Friday, March 2, 2018

Reflection of Six Principal Years

I was recently inspired by Jimmy Casas' new book Culturize. His words and shared stories throughout the entire book allowed me to reflect upon the past six years of my own principalship at Union Middle. Mr. Casas had a way to put my goals, my vision, and my hopes onto the printed page.

As a first year and first time principal, I had what I felt was a very clear vision for what I wanted my time at Union Middle School to look like. However, as a first year and first time principal, I'm not sure how well I was able to communicate these goals to our staff, students, and school community. Given that I viewed some days a success simply based on mere survival, I'm guessing I wasn't able to share my vision as well as I would have like.

Now however, absent a time machine but with the gift of hindsight and reading Culturize, I'd suggest that the following five goals were the foundation of my original vision on how to improve Union Middle School.

My first goal was to improve our school culture. Union Middle already had a positive school culture, especially compared to some of the schools I've worked at previously. Still, in moving from good to great, there was some work to do. I wanted our teachers to have a stronger voice on building (and rebuilding) the school culture. We introduced a school hashtag (#teamUMS). We held Twitter Bingo contests amongst the staff to showcase the amazing work at UMS. As Mr. Casas notes, the creation and support of a school culture cannot remain on the shoulders alone of the administration; all school educators need to work to build a positive school culture.

My second goal, intentionally intertwined with my first goal, was a focus on hiring the very best educators. Hiring educators can be a tricky thing. You create a master schedule that puts students first with the adults in the best growth opportunity possible. From there, you post the available positions and hope to attract the best candidates possible. Relying on advice from the previous principal, I always tried to find eligible candidates through word of mouth and built in professional friendships to encourage to apply and join our staff. Sometimes, during the early days of August at the very last minute before school starts or perhaps during the middle of the year, you just get lucky with amazing hires who become future linch-pins of your school community. We've been extremely blessed over the past six years to add to our already-talented staff with a positive mix of compassionate educators with passion for their profession and the knowledge to curate curiosity in the classroom.

The third goal, after adding the very best to our staff, would be to continue to build our teachers into site instructional leaders and district teacher leaders as well. There was a huge push to provide professional development to all staff members. A dozen #teamUMS educators attended an Ed Tech Summit. We brought another dozen to the Fall #CUE event in Napa (it's really Vallejo). Our district office instituted tech leadership opportunities throughout our elementary and middle schools. Some of the most talented, edu-famous educators joined our staff for learning opportunities year round. At our school site, I intentionally would invite different staff members to attend classroom walkthroughs and to join for various professional development opportunities. One teacher mentioned that I hadn't invited them to be on an interview committee yet; they were added to the very next interviewing committee. Just today I shared that an overwhelming majority of our current staff would be one of the most innovative educators at any other school; we just all happen to be working alongside each other as part of the #teamUMS team.

My fourth goal was personal: stay. I've seen schools suffer through multiple principals over a short few years. Frequent turnover at the administrator level can be a culture killer for a school. There becomes a "well, I'll just outlast this guy like I did the last five" mentality amongst the staff as they cycle through new principal initiatives, expectations, and idiosyncrasies. My expectation was that I'd commit to our school, staff, students, and community for at least five years. I've read that the average administrator lasts around two and a half years at their site. Smile year one, talk change year two, update your resume for year three. That's the cycle. I wanted the school community to know that I was committed to staying put and enjoying our time together as well.

The fifth and final main goal is a bit different: I want to build a school community where I'm no longer needed. To clarify, I don't want to force myself out of a job (I'm actually quite happy) but instead reach a place where the school is functional and moving forward without the principal's needling or, in some cases, meddling. We've worked hard to clearly establish protocols, expectations, and routines for our school community, all replicable aspects to keep things moving forward in my absence. I've actually even written my "goodbye letter" to my school community, even though I have no intention of leaving any time soon!

I feel like we've accomplished our made-in-hindsight five year goals. The school culture has drastically improved. It is in no doubt to the most welcome additions to our staff. The staff has made great growth in becoming leaders within the school community. I'm glad that I've stuck around to see it all happen. And yes, we have a school community where there are days where I feel like I'm not needed, as if the entire Union Middle ecosystem is running quite well in my absence.

 This isn't about having to leave, but actually why I want to stay: I've been blessed to be a part of an incredibly wonderful school community over the past eight years and look forward to many, many more as a member of the #teamUMS community.

Friday, February 9, 2018

An Inspirational Morning Read

I'm in the middle of reading a book. It's called Culturize and it's by the amazing Jimmy Casas.

In our odd world within education, there are a few uber "edu-famous" individuals and I'd suggest that Mr. Casas is part of this elite group. His kid-first, student-always mantra coupled with his poignant words and relatable stories provide a middle-of-February educator with reminders why we're in education: our students and doing whatever we can to enable their success.

I purchased two copies of Culturize for our staff upon its immediate availability via Amazon. I placed the books on our Staff Reading Shelf and went along my way.

Within a few days, I received an email from a staff member. They shared their appreciation for making the book available, informed me that they were already read the first two chapters, and even included a few compliments about my own "principal-style" and how it overlaps with some of the suggestions shared in the book. They also said that if I hadn't read the book yet, I should.

There's one thing true about almost every educator in February: our "to-read" book list is at least twelve deep. Bumping a book to the top of the list and actually balancing some reading time in between all of the demands of our day is a challenge. Still, when a staff member says "you'd like this book," you drop everything and pick it up.

Today, I arrived a bit earlier than usual to work with the intention to catch up on emails, write a few evaluations, add items to the school calendar, and everything else we hope to do in the hours before our students and staff arrive. That was the plan.

When I arrived to my office, I saw the book outside my office. I had purchased a third copy and realized that I now had an hour of quiet to read a few chapters. I'm glad I did.

It's a really good book. To quote the aforementioned staff member, "It's a lot of good stuff in the same place. Very accessible. I don't have to read a teacher book and an admin book to get it." They're right. It's a book that speaks to every educator, no matter your role.

The book focuses upon the four core principles of a positive school culture:

We must expect all staff to champion for all students. It sounds so simple and yet saying these words out loud inspire me to rethink how I judge a certain grade of students ("they seem to just lack initiative") or perhaps a certain class ("I'm struggling on how to best support this class - they seem to want me to do everything for them") or even a specific student ("I feel like we've tried everything - what more can we do?). The book encourages us to recognize what our students are doing well instead of focusing on what they aren't and to refocus on the relationship piece of the school adult-student dynamic. It's a good February reminder, especially during the influx of senior/eighth grade-itis.

Every staff member must expect excellence of one another and, most importantly, of their students. Beautiful words. It's not just the responsibility of a principal, a counselor, a front office administrative assistant, a math teacher, a after school sport coach; collectively, we are all part of the team that demands professionalism as a school community member.  It is important to expect our students to try their best and be the support in place to help them reach the level of excellence. Excellence is an expectation for the entire school community; we all hold the responsibility to uphold it.

 All staff members must carry the banner for their school in a positive light at all times. Admittedly, this can be challenging. There will be times where you'll be upset with an administrator, an educator, a student, a parent, and most likely even yourself. As Jimmy Casas shares, great change begins with self-change. How an educator perceives their school is clearly shared, often unintentionally, in how they collaborate, how they speak to and about students, and their body language. At a previous school, on my very first day, I could tell which teacher was going to be a challenge to work with: they were instantly combative, they spoke negatively about students, and deflected every idea with their own stamp of negativity. They did not believe in the success of their students and not of the school either. When that staff member retired, it was if a dark cloud hovering over the staff has dissipated. Imagine what could have been different for that individual and all of their students over the years if they had chosen to share a more positive light for their school.

Every educator, administrator, and support staff member must strive to be a merchant of hope. I've found it's significantly harder to expect less from a student when I know their story. If I know a student has a less-than-perfect home life, I don't accept the missing homework under that umbrella of an excuse. Instead, our staff works to find ways to support the student at school to complete the homework. We've created extra small group tutorials after school, built electives where kids can be kids, and celebrated the little successes along the way. Most of all, we've worked hard on building a school community and culture where we get to know our students and celebrate them just for being who they are.

Jimmy Casas simplifies his overall message with the following words: every child deserves the opportunity to be a part of something great.

And he's right.

As an educator, it's our job to build something great for our students and each other. A place where we support kids relentlessly, where we expect greatness from one another and our students, where we highlight the amazing work on our campus, and where we never give up on any single student. A place where we provide our students a chance to explore their passions, to be part of something great.

Highly recommend the book. Enjoy your day. Make it special.

Friday, January 19, 2018

The Stolen Milkshake

One of the best things about not living too close to where I spend most of my days is the privacy that I'm allowed on the weekend to walk the neighborhood in my pajamas, venture out to eat with my family without worries, and given a bit of separation from "the job" of being a middle school principal at all hours of the day.

When I worked at the local high school in my neighborhood, it was not uncommon to be stopped on my walks by parents seeking school advice. 

I distinctly recall one dinner my wife and I had at a local restaurant where the family sitting next to us spent their entire dinner complaining about the job the administrators were doing at the local high school. I sat there as quiet as I could possibly be for the first thirty minutes, listening to everything these administrators were doing wrong. Sadly, I was one of the administrators they were talking about and in their defense, they weren't wrong about everything. Eventually, I did speak up and introduce myself, offer to answer any questions, and tell them how delightful their student was. The next fifteen minutes of silence from their table was both awkward and incredibly wonderful.

There was one time where a parent, who would go on to receive a restraining order from one of our teachers, discovered where I lived and showed up on a Saturday to ask for help with his twin sons. Yes, a Saturday. At my front door. 

These were not the best of days.

Fast forward a few years and now I oddly miss it. 

I commute approximately twenty five minutes to work each morning. Thus, it is quite rare that I see a Union Middle School family at my local Palo Alto hangouts. Yes, one student was outside my house once but they were just as awkwardly unexpected to see me as I was them. I've occasionally run into a student at the Oakland Zoo or perhaps Stanford Shopping Center. For the most part, however, I have a clear division between my work and home lives.

And yes, despite the horrible experiences from years past, I do miss occasionally seeing students and their families in a non-school setting. 

The best part of seeing a student outside of school is the frozen response we educators get. The student will become statuesque, barely able to turn their head to their parent and speak the words, "mom... Mr. Feinberg is here... right there... buying six bananas... what is happening?"

They're absolutely adorable. 

I use these moments to introduce myself, offer a few positive words about the student to their parent, say something silly to unfreeze the moment, and go on my way. 

And sometimes... there are rare opportunities where we get to have a little fun with our students and be as silly as they are when we adults are not around. These moments turn into some of my favorite stories.

For example...

A week ago, I was grabbing a quick dinner at the hamburger place down the block from Union Middle. The assistant principal and I were to attend a Home and School Club meeting that night, and so after our meetings and before the next scheduled event, we had a scant forty five minutes to grab a bite and return to school.

While at dinner, two brothers, an 8th and a 6th grader, walked into the restaurant. I saw them ordering shakes and asked if they were getting me one too. They smiled back and said "of course we are! It will be ready and just a bit!"

He was smiling - obviously I knew he was kidding - and so I replied that I would wait for as long as it took. I thanked him profusely for buying me a milkshake. What a great kid! 

The two students were both laughing. The 8th grader informed me that he had purchased me a cookies and cream shake and that I just had to wait. I was pretty excited to see how this was all going to play out.

The person working the milkshake counter soon called the student's name so I went up and got the shake. I sat down with the milkshake, again thanking the student profusely for the present. The student, somewhat confused why I had just picked up his shake order, calmly walked over, chuckling a bit, and said “uh, I got you a different shake; that one is mine.” “Oh,” I replied, “you must have got me a large shake instead! Thank you so much!”

The boys were sitting a few tables away so I kept checking in with them about my shake. The 8th grade student encouraged me to wait. He was sure it was coming up. When they were making a new shake, he said, “oh, that might be it!” 

So at this point, knowing I had to leave for the night's Home and School Club meeting, I was either going to walk away or instead take the joke to the next level. I chose, as any middle school principal would, the next level and used my phone to order a shake online for me.

Now keep in mind that I didn't want a shake. The last thing I needed in the world at that point was a five dollar cookies and cream milkshake. Regardless, the milkshake was ordered as subtly as I could via my phone, slightly under the table and away from the students' prying eyes.

It was the best $5 I'd ever spent.

My milkshake was ready in just a few minutes and I went up to the counter to get it. I had a former student who just happened to be working at the restaurant that night to announce “milkshake for Mr. Feinberg from (student's name)” over the speaker. I collected the milkshake and then went over to the students and thanked them over and over again. 

The look on the students' face was awesome. It was a mix of “what is going on here?” and “wait, I didn’t get you a milkshake” to “oh no, Mr. Feinberg just stole somebody’s shake!” 

At this point, we did a selfie (because that's what we do in middle school!) and after many more thanks for the shake, I left with my milkshake. As I was leaving, I could seem them a bit stunned, half expecting someone to tackle me and reclaim the milkshake I had walked away with.

I wrote the students' parents that night, just sharing the story. Both parents wrote me back with wonderful and kind emails.They shared that their sons had called them immediately after I left with the "stolen" milkshake and again shared the story when they got home that night, laughing throughout the entire retelling.

And that's what I miss. 

Large Cookies & Cream Milkshake. I ate all of it.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Molly and Her Bike

As shared previously, my wife and I adopted twin girls from Russia in the Fall of 2011. We were told by multiple doctors, both in Russia and via Skype, that while the girls were a good bit behind having been institutionalized in an orphanage for 16 months, they would surely catch up to their peers in three, maybe four, definitely no more than five years down the road.

My wife and I, blinded by our future daughters' adorable faces coupled with our own strong desire to build a family, ignored the obvious signs and moved ahead with the adoption process. Little did we know that our adoption agency would be investigated a few years later by the FBI and eventually close their doors after similar investigative pieces about their adoption practices. It turns out that the adoption agency we trusted may have been withholding medical information regarding our daughters. Looking back, we are stunned we didn't see all of the signs.

Neither Molly or Kenna could crawl when we brought them home. Molly eventually started to move a bit better but her words were increasingly delayed. Kenna didn't fully walk until closer to age three, and even then with an uneasy balance. My wife and I would spend our evenings sitting across from one another, feet to feet, teaching Kenna how to walk and balance back from mommy to daddy.

Doctor visits turned into multiple diagnoses which turned into multiple therapy appointments which turned into my wife a shuttle service for no less than six weekly appointments for the girls. When you add in our attempts to include them in gymnastics (they were the five year olds in the two to three year old class, often at the back of the line, working one to one with an instructor) as well as every service we could squeeze out of our somewhat stingy school district, the care that Molly and Kenna necessitated became a full time job for my wife.

Sometimes, they give the look of what most people would call "normal kids". They smile and laugh, try their best to make friends, and often ask questions that are age-appropriate. They also act like "normal kids" when they have nuclear meltdown tantrums in the chips aisle of Target because their father refuses to buy them their own individual Goldfish packages. (Dad gave in after a few minutes; the screaming stopped thereafter. I tried my best.)

But often, it is very clear that something is different with my Molly and Kenna to the casual observer. They stare a bit longer. They yell out at inappropriate times and for no reason. Their speech still struggles along. Letters and numbers seem to be their enemy.

And worse, due to just diagnosed sensory issues, they'll scream at any loud sound, such as a motorcycle's engine, and often run anyway to get away from the noise, even into oncoming traffic.

Due to a lack of social cues, they'll often hit when angry, especially if one of their siblings has taken something that they were playing with within the last 48 hours but hadn't touched in the interim.

With the severe attachment issues they have with my wife, our time spent together as a six person family often ends in tears, anger, and frustration for everyone.

My wife and I have come to understand that they may never live on their own, they may never be able to have sustainable jobs in the workplace, and that they may never be able to do just the normal things that all kids get to do... like ride a bike.

This is hard.

We want our kids to be successful, no matter what the level they can rise up to. We want to take away societal limits that falsely prevent our kids from reaching their true potential. My wife and I are both educators, both with a soft spot for the autistic, the needy, the lost. As parents of two very special needs kids, it is a challenge to accurately predict where they'll end up and how to best get them to where they need to be for a sustainable life, whatever that looks like.

Back to the bikes.

Molly and Kenna have been asking for new bikes for over a year now. We previously had some pink princess bikes bought off Amazon, put together imperfectly by moi, and eventually discarded without the approval of my daughters. The bikes just weren't safe, even with their lopsided training wheels. Molly and Kenna would often fall, often due to their inability to control their bike. Time after time, they would end up in tears after a horrible bike riding experience.

As a parent, I had given up on them ever riding a bicycle. Given their physical, intellectual, and sensory needs, it would just be something they could never do.

Regardless, with Christmas upcoming, Molly and Kenna had different ideas. Whenever they would get asked what they wanted from Santa, it was the same answer, every single time: We Want A Bike.

Knowing how Bike Riding went the first time, I had little desire to repeat the experience. I knew that it was just something they couldn't do.

Fast forward to the morning of December 24th and the question being asked one more time to Molly and Kenna. Their answer was the same. My wife looked at me and said, "we're going to have to go get them some bikes."

That morning, with the help of my father in law, the girls went to the local bike store and tested out a few bikes. Nothing was purchased until I returned later that afternoon to pick up their new bikes. Kenna was getting a semi smaller bike with training wheels. Molly, however, was getting a larger bike without training wheels.

Two thoughts at this time: (1) This doesn't make any sense; she needs training wheels, and (2) This isn't going to end well; prepare for doom.

The bikes were the last gifts of Christmas morning. The girls were thrilled. Immediately following the family breakfast, they wanted to go bike riding. I was chosen by my wife to be the one to take them. I did not get a vote.

We walked across the street to the park. I had a firm hand on both bikes and girls, not wanting the upcoming chaos to start too soon. We walked a half block to our starting point of the park's biking loop. Helmets were on. Girls got on their bikes. Dad was ready for kid tears. And then this happened.

Day 1 with a bike

No words.


My wife calmly said, "yes, Todd, as I told you, my brother said she didn't need training wheels and would be fine."


"Well, from the video you just sent me, it looks like she does," responded my wife.

And Molly did.

She rode around the park no less than 30 times, never falling once. She learned how to use the hand brake. She somehow figured out how to make tight turns. She slows down when she's approaching someone in the path ahead of her. It didn't make any sense to me at the time (and it still doesn't), but Molly somehow eclipsed my predictions of her potential.

Molly and Kenna rode to the library, all the way down Newell to Channing, across Channing to the other park, around that biking loop (with a hill, no less) so many times, and then back home. This was just the first biking experience of the day. We went out later Christmas afternoon as well and then again twice today. It's safe to say that tomorrow will be filled with biking opportunities as well.

I'm now wondering what other limits I've placed on my daughters that are holding them back rather than letting them soar. Maybe they are ready for the Stanford Dish. Maybe they can take on a few leadership roles (ie chores) in the household. Maybe they are capable of so much more than what I thought.

Maybe all of our students are capable of so much more than we think.

From Day 2 - Notice the "feet trick" Molly does

Happy holidays, everyone. Here's to another 12 days of nonstop bike riding!

Monday, November 13, 2017

A Chat with our Leadership Kids

Every so often I visit our 8th grade leadership class. Comprised of 32 of the most amazing students ever, our leadership class has a rather competitive application process to join. Each year, I'm dazzled by the work and compassion of our leadership students. That said, every year brings a new class filled with new personalities and avenues of growth.

I'm a huge fan of our current class. They're fun, bright, kind, silly, and hardworking. They also struggled at times with tasks that call for a bit of independence and initiative. Knowing where they should be as a class at this point in the year, I decided to give them a "this is where you are, this is where I need you to be" chat today during 4th period.

And of course, I followed it up with a letter home to their parents shortly thereafter.

The point of the parent letter is to help frame the conversations from 4th period, specifically the conversation that I wanted to share, the conversation that I may have shared, and the conversation that the kids believe they've heard.

I've found that all three conversations are often quite different.

As I follow up with students, I try to get a sense of the message they took away our time together during 4th period. In speaking with the leadership teacher, I get a second perspective. By including our parents into the conversation, I'll be able to hear and learn from what the students' takeaways truly were. It's possible that they were fine with the pep talk. It's also possible that some students were not pleased with the constructive feedback. I'm ok if they didn't appreciate the message but I want to be able to shift away from the "I didn't like what you had to say" and begin to talk about "you know, there are a few improvements we can make."

I've copied the message to our leadership class parents below. I'm also going to be sending a copy to the leadership students as well. They are fantastic kids; we're very blessed to have them here at Union Middle School



You are receiving this email if you have a student in our Union Middle School 8th grade Leadership Class. This is not an urgent message; I'm just going to share a conversation I had with the Leadership class during 4th period today.

Over the past few months, I've been able to have numerous individual conversations and even some all-group conversations with our leadership students. I've met weekly, if not more often, with Mrs. Carreras, the leadership teacher, on the group's progress, what they're doing really well, what they may need some support with, and just a general overview of the program.

As a leadership teacher for many years, Mrs. Carreras has been able to compare how independent, how strong, and how "leadsership-esque" her students are from year to year. We discuss how each class has their own personality, their own strengths, and their own possible improvements. Almost always, we see a rather young, silly, talented group of 8th graders from August mature into these amazing, 8th grade award winning young adults by June. The transformation is pretty remarkable.

One struggle that Mrs. Carreras has shared (and that I've personally seen with this year's class) is that the 2017-18 UMS Leadership Class is a bit behind when it comes to class expectations regarding initiative, professionalism, and independence. Individually, I don't see the same issues, but collectively, as a group, there are been a few data points lately regarding events where it feels like our leadership students aren't performing up to their abilities.

This week, I had the pull the weekly Highlights Videos. This is the first time I'd had to do such a thing. 

The video in question had two separate dress code violations, one leadership student shoving another leadership student out of the camera shot, an interview that was of rather low quality, and an overall lack of professionalism, even for 13-14 year olds, that I wouldn't expect at this point in the school year.

Today, during 4th period, we showed the highlights for the students with the preface to see what could be done differently. For the majority of the video, our leadership students were giggling and laughing at their performances. When we ended the video and asked for their thoughts on the video, only one student raised their hand. This student suggested that they act a bit more professional in the video. I agreed.

And then I explained why I had to pull the video, for the reasons described above. I shared that while these videos can be silly at times, there is an expected level of professionalism that that's currently missing. I asked how can I effectively address dress code issues on campus with non-leadership students when the other students see the leadership students not following the dress code themselves. I asked what they're telling our 6th graders what's ok at UMS when they're shoving other students on the UMS highlights presentation. I reiterated that there is a place for the silly parts of the highlight videos, but we are at the point in the year where they need to revisit why they applied for leadership, what talents they have that prompted their inclusion into the class, and what kind of legacy they want to leave for future leadership classes after they promote in June. 

We discussed a few other topics as well. The common theme was a need for an increased sense of initiative. If the DJ is showing up late to the dance, take the initiative and get the speakers out ASAP to see if they're a viable back-up plan. If we want to have an inside-the-quad turkey trot this Friday (of which I'm having nightmares about, for the record), take the initiative and create a segment for the UMS highlights video that shows a scaled map and action figure running the route. If the dance lines are too long, take the initiative and come up with five different possible solutions and start testing them out.

Essentially, we want our leadership students to be a bit more self-supported and less reliant on Mrs. Carreras for explanation. At this point in the school year, we would expect Mrs. Carreras to be more of a guide on the side rather than the sage on the stage. There are times where we do see this initiative from our leadership students. Our goal is to provide more opportunities for them to show this growth and demonstrate their progress.

As I shared with them during 4th period, I absolutely adore this group of leadership kids. They're funny, bright, talented, and destined for much greatness. I also know they're capable of much more than what they're showing right now. Both Mrs. Carreras and I are available to help guide them along the way.

So tonight, if you'd like to have a conversation with your leadership student, I'd be interested to know their thoughts. I often fear that a student will clasp on to one bit of constructive feedback rather than seeing the overall message of support. Additionally, when I asked for questions multiple times during my time with them today during 4th period, they were rather reluctant to speak out and share. Please let them know that I'd be glad to meet with them to discuss anything I've shared and will be making multiple reappearances in their class over the next few weeks to support them.

As a closing, when I asked them if they wanted to be in Leadership, the majority of the class yelled a resounding "yes". I realize that not all students may feel this way and we are always willing to move a student into a different elective if they're feeling that leadership is not what they want to do for second semester. That said, as I shared with them today, I believe in every single one of our leadership students and told them "you were selected for a reason" for the class. I'm hopeful we'll see a renewed focus and initiative over the next few weeks and the remainder of the school year.

They're a great group of kids. Thanks for sending them our way.

Todd Feinberg, Principal

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Different Spin on my Back to School Night

Tonight was my 8th Back to School Night at Union Middle School. Every year is a bit different, but truly just more of the same. Our (amazing, national champion) cheerleaders perform for the first few minutes. Our Home & School Club (HSC) president follows with an introduction and shared how our HSC supports our school and students. The principal then closes the introduction and sends the parents on their way.

While we followed the same format tonight, I decided to change up my portion of the night. Instead of sharing slides full of text with the yearly updates, I decided instead to talk to our parent community about what it's like to be in middle school and how we can all work together to support our students.

Below is my speech from tonight, each paragraph tied to a slide shown on the overhead screen. I've included the slides below as well. Thanks for reading!

Hello everyone,

I am Todd Feinberg, your principal.

Normally, this is the time of the night where I talk for a good ten to fifteen minutes. I discuss our SBAC scores (which were very good - Math scores went up a lot!), our Chromebook 1:1 initiative, our school mission and vision, among many other things. All of these topics are available on the slides link and will be sent out later tonight as well.

Instead, I’d like to talk about Union Middle School and maybe even middle school in general.

Middle School is hard. It is hard for our students. It is hard for our staff. It is hard for you, our parent community.

To me, a middle school experience can be perfectly described by the following gif:

(Notice how she gets up every single time)

Seeing how challenging the academic and social scene of middle school can be, I hope you agree with me about what Middle School should be.

It’s where students and teachers can grow and take risks.

Where students learn and are excited to learn each and every day.

A place where kids get a bit of time and freedom to figure things out… to figure out who they are and who they want to be.

When I talk with my staff -- and let me once again say that this is the best staff I’ll ever work with -- we talk nonstop about how to best support our students.

We discuss how they need to be the ones our students can count on, someone who our students can rely on.

After all, I don’t just want our staff to cultivate, to grow our students’ academic gifts, but also encourage their inner kindness as well.

And if you don’t follow our teachers on twitter, please do. You can follow them, follow the school account @goteamums or the school hashtag #teamUMS. On Twitter, you’ll see how we celebrate the positives of Union Middle School, how we make these positives so loud.

And our parents… As I’ve shared before, our parent community is a huge part of our school’s success.

For those 6th grade parents in the crowd… from your emails and texts, I can definitely sense the anxiety about middle school that we share. Please don’t worry about The Wrong; try to be excited about everything that is Going Right.

Know that there are times where you think you are helping your student… but please consider that what they may truly need is something else altogether…

Parents - We encourage our students to share their appreciation with their teachers. Please consider doing the same as well, perhaps together as a family?

And for all of us as a school community…  

Please join our staff in reminding our students that they need not solve all of the world’s problems they’re presented with. Please encourage them to just be themselves. Tell them it’s going to be ok.

Remind them that they matter to you, to us.

Encourage them to share their ideas, no matter how silly.

Try to be the example you want for your student. I’ve found that teenagers don’t always listen to our words but they do watch and mimic our actions.

Encourage them to try hard, always give their best.

And I promise you… I will try to make this middle school adventure for you and for them the best possible experience I can. You can text me via the Remind App. Many of you do. A lot. Late at night. Often. And while we have over 1000 students, please know that we care very deeply about how to best support your 1.

I promise to best support your student both here at UMS and beyond.

And yes, there are times we may disagree. That’s ok. Just know that I make decisions that are very well-vetted and with much care and compassion for our kids and school community. Not some of the time... all of the time.

And above all else, always remember that tomorrow is another day to enjoy, to start anew.

Welcome to Union Middle School. Enjoy your night. Follow your student’s schedule. If you need a new schedule, stop by the office for a copy. Thank you.

(All images attributed where possible; most taken from Imgur/Reddit/Twitter)

Friday, June 9, 2017

Graduation Speech - 2017 - Union Middle School

Good Evening Everyone,

For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Todd Feinberg, and I have been privileged to have been the principal of Union Middle School over the past five years. It is an honor to stand in front of you all today and truly means a great deal to me. I genuinely care about each and every one of my Union Tigers. I hope you all will keep in touch.

I’m going to start tonight with a positive. Actually, this entire speech is positive. As I shared back in March when I spoke with our 8th grade class, we love so much about each and every one of our 8th grade students.

We love your spirit.

We love your compassion toward others.

We love your curiosity, your growth, your silliness, and your seriousness.

You are a breath of fresh air. You make us smile, laugh, and have just the right amount of crazy to keep us adults on our toes.

So to impart a bit of wisdom on this already-wonderful group of three hundred plus young adults, I reflect back on two student stories from my time at Union Middle.

The first story began seven years ago.

The year is 2010 and I had just joined Union Middle School. As I’ve shared previously, I had spent that spring contemplating leaving education altogether. On a whim, I applied for and eventually was selected to be the assistant principal at Union.

One of my first student interactions was not with a middle school student, but instead with a 1st grader. This 1st grader would stop by a few times a week with her younger sister and hang out in our main office while their babysitter finished up her day.
This 1st grade student was incredibly friendly, extremely bright, and just loved to joke around. Of course, I called her George (because why not) and over the next year or two, almost every afternoon, we would challenge one another to word searches, admire her artwork, and just simply laugh at the silliest of things.

You see, this 1st grader embodied many of the traits I see in all of you, but most of all what stood out was how she, also like many of you, excelled in how to build relationships with others.

We adults are often told that relationships aren’t the only thing, but instead they’re everything. How we connect with one another. How we share a little bit of our lives with each other. How we forgive and how we love to make others smile.

Thus, my first bit of advice for the Class of 2017 is to always focus on your relationships.

Take a moment this summer (hint hint) to write a letter of gratitude to your favorite 8th grade teacher. Sometime tonight or perhaps this weekend, acknowledge that extra effort your family provided you over the past three years to reach tonight’s promotion. Just always try to be your best self; these relationships you plant today, no matter who silly and simple they may seem, always have the potential to grow into something beautiful.

And when we speak of relationships, I’m not talking about 300 day streaks in Snapchat or five trillion emojis sent back and forth over a ten minute “conversation” - Relationships are built upon human contact and concern, meeting with someone to hear their story, and share a little bit of yourself as well. We all could try to be a little more present in our digital lives.

And to that 1st grader seven years ago who through their kindness made such a positive impact on my own professional life… George, or whom many of you know as Alexis B., wherever you’re sitting here tonight as part of our promoting 8th grade class, thank you.  

The second story is from the current school year. It involves a student who was new to Union Middle School for their 8th grade year. She was overflowed to our sister school Dartmouth and didn’t arrive on our campus until late September, only knowing one other UMS student prior to her arrival.

As a student myself who started 7th grade as the brand new student across the country, I was amazed at how effortlessly this student made it look. She sought out a group of friends who would raise her up if she was feeling down. She excelled academically. Often, when she crossed the sidewalk to leave school each day, she’d often say a quick “thank you” to whatever adult was there to help.

Obviously, much like our promoting class of 2017, she’s an amazing student and individual.

But what impressed me the most about this student was during a music assembly, back in March.

Our students had recently completed a swing dancing unit, the first such dance curriculum for Union Middle School students in a long while. As our amazing band students were about to perform, our band director, Mr. Kay, shared with the students in attendance, “If you want to get up and swing dance, feel free!”

The band began to play and, much like I’d expect for a group of middle school students, no audience member flinched. You could see people pretending to stand up as if they were going to be the first person on the dance floor. You may have seen a few friends joking with each other, trying to convince one another to start dancing. Regardless, no one moved; no one took that risk of being first.

Until this student, who began her 8th grade year at Union Middle having to rebuild her entire social and school persona from scratch… she stood up, grabbed her friend’s hand, and began to swing dance in front of the six hundred kids in attendance.

A few students gasped, some chuckled… until two other students joined on the dance floor. And then two more. And then ten more. And then seemingly everyone fled from the bleachers and began swing dancing. It was quite a sight to behold: kids just being kids, blissfully free from the social pressures of being afraid to stand out.

And I reflect back on this one student who led the charge. This one student who started a mini dance dance revolution at our music assembly that morning. I remember being incredibly impressed at how bold she was to take this chance, to ignore what someone would say, to not worry about what she looked like if she ended up as one of the only students dancing.

Thus, my second bit of advice for the Class of 2017 is to not be afraid to stand out, to stand up, and allow yourself to be who you are.

What I found so remarkable about this student, who you all know as Courtney S., is that she did something I could never have done as a 8th grade student and probably many of us here today would have strong reservations doing as an adult.

Courtney wasn’t afraid to be the one leading the charge. She took a huge risk and showed how leadership can take many forms. I believe that all of you have the capability to be a strong leader in whatever it is you do. Don’t be afraid to be a positive trendsetter and don’t be afraid to be the first follower either.

There is a third quality I wish for our graduates to reflect upon. Truth be told, I feel like it’s something that our 2017 graduates already do quite well.

It is a trying time in the world today. One of the most challenging roles of your educators, your parents, your grandparents, truly anyone who wants to impart wisdom upon you, is trying to make sense of what’s happening outside our school gates, in your communities, across town, throughout our state, within our nation, and across the world.

For our Union Middle School community, it has been an especially challenging year. Family members we’ve lost. The private troubles of your classmates that were never shared. It has been one of the toughest last months of school I’ve ever been a part of - many of you have kept me up at night, worried whether or not you’d be ok.

Knowing how challenging it is to be a teenager in today’s society, I offer the class of 2017 my best advice possible: be kind.

Kind to your classmates, kind to strangers, kind to your parents, kind to your neighbors. Please be kind to yourselves as well. Just be kind.

When a special needs 7th grader was having a hard time around another group of students, you rallied at their side... walking them to school, spending lunch with them, and making sure they felt included.

When Bryan Stow shared his story with you during a school assembly this past February, you chose to donate a portion of the proceeds from an upcoming dance to his foundation.

We have watched you comfort one another through the crises of middle school. We see the hugs (which are still for high school, by the way) you offer your classmates when you know they’re having a bad day. Your little random acts of kindness do not go unnoticed by your teachers, your parents, and most importantly, from your classmates. I wish more adults in this world, especially perhaps in the today’s political arena, had your kind, helpful spirit.

As Mr. Rogers once said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

To the Union Middle School class of 2017, thank you for your friendship, thank you for your leadership, and thank you for your kindness. I wish you all weren’t leaving just yet.

But I think the world needs you more than we do right now. Go out and continue to shine. We are going to miss you.

Congratulations everyone and thank you for the past three years.

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