New Beginnings: The Pizza Conference

I am honored to continue serving my district as the next principal of Alton Darby Elementary. The goal of this blog was to document my journey to the principalship because I wanted others who might have been interested in educational administration to see what the journey may be like if they decided to take it. Now that I have accepted a position as principal, I will shift my attention to the transition period that has already begun to take place. I am excited to start documenting these reflections through a blog series called “New Beginnings”.

As I continue to learn more about the Alton Darby community, I have been looking for opportunities to have conversations with students, families, and teachers. Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with a special group of stakeholders: the students.

I wanted to make sure that students were the first stakeholder group I met with because they are at the center of the work that we do each day. With the help of the Alton Darby staff, two students from each classroom were invited to have lunch with me to have a discussion about the future. Kids have such a unique perspective on most things in life, and I wanted to find out their thoughts and feelings about their school since “school” is such an important part of their life right now.

We grouped the kids together – 1st and 2nd graders, 3rd and 4th graders, and then just 5th graders – so that we could have a small group setting for each conversation. I kept the framework of the conversation open and I asked two questions:

  • What do you love about Alton Darby Elementary?
  • If you were the principal and you had all the money you wanted to spend on Alton Darby, what would you do?

I could have held the conference all day!

Each child’s response was so genuine and honest that I wanted to know more. Collectively, the students’ answers to both questions demonstrated a strong sense of community at Alton Darby. They remarked how nice and friendly everyone is at Alton Darby. “The school is filled with positive energy,” said one 2nd grader. “The related arts teachers let us use our imaginations,” said another. “The teachers push us to learn something new,” replied a 5th grade student.

Here’s what I loved about what I heard. Even though students were divided into different groups and met at different times, they all made the same positive comments about the Alton Darby community. Alton Darby Elementary’s reputation of being a student-centered learning community that believes in building positive relationships with all its members was affirmed by the members of the community whose voices are the most important ones. I believe that is a credit to the work students, parents, and staff members have put into building meaning relationships throughout the school community.

Now, the responses to the second question (What would you do if you were principal, etc.) were just as interesting to me. Again, each student group generally gave the same replies. One comment that came up over and over again was that students really want to have more physical activity. And if they were given all the money they wanted to spend on Alton Darby, students would have amazing playground equipment. They also suggested expanding the gym so that there was more room for more groups of students to do activities. One student really wanted a disco ball in a room where kids could work.

While I don’t think we can count on a disco ball or rebuild the gym, I did want to make sure I was sending a message to these students that I want them to Dream BIG. Giving kids opportunities to dream also gives them opportunities to explore their passions and dreams. As teachers and family members, we have the amazing opportunity to support students their learning journey and to do what we can to support their goals.

This was my very first Pizza Conference and I am looking forward to having more in the future!

 

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Core beliefs should drive you to improve each day.

“If you have ten thousand regulations you destroy all respect for the law.” -Winston Churchill

Last week, I had a conversation with a teacher about our student support process. We are both on our intervention team and the teacher was feeling frustrated about what to do next with a student case.

This was a great conversation for me because the teacher was giving me feedback on a process I helped to develop. I was stunned at first – I was under the impression that our intervention process was working well and we had great results for students during the previous school year. How could this be an issue?

But I quickly ignored those thoughts because this was someone whose opinion I trust and I didn’t want to miss a word.

After I listened, I reminded them about a conversation we had a couple of weeks ago about something similar. I told them that the structures we put in place to support students should be the floor and not the ceiling. If what we do is the very best we can do for a kid, then who cares what the process says is the next step?

I’ve been thinking about my conversation with my teammate a lot since then. While I believe structures and protocols are important, I also believe we often build our own barriers to solutions for the sake of protocols. I believe we need to consider protocols and processes the starting point for our conversations about a student and then use what we know about the student to help him or her be successful.

However, just because something is a core belief doesn’t mean I’ve mastered it yet. This is something I need to continue to reflect upon and improve, and it drives me to want to be a better leader each day.

Don’t forget this…

Ever since I started thinking about being a principal some day, I have kept a list of things I want to remember when I get there. I started a notebook in Evernote and have a note called “When I am principal”.

This isn’t an agenda for how I will run a building someday. That would just be a big mistake. However, the list is a place where I have recorded some thoughts I’ve had on leadership, running programs, and staying focused on what is important.

I check on this list every now and then to see if I still feel the same about what I recorded. Usually the things I have listed stay, which I take as things that are important to remember. But if what I wrote down doesn’t seem relevant anymore, I get rid of it. It’s like reflecting on my reflections.

I hope to use this list to help me remember what I have thought about during my internship, when the weight of the principalship wasn’t clouding my thinking. I hope that in times of frustration, uncertainty, or even indifference, I can return to this collection of ideas and remind myself of what is important.

Here’s my list:

How do you continue to reflect and record ideas worth remembering?

How do you know?

http://www.fotopedia.com/items/flickr-2200500024
http://www.fotopedia.com/items/flickr-2200500024

Two years ago, my principal and I were walking down the hallway, chatting about the day somehow the conversation moved to how I thought I needed to start grad school.

“Administration?” she asked with a smile.

No way,” I said without hesitation.

I’m sure I could have been a little more sensitive and said “maybe” instead of dismissing the idea completely, but it was something I had never considered. At the time, I had only been teaching for 4 years. I was very focused on improving my teaching and thought that focusing my grad school work on teaching and learning would be something I would enjoy. Administration wasn’t even in the picture.

But in that moment with my principal, a seed was planted. I started to wonder if leadership was a path I should take. Over the summer, a building leadership opportunity came my way. If I took it, it would mean less time in the classroom and more time working with small groups of students, working with teachers, analyzing data and coordinating testing. So, I did a quick pro and con list and decided to go for it.

I’m finishing up my second year in this position that I was fortunate enough to get, and I can firmly say that I’m glad I am going down this path. Leadership is a new found passion and interest. I’m one year into my educational administration program and I will be starting my principal internship this fall.  I would have never guessed I am where I am two years ago.  So, how did I come to realize building my leadership skills was the path I wanted to take?

  • I started following blogs and folks on Twitter that focused on educational leadership.
  • I reflected on what I am passionate about (student learning, innovative teaching, and building relationship) and made a plan for blending that into a leadership style.
  • I exercise and develop my leadership vision by speaking up and sharing my thoughts more.
  • I listen more and ask lots of questions.
  • I do want I can to remove roadblocks for students and teachers so they can act on their goals and passions.

All of this continues to help me know that this is what I want to do moving forward.  It gives me energy and the successes are addictive.  Honestly, I’ve realized that we are all leaders in our own right. Students, teachers, and parents are all leaders in moving a school’s progress forward.  I just needed time to look inward at myself and figure out just how far I wanted to take this path.

If you are wondering if developing your leadership is something you might be interested in doing, here are a couple of links to blogs that helped me realize building my leadership skills was the right path to take for me:

A “To-Be” List for Aspiring Leaders by Angela Maiers

Leaders Should Be Learners (video) by George Couros

Are You A Teacher-Leader? at Getting Smart

6 SIgns of a Natural Leader at SmartBlogs

“Ugly” Plans

I’m in the middle of reading The Learning Leader: How to Focus School Improvement for Better Results by Dr. Douglas Reeves, and I highly recommend it for anyone interested in educational leadership.  The author provides great research-based information with implications for school improvement.

Chapter 5: What Matters Most-From Planning to Performance is a chapter that resonated with me.  Last year was my first year in a leadership role in my building.  One of my roles was as the building’s intervention assistance team (IAT) coordinator and one of my goals was to have a clear, simple process for teachers and team members to use when targeting a student’s skill that needed to be strengthened.  Writing out that process and turning it into a handy-dandy flowchart of next steps was something I labored over (way too much).

By February, I began to realize that there were other factors that were not going to be solved by a flowchart of steps.  These factors included team members who were confused, but didn’t communicate that to me; teachers who just needed help, not more paperwork; and my inexperience in the role.

I decided that if I want the process of helping students through IAT, I needed to slow down, talk less, and listen more.  I started to adjust the process to the teachers and students that were involved.  I started to differentiate my rigid process.

Page 63 of “The Learning Leader: How to Focus School Improvement for Better Results” (Reeves, 2006)

Dr. Reeves points out that school buildings/districts often create written plans that are clean and organized.  However, these plans are often left unchanged and the leadership remains determined to stick to the plan even though variables, like student demographics or budget short-falls, have occurred.  This rigid implementation of improvement plans are why many of these schools are still spinning their wheels trying to make gains.

Dr. Reeves says that research shows that “ugly” plans, ones that change as the variables change, are plans that respond to the changing needs of the school building.  It made me think of my own classroom teaching – I never stuck to the lesson plan, I just responded to the students.  So if it works in the classroom, why shouldn’t it work at the building or district level too?

As I continue to develop my philosophy of leadership and learn about principal best practices, I am relieved to know that research shows that even the best laid plans need to respond to the unexpected variables.  I will certainly run into a few of those as a principal.