What I Want For Our Kids? What Do I Want Our School To Be Known For?

This past week was one of those weeks that my wife often warns me about. The ones where I jam pack so much into my schedule that I run from meeting to meeting, event to event, switching gears, changing focus, changing direction, all the while trying my best to make things better.

She worries I will burn out, make frivolous mistakes, not focus on family enough, let my inner anger bubble to the surface.  All valid points. I have tried to defend my actions during the busy times like December and June to ‘Tax Season” for educators.  Using metaphors and analogies has become a favorite pastime of mine after reading Rick Wormeli’s book of the same title early in my education career. Although, I am not sure his intent was for me to use it to defend my bad habits.

Truth be told, if I am not put in check once in a while, every month would become my “Tax Season”. There is just so much I want to do and the clock just insists on moving faster and faster each year as evidenced by the impossible fact that my oldest will be leaving for college next year.

I thrive on the action, the pace of the day, the quick decision making, and the satisfaction of a pat on the back, or compliments about “my motor.” It is one of the reasons I miss being a principal. Yet,  in my heart, I know my better half is right on this one.

This became clear when I realized I had sent three texts, four retweets, and an email in 12 minutes. This wouldn’t have been so absurd had it not occured on my 12 minute drive home from work. This is after I had promised myself not to touch my phone ever again while driving.  I have now resorted to putting it in the trunk. I can’t be trusted to keep my phone addiction at bay.

Imagine the hypocrisy of hurting a child or loved one of a child while tweeting about “how to make things better for kids.”

A big portion of my hectic week was dedicated to sessions discussing one of my favorite topics, homework reform.  

Our District is nearing changes in policy and practice with homework after a team I have led has been examining homework practices for almost three years.

I’m meeting with all grade level teams at our six Elementary Schools, and the various departments in our Middle School and High School. I felt it was important to give a clear message, to explain why I thought reform was important, and to hear from the teachers face to face.  The process has been enlightening, frustrating, and inspiring, all at varying levels of intensity during the week.

No matter where you stand on this topic, or any other in regards to change, I know that it is essential to have honest and open conversations, that we must listen to each other, that we must take time to reflect upon what others say, especially when they have a different point of view.  

These meetings have helped me to grow as a leader. The conversations in those smaller venues have helped me realize that despite seeing certain things differently, we are on the same page in that we care about education, care about kids, and care about their profession.  

The greatest amount of growth occurred for me when I listened to others instead of trying to think of a retort to an idea different from mine. We all become smarter, better educators when we are open to the thoughts of someone else. That’s a skill I am still working on, often without success.

Leaders need to listen to those who provide honest feedback, engage us in thoughtful discussion, offer true debate, especially when they challenge our thinking.

It is equally important to recognize the small percentage who want to pontificate, who want to be argumentative…just because. The unfortunate truth is that a small percentage are in education for the wrong reasons. These are the people who want us to make decisions based on what is best for them, not their students.

We can not let the squeaky wheel drive decisions; we can not let them derail important conversations or impede the progress of the organization. If we are not careful, they can suck our time and energy as we try to please someone who is not worth pleasing.

The best leaders recognize this and, as Gary Armida eloquently describes, Mute the Naysayers.

I came to an epiphany late one sleepless night while binge watching West Wing.  In this particular episode called The Supremes, President Bartlet uses his two nominations to the Supreme Court not to swing the court to match his political affiliation. Rather, he appoints a conservative and a liberal judge who serve to balance the highest court in the land.  Once again channeling my inner Wormeli, I related this concept to the homework conversation and other school reform conversations.

I explained my thoughts to anyone who would listen. I see it as my role as a central office administrator to push our teachers to think differently, to give students a voice, to be innovative. If I do not have the courage to do that, our District can become complacent, our teachers stagnant. It is equally important for me to remember to listen to those in our classrooms everyday, to live, at times, with them in the field, to remain grounded in reality.

I have to be certain not to lay decrees about “the way things need to be done” in an imagined pollyanna world.

I also need to ensure those I lead do not use the toxic phrase “because that’s the way we have always done it” and that it is not part of the vocabulary in our schools. Evan Robb offers some insights in the mindset that fosters growth in this Podcast with Barbara Bray.

When we push on each other, when we respect each other, when we are open to meeting in the middle, our Districts will progress in a way that benefits kids.  

With the mindset of practicing what I preach, I have tried to listen, to reflect, and ultimately make a decision that moves our District forward, that respects our dedicated educators, and ultimately is the right decision for the students. One question in particular resonated with me this week, even though I wasn’t sure of the intent of the question.  

“What do you what for our kids and what do you want our District to be known for?”

It was said with an accusatory tone that implied I was endorsing a less than rigorous school experience that was contributing to making kids soft.  

This question came from one of the few teachers in our District of over 600 teachers who I really didn’t know and couldn’t place her name. It became obvious very early in the session that she was either having a really bad day or just didn’t like kids.  

I hope it is the former because as a friend once said to me, “Teaching is a shitty job if you don’t like kids.”

No, I do not think it is an eight year old’s “job” to be a student who spends hours doing worksheets each night after spending eight hours at school. I think it is their job to be a kid, to explore, to be social, and to get excited about learning.

No, I do not think today’s kids are lazy; I think they are different and we have to adjust our practices to reach and inspire them.

No, I do not think that it’s their responsibility to learn what we teach them; I think it is our responsibility to ensure they learn what we teach.

No, I do not think reading logs, questions, and summaries ensure kids read; I think it makes it harder for them to become lifelong learners who enjoy one of life’s great pleasures, reading

What do I want for our kids?

Today, tomorrow, and in 20 years?

I want them to be happy, healthy; I want them to be good people who make a difference. I want our kids to be innovative, creative, confident, and passionate.  I want them to love learning. I want them to change the world. I want to empower them to do these things not for a grade, not to get into the best school, not to avoid losing recess and getting detention, but rather because they have the intrinsic motivation to make a difference.

I do not want to prepare kids to conform to the norms that may no longer fit into what our world is becoming.  

I want them to be the next great:

  • Inventor
  • Entrepreneur
  • Problem solver
  • Teacher
  • Principal
  • Scientist
  • Mom
  • Dad
  • Writer
  • Thinker
  • Philanthropist
  • Programmer
  • Actor
  • Whatever they want to be

Or even a master in the unknown jobs that will be needed in the future.

They don’t need us to become these things, but if we think differently, maybe we can cultivate their skills and passions so we can help them to be the next:

Abe Lincoln, Henry Ford, Walt Disney, Al Pacino, Richard Branson, or Thomas Edison…all high school dropouts.

Maybe we can inspire them to be the next Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Brad Pitt, Oprah Winfrey, or Ted Turner…all college dropouts.

How can we make sure our students are successful because of school, not despite of it?

I have  ideas on how we make this a reality, but I would suggest reading  The Innovator’s Mindset by George Curous  as it it would be hard to offer more advice and inspiration than Curous does in this instant classic.

What do I want my District to be known for?

I want it to be known as a learning organization that is not afraid, a District that:

  • Puts kids first
  • Makes decisions based on the students, not the adults
  • Puts people before program
  • Puts kids before curriculum
  • Bends the rules when it is the right thing to do
  • Looks out for each other
  • Respects different
  • Listens to each other, that learns from each other
  • Encourages innovation
  • Puts students and staff in a position to be successful
  • Does what is best for each and every individual student and teacher
  • Is kind at its core
  • Has high expectations and works hard
  • Comes to work every single day
  • Has high expectations for every student, expectations that are based on their strengths and interests not their results on a state test
  • Admits mistakes and learns from them
  • Students are proud to attend, that staff is proud to work in, and parents are proud to send their children to

I felt at home in North Rockland the first time I set foot in the door. North Rockland personified that list. Long before I arrived, they were embedded in the culture of the District. I am now responsible for cultivating those attributes and building upon them. A friend once told me that a Shark dies when it stops swimming. It is a phrase that has stuck with me, and one of the reasons I am afraid to stop, why I often overbook myself, and why I have to force myself to slow down.  

I don’t want to stop swimming and I want to make sure that the educators I lead never stop swimming either.

Our kids deserve it!

What do I want for our kids? What do I want our District to be known for?

I want our kids to be inspired; I want our District to be known as the place that inspires them.