Across the Table We’ll Find Love

Six years ago I was sitting in my shared office at Patton with fellow instructional coach, Veronica Chase, when my inbox chimed at me, and I found a sterile, short, and life changing sentence waiting for me: Your family has been chosen for Kaden. The only elaboration was that we’d be meeting him on the 15th and he’d be living with us full time beginning in December. After years of trying to adopt through the foster care system, I couldn’t believe this was actually happening.

A week later we would drive to Oregon City, knock on his foster mom’s door, and meet our son– a soon-to-be-six-year-old who would, just one month later, refer to me as “mom.” 

It was supposed to be what DHS refers to as a “low risk” adoption, meaning that the probability was high that his parents’ rights would be terminated in court. However, just one year later we’d end up making case law after a particularly empathetic judge decided his biological mom deserved another chance. 

Throughout the time we’d had him, Kaden had gone on regular “visits” facilitated by a DHS staff member. There were drivers who were tasked with picking him up and taking him to the prison to see his mom or taking him to a park to see his grandparents. We were advised to let DHS handle the visits. Keep it simple … let the professionals handle it. So, we’d stayed out of it–stayed removed– and all we knew about his mom and his grandparents was from what we’d been told by DHS. We had little in common with them. We had very different lifestyles. They scared us. And they wanted Kaden. We wanted Kaden too. That scared them. 

We hadn’t attended the termination of rights trial as it wouldn’t be “safe” for his family to see who we were… to know our names and faces.  But, against the advice of our lawyers and DHS, soon after the judge’s decision to not terminate parents’ rights, we found ourselves sitting in a courthouse in Portland fighting to at least maintain guardianship. His biological mother and father were still incarcerated, but since they didn’t know us, they were fighting to have guardianship moved to a member of their extended family.  

You know that feeling you have when you’re hyper aware that someone is staring at you–sizing you up–but you try to play it off like you don’t notice? I distinctly remember where I was sitting and where his bio grandparents were. I distinctly remember his grandfather’s head turned toward me for the majority of the trial and me concentrating intently on keeping my face neutral and staring straight ahead. I remember the threatening glance from his mom when she was marched into the courtroom, cuffed, and seated in front of me. I remember the sarcastic cackle of his grandmother when Kaden’s therapist referred to me as “mom.” I remember our lawyer distinctly referring to them as “bad people” in our private room. 

So, mid-trial when I requested a mediated conversation with his mom, the “experts” just shook their heads. What good would it do? It would make us even more vulnerable. There would be no way to keep our identities private after that. 

Sitting across the conference room from that twenty-something woman in all orange who was still basically a kid herself, I wanted to hate her, but I couldn’t. Regardless of her life decisions, one thing was abundantly clear. She loved her son. And after our hour together, I think one thing became abundantly clear to her: We loved him too. We both cried, and we agreed to be a team … Kaden deserved at least that. 

When we were escorted back into the courtroom, the judge motioned for her to stand and indicated for her to restate her position. She stood. She turned around and looked at me and Greg–avoiding her parents’ eyes, and said “I want my child to live with his family. These people love him. They are his family now.” 

Last February, Kaden’s mom–not quite thirty years old–walked into an emergency room and never again walked out. She went into organ failure and died. It had been three years since we’d seen her. She was living on the streets and had become addicted to drugs again. 

A lot has changed in the last six years. Those strangers in the courtroom whose eyes were burning a hole into the back of my head just three weeks ago were sitting on our back patio laughing with us as we ate tacos. We spend holidays together. On Christmas and birthdays they bring gifts to Kaden and our daughter as they think of both as their grandkids. We talk on the phone with them weekly. Before we hang up, they always say, “We love you guys.” And, we tell them we love them too.

We are still very different people. But, it remains true that I’ve never gotten to know someone better and liked them less as a result.

Why this story? This weekend ended with a new President Elect. And yet, the country remains divided. Our school community has the opportunity to serve as a model for our greater society. Never underestimate the impact of sitting across the table from the “other” and seeing each other’s humanity. Our country, our community, and our kids deserve it. Love isn’t just a feeling. It is a choice. Let’s choose love this week and all the weeks to come, Grizzlies.

Schools as Models of Civic Maturity

I’ve become painfully aware these last few months of the political tightrope on which I am supposed to balance as a school administrator in a small-ish town. And that is entirely appropriate.

No matter your political leaning, though, three things remain true: 1. This is an historic election that will impact the fate of our country for years to come. 2. We are all concerned citizens who feel like there is a moral imperative to civic involvement now more than ever. And, 3. This election will impact high schools, high school students, and communities around the country regardless of how it shakes out. 

For those reasons, it would not be very courageous of me to choose to avoid the topic in this week’s note to staff.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the fine line between morality and politics. It used to be possible to talk about respecting differences of opinion without people thinking you are shying away from conversations about fundamental rights, basic decency, and the tug and pull of good and evil. This is no longer the case.  This is what makes educating in this political climate so incredibly complex. But,  if there is anything I have learned these past few years, it is that to truly make a difference on a large scale, one must–more than anything–make a difference in their own sphere of influence first and foremost. We must “keep it personal, local, and immediate.”

Here is just one example that comes to mind from my immediate sphere: There are two staff members with whom I have spent a lot of time these past few years as both their roles are crucial to keeping students in school and engaged. One of us is registered Democratic. One of us is a registered Republican. And one of us is a registered Independent.  Surely based on this criteria alone (and our current political climate), one of us is a good human and the other two, not so much.  

Except this narrative just doesn’t fit the reality.  The one thing, in fact, that stands out the most to me about this crew of three is our shared love for all families in our community and our relentless commitment to serving them well. Do we debate about how to best serve them? All the time. Do we debate about who deserves our efforts? Never. 

The three of us stay grounded, productive, and passionate due to the constant naming of and discussion about our shared why. We each grow and become better every day due to the willingness to engage in hard conversations, listen to each other with the intent to understand rather than respond, and sometimes even put our pride aside and allow ourselves to change our minds and change course. I can’t help but wonder what a better world we would live in if we all engaged with our own spheres of influence with this kind of respect, grace, and shared humanity. 

After all, we are in the business of educating. And, every great educator knows that one does not learn something deeply and grow in a meaningful way simply by being told the facts and stats. We certainly do not grow by being told that our thinking is stupid, immoral, or invalid. We grow the most when we feel emotionally compelled to grow by the very people who love us and are willing to stand by us while we learn. We are compelled by them because we respect them, the example they set, and their lived experiences. 

What I want most for our school and greater community these next few weeks is not to sweep politics under the rug but to keep them personal, local, and immediate because that is how we make the biggest difference and because, I’ll say it again, the fastest path to meaningful change is never hate. It is always hope. As always, great change comes one person, one story, and one loving conversation at a time. We will change the world by who we vote for, yes. We will also change the world by who we love. Let’s love each other this week no matter what.

The Educator’s Ironman

June 15th, 2020

I’ve never run a marathon, but I imagine this is what mile 26 must feel like: sheer exhaustion and an overwhelming sense of pride that you made it … even if “making it” means getting a crappy time and stumbling over the finish line. Regardless, we did it. Make no mistake about it. Even if it was clunky and painful and at many times even ineffective, we did it … together. And this thing we did? It will be in the history books someday.

They say that collective pain actually acts as a kind of social glue that can foster cohesion and solidarity. It’s one of the reasons military recruits go through boot camp–not merely to get in shape, but to bond with those who share the agony of the experience, so much so that they will put their lives on the line for one another.

At the expense of sounding dramatic, this year’s MHS staff will forever be bonded by a shared trauma. Wherever we fall as individuals in our experience of this moment in history, we went through (and are still going though) a global pandemic, a looming economic crisis to match that of the Great Depression, polarizing political upheaval, and a worldwide movement to combat racial injustice that leaves all the systems in which we operate being rethought and reworked with little to no funding. You know what? This isn’t a marathon. This is more of an Ironman.

Seemingly trivial among these other crises is the sheer fact that many of life’s rhythms that are unique only to educators have come to a jarring stop. FALL: school starts, new pencils, Friday night lights, homecoming WINTER: semester two, new teachers, new classes, fresh start, squeaking sneakers on the courts SPRING: reflection, finals, races in the sun, award ceremonies, celebrations SUMMER: rest and rejuvenation WASH. RINSE. REPEAT.

If you’re like me your life has swayed to this rhythm since you were in kindergarten. For me, that means 35 years of this expected routine. And all of a sudden it all came to a sudden halt. It’s thrown me. Big time.

But being thrown isn’t all bad. Some of you have seen the faded tattoo on my right forearm (the one of the angel wings and the number 12 in them) and know the story about how my daughter almost died when she was three. The twelve symbolizes the room she was in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (12), the amount of days she was in a coma and we waited to find out if she was going to live (12) and the year (2012). Some of you also know my husband’s and my response now to just about anything stressful in an effort to maintain perspective: “It’s not Flesh Eating Bacteria.” I bring this up because nearly losing my child was both the best and worst thing to ever happen to me. The worst for obvious reasons. The best because through it I was given the gift of perspective and gratitude.

On some of my hardest days this spring I pause and imagine a future MHS where our problems are that of the typical variety–where global pandemics are replaced by that random kid who doesn’t quite make it to the bathroom before he loses his lunch and where economic crises in which people are losing their livelihoods are replaced by the biggest frustration being having to move or share classrooms or those dang administrators/teachers/students/parents/fill-in-the-blank who just don’t get it. I imagine when we are in those moments, we will pass each other in the hall, wink, and give a knowing smile that only we–who have been through this together–will understand to mean “It’s not a global pandemic.” Perspective. Gratitude. I have been so honored to be a part of this year–this moment in history–with all of you.

We just finished the swim. I’m not going to lie. There’s still a bike race and a marathon ahead. Shake yourself off. Take a few deep breaths. Enjoy your summer. And I’ll see you back on the course soon. Just imagine the strength, the sense of pride and the feeling of community we will have when we get through this together.

Musings of a First Year Principal

What a first year it has been. The following are excerpts from my weekly emails to staff. I thought I’d store them all in one place so I can look back on them someday and remember this wild ride.

Sept 16th, 2019

On Friday at the football game in Roseburg, Veronica and I ran into a student who proudly told us that he just got off probation … for the first time in seven years. (He’s been in and out of rehab and in and out of juvie for as long as I’ve known him.)  He asked us if he could start a club for students who are struggling with addiction in one way or another (whether it be food, drugs, video games, etc). Secondary to the extreme pride I felt in his accomplishments and his desire to give back  was a profound sense of guilt. I can’t tell you how many meetings I’ve sat in with him and his mom over the years where he’s assured us he’d turned over a new leaf, only to catch him using  the very next day. So many times in those meetings I thought to myself, “Here we are again. Same story. Different day.” But this time (at least for now) he’s clean and is doing the hard work of proving himself to the school system and criminal justice system. And, for the first time his pride in himself and introspection doesn’t ring of manipulation but rather, of truth. While I never showed that I had given up on him, deep down I think I had. I bring this up, because we know the power of hope when it comes to students’ feelings about themselves and their futures. Often, though, we forget the power of hope when it comes to educators’ beliefs in students. Sometimes our work can feel so fruitless for so many years and then one day the cumulative conversations and care and pushing all of a sudden kicks in and the student learns and the learning is deep and life changing. I don’t know if this student will be able to sustain his new found sense of purpose in life, but I do know that he has learned something no one can ever take away from him–that his previous decisions don’t have to define his future choices and that he has more power over his own life than he’d ever thought possible.

Have a great week Grizzlies! Here’s to hope.  

Sept 23rd, 2019

Sometimes the hardest work of all can be navigating the disconnect between what we feel like students deserve based on their actions, choices, and efforts and the reality of what they actually need in order to do better. Giving a consequence that matches the severity of the infraction seems so intuitive. Yet, there is growing research that shows that the best way to help students actually change their behavior is helping them figure out how to repair the relational, emotional, or instructional damage they created by modeling kindness and forgiveness and holding them accountable for this repair.  The most promising news is that all students crave significance. And, students who feel a sense of contribution and purpose in their school community don’t seek out that feeling of significance through violent, disrespectful, or disruptive means. In short when we’re at the end of our rope–as hard as it is–remember, getting mad or getting even is not nearly as effective as having students give back.

 Shifting the culture from one of punishment to one of positivity can be especially daunting when what students need feels beyond the scope of what we can give them (given that teachers have 200 other students in their classes and support staff have 2000 other students they’re also tasked with serving).  The good news is the most impactful efforts of educators are not grand gestures, inspiring lectures, or unsustainable altruism. The efforts that have the most impact on students are our consistent and unwavering micro-behaviors: smiles, nods of affirmation, fist bumps, asking how students are doing, or eye contact that shows students we really see them. When things get overwhelming, don’t forget, some of our trickier students are just a few supportive interactions away from seeing themselves as worth their education. 

Sept 30th, 2019

I’ve always thought that one of the most fascinating obstacles students can present with is selective mutism. It’s a real thing, and I’ve had a few students over my career in education with this medical diagnosis. It can present obvious educational hurdles for both the student and his/her teachers. This year we have a 9th grader with this disability, and she spent the first few days of school unable to communicate with staff her thoughts, needs, and worries. We’d sometimes find her in the hall sitting alone avoiding going to class.  

After many schedule changes to try to remedy this, Linda Jones decided to punt and put her in choir.  (Yes, you read that right. But you know, Linda. There’s always a method to her madness.) Many of our students thrive in Robin’s classroom environment, and music can be a unifier and a comforter, so even if this student could not sing along, she thought, … why not? It was worth a try. 

But here’s the thing, the student DID sing along. In fact, when word quickly spread that she was not only attending class, but she was singing, many staff snuck out of their own classes to go see for themselves. Tears flowed and smiles grew as they were reminded of the true magic of education. You all know more than anyone, but it deserves to be spelled out in black and white: Education isn’t just about checking off credits and systematically covering the standards. It’s about calling forth each individual’s greatness and instilling in them a sense of aliveness with the possibility that they matter and the courage to take risks because they might just be worth it. 

I, for one, am in awe daily as I watch this magic unfold. And, (at the expense of sounding cheesy) I consider myself so lucky that I get to be a part of it. It’s easy to get bogged down in the weeds of the work, but if we step back and consider the impact we have and the potential impact we could harness, that burden of being in the weeds can be replaced by our own sense of aliveness brought on by the importance of our work and our own courage to take risks inspired by the potential of our impact. 

It’s almost October, Grizzlies. Homecoming. Critical thinking. Spirit days. Questioning. Crazy costumes. Raising expectations. Pushing boundaries.  Calling forth their greatness and holding them to it. 

Bring on the magic.

Oct 7th, 2019

One of the hardest questions to unpack as educators is “Do my day-to-day practices really align with my teaching philosophy?”  As hard as we try, so much of what we do in schools is because we’ve always done it that way.  Public education gets a bad rap, but in actuality we do so much right–our school more than most. We reflect. We rethink. We reinvent. AND, there’s probably nothing more challenging to rethink than our means of reporting on students’ learning. You may or may not be aware, but a grassroots movement has started at our school to more accurately align our grading practices with that which research overwhelmingly states about how students best learn. 

Here’s a podcast featuring Rick Wormeli, that does a deep dive into the how, what, and why of measuring what matters in schools. If you’re at all curious and ready for it, give it a listen. If not, it’s ok.  I include it in the Grizzly News though because conversations like these are often avoided in education because they’re pretty heavy, pretty controversial, and pretty impossible to bring to some sort of practical resolution. But, because we are in the business of going from great to groundbreaking this year and because so many of you have asked, we promise to not shy away from these discussions solely because they’re difficult.  For more information from your colleagues on how to practically roll out these ideas at MHS, please reach out to your admin team, and we can direct you to people in each of our departments who are piloting grading practices that foster equity, opportunity, and accuracy. 

Oct. 14th, 2019

The fall can wear down educators. It just can. And, the truth is, the eventful days and long nights can sometimes get the best of our administrative team too.. On Friday, though, Veronica and I had the opportunity to take some of our unsung heroes out to lunch as it was (technically) a no-student day at Mac High. Hearing a little more about each of their stories as well as why they love working at our school was exactly what I needed to reignite my passion for this work.  

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Custodian, Glen Hermans (“Skeeter”–bottom right), has lived in Mac for 50+ years and is an alum of McMinnville High School. The story goes that he once got suspended for riding a go-cart through the halls while class was in session. (Sorry, Skeeter. I told you that information wouldn’t be safe with me.) According to Skeeter, there’s no more fulfilling work that giving back to the community in which he’s lived his whole life.  But it is our students in particular that make his work so worth it. The other day, when walking from the food court to the CTC one of our students stopped him by saying, “Excuse me, sir.” Expecting to hear about a mess somewhere on campus in need of cleaning or a question about how to get somewhere, Glen paused and said, “Yes? How can I help you?”  The student, though, stuck out his hand and said, “I just want to thank you for everything you do around here.” 

It’s those seemingly small interactions that make all of us feel like we matter in this profession. And, just like that student reminded Glen about the importance of his work, he and the other MHS custodians reminded our administrative team of ours. We all need to be led–regardless of the role in education we hold. Last Friday this crew led me. Their gratitude, humility, and appreciation for the smallest of gestures inspired me to see the good all that is around us each day. Thank you Skeeter and crew for your service, your inspiration, and your leadership. This principal needed the important reminder of what matters most.

Oct. 21st, 2019

Hi all! I’m a little sleepy after such an eventful week, so this Monday’s Mindset Moment is going to be a bit brief.  In lieu of any attempt at inspirational words, I’m going to leave you with these images of our Homecoming Dance where senior, ____, voluntarily jumped on the perch with me, took the mic, and helped with crowd control to keep the event safe … where Mac PD stood on the stage and led the students in some dance moves … where some of our trickiest students pulled Junior, ______, (who was attending his first dance sans mom or IA) out onto the dance floor to join the fun … where when the lights came on, rather than running for the doors, students gathered in the center of the floor and gave one last Grizzly cheer before officially calling Homecoming a wrap.  (There are rumors that I got slapped and a student got arrested as a result. While that sounds super exciting and may have made the three hours go by faster, I can confirm that did not in fact happen.) 

Finally, here’s another video of Homecoming Friday where our amazing staff brought the magic–as usual–so that HoCO 2019 was an event these kids will never forget. I’m tired but so incredibly proud to be a Grizzly today.  Thank you, everyone, for all the big and small efforts you put forth each and every day to create this groundbreaking culture at MHS. 

Oct. 28th, 2019

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about whether or not I’m as good an administrator as I hoped I’d be. Don’t get me wrong. I try really hard. We all do. But what am I actually doing that matters for our school … our staff … our students? It’s almost the end of October and, as such, I’ve been reflecting on the impact of my efforts. Here’s the thing that confuses me: I’m never in my office. But, I’m never in classrooms either. So … where am I actually? 

I still struggle to answer that question, but I can tell you this: I’m in a constant scramble. My calendar is full. I’m BUSY. Surely this must mean what I’m doing is important. 

Except I’m not sure it is.

This gig. The guilt feels a lot like parenting. I’m doing all the “things … ” checking all the boxes. Right now–as I’m typing this email, my kids are carving their pumpkins. This morning I busied myself with driving them around town to pick out just the right ones. I put on the appropriate Halloween jams and found the appropriate tools to make sure they were safe while carving them. But, let’s be honest, the real parenting doesn’t live in the tasks–the checklist. It lives in the spaces in between. 

Similarly, I’m starting to realize that my job as principal is less about the stuff I need to get done (although my list is ever growing), and more about the spaces in between. Less about the emails. More about the laughs in the hall. Less about the reports turned in to ODE and more about that student who craves to be seen. Less about the evaluation paperwork. More about the day to day support of staff.  

Homecoming is over. Conferences are done. The day to day grind is about to begin. I promise I will do my best to live in the spaces in between.  Keep calling me out, and I’ll keep trying. 

In the meantime, I have some pumpkins to carve.

Nov. 4th, 2019

It’s hard to talk about anything teaching and learning related when we know that a member of our MHS family is in pain. Not that life and school don’t go on. They do. But, that’s sometimes what makes tragedy so unbearable–that everything continues when your life has been so permanently disrupted. When you’re the one whose whole world has been turned upside down, it’s jarring to think that others are just continuing about their business as usual. 

With a staff of 200 and a student body of 2200, we know that in times of turmoil, continuing business as usual is often the best remedy for emotional upheaval. But, I want to also assure our friend and colleague and each of you who inevitably experience moments or seasons of a more raw human experience that we do… and we will… collectively pause to feel it with you even though it might go unseen. 

The meetings go on. But there is knowing eye contact that happens between us acknowledging there is something else entirely about which our hearts and minds are dwelling. The teaching goes on, but in the down time, there is a pause–an understanding that these relationships–they can’t be taken for granted because time with one another is never a guarantee. 

I attended the choir concert last week–my heart heavy, trying to imagine the pain of our friend. As I watched, I saw a student who had been hospitalized with Anorexia last year singing his heart out in a confident solo. I saw a student who was previously in Life Skills singing along proudly with his gen ed peers. The beauty of the harmony was in perfect juxtaposition with the pain of others’ reality. And in that moment it was simultaneously too much to bear and just what was needed to remember exactly why we do what we do. 

This work. It’s a microcosm of life. 

No; This work. It is life. 

It’s your lives. It’s our students’. And, there’s no easy way through it. It is pain and beauty and all the things in between. And, we honor this  when we pause–even ever so slightly–to pay respect to the magnitude of it all.

Nov. 12th, 2019

Those of you who know the depths of my nerdiness know that how I spend my professional (and too frequently, personal) energy–when I’m not knee deep in the daily tasks or nightly supervision—is pondering the question, “What is school for…. really?”  The exploration of this question is what simultaneously drives me mad and pulls me back to center when I need grounding. 

Now, I know pretty well how to do school. I’ve spent most of my life both going to school and working in schools. I also know how to help our students do school at MHS so that their transcripts tell the story that best positions them for life after high school.  But, much of our unease and frustration as educators comes from the disconnect between what we want most for students and what school requires (or doesn’t require) of them.  For a few years now, we’ve used the attached triple venn diagram as our model of what we consider a successful education at Mac High. 

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Just last Thursday, our admin team and department chairs were able to spend the entire day unpacking exactly what success means to us, how we can best measure what matters to us, and how we can invest in our people and practices to better align what we care about and how we spend our time and resources. 

What we found throughout the course of the day is that there is more alignment than argument regarding what we want for our kids.  Usually, it is HOW we help students that creates conflict–not why.  Things like how we discipline, how we assign credit, how we grade, how we challenge, and how we support … these topics are where the friction lies. The following questions have permeated many of our professional conversations over the years:

  • How do we support students who are struggling socially and emotionally without enabling them to avoid doing the  hard things that will help them grow? 
  • How do we allow students second chances without having them take advantage of the system the first time around?
  • How do we embrace failure as a learning opportunity while  holding students to their greatness and helping them avoid procrastination? 
  • How do we evaluate students on what they know and are able to do and  on their attitude and work ethic (as both are important in life)?  

I have to hand it to department chairs. They set aside any preconceived ideas of each other’s programs and asked these hard questions.  I think what we uncovered as a group is that this education gig is complex. And, when we talk about doing it equitably–for both students and staff–the complexity is almost impossible to navigate. If our mission moving forward is truly about giving each individual exactly what he/she/they needs, that means our programs and systems cannot operate solely by hard and fast rules. They cannot be black and white. They’re painfully gray. Impossibly gray. 

But, what we do have is the rules that govern our people–the WHYs that drive them. 

When Chris Jones spoke about his commitment to helping our credit deficient students learn both responsibility and academic content, we all knew it to be true. Because, our faith in Chris’s dedication to our students trumps any confusion we have about how alt ed programs function so differently than those in which we operate.  When Erin Brisbin and Jared Larson compared the struggle in prepping for multiple classes versus grading hundreds of papers, they came to the conclusion that both subjects  (and those who teach them) deserve the acknowledgement that there is something uniquely difficult about each– too difficult to quantify in the scope of 90 minute class periods, assigned FTE, and discretionary budgets. 

Yet, those are the conversations we default to because that is the system in which we live: Comparing my 90 minutes to yours. One credit to another. One duty to the next. It is totally fair to ask for equity. For the sake of our students and our sanity, we must.  

It might be impossible as well. But, to not try is to end up settling for just doing school instead of really educating our students and finding joy and fulfillment in doing so.  

In the next few months, various staff will present on the programs they oversee in hopes that you’re able to see the WHYs that drive them, the ways in which their practices support these WHYs (and thus our students), and how we can rally around the gray for the benefit of each child and the staff who serve them. This equity journey calls for … no … it requires, assumption of best intent. It requires valuing healthy conflict over unhealthy peace. And, it requires continuous reflection on what we do and why we do it. 

This is the work of going from great to ground breaking. And we can do it, Grizzlies. 

Nov. 18th, 2019

This week’s “Mindset Moment” is an article that Tom Newton shared a few years back. Enjoy!

Let’s Hear It for the Average ChildIn this season of prizes and trophies, we salute all the students whose talents lie outside the arena.

By Margaret Renkl

Contributing Opinion Writer

May 31, 2019

NASHVILLE — Parents, we ask you to hold your applause until the names of all the medal winners have been announced. When the ceremony is over and your child has not left her seat, though nearly every other kid is taking home ribbons and trophies and enough scholarship offers to make a real dent in the national debt, please take a few moments to congratulate the winners as they head off to their well-earned celebrations. Then we ask that you return to your seats. We have a few special achievements left to acknowledge.

To the student who does all the homework in his hardest subject and turns it in promptly, who studies diligently for tests and shows up at every before-school help session, who has never once read an online summary instead of the actual book and who nevertheless manages to earn no grade higher than a C: You have already aced the real tests. School is the only place in the world where you’re expected to excel at everything, and all at the same time. In real life, you’ll excel at what you do best and let others excel at what they do best. For the rest of your life, you will never again think of this C, but you’ll bring your character and your capacity for hard work to all your future endeavors.

To the student with friends scattered hither and yon, across grades and groups and genders: You may feel like an outsider at every insider gathering. You may wonder what it’s like to feel deeply enfolded within a group whose very membership confers identity. How easy it would be, you may think, to be told where to go and what to wear and whom to stand next to when you get there! In truth, membership in a group always feels provisional; insiders inevitably wonder if they’re the next to be cast out. But a gift for friendship that transcends circumstance, for recognizing kinship wherever it blooms? That gift will make the world your home.

To the student who sits in the back of the room with the chemistry textbook propped open and a library book tucked inside: You’ll have to learn chemistry, there’s no getting around it, but we revel in your love for the written word. In times of trial and worry, of disappointment and despair, a book will be your shield. Immersing yourself in a grand story will be a respite from your troubles, and a lifetime spent lingering over language will give you the right words when you need them yourself. No one writes a better love letter than a lifelong reader.

To the bench warmers and the water boys and the equipment managers who follow every play without getting a smudge on their pristine jerseys: We delight in your love for the game, and we salute your loyalty to the team. You may never score the winning goal or hit a walk-off home run or feel the exultation of your teammates as they carry you from the field, but you will know the pleasure of belonging, and you will be spared the sadness of fading glory, too. When you look back on these years, what you’ll remember is the pride of wearing that jersey, the privilege of supporting your team.

To the student who fled for the restroom on dissection day and took a zero in biology lab: It’s a great gift to love animals. When you can sit quietly in the presence of another creature, when you can earn a fearful animal’s trust, you are participating in the eons. Whatever it may seem to almost everyone else, this planet is a great breathing, vulnerable beast, and we are each of us only one of its cells. We celebrate the tender heart that has taught you this truth, so urgent and so easily overlooked.

To the student who bombed the history final because you stayed up all night talking to a friend whose heart is breaking: There is honor in your choice. You can make up the history lessons, but compassion is not a subject we offer in summer school. Today we rejoice for the A you’ve earned in Empathy, the blue ribbon you’ve won in Love.

To the daydreamer and the window-gazer, to the one who startles when called on by the teacher or nudged by a classmate, whose report card invariably praises your good mind but laments your lack of focus: We are grateful for your brown study. Here’s to the wondering reveries of the dreamers and the dawdlers, for the real aha! moments in life are those that cannot be summoned by will. They arrive by stealth during moments of idleness, creeping in while you’re staring out a window or soaking in the bathtub or just wandering aimlessly along.

Life is not a contest, and the world is not an arena. Just by being here, unique among all others, offering contributions that no one else can give, you have already won the one prize that matters most.

Nov. 25th, 2019

Today’s “Mindset Moment” is simply a handful of comments from last week’s student survey. These are just some that I skimmed off the top before I take a deep dive into it over break.  I hope it serves as validation for the work you do every day and/or just makes you smile as you start you kick off your three-day work week!

All my teachers are able to look at me and call me by my first name or a nickname.

I have been able to form an amazing bond with one of my freshman teachers, and I can confidently say that she changed my life. The impact a teacher can have on a student is immense, indescribable, and that’s exactly how I would describe her impact on me.

At some point in my life, I want to renovate a van and travel across the country in it with my cat. I also want to try to do something to save the planet. Like start my own business or even just be an activist for doing the little things that matter everyday, things that are causing global warming. 

I am very confident that I will graduate from high school. I just wish that I would have switched schools before.I had it really rough at my old school and I feel much better at this school, I feel like I will actually get somewhere in life. 

The teachers I have seem like really good people and I think they see and understand me!

There are some of my teachers who I can really have fun learning with!

Teachers have a lot of motivation to teach, and it makes it so much easier to learn and to want to learn

I have goals that I feel like I can do because of the people at mcminnville high that give me the opportunity to learn about them and give me what I need to achieve those goals.

I have teachers that push me to do my best and that makes me want to do better.

I”M GONNA BE FIREFIGHTER!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I feel like all the teachers I have are teachers I can have a personal conversation with. 

I want to own A house with a big backyard, have a nice big truck. and not  leave Oregon.

some teachers when we walk into the classroom will ask how our day is going and what we did over the weekend and i like that. 

My counselor has been a big help in keeping me on track for graduation.

My future is random, and anything can happen to us. But if you work hard, you most likely will have people thank you for your hard work, and it may be worth it.

My work ethic has grown in my high school years. And I am hoping that it is at the point where it will carry me to succeed in my future. I know that I can work to get the job done, and I can’t wait to see what is waiting for me.

Dec 2nd, 2019

We’ve been talking a lot about bias lately. 

And while Veronica has started the conversation about implicit bias, I want to thank Claudia for leading the charge on calling out our own explicit biases. I’m afraid I have quite a few, but one of the more prominent one has been  a blatant bias against those who take themselves too seriously. In fact, one of the reasons I like working at the high school level so much is that high school educators tend to take their work seriously, but themselves…not so much. 

The truth is that this anathema against taking oneself too seriously morphed into an annoyance with the term “self care.” I correlated caring for oneself with an elevated level of self importance. (Stupid. I know,). I realize now that the inverse is likely true. Thinking you’re too busy or too important to take responsibility for your own health and happiness is the ultimate indicator of an enlarged ego.  And last week, the universe called me out on this.

After being encouraged by Veronica, Robin, Kelly, and Kelly to get checked out for some concerning symptoms, I finally let Shannon, our school nurse, take my blood pressure… after which she promptly told me to go to the emergency room. Long story short, I’m fine… Or, I will be fine, anyway. I’m going to take some time to figure out what’s going on and not let my ego prevent me from doing so. I like to think I’m needed … important…  and that keeps me rushing from one crisis to the next. But the truth, I’ve realized, is that’s my need, not yours or anyone else’s. 

The other day I was racing down the hall, and a colleague told me to slow down. I’d asked mid- brisk walk “How are you?” She replied, “Are you going to slow down to find out?” Ouch. Real talk right there. She was right. I was going through the motions but not slowing down enough to do the real work. There’s always somewhere to run to, but the truth is no one (but my own ego) will hurt if I slow down. In fact, I may just find that I’m not nearly as necessary as I thought I was. 

What I will likely find out if I slow down is the value of each individual relationship. I’ll find out how others are actually doing. And I may just pause long enough to pay attention to how I’m doing too.  And, more importantly, I may take the time to take responsibility for how I’m doing.  With a last name of “Fast,”this is easier said than done. But, we have great role models we can turn to here at Mac High.

A few years ago, Kerrie Savage implemented what she calls a “slow start” to her classes. This can seem counter-intuitive to educational initiatives that preach bell-to-bell instruction. But it’s worth unpacking. Bell-to-bell instruction is all about intentionally utilizing every single minute we have with these kids because our mission is too important not to. (I agree.)  We shouldn’t confuse, though, intentionality with a sense of urgency. There are times in education when a sense of urgency is of utmost importance. And there are times that intentionally slowing down to ask how each other is doing is of the utmost importance. 

December is one of those times. My challenge to you (and to myself) these few weeks before break, is to slow down. Take care of yourself. Take care of each other.  If a kid has missed a few classes or is late, slow down and take the time to ask how they’re doing and really hear their answer. If your students need something beyond your content, slow down and give yourself permission to go there. If you’re struggling yourself–for whatever reason, realize that you’ve got a team here to help you. Take yourself seriously enough to care for yourself and not so seriously that you can’t take a step back from your to-do list and breathe. 

At least, that’s what I’ve learned this week. 

Dec. 9th, 2019

Last week was a hard week. I spent way too much time feeling tired and sorry for myself, which isn’t a good look on me.  I was even starting to annoy myself.  The worst part was that I couldn’t stop thinking about how I had promised during the first week of school that JOY would be central to our mission at MHS this year. For some reason, though, I just couldn’t snap myself out of my funk. Finally, Tony, who serves as my mentor this year as I try to figure out this new gig, yanked me out of my office and into classrooms in an effort to intervene. 

I’m embarrassed to say that the majority of time I’ve spent in classrooms up to this point has been when I was called to triage a problem, troubleshoot a logistical issue, or respond to a student need. As a result, I’ve unintentionally trained my brain to be in crisis mode rather than celebration mode. But, going to classrooms last Thursday to simply observe the greatness that happens everyday in our school disrupted my habituated thinking … picked the needle up off the skipping record and placed it back down on the song.  Like magic, my mood went from ugh to awe. 

This place is amazing. The opportunities we have for students to discover their passions are insane. Our teachers are innovating, connecting, and fostering both joy and challenge in their classrooms so that our students thrive. Staff all around the school are constantly reevaluating and shifting their practices so that they can meet each and every student where they are at in order to help them rise to their worth.  It’s truly phenomenal. It’s easy to get complacent when you live it every day. It’s the work after all.  But, stepping back and seeing your work as an outsider might is the ultimate re-frame. 

Here’s the great news for me and others who might be experiencing a similar funk: 

Just like we discussed our first week of school, we absolutely have the ability to train our brains to either scan the world for negatives or scan the world for positives. Most people, unfortunately, have trained their brains to scan the world for negatives (just like I had last week).. Why? Because we’re often rewarded for noticing and surfacing problems that need to be solved. Unfortunately, the better we get at scanning for the negative, the more we miss out on the positive … AND THIS IS REALLY IMPORTANT … It is the positives–the things that bring us happiness–that ultimately fuel our success. 

“Constantly scanning the world for the negative comes with a great cost. It undercuts our creativity, raises our stress levels, and lowers our motivation and ability to accomplish goals… Studies have found that across the board, in both academic and business settings people who prime their brains with positive thoughts, significantly outperform others, completing the task both more quickly and with fewer errors … For instance, students who were told to think about the happiest day of their lives right before taking a standardized test outperformed their peers ….The implications of these studies are undeniable: People who put their heads down and wait for work to bring eventual happiness put themselves at a huge disadvantage, while those who capitalize on positivity every chance they get come out ahead.”  – Shawn Achor, The Happiness Advantage

It’s December. If we’re not careful the daily grind will turn into a habit of mind.  Because  this work is really hard … because it’s impossible if we are miserable (not to mention unhealthy for our culture and for our students)  … let’s train our brains to scan our worlds for the positives and share these observations with each other.  Let’s not wait for the joy in our work. Let’s create the joy in our work. It truly is up to us. 

Dec. 9th, 2019

It’s my son’s birthday tomorrow, but my parents are in town so we’re celebrating today.  As such, I’m going to default to men with wiser things to say than me for this week’s mindset moment so I can get back to the festivities.  🙂 (Also, if Teddy Roosevelt’s quote below strikes a chord, I highly recommend Brene Brown’s Netflix show, The Call To Courage. It won’t disappoint.)

 I’ve been thinking a lot about failure lately. I’ve gotten better and better at failure as I become more seasoned, but recently I failed at something I’m pretty good at  I’m not going to lie; it hit me hard. In fact, it rattled me enough that for a moment I thought to myself that it might be wise for me to scale back a bit of my transparency and passion in an effort to make life a little easier … for me.  I was reminded by a few phenomenal staff leaders when I tried to dip out from under the microscope, though,  that taking the comfortable road is far from groundbreaking work. It’s not even good work..  Rather, I am to lean into my mistake, learn, do better in the future, AND stay in the arena.

I know I’m not the only one who thinks about how much easier the job would be if the job description was all to which we were committed. The call to go from great to groundbreaking is necessary AND maddening. I know it can breed exhaustion and build resentment. I see the work of groundbreaking teaching get taken for granted by those they serve and those who are not in the arena. I see it wear educators down. And yet it matters so much. Lucas Vinson reminds me often that there is no work-around for deep learning. There is no fast tracking personal growth. The consistent, slow, and unwavering investment in the work does bear fruit. It just doesn’t always happen when we most need the affirmation. 

I refer often to these words Michael Roberson left us when he retired: 

It is said that one can count the number of seeds in an apple, but one can never know the number of apples in the seed.   Perhaps.    An apple tree bears some 300 apples per year for about 33 years. Thus a SINGLE seed yields nearly 10,000 apples. However, each apple contains roughly ten seeds, and each of these another 10,000 apples. A single apple promises 100,000 fruits from its lifetime efforts. Would that I hold such a promise.

The single seed planted, nurtured and cherished weaves a tapestry across time that will echo for generations not yet imagined. What a bountiful harvest is promised from a single kind word or deed. How much treasure may evolve from one lesson carefully crafted and passionately taught? You, my friends are the master farmers and weavers of futures and lives that so few comprehend but benefit so very many. Much as we enjoy the sweet fruit from the unseen generations who have cultivated before us, so too will those generations that follow be enriched by the seeds of wisdom each of you imparts every day. 

You educators, your value can never be truly counted. This vocation that we have been called to demands everything we have and the harvest may never be ours to witness and celebrate. But know please that what each of you does-what each of you sacrifice–brings hope, laughter, and song to our beloved world.

 

  • Michael Roberson, The Legend

 

Teaching well and leading well (and we are all teachers and leaders) will inevitably lead to some mistakes. But they will also lead to a harvest unimaginable. Whether we are there to witness it or not, our efforts are not only worth it, they’re imperative. No matter what, we must stay in the arena. We’ve got one week before a well-deserved break. Lean in. Embrace the messy, groundbreaking work. And if you fail (which you will when you try so dang hard), fail forward. Make it count. Because, as Theodore Roosevelt says, it is not the critic who counts. It is the one who is in the arena.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Jan. 6th, 2020

Happy New Year! Welcome back!!! I hope everyone had a much deserved, restful break. I’ve missed everyone. As much as I’ve loved and needed the downtime, I’m more of a fast-paced kind of gal so I’m looking forward to the hustle and bustle of daily high school life. Bring on the New Year!

I don’t have a great track record with resolutions, but being a fan of change and new beginnings, I’m a proponent of any excuse to set intentions or get excited for new adventures. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the “one word challenge” or not, but it’s a heck of a lot simpler (and probably less effective??) than SMART goals. Nevertheless, I like the idea of having a single word guide me throughout each year.  The simplicity of it somehow makes the follow-through feel both easier and more purposeful. This year my one word is WHOLE. 

Every day I see Rutsch, he asks me if I’ve started working out again–not because he’s being that guy but because he knows how important being athletic once was to me, and when I became an administrator, I sadly let that side of me go. As a PE teacher and major proponent of physical health, he knows that until I get that part of me back, I won’t feel like my whole self, and I won’t be the kind of leader I could otherwise be. 

In addition to athletics, the arts have always been a big part of my life as well (until the past handful of years).  So, over break, I got myself some new pencils and a sketchbook. I got out into nature. I walked and even ran a bit! My lungs and muscles don’t like me much right now, but my future self does.  And that feels pretty good. It feels a bit like I stepped off the hamster wheel to actually take some intentional steps, and predictably, stepping off the wheel helps me to see it a bit more clearly–what I do out of habit, what I do out of shoulds vs. coulds and what I do mindfully rather than mindlessly. Not sure how I’ll keep this going when it’s back to the daily grind, but I must. It’s amazing what two weeks of silence can do for you when you’re really listening. 

So, this clarity has me wondering: What’s your word? And, what do you need from your work environment in order to honor that word this year? I’m listening. Truly. I am.

Jan 13th, 2020

When I was thirteen years old, we had a long-term sub in language arts. (I won’t tell you why the long-term sub was there because that will just make the anecdote I’m about to share paint me as an even worse human than I care to share.) One day in class, my friends and I found our substitute’s car keys and threw them out the second story window into some shrubbery that surrounded the school. Then, we proceeded to lock ourselves in the bathroom down the hall, turn off the lights, and pretend to hold a seance. Why? Because, in eighth grade, that’s “funny.” I’m cringing even writing this.

Probably the worst version of myself was my eighth grade self. Similar to most pubescent teens, I was painfully insecure and consumed with gaining social capital at any cost. The weird thing is that even as a child, empathy came easy to me. I’d cry when others were sad, I’d agonize over injustices to others. But, at thirteen, my insecurity overpowered my empathy, and the result was a year of choices by which I’ll forever be embarrassed. For the first time in my life, I was the “bad girl.” Lucky for me, though, the label was short-lived because going to high school that next fall with newly acquired neuropathways gave me a fresh start. Thank God our labels don’t have to be permanent. 

Thirteen wasn’t the only year (and label) I had to undo and overcome, though. My first year teaching was a disaster both personally and professionally, and it probably took me a good five years to go from “aw, bless her heart” to teacher leader. Labels are so powerful … and yet, so fickle–especially for teenagers. A good three weeks of reinventing oneself, and the new label is pretty much accepted and solidified. As my mom always told me, “Stop worrying so much about what other people think about you. People spend a lot less time thinking about you than you think they do. They’re too busy thinking about what people are thinking about them.”

I wonder if our students know how relatively “easy” it would be to change their label–to shape their own narrative of who they are. I wonder how many students like their labels versus how many have simply accepted them as truth. I wonder if they’ve even taken the time to reflect on whether who they are presenting as is congruent with who they want to be. 

The weirdest thing about school, though, is that new beginnings are often confined by or even dissuaded by schedules. In our semester-based system, we inadvertently send messages to students that it’s too late to pass, too late to learn, too late to be the student or the person you want to be. You can try again in February, though.  It logistically makes sense. After all, this has been the way schools have been set up for hundreds of years. I’m just not sure it always makes sense on a common-sense or ethical level. 

Our work is all about helping students to grow and learn. Part of that is holding students accountable for their choices and actions. Part of it is holding students accountable to their greatness. And, this part is less about punishing and more about insisting on rising.  Balancing these two things is so tricky. 

In an ideal world, systems and logistics aside, the consequence for not doing the work wouldn’t be a grade. The consequence for not doing the work would be doing the work.  In an ideal world, the consequence for being a jerk wouldn’t be getting to stay home on suspension, but would be having to repair the relational damage that one created. Afterall, these consequences not only mimic “the real world” better than our current systems, but they also build students’ skills and allow them to see themselves as capable of change. The consequences themselves would actually serve to change the label. 

Yet, this kind of stance on student growth is much easier said than done. Our system (at the secondary level especially) is and has always been based on sorting, ranking, and grading/labeling by the calendar rather than personalizing by the individual need in the moment. And, it kind of has to be sometimes because of the hundreds of students each staff member serves and the parameters in which educators have to operate. Remarkably, though, even though the system works against us sometimes and even though we are a giant 6A school, our staff bucks the system daily and individualizes their care for their students. It’s inspiring to witness.  It’s one of the reasons I’m so proud to be a Grizzly.  Most importantly, it works. Kids learn. They change. They grow. (Sometimes it takes all four years, but it happens more often than not.)

This week, let’s be cognizant of our students’ labels. How many of them actively pursue those labels out of a need for significance or social capital, and how many of them have merely accepted those labels because they don’t realize that change is an option or within their power?  More importantly, how many of our students’ labels have we accepted? Do we have to wait until February–like semester based institutions have done for centuries–to give them a fresh start, or can we be groundbreaking, and start now?

Jan 20th, 2020

“The Purpose of Education”

Author: King, Martin Luther, Jr. (Morehouse College)

Date: January 1, 1947 to February 28, 1947

As I engage in the so-called “bull sessions” around and about the school, I too often find that most college men have a misconception of the purpose of education. Most of the “brethren” think that education should equip them with the proper instruments of exploitation so that they can forever trample over the masses. Still others think that education should furnish them with noble ends rather than means to an end.

It seems to me that education has a two-fold function to perform in the life of man and in society: the one is utility and the other is culture. Education must enable a man to become more efficient, to achieve with increasing facility the legitimate goals of his life.

Education must also train one for quick, resolute and effective thinking. To think incisively and to think for one’s self is very difficult. We are prone to let our mental life become invaded by legions of half truths, prejudices, and propaganda. At this point, I often wonder whether or not education is fulfilling its purpose. A great majority of the so-called educated people do not think logically and scientifically. Even the press, the classroom, the platform, and the pulpit in many instances do not give us objective and unbiased truths. To save man from the morass of propaganda, in my opinion, is one of the chief aims of education. Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction.

The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals.

The late Eugene Talmadge, in my opinion, possessed one of the better minds of Georgia, or even America. Moreover, he wore the Phi Beta Kappa key. By all measuring rods, Mr. Talmadge could think critically and intensively; yet he contends that I am an inferior being. Are those the types of men we call educated?

We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate. The broad education will, therefore, transmit to one not only the accumulated knowledge of the race but also the accumulated experience of social living.

If we are not careful, our colleges will produce a group of close-minded, unscientific, illogical propagandists, consumed with immoral acts. Be careful, “brethren!” Be careful, teachers!

Jan 27th, 2020

For those of you who missed it, Betsy Hammond published an article in the Oregonian last week about how MHS is the one school in the State of Oregon to close the achievement gap as measured by graduation rates for Latinx and low-income students. THIS IS A REALLY BIG DEAL. 

If you’re thinking this is merely a numbers game that we play well, let me put it in perspective for you: Yes, we have targeted programs, such as Cook, for credit-deficient students. So do all other large high schools. However, the difference is that almost all other districts distinguish their Alt Ed schools as separate high schools altogether, thus artificially bumping up their attendance, achievement, and graduation rates by “hiding” their historically under-served and struggling students’ results from their main high school’s data. 

We do not do this. We view, and therefore count, all 9th-12th graders in this district as McMinnville High School students. We own all our students. This is just one of the many reasons I’m so proud to be a Grizzly. When you realize that not only are we comparing apples to oranges in these data–and that we, as the oranges, should statistically be doing worse, these achievements are even more impressive. 

In this article you will read about the programs MHS boasts that serve to engage students and keep them in school. I want to point out, though, that no program will ever exceed the passion of the staff who are running it. When you read about our EL, CM, and PSET programs, it is not the programs that are the key to success … It is the teachers who are teaching them. When you read about our pathways and CTE programs, it is not the courses that are engaging students … It is the teachers who are teaching them. When you read about our freshmen teams … it is not the teaming structure alone that is keeping kids on track …. It is the teachers behind it. 

During this last week of the semester, it’s likely you feel exhausted from the hard work you’ve put in this first half of the year. It’s no wonder. You are literally doing what every other school in the country has been trying to do without success for centuries– giving a quality education to our youth, regardless of socio-economic status or ethnicity. I am so humbled to get to work with you all. Today, take a step back and realize that your hard work is so incredibly worth it. And, if you get a chance, please share this article or the gist of it with our students. They deserve some credit as well. 🙂 

Feb. 3rd, 2020

Happy second semester, Grizzlies! I’m heading to a wedding shortly, so rather than sharing my own thoughts as we start this second half of the year, I’m going to leave it to Jody Carrington in this podcast with Brian Mendler (below). I listened to it on the drive to Sisters, and it was the perfect reset for my mindset as we think about fresh starts and new beginnings. Jody’s notion that this work of ours is holy reminded me of the magnitude of our impact. And, her reminder about the power of lighting up when we see each other was much needed after a rough couple of weeks.  If you’ve got the time, it’s worth a listen!

Kids these days: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/kids-these-days/id1465332247?i=1000463830336

Feb. 8th, 2020

We have two alternative education programs on campus that we didn’t have three years ago. We have new positions and new strategies that are working to re-engage students in school. As a result, we have three percent fewer students dropping out of school than we did three years ago. That’s over sixty students who would typically be wandering third street who are now in your classrooms and in our halls.  And these students are some of the very trickiest. They’re the type for whom there’s no manual. Our Ed Psych classes didn’t even prepare us to skim the surface of their vast needs. The painful irony about our work is the better we do, the harder it often becomes. 

I remember one day teaching fifth grade when I was on crosswalk duty after school at Columbus, and a fight broke out. Actually, it was less of a fight and more of an ambush. One kid pretty much jumped the other. As I pulled the aggressor off of his wide-eyed victim I felt a surge of rage fueled by potent helplessness. “Not surprised,” I thought, when I yanked the student to the office. “I could have seen this coming. Why won’t someone DO SOMETHING about this student?!?!” 

Still fueled by my hopelessness, I marched to the bus lane where my principal at the time was directing traffic. “I’m assuming you will suspend [insert student’s name]?? I just pulled him off another student he was pummeling!” She just looked at me quizzically as this was the first she was hearing of the news. I raised my voice. “We sure are tolerating a lot given we have A NO TOLERANCE POLICY.” 

Losing it on a colleague, much less a supervisor, isn’t a habit of mine, but I was at the end of my rope. Since that day, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that moment–about the principle of it, not my reaction–demanding a “no tolerance approach.”  I often wonder, Was I the one in the right, or was I the one in the wrong?  To this day, I honestly don’t know. 

I actually can’t remember if that student ended up being suspended or if there was some other consequence or restorative practice that was invoked. What I do remember thinking and feeling was that I was alone—that the actions we took in schools were not enough and definitely not a collaborative approach … that they often worked against each other. I remember thinking my principal was trying to take the easy way out. I felt if she had to deal with this student even one-tenth of the amount of time I did, he wouldn’t only be suspended, he would be out of here. One way or another he’d be gone–shipped off to another program that was equipped with a more magical wand for changing student behavior than we had. 

The reality is there was no punishment that would torture this student into compliance. While sometimes removing a student is necessary for the well-being of the others in the class, the reality is there was no program that would help him see the error of his ways and “fix” him. There was no solution for him other than the painstaking and continuous work of not giving up on him that I was already putting in. In retrospect, the solution I wanted wasn’t actually for him. The one I was seeking was for me. The answer that the work we needed to do for him was the work we were doing wasn’t the answer I wanted to hear. It wasn’t the answer I deserved to hear. And yet, it was the answer. 

As an administrator I think of this moment often. We drop the hammer too hard, and it simply doesn’t work. We re-traumatize students who already have ACES and whose brains don’t process punishment in a cause and effect manner. We reinforce school as a place where the power differential reinforces the haves and have-nots. We punish students right into the school to prison pipeline … and these students (whether or not they’re out of our classrooms and our buildings) end up right back in our communities, still lacking the very same skills they did when they were in fifth grade. Yet, if we are too soft, we enable bad habits and poor behavior. Structure gives way to chaos, and we inadvertently communicate to our students that we pity them so much we stopped believing in them enough to hold them accountable to their greatness. Punish and they blow out. Coddle and they blow out. 

So what the heck do we do?! My personal philosophy, my lived experience over the past 19 years, and the most current educational research points to the idea that the sweet spot of growing humans lies in the tension between pushing hard and loving hard. And  yet it’s the hardest friction to maintain as an educator without spontaneously (and obviously metaphorically) bursting into flames due to the endless and maddening rub.

What does loving hard mean for our work in schools? It means leaving the power struggle at the door and listening to kids and really hearing them. It means doing our best to not feel personally attacked … when we are literally personally attacked … because the student’s issues are rarely about us after-all, are they? And those who are pushing us the most may have often never experienced the unconditional patience and modeling of emotional stability and frustration tolerance they need to demonstrate those very same skills that we are asking of them.

What does pushing hard mean for our work in schools? It means maintaining the highest of academic standards and behavioral standards for students that they can attain in any given moment. They should always be just uncomfortable enough that we are assured they are growing. Obviously this looks different for some students than others, but keeping students happy and comfortable is not synonymous with taking care of our kids. The best way to show our students we believe in them is to expect greatness from them and then hold them to it. AND THEY WILL PUSH BACK. It’s human nature. When we are uncomfortable, we do that. Keep pushing. Growth is right there on the other side of that discomfort, and we need to keep reminding them of that. 

It’s an art, y’all.  

It’s the hardest art form there is. But, let me assure you: You are not alone. I’m sure you feel like it from time to time just as I did. I’m sure these “never-high-school-teachers-turned-adminstrators” cause you to sometimes wonder if we get it or if we’ve got your back. I’m sure you sometimes want to yell at us, “DO SOMETHING!!” and that’s ok. It’s ok because you’re doing the continuous, sustained, emotional labor of pushing and loving and pushing and loving and pushing and loving … and unfortunately there is no better fix that we can offer for our students than that.  But those kids? They’re here. They’re in our halls instead of on our streets, and that’s a good thing. 

As a staff we need to continue to love each other hard and push each other hard until our everyday art feels less hopeless and more intentional and the doing something for which we are all yearning feels much less out of our grasp and much more right at the tips of our fingers. 

Feb. 24th, 2020

This week’s Mindset Moment is an excerpt from a 2013 publication in The Atlantic titled, The Benefits of Optimism are Real. I felt it was an appropriate read after Unity Week and moving into Mental Health week. The article highlights the importance of making meaning from our struggles and underscores the how hope/optimism remain the differentiator between those who leverage struggle to realize their potential and those who let it consume them.  As we continue to support students to invest in their education … not despite their struggles but because it is the vehicle by which they can overcome them … this reminder is a powerful one: 

… Having a positive outlook in difficult circumstances not only is an important predictor of resilience—how quickly people recover from adversity—but it is the most important predictor of it. People who are resilient tend to be more positive and optimistic compared with less resilient folks; they are better able to regulate their emotions, and they are able to maintain their optimism through the most trying circumstances.

This is what Dennis Charney, the dean of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, found when he examined approximately 750 Vietnam War veterans who were held as prisoners of war for six to eight years. Tortured and kept in solitary confinement, these men were remarkably resilient. Unlike many fellow veterans, they did not develop depression or post-traumatic stress disorder after their release, even though they endured extreme stress. What was their secret? After extensive interviews and tests, Charney found 10 characteristics that set them apart. The top one was optimism. The second was altruism. Humor and having meaning in life—or something to live for—were also important.

For many years, psychologists, following Freud, thought that people simply needed to express their anger and anxiety—blow off some steam—to be happier. But this is wrong. Researchers, for example, asked people who were mildly to moderately depressed to dwell on their depression for eight minutes. The researchers found that such ruminating caused the depressed people to become significantly more depressed, for a longer period of time, than people who distracted themselves by thinking about something else. Senseless suffering—suffering that lacks a silver lining—viciously leads to more depression.

Counterintuitively, another study found that facing down adversity by venting—hitting a punching bag or being vengeful toward someone who makes you angry—actually leads to people feeling far worse, not better. Doing nothing at all in response to anger was more effective than expressing the anger in these destructive ways.

Even more effective than doing nothing is channeling your depression toward a productive, positive goal, as Pat and Pi do. James Pennebaker, a psychological researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, has found that people who find meaning in adversity are ultimately healthier in the long run than those who do not. In a study, he asked people to write about the darkest, most traumatic experience of their lives for four days in a row for a period of 15 minutes each day.

Analyzing their writing, Pennebaker noticed that the people who benefited most from the exercise were trying to derive meaning from the trauma. They were probing into the causes and consequences of the adversity and, as a result, eventually grew wiser about it. A year later, their medical records showed that the meaning-makers went to the doctor and the hospital fewer times than people in the control condition, who wrote about a nontraumatic event. People who used the exercise to vent, by contrast, received no health benefits. When Pennebaker had other research subjects express their emotions through song or dance, the health benefits did not appear. There was something unique and special about the stories people told themselves. Those stories helped people find a silver lining in their adversity.

Click here for the whole article. 

May 2nd, 2020

Happy Staff Appreciation Week! 

In a world where too frequently the field of education is underappreciated and undervalued, it’s important to remind ourselves of our accomplishments.. According to Dr. Richard DuFour in In Praise of American Educators, if we ask, “Which is the greatest generation of educators America has ever produced?” and we answer the question based on the evidence, the answer is irrefutably clear. No generation of American educators has ever accomplished what our teachers are achieving today

Consider the evidence:   

We have record-setting high school graduation rates in comparison with historical data. (Education Week)

We have more students succeeding in a more rigorous curriculum than ever before. (College Board)

Test scores have steadily increased even as we have substantially raised the standards. (NEAP)

Parent satisfaction with their child’s public school is off the charts. (Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll)

Student/teacher relationships are viewed by American students more favorably than the average of other nations’ students across the globe. (OECD data)

I’ll say it again: This profession doesn’t get the respect it deserves. Feeling frustrated with the attack on public education? Getting tired of being compared to Finland? Don’t forget, when you compare apples to apples (meaning our students from poverty to Finland’s, our language learners to Finland’s, etc.) our students’ achievement actually exceeds theirs. … It just so happens we have WAY more students navigating poverty and adverse childhood experiences, learning second languages, etc.

This job is HARD…especially if you’re doing it right. Just wanted to remind you that your work is not in vain…and it is truly making a difference — at historically unprecedented levels in fact! HAPPY STAFF  APPRECIATION WEEK! You deserve so much more recognition than you get, and we hope you know how amazing you are–not just this week but every week!

March 9th, 2020

This week’s “Mindset Moment” comes from an Edutopia article about conflict. While it’s not the most inspirational of kick-off-the-week blurbs, it is important to the equity work we are trying to do on various teams across the school as we unpack our practices and plans for moving forward. We’ve been talking a lot about fostering healthy conflict over unhealthy peace and how going from great to groundbreaking means having the courage to lean into hard conversations. This requires each of us to embrace the idea that we are all leaders regardless of our roles and that holding each other accountable to our greatness is crucial in order to do justice to our equity work. The article below provides a framework for teams to facilitate this work for those who are tasked with leading their various teams or initiatives. Happy reading!

Managing Conflict in School Leadership Teams

There’s healthy and unhealthy conflict. Most of us are familiar with the unhealthy kind, but what does healthy conflict look and sound like? Check out these suggestions for school teams in addressing conflict.

By Elena Aguilar

March 22, 2016

If you are a team leader — a department head, grade-level lead, coach, or an administrator — chances are high that conflict makes you nervous. It makes most of us nervous, and when we’re in a position of leadership, there’s an implicit understanding that we’re supposed to do something about conflict. We may even worry that we contributed or caused the conflict.

I want to make something clear: It is your role to address unhealthy conflict in a team you lead or facilitate. Your primary role as a leader is to attend to your team members’ dynamics with each other and to build a constructive team culture. Without a healthy team culture, you probably won’t get into the kinds of conversations that make a big difference for students because those conversations are challenging ones in which conflict will most likely surface. That said, let me offer you some ways to manage unhealthy conflict in teams that you lead.

Name the Conflict

Because many of us are afraid of conflict, we can hide in denial of its existence. The first step is to acknowledge that there’s conflict in a team you lead, and to name it. It helps if you name the conflict as a communication dynamic rather than blame conflict on individuals. There’s a difference between thinking, James is so resistant to new ideas, and James makes declarative statements that put an end to discussions. Identify the behaviors that generate unhealthy conflict and separate them from people as human beings

Once you’ve identified the conflict in the team, then you’ll need to name it with the group. Sometimes you may need to name it for them, and sometimes you’ll see more investment from your team if you facilitate a discussion in which they identify the conflict. A team may experience conflict because the personalities of individuals are very different from each other or because they disagree on goals or action steps. Identifying the sources of conflict can help to depersonalize it. Sources can also include a shortage of resources or time, organizational politics, and organizational dysfunction.

Consider Addressing the Conflict Now or Later

When you notice unhealthy conflict in your team, you’ll need to make an assessment about whether it needs to be addressed in the moment, with the team, or whether it’s a conflict between two team members that needs to be addressed later. Most likely, you’ll know if the situation is the latter; you’ll have seen these team members engage in unhealthy conflict with each other before, or you’ll be able to see the clearly interpersonal conflict between two people. There’s a whole set of tools you’ll need in order to address the interpersonal conflict later (that’s the content for a future blog post).

Anchor Team Members in Their Norms

Hopefully, your team has some norms or community agreements for how members will behave with each other. Ideally, these help to prevent unhealthy conflict. When a norm is broken, you can remind the team of their norms and share the impact on the team when a norm isn’t adhered to. You might say something like, “I want to remind everyone that one of our agreements is to assume positive intent,” and that might be enough to subtly shift how a group is behaving.

Sometimes it’s useful to name how the unproductive behavior is affecting the group by saying, for example, “When we interrupt, we don’t get to hear someone’s full idea. We need everyone to contribute and share their thoughts so that we can be sure we’re making the best decision. If we don’t make good decisions, we’re less likely to get full commitment from each other. Let’s be mindful of giving everyone the full time they need to express their thoughts.”

If unhealthy conflict continuously surfaces, then you may need to go back to norms, and team members will need to recommit to how they want to work together.

Conflict Can Be Healthy

There’s healthy and unhealthy conflict. Most of us are familiar with the unhealthy kind, but what does healthy conflict look and sound like? One leadership team I worked with identified the following as indicators that their team was engaging in healthy conflict:

  • We wrestle with ideas.
  • We ask questions to probe for deeper understanding.
  • We change our minds.
  • We demonstrate curiosity.
  • We hold student needs at the center of our work.

This kind of conflict can lead to deep discussions that positively impact students. Having a discussion with a team about the role that healthy conflict can play, and what healthy conflict looks and sounds like, can help mediate unhealthy conflict and set the team on a powerful path.

As team leaders, rather than just stopping certain behaviors, our role is to shift unhealthy team dynamics into becoming healthy ones. Such an intention has transformational potential.

March 28th, 2020

I was never one who was very good at individual sports. That’s why I quit track after 8th grade. I like to think of myself as a pretty fearless person, but the hurdles and high jump seriously stressed me out. I stuck with basketball through high school and soccer all the way through college. But, as point guard for my high school basketball team the pressure would still get to me, and I only had one of two modes: starting captain or absolute s#$t show. My skill set was so tied to my confidence that if I got in my head at all, it was the whole dribbling off my foot right before an easy lay-up, out-of-bounds toss into the back of the backboard, no look pass to the spectators thing.

Thank God for teammates.. When you have a deep bench, it doesn’t hurt the team or the outcome too badly to give the ball to someone else while you catch your breath courtside. 

These past two weeks I’ve been so humbled by our team. I’ve made more than a few metaphorical no-look passes into the crowd, and there have been many times I’ve needed to sit on the bench to get my head right while the team continued to shine on the court. When I couldn’t even begin to wrap my head around how we could efficiently, safely, and systematically check out chromebooks and hotspots to our students to ensure equity, Veronica took the ball, and with an alley-oop from Tony, absolutely slam dunked it. When my inclination to all things big-picture prevented me from being able to iron out the details of the work, Robin and Veronica dug in and became the Zoom, Hangout, Slides, and Google Sheets queens–confidently and unassuming running plays we’d never even practiced.  When I was running out of stamina and feeling fatigued, Jessica Marshall showed more skill, hustle, and endurance than I could muster to create the most professional educational tools and resources I’ve seen in a long time. When I was panicking and struggling to lead by example, Mark was the calm in the storm–giving much needed pep talks and keeping our heads in the game.

This game we are in right now … it’s a doozy. The opponent feels bigger, stronger, faster, and is the likes of which we’ve never seen before. It’s a global pandemic for the love of God.     But.    We’ve shown up. And, there is no other team I’d rather be a part of right now. And believe me, if there ever was a time for public education to be a team sport, the time is now. Ironically, it might just take all of us sequestered in our individual homes to bring forth the best teamwork MHS has ever seen. 

In traditional school–in our physical building–it is all too easy to shut our respective doors and operate independently of one another.  This new work will require something entirely different. The level of innovation needed will inspire us to get into our huddle, put our heads together, run new plays together, and pass the ball off often so we can catch our breath. 

But, here’s the best part: We can’t lose. The plug has been pulled on the scoreboard. There is no winner and no loser. No one is keeping track of points.  All we are tasked with doing is serving our students–playing this game–with all our heart and to the best of our ability. Call me crazy, but I think we could even have a little fun. So, tomorrow, let’s suit up in our uniforms of elastic pants and baggy sweatshirts, let’s step out of our small-town gym and into this big unknown stadium, and let’s leave everything on the court. I’m so incredibly honored to be a part of this team.

April 6th, 2020

Maybe one of the best things to come out of this pandemic is all the memes. I came across this one last night, and for some reason it resonated–not because of the doom and gloom nature but because of the amazing role of educators during this time. If you’ve seen the movie, Titanic, you’ll understand the reference. We truly are the calm in the storm right now. 

Even more, not only are we the steady for our families and greater community right now, the beauty you are creating amidst all the panic and uncertainty is absolutely awe-inspiring. 

IMG_0797

I don’ t know how many of you have been able to peruse through our Remote Learning Site lately, but ironically, we have the chance to “open our classroom doors” to each other right now in a way that we never have before. Amazing online teaching like Angela’s backyard yoga workout, this Algebra 2 screencast, this learning opportunity for 12th grade Lang and Lit, this “stand alone” lesson in German,  this one from Clothing Workshop, and this from Computer Science, the ingenuity and creativity of K and Chip pushing out opportunities in Construction and Fabrication, and Health Services incorporating current events in their activities are just a handful I came across in my wanderings down the digital halls. And, I still have a lot more “classrooms” to visit and celebrate today.

Never before have we had an opportunity of this magnitude to celebrate each other, collaborate with each other, and learn from each other. While we’ve never been trained for that with which we are being tasked, and while we are all feeling pretty emotional right now about this change in the way we do school and our lack of ability to share physical space with our students, I’m beyond inspired by the work of our MHS staff. If you get a chance this week to look at the work of your colleagues, please do so and let’s all take the opportunity to pat ourselves and each other on the back (virtually of course) for these amazing efforts on behalf of our students. 

April 20th, 2020

Ryan McIrvin and I have had a running bet for five years that he wouldn’t ever see me cry. I pride myself in not being a crier, and I brag about it often. (Even though I do realize emotional vulnerability is a strength and appreciate it in others, it’s not something I’m good at.) Regardless, it’s been an ongoing banter between us …. so much so that throughout the years Ryan would sometimes intentionally position himself to try to win this bet. On Friday night he finally prevailed. 

For those of you who didn’t see McDonald street on Friday night or the video of our #bethelight event, it was pretty darn amazing … and emotional. The gravity of school being out for good this year had begun weighing me down more and more over the course of last week. By Thursday afternoon I was thoroughly cranky. Part of it, I think, was that we didn’t have our usual staff meeting where I could see all your faces and hear how you are all doing. The majority of last week was just scrambling behind the screen to check off items on the perpetually growing to-do list. 

So by Friday, when I arrived at the stadium, I was overcome by a desperate longing to see everyone again. Everything just felt so … empty. Veronica said it best: The human interactions are the reason we all got into this work. It is the work. Right now, it’s impossible not to feel like our purpose has been shaken a bit. Fulfillment isn’t just walking by us and fist bumping us in the halls anymore. 

So, when our fields lit up, and our seniors stood in solidarity on the other side of the fence, and our whole town drove by honking in support, it all just became too much. Not only did I cry, but I cried on video …. and then I started rambling and did some very bad basic math.  Hopefully it was Ryan’s trifecta moment of glory. (By the way, seeing myself on video is about my least favorite part of all of this “remote school” stuff.)  

But, that night was exactly what I needed. I think it’s what we all needed–to see each other, even if from afar–and have a moment of celebration and unity. I think that twenty minutes will forever be imprinted in our city’s collective memory as it beautifully captures our resilience and heart for each other. And, there are moments in between the sadness of it all, that I realize the opportunities this is providing for coming together in a way we haven’t before when we were all sharing the same physical space. 

For instance, during our virtual “happy hour” two weeks ago, there was the most amazing mix of staff sharing, laughing, and giving cheers to a job well-done. I don’t think this particular group would have ever taken the opportunity to hang out prior to these “unprecedented times” (sorry- I had to fit that in somewhere, right?) I’m embarrassed to say it, but I even got to “hang out” with a staff member I’d only ever talked to once before because of working at two different campuses and rarely having meetings or tasks that overlap. 

It was so much fun. Despite the losses we are all experiencing right now, It is so fulfilling seeing some of us come together in ways and in groups that are new, that are remarkable, and that are so rewarding. I’m proud of us. Part of my tears of late are, of course, sadness. But, some of them are also because of these moments of beauty in between. I truly hope when we finally do return to “work as usual” we hold onto some of these moments and let them change the way we see and interact with each other because, like Veronica said, it is the human part of this job that we are all missing so much and will never take for granted again. 

April 26th, 2020

Did you know that employees who laugh frequently and make others laugh frequently are on average four times more successful than those who don’t? Don’t ask me where I got that statistic. I’m sure it’s true though.  Not that laughter should be a means to an end … After all, wellbeing is the ultimate end goal, right?  

Sometimes, though, we get so caught up in the to-dos–in the work–that we forget the ultimate reason why we are doing the work. 

This week, like many of you, I reached a crescendo of overwhelm from all of this, and I did what I typically do when I’m feeling like my life is out of control: I got on my hands and knees and cleaned the bathrooms until the smell of bleach drove my family outdoors; I had a few glasses of wine and marched upstairs with dull kitchen scissors and cut off all of my hair;  I bought a pond vacuum I don’t need and don’t know how to use because the look of the algae in the pond irritated me every time I crossed the driveway to my new home office to head to “work” in my sweatpants. 

And then yesterday it hit me, my grasps for control were not combating my overwhelm in the way they normally would because my frustration right now is less about the loss of control in my work and more about the loss of joy. Everything has become about the mandates we need to meet, the guidance we need to follow, the events we need to pull off, the tech we need to learn. Those things existed in the physical building too, but when they started wearing on me, I’d walk down the hall and find a friend to joke around with. I’d chat up a student during tardy duty. I’d slide into a classroom where the joy of the teaching and learning was infectious and inspiring.

My challenge to you this week is to cultivate joy. That was our mission this year. The first day of school feels like ages ago, but that was … that IS .. our mission.  And, in the spirit of going from great to groundbreaking, let’s be the school whose laughter is louder than our uncertainty. 

This is a time of crisis indeed. But, I got it wrong, and I’d like a do-over. Crisis doesn’t mean putting our joy on hold until things get back to normal. A time of crisis is the exact time to fight for joy. We can do hard things. We owe it to our students to model doing hard things. Finding our joy right now might be one of the bravest and hardest things we do. It will also be one of the most important. 

If hope is a better predictor of success than test scores and those who laugh are more successful than those who don’t, then we have a lot to learn from families like these right now. Seems silly… even a bit stupid, but I have this deep knowing when I watch this that they are doing something so right and so important with all their smiling, dancing, and silliness.. 

This week, do something silly. Do something fun. Do something in which the only purpose is to cultivate joy … and know that purpose is good enough. In fact, it is the ultimate end goal. Don’t worry so much about ODE’s guidelines for distance learning as much as you worry about the last time you and your students smiled and laughed together.

May 3rd, 2020

HAPPY STAFF APPRECIATION WEEK!!! 

Each day of this week admin will be raffling off goodies for staff with Friday’s raffle being a weekend away at Tony’s vacation house in Eagle Crest. If you would like to enter this particular raffle, please fill out this form.  (Remember, staff appreciation weeks are for both licensed and classified.) While we wish we could see you all in person to give you the face-to-face handshakes, hugs, and accolades you deserve, please know there has never been a time we’ve been more proud or grateful to be a part of this amazing, groundbreaking team.

When I think about why I appreciate educators around the world right now and especially our amazing MHS staff, the first thing that comes to mind is how much heart and how much hard this job requires. I can think of very few professions that require so much strength, resilience, and hope … especially now. With that, here is a letter (below) that Matt Brisbin sent me last week written by 2010 National Teacher of the Year, Sarah Brown Wessling. She captures the essence of what is so beautiful and necessary about educators and the field of education, especially now. 

MHS staff, you are truly society’s heroes and ambassadors of hope. I’m so incredibly honored to join you in this work and be a part of the McMinnville High School family. This work you do is noble. It’s life changing. And, it doesn’t go unnoticed. 

MINDSET MOMENT

Dear Evan, Lauren and Zach:

I woke up early this morning, way before my alarm went off. I noticed the date on my phone and opened my email out of habit. Sitting at the top of the queue, was a note from my former superintendent who wrote, “one of the proudest times in my life was having the National Teacher of the Year in our Johnston Community School District. Happy 10th Anniversary!” Children, I’m sure this day, 10 years ago is mostly a memory for you only through photos. Even then, we rarely talk about it. But today, I want to. 

Even before my morning coffee, I re-read the speech I gave in the Rose Garden that day and after cringing at some typos (that’s what happens when you’re nursing a four-month old a 3:00 am, getting ready to be picked up for a CNN interview at 5:00 am and revising remarks to deliver to the nation for later that day) I found a tether I’ve needed since the world turned upside-down six weeks ago. The day before meeting the President I remember going to a lunch with the other finalists and some very important people in education. When I left (along with breaking out in hives from the purple potatoes) I could hardly breathe. I was certain they’d chosen the wrong person. I was certain I would let everyone down and wondered if I should tell the people in charge: “Hey, this isn’t right. Can you give the crystal apple to someone else?” 

I kept walking. I kept breathing. I did the thing teachers do every day: walk into the uncertainty. Here’s what I want you to know: your teachers, all teachers wonder if they’ll be enough, just like I did that day. Especially right now. We wonder if you’re okay, if you’re still learning, if you’re safe. We wonder if you’ll regress or if this experience will change you in ways we can’t untangle next year. I also want you to know teachers are some of the strongest people I know. I’m still trying to be a better one. They can turn a tear into a triumph and fear into force. They have this incredible ability to see into your future. That’s why they don’t let up and won’t give up, because beyond the labels and scores and sorting, they see you. They see who you can be in one year and five years and ten years. They hold onto the best of you and want to protect and nurture it. That’s why this is such a tough time, because we work so hard to carry the best of you until the very last day of the year when we turn it over to someone else. It feels like we released you far too early and into the unknown. 

Just like I said to you, my fellow teachers and 100 news cameras on April 29, 2010, I say to you again today: “Our dream for our students is the same dream we have for our own children. To be recognized for their strengths, to learn from their weaknesses to be seen as a person of infinite potential.” That’s why it’s so hard right now. Because you are our infinite potential. You are our hope and when we let go of this work in the ways we’ve known it, we feel like we’re letting go of our best selves. But we rail against it. With Zoom classes and notes home. With hours upon hours of screencasting and lesson planning. With careful feedback and constant check-ins. We won’t let your best selves disappear. 

My gift on April 29, 2010 wasn’t the honor or the title of National Teacher of the Year, it was a lesson: when the universe puts something scary and beautiful in your hands, don’t send it back, no matter how frightening it might seem. Instead of backing away because you’re scared, walk towards it because you know fear is an engine of strength you’re harvesting. 

Ten years ago I said, “it will be the stories of our students that sustain and teach us.” It’s as true then as it is today. We need to tell stories that matter.  And the more we tell them, the more we remember we’ve always been walking through some unknown to get to the other side. The more we tell them, the more we realize hope is as close as your story. Thank you for letting us tell them.

Love,

Mom

May 11th, 2020

For this week’s “mindset moment,” here’s a video I created for MHS’s principal’s report at  Monday’s board meeting.  I hope to highlight not only how much we’ve been through these past few months/how far we’ve come, but your amazing efforts to support students. What a wild ride it’s been!

May 18th, 2020

As the year nears the end, we will all have more and more announcements and information to digest and put to use. Thus, in an effort to cut down on the visual clutter and noise, I’m just going to set this video from our first day of school right here (as it’s more pertinent than ever) and hope that you take note of the below information prior to diving into your work for the week. We’re on the home stretch, ya’ll! 

May 26th, 2020

Many of you have begun to reach out with your proposals for reopening schools. As such, this week’s Mindset Moment is an excerpt from an article by Jennifer Gonzalez about the various plans districts around the world are considering. Due to the length of the article,  I’ve moved the announcements to the top of our Grizzly News for ease of reading. 

Reopening School: What it Might Look Like, by Jennifer Gonzalez

MAY 24, 2020

I don’t need to give you much background here: As you all know, schools have been closed worldwide in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and in the same way that cities are at various stages of reopening businesses, schools are doing the same thing, or at least thinking about how it might work. 

We all know that unless someone develops a vaccine soon, school just can’t be run the same as it was before. There’s reinfection to consider, second and third waves of cases that could cause new shutdowns, and on a more distant horizon, the stark possibility that new viruses could take us down just like this one did.

I figure right now, educators everywhere are trying to decide the best course of action, or at least wondering what their district leadership is considering. Since I have access to a lot of educators all over the place, I believe the best way I can help with that process is to ask you all what you’re doing, then curate those ideas so they can reach more people. So about a week ago I tweeted out a request for ideas. I got some from there, some from my own searching, and some from the legwork that Larry Ferlazzo already did on this topic.

Reading through all the proposals was overwhelming, especially when I clicked through to look at the densely-packed documents that detailed all the different distancing and disinfecting protocols that had to be considered. I would give each one about thirty seconds, and then I just wanted to run away. The words just swam together after a while.  I’m guessing you may have experienced something similar at some point. I guess I just wanted to validate that for you: Yes, it’s overwhelming. 

So in the spirit of contributing something of value here, rather than adding to the overwhelm, I’m going to do three things.

The first part will be practical. I’ll very quickly run through seven different ideas people are considering for reopening schools. I was kind of excited about one idea in particular, because it’s something a little different and it might actually work. 

The second part will also be practical, but more random. In this section I’ll share other thoughts and ideas I’ve seen floating around that connect to school reopenings but aren’t necessarily tied to specific plans.

The third part will be more of a pep talk. I’m not sure how much good it will do, but I want to talk a little bit about what I would be doing right now if I were a classroom teacher bracing myself for the upcoming school year. My hope is to offer something that will help you get through this.

Alrighty then. Deep breath.

PART 1: IDEAS FOR REOPENING

Before I start on all of these options, I just have to acknowledge something: All of these ideas completely suck compared to pre-pandemic life. They are depressing and repressive and in a lot of schools, not even realistic. In a post published this past week, 3rd grade teacher Paul Murphy floated the idea that reopening schools under the proposed constraints may not be worth it at all:

“Why should we assume that placing young people in an environment of masked peers whom they aren’t allowed to approach will result in an improved mental state? And if adults are going to be serious about restrictions they’ll have to enforce them. It’s my deep suspicion that punishments for hugging friends, admonishments for encroaching on six-foot personal bubbles, vigilant surveillance of hand-washing and line spacing, daily temperature checks that send a recurrent message that everyone else is to be feared, and possible repeated school closures when someone inevitably catches the virus will not produce an atmosphere conducive to improved mental health.”

I agree with him to a large extent. But I also think it makes sense to try something, to try some kind of arrangement that gets more teachers in rooms with more students at least some part of the week, because among all the lessons we’ve learned from this pandemic, one has certainly been that videoconferencing just isn’t the same as face-to-face.

With that said, here are some ideas that look like they might sort of kind of work. This is not an exhaustive list: I saw some ideas that would only work in schools that have very low numbers—where all students return full-time but everyone just spreads out. This doesn’t seem like a realistic option for most schools. I’m also not going to get into all the handwashing, disinfecting, and testing protocols, nor will this post address transportation; we’ll just focus on how schools might arrange the instructional component. Also, some schools are looking at hybrid models that combine some of these solutions or set up a plan where they toggle in between them depending on how infection stats are looking in their region at any given time.

SOLUTION 1: ALTERNATING DAYS OR HALF DAYS

Schools would run A/B schedules, where some students come on A days and others on B days. Those not at school would be doing remote learning at home. Another variation of this is doing half days, like kindergarten used to be in a lot of places, where half the student population goes to school in the morning and half goes in the afternoon.

SOLUTION 2: COHORTS

Students are put into small groups that stay together all day, thereby mixing students with each other as little as possible. For changing classes or subject areas, the teachers are the ones who would move throughout the building.

SOLUTION 3: SELECTIVE RETURN OF GRADE LEVELS, STUDENTS, OR TEACHERS

In this arrangement, a limited number of students and teachers would return to in-person schooling, while others would continue doing school remotely. 

  • Some schools are looking at in-person instruction for kindergarten and grade 1 (to keep students on track for early literacy and math skills), vulnerable students who need more help, students without home technology, and seniors who need to be kept on track for graduation. 
  • This idea may also be applied to certain teachers and staff members—those over 55 or at higher risk for infection may continue to teach from home while a substitute holds down the fort in the physical classroom.

SOLUTION 4: ONE COURSE AT A TIME

This idea kind of blew my mind: Students stay in the same class, with the same teacher, taking a single course for a few weeks, then rotate to another course for a few weeks. So instead of changing classes once an hour, they’d change once every two weeks or so. This was shared by science teacher Sam Long on Twitter, and I think it has real potential.

Some people pushed back on this idea because they hated the thought of students sitting in the same class for so long, but if a teacher is mixing things up, delivering instruction in an engaging way, providing good breaks, and not requiring long periods of sitting, it could work.

The only thing that could still stand in the way of this working would be social distancing requirements—you couldn’t have classes at full capacity. But maybe this combined with an A/B or half day schedule could be something to try. 

SOLUTION 5: ONE-ROOM SCHOOLHOUSE

In this arrangement, students would stay in one room all day, studying multiple subjects with the same teacher. This could work in some elementary schools, where teachers are already somewhat used to teaching more than one subject and only rotate for a few subjects, but again, social distancing protocols would still have to be kept, so you couldn’t operate at full capacity. To make this work instructionally, teachers might need to shift to more of a Project Based Learning approach, where students are engaged in long-term projects that incorporate learning from multiple subject areas. Kids could still interact with Ts from other rooms—maybe through the phone, videoconferencing, or just by standing far apart out in the hall?—but those teachers would need more planning time to be available for those kinds of conferences. 

Instruction could also be delivered in this kind of scenario via video mini-lessons. A few years ago I interviewed teachers at the Apollo School, where students spent a block of three hours each day in a combined English, history, and art class. Each teacher offered daily mini-lessons on relevant topics, and students attended these voluntarily based on their needs and projects.

If schools were to try the “one-room schoolhouse option,” it may be possible to do something similar, where a group of teachers “shares” a larger group of students, but each teacher actually stays with part of the group in their classroom and students can “attend” video-broadcast mini-lessons being given by teachers in other rooms. If all students in this arrangement were working on cross-curricular projects, this could ultimately be an improvement over the kind of traditional instruction they had before.

SOLUTION 6: INDIVIDUAL LEARNING PLANS

At first, I thought this was just not realistic: The idea of creating separate plans for each student, depending on the individual situation, learning needs, available technology, and home resources seemed an almost impossible task. But I’m starting to rethink that, because it might be accomplished with maybe five or six basic plans.

So for example, you have some students who are on plan 1, which is full-time home instruction with no technology. Those students would need to be on some sort of paper delivery system and the school might need to set up weekly face-to-face meetings between the family and an assigned teacher. Other students might be on plan 2, which is full-time home instruction with reliable technology. Plan 3 might be coming to school some days. For each subject area and grade level things might need to be further individualized, but I’m realizing that while every student has different needs, there may be groups of students whose needs are similar, so these individual plans may be something that can be batched.

Still a lot of work, obviously, but maybe not as much as I initially thought. 

SOLUTION 7: KEEP DISTANCE LEARNING

Amid all the discussion of how to reopen, I think keeping things the way they are—with 100% distance learning—is an option. Many schools have already done a trial run and there may be some lessons that can be applied the next time around. Obviously, getting all students connected is a must, or at the very least finding good, workable ways to stay in touch without the internet, but if that’s possible, it may be the most realistic approach at least for the start of the school year. Again, like all of these other options, it’s not great, but at least it’s a known quantity, unlike the other arrangements that could potentially result in everyone bouncing back to distance learning anyway.

PART 2: OTHER CONSIDERATIONS

These are some other ideas that have been mentioned in conversations about reopening that are worth considering, regardless of what plan you end up with:

  • Remediation vs. acceleration: When planning instruction for the upcoming year, the temptation may be to focus on remediation, to go back to wherever students left off before quarantine and teach from that point forward, rather than starting the new school year where you might normally start. This seems logical, but something I read the other day caused me to rethink that—an article about the lessons learned after New Orleans schools closed post-Hurricane Katrina. According to this report, schools that focused mostly on skill recovery rather than teaching grade-level content found that students were less engaged and scored poorly on tests, whereas schools got better results when they took a “spiraling” approach, where the regular content is taught on its normal schedule, and gaps in student skill and knowledge are filled in and scaffolded as needed. I don’t know much about the particulars of this approach, but the organization TNTP has put together a Learning Acceleration Guide that can help you learn more. I think it’s worth a look.
  • Getting input from all stakeholders: Schools will have the best chance of landing on a workable solution if you involve representatives from all stakeholder groups in your school community. That means while you’re still in the exploratory phase, ask teachers, students, and parents for their input, then ask again when you’re narrowing your options. Do this in a way that gives them time to think through the proposed ideas and space to share their thoughts honestly. And make sure there’s representation from diverse backgrounds in terms of socioeconomics, ethnicity, race, and language.
  • Making equity and culturally responsive teaching an integral part of the plan: Any plan for reopening or re-starting school must take into account how all students’ needs will be met. A lot has been written about the ways this pandemic has shone a light on existing inequities, like this piece from Dena Simmons, and working on a reopening plan is an opportunity to address those more thoroughly than they’ve been addressed before. This collection offers some good resources on culturally responsive teaching in remote situations. 
  • Looping: Elementary schools may want to consider teacher looping to build on existing relationships. This is where a teacher stays with the same students over two or more grade levels, rather than students moving to a different teacher every year. 
  • Substitute availability: Substitute teachers are being held up as key players in some proposed scenarios, but in many districts, a large number of subs may be over age 55 and could therefore be more at risk for infection.
  • Childcare for teachers’ kids: Many, many teachers are also parents, so if their own children can’t go back to school full-time, that poses a significant problem for the teachers as well.

PART 3: FACING THE UNKNOWN

Probably the only thing that’s certain right now is that no one knows for sure what the next school year is going to look like. And this may very well be putting you in a state of paralysis, waiting for someone to tell you what the plan is so you can get moving with your own preparation. 

Here’s what I would do in your shoes: 

PREPARE FOR A FULL YEAR OF 100 PERCENT DISTANCE LEARNING.

No matter what the specific plan looks like for next year, there’s a good chance that at least some of your instruction is going to be delivered remotely. Even if your school manages to get kids into the building, social distancing will likely require students to get their materials and do much of their work on devices.

With that in mind, you’re going to be better off if you have shifted a good part of your instruction into an online format. Once it’s there, you can still use it in a face-to-face setting; you’ll just have more opportunities to interact with students in real time.

Here are some things that can help you with the process:

  • Now that you have a little more time, learn how to design instruction for online environments from those who have fine-tuned the process. Simply Googling “how to create an online course” will get you lots of results, and although many of these were created by people who are creating courses for profit, you can still learn quite a bit about learner engagement from them.  Three other sources to check out are this article from ASCD and this one from Inside Higher Ed.
  • Seek out teachers who have some pieces of the remote learning puzzle figured out and learn from them. Maybe they’ve gotten more engagement from students than most.  Maybe they’re not quite as exhausted as most of your colleagues. Maybe they’ve had one or two “pretty good lessons” throughout this time. See what they can teach you. 
  • Consider curricular options that are already available online. Khan Academy is definitely worth a look, and taking advantage of this as a resource doesn’t mean you won’t be relationship-building and supporting students; it just means the curriculum has been taken care of and put into a format that’s already optimized for online learning.

CREATE CONTINGENCY PLANS

When organizing your lessons for the upcoming year, build in contingency plans for different scenarios. So maybe you set up all your lessons for remote learning, but mark places where, if things work out to allow face-to-face teaching or even a situation where social distancing is no longer required, you could do something different, like a lab or group activity.

GIVE YOURSELF SPACE TO GRIEVE

Throughout this process, it may be helpful to occasionally stop and just let yourself grieve all the incredible experiences teachers and students won’t get to have right now and for the foreseeable future. Although dwelling on this for long periods of time won’t be terribly useful, it also doesn’t help to pretend any of this is normal. Acknowledging the loss will allow you, your colleagues, and your students to feel validated, and this could free you up to move on and do what you can under the current constraints.

ONE MORE THING

I want to add this last thought: When you really look at this situation we’re in, what makes all of this so hard to do is that we want to be together. If we were okay staying 6 feet apart for the rest of our lives, this wouldn’t be such a challenge. But good teaching is an intimate experience and most teachers are at their best when they can stand close to examine student work, give hugs and high fives, have private conversations. Good teachers know how important relationship-building is to the process—not only the teacher-student relationship, but relationships between our students. Our students want to bump shoulders, bend their heads together in whispered secrets, hug each other, mess around on the playground or at the bus stop, dance and laugh together. 

We still want and desperately need this connection. This physical connection. I think it’s important to stop and recognize that, because it’s good news.

Over the last ten years or so, as smartphones took over and we got more and more addicted to screens, we’ve all collectively shaken our heads at how disconnected we had become. But this pandemic has demonstrated that we weren’t actually disconnected. Yes, the devices made things different, but the whole time we were still finding ways to be close, to touch each other, to share physical space. It turns out we really do need that, and I think this is wonderful news.

In 2013, Coca-Cola produced a Super Bowl commercial I never forgot. It was a montage of footage captured by security cameras all over the world, quick clips of people hugging, kissing, doing kind things for each other, celebrating together. In every clip, people are physically close together in ways that are starting to look shocking to me within our current context. The reason that commercial was so popular then, and why it resonates with me even more deeply now is because this is is who we are, the “normal” we long to get back to. It’s that longing that’s making all of this so difficult. I believe we’ll get back there someday, and I think we’ll be much less likely to ever take it for granted again.

Until then, we do the best we can, giving lots of grace to each other and to ourselves.

May 31st, 2020

I have big feelings today. It is both graduation week this week, and the world seems to be falling apart even more so than when we entered distance learning. While I try to be an optimist and one to step out in front to shape the narrative, I recognize that my voice right now is likely not what’s most needed.

Therefore, in lieu of this week’s Mindset Moment, I’m going to share the following links so if you choose you can use the time to engage in self-directed learning based on where you are at in your equity journey.

If you have resources to share or would like to add your voice to this conversation, please do. Even though we are knee-deep in our own professional upheaval and logistical schooling nightmare, we have a moral imperative as educators to continue to be ambassadors of hope and justice for our communities even as we all struggle to navigate these times. Thank you all for your hard work and your heart work. You are needed now even more than ever.

June 7th, 2020

We are on the home stretch, folks. 

I’m heading to Washington shortly to pick up my kids who were at my parents’ for the week. Thank you Natalie for letting me borrow your car as mine was smashed on Friday! (Long story.) So instead of this week’s Mindset Moment, I just want to reiterate my thanks to everyone–not only for pulling off one of the best, most unique graduations ever but also for your resilience, imagination, determination, and heart these past few months. I am in awe every time I think about the work you have all done on behalf of kids and our community. Finally, I again encourage you to use the time you would have used reading my long musings to continue to educate yourself on or speak out about anti-racist practices in education. 

June 15th, 2020

I’ve never run a marathon, but I imagine this is what mile 26 must feel like: sheer exhaustion and an overwhelming sense of pride that you made it … even if “making it” means getting a crappy time and stumbling over the finish line.  Regardless, we did it. Make no mistake about it. Even if it was clunky and painful and at many times even ineffective, we did it … together.  And this thing we did? It will be in the history books someday. 

They say that collective pain actually acts as a kind of social glue that can foster cohesion and solidarity. It’s one of the reasons military recruits go through boot camp–not merely to get in shape, but to bond with those who share the agony of the experience, so much so that they will put their lives on the line for one another. At the expense of sounding dramatic, this year’s MHS staff will forever be bonded by a shared trauma. 

Wherever we fall as individuals in our experience of this moment in history, we went through (and are still going though) a global pandemic, a looming economic crisis to match that of the Great Depression, polarizing political upheaval, and a worldwide movement to combat racial injustice that leaves all the systems in which we operate being rethought and reworked with little to no funding. You know what? This isn’t a marathon. This is more of an Ironman.

Seemingly trivial among these other crises is the sheer fact that many life’s rhythms that are unique only to educators have come to a jarring stop.

FALL: school starts, new pencils, Friday night lights, homecoming

WINTER: semester two, new teachers, new classes, fresh start, squeaking sneakers on the courts

SPRING: reflection, finals, races in the sun, award ceremonies, celebrations

SUMMER: rest and rejuvenation

WASH. RINSE. REPEAT.

If you’re like me your life has swayed to this rhythm since you were in kindergarten. For me, that means 35 years of this expected routine. And all of a sudden it all came to a sudden halt. It’s thrown me. Big time. 

But being thrown isn’t all bad. 

Some of you have seen the faded tattoo on my right forearm (the one of the angel wings and the number 12 in them) and know the story about how my daughter almost died when she was three. The twelve symbolizes the room she was in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (12), the amount of days she was in a coma and we waited to find out if she was going to live (12) and the year (2012).  Some of you also know my husband’s and my response now to just about anything stressful in an effort to maintain perspective: “It’s not Flesh Eating Bacteria.” I bring this up because nearly losing my child was both the best and worst thing to ever happen to me. The worst for obvious reasons. The best because through it I was given the gift of perspective and gratitude. 

On some of my hardest days this spring I pause and imagine a future MHS where our problems are that of the typical variety–where global pandemics are replaced by that random kid who doesn’t quite make it to the bathroom before he loses his lunch and where economic crises in which people are losing their livelihoods are replaced by the biggest frustration being having to move or share classrooms or those dang administrators/teachers/students/parents/fill-in-the-blank who just don’t get it.  I imagine when we are in those moments, we will pass each other in the hall, wink, and give a knowing smile that only we–who have been through this together–will understand to mean “It’s not a global pandemic.” Perspective. Gratitude. 

I have been so honored to be a part of this year–this moment in history–with all of you. We just finished the swim. I’m not going to lie. There’s still a bike race and a marathon ahead. Shake yourself off. Take a few deep breaths. Enjoy your summer. And I’ll see you back on the course soon. Just imagine the strength, the sense of pride and the feeling of community we will have when we get through this together. 

 

Reflections of an Instructional Coach

Entries from 2012:

Building Relationships

When I applied for this job last year, I had hoped that I would be able to make an impact on others in my field. I had no idea, however, how much of an impact teachers whom I hadn’t even met yet would have on me.

Last week I sat down with a teacher I had just recently met for a post-observation meeting. I had observed her guided reading groups, and we were going through the routine questions that would inspire reflection on her practice.  Even now, I’m not sure how her reflection turned from a reflection on guided reading to a reflection on life, but by the end of our meeting we were both in tears.

This teacher was in her early thirties, like myself, and was a perfectionist in teaching and in life.  As we talked and related to each other’s philosophies and challenges, she began to talk about a battle she had been facing with her health- a battle that was so serious that her doctors weren’t sure she would make it through the school year.  Through her tears, she told me that she wasn’t sure why she was opening up to me… that she always tries to be strong and not lose it in front of her family or coworkers.

Having just met her, I felt embarrassed that our conversation on guided reading now seemed quite meaningless in comparison to what she was dealing with.  I apologized to her that this coaching thing must seem pretty stupid at a time like this when so much was on the line for her. She was a great teacher. She really didn’t need me at all.  And here we were talking about guided reading when she wasn’t sure she would even live to see her children grow.

Later that day, I received an e-mail from her thanking me.  She said that she apparently just needed someone to talk to and cry to- that focusing on teaching is what keeps her from thinking about what her life has in store for her- and that even though we didn’t make eye-opening reflections about instruction during our meeting, we did exactly what was needed in order for her to walk back in her classroom and not have to teach through tears.

The very next day I sat down with a librarian whom I had also just met since being hired on as a coach. We were collaborating on how to get more sixth grade classes into the library for lessons on how to efficiently navigate the library, and again, the conversation meandered.  I found myself listening to this new friend, who was thirty years my senior, talk about the recent death of her husband- how they battled cancer together, and he didn’t make it, but how she was still fighting her own fight.

I felt so honored and humbled that for the second time that week someone whom I barely knew was opening up to me and trusting me with their most personal feelings and thoughts.  I let my new friend know that I was very grateful to be trusted with her feelings, and that I had been struggling with some personal things over the past few years that paled in comparison to the stories I had been hearing from teachers I with whom I was meeting. I told her that I had not made much of an impact on anyone I had been meeting with recently, but that I was profoundly changed.

Not only did I reflect on my own life, realizing how much I had to be thankful for, but I thought about all of the amazing educators out there, who in spite of all of the challenges life throws their way, are plowing ahead with fierce devotion, giving all that they have to their students and taking so seriously their calling to this career of service.  

Towards the end of our conversation, this librarian said to me, “I have to be honest, Amy.  When we were told that you would be our coach, I went to my principal and told her that I was offended that someone would think that this girl who wasn’t even a twinkle in her dad’s eye when I began teaching would come into my library and tell me what I should be doing.  I realize now that is not at all what this is about. A few days ago I went back to my principal and told her I was wrong. Teachers are dying to have someone to talk to and to go hand and hand with on their journey. It has been a pleasure working with you.”

This was the biggest compliment and validation I have received as a coach.  When I was first trained for my new position, I heard that building relationships was the key to a successful partnership between the coach and the teacher.  Naively, I had looked at this as a “step” to implementing better instruction in the classroom- a means to an end, if you will. I realize now that it is not a step at all.  We are in a people profession. And, in a people profession it is so very important that we are all seen as people that matter.

These two teachers I worked with faced extreme struggles.  Not every teacher is dealing with issues as serious as life and death, but we all bring our joys and sorrows with us to work. And if we are to care about the students in our classrooms, then we need to also care about their teachers… not because doing so will be a step in increasing student achievement, but because teachers are selfless, passionate, and amazingly strong individuals.  And they matter.

Validating Teachers

Post-observations are possibly my favorite part of instructional coaching.  I feel like they are an artful dance in which I have to master the balance of validating teacher’s efforts and instructional skills while encouraging reflection and improvement.  I am always the most nervous when sitting down with a teacher with whom I have yet to build a solid relationship.

Yet, coaching is not always as organic as it would ideally be.  Sometimes the district’s model is set up so that teachers have to complete observations before an authentic partnership is built.  So, on this day I was particularly frustrated when sitting down with a middle school teacher for a post-observation. I really get discouraged when I feel that these meetings with teachers are just hoops to jump through so that they meet the requirement of “collaborating with their coach.”

As we sat down, the teacher told me that she had received the observation paperwork I had sent her and after reading through it should could hardly contain her emotions.  She had called a friend in tears telling her friend how great it was to hear positive feedback on her teaching.

Now, I have to be honest. I was truly confused. Tears?  I thought back to what I’d written. “Teacher circulates the room to check for understanding . . . Teacher calls on students randomly . . . Students are engaged and on task.”  Surely these comments did not evoke such emotion.

But then she went on. “All these years I have been teaching, and I’ve never known if I was a good teacher or not.  This is the first time I have really gotten feedback that the things I am doing in my classroom are working. Now I think I’m brave enough to have you come observe where I really need help:  sixth period. I just don’t know how to get them under control at all.”

Then it hit me. Teaching can be such an isolating job.  We close the doors to our classrooms and hope that we are doing the right thing, but rarely does anybody give us concrete feedback and a much needed pat on the back.  It doesn’t take much to fill a teacher’s cup. A simple “Yup- that’s exactly how you do it. Great job!” can move mountains.  Some of the most profound things we do as coaches can appear to be a hoop at first glance.

I think differently now about those “hoops” we sometimes jump through.  They are not hoops at all really, but investments in teachers. While a routine observation may not drastically change instruction, it may instill in teachers feelings of confidence and validation.  And teachers who feel acknowledged for the great things they do also feel empowered to do more.

Combating Culture

I am not a patient person.  The hardest part of my job is walking into a building where the whole system is broken. I liken it to looking at a student’s piece of writing that is a hot mess and then trying to conference with him about it.  Where in the world do you start? You can’t even read the writing, and what you can read doesn’t make any sense. There is no organizational structure, and no evidence of a grasp on punctuation or grammar. As a teacher you know that you have so much work to do, and you know the work will be daunting.  And, to add insult to injury this student really isn’t interested AT ALL in improving.

Schools are systems, and in systems we often sink or swim together. This year one of the schools I have been working with appears to be sinking.  And, I don’t even know where to start. It feels as though I am standing at the base of a giant mountain with a chisel and am banging away at it the best I can, but every time I look up that giant mountain remains.  In the same way, a school’s culture can be monumental to overcome. And, while I know that it is not technically my duty to change the system, I think most coaches are probably hired in the first place because they feel a tremendous moral obligation to make a real difference in whatever they do.

So, here I am, an impatient idealist, standing at the base of this mountain with a chisel feeling completely overwhelmed and frustrated.  When there is a general culture of low expectations for student behavior and academics, I feel a sense of urgency to do something NOW to help.  As a coach though, I only have a chisel. The principal may have better tools, but that doesn’t mean he sees . . . or wants to acknowledge, the mountain in front of him.  So, every day I take my little chisel to with me, and with a forced smile start to chip away. For the most part, I just go home exhausted. But, every now and then a whole chunk falls off that mountain, and for a moment the task doesn’t seem so insurmountable.  

The Power of Failure

As a former elementary classroom teacher, the idea of modeling instructional strategies in middle school classrooms scared the bejesus out of me. And now here I was tasked with modeling in the class from “Dangerous Minds.”  When I had last set foot in this seventh grade classroom for an observation I nearly had to dodge a punch as I walked in the door. I’m exaggerating, of course, but in all honesty I thought I was being “punked” – that someone had set this up as joke, maybe as an initiation into coaching.

Students were shouting out disrespectful comments toward their peers as well as their teacher.  They were throwing things at each other, passing notes, and basically doing anything and everything except learning.  I kept waiting for the teacher or students to point at me and say, “Gotcha!” and then go back to working diligently on their assignment.  But that never happened. This was in fact the class from hell.

So, when I was asked to model a lesson for this teacher I wondered if I would come out of it alive.  Needless to say, I bombed the lesson. In all fairness I “managed” the class as well as I could. They were respectful . . . enough. But, there was no glory on my part.  I did not walk into that class and “show the teacher how it was done.” Coaches are not without egos. In truthfulness, we like to think that we know what we are doing and are pretty damn good at it.  So, when our modeled lessons turn into disasters, we can taste our pride as it slips down our throats.

As I left the classroom the teacher looked at me curiously and said, “Thanks?”  “Great -” I thought. “My first chance to prove to these middle school teachers that it wouldn’t be a worthless endeavor to work with me, and I ruined it.”  To make matters worse, I had to model for this same teacher the very next day.

I couldn’t sleep that night.  Finally I resigned to simply do the best I could, and to use my failure to inspire reflection on my practice, just as I ask teachers to do.  I had gotten so caught up in needing to appear “an expert” to the teachers for whom I was modeling that I had neglected to think about the students. What was it they needed?

The next day I went in vulnerable but with nothing to lose.  I took off the “expert” hat and was simply myself. As a classroom teacher I was always pretty laid back, and if I must admit it, pretty darn funny.  The students responded so much better to me than they did the “expert” that was in their room the previous day, and the results were miraculous. I didn’t want to leave when the lesson was over, and neither did the students.  They did FANTASTIC, and the lesson was a success. As I walked out the door the teacher was glowing and called down the hall to me, “That was amazing!”

I cannot decide which was more valuable: failing in front of that teacher, or successfully modeling in her classroom.  I think it is crucial that we as coaches do not get hung up on being the experts. First of all, we aren’t. And second of all, students and teachers alike don’t need experts. They need people who are willing to be vulnerable and real because learning from our failures is as necessary to teaching and learning as success is.

 

 

Five Ways to Impact School Culture Regardless of Your Title

Leadership has much more to do with one’s influence than one’s title. Too often we wait for someone with a certain job description to “fix” a seemingly broken culture, and while it is certainly frustrating when the one tasked with leading doesn’t rise to that occasion, we have a moral imperative to step up to the plate to make our schools places where humans grow and thrive because our students and those who work on students’ behalf deserve it.  If we all take responsibility for influencing school culture, how can we best leverage our influence?

 

  1. Assume best intent.

 

Probably the most impactful shift we can make is to establish a norm of assuming best intent. Think back to a time when your supervisor assumed the worst about a situation in which you were involved or oversaw.  Maybe he or she assumed you were not working hard enough or did not care enough, but in reality you didn’t have all the necessary information to complete the job effectively or efficiently.

Did his/her assumption of worst intent motivate you? Did it make you want to go above and beyond? Probably not. Oftentimes assuming the worst actually has the opposite effect. While it might intimidate people into compliance, if they’re already doing the best they can with what they know, that won’t make much of a difference. In the end, they’ll just hide their inadequacies from you or avoid taking risks out of fear that they will disappoint again. On the other hand, when people assume the best in others, we’re given the benefit of the doubt, and that trust in us empowers us to take risks, use our creativity, think outside the box, and dive into finding solutions for complex problems.

 

2. Surround yourself with greatness.

 

You are the average of the five people with whom you spend the most time. Research has demonstrated time and again that people are generally unaware of the social influences that surround them and how those influences impact their day-to-day thoughts. And, because our thoughts usually manifest our actions, it is safe to say that the thoughts of those with whom we spend our time strongly impact OUR impact..

So, if you’re hanging around the water cooler with that guy who’s constantly complaining about everything and everyone, chances are you are, in turn, going to start feeling more exhausted, more hopeless, and more easily frustrated … by the very same events or situations that you’d otherwise likely tackle with a positive attitude. On the flip side, if you hang out with people who inspire you, challenge your thinking, are solutions oriented, and laugh frequently, your engagement and performance at work will likely improve.

 

3. Elicit feedback from those you trust.

 

Self awareness is perhaps the most important leadership strategy one can implement … and it’s possibly the hardest as well. One of the reasons people struggle to identify the areas in which they can/should improve is because our greatest strengths are often also our greatest weaknesses. For example, my strength is that I’m a global thinker and an ideas generator. At face value, these are good things, but, there is a shadow side to every asset.

The shadow side to being a big-picture person is that I get bored by and bogged down with the day-to-day details that bring that big picture to life. The shadow side to ideation is that I am unafraid of change and maybe even sometimes instigate change for change’s sake. This can be off-putting to others–especially the 99% of people for whom change is scary and something to be avoided.

However, with awareness of my shortcomings, I can work on and improve upon my blind spots. This awareness, though, usually needs to be purposefully cultivated. It is not innate. I am lucky to have amazing coworkers who double as best friends. Because we trust each other and are willing to be vulnerable with each other, we often ask for brutally honest feedback from one another–feedback that, in the end, will only serve to make us better, stronger, and intentionally growing.

 

4. Know your sphere of influence.

 

Oftentimes we think we need to rise to a traditional position of power to have influence on the vision, the culture, the policies, or the practices. That is far from true. One of the biggest misconceptions about leadership is it must be top down. Ideally, people in positions of power would also be amazing leaders, but even when they are, leadership cannot be unilateral.

“Leading up” and “leading across” are just as important as “leading down.” There is nothing more disheartening than when an amazing classroom leader does not exhibit those same leadership qualities they have with their students when it comes to leading their peers or superiors.

I think people greatly underestimate the power of leading those in their sphere of influence. Frustrated by your boss? Instead of complaining, how could you lead him or her to see things differently. Frustrated by your peers? Rather than complaining about their efforts, have you considered inspiring them (as you would surely do with struggling students)? It’s not condescending; it’s proactive. We can choose to be victims of the system, or we can choose to influence the system. It’s really that simple.

 

5. Make your WHY transparent.

 

The hardest thing to overcome when changing a culture is a broken why. An example of a “broken why” in the field of education is someone who wants results on paper at the expense of real results for students, i.e, they’re willing to go to great efforts to increase test scores even if those efforts don’t, in the end, produce more driven, accomplished, engaged students.

The good news is that most people who have daily contact with students have a very intact why. It’s rare that someone who works in schools doesn’t want best for the students he/she serves. Most of the conflict I’ve observed in schools is a result of one person not fully understanding the other person’s intent. Rarely would we argue about policy or practice if we thought the person who was behind that policy or practice truly wanted what was best for students. We get in trouble, though, when we don’t bring that why to the table and surface it for all to see. The most important advice to remember when trying to impact change is to lead with your why. Always.

The Power of Labels

 

I think my mother has only lied once in her life, and that lie proved to be life changing. You see, when my mother was a child, her life was less than ideal. Having to change her last name five times in elementary school due to the five new “fathers” who came into her life was just the tip of the iceberg. Home was a place of fear and survival—a place where “I love you” was only heard if it was coming from the TV set. I’m sure even as her daughter, I only know the bits and pieces of her life that my mom thought I could handle.

For my mom, school was a dream world. When she walked in the doors to her school, no one knew that Vicki came from a scary world—a world she was ashamed of and felt deep down she was better than. And, that is why she told her lie. Quite innocently, and without foresight about the weight her lie held, my mom told her teachers that her real name was Victoria (which it wasn’t)…because Victoria was a queen. Nothing could be further from my mother’s reality than the life of a queen. So, at school my mother was “Victoria”, and the teachers took the bait.

She acted the part. She was prim and proper, completed all of her work, and the label stuck. Basking in the joys of the imaginary world she created and addicted to the stability and pride she felt, she kept up the charade—always keeping her dark reality a secret, even to her best friends. But slowly, what started as a lie became her new identity, and she graduated at the top of her class. And, although she now goes by Vicki, she continues to carry herself as a “Victoria” in all she does.

She was “that mom.” You know the one—the mom who looks at you sideways when you bring home an A- suggesting, “YOUR best is better.” Her high expectations never wavered, and the only thing that trumped her expectations was her obsessive and unwavering love for her family. My mom’s new label was so powerful and believable that she went on to create her own business, one that, like my mom, broke the mold in its industry. Some might even say that it has allowed her to live the life of a queen.

When I was a teenager, I overheard a conversation between my mom and a friend of hers that has never left me. Her friend muttered something about how “all kids experiment with alcohol or drugs at some point.” My mom, usually diplomatic, responded with assertion: “What an insult to our children,” she began. “To assume our children are not smart enough or capable enough or strong enough to make good choices is simply dooming them to fail. Our children most certainly can choose the life they want, and as the people who are supposed to love them the most in this world, it is our duty to EXPECT that they do.”

That conversation resonated with me. As an educator, I am profoundly aware of the role that labels and expectations play in my students’ education. A few years ago I was having a conversation with a coworker of mine about one of the students for whom I was concerned. I was looping with some students and was attempting to make an excuse as to why I would need to modify some of the expectations for a particular boy who not only lacked parent support but also often did not have a bed to sleep in at night. My teammate called me out. He said, “For that student in particular, it is even more important that your expectations do not waver.”

He was right. We get connected, know how hard life is for some of our students, and feel it is our job to lighten the load. But, in doing are we not setting them up for failure? Sometimes as teachers we allow labels to serve as excuses for what seems insurmountable. It isn’t that that challenging student of mine is incapable of learning the soft skills that least to success or mastering the content, but rather it is just so overwhelming and plain old HARD for me to help him reach that goal, especially with everything else this profession piles on our plates. But good teaching IS hard.

It is all too easy to succumb to labels. If a child is an English learner or in special education, we may tell ourselves that she is being serviced by a pull out program (someone else—the system—is taking care of it) to justify our inaction in the daunting task of helping her succeed. If a child has a bad attitude about school and seems apathetic, it is easy to say to ourselves, “Well, no wonder. Look at his family life.  He was doomed from the beginning…Poor guy.” We pity these students for one reason alone: because it is easier to pity their reality than to change their fate.

But, just like my mother said, when we spend more time feeling bad for students and justifying their lack of progress than helping them to create a new path, we are insulting them. We are essentially saying to students as young as six and seven, “Bummer. You have been dealt a hard hand…so hard, in fact, that the thought of how to help you overcome it is so overwhelming that I don’t know where to start. Thank God you are labeled “attention deficit,” or “emotionally disturbed,” or (fill in the blank) because if you weren’t, I would feel too much responsibility for your education. Thank God my mom was such a good liar.

Labels are so powerful. Everywhere in society we can see the benefits as well as the repercussions of labels (both low and lofty) that have been fulfilled. BUT, it is in our hands to create them. Not only is it in our hands, but it is also our responsibility. If we don’t take on that responsibility then we are insulting every student who walks through our doors.  How often do our actions and words brand our students? How often do they create writers, scientists, drug users, or drop-outs? How many of our students walk through our doors as Vickis wishing they were Victorias?

It is my belief that good teachers lie often. They whisper to students, “You are brilliant….” “There is something so special about you…” “You are one of my favorite students of all time.”  Lies, lies, lies… Or are they? After a while, we start believing our own lies. And they do too. For, they are not really lies at all. They are declarations of our students’ true identities. Affirmations that we, as their teachers, can see can see beyond their labels. Invitations and expectations to become the people they wish to be.

Just as my mother, lost and scared, could declare herself a “Victoria,” we too can declare our students scholars before the path unfolds. So, we get in our student’s face—the one society tells us to pity—and demand an explanation for the A- and love him (and “lie” to him) until he gets there. We demand excellence and respect from our emotionally disturbed student—the one who was in foster care after being abandoned by his drug-addicted mother—telling him that we do so because he is different from the people who surround him in his life. He is special, and we are somehow privileged to be let-in on the secret of just how great he is. We hand back papers over and over again with the message, “You can do better. You are destined to be great. I BELIEVE in you.”

And we MUST believe they can do it. We MUST feel responsible to ensure that they do. And the only thing that should trump our expectations is our obsessive and unwavering love for our students. In all aspects of our education system we need to create new labels: for our students, their parents, school staff and administration, our communities, our states, and our country so that  our beliefs can become self-fulfilling prophecies.

I have had some great mentors and teachers who “lied” to me too. With a nod in the direction of my less-than-ideal work and a knowing smile I couldn’t escape, they told me I was great, in spite of the fact that I was struggling, in an effort to bring that potential for greatness forth. I wasn’t sure if it was true, but all of us deep down want to be queens (or kings) just as my mother did. So, I fell for their bait. I believed their words because I so desperately wanted to matter.

Deep down, I think that’s what it all comes down to. We all want to matter: our students, our parents, our teachers, all of us. And, we will live up to that expectation: “talented student,” “supportive parent,” “great administrator,” “teacher leader,” IF it is being offered. What a gift. It makes us feel trusted and capable and willing to give all that we are to this profession and this world. Rather than feeling overwhelmed, we feel empowered…and we have more to offer than we ever knew. A belief in someone doesn’t cost a thing. It is time we start investing.

Changing our students’ fates is no easy task. But, it CAN be done. In this field of work, it is time to start expecting mountains to be moved, by ourselves as well as our students, because if we don’t expect it, who will? My mother moved mountains. It can be done. She told a lie—a lie that revealed the deeper truth of who she really was all along—a person of value. She changed her label. And, that little girl from a scary family has left quite a big footprint on this world. So big, in fact, that I named my daughter after her. Gracie Victoria.