Saturday, March 24, 2018

Rookie Teacher, Expert Interview

Over the past 72 hours, I've met no less than three dozen student teachers looking for their first paid teaching position for the fall. Wednesday was spent at Santa Clara University, interviewing twelve candidates and today was the Santa Clara County Job Fair where I met another two dozen more.

I walked away from these interviews with a few key thoughts, almost all of which were extremely positive.

First and foremost, WOW, there are some talented future teachers out there looking for a district to join. Every candidate I met had distinct strengths that would be a value add for any district. There were so many truly skilled newly credentialed teachers who are going to make a significant impact in the lives of our students. It was reassuring to see and know that the next generation of educators are a solid group of forward-thinking individuals.

There was one re-occurring theme throughout the interviews. Almost every candidate I spoke with had the same stock answers to a few specific questions and almost always had the same response when asked "do you have any questions for me?" Throughout the days, I could almost predict what their answer might be and what questions they had for me at the conclusion of the interview.

I understand that they've received the same training from the same professors at the same credentialing program in the same peer group. However, if they truly want to stand out from the crowd, there are a few key suggestions that these "rookie teachers" could implement to raise up their interviewing skills to "expert" or even perhaps "boss" levels.

1) Prep for the interview

When you hear that you're going to interview for a particular district, find out everything you can about the district. Ask around. Google stalk the schools. Read up on all of the websites for each individual school within the district. Find their Twitter Hashtags and follow it. I'd even recommend driving over the district and visiting the school at off-hours. Get a feel for what the school is about.

2) Prep for the interviewer

And don't stop at just learning about the district and the school. Research the principals. Learn all you can about the superintendent or the assistant superintendent of HR. How long have they been in the district. Where did they previously work. Connect with people who you know who also may know them. Ask for a reference. Don't go into the interview cold; find out everything you can about the interviewer and be ready to show how you're a perfect fit for their staff.

3) You have to be on Twitter

Zero of the new-to-teaching candidates I spoke with over the past three days are on Twitter. Not a one. Twitter is a fire hose of information for today's educators. You should know who Lisa Highfill is and what Hyperdocs are. You should read up on Jon Corippo and everything #eduprotocol related. Be ready to share a story about a lesson idea that you found on Twitter. Mention an edu-famous book you've read outside of your credential program that drives your future practice. Let the interviewer know what Twitter hashtags you frequent and what Twitter chat's you've participated in. Even if your interviewer isn't huge with the Twitter world, you're going to impress them by demonstrating how you're always looking to improve your practice.

4) There is more to the classroom than Class Dojo.

Perhaps it is an elementary thing, but the love for Class Dojo amongst the teaching candidates was a bit surprising. I actually liked the idea of Class Dojo early on, but then I struggled with how public the negative feedback for students is and how much it feels like public shaming within the classroom. When I asked one of the candidates about the negative affects the public feedback may pose within a classroom, it was very clear that they'd never considered the possibility of this byproduct within the program. I'd recommend heavily researching every app you use within your student teaching classroom and be prepared to share how you promote the positives provided for your students while acknowledging how you limit the negatives it could bring.

5) If you're going to ask a question at the end of the interview, make sure it's meaningful.

Almost every inquiry I heard at the end of the formal set of interviewing questions centered on one of three things: What PD do you have for your staff? Do you support PLCs on your campus? How do you support new teachers? It was very obvious that the candidates had been prepped with a stock list of questions to ask at the end of the interview. After I responded, the candidate would just move on to their next question on the list. Again, quite clear that these weren't truly their questions but ones that they'd been encouraged to ask.

If you want to stand out of the group, you have to come up with your own questions or instead prepare a statement that summarizes your interest at the conclusion of the interview. Truthfully, the interviewer has already made up their mind by question 10 whether or not you're a good fit for their district. Asking them a question about the professional development in the district isn't going to tip the scales in your favor. Even more so, you should already know about the professional development we offer as you should be on Twitter and following our district hashtag.

6) And speaking of professional development, let me offer the following three letters...CUE

Look it up. Join. Attend a local CUE conference on your own dime. Learn amongst current educators and your future peer group. Meet administrators and take the initiative to introduce yourself to them. Don't rely on a district to provide you with the professional development you hope to one day receive. Start during your time as a student teacher or perhaps even earlier. Find a local EdCamp on a Saturday and join the conversation. When an interviewer asks you how you best prepare for your future educational career, be ready to share what you've learned at these conferences and how it will shape your practice in and out of the classroom.


It's been a whirlwind over the past few days and I'm excited to see which candidates join our district for the upcoming school year (and beyond). I suspect that almost every candidate I spoke with is going to find a placement for the fall. Don't be afraid to be a bit choosy. Make sure you find the best fit for you. If it ends up being in our district or better yet at Union Middle School, glad to have you aboard. You're joining an amazing team and couldn't have landed in a better place. (Disclaimer: I'm a bit biased) :)



Daily Decisions as an Admin

When I'm asked the most challenging part of my daily job duties, I always have the same response: always having to make decisions on the spot.

Sometimes, these decisions are easy to make. 

For example, at a recent school dance, we were in a bit of a predicament. The DJ showed up an hour late to our two hour dance. For sixty of the longest minutes any adult will ever experience, we had four hundred students in our cafeteria, expecting music and instead getting nothing of the sort. Surprisingly, our students were incredibly well behaved. They started their own dance party (sans music) and just enjoyed the company of their classmates. I had assumed we would experience something closer to what happened in the Lord of the Flies, but no, they just waited for the DJ to arrive.

So it's now 7 pm and the DJ is about to start. Our students had expected a full two hour dance and were only going to get a short 60 minutes. I checked in with our Activities Director and then the DJ himself. Both were willing to extend the dance for an extra 30 minutes. On the spur of the moment a decision was made to extend our dance until 8:30 pm. We announced the decision to the students. They responded with prolonged cheers. Almost on cue, the DJ started playing a Justin Timberlake song and everything was back to as normal as a middle school dance can be.

The decision to extend the dance may seem like an easy one. However, I realized that there could be complications with the decision. After all, our parent and staff volunteers had expected to participate from 6 pm to 8 pm. Extending the dance an extra 30 minutes was taking advantage of their generosity. I also considered the text I'd have to send my wife, sharing that I'd be home a half hour later than expected. There were also parents who showed up at 8 pm and had to wait for an extra 30 minutes before their students was ready to depart for the evening. 

Fortunately, our chaperones were extremely kind in their understanding, my wife completely understood, and the parents who arrived early got a in-person demo on how to sign up for the Remind app to receive my text messages and updates. 

Sometimes, these decisions are extremely difficult to make. 

Rewind a week and we're having our annual UMS Home and School Club Blast. The Blast is something akin to a carnival where our current (and future) students spend an evening on our campus with fun games, bouncy houses, and tons of food. It's a huge fundraiser and a fun experience for everyone.

Earlier in the week, our community had been rocked by both national and local events. There was a Las Vegas shooting that ended up becoming one of the nation's worst mass shootings. Locally, there were reports that a local high schooler had almost been kidnapped en route to/from school. Our students were somewhat on edge; young teenagers who have confronted a flood of social media post on such adult topics. 

At some point, during the event, something shifted. I noticed our students acting a bit different. I moved toward what seemed like the epicenter of the kid chaos and was shocked at what I was hearing: "there is a kidnapper and a rapist and a scary man dressed in black and they have a gun."

For a split second, I froze. My mind wandered and became scared for our school community, for our students. I quickly shook off the fear and listened to our students. What information did they have? What did they know? What exactly did they see?

As I spoke to more and more students, it became increasingly clear that this was a situation that was rooted in rumor. Nevertheless, I had to make a tough decision: How do I ensure the safety of our students while not overreacting to potentially false student rumors. 

My answer was clear and yet difficult to make: you have to treat the rumor as fact.

Carefully, the assistant principal and I, based on all of the information gleaned by the student responses, walked the side streets where the individual may have been located. We had already communicated with both staff and our parent volunteers on the rumors. Everyone was on alert. 

Our local police department had been called and were now on site. We followed up with them, sharing our facts of the situation and asking for advice. They reassured us that, based on their own conversations with students and witnesses, that there was no individual with a weapon and that our students and community were safe. We then relayed this message to our parents, staff, and students. 

Now that we had effectively researched the threat and determined, with the support of our local police department, that our students' concerns were based on false rumors, our job was now to spread the word and diffuse the spread of the rumors that had already taken a life of their own.

That evening, I prepared a recap of the events for our parent community and sent the message out first thing Saturday morning. I wanted to give our parent community the chance to speak with our students prior to the chaotic gossip on instagram took hold later that day. 

Upon our return to campus that Monday, I began a two day investigation into what actually happened. By the end of the day on Tuesday, I had finally pieced together what had actually happened the previous Friday night. 

A few students saw an adult in a black sweatshirt walking down the street by our school. They began to point at this person and may have pointed back. Our students, concerned that this person pointed at them, began to chase this individual who then took off running. 

Another student, upon hearing this story, said that if this person came after them, they'd chase him off with a baseball bat.

Another student, as if this were a game of telephone, heard a modified story of the baseball bat response. They were told that a student who lived across the street had just chased a man out of their house with a baseball bat. 

Another student, present for the story, believed they saw someone in a nearby bush and decided to throw rocks in their direction. As the rocks hit the bush, this student then told another student that they thought they heard the 'click-click" of a gun. 

The other student then shared this story with five more students who then each shared it with five more. 

So on Friday, we had a random man in a black sweatshirt pointing at our students, escaping from a nearby house after being chased by a middle school student with a baseball bat, hiding in a bush, getting rocks thrown at them and then loading their weapon to retaliate, and ultimately being named as a possible kidnapper/rapist/vigilante on our school campus...

While the truth was anything but.

But the decision to err on the side of caution had to be made in a split second and without pause. 

My fear as an administrator is that I make a wrong decision. 

Perhaps I didn't ask the right question of a student with a concern. 

Maybe I didn't give enough caution to a situation and things turned horrible for our students, staff, and community.

It's even possible that a decision made with the best intentions ended up damaging our school policies and practices. 

Sometimes the decisions are frustrating... and I'm cancelling music for Friday due to the air conditions, even though I truly believe that it would have been okay to have our leadership students bring out the speakers for some fun on a Friday. 

Sometimes the decisions are based on my time limitations... and I'm having to send an email at 4:10 pm instead of picking up the phone to connect with a family about a conversation I had with their student.

Sometimes the decisions allow me to provide a bit of mercy... and I give a student a second chance at making a better choice, even though I know they should have made the right one the first time around.

And sometimes the decisions may just be simple, choosing to extend the dance a half hour to the cheers of four hundred kids.

Or the decision may be drenched in fears that some rumored harm could come to one of our students if I don't act as swiftly as possible. 

This daily life of an administrator is stuffed with constant decisions that tilt the course of our school community. It's the most challenging part of being a middle school principal: always worried that the decision we made may not have been the best one for our students, our school, and our community. 

But we still have to make the decision. It's the hardest part of our job.





Trust Me

One of the most important elements in the principal-teacher relationship is trust.

Without trust, there is no collaboration.
Without trust, there is no communication.
Without trust, there is no growth.
Without trust, there is no unity.
Without trust, there is no innovation.

Trust is arguably the foundation of every relationship, especially so in the realm of education.


It is understandable that a teaching staff may not fully trust a principal who just joined their school. Additionally, the staff may not trust a principal who fails to prove themselves as a loyal, valued member of their school community.

Likewise, if a school principal is brand new, it is unlikely they'll walk into their school with established relationships of trust with their staff. Also, if they've observed a staff member repeatedly make choices that are of a concerning nature for the students and school community, it can be hard for a principal to depend and trust this staff member.

But when there is a principal who has chosen to stay a bit longer to help build something special and they're surrounded by a teaching staff who are focused on doing what's best for students, a school community can benefit from a singular focus and vision on improving the school experience for their students. The teaching staff trusts that the principal supports the work that happens every single day in the classroom. The principal trusts that the staff understands the complexities of the millions of daily decisions we may make to keep the school moving forward. There is a mutual trust.

But trust is hard. 

Because we are human and we make mistakes.

And I shared one such mistake I made at a recent staff collaboration.

The mistake centered around a sixth month conversation regarding overlapping graduation/promotion dates between our middle school and the local high school district. As the worst luck would have it, somehow our graduation dates landed on the same day: June 7th.

When I first saw this conflict during the summer, I immediately began to brainstorm possible solutions. Could we move our graduation events a night earlier? Could we add a professional development day in March or May that would push our graduation date one day later? Perhaps the high school district would consider moving their graduation time to a different day? I spent countless hours looking for a solution.

In working with our local high school, there were conversations where they may have been willing to move their graduation events to the night before. Our sister middle school was exploring the idea to move their graduation to the night before. I was very clear in my resolve to keep our graduation night as close to our scheduled last-day-of-school 6 pm start time as possible.

In the end, the high school would compromise in moving up their start time for graduation to 4 pm on the shared last day of school and we would move our promotion ceremony an hour later to 7 pm. I felt it was the best outcome of so many bad choices.

During the six months of reflection and negotiations, I reached out to our Home and School Club parents for input. I spoke regularly with fellow administrators about the predicament we were in. I had brief conversations with various staff members, seeking their advice on the issue.

But what I didn't do was sit down with our 8th grade teachers.

After all, our 8th grade teachers are expected to attend graduation and I didn't check in with them to brainstorm solutions beforehand.

This was my mistake.

And, with the encouragement and support via a reflective conversation with a valued staff member, I realized I needed to make things right during our next staff collaboration.

And so, later that afternoon, I led a conversation about the decision to keep our promotion ceremonies on the same night. I explained why I didn't want to move graduation to the night before (do the 8th graders come to school the next day? what if they do? what if they do but decide to leave halfway through the day? what culture does it create if kids see other kids cutting school or making bad decisions since they've now graduated?).

I shared why I didn't want to have graduation earlier in the day (we intentionally moved our graduation dance to immediately follow the graduation to combat a variety of student issues; to have graduation at noon and the party that evening would return to those complicating issues).

I went over every step I made, reflecting along the way, pointing out secondary issues that may have been created through the best of our intentions. I made the "how" regarding the decision to move graduation an hour later as clear as I could.

And I apologized to the staff, specifically our 8th grade teachers, that I did not officially sit down with them to discuss the issue and gather their input. Speaking without notes and little rehearsal, I gave an honest recounting of how I wished I would have, even if I was unsure that the final outcome may not have changed.

I then addressed the issue of trust.

I shared how, as the site principal, I have trust for them as the Union Middle School staff and the work they do with our students every single day in our classrooms.

I then asked that they have the same level of trust in the decisions I make as the site principal. Trust that I don't make decisions haphazardly. Trust that I'll do my best to do right by our students. Trust that I work extremely hard to support them and their interests.

I asked them, especially in a moment where they may not agree with me, to trust that I will always make the best possible choice for our students, for our school community, and for them, even when faced with less-than-optimal outcomes.

I asked for their trust. They have mine. I hope to have theirs as well.

Dress Code Drama

A few months ago, our neighboring elementary district made the local news when a student was dress coded twice in the same day. The student's parent took the conversation to Nextdoor, looking to gather input from the local community to better understand the varied viewpoints on the always-debated topic of middle school dress codes.

What started as a civil conversation on Nextdoor slowly turned into a variety of conflicting opinions. A few individuals posted in support of the student, saying that she should be able to wear whatever she wanted to school. Others posted in support of the school, saying that they had a clear right to establish what students were allowed to wear to school. The other parents and communities stayed within the gates of these two differing opinions for the most part.

As a local educator with first hand knowledge on the daily drama involving dress code, I jumped into the conversation. My goal was to explain to both sides that our truth needed to be somewhere in between the two extreme viewpoints. I hoped to share insight into what it's like to work at a middle school and how we address these dress code situations on our campus. Below is what I shared:

Hi everyone - I'm the Union Middle School principal. I just wanted to share a few thoughts on the dress code talk at schools. Please note that I have two 7 year old daughters and am already challenged with finding shorts for them that are a bit longer. I also want to preface this post with that I understand if you disagree with me on this topic. I value this conversation and think that there is a lot of merit to all sides of the dress code topic. Here are my thoughts on the Union Middle School dress code: 1) Our school is a place of work for over 100 adults. As I shared with the students last week during our assemblies, I'm pretty sure that someone who works at Google doesn't have a 13 year old boy in a "bralette" walking the halls during their work day. I feel that our school staff should be able to come to their workplace and know that they aren't going to have a student in a bikini top or another student with their pants sagging down to mid thigh. 2) Yes, it feels like a lot of dress codes target females. However, as I shared with the students last week, we apply the dress code equally. If a female student was sagging, showing her undergarmet boxers, we would speak with the student. If a male student had their bra straps showing, we would speak with the student. That said, the current style of clothes does seem to cause more issues with school dress codes on the female side. 3) The "distraction to other opposite gender" excuse is completely ridiculous. Most boys in middle school aren't even aware of these issues; ditto for the girls. I don't use this "excuse" in our conversations as I think it makes the issue about the student's sexuality, which isn't the topic at hand. 4) When I talk with our students, I come back to the same two words: Dress Appropriately. Yes, we have a page of dress code topics (don't wear this, it's ok to wear this, etc) but I always return to these two words: dress appropriately. To me, "dressing appropriately" for school means that your undergarments aren't showing and that everything is appropriately covered, male or female. 5) While the students may feel differently, we only dress code situations where there is a severe excess of skin showing. Being blunt, I think that it's not appropriate to see a female/male student's behind from out under their shorts. When something really pushes the boundaries of what's "dressing appropriately", we speak with the student and solve the issue as quietly and innocently as we can. We don't want them to be embarrassed. As we tell the kids, you bought those shorts a few years ago; You've grown... the shorts haven't. Again, sorry for joining the conversation here. Lisa F, the Fisher principal, would be glad to discuss any issues about dress code if you have questions for her. She's fantastic and is very welcoming. And if you have any follow up questions, do feel free to email or PM. Todd Feinberg

The response was positive. A few community members responded publicly and other privately. One Nextdoor member had a follow question about the words "To Me" in the 4th segment above. They felt that saying "To Me" put the fate of our entire school in my hands and that I shouldn't make such rules based on my own personal viewpoints.

I responded, as that's not what I had meant by "To Me" in my original point:

@NextdoorMember - well, I guess I should clarify what "to me" means. As a school principal, I get to balance the needs of our students with the wants of our parent community while supporting the work our teachers do in and outside of the classroom. When I say "to me", I could very well say "based on lengthy staff conversations, a thorough review of other middle school dress codes, a constant study of ever-evolving case law, input from both our parents and students through multiple venues (the parents at my school can text me with questions and feedback; I also oversurvey my parent community throughout the year), my own opinions as a parent of four kids (two of which are girls with significant special needs), and the past 17 years working almost exclusively with middle school communities" instead. But that's way too long and wordy. It is the expectation of the school principal (among other parties as well) to provide a safe, structured learning environment for all kids, a safe, positive workplace for all employees, and the best inclusive community we can. Some principals do a really good job; others not so much. Fisher is blessed to have Mrs. F - she's great. Count your blessings. So when I say "to me", I'm including everything that goes into even the most basic of decisions. Doing what's best for kids is what drives us to make our decisions. Not everyone agrees on every decision; but as long as I know we are trying our best to care for all of our kids and giving our staff the best opportunity to work with and support our kids, I feel pretty good about saying "to me".


The conversation died down shortly thereafter. The principal at the other middle school held a community meeting to discuss the parent concerns. People moved on to the next story.

For our own school community, I appreciate the willingness of our parent community to support the work we do at Union Middle. Almost every parent I speak with supports the "dress appropriately" expectation, even if they may disagree with some of the points made above. Their issue often isn't with the dress code itself, but it's the lack of conversation most administrators are willing to have on the topic. Be willing to be honest and meet your parent community halfway. Work together to support your students and what "dress appropriately" looks for your school environment.

After all, Spring is coming.


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.





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