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.  

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.

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.

“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.

A Personal Announcement

I sent an email out to my high school colleagues yesterday, and I want to share it here as well. Rather than re-write an entire post, I figured it would be easiest to share the email here. It was difficult enough to write it the first time! This announcement shines a rather bright light on one of my previous posts, and it continues to prove that a growth mindset can work wonders if you let it!

It is with both overwhelming excitement and poignant sadness in my heart that I am writing to let you know that earlier this week I accepted the position as the Middle School Principal in the South Glens Falls Central School District pending board of education approval this coming Monday evening. The last several weeks have been a whirlwind for me, and it has been a relatively private experience as I moved through the application and interview process. I will admit that I’m relieved I can finally let you all know, as it’s been tough trying to keep a secret from those of you who have been my friends and colleagues for so long.

 

Queensbury High School has been my home for the last ten years, and I can’t believe how quickly that time has passed.  I am so lucky to have been given the chance at 24 years old to begin my counseling career in this building, and it has been a deeply satisfying, sometimes harrowing, always interesting experience learning the ropes of building leadership alongside you. Some people say that moving from faculty member to administration within your own building can be difficult, but my experience has been just the opposite. Thank you for so easily accepting me in this role. Now I am eager to begin my journey at the middle level, a place where I believe my experiences as a school counselor and assistant principal will serve me well. I can honestly say that this opportunity came out of nowhere, and I have some big shoes to fill left behind by Mark Fish as he takes on the role of Superintendent of Greenwich Central Schools. It’s funny how plans can change when you least expect it.

 

Luckily, I still have several weeks left here in the building, and I promise the master schedule will be done before I go! I look forward to talking with you all in person.

 

In Friendship,
Tim
I couldn’t be more excited about this opportunity, this new door that has been opened for me. I have a great deal to learn as I move from high school into the middle level, but again I turn to the power of my PLN and their seemingly unending collective knowledge. Stay tuned for more posts as I dive into this new adventure. Wheels up, here we go!!