Remember Where You Came From

I had a fulfilling, yet exhausting day last Friday. Our building level administration team was heading to an Emotional Intelligence training.  The training was part of the school’s work with Mark Brackett and The Yale Center of Emotional Intelligence .

In year two of this initiative we are seeing progress in how we think about our emotions, how they affect us, and how they cause us to react. The “us” in this case is the school community, the teachers, the SRP’s, the students, and, yes, even the central office staff. The work has been valuable and the school principal has embraced it and, in turn, so has the rest of the school.

That is why I was surprised when she mentioned that she was considering staying behind. She explained that the building has been high intensity as of late. That was certainly an understatement with new special education classes being housed in the school, a new full day kindergarten program, several new teachers, new security guards and protocols, not to mention several students who were in or close to being in crisis in a building with 780 students, a poverty rate of 80%, and a full bilingual program. To say the building is busy does not do justice to how hard this principal works with her staff to make the school great.

The challenges aside, this principal is a pro, educating with a group of hard working teachers. That combination makes this school one anyone would be proud to send their child to. After some discussion she felt it was important to continue to grow as a school community, but she did not feel right asking an intern to cover the building. So, after some brainstorming, we  decided I would serve as principal for the day and her team would attend the training.

I was excited to throw my hat back into the principal ring, but also nervous, wondering if I could still hack it as a building leader, one who is required to make about 30 decisions a minute, wipe snotty noses, hug crying kids, and keep this smooth sailing ship afloat, even if for just one day.

I walked into the building at 7:45 AM and started greeting teachers and students at the front door, blinked my eyes, and it was the end of the day. Thanks to staff members who were willing to pitch in and help me with all the things I didn’t know how to do, I survived the day! I was exhausted, the type of exhaustion that lead to a Saturday morning nap!  I learned so much covering the building. I have continued to reflect on my education at West Haverstraw and have been reflecting on the following:

The Good People Stand Out

Schools are so busy today. Students need us more and more; it is no longer about delivering content and telling students to do things “because I said so.”  More pressure is put on administrators and teachers. The pace just seems so much faster than it did in five years ago when I last ran a building. With so much to do and so much that needs to be done five minutes ago, the good people really stand out.

It doesn’t matter if it is the security guard who sits with and calms down a hysterical student, the teacher who takes the student who jumped in a mud puddle to change his clothes or the lunch monitor who helps to organize and coordinate extra coverages, the people who go above and beyond, those who do those extras to make the students’ day a little better and help the school run a little smoother are invaluable. Lucky for me West Haverstraw has so many of those people, too many to write about here, but that night when my head hit the pillow I thought of each and everyone of them, smiled, and thanked god that they were there!  

Remember Where You Came From

You should always try to put yourself in the shoes of those you  supervise. Administrators should take the time to live the life of a teacher for a day. It is difficult work (especially if you teach first grade!), it is tiring work, yet it is so damn important. Central office administrators: get in your buildings, fill in for your principals, remember what it is like to run a building on a day to day basis; it is hard, demanding work.

Keep that in mind when you summon your principal. When you expect them to drop everything they are doing because of your latest initiative or the question that you want answered immediately, you are taking away from what they are doing for our kids and for the adults that they lead. It is a difficult enough job; try to make their lives easier not harder.

Remember What It Was Like To Be A Kid

It is so important for all of us to remember what it is like to be a kid.

What did you love about school? Try to make your school or class like that.  

What did you hate? Try to avoid putting your students in those situations.

Remember that feeling of excitement of a new experience or activity. Remember that gnawing feeling in your stomach that made you feel like you would crawl out of your skin if you had to sit still for one more second. The waves of boredom, the waves of embarrassment. Trying to fit in with friends, trying to impress teachers. Feeling special and proud because of an adult’s genuine compliment. Feeling crushed when an adult brushed you off or made a sarcastic remark.

We can become numb when we get older. We can forget how vivid emotions were when we were young.  Everything was more exciting, scarier, each event life changing, each failure devastating and each success euphoric. These experiences may seem like just another interaction in our day, but they are huge to students and are not easily forgotten. Our kids have different thoughts, feelings than we do; they just have different chemicals running through their brains at different stages of adolescence than we do as adults. It may seem like they don’t understand what we are trying to say,  we can’t get through to them, that they are trying to get under our skin.  If we do our best to remember what it felt like to be a kid, we can better serve our students and hep guide them to become the best version of themselves that they can be.

Remember To Challenge Yourself To Think Differently About Discipline

I always believed in consistency.  I prided myself on a mantra of firm, fair, and follow through. I still believe in that approach, but I now realize that firm and fair may look different for different students. Do we take recess away from the student who needs to run, who loves recess, and maybe is the only part of the day where he is successful and praised?  If not, how do we teach students that their actions have consequences? I don’t have the answers and after spending more and more time in our schools, I realize I have even less answers.

What I do know is that we should no longer be calling it “discipline.” Discipline is about rewards and consequences, carrots and sticks.  We should be thinking about it in terms of teaching our students the appropriate way to interact with students, with teachers, and with curriculum.

In many cases this is extremely hard work. No one program or approach will work. Much like teaching in a classroom, helping a student who has trouble behaving is a fine art. You need a relationship, you need to build trust, you need help from others.

A different philosophy regarding student behavior does not mean there shouldn’t be consequences, but rather the consequences need to be applied only when they are for the benefit of the student we are trying to teach. They cannot be for us as the adults when we feel wronged or we need our pound of flesh; they cannot be applied because “if we don’t all the other kids will break the rules.” They cannot be because that is the same punishment that Johnny got last week for a similar indiscretion.

It is so important for us to remember that it is not about disciplining, it is about teaching. I had to remind myself of this truth several times during the day. Some kids didn’t listen, some kids were sent down to the office five times. One student who I insisted not have his recess taken away, tore through the playground, smacking kids, jumping in puddles, forcing three of us to circle him to get control of the situation.

Discipline is an art.  It is easy to suspend kids, to yell at kids, to take away recess, but it is not always the best approach. I am still struggling with how to balance this with the reality that we still have a whole school full of students. All students need school to be a happy productive place for learning, a safe place for learning.

I am grateful for the day I had covering West Haverstraw Elementary School. I joked with my boss that I made a great Elementary principal and if she ever needed I would be happy to be a principal again. The truth is I am not sure I could be a great principal day in and day out. This experience helped me appreciate, to realize what a hard job my administrators have on each and every day. It helped me to remember what heroes our teachers are. It helped remind me that it doesn’t matter how much you get paid or what your title is, the good people matter.  An exemplary lunch monitor, custodian, or cafeteria worker can have just as much of a positive impact on a school as the principal, the teachers, and the central office staff, in fact many times more.

I am grateful because even if it was just for a day, I was “in there” battling with the staff to make the school great, connecting with the kids and trying to help them love school and know that they are loved in that school.  

Did I succeed?  Was I still able to hack it? Honestly I don’t know. I made some good decisions, I made some bad ones. What I do know is when I walked into that school a few days later, the students remembered me, they smiled at me, and they hugged me. In my book that was enough to call the day a success.

Ideas For Remembering Where You Came From

Central Office Building Admins Teachers
Cover for an absent building administrator Teach classes for/or with your teachers Take the time to talk to students individually
Set up a mobile office Do what you are expecting your teachers to do. Fill out the survey, write the lesson plan, read the article, explore the teacher guide of that new program. Keep in mind that some support staff have not had the training you did, help them establish protocols, expectations in the lunchroom, hallways, etc..
Do lunch duty for a day. Make it a goal to talk to at least five kids one on one every day Go see that new teacher, remember there was a time you didn’t know how to take attendance, order supplies, or set up your 403B
Cover a class for a teacher Meet with your staff individually every year and have some guiding question to generate discussion at these meetings. Get to know your students beyond academics, a 360 chart is an excellent place to start.
Have face to face conversations with staff, students, parents…and really listen Play recess, participate in physical education , complete that art project, or sing in the concert with your students. Play recess, Participate in physical education , complete that art project, or sing in the concert with your students
Provide staff with the opportunity to provide honest anonymous feedback Provide staff with the opportunity to provide honest anonymous feedback Provide students with the opportunity to provide honest anonymous feedback
Involve building administrators, teachers, and students in the decision making process Be transparent, let your staff know why you want to make a change, ask for their help in determining how iot can be accomplished together Involve students in the development of activities, assignments, maybee not the what but certainly the how of their learning
Follow a student’s schedule for a day Follow a student’s schedule for a day Follow a student’s schedule for a day
Be the advisor for a club or activity Do a home visits Do home visits

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