Friday, April 28, 2017

Dear 7th Grade Student: Don't Give Up

​Dear awesome 7th grade student,​

​I'm writing you tonight to share the results from the week's ​elections at UMS. 

By now, you may know that I've already called the respective individuals who were selected for each of the five ASB officer positions. 

By now, you've probably figured out that you did not receive a call, that all of the positions were filled, and that you won't be serving as an ASB officer at UMS in the fall.

I know it can be a bit challenging to receive the news that you were not selected for a position that you campaigned for, that you put yourself out there for, that you spent time making posters for, and that you worked extremely hard to make happen.

I say that I know how you may feel because I myself ran for secretary during my 7th or 8th grade year in middle school. I'm not sure which year it was (i'm old), but what I do remember is that I ran against just one other person. It was me or her. 50% chance. Great odds, I thought.

In the end, it was her. 

I was really bummed. My friends had run. One of them had been selected as an officer. He was celebrating while I was just confused and disappointed by the results.

What hurt the most was that there was no closure or notice from anyone at the school to help explain what happened. The winners were announced over the loud speaker and that was it. 

When I sat in my social studies class and waited for the results to be read over the loud speaker, I started to get a bit excited. After all, I had a 50% chance of winning. My friends said that they all voted for me. I had spent the last two weeks saying hi to everyone in the halls. Surely this counted for something, right?

They read the results for everyone to hear and I realized that I had not been selected. I looked around the room and felt that everyone was looking at me. Self-consciously, I suspected that everyone was internally doing the math in their head: "Todd had a 50% chance of winning and he lost! He finished LAST!"

The rest of the day was a bit rough. I didn't eat with my friends that lunch. Instead, I chose to do a bit of homework in the library, but truly, I was hiding and a bit embarrassed by the news. It's hard to be 13, to put yourself out there, and to fail.

But as I've grown older, I realize that I didn't fail. If anything, I succeeded.

No, I didn't win some random secretary position at some random middle school way back when. Instead, I gained a bit of perspective that sometimes things don't work out how I hoped they would have but it doesn't mean that there won't be another opportunity that I need to be prepared for.

Essentially, you need to make sure you just don't give up.

The loss of the secretary position stayed with me for a while. 

Fast forward to college. I finally managed the courage to run again for an elected position, this time in my fraternity. I end up elected treasurer and am re-elected for my Junior and Senior years. (Disclaimer: I'm not sure anyone else wanted the job)

Fast forward a few more years and I'm being interviewed for my first teaching position. Didn't get it and instead I'm immediately called back to interview for the job I ended up loving for my first five years in education.

And then, I apply for two administrative positions despite having five years of classroom experience. Reach the second round but was the runner up. Came up short. Replayed my second round interview in my head over and over again. A week later, I ended up being selected for the second one.

Two years later, I applied for an assistant principal position at my high school alma mater. Didn't get it. Reapply a year later. End up getting selected this time around.

My point, awesome 7th grade student, is that you're going to be selected for a lot of awesome opportunities in your future. You're also going to lose out on others. All of this is absolutely ok. Just don't give up trying. 

I'm proud of you for putting yourself out there and running for office. You did a great job. Thank you for being a student at UMS. Thank you for being you and making UMS a special place to be. 

I look forward to your 8th grade year and seeing how you continue to be awesome. Keep it up.


Your very proud principal

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Hire the Best (pt 3)

If you're still following along, I've shared an inside look into how a principal builds the best staff possible for the upcoming school year.

The first post shared how we had experienced the loss of an incredibly talented young educator to one of our feeder elementary schools.

The second post detailed how sometimes the stars align and a former staff member may somehow rejoin your staff through a bit of luck and timing.

This post shares how we were able to fill the our last open position for the upcoming school year... it's about always having a plan.

With Ms. Starr's impending departure for Noddin, we now had a 6th grade math/science core position to fill. I needed someone who had experience with 6th grade students, who was both an expert in mathematics and science at the 6th grade level, and who would understand our school culture and community from the minute go.

Over the next few days, I explored a variety of options for this now-open position. I attended the Santa Clara County Job Fair and met a few prospective candidates, all eager to find an educational home. I spoke with principals outside the district about any teachers they had who were ready for a possible change in their professional career. I would check in with our Human Resources department seemingly hourly for an update.

Despite all of these conversations, nothing seemed to make sense. There didn't seem to be a perfect fit.

And that's the thing. I won't accept anything less than a perfect fit for our students and for our staff. I fully expect to be able to hire the best possible educator to join our staff. I've shared my thoughts about our school community before. Our kids are awesome. Our parent community is supportive. And the staff is second to none -- it is easily the best staff I've ever worked with. No other staff puts kids first like the staff I have the pleasure of working with at Union Middle.

And that's when I got a random text, completely out of the blue, from a former UMS teacher.

This educator has left two years prior for an administrative position in a very wealthy district about 20 miles north. Unbeknownst to her, I kept close tabs on her progress as an admin. I only heard good things. Unlike many new-to-administration educators (including myself), this individual immediately and successfully blended the constant balancing act we administrators have to face in our daily routines. She was fantastic with kids. She supported her staff. She worked closely with the parent community.

And while I can't speak for her, I do know that being an administrator is a lonely place to be sometimes. You miss the classroom every single day. I still do myself.

You're viewed differently. The public figure aspect of the job is just bizarrely uncomfortable.

And maybe, to her, no matter where she was, it just wasn't home. It just wasn't Union Middle.

So we conversed over text and that quickly switched to a phone conversation.

She was looking for a change. No doubt in her mind. She wanted to come back to Union Middle. Did I have a spot?

Yes and no.

To make the spot in 8th grade science, a hard conversation had to take place with a current staff member. They would have to shift to Ms. Starr's 6th grade assignment, opening up a spot in 8th grade science. The move made sense. The now-6th grade teacher had taught at this grade level before with much success. The opportunity to have her rejoin our 6th grade team and create the opening at the 8th grade science level just made perfect sense.

During these frantic days, I would regularly check in with our superintendent and assistant superintendent of Human Resources. In some districts, a principal may not have the support for such out of the box thinking. Here, in USD, our district team was heavily invested and working hard to help make this entire project a reality almost overnight.

Fast forward a few days and it was a go. This actually could be happening. The plan was slowly coming together.

The hardest part about everything that was happening was not sharing the good news with our staff. While I dropped hints in various conversations with inquiring staff members, I knew that I needed to allow all of the dominoes to fall in a timely fashion. As more than a few of my staff will share, I'm not a big fan of secrets. I just prefer to be upfront and honest about everything; it's easier to keep track of the truth this way. Sadly, in education and many other work place environments, that's just not possible.

Finally, today, I was able to share the good news with our staff: Mary Martin was coming home to Union Middle.

At first, the staff didn't believe me. One teacher even said, "wait, is he serious? he can't be serious... is he serious?" Another staff member, someone who may have already known, confirmed that the news I was sharing, that Mary Martin was returning to Union Middle, was the truth. Smiles started to break out at every single table. The noise got a bit louder. I too stood at the front of the room, smiling at finally being able to share such good news.

After all, Mary has close to twenty years classroom experience. She has been at the forefront of our transition to a balanced implementation of technology in the classroom. We have co-presented at conferences. She's even been the president of our teachers' union and, in my opinion, performed extremely well to support the USD staff and students in this role. Mary is someone who sees the bigger picture and works collaboratively with all parties to make the goodness happen.

As I shared previously, she's one of those "I'll do whatever I can to support kids" kind of educators. She's expertly training in AVID. Her experience in teaching students how to love science is something district and noticeable when speaking with her students. I've often referred to her as the glue that kept our science department together.

Simply put, she's one of the best educators I've had the pleasure of working with in my 15+ years in education and we are truly blessed she's coming back home to Union Middle.

In my conversation with her on the phone, we discussed how happy she was in her present administrative role. She shared how amazing her students were, how friendly the community was, and how she'd build solid friendships with her staff.

But the difference is no matter how amazing those friendships are, she really missed her family at Union Middle.

And, without a doubt, the most important thing in and out of our profession is family.

Welcome home, Mary. 

Hire the Best (pt 2)

In this previous post, I shared some not-so-great for Union Middle School news that we were losing a teacher to the elementary school. This staffing loss led to another aspect of our "Building a Better Principal" presentation: Always have a plan.

And yes, I did have a plan.

The plan was to move forward by looking backwards.

We do have teachers leave for various reasons. It happens at all schools. Other opportunities. Just needing a change. Sometimes even a promotion of sorts.

With Alyssa's departure and a second opening in 6th grade core, we were looking for two top notch educators to join our team.

The second opening was filled first. Last year, Monica Silva shared with me that she would be leaving Union Middle to pursue an opportunity elsewhere. The job sounded amazing and I knew her departure would leave a huge hole at UMS.

Reason being, Mrs. Silva is a champion for kids. She loves them. She devotes every breath she takes to ensuring that they feel welcome in her classroom and on our campus. She's the den mother every school needs. When she left, the loss was noticeable and a challenge for our school culture.

Somewhere along the way, sometime around late Fall, Mrs. Silva reached out to me and just checked in. I shared how much I missed her on our staff. She shared how much she missed being a part of our staff. I suggested she come back. She laughed.

Fast forward a few weeks and what had at one time started as a silly conversation was slowly becoming something that could happen.

Mrs. Silva did want to come back to USD. She was ready to make it happen. Add in some details about the teacher shortage, the continued need to hire great teachers, a forward thinking superintendent and Human Resources department who understood how to make these out-of-the-box ideas happen... and Mrs. Silva was going to be a member of our school district again for the upcoming school year.

However, there was no guarantee that her eventual placement would be at UMS. Dominoes had to fall, not just at Union Middle but elsewhere in the district.

Earlier this week, I was able to officially confirm that Monica was going to be a part of our #teamUMS staff for the 2017-18 school year (and hopefully many years beyond). I was able to announce the news to the staff at our collaboration time this afternoon.

To be able to hire the very best for your students... that's the goal of a principal. With Monica, I've guaranteed that whatever students end up in her class for the 2017-18 school year will have an amazing 6th grade at Union Middle.

But if you're reading along, I still had Ms. Starr's position to fill... This would be a bit trickier.

(and yes, it's continued in part 3)

Hire the Best! (pt 1)

A few weeks ago, Jackie Knudson, a kindergarten teacher at Noddin Elementary School, and I presented at Annual CUE in Palm Springs. We had spent a few weeks preparing our presentation, titled "How to Build a Better Principal", and decided upon five key elements therein.

One of the five ways to Build a Better Principal was to only hire the very best. The best teacher. The best office assistant. The best assistant principal. The best basketball coach. The best everything. The "Better Principal" wants to have the very best educators interacting with their students each and every day.

I should briefly pause to share what I mean when I say "the best educator" as it may mean different things to different people.

To me, the best educators care about kids deeply. They give second chances but are also firm when necessary. They know that sarcasm rarely works with kids, especially not until a solid student-teacher relationship is built. They're also hard working and yet always looking to improve. They're the teachers you can ask something of and you'll probably hear a response that starts with "yes"  and ends with "always willing to help". They're the current leaders of your school culture and the future administrative leaders of your schools.

One such teacher is our very own Alyssa Starr.

Alyssa schedule has her listed as teaching 6th grade Math & Science, but that's not what she does; she teaches kids how to be advocates for their own learning, guiding them from the perilous transition of elementary school to 7th grade. She's nothing short of fantastic. She's a silent leader on our campus. In the years I've known Alyssa, I don't think I've ever received a parent or student complaint. She's a true asset to Union Middle School.

Recently, Alyssa shared that she's looking for a bit of a change and would be applying for a kindergarten position in our district. Ironically perhaps, she's now scheduled to be a teaching partner of my CUE partner, Ms. Knudson. When I spoke with Jackie tonight about Alyssa's departure from Union Middle, she said, "Well, remember... we did say that the secret to building a better principal is to hire the best... we were just following your advice in having Alyssa join our team!"

And she's right. A principal needs to hire the very best... and if your teachers are on board with making it happen, even better.

So good for Noddin. They just got a top notch educator, a future leader in our profession.

And they left Union Middle with a huge staffing hole to fill...

But another rule about Building a Better Principal - Always have a plan.

(Part 2 shared a bit of the plan... read on)

No Words

(Note: I wrote this blog entry a few weeks ago... but just didn't bring myself to share our experience from that week just yet. I think it's ok now. Thanks for reading.)

I don't have the words to describe last week.

It started with a random news alert that a plane had crashed in Riverside, California. It was a Monday. My wife and I had been discussing our challenging days at each of our middle schools. I quickly skimmed the news report of the place crash and slightly paused as I read that they were traveling back to San Jose. Weird, I thought, that's pretty close to where I work.

I then read a bit more about the story. The individuals on the plane had been at a cheerleading competition over the weekend. This was another odd coincidence; our two middle schools had just performed at a cheerleading competition. 

The news shared that the competition had been at Disneyland. Again, a weird coincidence. Our cheerleaders had just performed at Disneyland and had actually finished first out of seven teams. Perhaps there were other divisions or other teams who participated in the competition that I didn't know about. 

Then I received a text from our cheerleading coach. 

A bit of backstory on our cheerleading coach.

First, she's awesome. She "gets" kids. She's also our Mental Health Counselor at Union Middle. We're very lucky to have her on our site. As far as irreplaceable staff members go, she's definitely on that list.

She shared her beliefs on what had happened. That the crash may involve families from our school. That while she didn't have any facts, she was just as worried as I was. I asked her to repeat to me more than just a few times: None of our students were on the plane. All of our students came home on the bus. All of our students were safe.

Despite a flurry of false information from our new organizations, the picture started to become a bit clearer. Names of the victims were eventually confirmed. Based on what we heard, it became very clear, very quickly that two UMS families were going to need a lot of support from us and our community.

The following day at school was a challenge. Our district sent extra administrators and mental health services to our site for as long as we needed them to stay for the week. Our superintendent graciously sent breakfast and lunch for our staff. It was an "all hands on deck" type of day for our staff. We were all on the lookout for that student or students who may need support.

And it wasn't just students we were worried about. It was our staff too. The teacher who had all of the siblings in her class over the past few years. The other staff member who spent countless hours with the family, discussing how to best support their student. Or perhaps our mental health therapist herself, now having to serve as a mental health support for the students in need but also needing time to grieve herself.

For the most part, it was our cheerleading team who were struggling throughout the day, the week, the month... and rightfully so. Our cheerleading team is comprised of a very tight group of friends first, students second. They practice everyday. They hang out together. Most of their free time is spent with each other. These emotional events were not something we'd want any middle school student should have to endure. It was only with the support of our staff and each other that we were able to progress through the week.

More news about the tragic loss within our community spread on Wednesday. Our cheerleading coach and I reached out to the families throughout the week. Both affected families have former UMS students, all of which I spent lots of time working with during their UMS tenure. All of the kids involved are just flat out amazing. None of this seemed fair. It just doesn't seem fair.

We have a community who wants to help. Gofundme (included below) and meal support accounts were set up to support the families. Neighbors and friends have taken over car rides to school, homework help, and just a listening ear as students transition through these difficult times.

A week later, things still feel unsettled. The funerals for the family members are upcoming. I try to check in with the students myself every single day. When our eyes connect, I can see a level of sadness that no 11 year old should ever have to endure. I wish there is more I could do. I wish I had the words to help them.

But I don't.

I don't have the words to help.

Instead, I listen.

I offer my time, my heart, and everything else they need to help them get through the day.

If you want to join in and help as well, there are links below.

Take care of yourself and each other.


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