Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Top Five Ways to FAIL at Palm Springs CUE

Thanks to the generosity of our CTO Andrew Schwab, I recently had the privilege to be one of two district principals to attend the Palm Springs annual CUE event. If you've never attended this event, you need to. Put it on your list. Figure out a way to make it happen. It's an amazing event filled with edu-famous celebrities (look, there's Lisa Highfill... oh wait, to our right, there's Jon Corippo!) and more presentations than you'll ever be able to attend. It's a chance to hear from Kid President and Hadi Partovi (the founder of code.org) with seven thousands of the bestest friends you never knew you had.

But there's a way NOT to experience CUE... Learn from my mistakes.

1) Don't plan anything ahead of time.

Every attendee has access to the conference schedules weeks ahead of time. Some educators will scan the schedule and map out possible sessions for each time slot. Others, like myself, will look at the schedule and say "eh, I'll figure it out at the opening session". This was a huge mistake.

On our first morning, I found myself listening to the amazing opening keynote by Brad Montague, laughing and tearing up at his amazing journey from awkward teenager to inspirational speaker. Once he ended, I realized that I had little time to figure out what next session to attend. I scanned the attached booklet and figured out a session I'd like to attend. This session, it turns out, was a good 6-8 blocks away at another venue. I was not prepared for these travels. My failure to plan ahead of time compounded as the conference continued. Best advice: Plan out your schedule ahead of time. Map everything out. Have a back-up plan.

2) Avoid the social events.

CUE is more than a conference; it's an opportunity to meet your Twitter friends in person. You need to go out of your way to expand your Professional Learning Network outside of the conference walls. My first two nights, I retired to my hotel room as early as possible. I missed out on a lot of social opportunities by doing so. The third night, I did join our school district staff in our attendance of the CUE Karaoke, although I didn't make it onto the stage with the group. I know it's tempting, especially if you have four kids, to just take an early evening in your hotel room. Don't. Instead, get caught up on your sleep ahead of time and be prepared to sing awkward 80's songs into the wee hours of the night with your new best friends.

3) Don't present; just attend some sessions.

One of the best parts about the CUE experience is to hear from educators who may not be available through other means. The annual CUE conference brings in edu-legendary speakers to share their wisdom and inspire your practice. Just as important, there are sessions with first time presenters that become instant classics and well revered. That's the beauty of a CUE conference. You have a Thomas Murray presenting next door to someone who's a 3rd grade classroom teacher from a tiny district in Northern California, presenting for the first time in their short educational career.

Many CUE-attendees will think: there's no way I can present at CUE. I don't have anything special to share. Even if I do sign up to present, I don't think they'll select me. If they do select me, I don't think anyone will show up. Even if a few people do show up, I don't think I'll do a good job with my presentation. Ignore these thoughts. Apply. Apply again. Don't give up. And invite me to your session. I'll be there for support.

4) Go alone.

When you are at a CUE conference, you're never alone. You can stop by any session and make five new edu-friends almost instantaneously. There's always an opportunity to share meals, co-attend sessions, and just hang out in an un-conference session. That said, there's nothing that takes the place of attending a conference with educators from your district. If you're an admin, bring 3-5 other district principals with you. If you're a classroom teacher, make sure that you have a cadre of like-minded district educators to share google docs write ups from all of the sessions. Don't be afraid to invite a district principal to lunch with you. They'll be just as interested to learn about what you're doing in the classroom as you are to hear about their administrative perspective on "good teaching." CUE is an opportunity to leave the classroom walls behind and build better bonds with your district peers. Take advantage of the opportunity.

5) Eat poorly.

Perhaps the most important rule of CUE is to bring snacks. Power cords and mifi devices are nice too, but power bars, kind bars, protein bars, and every other kind of bar you can think of are essential for this conference. The distance to the downtown eating locations is a good 15 minute walk. The nearest shopping center is a mile away in the wrong direction. Make sure you bring snacks to tide you over between sessions.

Don't rely on the hotel buffet at lunch either. Make plans with your twitter friends at Sherman's or another semi-famous Palm Springs establishment. It's ok to miss a session or two to extend your learning over lunch. One of the best events of my CUE experience was getting to know some of our USD educators at a group dinner Thursday night. Plan accordingly and put food first.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed my CUE experience. Most importantly, I know what to do next time to improve upon the experience. If you ever have the opportunity to attend the annual CUE event in Palm Springs, take advantage of it. Just make sure you plan ahead of time, be social, sign up to present, go with a team, and bring snacks -- from there, enjoy the most amazing experience of our edu-awesome journey.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Get Your Principal to +1 You in Five Easy Steps

One of the biggest struggles of a classroom teacher is to have a negative relationship with your site principal. Sometimes, you may just not see eye to eye. For other moments, you may not understand why they're making the decisions they do. Hopefully, you often agree and can work together to best support your students.

Most teachers want to be liked by their site principal. That said, many teachers don't know how to be liked. Often, they assume that their principal may not trust them or have concerns about their status as a staff member. This couldn't be further from the truth. We want you to be nice to kids. We want you to respond in a timely manner to parents. We want you to give us the benefit of the doubt, just like you want us to trust you as the expert in your classroom. Here are five ways to get your principal to "like" you as a classroom educator.

First and foremost, be that teacher with the best lessons. Have them be dynamic. Include current events or risk-tasking opportunities that incite a learning love for your students. We compete with YouTube, KIK, and every other non-classroom activity for our students' attention. If you have great lessons, you're going to win over your students. After all, the best behavior management system is a talented classroom teacher with stellar lesson plans. We principals don't just love these teachers; we flock to their classrooms and praise them uncontrollably in the community. Fewer kids sent to the office is always a good thing. Don't be the teacher who sends kids to the office frequently. This speaks volumes about your classroom talents. Develop the best lessons you can. Trust me: there's a teacher at your site doing just this right now. Visit their classroom and learn everything you can.

And yes, there's going to be times where you'll have a problem that will need to be brought to your principal's attention. Don't just arrive with the problem. Make sure you have a solution to share as well. We don't mind problems. They happen. Join your principal in figuring out a solution. Be careful to not pre-marry or excessively champion your idea; just suggest it and let it marinate. A good principal will listen but still may not adopt your suggestion. Often, teachers will approach us with solutions that benefit them, the teacher, and not their students. We see through the "hey, maybe I should have that period for my prep" that only serves you and your lunch schedule. Don't be that teacher. Come to us with viable solutions that put students first and support your colleagues. We listen.

At every school site, there's a group of negativity centered around some students, a parent subset, or even part of the teaching staff. Don't get warped into the negativity. These individuals love to add new members to their group. Perhaps they're upset with the math pathways. Maybe they don't like how the principal has set up the master schedule. It's even possible that they're discussing ways to undercut the principal's effectiveness with snide lunch conversations. I've seen a lot of great teachers get brought into these conversations and it can take years for their career and colleague relationships to recover. Give your principal the benefit of the doubt. While not true of all educators and principals, assume that your principal likes kids and are sincerely trying their best to make your school the best it can be. There will be gossip and maybe even some staff members who constantly spew hate. Don't buy into it. Your principal will notice if you do. I've been fortunate to work with amazing teaching and classified staffs where these issues don't always exists. However, if you're at a school site where these negative factions reside, be careful to politely avoid their black holes of negativity.

When you do have a concern that you want to bring to the principal, don't hesitate to do so. It doesn't matter if you're a long term veteran staff member or it's the first month of your teaching career. What matters is how you address the concern. Even more, it's okay to disagree with your principal but be careful how you share your thoughts. Publicly? At a staff meeting? Figure out how your principal wants to hear the constructive criticism and approach through that lens. Challenging a practice publicly may have the opposite result that you're hoping for. These public disagreements divide staffs and alienate your principal. Instead, figure out how your principal wants to discuss these topics and go that specific route. Be respectful of their wishes, just as you want them to be observant of yours. Just know... your principal may listen but, in the end, they might disagree. Just because you think it's best for the school doesn't mean that your principal will concur. Learn how to accept that you'l disagree with some decisions that your principal makes. Don't take it personally because it isn't personal.

And most importantly, don't "throw shade" (as the kids would say) toward your principal. Speaking ill of your site principal only damages the work the entire school tries to do every single day. It creates a hostile working environment for those teachers who may want to support the principal. Sharing these often flippant comments with the parent community can create a huge division for your school. It also paints you, the dedicated staff member, as someone who complains. Don't assume whomever you share your concern with will remain silent. Assume they'll speak with the principal. Once, when one of my staff members make a "not nice" comment, I had close to a dozen staff members and parents let me know within the next 48 hours what was said. You don't have to agree with your principal. If you badmouth them, however, you're going to possibly permanently damage whatever professionally relationship you could have had with them.

It isn't hard to have a good relationship with your principal. Have great lessons. Care about kids. Arrive with solutions. Avoid the negativity. Figure out how they want to hear feedback. Don't be mean. Truthfully, it's what we expect from our kids. Try hard. Be nice. Communicate well. Be kind.

Words to live by... and words to get the +1 from your principal.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

A Lasting Impression by my Second Principal

I'm often asked by my staff and parent community about my path in becoming a school administrator. They ask if there was one individual who inspired me to leave the classroom and join the dark side of administration. During these conversations, I think back to my time in the classroom and my site principals during those classroom days.

During my first five years in the classroom, I served under three very different principals. Each of these individuals had their own unique leadership style.

I had very limited interaction with my first principal. I'm not sure we ever spoke outside of my initial interview. Within the first few weeks of my time on the campus, she retired. Hopefully, my arrival on the campus wasn't the cause of her departure.

All I can remember from my third principal was his comment about my work attire (cargo shorts and Adidas flip flops were frowned upon for the teaching staff) and his love of Bruce Springsteen's album The Rising. My future (and current) wife worked in the main office as a counselor so I learned a lot of what it felt like to be part of a front office through her experience.

It was my second principal who made a more lasting impression. Despite only serving on an interim status for a short few months, it was his support during my first semester as a classroom teacher that helped shape my perspective on what a teacher-principal relationship could look like.

He always provided critical and timely FEEDBACK.

As a teacher new to the classroom, I was woefully unprepared. After my interview and mid-year hiring, I was given the keys to my classroom and wished the best of luck. Even with the additional adults in the classroom for student support, it was my first classroom and the early goings were quite rocky. During my prep periods, I'd often venture to the office to check in. Even early on in my educational career, I liked the quasi chaos of the main office.

During these visits, the principal would take me aside and ask me pointed questions about my teaching practice. He'd ask what I felt at the time to be very challenging questions about my lesson planning, how I was addressing the social and emotional needs of my students, and how I was working on integrating myself into the staff as a new teacher at the school. Truthfully, I did a lot more listening during these conversations, as I didn't have any of the answers I felt he was looking for.

During these conversations, he would give significant feedback on my responses and what he noticed from his formal and informal visits to my classroom as well as any observations he made from my interactions with other staff members, students, and my students' parents. This feedback was often very pointed. He did not mince his words, although never in a mean way. He shared a sense of compassion toward my classroom and school site efforts while, at the same time, strongly encouraging me to reflect and figure out how I could improve my practice. The feedback he provided made me think about school topics and classroom issues in a manner I had not expected. Always supportive, not all of his feedback was positive. A significant part of his words were actually quite critical. However, his overall message was something I needed to hear if I were to be the best educator possible for my students. He offered resources and opportunity for growth. He had the talent to pull from my strengths while allowing consistent reflection on my many areas for improvement.

He modeled what diplomacy and consistency should look like for a site principal.

One of my biggest challenges as an administrator was perhaps my second principal's best talent: he truly got along with so many different types of people. Whereas I may get a bit frustrated and impatient in my conversations and observations with various members of my staff, he always maintained his composure and remained oddly consistent in his leadership. He avoided making huge waves amongst the staff. One of my main takeaways was how he trusted the teachers, as professionals, to be curriculum and classroom decisions to best support their students. Outside our school walls, he was perhaps one of the leading conversationalists on neuroscience in education and had knowledge regarding the science of the teaching profession that was unparalleled in our district.

He encouraged me to network, both on and off our school site. He was one of my strongest advocates, always trusting in my abilities while offering resources and opportunities to improve. He shared his secrets on how to remain engaged in the activity of the middle school without allowing it to overwhelm you. He was a shield of the new-to-the-teaching-profession individuals on our staff, always providing a level of consistent support.

He led with a good sense of balance. Just because a parent or a teacher had what they felt to be a significant concern, he didn't allow their issues to become his issues. He maintained a sense of self and compassion, always willing to listen but not becoming overly emotionally involved in the latest drama that occurs way too regularly on a middle school campus. It is perhaps the hardest challenge of a caring principal to not get negatively involved in the poor behaviors of the adults we interact with on a daily basis. Somehow, he threaded the balance of continued diplomacy while still showing the compassion necessary for our kids, parents, and staff.

He encouraged me to look past my current position and toward my educational FUTURE. 

As a new teacher to the classroom on an emergency credential, I was not thinking ahead to my professional career; instead, I was simply enjoying my first few days in the classroom and wondering what it would take to somehow acquire a teaching credential. As previously shared, my arrival into the classroom was based on the puzzle pieces of a chance encounter that just seemed to all fit together. I gave no consideration toward any career past the classroom.

My principal had other ideas.

He would stop me on my visits to the office to talk about my experience in the classroom that day. What had I learned. How would I apply these findings toward tomorrow. He would regularly pull back the curtain to what it was like to be an administrator. He regularly encouraged me to consider a future in administration. Without any prompting, he offered to write the eventual necessary letter of recommendation I'd need down the line for any educational career advancement. When the time came four years later where I'd need his recommendation, he had it signed and ready to go almost instantaneously. After my first few interviews, he sat with me and provided the necessary reflection to improve. When I got my first administrative position, he was one of the first people to congratulate me. When I later returned to my first district, he was one of the first people to greet me. After I once again left for an outside district, he supported me every step of the way. He seemed to have a better vision of my future than I may have had. He was always there to provide those bits of encouragement along the way.

It is from this individual that I grew many of the tenets of my administrative philosophy. While I may not always manage to reach these lofty standards, it doesn't stop me from trying to best support my fellow educators at Union Middle. Hopefully, when we have a chance to look back, a few current Union Middle staff members will reflect upon the time we spent together in a similar fashion as they move forward in their educational careers.

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