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!

Learning Lessons by Saying Goodbye

This past weekend was one that I’d like to forget.

My wife and I had just returned last Sunday from an amazing 17 day trip to Rome and Southern Italy where we rented an apartment, living like locals, eating, exploring, and eating some more. One experience was better than the next, and we had the opportunity to share this with several close family members who had never been to Italy before. Exposing them to the wonders, both culinary and historic, of this special country and culture was right up our traveling alley. We came home energized, relaxed (despite all that we fit into the trip), and ready to take on the new school year.

Then we walked through our front door.

Our six year old boxer dog, Olive, was ready to greet us. We couldn’t wait to see her. We don’t have children of our own, so this dog, she’s our life. As we entered the house, we immediately knew something was off. She wasn’t as energetic as we expected. My wife and I both noticed it, but in the excitement of arriving home to our extended family and friends waiting for us, we said nothing to anyone, including each other. Overnight our fears were intensified. Olive drank what seemed like gallons of water and couldn’t seem to hydrate. I immediately called the vet Monday morning and brought her in. A few hours after our visit the doctor confirmed that Olive was indeed sick. She had developed lymphoma and had multiple tumors in her chest and digestive tract. The cancer had also caused her kidneys to function abnormally, but this was potentially reversible. To say we were devastated at this news is an understatement. We jumped into action.

Over the course of last week we were told that, while not curable in dogs, lymphoma was very treatable with chemotherapy and steroids. We would be able to buy her six to eight more months with us, and while we were saddened by the prospect of losing her so soon we could at least take solace in the fact that we could make her comfortable and would have time to say goodbye properly. “How lucky we are to be in a position to pay for treatment”, we thought.

As you have probably guessed by the title of this post, Olive never recovered. She spent five days in the vet clinic, very well-cared for, but unwilling to eat with kidneys that wouldn’t respond to treatment. We visited her every day, and finally on Friday we decided that barring a miracle we would have to make the most difficult decision to end her beautiful life to prevent more suffering. Unfortunately that miracle never came, and, with broken hearts, we sent our little girl over the Rainbow Bridge on Saturday afternoon, one of the hardest things I have ever had to do.

As I thought about the injustice of this situation and navigated the roller coaster of emotions over the course of the week, I considered how hard it was for me to be truly “on” at work as we prepare for the start of school, and I thought about how tough it would be to sit in my office today without crying because our home is so empty.

Then I thought about our students. There are approximately 700 6th through 8th graders in my building. Many come to school with baggage, some unimaginable, on a daily basis. I thought about how I was reacting to my co-workers around me out of grief, and how they couldn’t really understand my pain. Or perhaps, I thought, I should be embarrassed because, after all, this is a dog and not a person. If I am an adult who is thinking this way, imagine what our kids think when confronted with challenging life circumstances.

How often do we take the time to truly talk to our students about what is going on their lives? How often do we demand their attention, their courtesy, without understanding what is happening at home or (even worse) DESPITE what is happening at home? How often do we demand it when we don’t give it in return because of something trying that is occurring in our own lives?

As we start a new school year in September here in Upstate New York, I know that I will be considering these questions much more regularly as I interact with students in my building. Relationships matter more than anything else in our line of work. Taking the time to listen, to get to know our students, and to check in with them privately when they seem out-of-sorts might be the magic wand that keeps them believing that school is where they need to be. Build relationships first and curriculum second. Build relationships first and common assessments second. Build relationships first and gather data second. Ultimately it is an investment worth making early.

I learned so much about myself over the six years that Olive owned me, and, it turns out, that even in saying goodbye she was able to teach me one more thing.

Ol

Never Having to Say “I can’t.”

Connect

As Connected Educator month wraps up, I’ve been reflecting on what that particular word actually means to me. Often we talk about it in regard to our students and whether or not they are making the essential links between what they have been taught and what they are currently learning. “Are they connecting yesterday’s review to the new information I’m presenting today?” I’ve used it in discussions that center around students or families who are having a difficult time seeing value in what we do in our building. “How do we keep parents apprised of our priorities and connected to our school culture of growth through learning so that they can reinforce it at home?” As 21st Century lead learners we use it to denote how we interact with other professionals via social media. “I am a connected principal, and I have a burgeoning PLN!”

Certainly, all of these uses are correct and appropriate to what we do as educators. However, recently the idea of being connected spoke to me on a much deeper level. This weekend was an intense few days of talking, sharing, and learning via two different, but equally important, professional development opportunities. While I packed a great deal of activity in to three days, my mind keeps coming back to the same idea: Being connected means never having to say “I can’t.”

EdCampUNY

It’s been a little over a year since I hooked up with a (best kind of) crazy group of risk taking educators and we started talking about bringing the EdCamp model to Upstate New York. It literally evolved out of one of those “Hey, why don’t we do this here” kind of moments. One person said it, and we all tumbled like dominoes. I really struggle to put into words how valuable the relationships that have developed out of this process have become to me as a person and professional. During the year since we began planning I have very unexpectedly (but certainly not unhappily) transitioned from a high school assistant principal to a middle school principal, and this group has been there for me, supporting my learning, every step of the way. Whether we were laughing together on a Google Hangout or Voxing while driving back and forth to work, I know that I can turn to any one of these individuals (Lisa Meade, Vicki Day, Christina Luce, Peter DeWitt, and Patti Siano), and they will have my back. They are role models in every way, but especially in the way that they fear neither taking a risk nor failing and starting over. They hold a special place in my PLN, but an even more special place in my heart, and I will say that over and over to anyone who tells me that meaningful friendships cannot be forged via social media.

In the end, my biggest takeaway from our first Upstate New York EdCamp was that it doesn’t matter how many people are in the room. What matters is the conversation. We are small, but mighty. We learned about makerspaces, instructional tech tools, best literacy practices, and ways to connect at-risk boys to school. We taught a room of 35 educators how to participate in their first Twitter chat in real time (thanks #satchatwc). The discussions were rich, and everyone in attendance had something to share. This is the beauty of the EdCamp model. But most importantly, the thing that matters more than anything else to me, is the fact that I made new connections and strengthened relationships that I thought were already pretty solid. Special shout-outs to my partner in innovation, Matt Hladun, for opening doors and web filters (among other things) at our site, Queensbury HS, and to Jon Harper and Ross Cooper, who went above and beyond to make long trips from out of state and consistently elevated the level of conversation throughout the day. Meeting you both was a true highlight!

EdCamps bring out the best in us as people and professionals. They get us to think outside of the box, connect us as human educators, and they bring the conversations front-and-center at the ground floor level, which is something that state education departments across the country can’t quite seem to do. We took charge of our own learning, engaged in a tremendous leap of faith in some regard, and it paid off exponentially. I couldn’t be more proud!

Check out our day, and keep your eyes peeled for #EdCampUNY2015!

EdCampUNY

Stay tuned for upcoming Part II of my weekend PD extravaganza reflection: #SAANYS14

“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!

Relationships Matter

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

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

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

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

Relationships

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