Burying students

Never, was I ever, prepared by anyone, principal preparation courses or mentors, to attend funerals of current or former students. Yet, many school leaders have done this. I’ve written about attending funerals before, but this entry will focus entirely on student funerals.

I’ve been lucky. I’ve only had to attend 2 student funerals. Several of my colleagues have had to attend more than that. Even more interesting, both funerals were of former students who had concluded their time in schools.

The first one, I’ll never forget, was in November of 2009. The former student had never finished school, and I knew him very well during the time he was in school, as he inevitably ended up in my office very regularly for not attending school. I worked closely with his parents, who worked tirelessly to get their adopted son what he needed. Unfortunately, all the help in the world never sunk in, and he passed of an overdose.

The second one was different. He was what many of us refer to as a “squirrel” his freshman year of high school – made his share of poor choices always getting in the mix of this or that…. but sweet enough to apologize for his misdoings and take his consequences like a young man. He cared deeply for many people and many things, and he graduated from high school last only to be taken in a tragic motorcycle accident. The love and support of his family, his friends and his alma mater honored his life.

At this funeral, a parent of another former student who was attending said to me, “I was sad to hear when you left the school. We always knew our boys were safe with you.” That was always my goal as a principal, was to maintain a safe environment for all students. I’m glad that the outside perception matched the purpose of my actions.

It’s sad that I can’t always keep them safe, and I still think about the student of mine who passed in 2009, who was never able to find his place of safety on earth. As a school leader, these memories are etched in the mind forever.



Filed under Experiences I Wasn't Prepared for as a School Leader

“Hello, how are you?”

My inspiration this week came from @gcouros’ post on #SAVMP. This post related to the little things school leaders can do and how one seemingly little change can really have an impact on school culture. As I prepared to work as a school leader, I don’t think I realized how important the “little things” were in building relationships with the students and staff.

In my first assistant principal job, I had the *much coveted* duty of checking in all the buses every single morning. The first bus arrived by 6:50am and the last one at 7:25am. Simultaneously, students were driving through the circle to get to their parking lot, which was also a parent drop off point. I was out there, every day, in all weather conditions to make sure everyone was safe in this process.

I did actually grow to love this part of my job. I got to greet students and families every single day with a positive interaction. “Hello, how are you?” or some variation of that statement would be said to everyone who pased me on the cross walk. I could “check in” with some of my regulars (frequent visitors to the office) as they arrived to school to understand how they were that day.

Saying this to everyone, meaning it, and demonstrating appreciation for a response from the student helped me build relationships with students. They knew that I asked because I really cared. If each student can start off with a positive interaction each day, school culture can be impacted in a positive way.


Filed under Experiences I Wasn't Prepared for as a School Leader

Cultivating great teacher leaders, and ultimately, great teammates

I really love the fact that there are so many analogies between the world of sports and school leadership.  Frankly, if it weren’t for my experiences as an athlete, I think it is highly unlikely that I would have developed the necessary leadership qualities to serve schools in that capacity.  Every sports team has goals, like winning a championship, having a better win/loss percentage, giving time back to community organizations, etc.  And let’s face it, teammates have individual goals that are directly related to their individual strengths which then end up being mutually beneficial.

When I was preparing to be a school leader, despite course work and common sense telling me so, I never fully realized how important cultivating great teacher leaders (and ultimately great teammates) would be.

I have a real blessing to spend time in my role as a student teacher supervisor in the school where I was formally a principal.  I’ve seen accomplishments of teachers becoming formal and informal leaders in the building, and I can see where the leadership team I was proud to serve for a while helped to build capacity in these individuals to accomplish personal/professional goals for themselves or accomplish something larger for the school.

Here are some examples:

– Two faculty members I know of who are currently pursuing doctoral work

– Two faculty members I know of who’ve become department chairpersons, bringing a new set of talent to their positions and to the leadership team of the school.

– One faculty member who has become an informal technology guru, helping faculty and staff when she can.  She was a first year teacher only about 5 years ago.

So the big question is how did this happen?  I think there are ways that formal leaders, as they build relationships and trust can see where the interests, talents, and passion intersect for the betterment of themselves and ultimately, the students.  As a school leader, I found that I was most successful when I personally invited someone to be part of or lead a team that was tackling a problem directly related to their interests, talents and passion.  This isn’t the way to accomplish every task or problem in a school, but when people are specifically and intentionally invited to contribute in this way, it builds their capacity, which helps to strengthen the relationship, which positively impacts their ability to be great teacher leaders and great teammates.

Isn’t this what great sports coaches do as well?

Leave a comment

Filed under Experiences I Wasn't Prepared for as a School Leader

Passion for students

This week’s call to blog for #SAVMP is related to communication and how leaders’ methods and messages have great impact.  We can all think of leaders whose methods and messages were unclear, to the point that people hardly understood what was expected of them or even know what the vision was for the final product.  When this happens, frustration builds and morale declines.

There is, though, a deeper layer to a leader’s communication than clear expectations that lead to a known vision.  I was poignantly reminded this week about the importance of conveying passion for students and the learning community of the school.  When I was preparing to become a school leader, I didn’t realize the entent to which it really matters how much the school leader communicates passion for students’ growth in all areas.   All school leaders HAVE to care about the achievement as measured by standardized test scores.  All leaders HAVE to care about making data-based decisions and effectively evaluating instruction. However, leaders can care about all those things but still be a “shell” of a person using only their brains to make logical decisions that may work some of the time.  Conveying passion for the students and their continued growth towards a productive and moral adulthood demonstrates the desired example and supports the other teachers and staff members in the building who are also passionate about students and their success.  This builds a safe community around passion for greatness and those who aspire to be such, not just academically, but in all ways (through kindness, grace, humility, and perseverance).  The leader communicates this by meaningfully interacting with students consistently in public areas of the school, focusing every decision on the needs for students, etc.  This well-communicated passion for making moral decisions that always keep the students first and foremost in mind and heart, can provide the catalyst for learning environments to go beyond good to something great when paired with a clearly guided plan to reach an understood and agreed upon vision.

Leave a comment

Filed under Experiences I Wasn't Prepared for as a School Leader

Being a Student Driven Principal

The suggestion of a blog post this week through the #SAVMP group has an awesome title!  We all have our strengths and weaknesses as school leaders, but when I was blessed to do that work, I felt this was something I always tried to keep in mind AND demonstrate each day.  It’s important to note that I believe everyone who is an educator (by my definition anyone working in learning institutions at various different roles who impact learning of students) has a desire to see each student learn.  Sometimes, we all have to be reminded, though, including me.  I didn’t expect during my time preparing as a principal how easy it would be to forget to be mindful of being student driven in all decisions, when sometimes getting overwhelmed by the day to day happenings as a brand new administrator.  However, as I reflected regularly on my practice, I continued to come back to the idea that as a school leader, it is vital to be the example of being “student driven.”  Below is a list of some of the ways I tried to do this in various venues.

1. Observations of student learning – that title is intentional.  We often say “observations of teaching.”  But really, student learning, driven by the facilitiation of a lesson, should be the focus.  In a post-observation conference, whether it be with new or experienced teachers, I ask how they know that the students learned what they needed to learn and how the students demonstrated that to the teacher.  Also, during the observation, I ask students who may appear to be less engaged what they are learning.

2. Interacting with students in common areas – A step beyond just being visible: Talking to students in hallways, cafeterias, extra curricular activities, community events, etc. This helps you get to know them beyond the classroom student, but even more so, it sets an example for a culture of appropriate interaction between education professionals and students outside of the classroom area.

3. Instructive discipine procedures – beyond punishment: It’s important for students to feel the consequences of their behavior; it’s how they learn the difference between good choices and not-so-good choices.  However, there needs to be instruction (this is where the admin who love to teach still get to do so) to help the students know how to make better choices the next time.

Leave a comment

Filed under Experiences I Wasn't Prepared for as a School Leader

Perking up PD

This week in the Teacher’s Edition (the U.S. Dept of Education weekly update), I saw a quote pertaining to the topic of PD.  It said, “Just as teachers personalize learning for our students, principals and coaches need to identify what teachers need… [and where] they want to grow.” (Teacher, Ohio). 

In addition, in a recent post on Connected Principals from jjohnson, this appeared:

“What I am learning about professional development is:
1. It must include differentiation for staff
2. It must include deep reflection”

When I was preparing to be a principal long ago, I remember talking about providing relevant PD, but I never expected what the term “relevant” would really mean.  I’ve seen the following over the years that I would consider to be good practices in differentiating PD.  Consider the list below as some ideas. 

– time of day: At one of the schools where I was an administrator, we offered many faculty meetings and other PD session in the morning AND after school.  Many of our dedicated staff had young children to drop off in the AM or older children participating in activities after school, and the flexibility was really appreciated by many.

– topic: many school leaders I know have created questionairres for staff around the PD they a) want, and b) need.

– intensity: there are many inservice teachers who would report having a “brush up” in classroom management techniques.  However, there may be teachers on the staff who need a more intense and immediate PD session or two.

– encourage the development of PLNs on twitter and other social media.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Communication Essentials

Although it was only about 12-14 years ago that I was taking coursework to prepare to be a principal, the methods of communication were really limited compared to now, so it was more simple to talk about which medium was appropriate for which type of communication.

1) Most of the information – mailings, newletters, etc.  It was “innovative” then for teachers and administrators to create “Good News” only newletters and press releases, on paper of course.

2) phone calls…. lots and lots of phone calls.

3) emails, only occasionally, for in-house communication or with a couple tech-savvy parents who communicated that way.

I definitely was NOT prepared back then for the different levels of communication and the much more complex decision-making that needs to take place around what type of communication to use for each task.  School leaders now still need to disseminate crucial information and highlight the positives of the school. We can do that through websites, blogs, wiki’s, facebook pages, twitter accounts, instagram, etc.

Ultimately, though, technology can never replace the relationships we are building, but it certainly enhances them when the right tool is used for the right reason and for the right audience.  When you build a relationship with individuals, a school leader begins to understand the best ways to communicate different types of information to parents and the community.

On a more individual level, if there were a concern about a student, for me, that still comes back to the tried/true method of face-to-face meetings and phone calls.  However, I certainly had one parent in particular whom I can remember only wanted me to email him, because his work took him out of the country so often.  I always honored the requests of my audiences whenever possible.

The bottom line is that with all the  tools at our disposal for communicating with individuals and communities, school leaders need to pick the methods that work for their individuals and communities.  Sometimes this is a trial-and-error process.  However, matching the mode of communication with the audience and task is essential for a school leader.

Leave a comment

Filed under Experiences I Wasn't Prepared for as a School Leader