“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.

How Being Stuck in an Airport is like Navigating the World of 21st Century Education

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This year my school district’s Board of Education was extremely generous with our holiday break. Our students, faculty, and staff were blessed with two whole weeks to rejuvenate themselves and enjoy time with their families. Important to this story is the fact that the ability to travel to new places is something that I have a very hard time turning down if the opportunity presents itself. A two week timeframe with my building empty of its students was a travel opportunity waiting to happen, so my wife and I booked a trip to a small island off of the coast of Puerto Rico, called Vieques, with some friends for the week after Christmas. I wrapped things up at work before the holiday so that I could truly disconnect and enjoy myself, and we rang in 2014 in the Caribbean. It was a wonderful trip. We relaxed, we ate, and we snorkeled. We did all of the things your supposed to do when taking a beach vacation in December. We were in charge of making the trip what we wanted it to be. Unfortunately all of that came to a screeching halt thanks to the onset of the first widespread blizzard of the season coupled with the slow, ultra-laid back island attitude of a non-secure airport the size of your local pharmacy.

As we waited for what was supposed to be the easiest leg of our return trip to Upstate New York, our 9-seater, 25 minute Cessna flight from Vieques to San Jaun, Puerto Rico, it became increasingly clear that we may be stuck indefinitely. The planes, our only available mode of transport off of the island, had stopped showing up. Apparently Cessna’s don’t fly when it rains, and while it was snowing in the Northeast, it was raining on our last day in paradise. This rain, a truly astounding lack of communication from the airline staff at the Vieques airport to the 30 or so passengers waiting for an outbound flight, and the Northeast blizzard were a domino effect of Murphy’s Law. Additionally, our Delta flight out of San Juan to JFK airport in New York had been delayed with the potential of being cancelled just in case we needed another layer of stress added to our lives. At that point it looked like even if we got off of the island we may be stuck in San Juan indefinitely since all information coming in suggested that no flights were available to NYC until at least Tuesday. However, nobody really knew what to do because airline employees on the ground had no information, while calling the airline offices got us non-information information. I was handed gems such as “I can’t really make any guarantees, sir.” Or “Right now your plane is supposed to arrive at 7:55.” Let it be noted that when I was on the phone with the rep it was 7:50, and no plane had yet left San Juan for Vieques.

Hunkering down to await our fate as the scenario unfolded, a first for me and my travel partners, I watched four types of people emerge:

1) The Infuriated Shouter: This individual started out calm, professional, and at the front of the pack. She just wants some information. When are the planes coming? How will she make her connecting flight (the same connecting flight most of us were waiting for)? How can they not know? Is this a professional operation or isn’t it? Is anybody actually in charge here?! As the questions continued her true colors emerged. First, the pacing started, then the mumbling to herself, followed quickly by the waving of hands in the air, the statements about how she had important things to do at work on Monday, and finally the profanities. Oh the profanities. Also, this was the self-proclaimed worse thing that had ever happened to her, and it had now tainted her entire visit to Vieques. She would never be back, and that was a promise. This inconvenience at the tail-end of the trip had now defined her whole experience.

2) The Seasoned Veterans: This couple had seen this all before. After all, the same thing had happened to them during Hurricane Sandy when they had tried to get back to New York but ended up stuck in Chicago for an extra week. They made the best of it then, in her brother’s apartment. Things would work out this time, too. Their approach was that nothing could be done, the airlines were not going to help us, and we should all just sit down, relax, and get ready to spend some time getting to know each other on the uncomfortable plastic chairs downstairs. After all, it was going to be a long night. They sat on their laptop and edited photos while randomly checking flight statuses on their mobile devices and nonchalantly idling nearby whenever one of the two airline employees made a semi-informed announcement.

3) The Scramblers: These folks WERE NOT going to be thwarted by delays or weather. They embrace a challenge. They had their smartphones, an internet connection, and apparently an endless amount of patience for sitting on hold. They would find a way to get off this island if it was the last thing they were going to do. Wasn’t there a ferry that runs a couple of times back to the mainland? How about chartering our own plane? There are enough of us here who would be willing to pay, right? No corporate machine was going to stand in their way. Once they had information they squirreled it away only to be shared with those whom they deemed worthy, typically other scramblers.

4) The Communicators: These folks just wanted information so that they could come up with a plan and next steps. It seemed like there was still a chance that we would get off of the island if the rain stopped, and our Delta flight was still a couple of hours delayed. What happens then? Will the airline radio ahead and ask Delta to hold the plane? And what happens if we get stuck here? Can anyone suggest places that may be willing to put us up for the night so that we can take the ferry in the morning? They were the scenario creators and the relationship builders. They introduced themselves to the other passengers. They also understood that the people working behind the desk were only human, and one of the two of them also needed to get off of the island since he wasn’t an actual resident. They were just as stressed as everyone else, but they used their energy to be prepared for multiple outcomes.

In the end, we made it through. I would be lying if I didn’t admit that it felt like a bit of a miracle. With approximately an hour and 20 minutes before our connecting flight left San Juan, two Cessna’s showed up to usher us off of Vieques and back to mainland Puerto Rico, and I am writing this from the comfort of my home in chilly Upstate New York. It was definitely not the smoothest exit from a relaxing week of vaction, and I am now left considering if winter travel as a Northeast US resident is worth the potential headache. There are many unknowns, and I don’t always do well with unpredictability (something I will continue to work on in 2014). Of course, I realized things could have gone much worse as I surveyed the hundreds of people camped out in JFK airport as we disembarked from our Delta flight, some with infants and toddlers. There were casualties along the way as there sometimes are, namely each of our checked bags never made it to New York and are still MIA at time of publishing. And we were tired and smelly for sure. But we had weathered the storm, so to speak, and now I have this story as a souvenir.

You may want to know what my point is. How does this relate to life in education? I’m going to let you jump to your own conclusiuons there. You tell me. Let’s have a discussion. We live in a time of great change within the educational field. There are numerous things that are rocketing us forward in our ability to reach students and help them own their personal learning experience. We are connected as educators through the wide world of social media, and we constantly strive to be better at what we do. Sometimes we work in an echo chamber of people, both educators and non-educators, telling us how bad everything is without offering solutions. There are roadblocks, speed bumps, and inconvenient situations that we must deal with along the way. How we deal with these challenges defines our place in driving change. It defines how we approach the next challenge, and it helps us to figure out if all of this is really worth it.

I know I’m never going to stop traveling, and I’ll tell every blizzard in the place that I said so. How about you?