The Principal's Principles

A Middle School Principal, striving to make the world a better place, one day at a time.

About Our School Novel

This week, we kicked off a very exciting initiative. For the first time, we’re going to collectively read a school-wide novel. This project was an idea of one of our teachers, and has grown by leaps and bounds since she first proposed it last spring.

Our focus areas at our school are improving student attendance and improving reading and math achievement. This project directly helps two of our focus areas:

Attendance: Research indicates that a connection to school and a positive school culture where everyone feels as though they belong is one of the best ways to ensure children come to school.

Reading: Research has shown that providing opportunities to read, along with adult “reading role-models” improves student performance.

Our book for the year is “How to Steal a Dog” by Barbara O’Connor. In addition to reading as a school and working on class activities, this book will continue to be talked about through our Character lessons in our advisory program, in our ELA courses, and in other pockets of our building during the entire school year.

As I sat in to participate in the first round of reading the other day, I was struck by the power of listening. By being open and supportive of staff ideas, an amazing opportunity to build a learning community is happening, further proof that the best ideas come from our classrooms.

Students will turn their work in if……

As a middle school principal, I talk a lot. Meetings, check ins, phone calls, and informal conversations make up most of my day. One common topic that I face in talking with students, staff and parents is missing assignments. Why some children choose to do their work and others do not is a timeless question for our profession, particularly at the middle level.

Before I get to it, a disclaimer. If you’re reading this and you are a teacher, I know you work hard and are dedicated. The following isn’t an indictment, it’s a report of trends that I hear and a call for us to face a few hard realities.

Another disclaimer, if you’re reading and you’re a student, you’re not absolved. Sometimes, doing our jobs means doing something difficult or that pushes us out of our comfort zone.

Having said that, the most common reasons I hear for students not doing their work are:

“It doesn’t matter”
As a teacher, you are the formal leader of your classroom. People need to trust that their leader believes in them and wants them to succeed in order for them to work as hard as they can. Teachers who know their principal supports them will work harder, take on more tasks and put in more time. Often, students who are not doing their work are making a statement about their perspective on their relationship with their teacher.

“There is no point”
As Daniel Pink tells us, people are motivated to do work that has a purpose. Students who are not doing their work are making a statement about their perspective on the relevance of a task.

“I don’t get it”
To paraphrase Ken Blanchard, take a minute and walk past a gym class. You’ll see students who don’t do their math homework totally engaged in the soccer game. Why are they so focused in gym, but not in math? Part of it is the physical activity, but the biggest gap is that students know what success looks like in kickball. They know where the “goal” is. Students who are not doing their work are making a statement about their perspective on how loose or tight the requirements are for a given task.

We should NOT totally eliminate homework, refuse to have high standards, or not give tests.

We SHOULD consider the above items and remember to have build relationships, and have clarity about relevance and learning targets on the assignments we give.

3 Steps to Student Motivation

As the school year begins, students are returning to school filled with ambitions and goals for the academic year. Often parents and teachers ask me about ideas to not only motivate their son/daughter or student, but to keep them focused on having a good year and meeting their goals throughout the school year. Based on my professional experience, the best tips I can offer are:

* Break things down
* Often, students become overwhelmed because they become focused on a much bigger picture than what is immediately in front of them. A great school year is the product of 40 good weeks. Instead of having a goal of staying on top of homework all year, it’s often better to simply focus on having a good week with homework, one week at a time.

* Be direct
* Students sometimes struggle because they are unclear what we expect from them. Make clarity your goal as you talk with your son and daughter about what you want from them as a parent. Adolescents do want to succeed and make adults happy, but they struggle with abstract statements such as “I want you to do well in school this year.” Add some specific information so your son or daughter is clear on what “doing well in school means” to you.

* Give feedback
* Students learn most from specific feedback. When you see your son or daughter doing what you have made clear you want them to do, be sure to praise them, specifically. When they are not meeting their goals, be direct where you see them not meeting expectations. Feedback is the most effective, and often the most underused strategy I have found in working with students.

I hope you found these tips helpful (and reassuring). Working together, we can help every student succeed.

Servant leadership requires service AND leadership

Servant leadership has become a familiar term. Gurus such as Ken Blanchard have written books about it, and a look at the Education Twittersphere provides a regular call for leaders to serve.

Those calls, in general, focus on the humility leaders should have. I could not agree more, a selfless drive to help others, and to put the organization you work in before your own ambitions are simple, but profound reminders that the day will come where someone else will work in your office. In our profession, leaders cannot accomplish anything alone, and we gain far wider support from listening and working with people instead of mandating actions.

While those who focus on servant leadership might not discount the need for toughness, it doesn’t appear in the literature nearly as much as the talk about humility. The emphasis is on the word “servant,” but the second part of the term is “leadership.”

A leader who truly serves his or her organization knows there are moments where the answer must be “no,” where issues can be overtalked, and where little or no consensus is possible. In these moments, true servant leaders must be tough, make decisions, and be candid about why they are making the choice they are. Having difficult conversations, denying a request, or starting the conversation around a new initiative is some of the biggest “service” a leader can give. While these moments are not always pleasant, they are necessary. As a leader, if you are not willing to take on the tough topic, your organization suffers, and you are not “serving.”

As you start your year, remember to be humble and to be tough. It’s what servant leaders do.

The Mouth of the River

Trust is a simple word, but a complex idea.

Throughout history, the rise and fall of empires, companies, people have all hinged on trust. When it is present, people pull together and accomplish things that individuals never could. When it is absent, even the simplest of task cannot be achieved.

Trust is not something we “do” for the first couple of weeks of the school year. While it is critical to establish trust in those first few days, intentionally maintaining trust over a long period of time is what will push your classroom or school to new heights. We have to recognize this potential and remember that while trust can be established with words, it’s through our actions that it is maintained or lost.

Make time to reflect on trust. Are your actions building and maintaining trust, or driving it away? Should those you lead trust you?

There’s a saying “trust arrives on foot but leaves on horseback.” Align your actions to your words and make yourself a person worthy of trust.

Practice Patience

While I have no scientific data to support my claim, I think that I have received the average amount of “fatherly advice” from my Dad in my lifetime. He’s taught me a number of critical skills, such as how to drive, how to tie a tie, the importance of a daily newspaper and the proper way to shake hands. All of his advice is supported by a central point that I always associate with my Dad, “just be patient.” When he taught me how to do something, advised me on a decision, or corrected me, he managed to work in the line “just be patient” somewhere.

In today’s world, patience is a tough skill to practice. However, patience is critical to success. As we start a new school year, each of us is returning to our classrooms and offices brimming with bold new ideas. So often, these goals are not achieved and we find ourselves saying in June “I wanted to….”

The reason we fail so often to meet our bold vision for the new school year is a loss of our patience. Instead of a small, manageable view of our time and work, we focus on too big a picture.

Here’s an example. A school administrator returns to school saying “this is the year I get in more classrooms and give more feedback to teachers.” Bold claims such as “Wednesday is my classroom day” are thrown around, and for the first few weeks, the goal is acheived. Then one Wednesday a crisis arises, and a meeting is scheduled for the next, and before long, June arrives and that same administrator is saying “I wanted to get in more classrooms, but…”

Taking a more patient viewpoint, that administrator would be further ahead to sit down every Monday and schedule two, one hour blocks for classroom visits, and focus on simply meeting that small weekly goal. Assuming 4 classroom visits with feedback per hour, that’s 8 visits a week. Over a school year, that’s 320 classroom visits.

40 really good weeks with small actions toward your goals makes for an excellent school year. Set a bold vision for yourself, then create a series of small steps that you can accomplish weekly and stick to it. Instead of making it a great school year quickly, “just be patient” and take a long term view, you will be happy with the results. My Dad would also tell you that by taking time and “just being patient,” you will arrive at your destination safer, tie a better knot, be more informed, and show people you value them.

Leaders Build Leaders

As leaders, one of our primary responsibilities is to help those who work with us to get better. A friend of mine is known to say “leaders build leaders.”

Sometimes, the process of helping someone grow requires us to be a bit counter-intuitive. As leaders, we are often hard wired to solve problems, give direction, and put together action plans. These three behaviors can help people we work with grow, however, they are not as powerful as listening and asking questions.

Each year as the school year gets ready to kick off, I read my favorite leadership book, the One Minute Manager by Ken Blanchard. Each year, I marvel at how a simple sentence, word, or phrase strike me and make me reflect on how I am doing as a leader. This year, what stood out was:

“I listen while my people review and analyze what they accomplished last week, the problems they had, and what still needs to be accomplished. Then we develop plans and strategies for next week.” (page 17)

“I care about people and results.” (page 18)

“I don’t make decisions for other people.” (page 23)

As I reflected on these three statements, what occurred to me are the moments I have had with my mentors or superiors where I have grown the most. In those instances, they have listened, asked me questions, but allowed me to come to my own conclusion or resolution. I have not learned much or grown by being told exactly what to do, I have learned a great deal by having opportunities to succeed or fail, or by a strong listener asking a good question. At times this is frustrating. I can recall many a conversation with a mentor that included me saying “just tell me the answer,” but he never took the bait, always requiring me to come to my own conclusion. Through this behavior, he was a leader who was building a leader.

Take some time this week to focus on yourself when you are interacting with people you work with. Do you listen and ask good questions, or, do you jump to your own thoughts on solutions and action plans before others have the chance? One behavior builds leaders, the other builds dependency.

Who is going to stop me?

As the new school year gets set to begin, educators are headed back to their classrooms and offices and getting prepared for the students who will soon arrive. Many of these teachers and administrators bring with them a new idea for the year they have been thinking about during their time off. In some cases, these ideas have been on the minds of these people for years, but have not moved from idea to implementation.

As you sit down and begin to consider your new idea, I’d encourage you to reframe your thinking just a bit. Instead of saying to yourself, “who should I ask permission,” ask yourself “who will stop me from implementing this idea?”

I have seen too many good ideas fail to get off the ground because of the perceived notion of a need to ask for permission, or the vague fear of “they won’t let me.”

Changing the question to “who will stop me” still causes innovators to pause and think through their plans. It still calls for reflection on whether or not the idea fits into the overall policy and vision of the place you are working. However, those reflections come from a place of empowerment, not one of fear. “Who will stop me” is not a question of defiance, rather, it’s a clear look at what roadblocks exist to implementing your new idea.

If you want to start texting reminders to your students about big projects and worry “they won’t let me,” instead ask yourself “who will stop me?” Think through the challenges and logistics to your plan and move forward.

If you want to stop giving homework, or eliminate outdated practices such as zeroes or half credit if a submission is a day late, stop worry about “them” and start thinking through how to overcome the challenges and plan the logistics to move your plan forward.

You are a professional, you know your classroom, your content, and you will know your learners. Exercise your judgement, get started and move from idea to implemented.

Quality is Key

I don’t like big box stores.

I know the notion of “everything under one roof” is convienient, quick, and in many cases, inexpensive. Traveling from one specialty store to another takes time, and often, money. However, what’s lost in the quest for efficiency and low prices is often quality.

As schools continue to transition to the Information Age, more and more is being done to create more, do more, and expand. New programs are everywhere, and are advertised widely to recruit students to places that are “everything to everyone.” In this rush, quality suffers.

I’m a strong proponent of offering options and opportunities. However, the underpinning of each and every new idea must be a commitment to quality.

As schools, we have to be exceptional at building relationships, providing strong instruction, developing strong assessment tasks, and giving feedback. This four components are central to our work, and must be at the forefront of the conversation when we talk about quality.

Show me a school that is housed in an older building and offers fewer electives, but provides strong relationships, instruction, assessment and grading practicess, and you will have a successful school where learners are achieving.

Show me a school that is new, large and offering a variety of programs, but is skimping on quality, and you’ll see a place with low achievement, or one that simply coasts on the merits of a talented group of students who happen to report there each day.

Quality is key. A strong focus on relationships, instruction, assessment and feedback may not be the most exciting piece of education news published, but it will yield the best results.

Required Reading for Today from @joshlinkner: Be a creator, not an imitator

Followers of “The Principal’s Principles” and my Twitter feed are likely to know that I am a big fan of Josh Linkner, an author, speaker and entrepreneur. His column this week focused on originality, and had many lessons for educators as we get set to start the school year.

If you’d prefer to skip what I think about the piece, and just find Josh’s column, click here.

As we settle back into our offices and classrooms, here’s a reminder to take a look at everything we do and ask ourselves, do I do this because it is good, or because “that’s how we’ve always done it?” Does your homework policy, approach to student discipline, leadership style, or grading philosophy belong to you, or, do you simply replicate what you were taught by a more experienced educator? Do you embrace the freedoms that you have in your role, or, do you simply fit into “the system.”

Originality can be a challenge in today’s schools. Legislative mandates, curriculum maps, and other district policies can pose constraints to the creativity that Linkner calls for. As you read this, you may be thinking “I’d love to, but how can I do that and prep for standardized tests?”

For teachers, content may follow a curriculum map, but the instruction, assessment and grading do not have to. The department of education may give “standardized tests” for students, but personalized relationships are totally at the discretion of the teacher.

For administrators, mandates for professional development exist, but the plan for the day has wide flexibility that you can be creative and collaborative with. Just because you are “only provided a checklist” for evaluation purposes does not mean you cannot collaborate with staff members on a tool that will help them reflect and grow through your classroom observations. Your communication with parents, expectations and relationships with students, and the way you empower members of your staff are totally up to you.

“Because we have always done it this way” is the worst reason to do anything. Take some time as you get back to work and take a look at what you are doing. Is it an authentic, original reflection of you as an educator, or just an imitation of something you heard someone else is doing?

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