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

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.

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.

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