Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Student Leadership Dilemma

Providing our students with the opportunity to be leaders at their school site is one of my main core beliefs as a middle school principal. At my current middle school, we offer opportunities at leadership through a variety of ways. Right now, for example, we have five self-selected students vying for two seats on our school site council. In just one week, we have our annual UMS Reads night, put on by our 8th grade ELA department and supported by the rest of the school staff; here, students and adults will congregate to discuss the book Divergent, of which all conversation and topics will be student-generated and led. We have expanded our Intro to Leadership class this year to offer the opportunity at learning about leadership at the middle school level to twice as many students. At our school, there are so many ways for students to take on a leadership role. Perhaps the most coveted opportunity is our year long, 8th grade leadership class.

Our 8th grade year-long Leadership class is comprised of amazing students led by an amazing teacher and together they do amazing things. They host weekly events in our quad at lunch, create a sense of school pride among their peers, and perhaps most importantly, these students lead by example: they put their education first and support their friends in the same efforts. Rarely will we see one of these students leaving their lunch trash on the ground or being sent out of class. These students make our well-attended dances (over 50% of the students eligible for the dances attend!) an inclusive experience for all of their peers. It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the 30 students enrolled in the class. And that's the thing... it's just 30 students.

What about the other 300 students in the 8th grade class? While it's true that many of these students may not have interest in what the leadership class may offer and that others would prefer to take a year long AVID, Spanish, or PLTW class instead (all great choices), there remains significant interest in the leadership class during the application process. In fact, approximately over 100 students apply each spring to participate in the leadership class. The application includes an extensive rubric for teacher recommendations, an exam on the ASB constitution, an interview with various members of the leadership team, and other additional factors. Once the dust settles, the top 30 students are offered a place into the class and they are all amazing students, each and every one of them.

At a former middle school, the leadership class was not one of the more "in demand" electives. Thus, any student who chose to participate in the class usually found it as part of their schedule. This led to a very interesting "leadership" class makeup; there were behavior problems, frequent student absences, poorly attended dances, and no general student leadership presence on the campus. There was, however, the opportunity for a teacher or administrator to place a student who had latent leadership skills into the class and watch them blossom over the course of the semester.

Reflecting forward to my current site, I know of one specific student who did not apply for Leadership. This student, however, embodies all of the qualities of a future leader: charismatic, friends with many, intelligent, and inclusive. This student will fully admit that a lot of their own growth didn't occur until second semester of their seventh grade. As the student began to focus on their academics and decided to make better choices in the classroom and elsewhere on the campus, the deadlines for the leadership application had passed. Truthfully, even if they had applied, I'm not sure this student would have been one of the top 30 students.

This is our current dilemma: how do we continue the amazing work our students currently produce in our leadership class while still providing these opportunities for those students who could also greatly benefit? Building upon this question, if we were to hand-select a few students as administrative placements, wouldn't they effectively be taking the place of other, "more qualified" students?

To address these concerns, I meet with the leadership adviser on a bi-weekly basis. We have a standing 9:30 am Monday meeting where we discuss the short term happenings and the long term vision for the leadership class. I also have met with various members of our school community, both formally and informally, to discuss these very same issues. The only conclusion I've come to thus far is that there is no "right" answer and instead just lots of different answers, all of which have their positives and their concerns. This doesn't mean that we're going to stop looking for ways to improve; it just means the answers aren't as easy as we'd hoped.

In the interim, we have 30 talented thirteen year olds outperforming the work of many high school ASB classes, making our school the best, the most inclusive and welcoming middle school I've ever been a part of. And for that other student who didn't apply to the leadership class? Well, I'm bringing this student to the UMS Reads night where they'll lead their peers and teachers in a book club conversation. The opportunities for leadership continue to exist throughout our campus in a variety of ways and not just in the 8th grade year long leadership class; perhaps that the "right" answer to our student leadership dilemma.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Classroom Observations are not the Enemy

As a classroom teacher, I used to encourage administrators to visit our room as much as possible. While it was likely that their visit may occur during study guide review or other less-than-exciting lessons, there was also the chance they'd see a behaviorally-challenged student participating with the utmost excitement in the classroom activity. I relished having other adults in my classrooms and witnessing the daily routines of our community. When it came time for my annual observation, I planned nothing special for the occasion and instead provided the usual lesson plans for the observer. My students rarely reacted to the extra adult in the classroom. I should point out that the administrator's visit didn't prevent them from misbehaving, but overall all of my official observations were a positive experience where I gleaned a few bits of advice from the experienced administrator. Fast forwarding a decade later, I've found that not all teachers share my welcoming perspective toward classroom observations.

During my decade as an administrator, I've experienced many unique perspectives on the observation process. Most of my teacher colleagues fall into one of the following three categories: (1) excited for the visit, (2) dreading the visit, or (3) extremely cautious of the visit. Given that I fell into the first category, I at times struggle with understanding a teacher's reaction to the observation that falls under category 2 or 3. No matter how many times I reassure one of my category 2 or 3 teachers that the observation will be a fun experience, I'm repeatedly told at the sickness and stress these staff members experience in the days leading up to the classroom observation. If you are one of these teachers at any school, please allow me to share with you my sincere goal as the site administrator in scheduling and proceeding through the observation process.

To me, the classroom observation is an opportunity to celebrate the amazing work you're doing in the classroom. Our administrative schedules are quite busy, just as your classroom days are. The chance to spend a class period with you and your students is a mandated blessing. I enter the experience with excitement and a welcomed, refreshing change from the oodles of paperwork and budget transfers that occupy the other parts of my day.

Throughout the observation itself, I watch the delivery of instruction by the classroom teacher but also closely follow how the students interact and adjust to the lesson. More often than not, our students are enthralled in the lesson and fully engaged in the magical journey their teacher has begun to share. When I see the dynamic methods of instruction by our teaching staff, I feel both dazzled and jealous of the hard work they've put into the successful delivery. Currently, at our middle school, we have teachers operating light years ahead of their Bay Area peers in creativity, delivery, and content. To be able to spend a class period with our students as they are confronted with rigorous learning opportunities is a blessing. The observation itself feels more like a formality at this point.

That said, my goal of every observation is to provide authentic, sincere feedback for the teacher on the successes they've presented and any areas of growth I've noticed. I am also aware of those colleagues who dread these visits and try my best to make the observation as effective and positive as possible. There is much to gain from the observation process; I don't believe in "gotcha" moments. I want to help provide reflection for our staff and allow them to self-select opportunities from the observation to grow.

Despite my best efforts, there are still a few staff members who stress heavily about the observation process. My hope is that, over time and through much trust, we work together to prove that these classroom visits are a positive growth opportunity for all of those involved. I feel we've made much progress, as a staff, toward this goal, but truthfully we still have a long way to go... and that's okay. I don't expect multiple decades of unfortunate observation experiences to be cured with my promises and words. Improving the observation relationship is something that takes many cycles to improve and it's a constant goal of mine to work toward. I think we're getting there.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Challenge of a First Impression

During my first year as a high school administrator, department supervision was divided between the principal and my two fellow administrators. Given my background in the classroom in helping write and facilitate the IEP process, the Special Education department was added to my job duties for the school year. As the supervisor for the Special Education department, I also served in a dual role as the department chair for the department, a position that had been previously abandoned by a departing staff member. Among my responsibilities as the department chair for the Special Education department, I was the go-to administrator for all concerns regarding to special education for our 2,000 high school students. In looking back, this responsibility devoured no less than half of my daily minutes, both during and after the school day. To be new to the high school and to be taking on this additional challenge was, in hindsight, a recipe for burnout. Upon my departure from the high school, these responsibilities wisely were returned to a teacher’s schedule as 40% of their day with an additional administrator added as a means of support.

It was during this first year serving as the Special Education department chair that I worked on the transition process for our IEP students from the smaller, local middle schools into our large high school environment. Previously, there was no transition model nor meetings to help students (and sometimes parents) with the upcoming shift. I worked within our special education department to help decide what supports we could provide for the incoming students and their parents about high school. We collaborated with our feeder middle schools to help review IEPs and map out student schedules for the fall semester. With the best intentions, we began to schedule individual twenty minute meetings with students and parents to introduce ourselves (the school behaviors, myself, and the 9th grade case manager) at each of the middle schools. We blocked off three full days to spend at the middle schools and filled our time slots with our soon-to-be 9th grade IEP students. It is with the best intentions that we embarked on this journey of collaboration and support.

I am pleased to say that almost all of our future 9th grade families appreciated the meetings. We received positive feedback that still rings true. Parents remarked “we appreciated not only knowing, but meeting, the person who will help our son during 9th grade” and “thank you for helping us with this transition to high school – we had been stressed out about it at home and now feel so much better.” Overall, the meetings went swimmingly well and were helpful to not only best place the students in their freshman classes but also to lessen the parental concerns that often accompany the transition to high school. There was one meeting that did not go as planned.

It started innocently enough with introductions and positive expectations for the meeting. What happened next still baffles me to this day: the parent went on a tangent, explaining the damage the current middle school had put upon their child, how she just knew that the high school would do the same, and that the 9th grade team needed to be aware of every shortcoming involved in the transition process. We listened and provided immediate, cautious feedback, reminding the parent that we were looking forward to their child joining us in 9th grade, that we wanted to make high school as supportive as possible, and that we just had 20 minutes to review the transition process. The mentioning of a time limit only increased the parent’s tone and tenor with the group. I looked over at the behaviorist with the intent to interrupt the conversation until cooler heads prevailed. The parent saw my glance and launched into a diatribe about time limits in meetings, how we weren’t giving her daughter enough time to process the adjustment to high school, and that she demanded another meeting with both principals and district office personnel involved. Needless to say, we agreed to follow up with an additional meeting to address her concerns and how to best support her child. 

The parent, however, was not placated. Later, in the wee hours of the night, I found in my work inbox an email from said parent. It was addressed to my superintendent with my principal, the middle school principal, the school board, the local newspaper editors, and what I later found out were numerous school advocates and attorneys all CC'ed. The parent detailed her perception of the meeting that took place earlier in the day. Paraphrasing the email, there was a claim that our high school team didn't support our incoming freshmen class and especially not our students with IEPs. Her email forced, in turn, my notes from the day to be transcribed and sent to my principal, who forwarded them on to our superintendent. It was a challenging first impression with this family and lasted for the majority of the summer and first semester of the following year.

Fast forwarding to the following June, fourteen months after this relationship’s unfortunate beginning, the very same parent is in my office at the high school for a lengthy, two hour conversation. We covered her daughter’s plan for the upcoming sophomore year and what the school and she could do together to support her daughter. We reminisced over the past year, celebrating her daughter’s many successes. The parent profusely thanked me for my support, my time, and my dedication in making her daughter’s freshman year as positive as possible. She even remarked how nice it was that I attended some of her daughter's athletic events in the early evenings. While at no point was there an apology for the events of the previous year, the parent and I had come to a solid understanding, one that focused on what’s best for the student and an agreement to work together to make it happen.

Two of the main takeaways from these transition meetings are ever-present in my mind as I, as a site principal, support our students into (and out of) middle school. First, there is a high level of anxiety about any transition; it doesn’t have to just be school related. Also, the anxiety is not limited to just the student. Whether it is teachers anticipating their new class or parents concerned about switching from one classroom teacher to six, many participants in the promotion to the next school site can exhibit an unhealthy dose of fear and worry about the change. As a site principal, it is my job to best support and facilitate a culture of calmness. We try to be the experts in the transition process and will provide every support possible for our incoming and outgoing students throughout. Second, even if you go into a new program or support model with the best of intentions, not everyone will be satisfied with your efforts. It is rare to receive 100% on a feedback form; there will always be outliers. With these individuals, you need to work on the relationship throughout your time together. If both parties agree to work alongside one another and toward student success, you can accomplish significant progress during your time together. As the saying goes, you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. That said, I do believe with a lot of hard work on the relationship, you can still make it work in the interest of what's best for the student. This is the challenge of a failed, first impression.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Interviewing for your 1st Administrative Position

I'm often asked by aspiring administrators how they can improve their interviewing skills to obtain their desired entry-level administrative position. Truly, the interview is just one part of the entire hiring process. While an interview can't guarantee a job offer, it surely can prevent one from happening. As a school site principal who has been a part of multiple interviews for administrative positions as well as having applied for a few entry-level positions myself, I'd like to share the following five suggestions for the future assistant principals of our educational community.

First, as soon as you've received "the call" about the upcoming interview, it is time to meet your new best friend: Google. As cliche as it sounds, your first task is to research everything about the school that's available on the Internet. Start with the school itself. Familiarize yourself with the website. Look over how they've structured their grade level teams. Check out GreatSchools and see what parents have shared. If there is a current site principal, find out everything you can. Odds are you know someone in your professional circles who works at the school and/or in the district. Reach out to them and glean whatever information you can that will help your understanding of the position. Research everything you can so you have the knowledge about the school and can frame your answers as appropriate. A well-researched interviewee begets a positive first impression.

Speaking of your first impression, there are some certain expectations of a future assistant principal and it begins as soon as you've hit "send" on your application. Be certain that your application is free of spelling and grammatical errors. A simple "You're/Your" mistake can be the difference between getting the interview and being put in the secondary pile. Your letters of recommendation should be updated, all within the last 18 months (unless certain circumstances dictate otherwise) and include recent contact information to assist with reference checking. I've often dropped off my applications in person with the administrative assistant in Human Relations, just so they can place a face to the name. A good reference from this brief meeting with the administrative assistant can be very beneficial. For the interview itself, don't be on time... be early. Make sure you "look the part" in all aspects. I'd also encourage male applicants to be clean shaven unless they have, at minimum, a month long beard. For the female applicants, please dress appropriately and professionally. If you have tattoos, consider covering them; you don't know who will be on the interview panel and what judgments they may make. It may sound silly but visually offending a panel member can be the difference between the call back and a rejection letter.

A common concern I hear from classroom teachers aspiring to be newly hired administrators is "how do I gain the administrative experience the position requires if I can't get the job and have the experience of the position in the first place?" While this catch-22 may seem frustrating, the challenge is to obtain administrative experience in your current position that translates to the desired opportunity. This means that you should have had successful years as the classroom teacher, balancing opportunities for leadership roles at your school site with your lesson planning demands. At our school, each team (there are 2+ per grade) selects one member to be the Team Leader for the semester. Additionally, there are opportunities to be the Department Chair, join the Technology Committee, volunteer to lead certain clubs, and join the current administrative team at various conferences. If your principal sends out an email offering a chance to participate in classroom walkthroughs, jump on the opportunity. There are pathways to demonstrate leadership at a school site without serving as an administrator -- figure out these roles and begin to enjoy the experiences. As a site principal, if the candidate can show that the transition to the assistant principal position will be a smooth one, I'm more likely to select them as a member of our administrative team.

For the interview itself, two of the worst things a candidate can do is to babble and avoid answering the question. While we all have a tendency to elaborate on certain questions more than necessary, I use the following strategy when answering questions. First, I begin by repeating the question and then sharing three examples that build toward the answer. Usually, the answers will all start with the same first letter for purposes of alliteration and memorization. Here's an example: "Explain how you address student discipline." My response: "I address student discipline by focusing on what I call the Three C's. First, it's "Caring" -- I listen to the student and work with the student to address the issue. They know I'm willing to support them and that our relationship won't be broken by a simple poor choice they've made. Second, it's "Consequences" -- as we know, there can be good consequences and unfortunate consequences from our actions, but both should have a purpose toward making sure we don't make the same mistake the second time. Third, it's "Communication" -- Together, the student and I will make the call to the parent, explaining the situation. Often, without this call, the parent may hear a different version from their student. Additionally, I'll communicate back with the referring teachers and support team about the student and the situation, explaining the consequences and outcome. This also includes updating my principal on key student conversations. Those are the main three ways I address student discipline as the assistant principal." I repeat the question, give my three examples, restate the question as my conclusion, and end with time to spare. Often, I'll share a story about a past situation involving a student. If you choose to share a story (often, it's a nice break for the panel from the usual "same old answers" they've endured throughout the day of interviews), be certain that there's a point to the story, that it's directly related to the question asked, and that you protect the confidentiality of all parties involved. Your future colleagues will appreciate your professionalism.

Finally, my fifth suggestion would be the "catch-all" of categories: everything else not mentioned above. Interviewing is a challenging process and each panel has their own wishlist for what they're looking for in a future co-worker. Some common themes I've noticed is a desire to have the candidate seem to relate well with others and share a good rapport with the panel. Being able to communicate clearly and succinctly are desirable qualities as well. It's good to be confident without being overly so. I've found that applicants who demonstrate personality coupled with positive energy are usually highly ranked. Be knowledgeable about the latest readings and curriculum changes; odds are that the panel has at least one person who wants an administrator who can assist with the changes to their lesson plans that Common Core will make. Personally, I've always sent a follow up "Thank You" email for the interviewing opportunity to the site and district level administrator within a few hours of my interview. As a site administrator, I've enjoyed receiving these emails from our interviewed candidates, no matter the position.

Just like what we tell our students, practice makes perfect; It is not uncommon to interview for multiple positions before  the right opportunity avails itself to you. The practice you receive from each interview will allow you to reflect upon the positives and what you still need to work on. Consider reaching out to the individual who led the interview and ask them what you can do to improve upon for your next interviewing opportunity. Take each step as a learning experience and build upon it. As I've often told aspiring administrators and especially what I've gone through professionally as well, the right opportunity will happen when it's meant to happen. Being prepared to have a successful interview is just step one in the long road of your administrative career.

Friday, October 25, 2013

A Freshman's Stanford Plan

Just over two years ago, my father received an email from a colleague who lives in Southern California regarding their son's desire to attend Stanford. This in itself was rather amusing as the only two connections I could surmise my father had with Stanford is that he would "do rounds" with medical interns on a semi-regular basis and that he works and lives close to the Stanford campus. My father, in turn, forwarded the email to my wife (a middle school counselor in the Bay Area) and myself, asking for advice.

The email from my father's colleague began by introducing their son, then a 9th grader at a talented Southern California high school, and the groundwork they had discussed previously to reach the goal of enrollment into Stanford Undergrad. Perhaps half serious, the parent suggested that his son would need to aim for a 5.0 GPA, score 2400 on his SAT's, and to be the best or one of the best at something, such as golf, acting, or science. Their plan was to map out the 9th grader's classes, activities, sports, community service and other involvements over the next four years to solidify the son's resume for entrance into Stanford in 2015. 

What I responded with was a thousand word rant on how their mindset would destroy what should be four of the best years of his colleague's son's life with recommendations on how they should approach the college enrollment acceptance process.

Below is a modified version of the email, edited for privacy concerns and spelling errors contained in the original diatribe. 



I will ask around to see if anyone has any recommendations for someone with expertise in college (and specifically Stanford) admissions. That said, I can't think of anyone off-hand. 

To be somewhat blunt, if you're just now in 9th grade trying to figure out what you need to do to get into Stanford, it's probably too late and the wrong course of action. Most of the kids I've seen getting into Stanford (athletes not included) as well as some of my friends from high school who attended Stanford back in the day all have many of the following characteristics in common:

1) They are sickly smart. They don't just have great grades (which they do) but they just are smart. They process amazingly fast, spend their weekends thinking of Internet start up concepts, and just comprehend difficult, out-of-this-world concepts with ease.

2) They are very personable and social. While this doesn't hold true for every Stanford attendee, I believe that many of them are very outgoing, socially aware, interview very well, and are very inclusive with most they meet.

3) Their parents are heavily connected to Stanford. Perhaps their mother attended Stanford 30 years ago. It's possible that their grandfather donated a significant sum of money to the athletics program. While these are rare cases, it is very helpful for one's entrance into Stanford to have these connections.

4) They are involved in high school or private team athletics and did very well therein. In fact, I often see these students outperforming expectations based on their actual physical abilities, something I suspect made possible by their innate intelligence and willingness to try harder and practice longer than the students they're competing against. 

5) They are involved in the school newspaper, school yearbook, or ASB, almost always as an editor in chief or additional leadership role. Three of the four Editor In Chiefs from my high school newspaper attended Stanford, the fourth Berkeley. Also, not only do they participate in these student groups, but their efforts often win awards and are recognized on a local, state, or even national stage.

6) They clean up nicely and socialize well. These are students who combine business etiquette with a solid EQ (emotional intelligence). Essentially, they're very well rounded, driven, and able to mix well in most situations. 

7) Activities... they participate in more than just a few activities and also take a leadership role in most of these student groups. They don't join these groups to pad their resume. They join because they want to make a difference. Many of the students who joined every club and completed lots of community service just for their college application weren't accepted into the college of their choice. I feel like college admission offices see through the differences between these two types of students. The kids I know who got in to their first choice actually like to participate, enjoy volunteering, and seem to lead these efforts for non-extraneous reasons.

8) Lots of Advance Placement class. I'm guessing at least PreCalc, English, US History, Psych, Econ, and Bio, at a bare minimum. Knowing a language and travel overseas to that locale is always beneficial as well. Not only do students need to enroll in these classes, but they should be performing near the top of their class and taking the exams in May as well. 

9) I can't speak to all of the applications, but the "letter of introductions" I've read from students and my friends who did as well as those who didn't get in feel substantially different. It makes a huge difference in the story you tell as many of the students who apply have all of the above characteristics. Here, you're able to set yourself ahead of the other applicants. Students who got into the college of their choice definitely had the better letters. I found them to be mature, but not necessarily adult-esque. Their introductions would tell a story that somehow communicated their achievements and obstacles without cliques or bragging. The letters also didn't seem forced nor too far outside of the box. The successful applications often talked about life challenges, perseverance, and a mindset for growth.

(At this point, I segued into the numbers game of gaining acceptance into an Ivy League / Stanford-type school - Todd, 2013)

And beyond all of the above, approximately only 7.2% of applicants get accepted into Stanford (for 2013, this number has fallen to 5.69%). If we were to assume that 20% of the applicants really aren't "Stanford material" (i.e. do not have the grades to make the "first pass" through admission), that's really less 10% of qualified kids getting into the school. Having worked with many students at the high school level who applied to Stanford, I was amazed at who did and didn't get in. I'd go as far as to say I was stunned by some of the rejections; these students could not have done anything more to improve their candidacy. On the flip side, one of the students who did get in had every characteristic listed above, a complete set of numbers 1-9.

(Now, I switch the email tone to best influence my father's colleague's mindset on how they should approach his son's four years in high school - Todd, 2013)

So my best advice for your friend and his son would be something different than what they're requesting... Instead, I'd suggest the following:

Enjoy high school. Try your best. Be ok and willing to fail. Take a few calculated risks. Don't settle for the "easy A" and always balance your schedule with electives you're going to enjoy and grow your passion therein. Have a love of learning, a positive mindset that encourages you to improve, and participate in things you enjoy, but do so only for your enjoyment and not for your resume. Spend time with your friends. Get to know everyone you can. Be nice to everyone you meet. And here's the big one: Don't start freshman year with a plan to go to Stanford. Even if you manage to get in, you'd have wasted four of the best years of your life for something that is not going to define you as a person and honestly, probably isn't the best college for you anyway. There are thousands and thousands of colleges, many of which you may not have heard of, and the differences between them are slim. Spend your time traveling around the United States and get to know where you want to place roots for the four years after high school. Lots of kids go to the "name" school and then find themselves home after year 1, refusing to go back. As an educator, we see way too many students (and parents on behalf of their kids) say they want to go to Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Duke... To pigeon hole yourself with these kinds of thoughts isn't healthy for the short nor long term, in my honest opinion. His son is 14 and needs to be 14. It's all going to work itself out, one way or another. It's ok to have a goal in mind, but to be an entering 9th grader and have your heart set on one school is just not a good idea. As an educator and hopefully a future parent, I'd want to counsel my child on a better growth mindset that involves a love for learning and a sense of peace and acceptance to be at the college that's best for them, not just because it is Stanford, Harvard, etc.


My father forwarded my email to his colleague who was very gracious in receipt. They remarked that my thoughts allowed their family to have a frank conversation about their motivation for wanting the Ivy League / Stanford education. Truthfully, my sense is that my words did not detour their path, which is ok. I hope to receive an update in 18 months to see what school their son will be attending for college. I wish them the best and hope that high school has been and will continue to be a rewarding experience.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Best Practices vs. Past Practices

One of my biggest challenges as a school site administrator is balancing what I feel is right, consistent contractually, and what's best for students versus what the staff's past practice has been at our school site. It's something I've faced at every school I've served as a site administrator and, based on my conversations with fellow administrators, something I suspect exists at every other school site as well.

At one of my former schools, one such situation existed that involved teacher duties outside the classroom. While our sister school in the district had a equitable teacher duty system in place, there was much resistance with our staff to implement a similar program. At the time, many of the staff members already attended the plays, athletic contests, parent nights, and meetings on their own accord. Having these extra staff members at a packed-house basketball game was a blessing and I was very thankful for their assistance. Despite discussions and a proposal to begin piloting the "teacher participation" program, conversations became contentious and eventually stalled the initiative. To this day, no "teacher participation" program exists at that school.

A more alarming situation occurred during my first few weeks as the Dean of Students at a talented yet under-performing middle school. While speaking with the principal and vice principal in the main office, I noticed a veteran teacher toasting a bagel and checking his mailbox. The reason this behavior caught my attention is that it was during 2nd period and this teacher had a class full of thirty two 8th graders across campus in his classroom. I confirmed that we weren't having a random schedule day and asked the principal if we should remind the teacher that he should be in his classroom with his students. The principal agreed that we should and encouraged me to speak with the veteran staff member. Perhaps due to my inexperience as a site administrator, I was not ready for the conversation that followed.

I calmly approached the veteran teacher and struck up a conversation. In a safe, inquisitive manner, I asked if he had students in his classroom right now. The teacher answered that he did. I asked who was supervising them if he happened to be down in the main office. He responded that a teacher from a classroom across the hall was watching his students. I paused for a moment. While I was not sitting well with the idea of our highly qualified social studies teacher not being in the classroom delivering instruction and instead having a colleague watch his class, I quickly realized that the other teacher actually had a class of his own at the same time. I politely reminded the teacher, as he munched on his bagel, that his colleague had his own class to watch. The veteran staff member looked at me, said that it was taken care because the other teacher could watch both classes from the hall. Essentially, this made the matter worse in my mind. Instead of one class not receiving instruction because this teacher was out of the classroom, we now had two classrooms not receiving instruction because of the allure of a toasted bagel and junk mail. All in all, this wasn't ok.

I looked at the veteran staff member and calmly said, "I need you to be in your classroom and with your students. I appreciate you doing so today and in the future as well." The teacher remained silent, gathered his belongings, and made his way back to his classroom. I checked in with my principal who said that I handled the situation well. Again perhaps in my inexperience, I assumed that this was the end of it and the problem was solved.

Later that day, I received a call from the district office. As a new administrator, receiving a call from the district office is rarely positive. The district office employee (from memory, I believe it was the director of HR) inquired into why the veteran teacher was calling the district office and asking for the job description for the Dean of Students, the position I held. The staff member also asked if I had the authority to instruct him to be in the classroom. Fortunately, my principal became involved and supported how I handled the situation. Still, my request to be in the classroom with your students didn't sit well with the veteran staff member, even after the call to the district office. I found out in future conversations that this teacher was out of his classroom on a daily basis and that past practice allowed for teachers at this school to watch their colleagues' classrooms from afar. Past administrators had allowed this behavior. Again, it's one of those moments where you, as an administrator, have to decide if you're going to look the other way or if you're going to do what was best for students, what the teacher's contract supported, and ultimately what was right.

During my three years at this middle school, I eventually built a strong relationship with this staff member. While he didn't curb his tendencies to leave his classroom semi-unattended (probably a story for another day...), he and I settled on a common understanding, supported by my constant presence in his classroom and the talks we had on "best teaching methods" at the middle school level. I learned a lot from him as a colleague and stayed in communication through his retirement a few years later.

Most importantly, both of these experiences helped shape my vision and core beliefs on how to best build, support, and strengthen expectations on a school campus regarding student, parent, and teacher behaviors. While it can be challenging to shift from past practices, these hard conversations can set new norms and positive outcomes for your school community.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

How to Select Your Administrative Home

Just over three years ago, I interviewed for an assistant principal position at a middle school I had never heard of on the border of Los Gatos and San Jose. Truthfully, I almost didn't turn in the application as it was outside my desired 20 minute driving radius from where I lived. I had even contemplated leaving the field of education at this point. After my years in the classroom and even more time as a site administrator, I longed for a school community that put students first in all circumstances, that had a teaching collaboration throughout the entire staff, and had unwavering support from the students' parents, even if faced with the difficult decisions their children may make during these formative middle school years.

In considering the application to this middle school, I had been recruited for a similar position in a closer district and was a finalist for another position even closer to home. What was the point of applying for a job that I may not even take? If offered the job, how would they react if I declined the opportunity? Did I really want to drive twice as long to work, back and forth, each day for the upcoming school year? It surprisingly turned out that I never had the need to answer these questions. In fact, my first question of whether or not to apply was answered by a speech the current school's principal had posted on the school's website. The principal wrote, paraphrased here by my memory and definitely not verbatim, to his parent community and welcomed them back to school. However, the letter began with an interesting, silly twist: The principal talked of the important event that was soon to occur, that everyone was waiting for, that everyone just couldn't wait to happen. In reading the letter, many parents most likely assumed the principal was talking about the beginning of the school year. With the next sentence, the principal then unveiled his true topic: the start of the NFL season was upon us! As silly as it sounds, I thoroughly enjoyed the letter, the humor therein, and the amazing tone of compassion and togetherness presented to the school community. I realized at that moment that one of the most important decisions one can make in their assistant principal career is to choose a position where you have the opportunity to work with someone who will inspire you, lead you, grow your expertise, challenge you, and most of all enjoy the days in doing so. Simply put, Rule #1: Make sure you work with a visionary, talented principal who will ensure the work you do may be hard and challenging but surely rewarding and fun.

The second rule would be to make sure the staff and community are focused on what's best for kids with an eye on professional growth and in alignment with your goals as well. For me, I knew that the staff and community were a solid fit during the interview process. During my first interview, I sat at a table with no less than 8 community members nearby, firing questions in seemingly random order. At the center of the table sat a male teacher, approximately my age, with his shirt sleeves rolled up and his tattoos colored up and down his arms. To his left was an older staff member who would smile and then look down for long periods of the time, as if she was completing a crossword puzzle. Immediately to my right was the Assistant Superintendent of HR; she had a serious expression and yet was so jovial and welcoming to what can be an intimidating process. A young staff member who I later discovered to be the school counselor was all smiles and seemed to be taking copious notes. There were parents on the panel as well, all of whom smiled and seemed to work cohesively with the teachers. 

The interview itself lasted approximately 45 minutes but truly felt to be no more than 10 minutes tops. While there were questions asked and I attempted to answer them the best I could, there was more of a back and forth dialogue and understanding than I had experienced in any interview up to that point and since. It felt as if I'd had known the panel members for years, that we were long lost college buddies reunited for a weekend, and it was crammed into the awkward setting of the board room on a random Wednesday. Absent from the interview was the principal, something that seemed odd to me at the time. As I thought more about the absence of the principal upon my departure, I decided that he was unnecessary for this round of interviews as he later communicated to me that he had full trust in the panel to make the best decision for the school. What kind of principal gets to have that kind of relationship with their staff? This is somewhere where I wanted to be. As I left the building, I called my wife and said: "This is where I want to be. This is the right fit. These are the right people. This is my home." Of course she replied with "well, I hope you get the job then or else it's going to be really awkward if you move in on their campus."

And so in the end I accepted the position of assistant principal that was thereafter offered and have since moved up to principal at the same middle school. I reflect back at the application process and how I almost didn't want to apply due to the distance from my home. I know now that a simple commute isn't a reason to not explore these opportunities. One shouldn't see a future school community as a commute from where they live but instead as travels back and forth from each home. 

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Principal, Interrupted

My favorite days as a site administrator begin with a blank schedule. No meetings in the morning. No overdue voicemails to return. My inbox is even approaching zero. I've checked Twitter and Pocketed all of the interesting articles and blogs for my nightly review. These are the most beautiful moments of my work day... because now I can spend my hours in our classrooms, visiting with students, excited by the amazing lessons crafted by our staff, and helping oversee the newly-created library lab with our tech guru, Mrs. Adams. Sadly, that's not the most common occurrence when presented with the gift of an open schedule. Somehow, and I haven't been able to prove how it always rings true, my day becomes a series of interruptions.

I loosely define interruptions by everything you cautiously expect through productive paranoia but occur only out of the ordinary and rarely throughout the school day. As a site administrator, I've often wondered about keeping a log of these creative moments of my school day, as my wife often sits in disbelief at the dinner table after hearing my student (and sometimes parent or teacher) stories.

One of the more recent stories involves an 8th grade student who is struggling with their peer relationships throughout middle school. This student has made amazing gains over the past three years and is on track to promote from 8th grade in just a few short months. Occasionally, this student becomes frustrated with other students in his science classroom and often needs to take a few moments to process his displeasure with what he believes to be the other students' behaviors. On a recent day with the aforementioned blank schedule, this student appeared during class time in the office, very animated about what had just transpired in his science class. I listened to their version of events and offered the student an opportunity to write his story. I will admit that I enjoy having students share their side of the story for many reasons, one of which is any chance that exists to get a student to write more, I'll gladly employ. This student wrote what I can only describe as a fantasy novel of good vs. evil with the main character slashing their way through the injustices of evildoers and charlatans. These are the unanticipated but enjoyable interruptions of our administrative day where we interact with students in positive, productive ways. Here, the student was able to return to class, although they have returned a few times to add a few chapters to their "student incident report" novel.

Another interruption memory that has stayed with me is from my administrative days at a local high school. Late one evening, two students had placed fertilizer in the shape of a certain male body part on the main campus grass quad. They then, with the usage of a blow torch, permanently etched this 50 foot drawing into the ground for all to see the following morning. Rather quickly, it was deduced who had vandalized our campus with their artwork and soon thereafter these students were in our offices. Both students admitted to their actions and parents were soon called. What seemed like a relatively straight forward incident (student makes bad decision, student admits to making bad decision, student receives logical consequence) turned into days of meetings, emails, and district office involvement. One of the students involved in the vandalism had rather challenging parents whose beliefs did not always run parallel to a school's practice with logical consequences for poor student decisions. These parents argued that the "art work" of their child was actually something to celebrate. After all, the certain male body part their child had permanently etched into our grass quad was "part of the human body." Even more, they believed that it was "natural" for high school students to draw such body parts and was something we, as educators, should encourage and not hinder. I will admit I wondered what their backyard looked like with this perspective. Meetings were followed by lengthy emails that prompted district office involvement which led to more meetings and interruptions. These moments filled my calendar and took away my focus from where it should be: the classrooms.

These are just a few of moments of our unpredictable school day as site administrators. I strongly encourage all administrators to carve out days where they're out of the office and instead in classrooms, working alongside their students and fellow educators. Trust me - all of these interruptions, no matter if they're 50 foot concerns or just daily stories of good vs. evil, can wait.

Monday, October 21, 2013

It's a Blessing Of Challenges to Become a Principal...

Despite seven years in various assistant principal roles, I don't think I was ever fully prepared to become a middle school principal. The differences between the two jobs are numerous. I've sometimes compared the roles of the principal vs. the assistant principal as the restaurant owner (who buys the supplies and food, designs the layout, handles the finances) to the restaurant manager (reservations, delivery of the meals, overseeing the staff). Essentially, it's the big picture vs. day-to-day operations. Two completely different jobs with very few job-alike opportunities.

So the shift into the principal role just over 15 months ago at an amazing middle school in West San Jose on the border of Los Gatos was one of many challenges. In retrospect, I'd recommend three key growth avenues for all assistant principals who one day want to become a site principal.

1) Attend every local and not-so-local conference you can. 

Luckily, at my current middle school during my assistant principal years, I had the pleasure to work with an amazing, dynamic principal who was heavily-involved in local (and now national) educational events. On those random Fridays after the longest week imaginable, my principal would coerce me into attending the local ACSA event. Here, I would listen to amazing speakers, socialize with other local administrators, and soak in every bit of information made available. My former principal also encouraged me to attend the annual ACSA conferences and allowed me to co-present with him at the Philadelphia ASCD conference in 2011. These are opportunities that would not have availed myself to if not for his influence and support. As a second year principal, I've now furthered my former principal's inclusion methods by inviting eight other staff members (7 teachers and my new assistant principal) to the upcoming ACSA conference, held locally this year in San Jose. 

2) How your staff sees you as an Assistant Principal isn't how they'll view you as the Principal - Be ready for the change

Again, I'm quite fortunate to have one of the most dedicated and talented group of teachers I've ever had the pleasure of working alongside at my current school. I walk into classrooms and am dazzled by the class lessons. We have teachers on the cutting edge of technology; teachers who are presenters on the new trends in curriculum. If my staff were eligible for the middle school draft in the Bay Area, I actually believe we'd have more "first round picks" than any other school -- they are that amazing, both during their lessons and even outside the classroom as they spend countless hours to prepare for the next day, week, and semester. My relationships with these amazing teachers has changed significantly during my switch of offices fifteen months ago. 

No longer am I seen as the compassionate disciplinarian, able to bend a black and white rule into the gray as necessary for a student in crisis. Gone are the days where my jovial smile was sufficient to ease a staff member's worries. Simply put, I'm no longer relied upon by our staff for day to day operational events, whether it is relieving them as the classroom teacher for a few moments while they meet with a student outside or being available at the drop of a dime to listen to their current parent-student-teacher predicament. As much as I enjoyed those days, my role as a principal is much, much different. Expect to be able to recite your "five year plan" on your first day. Be expected to balance an overloading of meetings, both locally at your site and with the district office as well. You will need to re-balance every part of your daily routine. The challenging part is how these changes will affect your relationships with your staff members who relied on you for "assistant principal type" responsibilities. You will have to form new and sometimes not-as-jovial relationships with your staff members... and it's a strong shift from your stature as the assistant principal.

3) Relationship aren't the only thing but it's the most important thing.

Relationships are the key to your tenure as an assistant principal and even more important during your tenure as the principal. One thing that I've treasured during my time as the assistant principal are the 20 minutes prior to and after the school day. These are my "parking lot hours" where I'll help staff members with the sometimes challenging flow of traffic in our parking lot. Over the past 3+ years, I've set a regular routine of moving cars along while escorting our students to and from their vehicle. Quick smiles to our amazing parent community as they drop or pick up their students, a pat on the back as student arrive and a reminder to enjoy their evening as they depart, and casual conversations with the assisting staff members are all part of my morning and afternoon practices. This parking lot experiences are not only my favorite parts of my day but it's also the time where I'm building relationships with parents, students, and staff members. 

As an assistant principal, a strong relationship with a student parlays into a successful parent phone call and runs parallel in supporting your colleagues in the classroom. As the principal, you are further removed from these daily discipline incidents and rely on your new assistant principal to successful handle and support these relationships. Every brunch and lunch is spent with the students to make these connections.and provide support for any sudden, urgent student issues. Today, I spent half of the lunch period walking laps with a special needs 8th grader who had informed me earlier in the day that he was having a rough day. While I don't believe that a simple 20 minutes of a walk-and-talk salvaged this student's day, I'm hopeful that our chat about his favorite scary movies (I believe he is deciding between one of the 27 Godzilla movies and a Friday the 13th part 5 as his favorite scary movie) helped him survive the day without any behavioral breakdowns. Again, it's about the relationships and it's ten times more important as the principal to manage these moments despite ten times fewer opportunities to do so.

All in all, it has been an amazing 15 months as a middle school principal. Our school was recognized last year for Schools to Watch as well as Distinguished School awards. This year, we've added Project Lead the Way and digital journalism classes to our already amazing line-up of elective opportunities. The professional growth our staff has and continued to show is further transforming our school into a model middle school that supports students during these challenging early teenage years. It's a blessing to be the principal... but it was a challenging transition nonetheless.

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