Phifty – The Birthday Post

I have traditionally written a birthday post. I started this blog on my 44th birthday, thus the name. I have been consistently inconsistent in my writing over the last six years and, reading through my posts, the blog has gone through many iterations. There were periods when I wrote for the joy and tried to appeal to an audience and times that I wrote out of anger at the system and tried to appeal to an audience. The latest iteration is me writing as a reflection on my practice as an educator. I write to get ‘it’ out there whatever ‘it’ is but for me getting ‘it’ out there makes it real. No matter how few strangers or friends read it, I have put it out there irretrievably. That can be cathartic at times but it also forces me to own my reflection and work on my foibles. As I wrote in my last post, it’s hard sometimes.

Apparently my last post may have ruffled some feathers. Some things that I said were hard for me to get out of my mind. That’s what my blog is for: to cause me to reflect and use that reflection to make myself a better professional. If a casual reader reads my post and the content causes them to reflect, that is a bonus. Sometimes what we do is hard and hearing that we aren’t perfect is even harder. I’ve said before that I don’t believe there is any learning without reflection. Truthfully, that is not just my belief, that is a truism. You may know something but you haven’t learned it if you haven’t reflected on why it is important, how it fits into the schema of your life, how you can use it in the future, and on and on.

Honest, true reflection is painful and necessary. It makes us better. It makes our schools better and isn’t that truly what we want for our kids.

So today I’m fifty. That’s a big number! And as I reflect over the last two weeks I realize that I am better at 50 but still have many imperfections. I’m a work in progress and so are you. None of us are finished. I did fail to say in my last post that I’m guilty of some of those same things that damage our culture. But that’s why I wrote it. I reflect; I learn; I work on changing. I’m working. It’s  painful. It’s hard.

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Education is Hard!

Image result for Grant me thestrength to be a force of love

Education is hard! Teaching is hard! That’s got to be the center of my reflection for this week. It’s hard, it’s tiring and it’s not for the weak.

I started back to school with a renewed sense of enthusiasm and passion for what I do. I mentioned that in my last post. I felt like I could do anything for our kids. Every Kid. Every Day. No Matter What It Takes. That may sound like a lot but I think that’s what kids deserve. Quickly the people around me tried to sap that enthusiasm. People who have a vision that is different than yours can sap that energy. People who have that ‘we’ll-see-how-long-this-lasts’ attitude can eat away at your positivity. People who don’t understand the changes that need to happen in education can be a drain on your enthusiasm.

What I found this week is that keeping your head up and your vision in tact takes work. Hard, tiring work. Every day this week I went home exhausted and every day I thought of things that I wish I would have done or things that I did that could have waited. I tried to smile when people were negative and I tried to walk away when I could feel the energy meter running low. By nature I avoid confrontation. Reflecting at the end of the day there were many instances where I should have confronted the situation.

I feel like I have great relationships with our teachers. Relationships are everything in this business. Sometimes, though, I think I avoid the hard conversations because I don’t want to damage the relationships. I don’t mean addressing things that are obviously bad for kids. What I’m talking about are the small things that don’t ruin kids but also don’t bring out the best in them. One example from this week: We have a class of students who are notoriously low achievers and behavior issues. These students were stereotyped from the outset of the year. Not one teacher gave them a clean slate. They expected that they would be behavior problems and they were. Well, yes, self-fulfilling prophecy.

I had a chance this week to chat with a former colleague. Great guy and excellent teacher but also a person who has always challenged me to think. He said that there is always one person wherever he has gone who reminds him of the superintendent that we had when we worked together. The kind of person who is an authoritarian leader and runs people out of an organization due to the destruction of the culture. I tried to identify the people in our building who played that role. What I discovered is that they are not at the top but they are in the trenches. There are people who damage the culture on a daily basis by the way they run their classrooms, by the way they do there jobs and by the way they interact with people. And, I guess it goes further than actual actions. The way some people talk about kids, parents, colleagues and probably me damages the culture at the basic level.

Luckily for us there are only a small number of those people in our school so the strong keep the culture afloat. Also, even though there are some negatives, all in all we have an excellent group of ‘teachers.’ We teach well, some of us just need some work on our relationship building.

So, my reflection for this week is that it’s got to get harder for me. I have to start being more assertive and addressing each of these little items. Our culture depends on it and I don’t think there is much more important to our students than a culture that is uplifting. I’m going to continue to be tired and my wife is going to wonder why I am spending so much time in my office. I get it and I know she will understand but I refuse to be weak and I refuse to be weakened.

 

NPC17-Reflection

The National Principals Conference in Philly came at the perfect time for me. I recently completed my certification as a superintendent and had been trying to find a central office job. Unsuccesfully. I felt like I wasn’t good enough as I was passed over for two positions and not even considered for several others. Maybe I wasn’t as good as I thought I was.

At the last minute I decided to attend NPC 17. Mainly because it was close to home and also because I felt like I needed a break from the office. I was beyond surprised by how inspirational the three days were. Over the passed few years I had focused on technology conferences – PETE and C and ISTE. Turns out what I needed was a kick in the pants from my tribe. Most everyone in every room was a principal. WE all had some semblance of what was going on in each others’ lives. Many connections were instantaneous. No one had to warm up to other people because we were all in the same boat.

In my professional life I have moved around a good bit. First between teaching jobs and then pushing up the administrative ladder. I always felt as though I had made the decision to move on because I had given all that I had. NPC17 in many ways proved my thoughts to be incorrect. Upon reflection it seems that I was leaving those positions because I was scared. Not fearful necessarily but scared to push the envelope a little bit more. There are great leaders out there doing amazing things. I wasn’t and still am not being truly amazing for my people.

When I was reflecting on my admin career while in Philly I remembered all the great ideas that I had when I started as an assistant principal. I made some pretty amazing connections with parents, students and staff. Even when I became a principal I was full of passion. I wanted to do this right and impact my community. Recently I have allowed myself to be content. To be lazy. To stop pushing the envelope.

That ends this year. People are probably going to think I went around the bend. It’s going to be tough to make a pretty big change after being the same guy for eight years but it must be done. I need to bring the passion back for myself but more importantly I owe it to my students, my teachers and my community.

Thank you to everyone who attended NPC 17. I was inspired greatly by so many that I won’t even try to list.

Disruption and Capitalization

Recently I began listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, Revisionist HistoryI’m a little late to the game so I started at the beginning of season 1 and am trying to catch up. Yesterday I listened to two episodes that are part of a three part series on the cost of post secondary education and how poorer Americans fit into the past secondary puzzle: “Carlos Doesn’t Remember” and “Food Fight.” I’ve always enjoyed the way Gladwell thinks so I would highly recommend the podcast.

These two episodes got me thinking about how we serve our students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Gladwell talks about two concepts that I felt were relevant to the public education, K-12 story as well as to the post secondary story. The first concept is that of disruption. We all experience disruption in our lives – divorce, loss of a loved one, loss of employment, etc. In many families those disruptions can be on a grander scale- arrests, imprisonment, abuse, etc. The argument that Gladwell makes is that students of privilege not only have fewer disruptions on the grand scale but, even when they do, they are more likely to escape the disruption without issue. For example, a rich, suburbanite student gets pulled over for speeding is found to be DUI. His chances of avoiding punishment are much better than the same student who does not come from privilege. Privilege allows for better attorneys, privilege affords a possible connection in the police force, privileges can be used to ‘buy’ your way out of trouble. The poorer student has little of this ‘buying’ power. Disadvantaged students who experience these disruptions, especially the high end ones, often are pushed to the breaking point. Their lives are already so tenuous that one major disruption sends everything into a tailspin. Foster care, single parent families, homelessness can all be a reality for a student born into poverty from just one massive disruption.

The second concept is that of capitalization. Gladwell defines capitalization as “the rate at which a given community capitalizes on the human potential… what percentage of those who are capable of achieving something actually achieve it.” Gladwell’s focus here is on how well our society does in recognizing talented students from poor communities and assuring that those students have the post secondary opportunities that more privileged students have. Eric Eisner who founded YES Scholars makes an eerie point about capitalization in the episode ‘Carlos Doesn’t Remember.’ To paraphrase, he says that we are waiting too long to identify these students. If we are waiting to see how they do on their SATs, we are waiting to long. Why? For most of these students, the junior year in high school never comes. Many will drop out, many will join gangs and for some the disruptions will just be to great by the time they hit the eighth grade. Let that sink in. When was the last time you sat in your elementary or middle school classroom and worried that a student wouldn’t make it to ninth grade? The answer to that question will determine where your school sits on the continuum of privilege in this country.

So what can we do as K-12 schools to assure that our students overcome disruption and that our communities experience a high percentage of capitalization? The first answer, I believe, comes in the culture of our schools. I mean this on a national as well as a state and local scale. Are we as a nation, a state and a community focusing so much on passing a high stakes test that we have ignored the disruptions in our students lives? Funding over the past few years in Pennsylvania, my state, has been cut in many areas of human services. Can we build a culture that genuinely cares about students when our country and our state has deprioritized human services? I’ve written before about grit, bootstrapping and growth mindset. All of those things need to overcome a certain measure of disruption. As schools we need to be cognizant of the disruptions in our students’ lives and fill that into the equation whenever we speak to or about them. That would be a good start.

To better capitalize on the human potential of our schools we must start with creating a culture that nurtures students through the disruptions in their lives. We also need to do a better job of identifying our best and brightest despite the backgrounds that they hail from. We know that students in poorer households come to school with fewer skills but we also know that with a solid education many of these students catch up to their peers eventually. There are two things I believe that we don’t address efficiently. First, students who come to us from lower socieconomic backgrounds have there abilities masked by the language poor environments that they were raised in. We don’t acknowledge their gifts early enough because we make assumptions about their intelligence relative to their zip code. Second, even though we see underprivileged students gain on their more privileged peers, we also see that gap begin to widen again as the move into middle school. Students who were average or better elementary students tend to become low average or worse students when the do not come from privilege. Even in a small school where most if not all of the students will eventually graduate, the disruptions become too great for many of these students to maintain their academic achievement.

I don’t have the answers to these questions but I think being cognizant that they exist is an important step. As educational leaders we need to open the eyes of those we lead to these potential pitfalls. Brendon Burchard has this short prayer that I believe speaks to the needs of leaders in our society: “Grant me the strength to focus this week, to be mindful, to serve with excellence, to be a force of love.” Yes, let us be a force of love in education.

LMGTFY

Ran upon this site today when someone replied to a question on Facebook with a link to the site. I instantly fell in love with the site because of its sarcastic notion. Then my head spun in a different direction and I pondered how LMGTFY reflects the changes that are necessary in education. BTW, if you haven’t figured it out yet, check the link.

I get a little tired of rehashing the same old arguments about how education needs to change to better serve our youth. The 21st century competencies have been talked about now for almost two decades and in many arenas – dare I say most? – we are no further along at assuring that our students are creators, critical thinkers, communicators and collaborators than we were in 1999. In 1999 not many people were walking around with a microcomputer in their pockets.

You remember 1999. We were worried about Y2K, TLC was averring that they wanted no scrubs, President Bartlet was ruling The West Wing and The Phantom Menace was crushing the box office. Yes, that’s Episode 1. Schools that were progressive were buying the first iMac and the rest of us were pounding away on 120 MHz Pentium processors and storing our data on the Jaz Drive. I had a phone, like many in my generation, but it was too expensive to use it. More of a status symbol than a useful tool.

You may have taken your class to the lab then whereas now you may have some computers in your classroom. If your district is really pushing the envelope you may even be 1:1. Google was around then but you were probably using Yahoo! or Ask Jeeves.  Those microcomputers in everyone’s pockets? Until a few short years ago no teacher in their right mind would allow a student to use it in class and their are still some feet draggers out there. I’m guessing that was the same attitude at the advent of the calculator. Times have changed and we must embrace the new horizons that are attainable when we don’t have to worry about teaching Googleable content – yes, that’s a word!

Of course the turn of the century also saw the dawn of the No Child Left Behind Act,which ironically left a hell of a lot of children behind probably an entire generation, and the emergence of ‘teaching to the test.’ A sad time for educators that were trying to use emergent technologies and teach soft skills. A time that while technology grew exponentially, teaching muddled on in the same format.

The key point that I want to make is this:  Are you really doing anything differently than you did in 1999? Are you asking students to create with those shiny new Chromebooks? Have you allowed your students to expand their audiences by sharing content and collaborating outside of the classroom? When was the last time your students communicated with an expert or another student that is on the other side of the world or across town without leaving the building? Do your students know how to analyze ‘fake news’ – the bane of 21st century social media? If you are not, if they do not, you may as well invest in more pencils.

Instead of having students memorize states and capitals have them videochat with a peer in that state and ask them questions? Instead of asking students the significance of color in The Great Gatsby ask them to collaborate with a partner to brainstorm a conversation that they might have with Gatsby and Eliza. Instead of writing definitions to vocabulary words teach students how to use Google – like that don’t already know that – to look up unknown words that they come upon in their reading. Encourage debate over current events so that students learn to think critically rather than have them summarize an article to hand in. These are just a few easy options. By eliminating Googleable content we open up our students’ worlds to more STEM activities, Makerspaces, project based learning activities, the list could go on and on. In the process we will make them more confident people, more independent learners, more concerned citizens and more active contributors to society.

If you have any questions, let me Google that for you.

 

Thank You, Corey

I attended a funeral today. Tough one to say the least. A young man gone at the age of 21. Sadness can not even begin to describe it. His family, his friends, his brothers were crushed.

I didn’t know Corey well. He was a friend of my daughter’s. I knew him as a high school athlete and had seen him around the gym after he graduated. He was a close friend of my daughter but more so after the ‘driving’ days when you begin to see your own kids less and less.

Today I felt like I had missed a tremendous opportunity to get to know a true, genuine human being a little better. Today, Corey’s life taught me a few things. Today I cried for his hurting family and his tight group of friends and brothers but I knew in my heart that Corey taught us all something today.

Today Corey reminded me to live my life to the fullest. To hear people talk about him, to read the newspaper articles and social media posts, for a 21 year old, this guy lived a very full life. Fraternity life, college student, hunter, mudder, cross fitter, charity work, school groups. Just an amazing life all the way around. Thanks for the lesson.

Not only did Corey participate in life, he apparently did it with drive, passion and zeal. The things he loved he pursued to the greatest of his ability. Shy guy – becomes officer in a college club. Grow up in a rural, white school – joins a fraternity that is primarily composed of black students. Want to get fit – starts crossfitting and not only excels but teach others the sport. Tired of running slow – runs in a weighted jacket to get faster. Go to college – crushes the dean’s list. This guy not only had strong passion, he had to have strong mental and intestinal fortitude. Today Corey reminded me to be more passionate and and don’t shy away from a challenge.

Corey doesn’t know it but over the last year he was preparing to give us the best gift of all. Today in rural, central Pennsylvania three young black men stood up and spoke of Corey like a brother. In fact he was their brother. Brothers of Phi Beta Sigma. They reminded us all of what a great guy he was. How he truly was a brother to them. How he lifted them up and how he challenged them to be better people.

I don’t usually have the habit of describing people by the color of their skin but in this context it is important. There’s an old political saying describing Pennsylvania as Pittsburgh on the west, Philly on the east and everything in between is Alabama. These three gentlemen were sitting smack dab in the middle of Alabama and connecting with people of every color, age, and background like no one else possibly could. I began to think that Corey had a grand plan and was looking down smiling about his two worlds colliding and sitting together in his honor. It wasn’t long but it was a powerful sight, an overwhelming feeling.

Thank you, Corey, for that one last gift.

Dear Olivia

Dear Olivia,

You are my one of a kind. When I think of the things you have endured, it makes me proud that you have overcome everything to be a very unique individual. I know that because of your struggles you will be a strong adult.

Mentally, emotionally, physically I don’t know that there is a person in the world that is more like me. That comes with its consequences and its rewards. Some of those you will learn on your own. Since I see a lot of me in you, I wanted to share some things that I would tell my 18 year old self:

  1. Don’t be afraid to fail. It sounds like a cliché but it is very true. Trying things that you are not good at enriches your life in countless ways. It makes your brain grow, it makes you more confident, and it increases your ability to handle setbacks and frustration.
  2. Be yourself. I’m still learning this and you could probably teach me a few things in this area. Swim against the current with confidence that you know where you are going.
  3. Believe in your power to figure things out. I think this is where public education fails us as adults. No one ever expects us to think through problems so we never gain that ability. As I have gotten older I have learned a lot by making the decision that I am going to figure things out on my own.
  4. Bring the Joy! I have to be reminded to do this at times. Being happy is a conscience choice that we have to make every day. Sometimes it is easy and sometimes it is not. It is possible not only to be happy but also to spread happiness every day.
  5. Tip generously! Nothing says more about your character than the way you treat people when you have nothing to gain.
  6. Possibilities are everywhere! Your life from now on is all about possibilities. Anything is possible if you aren’t afraid to go after it.
  7. Relationships are everything! Good, true relationships are what connects the world. Not just close relationships but positive connections that you make can make the difference in achieving your dreams.

Today marks the beginning of your future. Grab onto it with both hands and don’t let go. While there will be tears today, know that this is a stepping stone in your life to bigger and better things. I know that you have a ton of untapped potential. I have seen you grow incredibly in the last couple of years but I truly believe that you have inside you great possibilities.

In the years to come you will become a more independent woman. You will begin to need me less and less. That is what I hope for. That is what I want for you. You are a strong, independent person who will fly as far as she sees fit. Remember that but also always remember that your dad is only a phone call away.

Love,

Dad

 

“When we walk to the edge of all the light we have and take a step into the darkness of the unknown, we must believe that one of two things will happen. There will be something solid for us to stand on or we will be taught to fly.”
― Patrick Overton