Friday, November 18, 2016

What I Wish...

In my previous blog entry, I shared some specifics of an email correspondence between myself and a staff member. We had discussed what important things needed to be fixed at Union Middle School. I shared with them a list but I didn't feel complete in my response.

To be blunt, the "fixit list" didn't feel like an all-inclusive vision of what I wanted to truly share and what I hoped to build as the principal of Union Middle School.

And as I ended my email to this staff member, I quickly sent a second follow up communication. It wasn't about fixing everything... instead it had a list of things that I, as a the site principal, wished our students, our parents, our staff, and our school community knew.

It was about what I wished for.

I shared that...

I wished everyone knew how much work our front office staff and administrative team put into helping make the school day at Union Middle run as smoothly as possible.

I wished everyone knew how much I appreciated the hard efforts of our staff and the work they do on a daily basis with our kids.

I wished our students knew how all of the adults at Union Middle are on their side and working to best support them during their middle school years.

I wished our teaching staff knew how much I value their positive interactions with our students.

I wished our teaching staff knew how relentlessly I support, highlight, and brag to our parents, our district office, and our school community about the work I see that they put into their lesson design and classroom experience, all with the focus on their students.

I wished that our students would trust the adults on our campus a bit more, that they would trust that we are here to help them, to listen, and to best support them grow into the amazing young adults they're destined to be.

I wished that our parents knew how much we treasured having their students during the school day, how much joy they brought us, and how much we recognized even the smallest bits of their academic and social progress.

I wished that everyone knew how much I enjoyed coming to work each and every day. (Disclaimer: I have four kids.)

I wished that our staff could see our administrative team as an ally, no matter the situation.

And I wished that our parent community, our students, our staff, and our school community knew that just because I disagreed with something they believed in and spoke up for, it didn't mean that my decision to go in a different direction was personal. It never is. It just means that I, as principal, have a different vision on how to best support our students and school community.

At the end of the day, I'm the principal and I have to make some really hard decisions. It may anger a few community members, but I make every decision with the "what's best for our kids? what's best for our school community" in mind.

I wish everyone understood that we put kids first, no matter what.

I wish everyone trusted in the work we're doing.

And I wish the best for everyone over the upcoming holiday breaks and sprints of school days in-between.

If you're a student, be nice to your parents and don't forget to thank your teachers.

If you're a parent, be certain to give a bit of grace to your student and consider sending a nice message to a staff member who has helped make the middle school journey a bit less hectic.

If you're an educator, don't forget to give your students a second chance and to lead with trust and best intentions in your interactions with your peers and parent community.

If you're an administrator, don't forget to realize how blessed you are to work with your silly students, talented teachers, and supportive parents -- you can't fix everything but you can recognize how wonderful so many things truly are.

That's all I wish.

Fixing Everything is Impossible

It's the Friday night on the cusp of 9 days of Thanksgiving vacation.

As my wife and I start a new show on Netflix (she nixed Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage -- we compromised on the Blacklist), I begin to fiddle through my daily emails that I haven't had a chance yet to answer.

As a site principal, I am constantly communicating with various teachers via email, Google chat, and text threads throughout the day. I think my staff knows that they can contact me and receive a high level of responsiveness, no matter the time of day or holiday break. It's something I actually enjoy: checking in with our teaching staff and seeing what I can do to help. Their insight has actually provided some of the more reflective moments of my educational practice.

Tonight, in one of my dialogues with a staff member, my blog was brought up in the conversation. We were kidding around, discussing various topics for future blog entries. They had just emailed some kind words my way and I responded with: "thanks for the nice words. I just wish I could fix everything."

In their response, they suggested the following shift of perspective in my journey as a middle school principal: "Fixing everything is impossible, my journey to find balance in middle school."

Wow. I was floored.

With just a few words, I had my inspiration for tonight's blog topic: Fixing everything is impossible.

And just for the record, this teacher, as usual, is absolutely correct.

We administrators cannot fix everything.

As I shared with this staff member, I actually don't want to fix everything. After all, I can't change how unhappy some students, teachers, or parents are with the hard work we all put into making Union Middle the amazing place it has become. That's not on my to-do list. Some people are just unhappy people.  

However, even if i can't fix everything, I do want to fix the important things. Specifically, I want our students to have the best school experience possible. I want for our students what I want for my own children: to have a safe, learning environment with the constant, relentless support of a teaching staff who work tirelessly to best support our kids each and every day.

I shared these thoughts with this staff member.

A bit brief, they responded: what are the important things you think need fixing?

Wow. Another good question.

Here's the thing about Union Middle School: we have fantastic kids who are in classrooms with top notch educators and supported by an amazing parent community. It is an amazing place to spend our days. Easily the best place I've ever worked.

So what are the important things that I, as the site principal, think need fixing?

In typical Friday night fashion, I responded with a rather lengthy reply.

Here are some of my main points from the email correspondence:

-I would like to fix how members of our school community interact with one another.

-I expect our adults to always lead with kindness and understanding in all scenarios, even if it is difficult.

-I hope to inspire our staff members to give our students extra opportunities to demonstrate their learning.

-I'd like to expect our students to be a bit more inclusive (even though I am constantly impressed with how kind and considerate they are -- there is always room for improvement here).

-I'd like to have clear agreements on how we, as a school staff, agree to work together with our administrative team to support kids, each other, parents, and the school community in general. I don't mind if students, teachers, parents, or whomever are upset with a decision we administrators have made. I don't expect that everyone agrees with the millions of decisions we administrators have to make each and every day. However, some acknowledgement that our administrative team is extremely (and intentionally) fair and thoughtful when it comes to supporting our students, staff, and communities would be appreciated at times. I'm ok if you want to disagree with the decision; just don't disagree with the love and thoughtful care we put into making it.

When we do make a decision, the focal point is quite simple: It's all about what's best for kids.


Without question.

Some may disagree with the decision we've made on a random topic but when you're putting kids first, I don't hesitate to defend my position. We administrators may make mistakes, but we always put kids and our school first. Every single day.

We work hard to build a school where students are encouraged to develop their learning, teachers want to come to work, and where parents are proud to send their kids.

So no... I can't fix everything... but I think it is my job as a site principal (and the job of every member of our school community) to help fix the most important things: how can we do our best for the kids.

In working together to best support our students and each other, I believe that we can find a certain level of balance in middle school.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

They Don't Usually Get Invited

"We understand. Our son never does."

These six little words were said to me as my daughters and I were leaving a birthday party this past Friday night.

We had just attended a birthday celebration for a student at my daughters' school. This student spends most of his school day in a "Learning Center" classroom, code for "Special Day Classroom" (SDC) in my daughters' school district, with other learning disabled students. One student in the class has down's syndrome. Another student does not speak and is performing grade levels below their current age.

My daughters, each with their own significant needs, get academic support in this classroom as we try to fill in very basic content gaps whose absence is preventing them from accessing the general education curriculum.

Being a student in a SDC classroom can be difficult. For most elementary students, they know that they are different but they haven't exactly figured out why everyone else is in a classroom with 20-30 other students and one adult... while their classroom often has more adults than kids.

When you get to middle school, it gets significantly harder for all involved parties. Kids in middle school SDC classes long to be "normal" and in the "regular" classes. The students in these "regular" classes can sometimes be a bit exclusive toward students in need of extra support. Being different is hard. For others, being friends with someone who's different is even more challenging. Middle school can be a rough time.

The birthday celebration itself was a lot of fun. The majority of the students invited were from the SDC classroom. All of the kids had at least one parent present, a distinct difference from the other birthday parties I've attended with my daughters where kids can just be dropped off for the duration of the activity. There were balloon animals, painting activities, silly YouTube videos to sing along to, lots of snacks and birthday cakes, and everything in between. Most of the students did not interact with one another; social skills are a work in process for most elementary students, especially those with special needs. The SDC teacher even showed up for most of the evening. The kids treated her like a celebrity; it was pretty neat to see.

We were walking out the door at the end of the evening. The birthday boy's parents graciously walked us to the front door and all the way to the sidewalk. I thanked them profusely for inviting our daughters and said, "It's hard sometimes... They don't get invited to a lot of birthday parties..." The mom made eye contact and said very clearly, "I understand. Our son never does."

I went home and shared this moment with my wife. She nodded and said, in an understanding way that only a parent of a special needs student can, "I know. It's hard."

It's something that many parents never have to address as their child will at least have acquaintances and classmate friends that they can text, have sleep overs, go to their birthday parties, and sit next to during snack. A parent of a special needs child worries about what will happen when they can't take care of their child any longer. What if something happens to us; who will take care of our daughters? The layers of unpredicted stress that arrive when your child enters the realm of special needs is a challenge for the involved adult and their marriage. Everything about it is difficult.

And one of the hardest things to endure is when your child isn't included in basic age-appropriate activities.... like the birthday parties.

Looking back at my own childhood, my mom made the rules very clear when it came to my birthday parties. I could invite everyone from my class or I could invite no-one. I wasn't aware of these policies at the time (I was 10), but I remember how I would hand out invitations to everyone in my class and then post a list with their names to record their RSVPs when they called over the next week. Yes, this took place in the pre-Evite days.

It's different today.

Out of the 20-25 students in our daughters' general education classroom, I'm anticipating invitations to no more than 5 parties for my girls.

This year is actually better than last year as there are a few more "uniquely normal" kids in this year's kindergarten class with a few more inclusive parents.

I profusely thank every parent for inviting my daughters' to their child's birthday party. Most of the parents say "no problem, glad to have them join us" but very few truly know what it's like to have a child (or two) who's excluded from these birthday parties because their kids are a bit different.

Until...... you find someone who understands.

Odds are they have a special education student too.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Teenagers and Their Tentative Truths

I'll start with a story.

There's a high school student working at their ice cream job. This ice cream employee is not only known for the best peanut butter and chocolate milkshakes in town, but they're a pretty good student and rule follower as well.

This teenager has an hour break between shifts. They know ahead of time about a house party that they want to stop by. Somehow, their mother finds out about the party and says, in no uncertain terms, they are not to attend this party. The teenager agrees that they won't "attend" the party.

However, even though the teenager decides that they're not going to attend the party, they instead choose to just stop by. To the teenager, this is okay... they're not attending the party; they're just stopping by for ten, maybe twenty minutes.

In between their shifts, this teenager gets a ride from a co-worker/friend to the party. They're at the party less than twenty minutes. They don't drink anything they shouldn't. They just say hi to a few friends and then return back to their job for their next shift. It was a brief visit and barely worth a mention.

The next day, the high school student's mother asks the student if they attend the party. He says "no". The parent follows up with a slightly more linear question: "Are you sure you didn't step foot into that house? That you didn't go to the party?" The teenager pauses and thinks to themselves: What exactly am I being asked right now? How can I not lie but still not tell the full truth? No matter the response the teenager gave, unless it was the full truth, the parent already had their answer. It turns out this mom had connected with a family friend who lived across the stress from the party and offered to keep an eye out for the car this responsible student drove.

Eventually, the teenager had to admit that they stopped by the party. The parent grounded the student for not following the parental expectation and also for lying.

The teenager, himself a rather decent honors student and solid son, tried to find a loophole in their parent's mandate and got caught in the web. It's what kids do. It's also something I remember to this day.

Much like the teenager from the above story, let me be blunt and share: your kid will lie to you.

They will lie a little bit about big things.

They will lie a lot about little things.

They will lie for seemingly no reason.

They will lie with intention and purpose.

Your perfect little angel will lie to you.

This is absolutely normal.

In your student's mind, they're not lying. They're just not telling you the full truth. Often, in my conversations with parents, I share that there is a huge bubble of information that we call the "full truth". I'll make a huge circle with my hands to show how large this "truth bubble" truly is. If a child was to tell you everything in the truth bubble, they'd start at the beginning, not leave anything out, have a perfect memory about what transpired, and took full ownership of their decisions. This rarely happens.

Instead, a student will tell you little pockets of truths within this larger bubble. Here is an example:

What you are asking "did you complete your homework?"
What they say: "yes, i did my homework"
What the truth is: "I only did my math homework and not my ELA homework"

To them, they're not lying. They did do their homework. Their math homework is done. You asked if they completed their homework and they have completed their math homework. You didn't ask about the ELA homework though, even though you think you did.

If you asked specifically about their ELA homework, they'd probably counter with another not-a-lie-but-not-the-truth response like "oh, we actually did most of it in class" (not false) or "I only have a few more sentences to write; it's pretty much done" (not false either). Unless you ask directly about the completion of their ELA assignment, you're not going to get the answer to the question you're asking.

The challenge as a parent, as an administrator, is asking the exact simplified question you want an answer to, even if you have to repeat the question over and over again. Instead of asking a broad "is your homework done?" type question, you need to break the request into smaller, much more defined inquiries.

Don't ask "is your homework done?"
Instead, "please show me your math homework"

Don't say "did you talk with your math teacher like we said you would?"
Instead, "tell me about the conversation you had with your math teacher. tell me every word. I'm about to email them, so I want to make sure i have the full story."

Don't say "everything go well today at school?"
Instead, "let's share our favorite part from today and one thing that didn't go as well as we hoped"

As a school administrator, I know that a student's first reaction when they're in our office is to lie. It's just what always happens. Sometimes, I start the conversation with "I know you're not going to tell me the truth when I ask these questions..." followed by "let's restart this conversation again now that we've agreed that we weren't truthful in the beginning."

Personally, I wish that everyone just started with the truth. I wish our students were truthful with their parents about not completing their work. I wish our parents would trust our staff a bit more on certain occasions. I wish every conversation I had with a student started with an agreement of truth.

I understand why our students aren't truthful. They're a little bit scared. They're worried about the truth. Some students are trying to figure out what I know so they can only share that small segment of information. Other students will just continue to lie, even when confronted with an avalanche of facts. A loophole is the friend of every teenager I know.

About 98% of the time, we administrators and parents get to the truth eventually. Odd thing is... any conversation we have with the student often doesn't even involve a consequence. Our students just don't share the full truth because they don't know how to tell the full truth, even if they're told ahead of time that there isn't a consequence attached.

This is actually ok. They're kids. I don't expect the truth right off the bat and neither should our parents. Instead, let's work on asking the questions that can give us the answers we want from our teenagers. Let's understand that our kids won't always tell the truth... and that they need us to provide the structure and possible consequences when they don't live up to our reasonable expectations.

Much like the story shared above, even a responsible honors student can rationalize ways where they feel like they're not lying to their parents. Every student makes a few mistakes. The secret for their growth is to reestablish our adult expectations and make sure a lesson is learned for the next time.

Because there's going to be another party... there's going to be another next time.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Part 2: Parent of 2 Special Education Kids

(This blog is a continuation from Part 1: Principal of 1030 Students)

While my morning was focused on supporting all of our #teamUMS students, my afternoon was much, much different.

Almost five years previous, my wife and I adopted wonderful twin girls from Murom, Russia. It was an otherworldly experience, from the very first picture we saw to the very first time we held them in our arms to the first night they spent with us to the plane ride home and every moment leading up to today.

And from the minute we first met them until today, they've improved so much.

Kenna, despite her cerebral palsy, is trying her best to run and be included in as many activities as possible. For a kid who wasn't able to walk or communicate for the first three to four years of her life, the advancement we've seen has been impressive. You won't find a kid who tries as hard as she does to do what most students can easily accomplish.

Molly has developed so far, so fast... despite her sensory concerns, the struggles with focusing on the task at hand, and a few other dozen issues. She's my personal partner in crime and just thrives on personal, individualized attention.

My wife and I wouldn't change a thing about bringing them into our lives. We feel blessed to have them as our daughters.

And while it has been a challenge to best support them through their appointments and services, the biggest struggle has been our collaboration with the local school district. 

In contrast to my experience in the morning where I, as the school principal, worked to best serve a student in need of support, my afternoon was spent in what feels like part 8 of my daughters' IEP. It did not go well.

At Union Middle, I make a strong, sincere effort to give every student whatever they need to be successful. I'm interested, as a site principal, in providing our students extra supports in order to access the general education curriculum and accelerate them to grade level as soon as possible. We have three short years to prepare our students for high school. It goes fast; we can't waste any time.

My daughters' experience has been something different altogether.

The classroom teacher is wonderful. I'd hire her in a second.

Their "learning center" teacher is fantastic. I'd create a job for her if I didn't have an opening.

The principal, a former colleague of mine, is an asset to the school. She gets kids and how to effectively run a school.

Their needed adult supports, however, do not end with these three.

We've battled the school district for over 2 years in our efforts to provide our daughters with the necessary supports to give them a fighting chance to advance to grade level.

Every issue, no matter how minimal, has been a challenge.

I've lost count of how many IEP meetings we've had to address our concerns brought forth from over a year ago. We've spent close to $10k in advocates and private assessments in an effort to show the district what our daughters' need to access their Free Appropriate Public Education. Every step of the way, the district has put roadblocks in the pathway of their educational journey.

They've tried to label them Intellectually Impaired.

They've tried to advance them to first grade despite not meeting the standards of kindergarten.

They've admitted that one of our daughters experienced a "lost year" due to the ineffectiveness of their aide and classroom teacher.

Simply put, they've failed to support my daughters. They've failed to give them the level of care that every educator should have for their students. It's hurtful to see. It's harmful to feel. It's horrendous to experience. Every step has been an unnecessary battle.

During the latest IEP meeting today, the district continued to ignore the reports we've provided and the repeated concerns we've have. At one point, after my wife expressed how disappointing our experience has been, one of the members of the district team looked at another member of their team and gave a wink with an eye roll.

I could not let this go.

How is this ok? Where is the sense of "team" that I experienced this morning at my school where we worked together to best support a student? Why is our daughters' education and our opinions therein being discounted by the behavior of one of the district's employees? Again, I ask... how is this ok?

And so I brought this individual's behaviors to the attention of the team. I made it very clear what they had done, what I had seen, and how it was not ok. Perhaps not unexpectedly, the individual denied what I had seen. While I should have expected a blatant denial of their poor behavior, I was stunned to experience such lies first hand.

Are we not a team to best support the students?

Where is the dedication toward my daughters that my own staff provides for all of our 1030 students?

The meeting continued to fumble toward a non-resolution to best support my daughters. We repeated our concerns brought public in meetings past. Why hasn't the district worked to consider our suggestions? Why is their default a constant "no" when everything we try at Union Middle starts with the phrase "yes"?

I suspect things will get substantially worse before they get better. The "Part 1" of tonight's writings ended with a "we don't give up on kids" -- Sadly, I feel like my local school district has given up on my daughters. It's a horrible feeling to have as a parent about the district I attended as a student, that I received my start in education with, where I furthered my career as an administrator, and where I now live to raise my children.

And it reinforces how hard I have to work as a school principal to make sure that no student, no parent, no family feels the way about their school experience that my wife and I do about our struggles to best support our daughters.

I knew it wasn't going to be easy to have two special education daughters, but I had no idea it would be this hard.

And I didn't know that a school district would be the main reason for our difficulty in adequately supporting them.

Educators: Try and say yes. Support your students. They are someone's son, someone's daughter. Give them what you'd want for your own kids. Every bit of effort you give is recognized and loved.

Part 1: Principal of 1030 students

I have always had a soft spot in my heart for kids who don't fit the mold of your typical middle school student expectation.

My first teaching assignment was a self-contained classroom with students of varying diagnoses. A few students were school-phobic. Other students exhibited oppositional defiance disorder tendencies. I distinctly remember students who were emotionally disturbed, dyslexic, borderline intellectually impaired, or simply uninterested in doing school. My classroom was where expelled students would land.

That said, I think it was the best four and a half years of my professional life. I felt like we were working hard as a team to make middle school for our shared students the best experience possible. Looking back, there are more than a few students from our classroom who continued on to high school and higher education with much success. We truly tried to give our students everything we could to make them feel cared for and to know that we would all be there to support them.

Fast forward to today. Parts 1 and 2.

This morning, I focused on a variety of school issues. My inbox was full with questions, concerns, and action items. As I sifted through, I saw an email with a calendar item to contact a parent this morning via a phone call. This parent had some concerns about the progress of their student thus far this school year.

In the phone conversation with the parent, I spent the majority of the time listening to their concerns. I found myself agreeing with many of their points. Their student is someone I've worked with over the past two years and seen such incredible growth from. I enjoy interacting with this student. I feel like we have a secret, non-verbal language sometimes, one where we can communicate in silly glances and random facial expressions. I see a lot of myself in this student. I want him to be successful. I care.

At the end of the phone call, I informed the parent that I had an idea on how to address some of their concerns. I'm not going to pretend that I had an answer for every action item. I didn't. What I could do is spend my morning focusing on how to best support this student.

So I spoke with our assistant principal about a few of my ideas. She helped refine my out-of-the-box thoughts to something that could actually work for the student. I then reached out to our new mental health therapist; he was completely on board. I sensed that he too shared an instant connection with the student and would be able to greatly assist moving forward. I looped in the 8th grade resource teacher, our school counselor, and eventually the student as well. Everyone was on board with the plan. A short email later to the team (and yes, the team includes the parent) and we had a solid rebooting for the rest of the week to best support the student.

We know it might not be perfect. Everyone on the team agrees that we're going to try a lot of things... and if something doesn't work, we'll adjust and try something different.

The highlight of my morning is two-fold.

The first memorable moment was from the new mental health therapist. He commented (and I'm paraphrasing here): "I haven't seen a principal take the lead before on a student's support plan." My response was very simple: we are a team; everyone needs to support our students, including the principal. Secretly, I appreciated his comments. The work of a principal often goes unrecognized. We often get the emails when something is wrong, but rarely do we get feedback from our school community that recognizes the care we give to each and every student, teacher, and parent.

The second memorable moment was my conversation with the student. It actually wasn't much of a conversation. As stated earlier, we have a non-verbal understanding and high level of trust with one another. The sly smile the student provided when he recognized my efforts to help his school day be a bit better -- that's what I received from him after sharing our plan.

I'm excited to see how the plan works for the student. It may need some refining but we are committed as a team to work with the student, his teachers, and all of the supportive adults involved to keep trying. We don't give up on kids.

And a perfect day would stop there. Unfortunately, part 2 had not yet happened.

Part 2 is available here.

Don't Give Up On Kids

At Union Middle School, we try our best to give every student what they need to be successful.

Our teachers seek out students in need of a parent-teacher-student conference. Our mental health team challenges themselves to find students who may need supports that we're not yet providing. The administrative team repeatedly asks each other "what are we not doing for kids that we could try to do?" 

Essentially, we have built a school community where every individual is responsible for the growth and welfare of every student at our school. We don't have "those" kids or "not my problem" kids -- if you work at Union Middle, you have agreed to try your best to support all of our students, even the ones not necessarily asking for assistance.

This is not to say that we don't make mistakes. We do. We then try our best to fix the problem for the betterment of the student. 

This is not to say that we address every problem or student issue by the end of the day. We can't. Some problems we never find out about despite our best efforts. Some situations we don't find out if our suggested interventions have helped until the students visit us a few years down the road. Regardless, we are committed to try our best to support our kids and our UMS community.

This is not to say that we get it right the first time. No-one is perfect. It is to say that we don't give up on our students and will try to make the learning experience for every student a positive one. 

I realize it can be challenging for an educator to give a bit more when they feel pushed to their professional limit. This happens a lot in education, partly because educators are a noble lot and often over-extend themselves for their students. It doesn't mean that we won't try. 

Two of our new-to-UMS 6th grade teachers are starting a twice-a-week homework help club for 15-20 invite-only students in need of such supports. One of our 8th grade teachers, upon hearing about this 6th grade homework help club, has initiated a similar club but for 8-10 8th grade students in need of extra help. A simple check of #teamUMS on Twitter sees staff attending soccer games, preparing for wrestling practice, and inviting our school community into their classrooms.

Trying to best serve our students is the reason why we show up every single day. If an educator loses sight of their promise to put students first, they've officially lost their way and need to ask for help to rediscover how lucky they are to work with kids every single day. 

To paraphrase a parent from a recent IEP meeting after I asked how their students were adjusting to Union Middle...

"It's really weird for my kids at Union... I asked them, 'what's going on with those kids over there' and they said to me, 'mom, you don't have to worry; they're good kids. It's not like (our last school). Kids here are really good kids. It's not what we're used to... and it's sort of nice.'

No school staff is perfect... but I don't think you'll find a more caring, dedicated staff that our #teamUMS. 

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Let's Talk Mission & Vision

For each of my five years as the principal of Union Middle School, I've tried to have a unique start to the school year for our teaching staff. During my first year, I did a three year road map for our school to give our staff a sense of where I envisioned we were headed. Last fall, we worked solely on team building exercises with an instructional leadership theme for the year. I tailor each beginning as not only a precursor for what the year will bring, but specifically selected based on where I believe the staff stands as educators and as a school community.

During my first year, as is the case for any new principal, a majority of the staff was waiting to see where I would help steer the school. Providing the road map on day one gave our teachers a chance to have the school wide action plan shared as a group and at the very beginning of the school year. Last year, the school culture was becoming an issue; we needed to learn how to work, play, and belong together again. Both school years had activities, committees, and events that encompassed the themes from the first day. 

This year was no different. 

This year we are revisiting our mission and vision as a school community. To begin on day one, I shared my own personal mission and vision with the staff. Truthfully, I was a bit nervous about speaking in front of the staff. Much like many educators I know, it's really easy to talk in front of our students, but speaking to our colleagues is significantly more challenging. I also spent a good part of the summer reworking my mission and vision in my head and in my slides. I wanted to find the right words for each part of the presentation. Perfectionism became a small issue along the wall. Eventually, as is the case with most projects, you just have to let go a bit and move on to the next part of the presentation. 

I chose to make our school mission and vision the focus point of our school year because I believe that we are ready to take the leap forward as @teamUMS educators. Finally, for the first time in my previous six years at Union Middle, we have the right people in the right places with the best intentions to best serve our students. Over the past five years, I've made a point of hiring a certain type of staff member: talented, nice-to-kids, good-for-our-school-community individuals. You can look at Margaret and Nora in the front office as perfect examples of these qualities. My goal is to create a staff that puts kids first, that gets along with one another, and enjoys working together. We work with 12 year olds - it's ok to be silly and have fun! Couple these educators with a hard working, talented group of veteran staff members and we're now at the point where common expectations and shared goals should be a part of our daily routine. 

My presentation began with a quick review about what a school mission and vision entails. Next, I shared some personal notes about the story of building my family and then various elements of our #teamUMS staff that correlate to my own values as an educator. After giving our staff a few moments to write down their own mission and vision, I shared mine. Here it is:

My Vision:

As the UMS Principal, I want to:
  • Provide our students with a safe, nurturing learning environment with every opportunity to experience academic, social and emotional growth; a place where they are treated with compassion, and are given opportunities to develop tolerance and respect for our individual, unique differences. I want our students to grow, to learn kindness, and to be cared for.
  • Ensure our #teamUMS staff feels supported by their administrative team and their colleagues, beloved by the school community for their dedication to their craft, and have opportunities for their professional growth in their own academic journey; I want our staff to grow, to practice kindness, and to know they’re cared for.
  • Hire the very best staff members to join our talented #teamUMS family; individuals who believe in kids and who want to be a part of a positive learning community. I want our new and future colleagues to be individuals who practice kindness, who want to grow as an educator, and who can add positivity to our school community.
  • Communicate with our parent and school community, to be open to feedback and to work together to best support Union Middle; I want the adults in our community to be involved in the growth of our students, to treat our staff with kindness, and to know we work extremely hard for their children.
My Mission:

As the UMS Principal, I want to:
  • Ensure that Union Middle School is devoted to doing what’s best for our students, giving teachers the time, tools, and resources they need to grow in their respective disciplines, and work with our school communities toward maintaining a safe, nurturing environment where all #teamUMS members have the opportunity to create, learn, explore, build, rebuild, and grow.
And now, as a staff, our next steps will be to create a mission and vision for our staff, our students, and our school community. We've set aside time to work on this lofty yet essential goal during the school year. I'm excited to see our next steps. 

Friday, June 17, 2016

An Invisible Kid

As a site administrator, it can be a challenge to get to know every student. It is my goal every year to learn everyone's name and their story. I share this goal with our incoming 6th graders every year, Sadly, this doesn't always happen. Thus, the invisible kid.

You might be a parent of an invisible kid. You may have been an invisible kid yourself. An invisible student is one who doesn't make poor decisions on a routine basis. They work extremely hard in the classroom, competing with other invisible and not-so-invisible students to get the highest possible grade possible on each assessment. They study. They try hard. They are always respectful to their teachers. They rarely, if ever, get into any kind of trouble. They keep their heads down and do their best. They don't draw attention to themselves.

When a substitute teacher who frequents your school often enters the classroom, they're quietly happy to see these invisible students. They don't cause trouble for any teacher, permanent or substitute. They don't necessarily ingratiate themselves with their teachers but they don't misbehave. Rarely, if ever, are these students recognized by their peers, by their teachers, or by the school. They pale in comparison when the students who demand attention (good or bad) stand up for recognition. These are the invisible students who quietly do school each day with little ripples in our shared waters.

I myself was not an invisible kid. I made some decisions that brought attention to my educational journey. Whether it was a high school social studies teacher who said "I've had enough of this student" or a 6th grade science teacher who encouraged me to teach the class myself for our review sessions (disclaimer: I told him I could lead a better test review), I was rarely the student who tried to hide amongst their peers. Often, I made a bad decision that logically impeded my educational journey, but these were my decisions that allowed me to grow during these formative years. For a student to sit quietly in a classroom and just silently comply with the curriculum and expectations is troublesome.

There is a saying that "well behaved women rarely make history". In education, the invisible student could follow a similar mantra. While these are students who can prove to be the backbone of your school community. I an very troubled by an "invisible kid's" decision to not create a persona that is both lasting and memorable during their educational journey. In looking back at this year's graduating class, I missed out on the opportunity to get to know many of these flat-out-awesome students, if for no other reasons than the few students who took up 95% of my time and a disconnect in figuring out who these invisible students were.

That said, the responsibility of an administrator is to recognize as many invisible students as possible. It's not an easy task. These aren't your athletes, your soloists during band concerts, or the students who may visit your office for disciplinary reasons throughout the year. If anything, these are the students you need to go out of your way to connect with. It's a challenge to discover these often-quiet students who don't speak up or stand out. During busy, challenging years, you may miss out on a few of these students. This was definitely the case for our administrative team during the past 2015-16 school year.

After my recent graduation speech, I had a few parent emails that expressed their concern with how their "invisible student" was left unrecognized. They're right. I failed their student. I didn't get a chance to recognize them, to meet them in their classrooms, to celebrate their successes. Likely, the student, partly due to their invisible behaviors, didn't reach out to their principal. They didn't approach me during brunch or lunch supervision to make a connection. They didn't share something special about themselves that we could connect with. This isn't to say that this opportunity was their duty or their expectation, but with a school of over a thousand kids, we administrators need a bit of help to discover the typically invisible students. I wish I could go back in time and spend extra moments with these students. I can guarantee that my work day would have been a good bit more pleasant and rewarding.

If nothing else, I'd also like to place a call to encourage these students to not remain invisible any longer. You don't have to be a star athlete. You don't need to be a top band student. You don't even need to be on site council or in leadership. You, as a student, just need to take the opportunity to connect and choose the available opportunities to share a bit of your school or life experiences with your administrators. Trust me. We want to get to know you. We don't want you to be invisible. If anything, it is the opposite. You are most likely the student to show us that we're making a difference with our students; we often feel like we're not. You might be the student to open our eyes to best support all students; we need these reminders. During our challenging days, you are the student who shows us that our efforts are not going unwanted or unloved.

So don't be invisible. You've got a lot of greatness that needs to be shared. We will help you discover your voice. But sometimes, we administrators need help figuring out who you are and what we can do to best support you. We are definitely willing to do so. Speak up. We are listening.

Roller Coaster World of Education

Unless you've been in education, I'm not sure one can fully understand what it is like for educators during the 180+ school days. My best analogy would be akin to a roller coaster on repeat.

You sit down and prepare for the ride. Everything is calm. There is a bit of excitement in the air for the upcoming school year. You know what the year will bring. You've seen it before. The safety ride workers come by to make sure you're securely fastened. They spend less than two seconds on this very important part of the trip. Just a quick look, perhaps they pull on the harness a bit, and then they move on to the next person.

You're sitting next to a friend but it just as well could be someone you've never met. You give a "here goes nothing" glance to your seatmate. They smile back. Perhaps they're a veteran for this ride. It could be their first time trying it out. Somewhere amidst the seats, there's a rather talkative individual, sharing their excitement and how they always love the roller coaster experience. Their examples of this "excitement" are beginning to make you question whether or not you want to take this ride after all. Before you can make up your ride, you start to move. The first day of school has begun and the kids are piling into your classroom. It is too late now. Hold on.

It's a slow climb to the top of the tracks. Everyone is pretty excited. The clicking and clanging of the climb is helping build the excitement. Everyone is still getting along. There's a sense of energy in the air. The first time rider is a bit clueless for what's about to begin. The veteran teacher is hinting about the upcoming fall. You're not questioning yourself just yet. This is one of the nicer parts of the ride.

And then it happens. Since you're sitting a bit towards the middle, you see the the riders in the front disappear. You're not sure where they went. You can only hear their screams. Maybe it's the first test they gave with the follow up flood of parent emails about why their student received a B- on the assessment. Maybe it's the departure of a beloved assistant principal who has announced they're leaving the district for a promotion elsewhere. Maybe their three month old twin boys aren't sleeping through the night and they're running on less than empty. Whatever their reason, you're quickly approaching the drop and know you're going to experience the same shortly.

You do. The roller coaster crosses the apex and falls fast toward oblivion. You have your hands clutching the side rails, just hoping for a bit of life-saving security. Your seatmate has their hands in the air and is screaming loudly, perhaps with excitement, maybe with a bit of fear. Who is this guy? You look past ahead of the bouncing heads in front of you and realize that the drop is about to end. You breathe a bit and think you'll be able to catch your breather. You're wrong.

Next thing you know, you're at a forty five degree angle as the roller coaster speeds through a turn. You look to your left and realize your head is about four feet from a murky swamp. Truthfully, you consider your options at this point. How bad would it be to slither out of your harness and drop quietly into the brownish-green waters? You could always say it was an accident and no one would think twice.

Before you can make your decision, the roller coaster is picking up speed and is entering the corkscrew portion of the ride. Your head jostles back and forth. Your eyes react as if they've been struck by a taser. Your mouth and chin tense, giving the impression that you're trying out to play the role of the Joker in the next Batman flick. In the education world, we call this the month of March.

There's a short lull during the ride as you begin to climb once more toward the final descent. The other riders are in various states of euphoria and chaos. The veteran to your right begins talking about how they're never going to ride a roller coaster again. The first time rider a few seats ahead of you is looking around, wondering if their feelings of helplessness and hopelessness are normal. You just continue to hold on, brave through the requests for last minute extra credit, and progress toward the finish line.

Finally. It's here. The roller coaster pulls into its final destination, a place that looks oddly familiar to where you began your ride. True educators, however, don't always get to get off this roller coaster. They've got an upcoming conference next weekend to learn about the new math curriculum. There's an administrative retreat to help you start your planning for the upcoming year. Next year's master schedule needs to be finalized and have all 1,050 students imported into their classes for the next roller coaster ride.

This year, however, it's a bit different for me. I'm getting off the roller coaster for the next few weeks. I'm logging off, powering down, and spending a few extra moments with my family and also just by myself. This year's roller coaster ride was a long one with lots of twists and turns. As a principal who tries to provide 24-7 support through late night email responses, texting replies, NextDoor support, constant community communication, and just everything else I can during the school year, I'm going to take what I think is a much needed and well deserved break from it all. I'm posting my "away for the summer" vacation response for my work email and doing my best to limit my work-related activities over the few weeks. I hope every other educator out there gets their well-deserved rest from the roller coaster world of education we live in. You've earned it.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Graduation Speech - 2016 - Union Middle School

Below is my graduation speech for the Union Middle School class of 2016. 

Most educators will tell you that certain grade level groups of students take on certain personalities. One class may be known for their compassion. Another class may be known for the athletic ability. The class of 2016, littered with extremely talented students, was a collection of kind souls, many of which were in utero either during the events of 9/11/01 or shortly conceived thereafter. I often wonder if there is a connection to the stress our society felt at that time and our students' leap before you look behaviors. Regardless, as I share below, it's a unique class with tons of potential. I'm looking forward to their story over the next four years.

And as always...

Thank you parents for your support over the past three years. 

Thank you staff for your continued dedication to our students.

And thank you students for just being you. 

Here is the graduation speech. Enjoy.


Good evening everyone once more to our 8th grade promotion ceremony. My name is Todd Feinberg. I stand here on the cusp of the end of my fourth year as the Union Middle School principal, my sixth year as a UMS Tiger, my eleventh year as a school administrator, and my sixteenth year as an educator. Truthfully, I’ve spent my entire life in education, as I stepped into the classroom within months of graduating from law school. I have seemingly always been in and around the classroom. And despite these decades of days spent in education, I’ve spent most of the past school year unsure about how to best address the Union Middle School class of 2016.

I’ve changed topics more than a dozen times. I’ve entertained offers from students and teachers alike to take my place and have them give this speech instead. I even thought about recycling one of my past three graduation speeches and taking a somewhat easy way out of this situation.

Every time I begin to write this speech, I return back to some words shared by a football coach to his team from this past March. Even though he is addressing a locker room of professional athletes, I feel like his speech resonates quite well for the Union Middle School class of 2016.

Let me explain why: This is one of the most perplexing, most challenging, and yet most rewarding assortment of students I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. As a class, you have an overloading of talent, a collective potential matching any past graduated class, and yet have personally provided me with enough anxiety to officially turn me gray.

And that’s the Union Middle School class of 2016.

The speech I earlier referred to was from John Harbaugh, brother of Jim. He’s the current coach of the Baltimore Ravens, a professional football team. If you follow football, you’ll know that there have been more than a few members of the Baltimore Ravens who have made some poor choices over the past few years. Here, coach Harbaugh had recently received news that one of their first year players, Tray Walker, was in critical condition in the hospital after sustaining injuries in a dirt biking accident. Tray was riding a bike without proper lighting. He was wearing dark clothing despite it being 8 o’clock at night. And no, he was not wearing a helmet. The story doesn’t end with good news either; Tray eventually passed away from injuries sustained during the crash.

During the brief moment between hearing the news of the accident and the fateful conclusion to Tray’s story, John Harbaugh wrote a letter to his players expressing his thoughts and his concerns for his team. And while the circumstances are incredibly different for our students today than they were for Tray that fateful day this past March, coach Harbaugh’s words reflect rather well my own thoughts on the Union Middle School class of 2016.

And so, I’d like to share what John Harbaugh wrote to his players upon hearing the news of Tray Walker’s accident:

He said: This is what I would be saying to you in the team meeting room if we were together today: There is a lot going on out there and you are going to be involved in tough and difficult situations. You are making and will continue to make important choices pretty much every day. That’s okay. That’s our reality. It can even be very good to be put in different circumstances. To make it right, you are going to have to grow up fast. Probably faster than many of your friends and family.
Please remember to…
Lead in your home. Take care of Your Family and Yourself every single day. Think about who you are and where you are going, and what you stand for. Look after one another. Only then can you be your most effective on the job and in every area of your life.
You see, coach Harbaugh stresses the need for his players to take a stand for the important things in their lives. Do not underestimate the support and significant efforts of your parents, your grandparents, your teachers and your friends, all of whom have helped you arrive at today’s promotion ceremony. Please realize that you’re going to need to rely on all of us as you move forward into high school. It takes a mature and strong sense of self to ask for help. Continue to look after your friends; they may make some seriously poor decisions during their next four years. Sometimes, you might be the one experiencing the lapse in judgment. Just as you would want them to be there for you, make sure you are there for them. All of you know the difference between right and wrong, so let’s do the right thing.
Mr. Harbaugh continues… Please consider your actions and choices. There are always consequences. Choose who you allow to advise you. Consider the quality of the council you take. Put yourself in positions to succeed. Turn away from unnecessary and risky behavior. Take care of your physical well-being. Live a healthy lifestyle. Pursue those things that make you better. Rest well. Eat well. Laugh with those who you love and love you. Fulfill your obligations effectively.
I agree with coach Harbaugh: There are always consequences for the choices we make. Sometimes, good things happen. Other times, there are negative results from the choices we later wish we hadn’t made. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t challenge yourself during your high school years and beyond. If you put forth tremendous effort and think you have failed, you haven’t. Some of our best lessons come from the risks we take and the reflections we then make. As Henry Ford said, “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again. This time, more intelligently.”
Mr. Harbaugh also shared… Be your own best friend. Do not be an enemy [onto] yourself. Turn away from trouble and harm. Walk away from foolish behavior. Ignore silly and unwise advice – You’ll know it when you see it.
This. If nothing else summarizes the class of 2016, it might be these short five sentences. I’m going to re-read them.
Be your own best friend. Do not be an enemy [onto] yourself. Turn away from trouble and harm. Walk away from foolish behavior. Ignore silly and unwise advice – You’ll know it when you see it.
The gravitation toward trouble and harm is great. This doesn’t ever go away. It actually gets increasingly challenging during high school and college. Now is the time for each of you to be your own best friend. Be nice to yourself and help yourself achieve your goals. All of you have the grand, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity we call high school starting in three short months. Make sure you give yourself the best chance at success that you possibly can.
Mr. Harbaugh also shared...  Get to know those people in your life who manage to walk free from the weight of self-created obstacles. Get close to those who have gone where you want to go, and have accomplished what you want to accomplish. Grow Spiritually. Think about what and who you want to become.
Speaking as a parent of four and a principal of a thousand four, it is very clear to me that many of the barriers we’ve placed in our way as human beings were put there by our own actions, by our own decisions. Students… right now, think about an adult who has the life you one day might wish to emulate. It could be a parent, a celebrity, a principal… Ask them what they had to do to reach their goals. Goals are good. Goals help you map out where you’re headed and what you have to do to get there. Every choice you make can get you closer to the person you want to be. Every decision will have an impact.
Coach Harbaugh goes on to plead with his players to consider what is at stake in their lives every time they make a choice that could come back to haunt them. He encourages the team to live fully but with purpose. To be there for one another. To reach out when they need to.
And this is why I’m so afraid of this class moving on to high school. So many of you have not fully learned how to think about the consequences of your actions before moving ahead with the impulsive decision you’re about to make. Sure, it might be due to your frontal lobe not being fully developed until you’re 25 (or 45, according to my wife - I think she’s an optimist when it comes to her husband). Maybe you truly think you know better. Please allow me to be blunt here: you don’t.

We ask you to wear a bike helmet because we know that you could be seriously hurt if you’re involved in an accident. We ask you to think long and hard about your decisions prior to making them so that you give your internal voice a chance to convince yourself of doing something different. We say repeatedly “come to us if you have a problem” because we want to help you. Because we care and because there is only one you.

At the end of the day, I’m sharing a letter from a professional football coach who is telling his team something he’s surely said many times over. I suspect the coach knows, deep within himself, that not everyone is listening to what he’s saying. He knows that it will be just a week, a month, or a year until the next bad decision is made by one of the players on his team. As your principal, I often feel just as powerless to stop the eventual poor choice some of my students may make.

And much like Coach Harbaugh, I’m standing in front of a group of young adults who have their whole lives ahead of them. This is a group of kind and inclusive students. Yes, as a class, you’ve been quite challenging and yet I feel I’m going to miss the laughs we’ve shared and the friendships we’ve made more than any other class I’ve worked with. You are all really good kids, full of unlimited potential. We’re going to miss you. Please take care of yourselves. Please take a minute to listen to what your loved ones share with you. Life doesn’t get easier, but it does get better. Please think twice as you move forward in your educational journey. We, your parents, your friends, your teachers, and your principal, are always here to help.

Before I close, I’d like to share a quick story. A couple of years ago, I had a few spare minutes to watch the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards. Back in my childhood, MTV would actually show music videos on their channel and not Teen Wolf episodes on repeat. Despite the change in programming on MTV, I’ve always enjoyed watching the annual awards show, often learning about new bands I’d never heard of. On this night, I discovered my new favorite band.

The performance began with a guy on drums and another at a piano. There were hundreds of people in the crowd, all standing silently still and each wearing a white ski mask. This was something different, something unique. The singer’s lyrics seemed to linger a bit longer and felt to be crafted with purpose. He’s singing that “quiet is violent” and how “somebody stole my car radio”.

As the song continues, the lead singer has left his piano and is now racing around the stage. All of a sudden, the entire crowd comes to life and starts jumping up and down in rhythm to the music. The singer jumps on top of his piano and leads the entire audience in song. It was completely mesmerizing.

Fast forward 18 months and I’m sitting at the Fox Theater, watching this band, Twenty One Pilots, live. During these 18 months, I’ve become increasingly obsessed with every song they’ve ever performed. I had their album Blurryface on repeat for most of the summer and first semester. I spent many lunch periods chatting it up with other Twenty One Pilots fanatics at Union Middle, some of whom have shared their Twenty One Pilots art with me or even their performance of a cover of We Don’t Believe What’s On TV. And yes, both the art and the song were amazingly done; we have very talented students here at Union Middle.

At the concert, the lead singer, Tyler Joseph, gave an incredible performance. Per his own admission, he had suffered many failures in the music industry before hitting it relatively big. He’s given interviews about his own emotional challenges, often called his “blurryface” persona. Nearing the end of the concert, Tyler addressed the crowd one final time. He encouraged the crowd to join in on the energy of the night but also quietly shared that whatever our troubles were or whatever actually brought us to the building tonight… he assured us that we weren’t alone in what we were going through. He swore this to be true. And I believed him.

And this is what I want my promise to be for each of you. While I may not fully comprehend what it’s like to be a 14 year old about to embark on a journey toward high school, I pledge to you that I’ll always be here to help you along the way. I’m extremely proud of each and every one of you. I truly believe there’s never been a harder time than today to be a young adolescent on the verge of adulthood. Please know you’re not alone on this journey. No matter your story, no matter what you’re going through, I’m willing to listen. If nothing else, remember you’re not alone.

And so, our 2016 graduates. Thank you for being a part of my life over the past three years and thank you for being a part of each other’s journey. You have each brought something very unique and special to Union Middle School. You will be missed but we are quite excited to see where you lead us next. We’ll be watching, ready to support you along the way. Congratulations, Class of 2016.

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