointment. I certainly am as I rehash the scenario in my head. I’m embarrassed to admit that I was so caught up in the fact that I was working through an evaluation rubric, focusing on teacher and student interactions, that I made an assumption about Griffin’s motives for asking me that question. I decided, out of reflex, that he was distracted and stalling. I could tell you all of the reasons why I made that assumption, including previous interactions with Griffin, but none of them are important. Any educator worth their salt would have understood that what Griffin was actually trying to do was make a connection between how we protect ourselves from fire in schools (the apparatus in question, I later discovered, was a carbon monoxide detector), and how the owners of the shirtwaist factory failed to protect their employees back in 1911. Luckily for Griffin (and for me), his teacher identified his thought process, and she saved him from my misplaced attempt at redirection. I, in turn, learned a lesson, and potentially harmed a relationship with a student by not stopping to think before responding.

I did apologize to Griffin for passing judgement before pausing to listen. Whether it resonated with him or not, I’m not sure. Moving forward, I understand that none of us are immune from letting assumptions about students get in the way of what is actually happening. And we all know what happens when you make assumptions. Our past experiences with a child should never determine how we interact with them in the present, especially at the middle level when they are still figuring out who they are and what they stand for. What I have vowed to remember is that every situation is different, stopping to listen should always be a priority, and every student can surprise us. I have Griffin to thank for reminding me of that.

A Holiday Reminder

As a middle school principal and former school counselor, the last two weeks have reminded me of something that is very important for us all to reflect on as the holiday season is thrust upon us. This is a difficult time of year for so many of our students. They are bombarded with the picturesque visions of what a family is supposed to be, what new toy or gadget they are supposed to have sitting under a perfectly decorated tree, or what family gatherings are supposed to look like knowing that this just isn’t their reality. Few things sting more for our students than a sense of loss, and that loss is not always black and white.  While we all want to focus on the wonderful things about the month of December, too many of our kids are living in an amplified version of already difficult situations at home because the adults in their lives are also struggling with the same issues. Unfortunately this holiday discord translates to amplified behaviors in the classroom.

Although moving through this time of year in schools can be filled with hidden triggers that lead to unforeseeable emotional reactions from both kids AND adults, we must work hard to find a balance. We need to be, more than ever, the most reliable people at a time when even consistent parents’ patience is tested. Here are some things to consider as we ramp up to the holidays:

  • Be Predictable

Few things turn a good situation bad more quickly than unpredictable behavior from a person who is supposed to be a representative of all that is calm and stable in the world. I don’t know about your school, but in ours we regularly talk about safety. You can’t have safety without reliable plans and predictable behavior. The stress of the holidays can leave adults feeling cranky and irrational. As difficult as it is to “on” all the time, it’s never more important then when things are at their most stressful. Whether we want to admit it or not, our students look to us to make them feel safe and secure. Be that person for them.

  • Be Understanding

Life happens. We know this. As adults we get busy and make decisions about what is important in the moment all of the time. Let us not forget that we live in a gray world where things don’t always get done on a schedule. Couple human nature with a home life that even in the non-holiday times may not allow for bucketloads of concentration or privacy, and you’ve got a recipe for things to be forgotten. I’m not saying you should throw all expectations out the window, but don’t forget that even the most diligent student can be focused on other things this season.

  • Be Aware

Notice changes in your students behavior. It’s December, and by this point you should know your students’ routines, mannerisms, and personalities pretty well. It’s likely that a drastic shift in mood or a change in the way a student socializes indicates that they are struggling with something. Take the time to listen and be present with them. Engage in conversations with the mental health professionals in your buildings: school counselors, psychologists, or social workers. This is not the time of year to assume that another adult has noticed and taken action.

  • Be Mindful

Words are powerful. Words carry weight. We can easily destroy a hard-earned relationship with a simple passing phrase said without care or consideration. Maybe we’re having a bad day. Maybe we’ve convinced ourselves that we’re just joking. Maybe this particular student is truly pushing the limits of good behavior. It doesn’t matter. I’m a firm believer that sarcasm does not belong in the classroom no matter the age level. Even if it backfires “only” one out of ten times, that is one time too many. No student needs to head into the holiday break with one more reason to feel disconnected from school.

  • Be Kind

Kindness trumps everything else. You won’t convince me otherwise. We can never truly know the struggles that people are facing, but I’m willing to bet a year’s salary that choosing to be kind to them can change their perspective. I think we can all agree that often it feels like we live in a society devoid of kind words and actions. Turn on the news at any moment, and you’ll see what I mean. Our students are constantly tuned in to this world of up-to-the-minute, streaming information. In many ways it’s all they’ve ever known. What better time of year than right now to take the time and show them that the world isn’t all anger and shouting? Remind them that there are opportunities to be kind around every corner. We are always setting the example for our students. Choose to model kindness.

Are these five things the answers to all of your amped up, pre-vacation, holiday behavior woes? Probably not. However, doing just one of these in earnest might change the trajectory of a student’s day. In my eyes, nothing could be more important.

Best wishes for wonderful holiday and a relaxing break! See you all in 2015!

The Power of Good Morning

Good morning. It’s a simple phrase that we are taught to respond to from a very young age. Many of us say it out of habit, forgetting the actual meaning behind it. We take it for granted. But in my experience, there can be great power behind that daily greeting, especially in my role as a middle school leader.

One of my loftiest goals this year as a first year principal is to be present in the building, in the halls, and in individual classrooms more often than I am in my office. I say “loftiest” because it is very easy to get bogged down with the minutiae of leadership (paperwork, emails, more emails, requests for funding, etc.). While I am always learning how to keep my day balanced, I know that it could tip toward eyes-locked-on-computer-screen at any moment. That’s why I start every day planted somewhere around the front entrance of my building, ready to greet each student that walks by. I strive to make an individual impression on the kids. This is how I practice their names. This is how I make sure that they know they are truly welcome and someone notices them. This is also how I remind them that it is important to make eye contact and respond verbally to someone when they speak to you. I think that this is of particular importance at the middle level. We have this tendency to convince ourselves that once kids hit middle school they want to remain anonymous, left to wander from class to class with their heads down, unnoticed. In my short experience at the middle level, this couldn’t be farther from the truth.

As a brand new principal, saying “good morning” to my students each day has helped me build relationships in more ways than one. By being present in the front of the building throughout the morning, I am more easily able to identify those students who are having a difficult time getting to school on time each day. Being front and center allows me to see a pattern emerging among students, and it gives me the perfect opportunity to walk and talk with them about what may be causing them to show up late. I’d much rather have the conversation with them now instead of waiting until their names come up in a meeting later on. It’s one more way to show students that they are noticed and that they are important.

Finally, taking things one step further, getting outside, and greeting kids as they are getting out of their cars allows me to be one of the first adults that they see each day. I want my students to identify me with the school as a whole, not just as the mysterious guy in the main office who sometimes comes into class with a Chromebook and types stuff while their teacher is talking. I want them to use feel like they can use me as a resource, and I want to be the first happy face they see as they start their day. I also want their parents to see me as accessible, human, and as someone who takes an interest in their children from the moment they step foot at school. It’s amazing what a small wave to the person in the driver seat can do to solidify that essential relationship between home and school. I also want my students to know that regardless of what happened yesterday at school, today is a new day, and school CAN be a positive place.

Saying “good morning” has become a ritual that I truly look forward at the beginning of each day. October is Connected Educator Month. While the honorable goal of #CE14 is to help us deepen our professional relationships through engagement of social media, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that saying “good morning” each day speaks to a different type of connection. It gets me and my students started on the right foot, and it sets the stage for positive relationships. We can only expect from our staff what we do ourselves. This is one way that I lead by example. Give it a try. I’m sure your email will forgive you.