The Principal's Principles

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

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?

ACT College Readiness Scores: Asking the Wrong Questions

An article in today’s newspaper reports the decline in overall college readiness scores for current high school students in Michigan as reported by their ACT scores. The authors point out that nearly 200 schools in Michigan do not have a single student considered “college ready” by ACT. Be prepared, in the coming weeks, this, along with the number 17.8% (the percentage of students who are “college ready” by the ACT standard in Michigan) will be used by politicians statewide.

ACT has a long track record of developing, scoring and reporting valid test scores. Students at our school take the EXPLORE (a version of the ACT for middle schoolers, with important grade level benchmarks) test in seventh and eighth grade. The research, parent tools, and materials provided for schools to analyze results are first rate. Simply put, ACT is an exceptional non-profit organization who produces a valid, high quality test.

To be considered “college ready” by ACT standards, high school juniors need to score 18 in English, 22 in math, 22 in reading, and 23 in science. Considerable time and research has developed these standards, and they are a good predictor of a student’s ability to handle college level coursework. Research by ACT indicates that students who score above the benchmarks are likely to earn a “B” in respective freshman level courses.

While the metric is valid, the way the data is used is flawed. If a high school junior were to score a 27 in science, a 25 in math, but a 21 in reading and a 16 in English, that student would not be considered “college ready” by the benchmark. The fact is, a number of high school students fall into this trap where they meet or exceed college readiness benchmarks in one, two, or even three subjects, but not all four.

Students who meet, or exceed the ACT benchmark score in all four tests can certainly be seen as well rounded, and extremely college ready. However, I’m not interested in how well rounded my future doctor, lawyer, or engineer are. I’m more interested in knowing how my future cardiologist scored on the Science test, or how well the person designing the car I will drive in the future fared on the math test. The future lawyer that will draw up important documents for my family’s estate? I want someone that is college ready in reading and English, his science aptitude is secondary to me. The person who will prepare my income tax forms in the year 2030? He can score less than a “B” in his freshman biology course and still be considered suitable for the job.

17.8% is one number that a politician or reporter can point to for a quick statement about how schools are performing, but it’s not the correct number to use. I’m far more interested in knowing how students who declared an interest in medicine scored on their Science test. What about students who took the test and did not express an interest in any future coursework? Their results can have a huge impact on the conversation around education policy in Michigan.

It’s not sufficient to simply throw out a number here or there. Standardized test data can benefit everyone, but politicians and reporters must dig a little deeper when sharing information with citizens. It’s a strong metric, but weak analysis.

Good Schools Act Like Good Schools

Last Sunday, the Detroit Free Press began a series on Charter Schools in Michigan. Part of the rollout was an editorial by Stephen Henderson that was well worth reading. It included the quote:

“The point is I chose our school because it’s good, and it’s good because of the standards it embraces and upholds.”

Interested, I took to Twitter and asked for more information. I wasn’t disappointed, Mr. Henderson was more than generous with his time by responding to me. Our brief conversation can be seen here.

My takeaway from the editorial and our discussion is that good schools behave like good schools. Public, private or charter, good schools have a vision and core principles, can clearly articulate that vision and those principles to stakeholders, have high standards, and engage parents in a meaningful dialogue around student performance.

Good schools have strong assessments that inform instruction and give proper feedback to learners. Their measures are communicated in a user friendly way.

Good schools view parents as partners, students as a resource, and are focused on achievement.

State policy can guide standards, give a framework for local school boards to make curricular decisions, provide funding, set accountability measures, and create other mandates. However, no matter how strong state education policy is, good schools act like good schools.

Oakview’s 2014 Yearbook, the Principal’s Page Message

“Sometimes it just takes one.”

This line, taken from the children’s book One, by Kathryn Otoshi, illustrates the power of one person to make a big difference in the world. Standing up for someone, developing a new idea, or making a genuine effort to solve one of the world’s major problems requires creativity, character, and the courage to “color outside the lines.”

Many times, it’s easier to simply go along with what the majority of people seem to be doing. As one of my favorite authors, Seth Godin, writes “if you don’t stand up, you’ll never stand out.” Fitting in is easy and comfortable, however, very few great innovations or heroic moments that have changed lives have come from the safety of conformity.

My challenge to you goes beyond showing the creativity, character, and courage which is required to think differently and “color outside the lines.” It is also to use bright, bold markers and crayons when you are making a difference.

Stand up, and stand out.

The 8th grade ceremony, my speech

As I started to prepare for tonight, I had a few selfish moments. While I have been a school administrator for a while, this group is a first for me. Before this year, I have never been with a group of students from the first moment of 6th grade until the last moment of 8th grade. It’s a honor I won’t soon forget, and you’re beyond the best possible group I could have asked to share this personal milestone with.

When I considered what to say, I wanted to offer one last piece of advice, from me to you, this evening. In three years, I’ve shared several tips, and I wanted to offer just one more. It comes from a story, one my parents read to me and that I read to my daughter from time to time, titled Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss.

While many focus on the character without a name who, after relenting, finally eats his green eggs and ham, I want to talk tonight for a moment about Sam. Sam has a quality I hope you will take with you from your time at Oakview, persistence. He hears “I do not like that Sam I am,” “I would not eat them here or there, I would not eat them anywhere.” In the story, he is denied 12 times. But, on number 13, he finally gets what he wants. Persistence is the ability to carry on, to keep going, and to stay focused on your goals when they are distant or when things don’t go your way.

After you leave Oakview, you will face instances where you don’t get the grade you want, or are not hired for the job you apply for. At one time or another, you’ll come up short for an award, you won’t get the part or the solo, or your team will lose a big game. These challenges are all opportunities. When they arise, you can stop and quit, or you can persevere.

Sam gets knocked down 12 times, but gets up 13. Like him, each of you has the ability to persevere. Each of you will face challenges. My advice to you is to never stop chasing your goals. Persevere.

The 6th and 7th grade Honors Assembly, my speech(es)

Opening Remarks and Welcome

Good Evening

Welcome to the 2014 Sixth and Seventh Grade Honors Assembly.

To the parents, grandparents, family members and friends that are gathered here this evening, I thank you for coming and commend you on your commitment to not only your child’s schooling, but their overall education.

If you were with us last week for our NJHS induction, you know that one of my favorite things to do while I am not at work is to read to my daughter Averie. A book that we frequently spend time reading is “Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear?” You might be more familiar with another title from the series “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?” This one is just as exciting, it features an elephant, a walrus, and Averie’s favorite, a lion.

The reason this book is so important for my child (and really for everyone) is that it highlights what I believe to be one of the most key components of success.

Early in your education, your teachers taught you about your 5 senses. While each is important, I believe there is one that is most critical to success. Commonly called “hearing,” I prefer the term “listening.” “Hearing” identifies a sound. “Listening” is what we do when we actually take a sound or what someone says and process it.

If you want to learn, if you want to build friendships that last for a lifetime, if you want to avoid common mistakes, or, if it is important to you that people feel valued whenever they are with you, listen. Ask yourself “what did I hear?” This skill will take you far.

I congratulate you on a strong academic year, and I look forward to seeing you build upon your success next year.

Closing Remarks

If you knew your Assistant Principal was going to be missing and, at the last minute, you’d need to make two speeches, would use the prepared “good one” first or second? In a few minutes, you’ll know my answer.

4.1 miles. That’s the exact distance from the front doors at Oakview to 409 Miller Cove in the Hidden Lakes Estates mobile home community near here. That is the exact distance you would travel to get to 409 Miller Cove, which was my address for the first ten years of my life. I’m here this evening as your principal because in the country we live in, education can be transformational.

I wasn’t a perfect student, but more often than not, I came to school every day and did every assignment to the best of my abilities. I focused on being able to read, write good sentences, and to participate in all of my classes, even the ones I struggled through.

I had parents that were invested in my education, you have that.

I had teachers that gave me opportunities, you have that.

When you start to wonder “is the work I am doing going to matter,” consider for a moment that we live in a country where you can travel 4.1 miles from Hidden Lakes to be the principal of Oakview.

Take ownership of your education, show up every day, and work as hard as you can. You’ve done that successfully this year, don’t stop now.

Thank you for coming.

Remarks – NJHS Induction, June 2014

Remarks – NJHS Induction – June 3, 2014

Good Evening and welcome to our 2014 NJHS induction.

To open, a word to the parents, grandparents, friends and extended family members who are here this evening. I offer my sincere congratulations to you on the accomplishment of your inductee, it is clear that you value and are committed to your child’s education.

And now, a word to our inductees.

Some nights, before she goes to bed, I read a book titled “Goodnight Moon” to my daughter Averie. When I first read it to her, I didn’t see much. The entire book is about a rabbit taking stock of what is in his room, then saying goodnight to each item.

Having read the book a few (hundred) times now, I realize there’s an important message to this story, and one worth sharing as you are inducted into an important service organization at our school.

Be sure to take stock of what is around you, and to show appreciation for everything with your words and actions.

It’s easy to ignore the “little things” around our school. A crumbled piece of paper on the floor to be recycled, the teacher who stays up late to perfect a lesson plan, or the countless contributions of support staff members to serve food, give medicine, or transport you to school or home. Over the next year, as you step into a leadership role and focus on gaining service hours, pay attention to the people around you, volunteer for opportunities to help others, and be the kind of leader that says “thank you” when people at our school do important work that makes Oakview the place that it is.

The items in the rabbit’s room, a telephone, a red balloon, and a picture of the cow jumping over the moon, are seemingly unimportant. By saying “goodnight” to each, the rabbit shows his appreciation to each of them. My challenge to you over the next year is to show your appreciation for the school we’re lucky enough to call our own through your words and actions as members of the National Junior Honor Society.

Congratulations to each of you.

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