Sunday, October 26, 2014

Kindness Always Comes Back in the Strangest of Ways

It was the mid 1990's and my younger sister had her college boyfriend visiting for a week. He was a pretty nice guy. We called him "the freshman" since my sister was a bit older and yes, he had just completed his first year of college. 

Now, in my family, there is somewhat of a history of semi-teasing any significant other that was foolish enough to visit during our college years. Once, when my older sister had a boyfriend visit, my father asked what this young man's five year plan was. Awkward silence ensued. It had become a tradition to visit Chevy's for group fajitas and to grill the visiting significant other on every topic imaginable. In fact, when a college girlfriend of mine came to visit for a week, our relationship didn't survive the Chevy's experience. Foolishly, she returned the following year for another Chevy's experience that backfired once more. You would think that I'd learn. 

So the freshman spent a week with our family. He did well enough to make it through the five year plan conversation. I found the freshman to be a really nice guy. We talked sports, college, and music. He was a big baseball fan and I shared stories of listening to the Atlanta Braves on the local radio station. When we talked music, he professed a new found love for the semi new act of the Beastie Boys. 

Now while I wasn't a huge Beastie Boys fan, I was enough of a supporter to have a few of their CDs and even some bootlegs in my collection. The freshman was wide eyed when I showed him the CDs. Knowing that I could always replace the CDs, I offered him my entire Beastie Boys collection. He at first refused my offer, but after I assured him that it was ok to accept the gift, he politely smiled and thanked me profusely for the CDs. And while he said that he'd get me back one day, I brushed the comment aside, knowing that most college relationships don't last and I'd probably never see or talk with him again. 

Fast forward twenty years.

It was the fall of 2008. I'm now married, a homeowner, and these past silly college days are way behind me. All of my sisters are now married as well. No one has heard from the freshman over the past two decades. 

Out of the blue, my younger sister receives an email. It was from the freshman. She forwarded the email to me. It's an offer for World Series tickets. 

Much to our surprise, the freshman had taken a job within Major League Baseball. He was now a Senior Executive and had the ability to send out playoff tickets to his friends... And in my case, the brother of a former college girlfriend. 

His email asked if I had any interest in playoff tickets. He mentioned the Beastie Boys CDs that were gifted two decades prior. I, of course, accepted and went to the 2008 World Series with my wife. For the second game, I flew up my father in law from San Diego and he attended his first World Series game alongside his daughter. It was a once in a lifetime experience. 

Except it wasn't. 

Fast forward four more years.

Despite trailing most of the season, the San Francisco Giants slip into the playoffs. They win a play-in game and then progress to the NLCS. This winning streak was unexpected; I didn't envision a possible return trip to the World Series this year. Nevertheless, I send the freshman an email, inquiring about playoff tickets. He responds that he'll look into the possibility. 

A few days later, the tickets arrive. Lower box seats to all three home games. My father-in-law drives up and attends game 3 and 4 with my wife, her third and fourth World Series games and possibly only her sixth or seventh Major League Baseball game ever. 

Tonight, I'm attending with my wife. In fact, I'm typing this blog during the game from my seats. I never expected a simple gift in the mid 90's would translate to World Series tickets decades in the future. 

The entire experience is a great reminder to treasure every relationship you have the opportunity to make. As I share in my yearly graduation speech for our 8th graders, there's no limit on one's friend quota. Be inclusive. Be kind. Be generous. 

And Go Giants. 



Saturday, October 25, 2014

How to Improve Your District - hint: start at the middle school

Today, at the #FallCUE event, a twitter colleague asked me advice on how to improve their district. Quick question, big answer.

First, a disclaimer: I don't know the answer to the needs and concerns of a school district hundreds of miles away from my current school site. That said, I do have a few bits of advice based on what I know about the district in question.

This district is suffering from a few concerning elements: (1) over-involved parent input, (2) not great press, and (3) perceived conflict in administration.

When any district suffers such concerns, it's a tricky road. Often, the superintendent will be replaced, the school board will hire a new candidate, and the cycle will repeat itself.

Instead, here's my advice: hire new middle school principals.

And here's why:

Middle school is the transition from elementary school to high school. Middle school encompasses the transitional years where the parent is overly involved to the four years where the parent is excluded. Middle school is the perfect time to help with these changes and work with the parent community to best communicate during these trying years.

So when your district is in peril with such conflicts, look to your middle schools to solve the problem. Here are your step-by-step directions:

1) Fire/release/reassign your current administrators from their middle school positions.

I realize that this may not be a popular suggestion but here's why: The process is broken and sometimes the only way to fix it is to reboot. By hiring a new administrator, you're giving your parent community, your teaching staff, and your student population a chance to rebuild the relationships that may not have been previously established. As I've personally experienced and publicly shared, it's more than ok for an administrator to walk away from their safety net of employment and seek a new venue to reintegrate themselves. It's not a reflection on their performance necessarily. Sometimes, the easiest thing in a difficult relationship is to begin anew.

2) Hire AMAZING middle school principals

And here are the qualifications: You need to hire principals who are tech-savvy, relationship-focused, willing to devote more than just the usual 7-7 hours to the job, and who "get middle school kids".

Technology because that's the common thread between kids, teachers, and our community.

Relationships because that's how we'll build bridges and cross communities.

Time because that's what our kids need, our parents expect, and the job needs.

And Understanding Middle School Kids because it's such an interesting time in our kids' lives. It's the only place I know of where you'll have thousands of kids going through puberty all at the same time. It is chaos and anyone who loves middle school wouldn't want to be anywhere else.

This principal that you hire need to understand the importance of reaching out to their community. They need to do parking lot duty in the morning and hold evening sessions on digital citizenship. They need to be in teacher's classrooms during the busiest times of the school year and yet still responding to parent emails at all times throughout the day. They need to know how to rebuild and foster communication between the local community and the school staff.

3) Give them time to build these bridges.

Odds are the staff will be hesitant to accept a new principal... just like the students and parent community will be slow to trust this individual to guide instruction and school culture.

And that's where the investment begets relationships and growth in avenues of trust. A new principal needs two years to understand the culture of the school and forge the necessary relationships with the parent community. Given that middle schools are often three grade levels, allowing a principal to have those 2-3 years to build and foster the necessary relationships is a necessary element toward the path to success.

And no, this isn't easy to do.

And no, there aren't that many principals who can do this.

But yes, if you think your school and students are worth the investment, it's worth the effort to go search for the right administrator to lead your school.

Middle school principals are their weight in gold if you get a good one. This is where the culture can begin. Invest wisely.

Too Much, Too Soon... Or: How to Create Teacher Stress on Your School Campus

OH MY... WHAT A YEAR


It's hard to believe that we are just 25% through the school year. It's been such an odd year. It's my third year as a site principal, fifth year at the school. As a third year principal, this is the year the magic should happen. I've followed the traditional administrative path of 1st year listen, 2nd year discuss, 3rd year implement.

And so we've implemented.

New classes. New Common Core Math Pathways. New (amazing) staff. New opportunities for Professional Development. Increased enrollment. Bond passed.

That's a short list and it doesn't include the biggest change of all: Increased Access to Technology.

So let's back up a bit and take a wider lens at the conversation.

If you ask almost any teacher today what they'd like more of, technology in the classroom will surely be in the top five comments they'll share.

Our district, knowing a strong deficit in this regard, created a new position of Chief Technology Office and hired what I often call the best hire by USD over the last decade: Andrew Schwab.

Andrew was exactly what our teachers and administrators (especially me) wanted: someone to centralize and support all of our technological needs. He started slow, met with teachers and administrators, and did everything a new staff member should do. Yet, teachers and administrators clamored for more. They asked for 1:1. They asked for updated computers. They wanted improved wifi.

And Andrew delivered everything and more.

-Our school has received a minimum of tenfold in access points for individual and improved wifi connection.

-A new MacBook Air for every staff member

-A shift to GAFE tools for education

-1:1 in every 6th grade classroom

-A dozen additional ChromeBook carts for check out

-Ten staff members labeled Tech 1's or Tech 2's, able to provide support and professional development

It was everything our staff (including myself) had been clamoring for over the past five years. And yet, the collective teacher stress increased exponentially.

Here's why:

Technology cannot just be given to a teacher without professional development and more importantly time.

The professional development gives them a chance to explore how to best implement the technology into the classroom. If a student takes notes with pen and paper or if a student takes notes on a Google Doc, there's no difference. The added benefit is how the technology allows collaboration and other sharing opportunities through its implementation.

Time is perhaps the most important ingredient. The tech-ready teachers won't need the time. They'll figure out how to best implement the gift of 1:1 Chromebooks immediately. For the rest, however, there needs to be an understanding that they'll have time to implement the technology into their classrooms.

Sadly, this time isn't something that can just happen during a staff development day, a trip to #fallCUE, or on a random prep period. Our teachers need the time to play and explore. They need days, not prep periods, to figure out how to best implement the new technology into their classroom. They need release days to observe other classrooms. They need the opportunity to get comfortable with the technology.

And I'll be honest... despite our best efforts, this didn't happen.

Our teachers weren't given enough time to work with and work through the added technology in their classrooms.

Fortunately, our staff has been amazingly supportive in how they've dealt with the situation. We have had teachers open up their classroom prior to the school day for other teachers to get technology help. Our assistant principal has arranged for classroom subs to allow for random observation days for teachers looking to see how the technology is being implemented in other classrooms. I've given time for staff development during our weekly Wednesday meetings.

Still, it's not enough.

And it's because we went too much, too soon.

To me, it wasn't that fast. To many staff members, it wasn't that fast either. But they aren't the average staff member.

To those teachers who didn't want to exchange their hard drive MacBooks for a new MacBook Air... for those staff members who don't fully understand the benefits of labels in gmail... To the teachers who were frustrated with the initial limitations of Google Classroom... It was just a rough start.

And it led to increased stress levels among the staff.

A disclaimer about the UMS staff - They want to be cutting edge. They will work hard to provide a better student experience. They are always willing to go above and beyond.

But for whatever reason, it was just too much. Perhaps it was the insecurities of not wanting to disappoint our students, their principal, the new CTO... Perhaps it was just influx of Chromebooks and self-imposed expectations on how to incorporate the tech into their classrooms.

Whatever the reason, the message that our staff was a bit overwhelmed was received.

And so we slowed down. I communicated that the tech infusion was not a sprint nor a marathon; it was an opportunity to break down walls and encourage student interaction in their classrooms.

The expectation wasn't that they'd implement everything yesterday but instead slowly feel comfortable on incorporating pieces into their daily lessons as they saw fit.

And yes, I have offered professional development through #fallCUE, weekly staff meetings, or upcoming staff development days. That's not the message though.

The point of including an influx of technology into the classroom is to have a very slow expectation of how the tech will be implemented. However, even if you let your staff know that the pace will be slow and supportive of all, there will be an increase in stress among your staff.

The reason is simple: teachers don't want to disappoint. They know they have just received a Chromebook cart worth close to $20,000. They want to show their appreciation through results that truly aren't possible just yet. They need time to review, reflect, and implement. They need support. They need professional development. They need time.

And so I've tried to temper expectations and tried to share that this isn't a race we're trying to win. We were already winning. All we've done is provide something to enhance the amazing delivery of content and connection our teachers are already providing.

It's a very timely example of just too much, too soon... and how it leads to teacher stress. Perhaps unavoidable, but a worthy tale of how to best support one's staff during these implementation times.





Square Peg of a Student in the Round Hole of Middle School


 “If they can't learn the way we teach, we teach the way they learn” ― O. Ivar Lovaas

Over the past two years at Union Middle School, we introduced a flood of elective opportunities for our students. It was just a perfect storm of opportunities within the schedule to be creative and allow teacher and student input into what we wanted our students to participate in during the school day.

So we added:
MINECRAFT (of course)
DEBATE













MouseSquad (as a class!)

And lots of other electives like Project Lead The Way, Journalism, Keyboarding, Blogging, Jazz Band, Google Tech, and others. Students have repeatedly commented on how hard it is to choose their electives because of how many choices they now have. I think this is a good thing.

There has been one elective, however, that has even surprised me with the positive feedback from our students. It's called Design Thinking.

I've discussed Design Thinking in a previous blog post. On paper, it makes a lot of sense. In action, it's something else entirely*. Perhaps the best way to summarize how successful the class has been is with two conversations I've had, one with a UMS parent and one with a Design Thinking UMS teacher.

To the parent, I sent the below email. This is a student, new to us in 6th grade, who has had an amazing 7th grade year, much improved from the transitional time that 6th grade seemed to be. Design Thinking gave me a new insight into this student and helped build the principal-teacher-parent-student relationship.

Hello,

I hope you both have had a great start of the school year. I am writing you to let you know that I've been visiting (teacher's) classroom a bit this year, specifically during her Design Thinking elective. (Your student) is in this class.

I'm not sure what (your student) has shared about Design Thinking, but I think it confirms our conversation from last year: (Your student) has a gift. 

He is one of the most amazingly gifted, incredibly creative, and overly empathetic students i've had the pleasure of watching in this Design Thinking class. Simply put, he "gets it" and is incredibly supportive of his peers. In fact, one of his classmates happens to be a new student to UMS and someone who has moved around a lot in their educational career. (Your student), during class, showed some uncanny compassion toward this student that was so "higher level" that most likely only the teacher understood the context of it all.

You have an amazing son. We are very lucky to have him at Union Middle. 

All the best,

Todd

What I love about this elective is that it allows students who don't always fit the standard measure of what a middle school student is to be celebrated. Design Thinking allows for all students to share, emphasize, and build. At Union Middle School, we have two amazing teachers each teaching a section of Design Thinking. A recent conversation with one of these teachers** was quite interesting.

I entered their class and took an empty seat. As I observed the class, I started to realize that I recognized many of the students. A common joke when I meet a parent and I don't know their student by name is that I say it's a good thing as I sadly only get to meet the struggling or misbehaving students during my school day. This class, however, I recognized at least six of my frequent fliers from the previous year. These were students who struggled with fitting in, raising their hand, turning in their work... basically everything a middle school asks of a standardized student. 

After observing the class for a short while, I got up to leave. The classroom teacher had moved toward the exit at this moment to have a quick check-in. I felt horrible as I began the conversation that was filled with apologies; I'm sorry, I said, about the make-up of the students in the class. I don't know what happened, I empathized; I can look at moving one of the six students in your class to a different elective. I don't know how they all ended up in your class. It must be very challenging to teach.

The teacher looked at me. She paused. She then said, "Actually, Todd, those are my best students. They are the ones driving the discussion, showing empathy, and participating. Don't move any of them."

And that is a middle school Design Thinking class in a nutshell. 




*If any teachers or administrators would like to come visit, just ask. Something special is happening in our Design Thinking classes. Yes, we have challenging days and yes, we have tons of failures. These are good things. Email me at feinbergt@unionsd.org.

**Two essential parts of having a Design Thinking class: (1) get the right teacher(s) to teach it and (2) give them whatever they want to make the class successful.









A long road to travel, often alone but never by yourself...

If you asked any Union Middle School staff member what my three favorite things were, I suspect they would respond with the following answers: Costco, my iPhone, and my family.

They would answer Costco due to my weekly trips with my daughters...

They would answer my iPhone (recently upgraded to the 6+) because it's always in my hand and the object of my eyes...

And they would answer my family because they know how much I treasure them, specifically my wife, my dog, and my adorable twin daughters.

The story of how my wife and I "built" our family has been shared with our staff. It was a whirlwind of an experience. Even now, looking back at the 6 months, I'm not sure how we survived.

The timeline was as follows:

April - Meet with an Adoption Agency
May - Paperwork (and when I say paperwork, i mean more paperwork than I completed during my entire college career)
June - First glimpse of our future daughters in the form of four photographs
July - More Paperwork
Late August - Time to Fly to Russia
September - Another trip to Russia
October - Oh wait, two more trips to Russia.
November 4th - Home.

That's the short version. And as hard as it was, the hard work has been every day since.

See, while they mentioned that our daughters were prematurely born... and that their birth mother had little to no medical care... and that they each had minor developmental delays... nothing can prepare you for instant 16 month old twins.

The next three years were a whirlwind. We knew something was wrong with the older twin, Kenna. She struggled to use the right side of her body. Both of the girls have severe speech delays. Advocates. IEP meetings. Occupational Therapy. Physical Therapy. Speech. Special braces. Special shoes. Theratogs. Glasses. Ear infections. Tonsil operations.

They say that parents of special needs children have a higher rate of divorce. My wife and I, happily still married, completely understand why this statistic is true: it is hard.

It's not just hard at the playground where your children can't climb the stairs without support. It's not just hard at the shopping center when your four year old daughter throws herself to the ground in a two year old tantrum. It's not just hard when you see other kids in their pre school selected exclude them from participating in various activities.

It's hard when we're at home and your daughter with cerebral palsy loses her balance and bangs her head against the bookcase.

It's hard when you're awoken at 6 am by violent screams in their bedroom where you find one of your daughters unable to open their eyes and stiff as a board, followed by (amazing supportive) firemen, ambulance workers, and hospital staff who help everyone through future seizure protocols.

It's hard when you realize that perhaps college isn't in the cards and this road is going to be way more than what you bargained for.

There is a short story/poem by Emily Perl Kingsley that perfectly describes our journey. It was written in 1987 and remains quite relevant today.

"I am often asked to describe the experience of raising a child with a disability - to try to help people who have not shared that unique experience to understand it, to imagine how it would feel. It's like this......

When you're going to have a baby, it's like planning a fabulous vacation trip - to Italy. You buy a bunch of guide books and make your wonderful plans. The Coliseum. The Michelangelo David. The gondolas in Venice. You may learn some handy phrases in Italian. It's all very exciting.

After months of eager anticipation, the day finally arrives. You pack your bags and off you go. Several hours later, the plane lands. The stewardess comes in and says, "Welcome to Holland."

"Holland?!?" you say. "What do you mean Holland?? I signed up for Italy! I'm supposed to be in Italy. All my life I've dreamed of going to Italy."

But there's been a change in the flight plan. They've landed in Holland and there you must stay.

The important thing is that they haven't taken you to a horrible, disgusting, filthy place, full of pestilence, famine and disease. It's just a different place.

So you must go out and buy new guide books. And you must learn a whole new language. And you will meet a whole new group of people you would never have met.

It's just a different place. It's slower-paced than Italy, less flashy than Italy. But after you've been there for a while and you catch your breath, you look around.... and you begin to notice that Holland has windmills....and Holland has tulips. Holland even has Rembrandts.

But everyone you know is busy coming and going from Italy... and they're all bragging about what a wonderful time they had there. And for the rest of your life, you will say "Yes, that's where I was supposed to go. That's what I had planned."

And the pain of that will never, ever, ever, ever go away... because the loss of that dream is a very very significant loss.

But... if you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn't get to Italy, you may never be free to enjoy the very special, the very lovely things ... about Holland."


I've actually found "Holland" to be an amazing place. In fact, my wife and I wouldn't change a thing.

This journey we are on is something that is going to challenge us on a daily basis for the rest of our lives. We often talk about how lucky we are to have them. I've had nightmares imagining what their lives would have been like as a product of the Russian orphanage system. Thank goodness we have family, friends, and so many supports available to us to guide us and our children through these years.

As an educator, being a parent has been quite insightful into how I work with our students and parent community. The perspective now available is something I admittedly lacked previously. I'm quite proud of the work we do with our special education students and families. I'm a big believer in a phrase that I've said many times during our IEPs: "Whatever your student needs to be successful, short of horseback rides in Montana (an actual request at a former place of employment), I'm going to make sure we can give it to them."

Because that's what I would want for my daughters.

Our kids deserve it.

yes, from a weekly trip to Costco, taken with my iPhone





Wednesday, October 8, 2014

What Happens After The Principal Says "No"

"I'm sorry, but the answer is no."

"I really would like to make this change for you, but it's not going to be possible right now for a variety of reasons."

"I understand that you are unhappy with the decision that was made, but it is in the best interest of our students and the school as a whole."


One of the biggest challenges as a school principal is telling one of your staff members that the answer is no. It's something that principals really hate to say. I actually enjoying saying yes to our teachers' requests, whether it is to try a new elective, to venture to a conference, or to just switch up their teaching style. These moments are so incredibly important to our educators, especially after they've achieved "veteran" status on their school campus. It's a great way to take a different look at the classroom experience and to reinvigorate oneself.

Sometimes, however, there are reasons why the answer is no. Often, we can share these reasons with the staff member. Perhaps it would create a secondary effect that our school community would have to endure. It's possible that the timing of the request complicates matters just a bit too much. The request may not be in line with our district policies or the teacher-district contract. As much as I can share, I always do. I want to maintain the level of professionalism and respect that I have for each staff member as their site administrator. Plus, I want them to know that if I could truly say yes, I would... but for the reasons explained, it's just not possible right now. And I wish that the staff member would understand and our relationship would actually strengthen based on this conversation. Sadly, this is not always the case.

As a third year principal, it has been a trying year. A teacher resigned a few days prior to the start of the school year. Three math teachers already or soon to be out on leave to spend time with their newborn babies. We have had an influx of students at our school, closing in on 1000 middle school kids, up from 750 just a few years ago. This means more teachers sharing classrooms, more new staff members joining our team, and a strain on every resource possible from previous years. Add in a gradual shift to the common core curriculum in our classrooms and you have quite a busy year.

It has also been a difficult year because I've had to say no to a few teachers and their varied requests. Even more challenging is that I'm a huge fan of these staff members. They are some of my "above and beyond" educators. I regularly spotlight their work to our parents and staff. I love visiting their classrooms and watching the amazing learning taking place by our students. I've attended conferences with them and do my best to always reply with a yes. Unfortunately, for each of these staff members, I'd had to recently tell them no. And sadly, I think that our relationships have suffered because of it.

Before I informed them of my decision, I worked tirelessly behind the scene thinking of every possible way that I could say yes to them. That's something I'm not sure teachers know about their principals: we work relentlessly to turn an inevitable no into a yes -- when we actually have to say no, it's not without us putting forth much effort and contemplation to come to a different and more positive conclusion.

When I met with the staff members, I could see their disappointment. Inside, I felt ten times worse. I wanted to rewind time and spend another week trying to figure out how to make their request happen. This was despite knowing that I tried every possible avenue to find a way to say yes before this fateful conversation. I explained to each of the staff members the reasons behind the decision. Truthfully, I shared more than perhaps I should have. I want our staff members to be as happy as possible to be at Union Middle. Looking ahead, I led these staff members on a journey how the current outlook could always change for the next semester or next school year and that they shouldn't give up hope. I also stressed how beneficial it was for us to have this conversation in anticipation of future changes. But in the end, the answer was still no.

So now, months into the school year, I'm working on trying to rebuild the hurt I see in these staff members' eyes based on the hard decision that was previously made. Even if they maintain that we are "ok" and everything is good, there is a lingering sense of disappointment in our relationship that feels very prominent to me. I check in regularly, profusely express how blessed I feel to have them as part of our staff (which is very true, for the record), and hope that we are making small steps in getting back to how things were.

It's just really hard to say no.

And it's ten times harder to work through the aftermath after the no.

But I think we're getting there.


Monday, June 16, 2014

Graduation Speech - 2014 - Union Middle School

Below is my graduation speech for the Union Middle School class of 2014. To say it was a challenge to write would be an understatement. The speech itself went through multiple renditions and reviews over the span of no less than three weeks. I really liked last year's speech, so I wanted to do something a bit different for the class of 2014. In looking back, this was an amazing group of students, perhaps the most accepting, tolerable, inclusive group we've had yet. It will be hard to replace them.


--


Good evening everyone once more to our 8th grade promotion ceremony. My name is Todd Feinberg, and I have been privileged to have been your assistant principal during your students' 6th grade days and now, for the past two years, honored to serve as your principal of Union Middle School.

To be perfectly honest, I have struggled a good bit over the past month in writing tonight's speech. I seemed to have a bit of trouble finding the words to accurately share just how I feel about the class of 2014. It was just a few days ago when I remembered that I had previously prepared a speech... a speech that would perfectly communicate everything I wanted to share here tonight. Thank you for your indulgence and allowing me to read that speech, one I wrote 14 years ago as I was beginning my own journey in the field of education. It begins...

--

Good evening students,

My name is Todd Feinberg and, if all goes according to plan, I’ll be delivering this speech at your 8th grade promotion at Union Middle School in just a short 14 years. I realize that many of you have either just been born or are within that nine month waiting period that you learned about last year in 7th grade science – it’s hard to believe that in what will be a blink of an eye for your parents, teachers, and family members, you’ll be gathered here in the year 2014, ready to graduate on to high school.

But first, I would like to share some predictions of what your life will be like in the year 2014 as I sit here at my Macintosh Computer on AOL Dial-Up.

I’m pleased to share that technology has just recently made a comeback after the Y2K fiasco, an event that shut down personal computing for an entire decade. Now, we all have the ability to download music on our desktop computers through Napster, can walk down the street with amazing cell reception on our RAZR Flip Phones, and can even post oh-so-important, life changing pictures on a magical sharing platform called MySpace. It will truly be an amazing time in the year 2014.

The year 2000 was not without its failures.  A novel by J.L. Rowlings about an eleven year old orphan who discovered he’s a wizard, living within the ordinary world of non-magical people known as Muggles never seemed to catch on. A new show called The Bachelor only had a 95% success rate in finding true love and was abruptly cancelled. I even have some financial advice from the year 2000: do. not. buy. stock. in. Apple. At 12 dollars a share, it is grossly overpriced. I just can’t see how this company will ever rebound. I encourage the graduating class to consult their Encyclopedia Britannica’s for additional information.

While there have been so many drastic changes over the course of your lives, let me share three things that have not altered and should remain at your core:

1) Family

Your family will forever be your link in your life. They will carry you during your worst moments, even though it may feel otherwise at the time. Your family will be your cheerleaders as you find your path in life. Don’t bypass any avenue to tell them you love them, to tell them that you care, or that you’re thankful for their continued support. Often, we miss these moments. Next time you’re dashing to class after being dropped off in the morning by your parents, take an extra pause and give them a hug. There will be a time you’ll look back at these seemingly innocuous interactions and wish you had. You will. They are here on this lovely non-windy June evening to admire your journey and dazzle in your growth. They are beaming with pride, even if they too don’t always find the words to share how they feel.

2) Education

I think that we often lose ourselves within our daily luxuries, many of which we take for granted. Meanwhile, halfway across the world, 300 teenage girls were abducted from their schools; their crime was seeking an education.

Incidents such as these provide a very real world reminder how overly blessed we are to have the support of our parents and our teachers, to be able to attend Union Middle School, and blossom into the amazing young adults we see you becoming. Please do not lose sight of this opportunity, of this gift. As Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

And as you promote to high school, you will have new temptations, increased distractions, and additional responsibilities. It may become challenging to balance your studies and social activities. Seek help from your teachers and other trusted adults for support. Don’t forget to challenge yourself during your high school years and beyond. Take classes that interest you and will help you grow as a learner. Also, there is no substitution for hard work, there are no short cuts that get you to where you truly want to be – you'll just be lead astray.

Perhaps most important is the reminder to stay balanced in life.  Always schedule “down time” into your days.  Just like you schedule in time to study, make sure you schedule in enough time to sleep so you can explore and dream. 

3) Human Connection

Brene Brown will one day write: “I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.

In the year 2014, this will all prove very challenging.

Chances are you’ll be an overbooked 14 year old with hours of homework, soccer matches in the afternoon followed by piano practice in the evening. Your free time will be spent watching aimless YouTube videos. Many of you will lose out on your sleep for pointless, juvenile snapchats and drama-inducing evenings on ask.fm. Friday night sleepovers with your best friends instead turn into a limited Facetime sessions for a few regretful minutes as you can’t get your schedules to intersect.

My advice is as follows:

Unplug. Go outside. Play. 

And here’s why: You’re only going to be a kid for so long. Once these days are gone, they are gone forever, never to return.

Your questionable obsessions with all things social media will one day turn your cheeks red and prompt regret in how you spent your adolescent moments. Instead, I implore you to seek out opportunities of true friendship and be open to differences; remember that every new person you meet is a potential life-long friend.

After all, when things get hard -- and mark my words, for each and every one of our promoting 8th graders, you will face these challenging times -- it will be your relationships with your friends, family, teachers, counselors, former middle school principals… – your human connections – who will pick you up and walk alongside you during these difficult, dark days. Take a moment now and begin to build these relationships.

--

Your family… Your education… Your opportunities for Human Connection… These are the three things that will be ever-present in 2014 as they are here in the year 2000.

2014 graduates. Thank you for being a part of my life over the past three years. To truly sum up how I feel, I'd like to share a quote from the amazing Maya Angelou: "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." Class of 2014, you have made me feel very, very proud. I expect great things for you all – go forth and ignite your discoveries.



Thank you and Congratulations.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

A Former Student's Essay

Last weekend, a young gentleman approached me at Philz Coffee and asked if I had taught Living Skills one summer at Palo Alto High School. I answered affirmatively, stuck out my hand, and said "Hello Rahul, how are you doing?" The student paused for a moment and then quickly shook my hand. What transpired next was the usual game of catch up after not having seen a student for a decade: we reminisced about the summer, shared silly stories of what we enjoyed from the class, each provided an update on where we are now in our lives, and a mentioning of a peer from the class who they still keep in contact with. They usually add "and I don't think I would be friends with them if not for your Living Skills classroom".

The class itself was an semester elective made mandatory for graduation that many students struggled with fitting into their schedule during the school year. After all, when you're taking Journalism, playing a sport, and enrolled in five APs, it's a challenge to somehow fit the lone semester Living Skills class into your day. Thus, students flocked to enroll in a five to six week course where they'd learn about drugs, diseases, sex, and life. 

To this day, I can name at least half of the students from each class. Just as each class had a different personality, there were a few students who shined through. Raul above was definitely one of these students. Another was Anna.

Anna was destined for greatness. She was a rising Junior at the time, halfway done with high school. From memory, I can share that she ended up with the highest grade in the class. Everything she turned in was of extremely high quality. She seemed to "get" the big picture of school - how to do well without losing yourself in the process. As the classroom teacher, I often felt dwarfed by her empathy and compassion towards others. She was everyone's friend.

The final assignment for the students was an evaluation of the summer school experience, specific to our classroom. I promised the students that I would read every word they wrote and as long as it was a page, they'd get a perfect score on the assignment. I encouraged their brutal honesty and to allow the essay to flow in whatever direction it took them. Anna, forever the amazing student, wrote the following response, unedited below:

Evaluation of Living Skills

I generally really enjoyed this class. At first I was a little skeptical about how much fun we would have because I had heard form my friends who had taken it during the year, that it was extremely boring and nobody paid attention. However, I was pleasantly surprised. I thought this was a very useful class. I learned a lot more than I ever thought I would. This is the kind of class that I think I will remember. I won't remember algebra or chemistry, but I will remember the things we did in this class. The best part, in my opinion, were all the discussions we had. I really felt comfortable sharing my opinions. Usually, I am shy in class because I don't feel completely comfortable sharing my opinions. That was not the case in this class. I was really happy about that. I liked that everyone shared their opinions because I learned a lot about all different kinds of people. I also learned how lucky I am. I mean I guess I already knew that, but when I was listening to the stories of some of the people in our class, I was like "wow." My parents are so good compared to other people's parents. It made me really appreciate everything. Another thing I liked about this class was that it was so laid-backed. I liked that you didn't pressure anyone and didn't make us stress about anything. That was really nice. I also liked the activities we did like the survivor one and the friend or foe one. I liked the way you taught those valuable lessons. Experience is a better teacher than a lecture. I also liked all the movies we watched and the kickball games. I would actually look forward to class because I found it fun. I've never found a class that fun before.

There were a few things I did not like. I did not like the fact that people were allowed to take points from other people. I thought that was unfair and mean. People worked hard for their grade and I don't see any reason for other people to steal that away. There is no point in it whatsoever. I just thought that was really unfair. That's why I didn't do it. I also did not like the consequences from the kickball game. I don't think it was that unfair, except for the extra credit one, I just don't like writing essays. It kind of takes away the fun in the game.

Let's see, what would I do differently? I would not change much. As I said before I really did like the class. I had a lot of fun and it went by really fast. I guess what I would change is the point thing.I don't think you should do that next year because it's mean. People are being penalized for something that was not their fault or that they didn't deserve. Another thing I would change is the essay after the kickball game. I think it takes away from the game and it doesn't really teach anything. Actually, if you think about it, the one thing it does teach is that if you lose you get a consequence, once again proving that winning is everything. That's not a lesson we want to be taught, now is it? Ok, that's really all I can come up with. I seriously liked this class. I liked the grades. I liked how you graded the articles based on quality, I liked how you stressed participation because that's very important, and I liked that you did not really make people feel bad about their work or anything. I liked that you don't give F's either. I liked our activities and movies and liked all the talking. Yeah, so I think this was a very interesting class. I learned a lot about life.

I saved a handful of my students' evaluations. For reasons you can read above, Anna was one of the selected few. 

While this post was triggered by the chance encounter with a former Living Skills student at the local coffee shop, it's his words I often return to: "and I don't think I would be friends with them if not for your Living Skills classroom". 

As an educator, we are blessed to meet so many amazing, young lives destined for greatness. I find it to be the most rewarding and yet heartbreaking part of the profession. While we rise with their joys and triumphs, it's the struggles that give us pause and make us question why. 

Anna was involved in a car accident coming home from college during the summer of 2007. She did not survive. She was 20. I've often meant to share Anna's essay with her parents. Today, somewhat out of the blue, I finally emailed her father. 

Enjoy your moments with your students. Don't hesitate to give their parents a call with good news. Take care of them, just as you would your own child. 

Monday, March 24, 2014

Recognizing the Quiet Gifts of the Other Half

Earlier this year, our Intro to Leadership teachers put together a very well attended Recognition Breakfast for our staff and students. Each staff member could invite one student who they felt was deserving of the honor. I left the criteria somewhat vague, although I did push for the students who may not always be selected and recognized by their peers and school for their positive efforts. We called it the Pawsitive Breakfast; after all, we are the Union Tigers.

This past weekend, I received a very timely and warm email from a parent where I was reminded of why we make these extra efforts to give every student a chance to be recognized. Despite amazing efforts by our staff in and out of the classrooms to support all students, there are always more opportunities to recognize those students who often fly slightly under the radar at our schools. 

Here is the email:

Last night at the dinner table (our student) enthusiastically shared with us what he is learning in Journalism. It seems he's quite passionate about Photo Shop. The fact is, it's the first time we have heard him excited about anything school related! 

You see, (our student) loves beauty and he loves design. He's probably the only (middle school) boy I know who snaps pictures of everything he sees as breathtaking. Clouds, trees, anything outdoors. 

He's also gifted verbally and has quite a knack for arguing. He's extremely empathetic towards people and animals. He has trouble sleeping if we passed a homeless person without giving him food from our car supply of goods. He's a negotiator - not just for personal gain - but loves to help resolve conflicts between people. His infectious enthusiasm and leadership is a delight to many. Enduring, overcoming and continuing to battle the anxiety he has endured has taken more resolve than most adults would be able to handle. 

Sadly there's no award for those things at school. Instead he continues to compare himself to his sister and friends who happen have strengths in math, science and language arts, the subjects regarded as markers of intelligence and a prosperous future in our school system.  

This article really struck a chord with me. This is more of an observation than an actual request for anything. 

Please note as well that in my gut I believe that you are doing everything, within your restricted system, to discover and celebrate the various gifts of all of your students. I'm like (my student), or maybe (my student) is like me, always rooting for the underdog, gravitating towards the students who are quiet, awkward, not so popular in this culture. Recently he's stood up twice for kids who were made fun of - a boy with a back brace and a lonely boy who sits by the gym everyday. 

As a parent, this carries more weight to me than the good grade. I'm confident (my student) will find his way and we will encourage and support him on his journey that will probably not be "traditional". If I could wave a magic wand, I just wish the school, in general, was a place where all teachers and staff celebrated and recognized the quiet gifts of the other half. 

Thank you for recognizing and taking action when you let (our student) pick an elective. You have always been his advocate and gone above and beyond for him. You are great at what you do. 

Have a great weekend.

What this parent did not know is that I tested out Google Forms with my staff last Wednesday. One of the questions on the Google Form was "what student has impressed you the most this year?" As I scrolled through all of the responses, I was impressed that the above parent's son was mentioned by a staff member as having impressed them the most throughout the year. Truthfully, he is a worthy candidate. We do have staff members who recognize these students; the goal is to make sure our students hear our voices of support and approval.

All of our students have strengths. They are all "gifted & talented" whether it be socially, athletically, academically, emotionally, or otherwise. Sometimes, the focus in middle school is solely on academics; other times, especially in our high schools, our athletes receive a disproportionate amount of attention and recognition. The strong push to being academically college ready ignores the skills our students will need when they're at college, living alone, and interacting with other 18-22 year-old student of varied backgrounds. 

Thus, my goal: let's find ways to realize the awesomeness in all of our students. Yes, the education setting can be a "restrictive system" at times, but this doesn't mean we can't create opportunities to celebrate and recognize the varied gifts of all our students. Build a master schedule that includes electives like Journalism where all students can be successful. Don't wait for the next Pawsitive Assembly to celebrate the gifts of your students, whether it be singing, sharing, or even Photoshop. I guarantee that you will be impressed.


Saturday, March 22, 2014

New Teachers and Talking Technology

The past few days on Twitter have been extremely challenging for me. The majority of my Professional Learning Network (PLN) departed for the Palm Springs Annual Cue Conference on Wednesday. They then spent the next 72 hours listening to amazing keynote speakers, being inspired by various session presenters, and having hundreds of informal educational conversations on how to augment the learning of today's students. Many of their discoveries were then shared via Twitter, providing those who could not attend with a glimpse of the past weekend and just enough jealousy to last until the Fall Cue Conference.

While there were more than a few reasons why I couldn't fit the weekend trip to Palm Springs into my schedule, the main reason was my desire to attend today's Teacher Recruitment Fair (TRF) at the Santa Clara County Office. I've attended for the past three years along with various other administrators in my district. At the TRF, you have a chance to meet eager individuals who could one day join your staff. In fact, I've met more than a few now-hired Union Middle teachers at this event; it's a great place to start the conversation, sometimes rather informally, with prospective employees.

At the TRF, I've found that there are usually four types of teacher participants. First, you have your "I'm finishing my student teaching this semester" individuals. They are often, but not always, just a few years removed from college and quite eager to start in their own classroom. Second, you have your "I just moved to the area from Texas/Colorado/Florida" group. These individuals usually have spouses who have relocated to the Bay Area and are experienced, talented educators. Third, you have your "I've had my teaching credential but just haven't landed in the right spot" contingent. These educators often have unique stories and are just looking for that one chance to prove they're the right fit for your school. Last, you have the "currently employed but just looking..." subset. Often, these individuals won't attend a TRF but may choose to with the intent on speaking with one or two key districts on the possibility of jumping to a new school.

Collectively, it was one of the most impressive groups of educators I've had the pleasure of speaking with. Many of the conversations centered around how other schools are implementing (or fighting not to implement) Common Core and the difficulties therein. As I stood listening to the various stories, I quickly scanned numerous amazing letters of references about the capabilities and talents of the applicants. There was only one thing that was missing from the majority of the conversations and applications today: examples of blended classrooms and how these applicants integrate technology into their daily practice.

Perhaps it's the specifics of the various groups; after all, many of them have only student-taught in the past. Perhaps it's their lack of opportunities to attend CUE-like conferences. Out of the 30-40 candidates I spoke with today, only two applications mentioned anything Google, one of whom just mentioned they enjoy using Google Forms as a hobby. The other application was stacked with examples of instructional technology, conferences attended, and presentations held. Perhaps not surprisingly, this candidate was at the top of my list for any future openings at our school.

So why aren't more teacher applicants highlighting their experiences and talents with technology in the classroom? An educator who can speak confidently about incorporating technology, whether it's 1:1 ChromeBooks, the participation recording of Class Dojo, or student-created Weebly websites, is an educator who administrators will want on their staff. Almost every teacher I spoke with today was very confident about teaching within their subject area. Assuming they all are, what separates one applicant from the next? It's how you deliver the content and how you encourage your students to explore in the classroom. Technology (and the professional development therein) is the key.

My advice for all current and future teacher applicants: Attend the Google PlayDates. Look into local (and perhaps not too local) EdCamps. Sign up for GAFE. Show up at  BrewCue and talk shop. Get a Twitter account and expand your PLN... And perhaps most importantly, don't get left behind when CUE 2015 rolls around. You can follow it on your new Twitter account, but trust me... It won't be the same.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Unexpected Call

It had been a most challenging day at Stanford's Children Hospital. After weeks of planning and doctor appointments, my twin daughters were finally scheduled for their ENT (ear, nose, throat) surgeries. Both were receiving "tubes in their ears" and a removal of their adenoids and tonsils. These surgeries required our daughters to be "put under" for the duration. As a relatively new parent, I was very concerned about the process and the flood of instructions provided by the nurses and performing surgeon throughout the day. We tried our best to take notes as we comforted our daughters in recovery. In the end, we walked away from the day with successful surgeries, enough medication to stop an elephant in their tracks, and two extremely moody girls who would keep us up every night for the next six days.

When we finally arrived home that late afternoon after a full morning at the hospital, we realized how little of the information we had been provided we remembered. Our notes were a complete mess with bits of slobber scattered throughout (the kids', not ours). During bath time, one of the daughters put their head underwater. We were immediately concerned; didn't the doctor say that they couldn't be submerged for the next week in water? Does it count if it's just for a second? Do we need to redo the surgery? We were your typical first-time parents struggling with what to do, lacking any instructional manual on raising kids.

And then the phone rang. It was 7 pm and we were working toward putting the girls to bed. I answered the "blocked number" call and was surprised to hear the doctor's voice. She was calling to follow up on our daughters. How were they doing? How were WE doing? She patiently listened to all of my questions and responded to each one. I then handed the phone to my wife, who then proceeded to ask the same questions over again. And yes, the doctor calmly reiterated the instructions, that everything was okay, to call her office if there were any problems, and how impressed she was with our daughters' resilience throughout the day. After the call ended, my wife and I looked at each other and said simultaneously "I don't believe (the doctor) called - that is amazing!" It was a sense of relief; a sense of thanks.

At our school, we have a full time electives teacher who spends her day exploring the Spanish language and culture with her students. Our students flock to our Spanish elective, partly for the opportunity to learn a world language but also to share in the Room 37 experience. Part of her success lies directly in the culture of her classroom. Her students have fun in her classroom as they begin to learn the Spanish language. One of her strengths is caring about every student who walks through her classroom door (and truly I believe she cares about every student on the entire campus). While she has many techniques to help build her classroom community, I'm quite fond of her first few days of phone calls home.

As she gets to know her students each quarter, semester, or school year, she surprises her students' parents with a phone call home. Similar to the phone call I received from the doctor, it's a good phone call. I've listened in on a few of these calls. I'm always amazed at the parent responses. I've heard:

  • Are you sure you're calling about my son/daughter?
  • And it's good news? You're not calling with bad news?
  • I almost didn't answer the phone because I saw the school's phone extension and assumed it was bad news 
and perhaps most powerful after receiving a parent call from a voice mail left by the teacher...
  • Thank you for calling me back. I just want to let you know that I've listened to your voice mail at least a hundred times. My son is now in 8th grade and I've never received good news from any phone call home. Thank you so much. Just thank you. 
The parent was in the midst of tears throughout the follow up phone call. As a former assistant principal, the majority of my phone calls home to parents were usually around behavioral concerns. Every Friday, I did call home with the weekly Kudos, but I think it's a bit unfortunate that it's the nature of the administrative position of being an assistant principal where you will be the bearer of bad news. Lost in our daily routines is the power of the positive phone call.


The positive phone call works to build the relationship between the two places our students spent the majority of their days: their home and their school. Having an early contact with parents will help the relationship survive through any "logical consequences" conversations that follow. It's a great way to start off the semester on the right foot. Imagine the face of the student when they arrive home that day and get showered with teacher-provided praise by their parents. Do you think the student is more or less likely to participate, to enjoy, or to learn in the classroom the next day? These phone calls home have helped to create a true culture of caring in room 37.

So sometimes... consider picking up the phone and making those positive, unexpected calls. They're worth the investment. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Loss of the Family Pet

If you are looking for the usual quasi-educational blog, this will be something a little different. Perhaps as a means of self-therapy, I've decided to write about our family pet and her recent passing.

The story begins on a random day during the summer of 1998. My father had in the weeks previous begun to bring up the idea of adding a dog to our family. I was enrolled in law school; my younger sisters were hundreds if not thousands of miles away. Knowing that the responsibility of the family pet would eventually fall onto her, my mother sternly reminded my father that under no circumstances was he to bring a dog home. Fast forward a few days, my mother and sisters left for a day of shopping at the Gilroy Outlets. Prior to her departure, my mother once again reminded my father "You are not to get a dog." What happened next is up for much debate.

From what I've been able to piece together over the years, my father went into his office for the day to catch up on a few medical reports. Somehow, he was detoured to the local animal shelter, ending up in the row of dogs that had been abandoned by their previous owners. According to my father, many of the dogs were barking, snarling, or otherwise overly excited. As he progressed past the cages, he came upon one dog who was sitting quietly in the corner. My father reached out his hand as to signal to the animal. The dog slowly approached and rested her head in his hands. It was all over at that point; we had added a family pet.

My dad later returned home and, I suspect, dreaded my mother's return. My sisters and mother returned soon thereafter and the bedlam began. My sisters and I were racing around the house, in and out of the yard, so incredibly excited to the new family addition. My mother stood silently, glaring at my father. She repeated over and over again, "I gave you one instruction: do not get a dog... and what did you end up doing? The one thing I said not to!" My dad just looked at my sisters and I, saw the smiles on our faces, and surely thought to himself that it was definitely worth it. Looking back, he was right.

We named her Casey.

Casey was an absolutely delightful addition to our family. While we joked about Casey's lack of intelligence at times, I was always impressed by the little moments where she shined. On our walks, she knew the exact route and would often drag me back to the house. Every evening, she knew when it was time to go to the park, often waiting by the back door or finding my father to slightly nudge him with a reminder. At the dog park, we became friends with other pet owners, a subculture in its own right. These were good times.

One thing Casey did not enjoy was being left alone at home for the day. Often, after the family left to dinner or event, we would return to find a single slipper, usually belonging to my mother, in the front entry way. Somehow, when we were gone, Casey found her way into my parents' closet and would retrieve the slipper. She would then carry it down to the front door, leaving us to find it upon our return. Whether this was an attempt from Casey to ingratiate herself into my mother's good graces or perhaps an act of defiance due to being left alone, we never could tell.

As the years progressed, my sisters returned to our home town and took physical custody of Casey. After one of the twins gave birth, Casey moved next door (my younger twin sisters live next door to each other and across the street from our parents) and resided for the last few years of her life with the other twin. Here, Casey began to need an increased level of care. She had to be carried up and down the stairs. She needed a special harness to be led on short walks. She needed special food, updated medical care, and slowly began to lose her hearing and eyesight.

Despite these medical and health concerns, Casey repeatedly received glowing reports from her veterinarian. "She's just getting old," they would say. Thus, with a seemingly clean bill of health, Casey continued to be a part of our lives. She was at every holiday and attended every family dinner. She even moonlighted as a cover model for one of my sister's wedding invitations.

And despite any health concerns, Casey continued to make daily appearances at our father's medical office, spending all day asleep along side my two younger sisters (both of whom work at our father's offices). It was rare for Casey to miss a day, often one of the first to arrive and the last to leave. Patients would often ask to see Casey and would refer to our father as the "dog doctor" even though physical medicine, specifically for humans, was his forte.

Recently, late one Friday night, I received "the call" from my sister. Tomorrow was going to be Casey's last day with us. Her health had taken a serious turn for the worse. She stopped eating. She couldn't move. The veterinarian said it was time. We scheduled family time the following day in the morning with Casey. Videos and pictures were taken with all of our blissfully-unaware-of-the-situation children and Casey. Soon it was time to go. Quick goodbye. Lots of tears.

My sisters later took Casey to the veterinarian to send her on her way. I can't imagine what they or any pet owner goes through in these moments. We still struggle to talk about our loss. Even in typing this blog, my throat swells and words struggle to be typed.

In a delicate administrator-parent conversation in what feels like took place eons ago and in relation to a discipline incident at school, it was shared with me that what their student was going through was the worst thing their family had ever had to endure. Reflecting on the past week of my life, I wonder if they've ever lost a pet... because to me, nothing compares to what we're feeling individually and as a family right now.

I miss you, Casey. We all do.





Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Transitioning Back to School

Just prior to returning to school after the holiday break, I sent the usual "Welcome Back from the Principal" email to our staff. I shared a few stories from my own vacation, highlighted a few upcoming conferences that various staff members would be attending, and included a few jokes of expected student comments now that we're nearing the end of the first semester. Nestled at the end of the email, I included a quick reminder of how challenging our lengthy away-from-school breaks can be for some of our more fragile students. 

As a former opportunity teacher, I was challenged daily with balancing the emotional needs of my students as I supported them academically through their studies. We spent significant efforts on providing structure, care, and guidance for our students during their school days. Very often, after a three day week, my students would return a bit emotionally fractured from spending an extra day at home. A week off during Spring break could throw some of our more adjusted students into a complete tailspin. Worse, the two week absence over the Winter break would often prompt a complete rebuilding of our students' emotional safety and willingness to participate in our class. 

Having experienced these challenges as a classroom teacher, I always try to remind our staff about leading with their heart during these first few days back. We don't know how their Winter break truly was and how it will affect them during their return to school. I've seen a challenging two week layoff from school manifest itself in three distinct ways among our more fragile students.

Student 1: Humpty Dumpty

A few of our emotionally at-risk students returned from the holiday break barely able to make it through the school day. Our school counselor and mental health therapist have seen many of these students and have begun to put these students back together again. Many of these students have an unstable home situation and struggle with the lack of structure during this time. As they return to school, they immediately act out and hopefully seek out support from their peers and trusted adults. This rehabilitation process can take days, sometimes weeks, to get the student back into a space where they're able to focus on their academic growth. These students need the support of their entire village to return to their previous standing as an engaged learner at your school.

Student 2: Everything's Fine

We also see a few students return with the repeated mantra of "everything's fine" when asked about their holiday break and how they're feeling being back at school. Truthfully, it couldn't be further from the truth. Everything isn't fine. They're either slowly building up their walls of distrust and refusal to discuss what truly happened during their time away from school. Again, our school counselor and mental health therapist spend many of their days with these students, connecting and chipping away at these very real emotional concerns. 

Student 3: Back to the Routine

And for most of our students, the time away from school was truly okay. While they may not have had the holiday vacation they expected or wanted to have, they're excited to return to their daily school routines, to spend time with their peers, and catch up with their adult mentors. These students actually look forward to the end of their break so as to return to the structure school provides. Perhaps they miss spending time in the game room, playing wall ball at lunch, or just generally miss the support of their peers, these students have built sufficient inner emotional strength to look forward to the routine of school and not let the changes of their days negatively affect them. Fortunately, after a few years spent at our school, many of our at-risk students return from their school breaks in this specific category.

As a site administrator, my role to to support both our students and staff with the transition back to school. Similar to the students, staff members sometimes struggle with the return to school after the holiday break. One staff member mentioned just how difficult it was to leave their young child after spending every waking moment with them for the past two weeks. I try to keep a relatively clear calendar on the days following a lengthy break, so as to have the necessary time to meet with students and reconnect with staff. These are the days an administrator needs to be especially present for your staff and students. 

If you're a classroom teacher, in what ways can you best support your at-risk students during their return from lengthy breaks?

If you're a site administrator, how can you best support your students and staff during these first few days back from break?




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A long road to travel, often alone but never by yourself...

If you asked any Union Middle School staff member what my three favorite things were, I suspect they would respond with the following answer...