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.

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