Icing The Ice Bucket Challenge

C’mon, you’re like me. With all the hoopla surrounding the ice bucket challenge for ALS you were just waiting for someone to challenge you. Also like me you were probably concerned that so much time has passed and you weren’t challenged! Why not? Nobody thinks of me? I’m not someone who is considered for this challenge, when everyone else and their brother is? What’s wrong with my friends? What’s wrong with me?

I have to admit that when the challenge first arose it was unique, and seemed like a great idea…and it was both of those. I also was just “challenged”, so I’m warm and fuzzy that someone finally thought of me. But as the cause has become a fad, my thinking has undergone a change as well.

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge was a great marketing idea. It highlighted a truly terrible disease and was quite effective at raising money for the cause. Congrats to whoever was responsible for the idea and for initiating one of the most effective fund raising efforts ever! I have nothing against the ALS Association or raising money to help find a cure for one of the more tragic diseases the can befall someone. I have real sympathy for anyone affected by ALS, either directly or via a friend or loved one. But, I’m not going to participate in the challenge.

You should read Mike Rowe’s Facebook post “Not Throwing Cold Water on a Cause.” He explains his rationale for not participating quite well. I get his point and agree with it, and I want to piggyback off what he wrote with some additional thoughts.

Rowe points out that charitable giving is a rather limited pool. While the total given any year is not static, you can’t expect givers to suddenly double their annual giving. So money given to cause A is, in all likelihood, going to negatively affect charitable giving to cause B, or cause C. He writes that “According to experts, 50% to 70% of all the money collected as a result of the Ice Bucket Challenge will directly impact future contributions to other charities in an equal and opposite way.” (the italics are mine) So if the ALS Association collects $80 million, other charities working to raise needed funds could see their collective results diminished by roughly $40 to $56 million.

That’s a serious cash flow problem, especially so if you consider the diseases that have the highest mortality rates. I know, every death is tragic, whether it be a death from ALS or from cancer, but when considering the grand scheme of diseases, my head says to put the most money into the research that will benefit the most people. According to statistics from the CDC, heart disease claimed just short of 600,000 lives in 2011; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease claimed 143,000; diabetes another 74,000, breast cancer 41,000. ALS was responsible for just short of 7,000 deaths.

Again, I’m not saying one death is more important than another, but I am saying that money for research to combat serious diseases should be allocated relative to the potential for saving lives.

Shame on the American Heart Association for not thinking of an ice bucket challenge of their own!
So, I’m not taking part in the challenge, knowing that I will most likely insult my secretary, Lisa, who nominated me. I depend on her daily so I hope she doesn’t hold a grudge. While serving a good cause, public challenges are not the way to seek donations. People donate because they believe in a cause and want to do their part to help out. I donate to a lot of causes, ALS is not one of them, and like what was written in Rowe’s post, if I donate to ALS then I most likely would not donate to some other one. I also am not one to get caught up in fads, and the ice bucket challenge has become just that. Like me, you’re insulted if not challenged…it’s being challenged that’s important, not the cause. That’s not me.
So be thoughtful about your giving, know why you’re giving to a specific cause, and know what your giving really means in the big picture. And if you don’t give to ALS, give to a different charity, just be sure to give.

And that’s my perspective.

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And I Want It Now…

So I received this phone call one day in late May, about five weeks before the end of the school year. It was a parent whose family was moving to our area and they were looking at schools. Buying a house in a district that best meets their children’s educational needs was of importance to them, and the mother wanted to learn about our school; she had looked at the information that’s available online but was interested in learning more about us.

I understand parents wanting to research schools and relocate to a district that will provide a strong education for their kids, that makes a lot of sense to me. And I think school district quality should be a main consideration for any family relocating for that matter. The intro to our conversation which, of course, led to a request was not of concern at all.

She told me that she had already spoken to a person in our Guidance Office and had requested a tour during the day to observe our school “in action.” The response she received was that we do not conduct tours during the day. (That is an accurate response. People can have a tour of our school after hours when the student presence is minimal. Either time they will see the same building.)

Well, Ms. K was not satisfied with that, and she was hoping I would bend the rules and allow her to tour when school was in full swing. She was interested in seeing “the kids we have, the demographics and how they interact.”

If you’ve read my previous blogs then you already know my response. I told her that, just like she was told by the guidance office secretary, we do not allow tours during the school day. I added that we are consistent with this approach and that all potential visitors are given the same message.

I’m sure you know that she was disappointed with my response, and she said that what I was telling her was not what she had experienced with other area schools. (Subsequently she revealed that she had actually only contacted one neighboring school, which had allowed a day tour.) I didn’t respond, but instead asked her if she was interested in visiting after school some other day. She thought that might work, she was going to be in the area in the near future, perhaps the following Monday. I said that would be fine, please call the guidance office ahead of time to confirm and to arrange for the tour. The conversation ended amicably enough, I put it out of my mind.

So, that Monday I got back to school from a district meeting around 2:15 and was preparing for a rehearsal with our orchestra for a concert that evening. (I was playing bass on a number, something this director asks me to do annually.) At about 2:30 my secretary (An aside, secretaries really do run the place…they have to, I couldn’t do what my secretary does!) said that a woman was here for our 2:30 meeting. I was surprised, I said, as I didn’t have a 2:30 meeting scheduled. She said it was a Mrs. K…no recollection on my part.

I walked out, carrying by bass guitar, music, and lead chord and introduced myself. Ms. K said that we had talked on the phone last week about her visiting…ah, yes, Ms. K who wanted to see our school!

I told her I remembered our conversation well, but that she had not called back to confirm that she was going to visit like I had asked her to do. I also reminded her that any tours would be arranged via our guidance office, that we did not have a meeting scheduled, and that I had a rehearsal that I had to get to.

She said she would have to “check her notes” from our conversation (Really? Who does that?), perhaps we had a miscommunication. I responded that I had been quite clear, that if she wanted a tour after hours, she should arrange it through our guidance office. I told her that she could still do so.

Her response? As a family they were considering several school districts in the area, and I had probably helped them with their decision-making. I said “Good luck with your relocation. I need to get to rehearsal.”

She’s really better off going elsewhere. We educate who resides in our district; we do not recruit students; I have no real interest in whether a person moving to this area settles in our district or somewhere else. And if whether or not you get your way is a determining factor for relocating to our district, please, go elsewhere. And that is my perspective…

Posted in Administrative Experiences, Communication in Schools, School Climate | 3 Comments

Back To School…Good

(The following is the unedited version of an article that was published in the Perspective section of today’s Albany Times Union.)

I’m probably fairly typical when it comes to the end of summer. On the one hand it’s a bummer, because summer vacation is ending. But, on the other hand, we’re all used to the cycle of school years and we begin to look forward to getting back to our friends, school activities, a new beginning. (To be clear, my summer is not like summer for most educators and students. My job requires me to work 12 months, I don’t have July and August off. )

And a new beginning it is, for everyone. Unfortunately, I don’t believe that most students or adults look at it from this perspective.   Many of the players in schools consider September to just be bringing more of the same. To be sure, many students completed very successful school years and they are looking forward to continuing their positive experiences. Similarly, many teachers accomplished much of what they had planned to do and are looking forward to continuing their productive instruction. But, there are a good many students and teachers who have to put a not so positive experience, and all that it included, behind them and look to make changes in the new year.

There’s a well known saying that if you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep getting what you’ve always gotten. It seems obvious, but it’s (obviously) not so obvious to a fair number of students, educators, and parents.

It can be difficult for students to understand how their actions, or non-actions, lead to results or consequences. I work with young adolescents, 12-14 year olds, and connecting their behaviors to their subsequent experiences is not an easy task for them. Given where they are in the long process of development, junior high age students cannot easily see how what takes place today affects events a week or even a couple of days down the road. Hoping that these youngsters will analyze what took place during the last school year and identify the behavioral changes that they need to implement to have a better experience in the new school year is mostly futile.

That’s where parents and educators need to play a major role. We are the ones who have the ability to connect present day behaviors to potential results weeks and months in the future, thus we need to be very aware of our new students’ perspectives and built-in personal shortsightedness and help them make changes that will positively affect their schooling and their lives in general.

For parents, this means realizing that educators are there to help kids, to provide them with opportunities, to assist them in reaching a level of success, and to improve on their previous year. This understanding is not always present with parents; some have a perspective that educators don’t care about their kids, that we don’t think kids can make positive changes, or that we’d rather punish kids than support them. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In my long educational experience, I can truthfully say that I have never worked with such a teacher or administrator.  But I realize that this doesn’t carry any weight with those parents who have their minds set otherwise. Parents’ objectives are best served when they look at a new school year as a chance for improvement, an opportunity for their child to learn from his/her mistakes and, with the guidance that educators provide, alter behaviors that will benefit their child in the short term and also consistently down the road.

Educators play just as important a role. We all know going into a new school year who the perceived “problematic” students (and parents) are. Reputations precede presence. In reality, at the middle school level, kids are kids and they are typically not the real concern, it’s their parents who are considered the problematic issue. That’s where our professionalism needs to take over. It is our responsibility to not pre-judge, but to look at every entering student as an opportunity for growth, our own as well as the student’s. Pre-knowledge should inform us, not pre-set us. Parents who are viewed as difficult need to be communicated with early and positively. They need to see that we view their child not as a problem, but instead as a student no different than any other in our classes who will be worked with and helped as needed. And then we need to follow through on doing so. We need to view the new school year as a new beginning for each of our students, and we need to give each student the credit they deserve to take advantage of that beginning.

The looming new school year is indeed a new opportunity for all of us. Understanding each others’ perspectives and working to alleviate concerns will help us all make the most of our shared goals.

And that’s my perspective.


Posted in Administrative Experiences, Communication in Schools, School Climate, Student Characteristics | 1 Comment

August Is To Sunday As…

I think it’s probably the same no matter what you do for a living. Unless you work weekends, Sunday night is always a bit of a downer. Work is looming, another week is beginning, it’s back to work in the morning…so the end of a weekend and the beginning of yet another work week is somewhat a bummer. I wouldn’t say depressing; it’s certainly not that intense, but there’s a “down” feeling to it. Of course, once you get into the week it’s all about looking forward to the next weekend and the cycle just repeats itself.

And I like my job. I don’t dread going to work, I don’t wish I was in some other occupation. I enjoy most aspects of what I do. But I get the Sunday night blues just like everyone else.

You’ve most likely had to complete analogies on some test at different times in your life. You know the kind I’m talking about. For example, fierce : savage :: pot : ________ And then you’re maybe given some choices to complete the analogy: container, flowers, or round.

So the analogy I’m making is probably specific to education. When school ends in June, the only feeling any student or educator has is one of freedom. Two months off… I love summer vacation! This is the best!! But, inevitably July turns into August, and August is the summer’s Sunday. That is, August : summer :: Sunday : weekend. Having the two months as a vacation is just a very expanded version of a weekend. August means that summer is coming to an end, so the blues slowly seep into the psyche. Most other businesses don’t have anything like a school schedule, so writing that August gives people the blues, when most educators have it off, most likely creates angst for non-educators. How can you still have a month off and bemoan the fact that the month off is ending?

Well, you can, and most people do. The feeling really is akin to the feeling that most people experience on a Sunday evening when it’s back to work tomorrow. It’s just on a graduated scale, and lasts longer.

You can see the days getting shorter. I don’t think I imagine this but the air just feels different. The hottest August day is not the same intensity as the hottest July day. The water in the pool is starting to cool off. Nights tend to be cooler and you can again sleep with just the windows open. You can shut the A/C off for longer periods of time. Fresh vegetables are everywhere…you can’t take a drive without passing multiple food stands offering corn, squash, beans, blueberries, you name it. The back-to-school ads are annoying, and you can’t enter a clothing store without seeing the fall fashions with nothing summer related left on the racks.

August is definitely a different month, and each day further into the month only reinforces that work is not too far down the road. The back-to-work blues are never too far from your mindset. I don’t have summers off, I’m a twelve-month employee, so I don’t have the two months of freedom from school. But I do have the two months of freedom from students, teachers, parents, basically everyone who does not work at my school. I spend most of my time in the company of secretaries and custodians…but it’s a vacation! And my Sunday night blues are setting in.

So, all educators and students are beginning to feel the same thing, that deflated feeling that freedom is ending. Our August blues will soon be reduced to just a weekly feeling…and, while not selling our job responsibilities short in any way, we’ll already begin looking forward to next summer.

And that’s my (blue-tinged) perspective.

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Name Optional

Maybe I’m not typical, but I take ownership for what I do and what I say. I have never been someone who hides behind anonymity. When I attend a conference or workshop, be it within my district or at some removed venue, and I receive an evaluation form to complete to provide feedback to the presenters, I complete it…and I sign my name. I want the presenters to know who is providing the feedback on that form. When I believe that I have to make a complaint about something that has occurred, in my personal or professional life, I identify myself up front so the person I’m communicating with knows who’s doing the complaining. I suppose there are times when anonymity makes sense, and would make sense for me, but I can’t come up with an example right off the top of my head.

I’ve taken this stance because I’m confident in what I’m saying, I believe I’m rational in expressing my thoughts, and that my perspectives are based on a thoughtful review of what I have experienced. I don’t really worry whether or not someone’s feelings may be hurt…after all, I’m being asked for my opinion or I feel it necessary to share my opinion, knowing that someone’s feelings could be involved. I don’t have the intent of hurting peoples’ feelings, but I realize that expressing my asked-for opinion could do that. Again, I have a rational basis for each of my thoughts and opinions that I express and I am confident that what I share will be seen as my perspective.

As you would then expect, I don’t like to put a lot of emphasis on anonymous complaints. I don’t receive many, perhaps one a year on average, but when I receive one I automatically have doubts about what I’m going to read. I’m sure that’s because of my own personal thoughts regarding anonymity. I can’t help but distrust the source of the anonymous note, after all, if it’s that important why wouldn’t you want to attach your name to it? For example, if you want to raise a concern about the out-of-school actions of a faculty member why wouldn’t you want to identify yourself? Why would you be concerned with me knowing your name? Putting a name on such a note certainly sends a different message to me. If you disagree with how someone acted, why wouldn’t you want that person to know you were concerned?

Yes, I know, a lot of people, probably most, actually, don’t want to be the heavy. They want to identify what they consider to be a problem and leave it to someone else to address. While I understand that many people feel this way, I disagree with the approach.

So how do I address an anonymous complaint? I can’t really ignore it, even though that’s what I would like to do with anonymous complaints. After all, the information shared could be partially or even entirely true. So the information could be such that it needs to be addressed with a staff member. Keep in mind that I am not including information that would indicate that kids are in harm’s way; such a complaint would be investigated and addressed immediately and directly.

First, I discuss it with my hall principals. They are my most trusted colleagues, I depend on their knowledge and thoughts daily, and they are excellent advisors to me. We will discuss the complaint, including how best to handle it. There have been times when we have been able to independently check on the information provided; if possible this is a tremendous approach. But being able to check out the facts on the sly is not typical. Most cases of anonymous complaints have not been accurate, however, in my experience. But whether we believe the information or not, whether we can verify it or debunk it, whether or not we even think it has anything to do with the person’s professional life, we share it with the staff member and we will have a discussion about the complaint.

We do this for a couple of reasons. First, if we don’t know whether or not the complaint is true, and we believe it is related to the person’s professional life in our school, we need to have it explained by the staff member. We need to ascertain what, if anything, needs to be done. If, after our discussion, there is a concern on our part, we will work with the staff member to address it appropriately.
A second reason is that the staff member should know what is being said about him/her. Even if we know that the complaint is not true, we will share it with the colleague. Doing so is the right thing to do.

It’s also important to do if the behavior or action has nothing to do with, no impact on, the staff member’s professional life. Knowing that someone has noted the behavior and complained about it is appropriate and helpful. I mean, I would want to know if someone had not nice things to say about me.
It certainly would be a lot better if people signed their names though. Doing so would provide a context that would explain a lot.

And that’s my perspective.

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What’s The Real Issue?

How often do we read about some event that took place or some action that a person was engaged in that in and of itself wasn’t that big a deal…but a different person’s reaction to the event or behavior took center stage? Examples of such occurrences can be readily found in the news. A fairly recent, high-profile example involved Martin Bashir, a former political commentator for MSNBC. I say “former” because of how he became the issue and lost his job due to it.

You may remember what took place last December. Bashir criticized Sarah Palin for comments she had made. That certainly is understandable, as Palin cannot make any comments that don’t merit criticism. She is an intellectual lightweight who serves as a great example of why the Republicans have a major issue in the US today. If she is their standard bearer, they will continue to have trouble winning the White House. But Palin’s laughability is not the point of this blog.

Palin had made comments comparing the Federal debt to slavery. Without detailing his comments in their entirety, Bashir attempted to counter her analogy and in doing so stated that Palin would be an excellent candidate for a particularly disgusting form of slave treatment. As would be expected, he was roundly criticized for his statement and, despite his contrition and public apology, was fired by MSNBC.

Schools don’t usually merit anywhere near the national exposure as do public commentators or presidential aspirants such as Palin. But, the lesson to be learned from this example is a valuable one. All of us in education interact with the public, usually in a not so public manner, however. We also often have disagreements with members of the public. Consider, for example, the conversations that occur daily between a teacher and student, teacher and parent, administrator and student, administrator and parent, etc. These conversations are generally centered on an event, a behavior or action, an occurrence of some sort. And all of them have potential for problems. I know this from experience, my own and others’.

When I have a discussion with a parent, it is usually over a disagreement about something that has transpired. The parent has his/her perspective and I have mine. I know where my perspective has come from and I know the principles that it’s based on. Those perspectives are solid, they are rational, they have a legitimate basis. Disagreements happen, and if we stick to our thoughts and beliefs then they will develop into nothing beyond a difference of opinion. It’s when we pull a “Bashir” that the disagreement becomes something else.

We tell ourselves and our teachers regularly to not become the issue. Decisions based on principles that we as a school share are easily defensible; an ad lib comment, statement, action that “doesn’t belong” can quickly change the focus of the conversation. It is no longer a difference of opinion about a grade, or about a reasonable consequence for a student’s misbehavior. It is now a problem with what you said or with how you said it. Correcting a student’s misbehavior in class is defensible; adding the comment that the kid “must ride the short bus” is not. Giving a student a failing grade reflective of her work is defensible; saying that the parent needs to do a better job of monitoring the student outside of school is not.

We all need to remind ourselves of the point we’re trying to make in conversations with students or parents, or each other. Stick to the talking point(s), don’t be tempted by clever come-backs or off the cuff comments. Be focused, keep with the focus. Don’t become the issue.

And that is my perspective.

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How’m I Doin’? Learning To Be A Principal: Lesson #6

As I’ve written about before, when I started at Shaker Junior High School I did not walk into what could be characterized as a “welcoming” environment. While a majority of the staff members were professional and personable, the school’s society was dominated by a small group of veteran staff members. This small group wielded a disproportionate amount of influence over what was and was not accepted in the school, what practices were followed, how the school was even administered. Or at least they acted that way and most of the other staff members didn’t challenge the status quo. Such a climate was very different from what I had experienced previously and my early years were marked by repeated skirmishes with the vocal few.

While my early years at the junior high were difficult, they also provided me with experiences that were invaluable. I had strong support from my assistant superintendent and superintendent, which was crucial to my developing a legitimate influence over the development of the junior high, but the conflicts were trying. It would have been easy to take the path of least resistance and go with the flow, but that’s not what I was hired to do, nor is it my makeup anyway. I periodically describe different battles that were undertaken to point out learning experiences for me. I had a lot of them, and here’s one more.

It was in the spring of my second year as principal. The year had been pretty much like my first year; things moving along, working to institute some needed changes to our programs despite resistance from the self-appointed bosses, making progress here and there. I was walking around, stopping in classes, talking to staff, a normal morning of activities when I was stopped by the most vocal of the resistors. It was a short conversation; he informed me that the staff had decided they were going to evaluate me that year. A survey was going to be distributed to staff, they would be completed, collected and collated. The results would be shared with me. He even gave me a copy of the evaluation survey that had been developed for this.

I told him that I found the idea interesting, and that I didn’t believe it was the responsibility of the staff to evaluate me, that instead it was a job for my boss to complete. He, of course, was unmoved by my response and indicated it would be distributed to staff in a week or so.

I had mixed reactions to be honest. On the one hand I had no problem asking staff members for some input about my job performance, but that’s different from the staff thinking that they, as a whole, would be writing my evaluation. And another consideration was that the implications for such an action as well, faculty evaluating principals, went beyond the walls of the junior high. As usual, I contacted Pete McManus, Assistant Superintendent, for his advice. He had two things to say; first, not to worry about it, they would address it with the teachers association. But, secondly and more importantly, he said I should consider putting out my own survey to staff soliciting feedback.

That was great advice. It actually would accomplish a few of things. It demonstrated that I wanted to hear staff members’ feedback about the job I did that year. Doing so showed the faith I had in the professionalism and perspectives of staff members. It also deflated the vocal few’s initiative and intent, basically undermining their attempt to intimidate me by having staff evaluate me. It also would possibly give me some legitimate feedback, perhaps provide some ideas that would benefit me as a principal. Lastly it gives the disgruntled the opportunity to gripe. You just need to be prepared to read some things that aren’t nice, fair, or accurate. But it was such good advice.

So I did. I announced to staff at a faculty meeting that I was doing this and, a good idea extended, suggested that all teachers do the same. All of us can benefit from the perspective of those we supervise, so they should survey kids and parents. I’m not sure how many did what I modeled.

And I have done the same thing every year since. Many of the years I actually don’t receive many completed surveys, but what I have received has tended to be positive. Last year was my best response year; the survey was developed and administered via Survey Monkey, completely online, results tabulated instantly. I did the same type of survey this year and again received a good number of responses. And I have the same thoughts about doing so now that I had when I began the practice 25 years ago. It is good practice in so many respects. Everybody should have the confidence to give their students, staff, whoever, the chance to voice their thoughts about the characteristics of the job they’re doing.

And that is probably only my perspective.

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