The Principal's Principles

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

What I’m thinking about this month

We’re a few weeks behind, but here’s what’s on my mind for April.

I’m preparing to attend:

EdcampLO – a morning unconference that our district is putting on.

I’m reading:

The Principal 50, a new book by one of my favorite authors, Principal Kafele.

I’m listening to:

BackChannelEdu – A podcast, focused on situations that arise for school leaders.

A shattered phone, a silent week, and a lesson learned

As any parent can tell you, sometimes, we have to make decisions our children don’t like. This happened recently when my daughter and I headed home before she was ready. As I helped her out of the car, she expressed her frustration with my decision to end our time at the park before she was ready with a swinging arm that connected with my shirt pocket. I watched, almost in slow motion, as my iPhone traveled through the air before connecting with a loud “thud” on our driveway.

I can still make calls using the voice commands, and if I hold the screen the right way, I can see who calls me. When the moment is right, I might be able to answer a call. Outside of that, there’s nothing I can do with my phone. No email, no text, no Twitter.

For the past week, if I want to participate in Social Media or send email, I have to be at home using a device. During this time, I learned some invaluable lessons.

  • With our smart phones, we travel in a bubble. We can communicate with anyone, across any distance. What we miss is the people right in front of us, the new people that we can meet when we put our devices down. As I sat in the waiting room at the dentist office, I got to talk people I had not met, or people I had seen in previous visits and done little more than say a quick hello. I felt energized by these exchanges, by making myself aware of who was around.
  • With our smart phones, we see the content we want, and most often, the content that supports our viewpoint. We can listen to podcasts or content in the car that we select, read news sources and social media posts from friends and like minded individuals. As I drove in my car, or had a free moment or two, I found myself listening to, reading and paying attention to material that was selected for me, instead of content I chose. I realized just how many perspectives are out there, it generated some reflection on my part.
  • With our smart phones, we are never out of the office. Emails and texts make our work ever present. This week, I truly got the chance to get away. I was more present with my family, I felt as though I had down time, and felt relaxed.

My iPhone helps me to be more productive and is a helpful tool. Being without it continues to present some challenges, but it has also yielded some valuable learning.

Put your phone down – something good might happen.

This post is dedicated to my friend Rachel Guinn. When I told her the story of my lost phone, she laughed and said “I can’t wait to read about it,” providing the inspiration for this post. 

What I’m thinking about this month

As the calendar turns to March, here’s a rundown of what I’m going to be thinking about.

I’m preparing to attend:

  • The MAMSE Conference, hosted by our district at Waldon Middle School. I’ll be sharing some productivity tips, as well as some digital communication tools, along with celebrating the middle level.
  • AdmincampMI4, held in Birmingham. I’m excited to connect with others, participate in some conversations and learn.

I’m reading:

  • Four Seconds, a new book by one of my favorite authors, Peter Bregman.

I’m listening to:

Remember the Milk, the Lightning Round Edition

Educators have a tough job.

As a principal, I want to be productive, motivated and creative.

Daniel Pink tells us that to be motivated, we need to do purposeful work.
Teresa Amabile tells us that to productivity comes from the “small wins” we feel when we make progress in work we find meaningful.
Gregory Ciotti tells us that being consistent with our work habits actually yields more creativity.

On the door of my office is a paper with my 5 current work priorities, you can see an example below. Each morning, I take ten minutes and make a list of tasks to accomplish that day, aligned with my priorities, in Remember the Milk, an app that syncs across devices. As I work, I select the tasks I have assigned myself, and check them off. The “Task Completed” tab that pops up is an immediate small reminder that I have accomplished work and advanced my priorities.


Remember the Milk, a task list that you can take anywhere and that helps me feel productive, motivated and creative.


The above is the text (to the best of my recollection) of my talk at the NASSP Ignite15 Technology Lightning Round, an opportunity I am grateful to have had.

In only 3 years

As I sat in our front room the other night, my daughter walked, grabbed my iPad and headed for her bedroom. After a minute, I followed her down the hallway, where I found her sprawled out on the floor, watching a YouTube video of “The Wheels on the Bus.”

Make no mistake, Averie is bright (admittedly I have a bias), and I could not be more proud of her. However, I don’t think her ability to unlock an iPad, pick and app and find a video is unique to her.

3 years from now, Averie will start Kindergarten. Like many two year olds across the country, she is able to use technology tools on a limited basis now, and spends winter days back and forth between books, toys and an iPad. She’ll come to school with the skill set of a typical kindergartener, and an awareness of digital tools. She won’t be the only one.

I realize the need to improve our technology infrastructure and expand our access and policies for students, but seeing a two year old capable of using tools that are still scarce in many schools is a reminder of how far we need to come, not only for my child’s school, but for all of those students who come to our schools ready to use digital tools.

The 21st century is now 15 years old. Are we working fast enough to modernize our schools to embrace the tools students come to school already knowing how to use?

Attendance Matters

“80 percent of success is showing up.”

This quote, often attributed to filmmaker Woody Allen, is a reminder of how important attendance is. We cannot educate students that don’t come to school. Walking through the front door every day is, literally, the first step toward success.

While attendance is a simple, yet profound indicator of student engagement, and a simple, yet profound predictor of student achievement, it is often overlooked.

Take time to reflect on student attendance today.

– Do you foster an environment that makes students want to come to school?
– Do you monitor and follow up to find out why students are not attending?
– When you discover issues that are hindering student attendance, do you address them, or do you place blame on the student who is not showing up?

Run Your Race

A point of pride for our school is hosting an annual cross country meet in late October that is one of the biggest invitationals for middle level teams in the state. While I never participated in Cross Country myself, I have attended enough events to know that when the runners pass, it’s appropriate to clap and say “run your race.”

The idea of “run your race” is an essential one for cross country, a sport about contributing to a team, but also one centered in competing against yourself for a better time than you ran in the race before.

As educators, we’re approaching the first “marker” in our school year, the middle of the first marking period. It’s a good time to take stock of how you’re doing on accomplishing your goals. As I mentioned in an earlier post, meeting your goals requires being patient.

For your own reflection, here’s a few questions to gauge how you’re doing so far:

– As an administrator, have I started getting into classrooms and giving teachers feedback on their instruction?
– Have I really started getting to know our new students? Have I reconnected with everyone that is “back?”
– I was intentional about reconnecting with every staff member as the school year kicked off, have I maintained those connections?
– Have I started work on my goals for the year? What have I done?
– Am I focused on teaching and learning? If so, how would students, staff and parents know?

Take a minute, think about your goals, and in the words of Dan HickeyDan Hickey, “get to work.” Stay patient and “run your race,” as you make this year the best one of your career.

Compliance or Creativity?

As leaders in K-12 education, the success and failure of our schools rests upon the environment we build and maintain through our words and actions.

In a culture of compliance, we lead through mandates, telling those we work with what to do and when to do it. We refer to people and classrooms as “mine,” and make sure there is no confusion about the authoritarian, chain of command.

In a culture of creativity, we do have some mandated timelines, but, leaders trust professionals to exercise their professional judgement. They refer to roles and places as “ours,” and are always willing to listen to new ideas. There is still leadership, but it is collaborative in nature.

One culture creates innovation and is a place where elite professionals want to work. The other stifles ideas and is often toxic.

The way we lead determines our culture – creative or compliant.

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.

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