The Details that Stick in My Mind

Poverty and Education (Part I)

The school bell rang and a new day had started. Fifteen minutes later, a kid came to the clinic writhing in pain. He couldn’t sit, he couldn’t stand, he couldn’t lie down. He clutched his middle and was in absolute agony. We called his mother and she said she would pick him up and take him to the hospital. The minutes ticked by and we wondered where she was. Ten… fifteen… twenty… When she arrived, we learned that she didn’t have a car. She had walked from her home to the school. A staff member drove them to the hospital which happened to be just down the street. We hoped it wasn’t something serious, but were scared that it might be. In less than an hour, mother and son were back at our school. We learned of his ailment – hunger pangs! That night, I told my family about the little boy and we cried at our dinner table. This happened seven years ago, but it plays out in my mind even today in minute detail. I was in an urban school with high poverty and the lessons I learned that year were ones for which I had no reference point.

I grew up in India and am not unfamiliar with poverty, but seeing it in America, the land of plenty, continues to surprise me. In 1989, when I arrived in the US , I had no knowledge of poverty and homelessness in this country. That changed quickly! I remember standing outside an ice-cream shop in Boston when a man walked up and asked my husband for a cigarette. Then he turned to me, pointed to my ice-cream cone and said, “I’ll take one of those too.” He laughed and walked away. I asked my husband if he knew this man and learned that he was quite likely homeless. I was shocked. A few days later, a man begging outside an ATM kiosk said, “Spare a rupee, ma’am.” I gave him a ten dollar bill – probably because of his cheeky grin!

In India, we have the ‘educated unemployed’ – people with college degrees and no jobs. I was naive enough to think that couldn’t happen in the US! You see, in India, you could be Bill Gates and there would be people begging right outside your home. You would encounter slums and see images of poverty every day. In the US, there are freeways and highways that take us away from inner city areas and it’s possible to live your life here and never pass through poverty-stricken neighborhoods.

I was in graduate school at Boston University, studying special education and I remember taking the ‘T’ and then a bus to go to the Boston University Medical Library to read some articles for a paper on Phenylketonuria (PKU). Ah, the inconsequential little details that stick in our minds! Halfway through the trip, I felt like I was entering a different world from the one I lived in. Was I still in Boston? I was stunned to see a landscape completely alien to my year-long experience in Boston. I couldn’t understand how this level of poverty was possible in America. I couldn’t understand how it was that I didn’t know this neighborhood existed even though I thought I had traveled ‘so much’ around Boston. I had just seen tremendous poverty in America and had no reference point in my experiences to understand it.

Years later, I continued to learn about poverty as I worked with students in public schools in Iowa and Indiana. I remember driving to school with my six year-old son. NPR’s Morning Edition kept us company and this time they were broadcasting a piece on poverty. My son, who was apparently listening intently, chimed in from the back seat saying, “But, mummy, there are no poor people in America.” I tried explaining to him that some of my students lived in poor neighborhoods. That afternoon as we drove back home I showed him run-down neighborhoods, homes with tiny yards, boarded-up windows… and he said, “They are not poor. They have houses.” He had seen poverty and slums in India – people with no food, shelter, clothing, no clean drinking water or access to toilets – and in his little mind he had defined poverty through that lens. He had no reference point for poverty in America.

Working in public schools, I  learned about free and reduced lunches, food stamps, homeless shelters and hunger. Eventually, I learned that my heart thrives in an urban school setting. This is the place I call my ‘professional home’. In the school I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I sensed that the cafeteria had a different feel to it. I couldn’t figure out what was different. Eventually, I realized that the kids ate everything that was on their lunch trays. No one was throwing out unopened cartons of milk or cups of fruit. They ate every last bit of broccoli and peas. I had worked in other schools where this was not the case – where good food was simply thrown in the trash. This was different – in a not-so-good way – because I now realized that hunger pangs could easily be an issue for many, many more kids.

A few days before Thanksgiving break, a teacher called me to her classroom. A student had ‘shut down’. He refused to do the work assigned to him. He didn’t disrupt the class but he was certainly non-compliant. I brought him to the office and tried to see what was bothering him. Kind words, caring questions – he refused to respond. He was not disrespectful. He just would not look at me or speak to me. His eyes filled with tears but they didn’t trickle down his cheek. He was bravely holding them back. It broke my heart and I felt helpless. I gave him a few minutes to pull himself together thinking that might help. When I returned, I found he had had crumpled and torn the paper on his desk and it was now littered all around his chair. His head was in his hands and he still refused to talk to me. Just then, a teacher walked by. She said, “Mrs. Balagopal, would you mind if _____ comes and helps me in my classroom? He was in my class last year and he will be fine with me.” I asked him if he wanted to do that, and he nodded quietly. She asked him to go ahead and she stayed back to share a few words. She wanted me to know that I might see students ‘falling apart’ just before breaks – long weekends, holidays and summer vacations. She shared that in school they had access to two meals which were likely their ‘biggest’ meals each day. She had learned that student behavior often worsened when breaks were approaching. In the days ahead, they would not have these meals to rely on. We now know that trauma affects kids in many ways. I would never know the reason why the student shut down, but this teacher taught me a big lesson that day!

Throughout the summer vacation, each year, my school district provides breakfast and lunches to children and they even bring it to some of the apartment complexes in our neighborhoods. Every Friday, my school, and many others provide students with Back Sacks from Gleaners, the local food bank – a bag of food for kids to take home  so they can have access to meals over the weekend. Euphemistically, we call this program the Nutrition Club, so that students don’t feel singled out! The last day of school before winter break was on a Thursday. Our school secretary said that dozens of kids had come to the office all day asking, “Today is Thursday and we don’t have school tomorrow. Will you have the Nutrition Club today?” What, I wondered, would they do after the food was gone in a couple of days? Students new to our school are not shy about asking if we have a Nutrition Club. “We had it in our old school. Can we join it here?” We wish we didn’t have a cap on the number of students who can be in the ‘club’.

These stories, and many, many more stick in my mind. I’m learning to deal with it in America, even though I don’t understand it. Yes, I saw a lot of poverty in India and so this shouldn’t surprise me. However, having lived here for over two decades now, it feels personal because I know these kids. I know their names and some of the stories from their lives. They are now my stories too because for 7 hours a day, 181 days of each school year, these kids belong to me. I want to make a difference in their lives. I know that their lives are complex, and I lack a magic wand, but I have the power of my thoughts, my ideas, my words… and I can reflect on their stories to shape the work I do and that my school does for them each day.

In this and subsequent posts, I hope to share the lessons I’ve learned from the stories that are stuck in my mind. This is not about the research that others have done on the connection between poverty and education. I want to pen my reflections on the lessons I’ve learned along the way and what can make a difference in the educational experiences of these children. In urban schools, we ‘battle’ the effects of poverty on a daily basis and it can wear us down pretty quickly. Imagine how worn out we might be if we were the ones living in poverty! It’s easy to become cynical about the things we see in our schools and the challenges we face. This set of posts aims to bust that cynicism by thinking of what is possible, by framing ideas in terms of what we can do, what we should do and what we would do were these kids our own! I hope you’ll tag along on this journey!

“Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.” — James A. Baldwin

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On Letter Grades for Schools…

This week, I was in the Indiana Statehouse to exercise my civic duty. I provided testimony before the Indiana Senate Education Committee on a bill that voids the A-F ratings of school performance and creates room for new and more meaningful designations – a topic that affects every school and district in the state. I was honored to represent the voice of our district and other educators around the state.

Accountability is important. So is helping parents make informed decisions about the best educational options for their children. Doing it clearly, fairly and transparently is critical. What we have currently is a complex formula. The report card is more a label than something that can lead to action. It rolls achievement and growth measures into one letter which makes schools that are making a positive difference look like they are failing schools. Another principal providing testimony at the hearing shared that a visitor to her school, impressed with the learning environment and shocked to learn that the school had an F rating had quipped – “Then ‘F’ must stand for ‘Fabulous’.”

Recently, my school was accredited as an International Baccalaureate World School after three years of rigorous work. Parent involvement is high. We have tremendous socio-economic, ethnic and geographic diversity. As our demographic diversity grew, so did our scores! We hold ourselves accountable, not because of any legislation, but simply because children deserve nothing less.

When parents arrive unannounced for a tour, they often say they can’t believe we have 720 students because the hallways are quiet. They are impressed with how students are engaged with learning in every classroom they visit. They often speak of the warm and welcoming tone they sense in our school. They say they can tell the grown-ups care about the kids, and compliment us on the student work they see showcased throughout our school… and our test scores.

Our students take the state tests in the spring semester. In the end of October, when we were expecting one letter grade from the state, we were quite surprised to receive 3 instead, calculated using different criteria. The state rated us C-C-C for the last three years. In our book, that says nothing has changed. You have not grown. Things are static at your school. A single letter repeated three times put our efforts over the past three years into one tidy little box which implied all those things and hid what we do for children. I couldn’t explain in simple English how the ratings were calculated. The morale of my team was shot. I told them, “Look, no one came and gave us a pat on the back when our scores increased by 10% in just one year, so let’s just get on with our jobs.” Easier said than done. Why is this a problem? Let’s look at it through a different lens.

Let’s say a parent gets their child’s report card from our school and all it has is one letter grade – a C. They are puzzled, and say, “What does this C mean?”  We tell them it’s how their child’s progress is rated at our school. “How did you get to this letter grade?” they ask. We say, “Well, it’s a really complex formula.” If this were true, I would hope those parents would yank their kids out of our school right away and go somewhere else where the teachers could tell them how their children were doing in different academic subjects, the creative arts and social development. If a potential employer saw a college graduate’s transcript with only one letter to indicate his/her qualifications, they would probably look somewhere else to hire a someone whose competence is clearly apparent. It doesn’t make sense anywhere else. Why do we do this to public schools?

If a car dealer took April’s sales figures and gave the sales report to his employees in November, his business wouldn’t run for long. Yet spring data for schools reappears in the end of October as a report card after we are well into the new school year. If I went to a doctor who spoke in complex medical jargon and couldn’t explain what it meant, I would quickly look for a different doctor. Parents experience our school and are unable to connect the dots to see the C grade that we received. There are National Blue Ribbon Schools that have received poor letter grades despite maintaining their high standards. The A-F grades are not timely and not easy to understand either.

Public schools are an incredible resource in America, and yes, they face many challenges. The solution is not to undermine them or do away with them. One hears a lot of verbal bashing of educators – the people who hold the future of the country in their hands. Having made my second home in schools, I have seen incredibly talented educators work very hard to inspire students, partner with parents and provide tremendous instructional programs and supports. Just as we work hard to inspire every child who walks through our doors regardless of the visible and invisible baggage they bring in, we need our elected leaders to support and inspire us to do our best whether we teach children of wealthy parents or the poorest of the poor. That begins with taking data about each school’s performance, analyzing it, and giving it back to us in a way that allows us to do something meaningful with it. There’s nothing in the current letter grade that allows my staff to set goals or determine instructional changes. 

One letter on a school’s report card cannot give parents information that will allow them to compare the performance of multiple schools any more than one letter on a child’s report card can give them information about how their child is doing in multiple subjects. Information about a school’s performance must be provided in a way that is fair and can be explained. Many beautiful gems are trapped behind single letters assigned to schools that don’t say much, but imply a lot. It’s time to do away with the A-F letter grades and share school improvement stories in a way that makes sense. Our kids deserve nothing less.

The bill was passed unanimously and I look forward to seeing how this story unfolds in the months ahead.

(This post is based on testimony I provided at the hearing.)

Learning & Leading

I changed the tag line of my blog today. It used to be… ‘Thoughts About Learning and Growing’. I had those words on the covers of binders, journals and notebooks. It feels like I started just yesterday as a principal, yet all the trials, challenges and successes make me realize that I’ve spent almost a decade as a school leader. Right from the start, I knew I would be learning and growing. I had trained for this role when, as a teacher, I felt my job was on auto-pilot. I was ready for new challenges.

“Leadership is a scary thing. That’s why few people want to stand up to the plate… There are many people who want to be matadors, only to find themselves in the ring with 2,000 pounds of bull bearing down on them, and then discover that what they really wanted was to wear tight pants and hear the crowd roar” — Steve Farber

Oh! I know what that feels like! I said I wanted challenges and they came my way! There are all kinds of issues that crop up on a regular basis. A principal connects with a variety of stakeholders and each group has its own take on what is needed from the school. So the school leader is pulled in different directions while always having to maintain a steady focus on what is important (our goals), and remembering that all of these stakeholders are important to the school.

When I took this job, I had some things that were important – relationships, respect and responsibility, then after some years on the job I added rigor and resilience. These five R’s still ground my work. I’ve always loved a challenge. It gets me into problem-solving mode. Throw something tough at me and I’ll tackle it. Sometimes, it may feel like I have 2000 pounds of bull charging after me, but I always walk away, perhaps not unscathed, but each time having learned how to be a better matador!

“Leadership is a personal quest you undertake, based on mission that troubles your heart.” — Harriet Rubin

Yes, it was a personal quest – to advocate for children and educators. I enjoyed engaging with problems and finding solutions. I was directly involved in making the learning environment more effective. I partnered with my team to streamline our work. Reviewing, reflecting and revising what we did became second nature. At the same time I was starting to learn about leadership. I read books by people in the business world and happily enough, I learned that their work was in sync with my R’s. In addition to learning about curriculum and instruction, I was learning about how other people led their organizations, and their work influenced my role as a leader. I was learning and growing.

Today, the world of education is shifting and changing. I don’t have a problem with standards and accountability, however, now there are regulations that affect what educators do – it feels like we’re working inside a box. Merit pay is now part of our world and the relationships I worked hard to build over the years seem to be disintegrating. I have always seen myself as one among the team, and it feels like that’s changing. Now I am the evaluator whose hand is on the livelihood of the state’s employees! So much for shared leadership and connecting with my team, huh? I still believe in those things. They now see me differently. They see the role, not the person – I am the principal, not a colleague who can partner with them. There is less that I can do directly as a leader on a curricular and instructional level as well. My job is less about charting the course, and more about following the Trip Tik. I can determine the stops along the way but the path is set.

Well, not everything is wrong about this… in many cases, what is determined is good for students. Yet, what drew me to my work – my interest in engaging with challenges and finding solutions to address them – has morphed into something where the solutions are set by others. As someone reminded me, this is how many teachers feel across the country. No doubt, leaders of districts feel hemmed in as well, because what’s happening in the field of education affects them too.

There are days when this gets me down and I have to remind myself to keep my chin up! I wondered one day about the notion of learning and growing… how would growing help me in an arena where I have responsibility without much authority to do more than influence? What was my new challenge now and how could I tackle it?

“When we are doing something we’re passionate about, failure becomes a non-issue… Pursuit of a dream rarely leads to regrets… Too many of those with unrealized aspirations have set them aside due to fear of failure” — Farson and Keyes

It’s a long weekend, thanks to Presidents’ Day, and my thoughts kept me company as I puttered about the house doing the things I don’t get a chance to do on school days. Mulling over the lay of the land in education and seeing how I still fit in it was a helpful exercise. After the required whining (to self) about the things that bug me, I thought about what had not changed. I still love my job as a school principal. I still want to advocate for students and help them see the possibilities that lie ahead. I still love connecting with the people in my ‘school’ life. I still want to partner with my team to meet and exceed our goals. I still thrive on challenges and will always love learning.

I realized that to feel I can contribute in education I now have to redefine how I see my job. It’s no longer sufficient to think that building relationships will be a stepping stone towards partnering with my team in this arena of merit pay. I have to learn how to lead in a new atmosphere where educators feel like they are collectively under fire. It’s now about finding a way to ensure that the people at my school feel challenged to do their best every day and believe they’re getting a fair shake – I need to remember that time is an important variable in this. It’s about maintaining the R’s that ground my work and making them more transparent. It’s about realizing that when I feel boxed in, I have an even more important challenge – leading with my beliefs intact in an atmosphere where what I did before might not work. It’s about finding a way to solidify the trust I have earned over time, which now seems to be on shaky ground because of circumstances over which I have no control.

Therein lies the story of the change in the name of my blog. It now reads: From the Principal’s Pen… Thoughts About Learning and Leading. The learning still comes first. And leading… well it’s a fascinating challenge with new dimensions and I will continue to tackle it!

Learning and Leading

I have found that spending a day learning is a great way to renew my interest and belief in the things that are important to me. It could be a great day of learning when I am inspired by a someone or something (a book, movie, etc.) or perhaps a day when I might disagree with what I’ve heard or read, and learn anyway! Either way, if my brain starts humming, I know something good will come from that experience. Today I attended a conference and spent the entire day learning from a talented educator whose work resonated with me and helped me work through something I’ve been wrestling with recently.

I believe that the most important aspect of my job is to help my team members be the best they can be. I am also a principal in a state where teacher evaluations have been revamped and will soon be linked to their salaries. Naturally, this is new and unnerving for many educators who worry about how this will affect them. Will their evaluators gauge their work fairly? Will they know what they need to work on in a timely manner? They wonder what kind of an impact this system will have on their careers and lives. On the other side of the equation, I believe this system has raised the bar for school leaders with regard to how we conduct evaluations. We must continue to focus on helping teachers be the best they can be, without going into what I call ‘gotcha’ mode. My assistant principal and I have talked a lot about this and tried to communicate to teachers that we’re not interested in doing the punitive ‘gotcha’ thing. We want to partner with them in meaningful ways so that our team continues to gain strength and raise student achievement by doing the things we are charged to do, without being punitive. Yet, we realize that until this school year unfolds and people can gauge our actions, they will only have our words to rely on. Change is not easy. And, when it has the potential to affect our purse-strings negatively, it may cause stress and anxiety, and affect trust between the parties.

In my book, accountability is not a bad word. Increasing student achievement and helping students achieve success at the highest levels is a non-negotiable goal. Advocating for all children to be able to have access to opportunities that will allow them to dream big and aim high is a worthy aim. Preparing them to be able to do whatever they want to do when they grow up is, to me, why schools exist. I want to make sure that these are not diluted in any way for children and by the same token, something in me says helping teachers improve what they do is also about making a difference.

Enter Robyn Jackson, founder of Mindsteps Inc., who has strong beliefs about the core principles that should ground teaching and learning. I had read some of her books over the past year and found her work engaging and inspiring. She had three different presentations at the conference I attended today. I made it a ‘learn from Robyn Jackson’ day, and I am glad I did! What I learned today will allow me to structure the conversations I have with my team and meet the guidelines of the new evaluation system while continuing to honor the beliefs that undergird my work.

She gave a simple and important point as the rationale for her work. If we believe every child can learn and succeed (and we should believe this unequivocally), then by the same token, we should believe that every teacher can teach at the highest levels. Today she shared her belief that every child deserves to be taught by a master teacher and that any teacher can become a master teacher with the right support, guidance and practice. She engaged us with her ideas about how strategic conversations between supervisors and teachers have the potential to help teachers hone their skills and refine their practice.

Why is this valuable to me? If I want my teachers to believe that every child can learn and if I want them to find ways to reach children and help them succeed, then in my role as an instructional leader, I must believe that every teacher deserves the same from me. I have to find ways to support them and help them succeed. I have to find a way to help them be the best they can be and help every child succeed. Just as I don’t want anyone on my staff to give up on kids, I must ensure that my assistant principal and I don’t give up on our teachers. What I like about Robyn Jackson’s book is that it gives us a structured framework to guide the work we do with our team members – to work thoughtfully as we support them in achieving their goals.

An important aspect of her message is about encouraging supervisors to have a series of strategic conversations that support teachers in increasing the effectiveness of instruction. These conversations will likely happen outside the realm of evaluation observations and meetings. However, by engaging in them, supervisors have the opportunity to influence the quality of instructional practices. This is bound to help with bringing ‘no surprises’ during the evaluation. It is how we would want our own work to be evaluated.

I’ve often said that we are collectively responsible for increasing student achievement, and that I want to partner with my staff – “We’re all in this together.” However, in a high-stakes environment, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them see this as just words. Robyn Jackson’s comments about wanting to find a ‘different way’ to supervise her team resonated with me because to her, the other way simply had a punitive ring to it. She reminded us about the reasons why people embrace a career in education and reiterated the idea that we need to consciously structure our schools so that those reasons remain alive even as educators continue their journey, year after year. We want teachers to inspire students. Don’t we as school leaders have a charge to inspire our teachers?

My professor and mentor, Dr. Terrell once said, “Take care of teachers, and they’ll take care of kids.” I remember his words often on the job. Dr. Jackson reminded me today of why I became a principal and helped me renew my commitment to the goal of supporting teachers to be the best they can be. She gave me a road map with her framework for engaging in strategic conversations with teachers. I will still need to figure out which turns to take, whether I will travel quickly on highways, or drive more patiently down country roads, whether I will get to my destination quickly or if the situation warrants a more measured pace. Either way, she has given me a structure to chart a course towards differentiating leadership and supporting team members meaningfully, while holding on tightly to my beliefs. For that I am grateful.

“When you come to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt

… and, if you’re in a movie, some unbelievably heroic character will arrive in the nick of time and pull you up to safety! However, this is real life, and the end of the rope arrives sometimes before you have even thought about tying a knot!

Sometimes I wish I had super powers, or even some magic dust. It’s tough to see people working through change and not be able to fix their issues, or better still, help them figure a way out of the things that challenge them. In this week’s ‘Campus Update’ (a weekly message to my staff that includes reflections, important information and upcoming calendar items), I wrote about seeking that elusive notion of balance. It seemed to me that my team was working ’round the clock and quite likely their balance was tilted more heavily on the ‘work’ side and not the ‘family’ and ‘play’ side. So, why should that matter? When we’re stressed, our immune systems become weak, our health is affected, eating and sleeping are not a priority, we are more likely to make mistakes, fatigue wipes us out and our families can only hope that we’ll connect back with them (understatement of the year). I should know… I’ve been quite a workaholic for several years. I think I’m much better at making balance a priority now, but I’m not quite there. My husband is my compass at home on this topic – and I’m trying to pass on his message to my team!

We constantly juggle the dynamics and demands of multiple roles that we play and search for a way to become more effective and efficient in what we do. I’ve learned that people typically want to do their best, and as they struggle to do this they may sometimes find themselves in a stalemate. One of those, “I know what I need to do and if only I had a few extra hours in the day to do it…” kind of situations.

As a school leader I see myself working to remove obstacles – problem solving to help us get past the things that keep our feet on the brakes. I ask for their ideas, they share their thoughts and for the most part we can find common ground. I’m fine with making changes to streamline our work, and it’s quite powerful when the changes come from their ideas. However, there are times when the very structure of what we deal with prevents us from shifting the dynamic. And… you just have to hang on!

In my experience, this doesn’t happen often – typically educators are a very creative bunch and we tend to find ways to work through, or around issues. But what if the issue is the box we inhabit – there are boundaries that symbolize limits within which we have to function. For e.g. we only have a fixed number of hours to work with each day – even with very little sleep! And a certain number of days within which we must accomplish our goals. Thinking outside the box is well and good, but when you have to work inside it, you have to learn to persist with what you have. “Take what you have and make it what you need.” said Carol Dantley, a pastor, and wife of one of my professors, when she spoke in a leadership class over a decade ago at Miami University. Her words stayed with me. Sometimes you just have to work with what is available to you. And, wishful thinking… well, that’s available but not much help, right?

“Don’t be discouraged. It’s often the last key in the bunch that opens the lock.” ~~ Author Unknown

Hmm! Easier said than done! Isn’t it annoying to work with a bunch of keys to open a lock? I was in that situation today and it seemed like the last key was elusive. I tried and tried and tried… and then someone else managed to open the lock! It is hard to persist when all you feel is a sense of frustration. I know one of these keys will open the lock, but which one is it? Hopefully, we all will take turns feeling discouraged so that some of us will always hold the key to lift up others!

Sometimes, when I don’t have a solution for the issues that bug my team, and when problem-solving will not shift the boundaries we have to work within, I have to remind myself that perhaps my role is to simply be there for them. To listen, support and guide when possible and lift them up. To help them see that there are things we sometimes have to figure out on our own because someone else cannot move them or make them go away. If we stick with it and hang on, then eventually we’ll find a way to work within the boundaries that are immovable before figuring out a way to move the ones that are easier to shift. The tug-of-war between the concrete vs. drywall partitions in our lives!

A leader plays multiple roles – cheerleader, director, conductor, coach, chef, counselor, nurse, parental figure, stand-up-comedian… the list can go on. The foundation of these roles is clear today – doing what it takes to keep the team moving – encouraging, complimenting, guiding, coaching, listening, supporting – basically being there for them. Would a cape and wand be at the top of my wish list? Yes, absolutely! But, I know those items will always remain only on my list. I have to rely on other tools – and most of them are inside me. They all start with caring enough about my team to stick with them as we continue to march toward our goals, convinced that we will get there together!

Keep on going, and the chances are that you will stumble on something, perhaps when you are least expecting it. I never heard of anyone ever stumbling on something sitting down. ~~ Charles F. Kettering 

Giving up is not an option.  If we persist, today’s boundaries will become tomorrow’s home, and eventually we will begin to focus on some other new challenge because we would have figured out a way to work with what we have. I work in an urban school with incredible diversity and a host of what some would consider to be challenges. In the midst of this, I have seen teams of people move mountains to find ways to support children. I think sometimes they are so dedicated and focused on moving other people’s mountains that occasionally, when they see their own mountains the climb seems steeper. We all know what we want to do for others, but rarely do we place enough value on caring about ourselves.

If some of our obstacles wake us up to the notion of finding balance in our lives, well, then, this bump in the road might just be worthwhile!

“If everybody is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.” – Gen. George S. Patton

A new school year is starting – well, it has already started at my school. We’re ending week three! What an exciting time it is – new opportunities, new ideas, new people all get to tangle together in another new beginning. It’s a time when leaders get to set the tone. An important aspect of that tone is welcoming different perspectives.

As we ‘tangle’ together, things can sometimes become messy. That’s not surprising. We have over 800 people in our school who spend more hours together during weekdays when they are awake than with their families. It would be naïve to think we’ll be sailing smoothly out of the harbor on most days. Conflicts are bound to arise and people will get miffed. Sometimes I want to just say, “People, get used to it… conflicts are OK.”

In a time when we worry so much about being politically correct at work, simply sharing a different opinion may feel like a challenge. If you think I am exaggerating, picture a meeting in your head. Someone says something and you realize that you have a different way of looking at the situation. In an atmosphere where people feel that everyone’s opinions must be validated, how are you going to air your difference of opinion? Is there a possibility that the person making the first comment might feel shut down when you present an opposing viewpoint? That others around the table might suddenly look uncomfortable? I do believe we have reached a point where airing disagreements is often seen as being disagreeable. And, if you’re in a leadership role while the person making the original comment is a member of your team, it may give the impression that the boss has spoken – so the employee must have said something wrong and now gears must shift. Ouch! How do you set the tone?

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” 

–Aristotle, Greek philosopher

If professionals would consistently consider ideas, weigh them, reflect objectively and thoughtfully, then form opinions and make decisions there would be room to play with different ideas. It is not practical or honest sometimes to validate everything that is said. On the other hand, we are stretched when we consider perspectives different from our own and ultimately the organization benefits. So how do we foster a culture that honors this level of engagement?

As someone who has tried and failed, and tried and failed, and tried and… succeeded a little, I can share that it’s an idea worth believing in, yet is also one that is tough to put into practice. It’s what I’ve wanted for the past decade as a principal, yet the road has been bumpy and messy. It sounded like a good idea (after all who would ever disagree if I said all voices were welcome and valued) and I hoped it would work. I was wrong – it was not a ‘build it and they will come’ kind of scenario.

Here are some lessons I learned along the way:

Relationships are important. We have the power to influence each other with what we say, when we are thoughtful about how we say it. However, even this is insufficient in itself. If our team members have relationships that foster trust and a collaborative spirit, this push and pull of influence will stretch perspectives in a healthy way. When conflicts are aired without the ties of relationships then there is no foundation upon which we can test the strength of ideas. A push and pull of ideas can potentially weaken the cohesiveness of a group. So, yes, having talented people is important but fostering relationships is critical to allow differing perspectives to stretch our thinking without hurting teams or our organizations.

Building trust is not easy, but it is a great first step. Sometimes we rush into things – projects, plans, activities – without stopping to see if we have strong ties to the people partnering with us. These ties come only when we trust each other. The knowledge that we can air our thoughts and do our work believing that the people around us are there for us, come rain or shine, is something that is fostered in an atmosphere of trust. Leaders have the opportunity to nurture this by giving trust to those who are on their team and modeling what they want to see in their team members. In other words, when the going gets tough, people want to know if the leader will be standing beside them. This step cannot be rushed. It takes time to earn the trust of others. And consistency in one’s tone helps to nurture it. When we are inconsistent in how we react to others on our team, we get ensnared in the game of moving one step forward and two steps back.

Encouraging and inviting voices is essential. However, just because you put out the invitation it doesn’t mean that voices will be shared. It will take time. When people realize that they will not be shut out because they have something different to say, they will be more likely to speak up. Initially it might only be a couple of people and then some more might join in. Do I feel confident that everyone on my team speaks up? No! But, do I believe that a good chunk of my team members air their opinions? Yes! It’s taken time, and it’s still not without bumpy potholes, but for the most part we try to work things out. We might miff each other at intervals, but we are typically able to straighten out such situations. I have to admit that for an impatient person like me, this is tough because I believe in the idea and I want it to happen ‘yesterday’ but it does take a long time. It is worthwhile, though, because it builds a culture that can be sustained even when you hit rough spots. When we are in the middle of one of those ‘spots’ – the kind where we might be in the middle of change with people feeling stressed out – things might seem frustrating or overwhelming. Yet, I feel we can work through these challenges if we share our thoughts with each other. It’s better for me to know than not know. Whether or not I can help them, I can at least try to understand what they’re dealing with. With more awareness, we can problem-solve together or for each other. Just as families hit rough patches and struggle to stay afloat, our teams (our families at work) have to face similar challenges and find a way to stick together to make things work. Hiding our thoughts from each other is not healthy!

Put issues on the table – air them out. One of my primary reasons for maintaining a consistent level of response to issues at work is because I need my team to alert me to issues (problems, mistakes) without hesitation. If they think I will bite (not literally, of course), they will likely hold back. If I am not aware of issues, I cannot lead my organization effectively. So I speak quite openly of my stance on how I will treat them (it’s written in stone for me). Every situation that is potentially negative (with a student, staff member, parent or visitor) is an opportunity for me to demonstrate whether or not my response pattern is really written in stone. Over time, as members of my team recognize that this is an important belief and that I will stick to it unconditionally, they become more willing to speak their minds. The more they do it with me, the more they may start doing it with each other. In my role, I need to know where the chips lie. It’s better for our organization if I know what’s really on their minds. It may not be pretty and I may not like it, but it’s a reality that my crew and I will need to engage with. If a storm is heading our way and we don’t have a way around it, we have to find a way through it. At my school, I wouldn’t say we have a perfect situation but we’ve made great gains. We’re in a good place now, and it took us a while to get here.

“A mind stretched to a new idea, never goes back to its original dimensions.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

In this case, I’m not sure that the word ‘never’ holds true. People who learn to value the sharing of multiple viewpoints and work through conflicts may turn tail if trust is broken, or if beliefs and actions are not in sync. This leadership business is a little like walking on eggshells or sometimes in a minefield. You make quick decisions numerous times a day on big and little issues, yet you must always be able to instinctively reflect on the ramifications of your actions. You may need to live with the consequences for a long time. So is this a ‘make people happy’ bandwagon? I doubt it. I learned a long time ago that my wanting people to be happy would not translate into their being happy! But, I do hope this is a bandwagon about engaging with people honestly.

Picture members of a team standing on different stripes of a beach ball (the departments of an organization). When they speak up honestly about what is happening on their stripe of the beach ball, they share with us perspectives from their slice of the organization. When I speak up about what is on my mind, I give them insights from my stripe of the beach ball. If we don’t do this, I might never know what’s happening on their blue stripe which is on the other side of the ball because I’m stuck on the red stripe and can only see part of the beach ball. I’m learning to share more about the view from my stripe too. I’ve shared this analogy with my team, and when things get tough, I remind them to let me know about what’s happening on their stripe.

If there is an inherent belief in an idea shared that goes against the grain of what the organization values, how should we challenge it? In public – to all? In private – with an individual or group? It depends on the circumstance and a leader may need to figure out when either or both are appropriate. However, if it is something that affects our core principles and requires us to take a stance, then it’s important to just step out and say what we believe. People need to know where someone in a leadership role stands on important issues. Setting the tone is not synonymous with creating ‘warm and fuzzy’ feelings. It’s about reflecting on the vision and mission and taking a stance on what is important to the organization. It is always better to be clear and transparent with the tough yet important statements and not create a fuzzy guessing game about what the leader thinks. These might be the moments when the leader is the one who is not ‘thinking alike’ but wants to reset the compass for the organization. How the leader communicates this will make a big difference as to whether the stance will influence people or not.

While we may not be able to resolve issues fully, leaders must work purposefully to create an environment where people are encouraged to share their thinking without being afraid of conflict, or getting mired in it. Organizations cannot be stretched if everybody is thinking alike. People cannot grow if organizations don’t invite honest and open communication. On the flip side, we do need to challenge opinions and perspectives when necessary, and do this with honesty. A leader always has the power to step out and speak his/her mind. The true test is whether others in the organization have the same opportunity.

Undoubtedly, a leader can foster a culture where thinking differently is valued or simply shut down. The former takes time, effort and tons of patience. An organization builder will value that and work towards it.

“Are You Wearing Your Seat Belt?” ~ Tips for New Principals

It was around this time nine years ago that I got my first job as an elementary school principal. After a few moments of excitement I wondered if I was ready for the task. Someone had enough faith in me that they were going to put me at the helm of a school with a few hundred kids and educators. I hoped I would do a great job! I’m now in my fourth school as a principal. I am beginning my fifth year in the same school. What a luxury that is! So much has happened on the journey I’ve taken in this role — things I was prepared for and others that caught me completely off guard.

Getting a new school year started is a lot of fun and yes, a lot of work too! As a novice principal, I had my rose-tinted glasses on. They allowed me to see things as they should be and keep me moving towards the utopian notion of education in my head. Figuratively speaking, my glasses are now a little dented and scratched but thankfully, the rosy tint remains and my enthusiasm has not waned! As I think about new school leaders getting ready to step into their big roles, my reflections lead me to ‘pay it forward’ by sharing lessons I have learned on my journey.

Know that your tone speaks louder than your words. You have the privilege of setting the tone for your school and your organization. You are like the mood to the mood ring of your stakeholders. Be positive and your tone will be mirrored back within your organization. Be negative and critical and watch that tone swirl around in your school. This should be your most important non-negotiable ingredient. Don’t go to work without it! Be thoughtful when you communicate verbally or in writing. Don’t say the tough stuff via e-mail – it is quick and certainly easy to hide behind an e-mail message but it will hurt your efforts to build relationships. Saying the tough stuff face-to-face is difficult, but if it is done honestly, respectfully and objectively, it will reflect the culture you value. Take time to think through what you want to say before you say it. And, don’t forget about the tone of your school. Is it invitational and welcoming? Do joy, humor and laughter ring through the building? How does your team respond to people who come with issues and concerns? Is there a happy and warm feeling in the school? Is the learning of children celebrated in hallway displays? When someone steps in, will they sense that kids are important in your school? Will they sense that kids will always be treated respectfully? Take the time to make this an important part of the culture of your school. It begins with you!

Keep your 3 R’s in your toolkit. These are more than reading, writing and arithmetic! I carried respect, relationships and responsibility with me to school and talked a lot about my 3 R’s. Accountability and high achievement are big buzz words in education and these R’s will help you take your school there. No one works hard when they are hit on the head and told to do things. People do what it takes when they know that their strengths are respected and their contributions acknowledged. Trust does not just arrive on a silver platter. It has to be earned. These R’s will help you translate your tone into action, establish trust and create a culture where people take responsibility for the success of students.

Build connections with your stakeholders. This is a huge group and they all need something from you. Their needs should be at the top of your ‘plate’ and your interactions with them will help strengthen your school. In a leadership role, it is easy to feel tugged and pulled from different directions. Take time to understand what’s on their minds and focus on building a shared vision. A leader’s vision might be profound but it is meaningless if it is not shared by others and communicated within the organization. For this to happen, you have to cultivate a culture when people know they can share what’s on their minds openly and honestly. And you can cultivate this with ‘consistency’ – consistency in the way you respond, regardless of what they have to say to you.

Be clear about what is non-negotiable. Safety and supervision in the classroom, on the playground, on the bus, on the sidewalks, in the parking lot, etc. are non-negotiable. What structures do you have to make them a priority? As a special education teacher I used to work with children who had spinal cord and head injuries from accidents. That put safety very high on my list of things to accomplish very early in my career. In every school that was one of the first things I tackled – I reviewed procedures and made sure we had adequate supervision. Yet I learned, sadly from experience, that despite our best efforts, as a wise colleague said, we’re all just one heartbeat away from our own accidents. Learn about what is in place, and involve your central office staff to resolve any red flag issues.

Reflect! Reflect! Reflect! Make it second nature! As I looked back on the posts I wrote over the past year, (wow, it’s a year since I started blogging) I realized that the tips shared here have been reflections that unfolded in my writing. The title of my blog includes the words ‘Thoughts About Learning & Leading’ – words I put on many a journal and binder cover. Learning and growing happens when we are stretched, when we deal with challenges and engage with problems – and you’ll get a lot of practice with these things on the job! I assure you, the growing pains will just make you a little stronger and figuratively taller after each bout! My reflections typically float around in my head, but sometimes I share them with colleagues and now some have spilled into this blog. Whether you think, write or talk about the things you experience as you wrestle with the choices and decisions you make everyday, the important thing is taking the time to reflect. Don’t see it as one more thing to do – start with whatever plays in your mind and take a few minutes to engage with your thoughts and ideas. You will find this incredibly valuable.

Don’t second guess yourself. In your job, you will go from one situation to the next, sometimes at breakneck speed. You will tackle issues, make decisions, listen, nurture and actively care about others. Leadership is about people, not things, and so emotions are involved – yours and those of others. It’s easy to take things personally. It’s also easy for me to tell you not to take things personally, yet struggle with this in my work. We have to grow a thick skin without falling into the trap of becoming jaded and cynical about the things we deal with. I am learning to draw my sunshine from those who share constructive criticism respectfully, support me and want to see me get better at what I do. I am learning to not struggle with what one of my friends calls ‘immovable barges’ while knowing that they are an important part of my work and I have to engage with them. A former superintendent, who was an incredible mentor, shared with me words of wisdom from Theodore Roosevelt. An excerpt from ‘The Man in the Arena’ now sits in front of my desk and helps me find my centering. Remember that you were hired for your strengths, and over time you will continue to gain strength. Keep your chin up!

Make learning a priority. Learn with others, learn for yourself. You are in an organization with a mission tied to learning. That mission should be embraced by adult learners as much as it is a goal for students. Engage in professional development with your team. Your most important role is to help your teachers be the best they can be. For that to happen, you have to stay tuned-in to what’s happening in the field of education. Take a few minutes every day or every week to read from a book, an article, a blog in the field. When you model this interest in learning, it will permeate into the culture of your organization.

Tap into the pulse of your school. There is a lot to accomplish in schools, yet, rushing things might end up slowing down the very change you want to see happen. Or if the change happens, it might not be sustainable. Oh, how I wish someone had given me this advice before I stepped into my office the first time! I tend to be flexible, am willing to try new things if they seem worthwhile and I welcome change. I soon met individuals who were not on the same wavelength with me. As I worked to put into place things that I thought ‘needed to happen’, people pushed back. I had a sense of urgency about the things we needed to accomplish for kids. Others didn’t read it the same way. Yogi Berra wisely said, “You can see a lot just by observing.” It is prudent to be an observer in the first few months as you engage with your stakeholders. Learn how they ‘read’ the organization, take time to gauge their interests and needs and generally tap into the pulse of your school before you make changes. When one steps into a new leadership role there is a lot of excitement and energy in the air. However, once the ‘work’ begins, suddenly the newness of the leader and the way she does things differently from her predecessor become a big deal. Whether or not people are happy with their bosses, there is comfort in familiar expectations – what I call going into ‘auto-pilot’ mode or knowing what is expected and how things will unfold. With a new leader, people are less sure of the expectations and they don’t know how you will respond or react. The way in which you do things is new for them (not just for 3 office staff but for all the teachers, support staff, students, families, etc.). They have an idea in their minds of how their school works, and because you can’t do things exactly like the person before you, you are bound to step into this landmine where they think you want to ‘change’ things. It is helpful to reach out and ask them to tell you what they need, and to cultivate connections and invite them to tell you what’s not working for them or what is difficult. There was a time when I might have looked at this as putting the brakes on but now I see that it is a critical step if I want the changes we make to be sustainable.

Be visible. It’s easy to spend most of your day putting out fires – dealing with discipline issues and other problems, meeting with people who want to see you right then and there. There are meetings to attend, phone calls to return, reports to complete, paperwork to be done, data to collect and analyze, evaluations to be scheduled and completed, professional development to be planned and so much more. As an instructional leader, staying engaged with kids and their learning means we have to make being in classrooms and engaging with kids and educators a priority. Carving out time to do this given all the other things tugging at us means we have to make this tug at us harder. It’s something I’ve improved over the years but it remains on my ‘things to improve next year’ list. The important thing is that you keep building from one year to the next.  And, remember that being visible to your community is also critical and it can be accomplished in many ways. I supervise car-rider drop off and pick-ups where a smile and wave to parents as they drive off has helped me build many relationships. I write a letter to families in our monthly newsletter, take part in school events,  share comments with parents about the things I’ve seen their kids do and sometimes meet families in their neighborhoods to connect with them. These opportunities have given me a big boost in getting to know a lot of parents at my school, several on a first name basis. I ask them to use my first name – it helps break the ice and hopefully ‘meeting with the principal’ then becomes a less intimidating experience for them. If they know you care, they will be more willing to partner with your school.

Find a mentor whether or not your organization assigns one to you. Ask this person to make the culture and routine of your organization more transparent to you. When you are new, you may not be aware of the ‘things’ that are traditionally a part of your school. And when you don’t know, it’s difficult to figure out what questions you should ask. Your mentor can alert you to things you should be doing at different points of time during the year. Also, enlist some teachers, parents and other support staff to put similar things that they see as relevant on your radar. Don’t assume this will happen automatically – seek it out. This is helpful for the school to run smoothly as you transition.

Take care of yourself. You have to recharge your batteries so that you can continue to give to your school community. I’ve struggled with finding balance between work and home. Each time I switched schools I had to start from scratch – building relationships, earning trust, learning and growing with my new school community. Sometimes it was easy and at other times tough. It’s so easy to become a workaholic. All the paperwork you didn’t get to during the day has to be done sometime… and that spills over when the school day ends. The emotional stuff floats about in your head and can be a drain on your energy. Then you come home and switch to the role of spouse or parent and navigate the responsibilities on that front. It’s easy to end up in a situation where you seem like you’re taking your family for granted as you get ‘caught up’ with your work. Carve out time for your family and time for your work. Take time for your hobbies, to exercise… even small chunks of time will calm your mind and help you feel better able to give more of yourself at home and at school. Know that this is not easy to do (no wonder lots of books on time management get written) but remember to make it a priority. Also remember that it is important for your staff as well and see what you can do to help them find balance.

Celebrate little and big moments. We all need to know that we’re making a difference. Find ways to compliment and celebrate children and staff, volunteers, people in different departments who support your school, etc. Say something meaningful, write a note, share lots of smiles and you’ll touch the lives of others. Do something for yourself too. Set up a treasure box and save notes, cards, e-mails, and other things that come your way when people acknowledge your work. When I’m feeling down I will sometimes open a box where I save these and reading them helps me bounce back.

And, my ‘seat belt’ for principals… it’s the beliefs that ground my work. We all know that wearing a seat belt is important and can save our lives. And yes, it is a law in many places but not everywhere. Either way, it seems like people choose whether to wear it. We can wear it for short trips or long ones; when the drive is slow and bumpy or when we’re traveling at high speeds down the highway. I often don’t even remember that it’s on while I’m driving – I just know that I will not move my car without clicking it on. The beliefs that undergird my work are similar to a seat belt – I take them with me to school everyday. They are there when I chart my course, when I interact with stakeholders, when I navigate myriad decisions everyday and especially when I am on rough roads. They are always in the back of my mind – the white noise of my work day. I do know that in crucial moments they will help me like my seat belt. They tighten up as I am navigating a sudden turn or when I have to slam down on my brakes. They help me think about what I might do differently the next time. I choose to wear my seat belt at all times – law or not. It is a useful habit. And yes, there are no laws governing the carrying of beliefs by leaders in any organization, yet, they can be our conscience and our ethical compass so it’s useful to be clear about our beliefs and hold them close.

It is an honor to be at the helm of a ship full of learners (kids and grown-ups). I hope you will love your job, work hard and learn a lot! I wish you the best of luck in your adventures ahead and hope you get to take the best turns at crossroads as you continue your journey. More importantly, I hope you stick with it and stay on for the ride! Stay engaged, enjoy what you do and always remember to wear your seat belt!