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.

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