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

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!

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants… Covey’s Influence on My Work

This post has been brewing in my mind for sometime now, but it brought me to the keyboard today as I look back on the influence Stephen Covey has had on my work as a school leader. Covey, author of  several books on leadership, passed away on July 16th, 2012. On the news today I heard several people mention his book ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’, yet, I remember him for a different book.

I am not sure where I first heard his name but it was about a decade ago when I had just started my training to become a principal. I think I stumbled across a book authored by him as I wandered through the bookstore at Miami University in Ohio. While buying textbooks, I used to enjoy browsing the shelves to see what was on display for other courses. Often I left with used copies of titles which piqued my interest.  That is how I found a copy of Covey’s ‘Principle Centered Leadership’. It seemed to fall right into the realm of the overarching leadership themes and focus on vision that played through the educational leadership program. When we talked about ‘leadership’ as opposed to ‘administration’ I was fascinated by the ideas I was learning, but it was Covey’s book which gave me a picture of how this notion of leadership within a community could play out. His book opened my eyes to new possibilities were I to have the privilege of leading a school.

I was fascinated. The world of business seemed to have more warmth and connections through Covey’s lens than I had realized. He emphasized building relationships and I was keen to consider his perspective within a school setting. Today, I spent a few minutes skimming through my portfolio, created at the end of my leadership program, and sure enough I had multiple references in my writing to what I had learned from his work – I had reiterated his idea of ‘Principle-Centered Leadership’ and his notion of life-long learning.

“If you don’t experience your life, you’re not going to come up with solutions for anything. Every intention, every achievement has come out of dissatisfaction, not serenity. No one ever said, “Things are perfect, let’s invent fire.” ~ Fran Lebowitz

There was a time when I used to shy away from conflict, but then I learned from him that it is in airing our disagreements and different perspectives that we can be stretched in our thinking. Covey emphasized that to move ahead, we have to deal with restraining forces before addressing the driving forces. He spoke of how just pressing down on the gas pedal will not allow us to move forward unless we take our feet off the brake. As a school leader, I see that change is always ’round the corner, and I also see that my crew members have different reactions to the changes we encounter. We will not be able to move forward unless we engage with each other about the things that hold us back from ‘implementing’ the change sincerely, or as we say these days in education, ‘with fidelity’. In my book, engaging is about about ‘doing with’ rather than ‘doing to’. And that cannot happen without taking the time to build relationships.

In an era of accountability in education, another notion of Covey’s resonates for me. He said that proactive people would take responsibility for their choices without placing blame on external factors. That is something I have tried to emphasize with my team – a sense of taking responsibility for our charge, learning from our mistakes and moving forward. I started my career with my 3 R’s – and now I recognize that two of them, Relationships and Responsibility, quite likely grew out of my meanderings in Covey’s books . A vision can unfold more meaningfully when there is a collective sense of responsibility, and that cannot grow in a vacuum without relationships either.

I wonder if some might read my blog and think to themselves, “OK, Subha, this relationship building, warm and fuzzy stuff you speak of is well and good but what about raising student achievement? Isn’t that your bigger job?” If I heard that question, my response would be that both can co-exist, and actually need to co-exist. Using tough tactics to require the implementation of instructional ‘best practices’ without building relationships might allow us to see the ‘actions’ and ‘behaviors’ we want to see, but they will probably be inconsistently implemented and will likely not be sustainable over time. If people don’t believe in something and if they feel like it’s being ‘done to them’ they’re going to be in fight or flight mode for the most part.  On the flip side, if a school is all about being warm and fuzzy and building a sense of community without  focusing on rigorous and sound curricular practices, then yes, we will have a caring community but student achievement will not go off the charts upwards.

Strong relationships and rigor in instructional practices can help build successful educational organizations. It takes time for good practices to ‘stick’. People will be more willing to work at something if they understand the rationale for it, and if there is an atmosphere of trust and relationships to cushion their journey as new learning takes place. Covey has written a lot about building and regaining trust. Trust is something we cannot expect as leaders. It is something we have to earn. And trust cannot be fostered without relationships.

We all stand on the shoulders of giants – people who came before us, stumbled and reflected, then took the time to share their learning and influence others. We get to hear and read what they experienced and make sense of it all by adding our perspectives and experiences to the mix. Covey opened my eyes to the big things that one wrestles with over time. I have learned to reflect on and refine the ideas, see how things fit and where they fit in my life and work. I can question big ideas and make new meaning for myself. Covey is one among many who influenced what I do and in some sense he and others have made my work exciting – it is not in auto-pilot mode and I do wrestle daily with the issues that come my way because these giants have given me food for thought. They have taught me that there is no quick formula in my work… that I have to be willing to work hard, keep my compass steady and build connections because leadership is a ‘people’ business.

I remember listening to Covey narrating one of his audio books some years back and thinking that this was someone who was passionate about his work. In his voice, I could sense his excitement and his respect for the work we do. People are fortunate when they have the opportunity to work on something they love. He seemed to be some who thoroughly enjoyed his work and connecting with others even more. Covey’s ideas are beyond warm and fuzzy – they’re easy to accept and challenging to implement. I am grateful to have engaged with his ideas so far through the lens that he shared. I do believe that in the years ahead, many more leaders will continue to stand on his shoulders as they take responsibility for building relationships and a shared vision with their crew.

“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!

“I didn’t take this job to give up on you!”

How often have I said this? And often vehemently. Yet, this week I had to reflect on whether or not I meant this unconditionally.

As an elementary principal in an urban school, I have a fire in my belly about the work I do, fueled by a sense of optimism that keeps me afloat and helps me bounce back when things get tough as they are apt to do. My job has its share of ebbs and flows, highs and lows and what keeps me going is the belief that I might make a difference, perhaps leave an impression on the lives of others and stretch them in the direction of possibilities that might enrich their lives in the future. The latter part of that sounds like such a romanticized version of a principal’s role, doesn’t it, given that people often see individuals in my role as the proverbial boogeyman? “Did you know this auntie (in India, the adult friends of a child’s parents are called aunties or uncles) is a school principal?” A scary person, indeed! Others see it as a tough job. I’ve heard the “I wouldn’t want your job for anything…” line often enough, and more so recently given the push and pull educators face from politicians and the community these days. And… I still love this job.

It’s about kids… Kids who come to us with an incredible sense of curiosity about the world they live in. Kids who have an array of talents, often untapped. Kids privileged to have a wealth of experiences, resources and support. Kids who have experienced challenges and trials for which my life experiences bring no reference point. Just as parents often wish for their children a better life than the one they have, I wish for my students the opportunity to be well prepared to do anything they may choose to do in their lives. I hope they will love to learn, and learn how to learn.

In the meantime, the world many of my students live in is a lot like an obstacle course – perhaps a hurdle race. They run and reach a hurdle, they jump over it, run again and reach another one sometimes making it safely to the finish line. In some cases, they are like the novice athlete – not quite making it over the hurdle… knocking it down as they struggle to hone their skills. Often their teachers coach them through these hurdles, occasionally the referee (principal) has to make a call. Was the hurdle knocked over accidentally, or deliberately? Should the athlete be disqualified? And how complicated might things get when the referee sees herself as a coach?

As I work to piece together the slow motion replay in my head when hurdles are knocked over, my goal is not only to help students work through their current obstacle but also guide them so they can figure out a way to deal with the next similar hurdle that stares at them from just a few yards ahead. The kids are sometimes bummed out, and sometimes tough. Often their feelings are bruised and they want to save face. Sometimes they lack the words to share what’s playing in their minds… what they are feeling in their hearts. Some of them carry so much baggage – the unseen kind that for $25 you couldn’t pass on to the airline baggage handler for just a few hours until you get to your destination.

My job is about pushing and pulling, nudging and cajoling, caring and nurturing, lifting others up and working hard to stop them from falling while hoping to inspire and guide them towards new paths – hopefully ones that will be slightly less bumpy. I realized, as I reflected last night, that I have some lines that spill out of me at intervals – in a deliberately kind yet sometimes firm tone, and in a calm voice. Words that mean a lot to me… words that help build trust with my kids and their families… words that let them know I care, even when things are rough.

“You know, you’re way better than that. You’re capable of so much more!”

“I want you to be the best you can be!”

“I often tell other people how smart/bright/talented/creative you are, and I’m not sure they believe me when they see some of the choices you make. Did you know, only YOU have the power to make them believe my words. You can make my words true. You can make my word good by doing the right thing!”

“Do you want people to see you as a kind, caring, positive, happy, cheerful and generous person? Or do you want them to think of you as someone who bullies others, hurts others or does not care? You are the only one who has the power to make that happen. You know I’m right, don’t you?” 

“Do you believe that I care about you? Do you believe that I respect you?”

“Have you ever heard me yell at you, put you down or say mean or disrespectful things? I know how to be grumpy, I can yell pretty loudly, I know a lot of mean words, and I am pretty angry about what you did, but I choose not to yell or scream at you. How can I ask you to do the right thing if I don’t?”

(My family likely wishes I could stick with this at home! Yes, this is my big goal… one I’m still working towards. But for now, I’ve stuck by these words at school for over two decades with no slip up.)

And for the moments when they knock down the toughest and tallest hurdles, unable to summon up the skills to jump over them, I’ve said this:

“The easiest thing for me to do would be to give up on you. But I didn’t take this job to give up on you. If you want to get me off your back, then stop and think and change what you’ve been doing. I wouldn’t ask you to do something you couldn’t do, right? And you don’t need me to keep telling you things you already know. You have so many people who care about you at school and want you to do well. We’re here for you. Count on us.” 

Inch by inch, and sometimes with tinier steps we move forward together – building trust, sharing lighthearted moments, caring words, smiles and compliments. In most situations, parents see that we want the best for their kids. Yet, occasionally, that hurdle turns into a wall that one of my kids slams into. One of those “Please don’t put me in a situation where you don’t give me a leg to stand on and bail you out” walls… where I have no choice but to don the referee’s striped shirt. Yes, we all earn consequences – good or bad – for the choices we make. And I don’t believe in the good kid/bad kid syndrome – I believe kids are generally good yet may make bad decisions (yes, yes, those rose-tinted glasses are out there for all to see right now). Those walls sometimes bring me moments when I feel like my bag of tricks has run out. When I wish I had done just one more thing to prepare a kid for the hurdle ahead of him/her – one that is so obviously looming ahead of a child who is unable to make the right decision at the right second to jump over it, or to summon up the control to tackle the impending crash with a spirit of sportsmanship.

Ah, so much for a euphemistically written post! There is much to say about the stance one wants to take as a school leader, while dealing with the trials that are part and parcel of a leadership role that is ultimately about people – young people – and therefore comes with a complex play book and rule book. Donning the referee shirt symbolically and worrying that one has moved away from the coaching role one believes in implicitly, while plagued by a fear… that my word might not have been good. “I’ll never give up on you.” Really? Unconditionally? I’d like to think so. Yet our time together is so fleeting, often made even more so by the mobility that winds kids through multiple schools in a matter of months or years; or by the transitions from elementary to middle to… How do I make good on my word? When do I keep my promise? How much time will I get?

Reflecting on what we do in some sense becomes second nature when we care and want to do more and do better, right? And in the midst of those reflections creep in the gremlins of doubt and worry. “Should I have…?” “Did I do…?” “What else could/should I have…?” I do believe it is healthy to go through this process of reflecting on our actions as leaders and educators. It’s tough, but we can come out stronger on the other side. Getting there takes some time and work, and there are also moments when I need to lean on the wisdom of others.

The words that helped me bounce back to coaching mode came from President Obama’s commencement speech given yesterday at Barnard College (a women’s college affiliated with Columbia University) – a speech shared on a friend’s Facebook wall today. A great speech I know I will share with my students as we journey ahead together. And his words that helped me shed the striped shirt?

“My last piece of advice — this is simple, but perhaps most important: Persevere. Persevere. Nothing worthwhile is easy. No one of achievement has avoided failure — sometimes catastrophic failures. But they keep at it. They learn from mistakes. They don’t quit.”

He didn’t really need to tell me something I already knew, but I needed to hear it today! And… my learning and growing continues. I know again, that I’m far from quitting, and I won’t let my kids quit.  I realize that I might have to switch shirts again as I get my kids ready for the world they live in, yet, even as I do, I will keep saying to them, “The easiest thing for me to do would be to give up on you. But I didn’t take this job to give up on you. If you want to get me off your back, then stop and think, and change what you’ve been doing. You have so many people who care about you at school and want you to do well. We’re here for you.” 

And, we’ll always be here. The best gift will be, if over time, unbeknownst to us, they remember that as they play the game of life.

Lessons Learned From the Melting Pot

Last week, after over two decades of living, working and paying taxes in the United States on Student Visas, with Work Permits and then Green Cards (Permanent Resident cards which are actually pink), my husband and I became citizens. It was an interesting experience and one that made some simple things stand out in importance. If you’re wondering what ‘thoughts about learning and growing’ emerged from this event, do read on!

We sent our application for citizenship in January and in subsequent months went through biometric scanning (digital fingerprinting), a test of our knowledge of US history, civics and geography, a simple reading and writing test, and an interview. The Homeland Security officer interviewing me said that I was her ‘first principal’! Apparently she had interviewed other educators applying for citizenship but none in my professional role. She was pleasant and friendly as were the others who took us through all the steps of the process. In April we would have our swearing-in ceremony – and I pictured a formal bureaucratic ceremony that would unfold in a courthouse in Indianapolis.

One morning in April, during our morning ‘Bulldog Broadcast’ (our closed-circuit TV message) I told my students that I was going to become a citizen of the US. I said I was looking forward to sharing information about all the things I had to do to earn this privilege and as I spoke that day, the upcoming event seemed more real. And then, last Thursday, while my husband and I sat at the courthouse with 69 others who would be changing their status from ‘Permanent Resident Alien’ to ‘Citizen’, the monthly convocation unfolded at my school. Our wonderful art teacher announced to the 800 plus kids and grown-ups gathered in our gymnasium and cafeteria that in a few minutes, as they said the Pledge of Allegiance, with which we begin our school ceremonies, in another corner of Indianapolis, their principal would be taking an oath of citizenship and then saying the same Pledge.

I made it back to school late that morning and entered through a side door, carrying my books, bags and a little US flag. The first child I saw called out, “Welcome to America!” She was followed by several others throughout the day, and still more during dismissal wishing me the same in a chorus, sporting big smiles, as they filed out of school heading for their buses and cars. They seemed to have given it the kind of status reserved for special days like birthdays! I think I was grinning non-stop that day. It was delightful and I was receiving an incredible welcome! And today, several days later, the greetings are still coming my way. “Welcome to America, Ms. Balagopal!” “Welcome to your new home!” “We hope you like it here!” As I put it, even if I waited 23 years to be welcomed to the US, it was worth it! And all the good wishes from the grown-ups too – friends and family – have turned a simple change of status into a time when one realizes how much others care.

The event has played in my mind a lot of times since last week. What I had assumed would be a solemn, formal event had been anything but that. Yes, we did put our purses, belts and folders through a metal detector at the courthouse, and of course, my ear-rings set off some bells as I walked through the scanner! But the security staff were pleasant and cheerful as they directed us to the courtroom assigned for the function. We stood in a long hallway for a while as another security person walked from one person to another greeting us cheerfully, checking our paperwork and inviting guests to enter the courtroom without having to wait in the line. She was kidding around with people and answering all our questions. In a cheery voice, she even let us know that we would be able to step out for a few minutes before the ceremony started to ‘feed’ the parking meters!

The courtroom was large, and beautifully elegant, and everything started on time. After the formalities that took place as the judge entered, the rest of the ceremony was touching, sometimes a little emotional and often delightful. As they called out the names of the 71 new citizens-to-be, each of us stood up and named our country of origin. I was amazed that in a corner of the mid-west that is not usually known for its diversity, the courtroom now housed people from an incredible array of countries. My husband quickly wrote down most of the names of the countries on the back of an envelope holding our citizenship packet. You can see them in the Wordle image at the top of this post – the larger names represent multiple people from the same country. We did miss a few countries we couldn’t hear clearly enough, but, this was a memorable and touching part of a ceremony that accorded tremendous respect to the backgrounds of the people in the room.

The judge presiding over the ceremony was delightful. He regaled us with his sense of humor and anecdotes. As he spoke of valuing diversity in this land of immigrants, his invitational and welcoming tone was very apparent. He quipped that every time Andrew Luck made a touchdown in the future, we should remember that we became citizens on the day that the Indianapolis Colts had drafted him! The swearing-in ceremony was moving. There was a feeling of leaving one thing for another – both things one loves – not unlike the notion in the Indian context, of a bride leaving her family to begin a new life. At that moment I remembered what my brother-in-law had said to my parents at my wedding. He had asked them to look at it as not about ‘losing their daughter’ but ‘gaining a son’. While I feel privileged to now be a citizen in a place I’ve called my home for half of my life, I know my love for the land where I was born will still be a part of me. As my assistant principal later said, “We’ve adopted you, Subha!”

Representatives of the two senators and a local congressman gave brief speeches to welcome us to our new roles and encouraged us to actively participate and exercise our duties and responsibilities. The Daughters of the American Revolution gave us small flags, and we left the courtroom with copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States as well as our new citizenship certificate, passport forms, and other documents we needed. Right outside were people waiting to give us the opportunity to complete voter registration paperwork. It was all very thoughtfully organized and a lot was accomplished in a short amount of time.

As I shared this experience with friends and family, one friend wrote back and said: “At my swearing-in, the judge said… ‘Even if the lady next door isn’t as welcoming as the Statue of Liberty, this process is built on welcoming each of you to your new home country. As this becomes your new country, remember your old home country with love, and remember to make this new home a better place. My grandfather came here as a construction worker, and here I am a federal judge. This is what this country is about.’ I was pretty psyched. I hope your swearing-in was special too.”

I read her words and knew that this blog post would ensue! I was impressed with the emphasis given to the simple notion of being welcoming and invitational during this process. Hearing about my friend’s experience from a different corner of the US led me to believe that perhaps this was not just about the mid-western, Indiana hospitality I love. It seemed like a welcoming tone was being set deliberately. I would not have been disappointed or surprised had I attended a formal, bare-bones ceremony, but the sweet, sometimes funny event I had experienced made me feel like this was about more than a ‘change of status’. As I think back, this tone was present even when I was being fingerprinted and interviewed! The respect given to where each of us came from was especially touching and gives me hope that the diversity of the people in this land we call a ‘melting pot’ will always be celebrated.

In our schools, and indeed, in any organization, each one of us has the power to make the simplest moments special and engaging. We have the power to be invitational and welcoming. Yes, we can be formal and serious and make things seem weighty and important, or cloud interactions with grumpy and brusque undertones and even sarcasm or irritation. But, where’s the joy in that? Who wants to work in a formal, serious, grumpy, weighty place? It would be so much more fun to step into the sunshine and warmth of a happy and caring organization, where people build relationships with colleagues and customers (our families and community). And the formula is not complex – the ingredients are simple: lots of smiles and good cheer, thoughtfulness in the smallest of actions focused on making things easy and less complicated for others, a willingness to make simple things more special, and a good dose of care, humor and joy. Whether it’s a teacher in a classroom seeking to engage students, office staff addressing the questions and needs of visitors, or school leaders serving a diverse group of stakeholders, each one of us has the power to make the little moments count. We often spend a lot of time and energy on the BIG things we need to accomplish that take hours of our attention, forgetting sometimes that it is in the small moments that we truly forge the relationships that strengthen and sustain our organizations.

I’ve always believed in the importance of the tone we set. If people sitting in governmental agencies, charged with poring over pages of documents to approve requests for citizenship can make the process unfold in such a thoughtful and special way, I do believe it shouldn’t be tough for us to do the same consistently in our schools (or any other organization). Our kids deserve nothing less!