Friday, December 27, 2013

Five Leadership Lessons from "A Christmas Story"

Mike Nitzel, Principal
Thomas Jefferson Elementary
Rock Island-Milan School District 41
Milan, Illinois

I suppose like many of you, I spent more than a little time this holiday season watching "A Christmas Story" and once again reliving Ralphie Parker's quest to receive his coveted Red Ryder BB Gun (with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time) for Christmas. It's a great story and one I connect with on many levels. However, somewhere around my tenth viewing of the movie this year, I began viewing it through a new lens and I realized there were some leadership lessons I could learn from young Mr. Parker and his family. Here they are.

1) Know What it is You Want and Set a Plan for Getting It--We've heard it said a hundred different ways--neither action without a plan nor a plan without action are going to get you what you want.  Ralphie may not have been able to articulate that but he certainly showed he understood it. From early in the movie, we see Ralphie working his parents at every turn to get that Red Ryder BB Gun. Think about that scene at the beginning of the movie when he put the Red Ryder advertisement inside his mother's Look magazine. This was the beginning of a complex effort that didn't always work out the way he planned, but in the end (spoiler alert!) his efforts got him what he wanted.

Lesson: Be able to clearly articulate what it is you want and set a plan for making it a reality.

2) Be Agile and Seize Opportunities When They Present Themselves--Not everything went Ralphie's way but when they didn't he was able to quickly think on his feet and adjust his plan. Consider the scene at the kitchen table when Ralphie's mother asked him what he wanted for Christmas. So eager was he for the coveted "blue steel beauty", that he blurted out exactly what he wanted--"A Red Ryder 200 shot range model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time. Oooooooohh." Almost immediately he recognized his error and "immediately began to rebuild the dike" saying, "I was just kidding. Even though Flick is getting one. I guess I just want some Tinker Toys." Realizing that his mom "would never buy it", the wheels began turning to come up with yet another plan. Three different plans in 30 seconds. Not bad.

Ralphie and Randy's mom was also an expert in agility.  How many of us would be able to come up with "How do the little piggies eat?" when Randy wouldn't eat his dinner and the "starving people in China" comment didn't do the trick?  As disgusting as the piggy trick might have been, there's no denying that it got the job done.

Lesson: The ability and willingness to be agile and to take a path that might deviate from the original one can be an important attribute in getting us to our end goal, whether it be a BB gun, getting your kid to eat a meal, or getting a group of people to see a new way of doing things.

3) You Don't Have to Go at It Alone----Ralphie encountered so many setbacks in his quest for his Red Ryder.  When Ralphie looked around and appeared to be alone, he searched for allies.  He turned to Miss Shields who offered him a chance to articulate his wish in the theme, "What I Want for Christmas".  When it appeared that he was never going to get his parents to come around to the idea of a BB gun, Ralphie turned to Santa.  He sought out those he thought might be able to help him reach his goal. Now, the allies he enlisted didn't always help him get what he wanted, but Ralphie realized he needed help, and asked for it.  And let's not forget, it was Ralphie's father at the end of the movie who turned out to be his greatest ally.

Lesson: You can accomplish more by enlisting the help of others than you can possibly accomplish alone.  Don't be afraid to ask.

4) Set Aside Time to Reflect--When all seemed lost with his parents, Ralphie decided to turn to Santa for help.  When did he decide to do this?  When he was in bed, it was quiet, and he had time to reflect on what had gone wrong, where he was, and what he needed to do.

Lesson: Find some quiet time during each day to reflect.  It can lead you in directions you might never have considered otherwise.  (Principals, this next bit is just for you.  You may have been sold a bill of goods that you should NEVER shut your door during the day and you should ALWAYS be accessible.  Nonsense.  Time for reflection is an important part of your job.  Shutting your door for 15 minutes out of a ten hour day is not only acceptable, it's essential. Stop feeling unnecessarily guilty about it and get it done.)

5) Stay Positive in Spite of Setbacks (Turn Adversity Into Opportunity)--A classic scene in the movie occurs when the Bumpus's dogs come storming into the kitchen and destroy Christmas dinner.  Ralphie's mom was practically inconsolable.  Ralphie and Randy were in shock.  What did the Old Man say?  After letting his initial anger abate, the Old Man shifted gears and said, "Alright! Everyone upstairs and get dressed.  We are going out to eat."  He led his family and showed them that they weren't going to wallow in self-pity or anger at the Hillbilly Bumpuses and their dogs  No way.  They picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and discovered the delights of "Chinese Turkey" and being serenaded by the wait staff singing "Deck the Halls" and "Jingle Bells".  They would never have created this cherished memory if not for the Bumpuses "mangy hounds" and their assault on the Parker kitchen.

Lesson: Positivity is a choice. You can let setbacks bring you down, or you can look for the opportunities in them to create a different path to your destination.  What do we want for our families at Christmas?  To create memories that our kids will carry with them forever.  The Parkers created a memory and while it was certainly different from the one they intended, I would posit that it was probably better.

I don't intend this to be an exhaustive list of the qualities that effective leaders need to possess, just lessons I was able to glean from "A Christmas Story".  I would be interested in hearing your thoughts and the leadership lessons you may have taken away from the movie.  I would invite you to comment on this post and share your ideas!  And, as always, thank you for taking the time out of your busy lives to read this.  I genuinely appreciate it!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Eight Rules to Effectively Deal with Upset Parents

Mike Nitzel
Thomas Jefferson Elementary School
Rock Island-Milan School District #41
Milan, Illinois

Effective educators love to interact with others. We like people or we wouldn't do what we do. And while most of the time our interactions with other people are likely very pleasant, there will be those times when we will need to deal with parents who are upset for one reason or another. While most of us don't like confrontation, especially with parents or guardians who are upset, we should bear in mind that confrontation in and of itself does not need to be a bad thing. Confrontation can help us get to the other side of a problem or an issue. However, what we seek is productive confrontation of issues. Like it or not, it is up to us to make sure that any confrontation becomes productive and seeks to resolve the issue or issues at hand. Here are a few simple rules I try to follow to handle confrontations with upset parents.

1) LISTEN, LISTEN, LISTEN--Educators are problem-solvers. It's who we are and what we do. But as a result, we often have a tendency to want to jump in and start talking right away in an effort to get to a resolution. Don't. When parents who are angry about this or that want to come in and talk to you, let them get whatever is bothering them off of their chests. Sometimes it's not pleasant, but most of the time the opportunity to just air their grievances without being interrupted, to simply say what they want to say, is the first step to reaching resolution to the issue. Sometimes it's all they need. Everyone who is upset about something needs to know that they are being listened to. Let them know at the beginning of your conversation that you would like to take notes and then take careful notes of what they're saying. You will be able to refer back to them later when it's your turn to talk and you will be able to deal with their issues without interrupting them.   

2) PRACTICE ACTIVE LISTENING--Give your upset parents your full attention. Provide non-verbal cues that let them know you are listening. At an appropriate time, reflectively listen and clarify; say something to the effect of, "What I hear you saying is…. Is that correct?" However, avoid interrupting and attempting to refute what they are saying point for point. You'll get your chance to talk.  This is why you're taking notes. Look back at them when it's your turn to talk.  

3) WATCH YOUR NON-VERBAL CUES--Actions do speak louder than words. You can tell your upset parents all you want that your interested in what they have to say, but if your body language says something different, that's what they will listen to. Be cognizant of your facial expressions. For heaven's sake do NOT roll your eyes, slump in your chair, play with papers or exhale loudly as a result of their comments. Be rational and practice active listening.  

4) DON'T TAKE IT PERSONALLY--Sometimes this is easier said than done but it is so important.  We work with kids. We put our hearts and souls into what we do. We take our work personally.  However, we can't afford to take what others are saying personally, especially when they are angry.  To do so will only escalate conflict. Upset parents can say some unfair and frankly ugly things sometimes. We could react emotionally. Don't. We need to help de-escalate and help get everyone to a rational place where we can all work together to come up with solutions. We can all be emotional. We should expect our parents to be emotional about their kids, especially if they think their kids have been wronged. It shows they care. Meet emotionalism with rationality. You can blow off steam later if you need to. In appropriate ways, of course!  

5) USE COMMON VERNACULAR AND AVOID EDUCATIONAL JARGON--Nothing can escalate a situation more than making people feel that they are being talked down to. It's thoughtless and disrespectful. Get rid of the acronyms and talk to people in ways that they understand. We speak a different language in our work; we use terms like "standards-based grading", "formative assessment" and "RtI". We can't afford to assume that everyone knows what the heck we're talking about. Think about how you feel when you go to the doctor and she uses a bunch of terminology that you don't understand. It's scary and intimidating. Would you rather your doctor tell you that "have a little bump we want to take a closer look at" or "you have a 2 cm lesion that bears further testing and closer scrutiny"? Many of us don't ask questions for fear of looking ignorant, or worse. We shouldn't put anyone in that position if we are seeking resolution to a situation. Resolution begins with an understanding of the variables of the situation and that can only happen if we're all speaking the same language.  

6) PROXIMITY--Used appropriately, this can be your best friend. It's really hard to be angry with someone who's physically close to you. If you feel physically safe in the situation, try not to put a desk between you and the person you're talking to. Sit next to them, making sure not to invade their personal space. My friend Jimmy Casas (I strongly urge you to follow him @casas_jimmy if you're not already) taught me a great technique that I've found to be very effective. If it's appropriate, try to begin your conversation in the main or outer office. Sit down right next to the person and say something to the effect of, "I can see that you're pretty upset. I'm here to help. How can I help get us to the other side of this?" It's pretty difficult for someone to let the expletives fly in front of an office full of people. Once they've begun talking calmly and quietly, that's a good time to move into your office.  

7) PRACTICE CULTURAL COMPETENCY--Understand that not everyone agrees on what is polite or socially acceptable. As our cultural diversity has broadened, so has the definition of "polite" and "acceptable". Don't assume that a person who is not looking directly at you is being impolite. In some cultures, it is rude and disrespectful TO look someone in the eyes. For others, language you might consider rude or disrespectful is just a part of their regular, everyday speech. Be careful of correcting someone who's manner of speaking we might believe to be rude. Be careful of saying things like, "We don't talk like that in this office." Keep your eye on the ball. Remember what you're looking for is a resolution to the issues. We all look at the world through our own lenses, but in situations involving confrontation you will be well-served by practicing a bit of empathy and cultural sensitivity.  

8) FOLLOW UP--I find this to be the most missed opportunity in conflict resolution and in building productive relationships. Once you've reached consensus with your parents on how to deal with an issue and you've had an opportunity to put a plan in place, pick up the phone and call the parents you're working with. Ask them how things are going and if there is anything else you can do. Let them know that you're always there to assist them with issues they have and that you genuinely appreciate their concerns. How many times have we lamented uninvolved parents? Parents who are upset are parents who care. Leverage that. Not only let them know you appreciate them and their concerns, work to find meaningful ways to get them involved in the life of your school. They can become your best allies. It's true. I've seen it and lived it.  

These are just a few simple rules that I have found effective in dealing with angry parents. I'm sure you have more that have worked for you. I would love to hear them! Please feel free to comment on this post and share your ideas. And, as always, thank you for taking time out of your busy lives to read this.  I genuinely appreciate it!  

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Ten Tips for Finishing the School Year Strong
by Mike Nitzel, Principal
Thomas Jefferson Elementary School
Rock Island-Milan (IL) School District

The end of the school year brings with it many emotions--excitement at the prospect of summer vacation, perhaps tinged with a bit of sadness that another school year has come to an end.  Some of us have just finished our last school year after a long and distinguished career; others, like me, are one year closer to retirement.  Some of us are looking forward to new challenges in new positions next year, while others among us are looking forward to new challenges in current positions.  Some of us may be in the unfortunate position of having to look for work next year.  Whatever our status as this year winds down to a close, and whatever our position, we should all be united in our effort to finish this year strong.  Here are some tips for doing that. 

1) Plan Meaningful Activities for Students--Every day, every hour and every minute we have with our students is precious.  Use your time in meaningful ways.  When you're tempted to throw in a movie or heaven forbid give them a word search--ugh!--find something for the kids to close read and write about instead. 

2) Maintain Your Agreements With Your Students--I prefer the word agreements rather than rules.  But whatever you call them, don't let them go out the window as the end of the school year approaches.  Maintain the standards of conduct for your community through the very last minute of the school year.  If your agreements were important the first week, they're important on the last day.

3) Maintain Accountability--This is related to #2.  If students or staff do not maintain the agreements you have made, hold them accountable.  Like your agreements, if accountability is important during the first week, it's important on the last day. 

4) Maintain Rituals and Routines--We all find comfort in rituals and routines.  Our rituals and routines define what's important and what we expect.  For example, though we only have five days left in our school year, I am still publishing my Daily Update complete with a teaching tip/resource of the day.  Abandoning rituals and routines in the last days of the school year diminishes their previous importance and the importance that they will need to have next school year.  It also sends a message that the school year is already over, which it isn't.

5) Keep Your Classroom As It Is--Wait until the kids are gone to tear down your classroom.  Nothing says, "We're done!" like empty bulletin boards.  I've seen teachers begin to tear their classrooms down two weeks before the end of the school year.  This is a terrible message to send. 

6) Maintain Professional Dress--Unless you're going on a field trip, it's field day or it's incredibly hot and you have permission to wear them, keep the shorts and t-shirts at home in the closet.  Again, dressing down as the year comes to a close sends a message to your kids that vacation has already started.  What you do is more important than what you say.  Your dress sends a message.  Make sure it's the right one.

7) Stress the Importance of Attendance--Kids belong in school when school is in session.  Be explicit about this and let them know that their attendance is your expectation. Of course, it will help if you plan meaningful learning activities. 

8) Stay Away From Countdowns--Counting down the number of days until the end of the school year reinforces the notion that school is something the kids should want to get away from.  Don't we want them to feel exactly the opposite?

9) Come to School Yourself--It's tempting to take those unused sick days or unused personal days towards the end of the year, especially if you find yourself in a "use them or lose them" situation.  Lose them.  You're a professional and your presence is critical to the success of your kids.  If you're gone, why should the kids show up?  What's left must not be all that important, right? 

10) Maintain Your Enthusiasm--Be excited about learning, every minute of every day.  It can be tough at the end of the year.  You're tired.  You've been working hard.  You should be tired.  But your kids deserve your best every day--first day, last day and everyone in between--and your best requires your enthusiasm. 

These are just a few things that I thought of as I was thinking about the end of the school year.  As a school principal, my school year never truly ends; the minute the last student and the last teacher leave the school, our school secretary, the custodians and I are busy preparing for the first day of the next year and I don't get the same vacation that others get. It might, therefore, be a little easier for me to preach on this a bit.  But whether you are an administrator, teacher, secretary, paraprofessional or custodian, our students deserve our very best every precious minute we have with them.  Let's all agree to give it to them. 

I would be interested in any comments you might have.  As always, thank you for taking time out of your busy lives to read this.  I truly appreciate it. 

Monday, May 27, 2013

The Importance of Social Emotional Learning in Schools
by Mike Nitzel, Principal
Thomas Jefferson Elementary School
Rock Island-Milan (IL) School District 

A few minutes ago, I just finished participating in an exceptional #iledchat on Twitter on the topic of Social Emotional Learning.  As an aside, if you have not participated in an #iledchat, please consider doing so.  You can find #iledchat at 9:00 p.m. central time every Monday.  Many of the responses got me to thinking about the importance of SEL in our schools so I thought I would share some brief thoughts on the topic. 

The Necessity of SEL: Social Emotional Learning is not an add-on or "one more thing to do"; SEL should be central to what we do, equal in importance to reading, mathematics, writing, science, social studies and all of the other "stuff" we teach.  In point of fact, it should probably take on GREATER significance.  Consider Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.  If you look at Maslow's "pyramid", you will see at its foundation the physiological needs--breathing, food, water, sleep--those things that are essential to life itself. Moving up the hierarchy, we next find safety needs and then the need for love and belonging.  The central thesis of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs is that those needs at the bottom must be met before any of the higher needs--esteem and self-actualization--can possibly be attained.  In school vernacular, it works like this--kids can't learn if they're hungry, afraid, or don't feel a sense of belonging.  Yet, how many students do we encounter each day who do not receive the basic, foundational yet essential needs that Maslow outlines for us?  You know the answer as well as I--too many.  We might not like it or feel prepared for it, but it IS our job to provide these essential, foundational needs to many of our students.  Students CANNOT learn if they do not have access to the most basic needs necessary to sustain life or if they feel unsafe, unloved or uncared for.  I'm fond of reminding my staff that theirs may be the only loving, caring faces that some of their kids may see during the day; that the breakfast and lunch that their students eat with us each day might be the only food they see until they come back to us the following day.  If we want our kids to care about the "stuff" we teach them, we had better first care about them as people, recognize their simple most basic needs, and do "whatever it takes" to meet them.  The reading series we choose, the math practices we employ, the writing model we decide upon mean nothing if our kids don't see them as important; how important can they be to our kids if those same kids are wondering where their next meal is coming from, whether or not mom or dad will be there to look after them when they get home or what they are going to feed their younger brother or sister for supper--or whether today is the day the class bully is going to get them at recess? 

Even if you don't work in a high poverty school such as mine, your kids still have those basic needs for safety and love and belonging that must be met.  School is a tough place for kids to navigate; I think we lose sight of that sometimes.  Peer pressure, the desire to fit in, the pressures of social media, all create stressors on our students, no matter their socio-economic status.  Helping our students learn respect, responsibility, empathy and (gasp!) character are essential to give them the tools they need in order to be safe, and part of a loving, caring community.

Meeting Our Students' SEL Needs: We can help meet our students' SEL needs both explicitly and implicitly.  There are many programs out there that we can use to explicitly teach our kids how to help form productive relationships, to build community, and to help meet their safety and love and belonging needs.  PBIS, Conscious Discipline, Steps to Respect, Second Step, and The Leader in Me are a few that we use in my school district.  The concepts found in these programs can be taught in a variety of ways--teacher or counselor-led whole group lessons and class meetings are just two that come to mind.  These explicitly taught programs can be very effective programs if used with fidelity and integrity.  And extensive professional development on how to teach these programs is a must.  But as importantly, or perhaps more importantly, are those things that we do in those small moments every day that help our kids feel safe and a part of a community.  By treating students in the same manner we would wish to be treated, by modeling the behavior we expect of our students, and by being present for them in those moments they need us, regardless of how small the issue might seem to us, we will be taking enormous steps towards helping them meet Maslow's needs for safety and love and belonging. This will help make all of our students not only happier, healthier, and safer, but more productive academically.  

In short, I think we often fail to put first things first in our zeal to improve our schools.  When we stop thinking of Social Emotional Learning as something "extra" that we do or as expendible during budget cutting season, we will be advancing our academic agenda in a very real way.  It is really quite simple; if we can help our kids meet their physiological needs, safety needs, and needs for love and belonging, we will be putting them on the launching pad for academic success.  The alternative is to continue to believe that in spite of the very real and very significant struggles that many of our students face on a daily basis, they can be successful if we only choose the "right" reading or math program.  Belief in the latter will not only hurt our students socially and emotionally, and it will lead to continued academic failure.  We should remember that at budget cutting time when it seems so easy to reduce one counselor, one social worker or one interventionist and think that it won't impact our academic programs.  If we want our schools to improve, we had better start focusing on the right things, the foundational things.  To be sure, that's a jump-shift in thinking for many.  If this is a difficult concept for you to grasp, think of it this way--you don't improve your home by removing the cement blocks that provide its foundation. 

I would be interested to know what you think.  Please feel free to share a comment about what I've written.  And as always, thank you for taking time to read this.  I really do appreciate it. 

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Useful Communication Tools for Every School Principal
by Mike Nitzel, Principal
Thomas Jefferson Elementary School
Rock Island-Milan (IL) School District

An essential component to building relationships is communication.  If your stakeholders are to feel a part of what you are trying to accomplish, they first must be informed about what you intend to accomplish.  Providing information is the first step towards establishing two-way communication which is vital to the success of your school.  Here are some things I do to maintain communication with my stakeholders.  You undoubtedly have other ideas and I would love to hear about them through your comments.

1)      Daily Update to Staff:  Each day I put out a Daily Update to my staff.  It’s a kind of newsletter in which I provide them an updated calendar for the current and upcoming weeks, let them know who is out of the building for the day, and provide them with any additional information that they need to know—upcoming deadlines, etc.  I also provide them with a “Teaching Tip/Resource of the Day” and each week I provide them with an inspirational quote of the week.  At the bottom of the Update our school and district mission statements will always be found.

2)      The Bulldog Bugle: This twice monthly newsletter goes home to our families and any other interested party who wants one.  It contains calendars and schedules of upcoming events and other informational articles of interest.  But perhaps most importantly, there is a “Teaching and Learning” corner, a “Parent Involvement Corner” and  Common Core State Standards  Corner” found in every newsletter. 

3)      Email Hotline: Our school has an email hotline which I use to remind parents about upcoming events or to report on things that have happened at school such as safety drills. 

4)      Proactive Phone Calling:  This is one of the most useful tools I have used.   Each week I call at least three families at random (our secretary blind chooses the families for me to call) and I ask them three questions: 1) Is there anything positive you would like to share about what is happening at Thomas Jefferson School?; 2) Is there anything you think we can improve on at Thomas Jefferson School?; and 3) Is there anything you would like to share about Thomas Jefferson School that we haven’t talked about.   Seeking out the input of your families outside of regular school surveys communicates to them in a very real way that you care about what they have to say and it gives them a very real voice in what’s happening in your school. 

5)      Facebook: We have used Facebook in the past and some schools use it far more effectively than we do.  It can be an important two way communication tool, but it can be fraught with pitfalls as well.  Be careful in how it’s used.

6)      Twitter: This is an excellent tool to keep a wider audience informed about what is happening in your school, both in and out of the classroom.  For examples of how I use Twitter, check out my Twitter feed using my handle @MikeNitzel.  Some schools have set up their own Twitter accounts as have some school districts, including mine @R_I_Schools. 

7)      School Website:  This is certainly not a new concept and it needs little explanation here.  One caveat about school websites—KEEP THEM CURRENT!  It is very disappointing to go to a school website looking for information and finding that the last post is three months old. 

8)      Suggestion Box: Some schools use these very effectively for anonymous feedback.  One warning though—have a thick skin and be prepared to read things that are surprising as well as a bit disappointing.  That being said, you can get some good feedback and ideas from using one. 

These are just a few ideas I have regarding communication within your school and with a larger audience.  I’m sure you have many more and again, I’d invite you to comment and share!  Remember, good communication is a starting point to good stakeholder involvement in your school, something that will only make your school better!   Thank you for taking time to read my thoughts on school communication.  It is most appreciated! 

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Five Daily Musts for School Principals

By Mike Nitzel
Principal, Thomas Jefferson Elementary School
Rock Island-Milan (Illinois) School District #41

While I do not claim that this is a complete or extensive list, these are MY five daily musts that I do which I believe has increased my efficacy as a school principal.  I would be interested in reading what you think and what you might add to the list through your comments. 

1)      Personal Professional Development—I spend at least an hour a day on my own professional development.  I’m always reading at least one book on leadership or professional practice that I can bring to bear on my work on a daily basis.  I spend at least 30 minutes per day on Twitter (per my friend and colleague Dr. Jeff Zoul) and I find some time each day to read online blogs which I find most useful and applicable to my current professional development needs.  The hour need not be contiguous and in my case it usually isn’t.  If you’re an early riser, this might be a good time for you to engage in this activity.  Often times, I end my day here. 

2)      Relationship Building—At the risk of sounding like a broken record, you can never spend too much time working on building your relationships with all of the stakeholders in your school communtiy.  It’s all about relationships.  A simple “Hi! How is your day?  Is there anything you need or that I can help you with?” can be huge in the eyes of the person on the receiving end.  Showing people your genuine concern and care for them not only as your colleagues or customers but as people will go a long way towards helping you advance your mission—improving student  learning and outcomes. 

3)      Instructional Leadership—Be in classrooms every day.  Period.  Share feedback with your teachers.  Provide them with useful resources that meet your school-wide needs but also provide them with resources that will advance their individual growth.  For example, your entire school might be working on increasing student engagement.  Share what you come across with your school community on this topic.  You may, on the other hand, have one or two teachers working on improving their use of Twitter as an educational tool.  When you come across something on that topic, share it with them.  That level of personalized attention will pay huge dividends for your school and your school goals.   I make an effort to do this daily, for my school through my Daily School Update and my weekly Monday Focus, and individually, through emails, texts, tweets, or conversation. 

4)      Connect With Your Principal Colleagues—Being a school principal, particularly an elementary school principal, can be lonely.  When I was a high school principal, I had an entire administrative staff that I had the opportunity to interact and share with every day.  Usually that’s not the case at the elementary level.  I make it a habit to pick up the phone each day to talk to one of my administrative colleagues in my school district.  Sometimes it’s just to ask how things are going.  Sometimes it’s to talk through a situation I’m working on or to offer them any help I can with something that they might be working on.  Sometimes we talk professional development.  Feeling connected to others who go through the same things that you do on a daily basis helps mitigate those feelings of isolation that we all sometimes feel.  I invariably leave those conversations feeling reinvigorated and reenergized which helps me do a better job for my school community.

5)      Take Time for Yourself—If you’ve ever flown on an airplane, you’ve sat through the flight attendant’s safety talk, you  know, the one where they tell you where the exits are and how to use your seat cushion as a flotation device.  Do you remember what they tell you about the oxygen masks?  They tell you to put yours on before you assist others, even your own children.  Why? Because you can’t help others if you’re lying in a heap.  There is a lesson to be learned there.  As a building principal you spend your days taking care of hundreds if not thousands of other people.  In order to do that effectively, you have to take care of yourself first.  Make sure you get plenty of rest and make sure you eat as healthy as you can.  For example, I eat lunch every day, granted sometimes it’s at my desk but most days I carve out 20 or 30 minutes for lunch.  I have little patience for principals who say they have no time to eat lunch. Forgive me but most of the time I find that a self-serving “look at how hard I work” thing to say.  You can find some time for lunch and to sit down and take a breath.  Have you ever sat down and eaten in the cafeteria with your students?  Do that and you’re taking care of yourself AND building relationships at the same time.  There are other things you can do to take care of yourself as well.  Find some time to exercise (I REALLY have to do better on this one).  Do something for yourself each day that YOU want to do and that you enjoy, whether it is exercise, reading a book for enjoyment, playing a game, attending a club or church activity, meditation, yoga, whatever!  I am working hard to make a habit of ending my work day no later than 9:00 p.m. and saving the hour from 9:00 to 10:00 for something I want to do.  I refuse to feel guilty for spending an hour watching the two episodes of Modern Family that I have on the DVR.  You shouldn’t either.  This is the longest of the five musts I’ve written about and there’s a reason for that.  In many ways it’s the most important.  If you forget that, think “oxygen masks”. 

Again, these are my “musts”.  Yours may be different.  I would like to know what you think and what you might add to my list.  Please share your comments!  Until next time, take care and BE AWESOME! 

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Three Things You Can Do Tomorrow to Help Build Your School Climate

"It's all about relationships".  How many times have you heard that?  I'm a firm believer that it just happens to be true.  Without good school climate, based on honest and caring relationships, nothing you attempt will meet with the success it might if your school climate was a positive or stronger one.  With that in mind, here are three things you can do tomorrow to help build school climate.  And by the way, this is not just about what principals or other administrators can do.  This is about what anyone who works in a school can do to help make that school a happier and more productive place. 

1) Ask for Feedback: As a principal, I make it a practice to ask for feedback from all of our school's stakeholders.  But no matter your role, you too can ask for feedback from your stakeholders or customers.  Tomorrow, whether you are a principal, teacher, cafeteia manager or custodian, consider randomly contacting one of your "customers" and asking three questions: 1) What are we doing well?; 2) What could we improve upon?; and 3) Is there anything that your would like to share with me about our school/classroom/cafeteria?  Make this a weekly habit. Listening and giving people a chance to voice their opinions will improve your school climate in significant ways.

2) Stop and Ask, "How are you? How can I help you?". Expressing genuine concern for someone and being there to help them with anything they might need help with can't help but strengthen relationships and enhance school climate.  They may say they are fine and there is nothing you can do to help them at the moment. Great!  But end the conversation by reminding them that you appreciate them and are there for them anytime they need you. 

3) Commit a Random Act of Kindness.  Do something nice for someone.  Put a piece of candy on someone's desk.  Put a piece of paper with a smiley face on someone's desk or chair that says, "You are appreciated! Have a great day!".  Whatever you choose to do need not be complicated or time-consuming.  Keep it simple.  Also, consider doing it anonymously.  Doing something for someone else and not expecting anything in return, not even gratitude, will not only make the other person feel good, it will make you feel good as well. 

Do these three things tomorrow, and then make a habit of doing them regularly. Don't wait! These small things will pay huge dividends in enhancing your school climate! 

Sunday, April 14, 2013

8 Elementary School Rules to Guide Administrator Thinking

As I was walking through classrooms at Thomas Jefferson the other day, I stopped in a first grade teacher's classroom.  I hadn't noticed these eight posters hanging on the wall before but for some reason I noticed them that day (I'm going to pretend that they were new and that it's not a case of me not being very observant).  Anyway, as I was looking at them, it become clear that these posters identified eight simple rules to guide student interactions in that classroom.  As I sat there and thought more about them, I realized that in these eight simple rules were some very important guidelines for administrators to follow in their relationships with staff members.  They're probably applicable to relationships with all stakeholders but here I will focus only on administrator/teacher/staff relationships. 

1) Encourage Others:  A quick word of encouragement can mean a great deal to one of your teachers or staff members and is always welcome.  You can always find something to praise someone for and if you can't, you aren't looking very carefully.  And don't forget, we shouldn't just praise outcomes.  Effort is just as worthy of praise as outcomes, perhaps more-so.  Praising effort encourages risk-taking, doing things in new and different ways.  A short handwritten note or face to face are my preferred methods of praise, but if time will not permit it, a quick email will do in a pinch.  It is, as they say, the thought that counts.

2) Listen: When engaging in conversation, remember to listen as much if not more than you talk.  I think it was Mark Twain who said "God gave us two ears and one mouth so we will listen twice as much as we talk".  People want to be heard.  It lets them know that they and their thoughts are important to you. 

3) Take Turns: Each one of your staff members has a special gift and leadership skills you can tap into.  Don't hesitate.  Most staff members want to be trusted with leadership responsibilities.  Being the boss doesn't mean you have to be in charge of every little thing.  The best leaders know when to let go and whom to let go to. 

4) Think Before Acting: Let's be honest.  As administrators we have a hundred different things coming at us at once most days and sometimes it can feel overwhelming.  Before we do or say something that we could later regret, let's stop, take a breath and THINK.  Talk it through with a trusted colleague.  Remember, what could seem a small slight or offense to us could be large in the mind of someone else.  I love my job and I can't think of anything else I'd rather do.  But it does exhaust me.  Daily I remind myself of the best advice my dad ever gave me: "Never make an important decision when you're upset or tired."  I've always remembered that, and it has always served me well.

5) Use Kind Words: Even when you are upset, there is no excuse to be rude or disrespectful to someone.  Understand that people are emotional beings and when they are demonstrating their upset and you seem to be the target, most of the time they are not really upset with you.  Using kinds words, even in the face of difficulty, can never, ever steer you wrong. 

6) Talk It Over: Don't let things fester.  If there is something that you need to talk to someone about, don't dilly-dally about it.  Talk it over with them respectfully and with a solution mindset.  If there is something you are unsure about doing, talk it over with a trusted friend or colleague.  It's amazing how sometimes saying things out loud can help you crystallize your own thinking, not only about what you should do, but how you should do it.

7) Be Quick to Forgive: People are going to hurt you.  It's true that as administrators we tend to have a bit thicker skin than the average Joe or Jane, but things can still hurt us.  Don't hold on to hurt feelings. You do have a choice in the matter. Make the choice to forgive the person who hurt you and move on.  At the end of the day you will be happier for it and your relationships will be healthier.  

8) Share: Share your talents, your energy, your thoughts, and your passion with your staff.  I'm not saying you should be a know-it-all, but as a leader, you have things to share.  Don't be shy about it.  More than that, however, share leadership.  Your staff wants responsibility.  Give it to them.  What you get back will be infinitely more valuable than what you give up. 

I'm a big believer that "it's all about relationships".  By encouraging others, taking turns, listening, thinking before acting, using kind words, talking it over, being quick to forgive, and sharing, you will be building relationships in meaningful ways, improving your school culture, and ultimately making it a better place for your students.  And that, my friends, is what it's all about.