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


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)

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.


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,


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

**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.

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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...