Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Meant for the Middle

I am awkwardly comfortable. I make mistakes, I fail. I am picked up by others and I pick myself up. I am always learning. I yearn for more. I have a drive to dive deeper, not always wider. Sometimes I am lost. I embrace others helping me find my way. I listen.

I am meant for the middle.

Middle school teachers and administrators are a unique type of educator. We are quirky. At times we struggle with balance. We do as our students do. We strive to do right. We apply common sense when tempted by impulse. We offer control when others are lost.

I am meant for the middle. 

As we head into another season of instruction I would ask you one simple question. Have you found what you are meant for? If not, what will it take to get there? And, are you willing to get there?

As I have found my way to the middle, I would encourage you to think about where you are. While you reflect on that, check out these middle level traits I have found over the past nine years of my own middle level journey. As always, you are encouraged to add your own thoughts below. 
  • In the middle we must acknowledge we are awkward. The sooner we do, the better off we are. My parents and students at my middle school are often taken aback when this is one of the first disclaimers I make at back-to-school orientation. They are extremely glad that I do share this. It takes the "elephant out of the room" right out of the gate. Let's face it, we are awkward in every sense of the word.
  • Embrace what we don't know. And, there is plenty of that to go around. As we begin with rules and expectations, keep in mind that this is a new beginning academically, socially and emotionally. So much is happening our young lives we must grab on to the notion that there is so much to learn in all aspects. Keep relationships in the forefront and you are sure to have an amazing journey of learning.
  • We need guidance and direction. Life experiences are few. They are happening at each turn. Our job as the grown-ups around them is to model the right things. If we step out of line, put us back. If we fall, pick us up. Our actions and behaviors will set the tone for years to come. Be the best example possible.
  • Connect with your community of parents and support them.  Our middle level parents need reassured, supported and verified just as the students do. When at a school event or cars streaming into the parking lot before or after school, being seen is just the beginning. Engage and converse. Know your parents as well as you know their children. You'll see the impact immediately. Guaranteed.
  • Learning. Always. Academics are just the surface. Social interactions, relationships, maturity and overall emotional levels are all over the board. Our role is to be the steady. Be the constant. Model your own learning and you will see them respond in a way that shows in the classroom.
  • We need to fail. We need to be corrected. This makes us a better us. Whether with a strong voice or a conversation of "next time", we can't buffer the inevitable. We will all fail at something. Instead of always providing a soft landing, let it hurt once in a while. You'll know when. And, after the thud, carefully and strategically pick them up. Learn each moment of the way.
You know your calling. When you chose to become an educator you did so with purpose. Whether in your first year of teaching or your 30th, stay true to your purpose. Make sure you know your "why" and always be the student and the teacher. Learn, grow, repeat.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

It's Been Too Long - 6 Tips to Get Back to Blogging

I took a break. I needed one. I felt that I had been burning at both ends. Something had to give.

For the past couple of months, my presence in blogging has been minimal. Other than sharing a few interactions here and there, not much has come from Fueling Eduction. I was seeking balance and it was not as easy to find as I would have thought.

However, it is now the end of October. The first quarter of school is complete. Teachers continue to deliver quality instruction and explore innovative ways to reach their students in teaching and learning. Students themselves have grown leaps and bounds as they find the balance in all aspects of being who they are. And, our community of parents have been an essential part of the process as they support their children at home while also being an essential piece to the learning process at school. Learning is taking place everywhere we turn.

As for writing, the reality is, it's been too long.

Albeit the break was intentional. It now needs to be just as intentional to return. The rush of sharing the experience is an essential element to my growth, our growth. Writing is more than just about sharing facts, figures and tidbits. Writing is about growing ourselves as leaders and learners. As much as I enjoy reading the posts of others, my own writing is key to my own path in education.

With that, if you have taken a break from sharing your work through writing like I have I would encourage you to join me in the return. Here are some suggestions that I will follow to make sure my return stays permanent in the weeks and months ahead:

1. Prioritize. Now that you are in somewhat of a routine to your year, think forward to when you have time throughout your week. For me, Saturday mornings are often best. Already have activities at that time? Think about the beginning of the week when typically things are slower. Carve out time right after students are dismissed to sit at the computer and reflect and think forward. If you make writing a priority, you will make it happen.

2. Jot it down. Technology hasn't complete engulfed us. Whether getting ready in the morning, heading into work or just a part of the day, I often turn to the good old fashioned note to write down ideas, happenings or thoughts that might become part of a reflective post. Have a pen handy and just get some ideas down. Once that happens, the posts will become a passionate part of the day.

3. Might as well take a picture. As I go in and out of classrooms there is so much to take in. Whether a teacher sharing best practice, watching students collaborate in the learning process or a candid moment of the learning community enjoying their day, take a picture or two and use that as a source of inspiration. Also, use that picture as a reflective tool. As an administrator I sometimes text and often tweet that image to either compliment or provide feedback to what was observed.

4. Don't overthink it. Often times educators are turned off from writing because they have thought so hard about what they want to write that they convince themselves it is easier just not to write. I have done this myself and realize that instead we need to simplify the process. In the end, just write. The format can change and length is unimportant. The purpose of blogging is reflection. Embrace it.

5. Your audience is one. Each year I talk to a group of students at my middle school and remind them that the blogging journey is intended for one person - the writer themselves. The truth is, however, that when we share our story through social media, others grow from what we have written. Start with knowing that writing is for you, embrace the reality that others are learning with you along the way.

6. Enjoy the ride. When I bring my staff together one of the essential components of any professional learning or collaborative time is to enjoy the moments we have together. Even though learning (and writing) isn't always easy, it should always be positive, upbeat and enjoyable. I know, not everything is life is "fun" but at least set the tone and go into the process with mindset of growth and excitement.

As you reflect on your journey in teaching and learning, determine if it's been too long for you in some aspect of your work. I already feel rejuvenated and excited about the week ahead now that I have shared this with each of you. Please take a moment and share your thoughts in the comment section below. Feedback is essential.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Rethinking Professional Development - Friday Focus

If how we deliver content to students is constantly evolving than how we offer professional development to our teachers needs to continue to evolve as well. And the good news for many of us in the field of education, it is doing just that. Professional Development (PD) is on the move. It is better, smarter, more efficient and personalized. Educators are moving PD in the right direction. Just as powerful is the fact that there is an amazing number of exemplars in the field of how we can and should offer PD to and for our colleagues. Equally as powerful is that educators are and need to continue to find platforms to share what is and what is not working in relation to teaching and learning. And, for those of us that are connected, there are countless members in our #PLN that make us better at this very task.

When it comes to your own learning in how to become a more impactful educator, most teachers and administrators in the field of education value the need to continually grow themselves in all aspects of their jobs. Like growth mindset, professional development centers around the notion that we each strive to increase our abilities as educators by constantly growing our depth of knowledge. In an attempt to be relative to our audience, we must challenge our way of instructing them. When it comes to teaching and learning we must model our own growth if we expect those around us to embrace the same expectation.

When it comes to the delivery of professional development with my teachers, the truth is that I am no genius when it comes to best practices. I know very little theory in the matter. The reality is that my approach to professional development for my teachers, and the training I have, is in large part to what I have observed from those around me, including you. Simple observation has been most greatest tool. Application of what is best and removal of the ineffective has been my greatest asset. Instead of just doing, I do with purpose. I model what I observe.

Think about the best PD you have experienced. The following characteristics should be present:

  • collaborative
  • shared ownership
  • an environment that fosters the idea that the collective whole is greater than any one common presence
  • open communication
  • each participant feels valued and respected
  • meaningful and relevant content
  • applicable to your role and those you serve
  • student-centered
  • interactive
With this list of characteristics (and more that you could add) think ahead to your next opportunity to learn with others. If you are the leader of this PD then I encourage you to think about the ways, platforms, tools and resources to ensure the needs of the audience are met. If you are on the receiving end of the professional development than make sure that your school leaders embrace these common threads of PD.

Here is an example of how I am rethinking PD that supports each of the bulleted items above. This is just ONE of many forms of ongoing embedded growth. Please feel free to use this idea in your work with your colleagues.
This week my assistant principal and I continue our Friday Focus (link that explains what it is with questions) series in which we invite staff to our innovative Media Center as we discuss our next topic. This week we discuss Parent Engagement in the Learning Process as we prepare for the end of the first quarter. On Monday (going in to the Friday Focus) we share out questions to consider so that staff members can be reflecting on it throughout the week. Then, on Friday, we simply facilitate the conversation allowing our teachers to share out best practices, ideas and suggestions for the weekly topic. Teachers come to the Media Center during their plan period. Conversations can last anywhere from 10 minutes to the end of the period (50 minutes). Teachers can come and go as they please and it is NOT required and we do NOT take attendance. Each semester we have four of these "Focus" conversations. Next semester our staff will determine the topics by using a Google Form to submit ideas.  So far, so good. Great feedback from our staff.
As you continue with your year in learning and growing as an educator, continue to embrace how you offer and how you learn when it comes to professional development. You do not need a title to offer rich, meaningful and intentional content to those around you. You need a passion for growth and a willingness to learn.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

What I Have Learned So Far This Year

This week will mark the one-month moment in our school year. Hard to believe that a little over 30 days ago we were in our final stages of preparing for students and staff to return. The excitement, anticipation and eagerness is still with us today as it was just a few short weeks ago.

Putting time into perspective, it is hard to believe that one-ninth of the year has passed. You heard that correctly. Thirty days of teaching and learning have concluded. There is no "do-over" for the days and weeks that have passed. How have you made the most of your first month with students and staff? For me, it was full of learning and in many cases, reaffirming all that I believe when it comes to education. With that, it is time to reflect on what those 30 days have taught me. And, in 30 more days I will do the same.

Here is what I have learned so far this year:

1. It is All About Relationships. We were purposeful in how we welcomed our students back. We were intentional in how we established our school culture. And in the end we must sustain those relationships and come back to them each and every day. Our #1st3Days must be in existence all 180 school days of the year. It is how we are intertwined with each other that will set a tone for the direction we will go. (Resources - Sean Gaillard and Bethany Hill)

2. Personalized Learning and Blended Learning are Everywhere. What spent much of last year as a buzz term in education, personalization of teaching and learning for all students is truly taking form as we get into the second month of school. Both administrators and teachers are embracing the craft of ensuring each students academic experience is aligned with their style of how they are taught and how they best demonstrate mastery. Personalization is best practice and has rightfully taken its place in our schools. (Resources - Randall Sampson and Marcia Kish)

3. Homework is Out. Whether a social media revolution or Hattie's work has finally made it into mainstream academia, teachers are realizing that piling up hours of evening work for their students has very little value and in fact is as archaic as rows of desks in classrooms. For those that are well versed in the research, we know we need to move homework out of the students after school experience and instead focus on more impactful practices. We as educators who believe in this shift need to continue to share with your colleagues. (Resources - Connie Hamilton, Starr Sackstein, Samantha Althouse)

4. Space Matters. Three years ago I took on the task of revamping our Media Center in the middle school in which I serve. Having been furnished in the mid 90's, it was time to re-think the space that I considered the hub of our school. Seeking the input of our community, doing some research on higher educational settings and listening to professionals talk about their evolvement of their spaces, we completely overhauled the focal point of our building. Now, students and teachers clammer to head to a location that is open and inviting. With comfortable seating and a mindset of 21st century best practices, our teachers are also rethinking how the space in which they serve students needs to evolve as well. (Resources - Dwight Carter)

5. Instructional Feedback is Essential. This past week I found myself in a couple of tough conversations. I had stepped into a classroom and decided to stay for a while in an attempt to learn a little bit more about the co-teaching delivery that was taking place. While knowing the teachers had good intentions, I found myself a bit frustrated in what I was observing. I took some mental notes, reviewed the time I was in the room for 24 hours and then decided the next day that the teacher(s) and I would need to have a pretty straight forward conversation about best practices. It was time for some intentional feedback. In the end, there is work to be done. The positive is that the teachers are receptive to my involvement and are learners themselves. With this relationship, and an establish growth mindset, students will benefit. Even though it will take some time, I look forward to all parties growing through this purposeful conversations over time. (Resources- Neil Gupta and Jennifer Hogan.)

As you work through your year, make sure to take time and do some intentional reflection on the progress you are making in your own teaching and learning. Having taken some time off from blogging to start the year, I am re-energized to get back at it and tell our schools story in growing as leaders and learners.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Not Your Ordinary Start to School

We are tired, we are spent and we could not be more excited to be both. The past week has been a whirlwind of emotions. Like many of you, school has resumed and we are already on a pace to accomplish so many great things on behalf of teaching and learning.

This year, we started school a bit different. Check that, we started school like we had never began before! Our "rule" for the first few days was to focus on relationships. You know, the kind of relationships between students and teachers and with teachers and students and with the students and each other. You know, the interactions between people, young and not so young, that drive us to achieve and succeed. Our focus was simple: relationships first. Our plan was something unique.

With that, as a staff of 80+ educators who serve 950 7th and 8th graders, we came up with a plan. A mighty grand plan! What did we do? Well, we agreed last spring that we would place a hold on content for the first three days of school. We agreed that we would follow the lead of educators like Dave Burgess, Alan November and George Couros (among others) and we would center all of our energy and all of our efforts around getting to know one another. We would embrace the straightforward concept that if we get to know our learners (and they got to know us), all of the days that follow will build upon the foundation that we had created within our community. 

Simply put - if you get to know me and you will believe in me and if we will have trust in one-another, then there will be a commitment to the growth of each of us in all aspects of our learning experience. This will include the critical components of the social and emotional elements of our journey this year. We would be invested in each other. 

We would be a team, a family. 

And with that, our #1st3Days took off. What began as a simple idea, a concept, built around the belief that our relationships, community and culture drive our success, turned into three solid days of devotion to the art of building those very relationships. In those three days we formed a bond that will lead us down a path of honest, real, and at times difficult, moments in our learning this year. 

We know that we believe in one another. We believe in our team. Our passions are real. Student, teacher, parent, community. We are a collective unit. We have many directions but we will move as one. We will have a year like no other.

As you reflect on your back-to-school experience, I would encourage you to be intentional with how you welcome both teachers and students back through your doors of your classrooms and buildings. Through conversations with others, using social media and simply hearing from colleagues near and far, there are great things happening this month of school in each corner of education. Borrow ideas, reach out to those in which you see great things happening and be courageous in all that you do. You get one chance to start your year. The more energy and effort you put into that, the days and months that follow will only magnify in opportunities to learn and grow. 

And remember to do the following each step of the way:

Have a vision.

Overcome obstacles. 


Have purpose.

Be intentional.

Your drive will determine your fate.

Your will is powerful. Believe in it. 

Find your "why". Answer it.

If you would like more information about the #1st3Days at Weaver Middle School, please contact me at: Phone works too: 614.921.7700. I would love to share the step-by-step plan of how a building this size pulled off an experience like no other. 

Thursday, August 4, 2016

A Back-to-School Checklist for Administrators

The first days of school are closing in and it is time to welcome back your school staff, district administration and your school community. You are about to begin another year in their journey of teaching, leading and learning. Without question, it is the most exciting time of year!

As we begin our year as administrators (I am the principal at Weaver Middle School in the Hilliard City School Distict in Hilliard, OH) we are fully aware of the many hats that we wear. Pulled in various directions at any given time, our positions are not for the faint of heart. Like your staff, we too are fortunate to shape the minds of others. Our leadership is essential to those that work with us and for us. They look to us for direction, support and encouragement each and every day. We have a role and responsibility like no other.

As you begin your year as a school administrator, regardless of what position that might specifically be, I would encourage you to consider the following essentials for a successful year. 

Here is a back-to-school checklist for administrators:

1. Putting Relationships First. Recently I wrote A Back-to-School Checklist for Educators in which I emphasized that the relationships you create, foster and maintain with others will be the backbone to your success. As administrators this is the same. If you stay true to getting to know your teachers, your Central Office team and all of those that look to you for your leadership, the results of your organization will be limitless. Likewise, if you do not invest in those you turn to for their expertise in the classrooms and the buildings then do not be surprised when the climate of your building turns cold and the culture takes a dive toward dismal. Relationships with all stakeholders should be priority one as you begin the year.

2. Providing Ongoing Feedback. We ask teachers to provide feedback to students and students use feedback to grow as learners. As administrators we ask for feedback for the evaluation process. With that in mind, do not wait for an evaluation or a scheduled moment to provide feedback to your teachers and your colleagues. Having worked under a variety of superintendents, the one I have the most respect for is the one who provided me constructive feedback within my role within the moment. Whether you realize it or not, teachers and administrators crave feedback to their work. That is what drives us to be better.

3. The Art of Listening. My teachers often remind me when to "turn it off". I am fortunate to have a rapport with my staff that they are open enough to tell me when enough is enough. Taking the time to listen to your teachers and your staff is essential. Whether a scheduled conversation or just a moment in time passing through the halls, listening to the good and the bad of your organization is essential. Soak in their ideas, opinions, feelings, emotions and experiences and know that the art of listening goes a long way in building a successful school climate and a community of learners.

4. Having Accountability. If there is one area in administration that I believe takes more effort than any others aspect of leadership, it is the practice of holding ourselves and our leaders accountable. It is not an easy aspect of our jobs. However, we know what is best for kids and we know best practice. And, we know what sound instructional experiences should look like. With that being said, if you observe something occurring in a classroom or a building that is not aligned with your districts vision, mission and goals then use your leadership skills to address it. We are the administrator. We hold others accountable just as we hold ourselves to that same standard and expectation. Be supportive but be direct.

5. Serving Our Community. The word leadership means one thing above all other to me. My role as a leader is to serve. Serve my teachers, my colleagues, our students, their parents and the community in which we live and attend our schools. It is a role that should not be taken lightly. Serving others is the foundation of what we do. How we act and how we model our work in education is essential to our growth and our success. As you begin your school year make sure that you are committed to this essential component of your position. To lead is to serve. Do so with humility and with pride. 

As I shared in my last post, think about all of your back-to-school items on your checklist and remember the amazing responsibility we have as educators. There is so much that will be accomplished as long as we are intentional and purposeful in how we return. And, if you are dreading your return to school, then please weigh your options and consider not coming back at all. We need administrators that are overflowing with anticipation and excitement to welcome a new school year. Be ready to make a difference in the life of a child and an educator and your community.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

A Back-to-School Checklist for Educators

For many of us, the first day of school can not come soon enough. For those in the northeast, no worries, you still have until Labor Day to get in the many important summer outings. However, for those across the midwest, the south and to the far west, we will heading back to school in the coming weeks. And, we are getting excited to do so!

Back-to-school means so many different things to students, teachers and leaders alike. It is a new opportunity to explore new experiences. Relationships will have an entirely new starting point, slates are wiped clean and the learning that will take place is endless. We are our only obstacle and we can control how the year begins and where we will go throughout the months ahead.

Now that back-to-school is closing in, here is a checklist for educators to start the year:

1. Relationships First. The excitement heading into this year is powerful. The staff I am fortunate to work with has committed to starting their year like never before. We are committing the first three days of school to forming, fostering and embracing the relationships with our students, parents and community. "The content can wait", is what we have agreed to and is our slogan out of the gate. Investing every ounce of energy in to getting to know the community of learners we are going to work with for 180+ days can not. I look forward to sharing out about our #1st3Days in mid-August. We challenge you to hold off on diving into specific content. Instead, get to know those that you will spend an amazing amount of time with in an intentional and meaningful way.

2. Bring Patience. Just as much as this is a reminder for you as the teacher and leader, this is also to be kept in the forefront of your mind as students and parents enter the building. Whether a first-time kindergarten child or parent, a high schooler heading off to their freshman year or a teacher just starting their career, the first days of school can be full of angst and stress that we can collectively work together to ease. Deep breaths, lots of smiles and the sounds of laughter abound should fill your first days of school. Be patient and find the bright spots even in the most difficult of moments as the stresses of back-to-school arise.

3. Think Foundation. Whether working with staff, greeting parents at open house or standing by the front doors on the first days of school, the back-to-school experience means the start of a new journey in teaching and learning. Each moment of each day should build upon the next. What you do today will prepare your audience for tomorrow. Very little of what we do happens in isolation so think foundation as you begin to build those essential relationships. It's worth starting one brick at a time and being the mortar that holds it all in place.

4. It is a Story. Just like the first days are the foundation of your year, each day there after is a part of the story that has yet to be written. Different characters will take shape as the story unfolds and the setting will be your classrooms and school buildings in which we learn collectively. As the teacher and the leaders in our respective buildings we hold the key to whether our story and the story of our school community is a best seller or not. Just as an author has to make revisions to their work, we too have an opportunity to make corrections in our teaching and learning. Be inspired by the story you are writing.

5. Celebrate Day One. In our #1st3Days we are not only going to focus on relationships and think foundation, we are also going to celebrate our students and our staffs return to school. What many educators think to be end-of-the-year activities, we are putting them at the beginning. Instead of sitting and hearing syllabus upon syllabus, we are going to set a tone of expectations and excitement to our journey together. Nervous middle school students will be welcomed by eager teachers ready to explore endless learning opportunities. We will celebrate day one and every day there after.

As you think about all of your back-to-school items on your checklist, don't lose sight of the amazing responsibility we have as educators. There is so much that will be accomplished as long as we are intentional and purposeful in how we return. And, if you are dreading your return to school, then please weigh your options and consider not coming back at all. We need teachers and leaders that are overflowing with anticipation and excitement to welcome a new school year. Be ready to make a difference in the life of a child and an educator.