Monday, April 25, 2016

How to Leave with Grace

March 15.

It's one of the most important dates within education. It's the date where non-tenured teachers must be notified that they're not returning for the upcoming school year. It's also the date where non-tenured staff (principals, directors, and other district administrators) can be told they're not coming back in the Fall. Often, if you're the individual on the receiving end of this conversation, you'll be given the chance to resign from your position.

After these decisions have been made, it can make for a tense three months until the end of the school year. After all, there is still a third of the school year left. This means that there's a lot of learning that still needs to take place for the remainder of your days together with the staff you're about to separate from. It's incredibly awkward; often, it goes horribly wrong.

One of my first memories of the March 15th date was during my teaching days. There was an assistant principal who struggled a bit in getting along with our principal. It was obvious in our staff meetings. The entire staff would watch as they bantered back and forth in the middle of a math adoption textbook conversation. A few days after the March 15th deadline, the assistant principal stopped by my classroom to talk. They were not in a good space. Given the various stages of grief, they were spending a lot of time on anger. In these ten minutes, I learned more about what it was like to be an administrator than the years I spent in my administrative credential program. This assistant principal felt betrayed. They were worried about their career and their family. They threw about half of the front office under multiple buses. I just stood on the ramp to my portable and listened to their words, offering support where I could. It was an example of how not to leave your job.

A second memory comes from my first few years as an administrator. As the assistant principal, I was tasked with evaluating our new teachers, determining within a 6 month period if they're suitable to return for the upcoming school year. It was late within the previous summer where we struggled to find a teacher for a position. In the end, we made a last minute hire and hoped for the best. Sadly, we experienced the worst.

When I evaluate my staff, I look at a myriad of elements to see if they're a good fit for our classrooms, our students, our staff, and our community. Do they positively participate in team meetings? Can they get along with the other staff members, no matter how challenging they might be? Do you get positive feedback from the students? How many angry parent emails do you receive? How often do they update their grade book? What do I see when I visit their classroom unannounced? While I don't rely too heavily on one of these qualifications, it is possible that a new teacher won't be asked back if there's something alarming therein.

For this one late-hired teacher, it wasn't just one thing. It was a bit messy throughout the first 6 months of the school year and it was very apparent that they weren't a good fit for our school. The meeting went fine. Very little was said. The next three months weren't too awkward. They continued to perform at their previous levels, only with a slight increase in unhappy students and parents. However, things changed one random day in May. I was stopped by the first floor classroom and happened to see a student halfway out of the top window. It was about 10-12 feet off of the ground, The student climbed onto a shaky bookcase and then propelled themselves out the window. Outside the window was the same 10-12 foot drop.

I immediately called for the student to come down from the window. I looked around for the teacher. She was sitting at her desk, grading papers. After the student was safely back in the classroom, I asked the teacher if she knew what was going on just a few yards from her desk. She replied that she did know that the students were jumping out of the window and that she didn't see anything wrong with it. I was floored. Not only was she not using instructional time wisely, but she was actively putting her students' health at risk by allowing these behaviors. I immediately spoke with my principal and the district office. I ended up spending most of the last 3-4 weeks in their classroom. These were this teacher's final days in the classroom, as they've since left the profession.

My third memory was my own experience. It had been a rough 18 months as an administrator in a very challenging district. I knew I wasn't going to return for a third year. My health wouldn't allow it. After a conversation with the superintendent, it became official: I'd be elsewhere for the upcoming school year. It felt like a weight had been lifted off of my shoulders. It was very clear to those close to me that it was a change for the better. Looking back, they were absolutely right.

The next three months as a "dead admin walking" were, without exception, my most effective days in this position. Even with the hospitalization of one of the other assistant principals, the work load seemed to ease. The dozens of angry parent emails we'd received weekly didn't sting as much. I felt it was easier to say "yes" to student requests. Most of my days were spent in classrooms, watching the talented staff work their craft.

This isn't to say there weren't some challenging days. With things going so well, these positive days sometimes made it a bit hard in knowing that I'd be departing shortly. There were awkward moments where current colleagues asked for advice on their application for the job I was leaving from. I had bonded with a few leadership and journalism students who I wasn't going to be able to support during their upcoming Senior year. I really enjoyed working with my administrative and front office team. But in the end, it was a good thing to leave. I'm not sure I would have survived another year in this position without significant life changes.

There have been countless other examples over my past fifteen years in education. Every individual has had a very different reaction to departing their educational home. Some leave mid April; others just don't show up the first day of school. In the end, it would be my suggestion to always run through the finish line and not let one's impending departure color the job they were hired to do. After all, the legacy you leave is often formed from the first impression you've made coupled with the final impression as you depart.

I know I myself didn't do everything right as I was departing each of my prior positions. It's a difficult place to be in as you're transitioning to somewhere different for the upcoming school year. That said, I tried my best to support my colleagues and, of course, our students. It's not always the easiest thing to do... but often the hardest thing to do and the right thing to do are the same thing to do. After all, it will be our students who suffer if we don't leave with grace... and leaving with grace and dignity is very important, no matter the impetus for the change. Our students deserve our very best.

Friday, April 1, 2016

March: The Worst Month of the Year

Many educators believe that the month of March is tied with the month of May as the worst time of the school year. Truthfully, I don't think it's even up for debate; March wins hands down.

May is just filled with fun. Cinco de Mayo placed delicately during the first week of May. We have the excitement of meeting the current 5th graders for the first time during our annual 5th grade walking field trip. Summer, a yearly opportunity to reboot, is that much closer. Tax season has long passed. We can see the finish line for our ready-for-high-school 8th graders.

None of this is true for the month of March.

March is just a challenging month. Every year, I suspect our students, parents, teachers, and administrators dread these four long weeks, slowly drudging toward the highly anticipated spring break in April.

Last year, I shared a theory with our staff at one of our Wednesday meetings. Our parent community seemed a bit stressed. Many of them had communicated as much to me via email, in person, or over NextDoor. When our parent community becomes stressed, their children often absorb similar emotions and behaviors. These students would then bring these concerns into the classroom, often creating challenging experiences for their classroom teachers. Next step: Our staff becomes stressed.

Stressed from the inquiries from over analysis of missing assignments... Stressed from the modified schedules that forces changed lesson plans and classroom procedures... Stressed from students who seem to believe it's already Summer...  And thus, our teaching staff becomes a bit unnerved by these behaviors and I don't blame them. The month of March is a house of cards that's held together by a bit of luck and an absence of wind.

This past week was increasingly unique. Each day brought a different challenge.

On Monday, we had our monthly optional Instructional Leadership Team Meeting. This meeting gave me the opportunity to share the recent staff feedback on our site administrative team and address any staff concerns. One of the present staff members requested to have more all staff conversations during our staff collaboration time. I shared that we don't use our staff collaboration time for all staff conversations. We share positive thoughts, get a quick ASB update, review the weekly pre-delivered Memo, include any all staff announcements, and then a raffle for a $5 Starbucks card. I then explained that my past experience with all staff conversations often leads to hurt feelings, infighting within the staff, and no significant outcomes. Furthermore, I explained how decisions are best made in small informal settings, through face to face conversations, and throughout the school year. The previous principal instituted this strategy and it's one that I wholeheartedly agree with.

No matter my explanation, this staff member did not seem to agree with the reasons behind this decision. It's ok that we disagree; I don't expect to agree on every topic. Still, even after a check-in after the meeting was over where I thanked them for their input, they responded with a comment that made it clear that they weren't feeling heard. It wasn't a great ending to a challenging Monday.

Tuesday began with a parent meeting regarding the behavior choices by one of our students. The conflict this student was having in the classroom was exacerbated by a verbal exchange with one of their teachers. Even though the student and the teacher often have a great relationship, the student spiraled into the office, initially refusing to take any responsibility for his behaviors. The parents were very supportive of the teacher in the situation, but I could tell that they're struggling on how to best support their student... similar to what I'm feeling as the site principal. This was a hard week for all of our students.

The afternoon was my annual budget meeting with the district office. I found out that despite an increase in students for the upcoming school year, our school budget would be taking a substantial hit. I'm not sure if we're going to lose any programs or people due to the lower provided funds, but it's an issue that I'll have to review as we build our budget for the next school year.

Wednesday was actually one of the best days of the year, but it's also one of the longest. It was Open House for our district's middle schools. A flood of current students bring their parents onto our campus to show their learning for the school year. This year, we had a significant number of parents not yet part of the Union Middle community visit with their 5th grade students. It's a bit of teacher-shopping and school-assessment on a random March evening. I also had to prepare and deliver my annual Open House speech to our parent community. Even to this day, I still get significantly nervous in the days leading up to any public speaking opportunity. Lately, I've been attempting to present without any sort of notes to engage a bit more with the audience. This means I spend a good bit more time memorizing my speech and working on the related slides to make sure I'm well prepared.

Knowing it was going to be a long day, I got up extra early to place and pick up a bagel order for our staff. We are blessed to have a supportive Home and School Club to help fund these morning breakfasts. Even with the over-ordering of bagels, they were completely gone by the end of the school day. That's a lot of hungry staff members.

Thursday came too soon. The school day that follows our Back to School and Open House nights are always a challenge. In conversations with my fellow educators, it became very obvious that we were in survival mode for our last day with students until Spring break. Today also included a breakfast pick up for the staff. Possibly the best part of my day was seeing the smiles and hearing the thank you's from our staff for providing today's breakfast. Truly, I'm blessed with a great staff.

The rest of the day was a challenge. One of our feeder schools had scheduled a conflicting event with our annual 5th grade walking field trip. We were left scrambling to change our event to accommodate their conflict. Luckily, in coordination with our other elementary feeder schools, we were able to locate an alternate date that worked for everyone. It did mean that we'll need to move a few events around at the last minute, but we're going to make it work.

The day ended with another parent meeting, this time again with concerns regarding their student at the local high school. It was a class credit question wrapped in a larger concern about their customer service experience in trying to get the issue addressed.

But Friday was just all sorts of awesome.

Today was our staff development day, led by our CTO Andrew Schwab. He brought to our school district around a dozen edu-famous CUE Rock Star Presenters to lead our educators in a day of technology and pedagogy learning. Just a quick follow of the event's hashtag #USDlearns on Twitter shows the amazing sessions we had the benefit of attending. The day ended with two of the three awards going to #teamUMS staff members for their daily efforts. It left me a proud principal and reinvigorated to start again on Monday as we run through the finish line of June 9th.

And that ended the month of March. Stressed parents. Silly kids. Everyone ready for spring break. I'm glad we get an 11 month reprieve until we have to experience the month of March again.

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