Learning To Be A Principal: Lesson #6

I’ve written several times already about the environment I walked into at Shaker Junior High School 26 years ago. In short, the faculty was dominated by a small group of very experienced teachers who had pretty much done their own thing for several years. They were comfortable doing what they were doing and certainly weren’t too interested in a younger principal working to change how things were done. I’ve detailed several specific experiences I had with these “reluctant learners” and, even given a fair level of openness in their attempts to make me uncomfortable, which they were at times successful at, I learned quite a bit from them. My backbone got a little stiffer, my skin got a tad thicker, I learned how to make progress even while difficult staff members were working just as hard to undermine that progress. I also began learning who I wanted to be as a principal.

Yet another attempt at intimidation, or at least creating discomfort, involved liaison meetings. Each school has two or three teachers designated as liaisons, members of the teachers association who work with the building administrators to address concerns that arise as identified by varied association members. The idea of the liaison meetings was to work to resolve identified issues or concerns outside of making it a contract issue, and, thus, we could avoid the filing of formal grievances. Early on, these meetings served as a vehicle for this cadre of older teachers to, in my view, hassle me. They would want to meet right after students left, usually on a monthly basis, but would ask to schedule meetings more often as they deemed necessary. And the topics that were of a “concern” were nothing that, in my mind, rose to that level. They were little things, often issues that had minimal, if any, connection to the teachers’ contract. Many were not even issues, just items to fill an agenda. The meetings were intended, clearly, to bother me.

So I didn’t want to just flat out say we weren’t going to discuss an item, I didn’t think that was the right message at all. Even resolving some of these minor concerns helped someone do their job a little easier. And I didn’t want to come across as someone who wouldn’t discuss items put forward as concerns. I knew that some of the topics were manufactured solely for a liaison meeting, but I couldn’t be sure which ones. I still wanted to help colleagues if possible. But I had to come up with something to reverse the tables.

As I always did in my early years when I was finding my way, I had a conversation about the liaison meetings and my perceptions of them with Pete McManus, the Assistant Superintendent. And, also as always, he gave me great advice, specifically two actions to take to switch the liaison climate.

First, he said to stop thinking that liaison meetings were solely for teachers to share their concerns. Instead, I should start looking at them as opportunities to share my thoughts and concerns, to use them as a forum to discuss different programs that we needed to consider, to discuss building practices that needed to be changed, to put on the agenda as many items as the teachers did. Fair enough, and good advice, as the concern sharing should swing both ways. But the second suggested action was the key.

He said to schedule the meetings after the teachers’ contractual day had ended, and to put some time between the end of the contract day and the meetings. His perspective was that if the teachers’ concerns were truly concerns, the teachers would be interested in discussing them at any time. If they weren’t that important, they would not want to remain well after their day had ended to discuss my items.

He, again, proved to be all-knowing. There was initial griping about the time scheduled for the liaison meetings, but setting the time was my prerogative. It was clear after the first couple of late-scheduled meetings that the liaison members’ hearts were just not in it. The agenda items were not that important anymore. Maybe we could discuss some items if and when they arose during the day, they asked? I said maybe, but we may need to schedule a late meeting again if too much arose. The quality of my professional life improved significantly, and I had sent a clear message to these teachers. If they had legitimate issues to discuss, I was more than willing to do so. But, I was not going to waste my time with trivial topics manufactured to make my life difficult.

We don’t hold scheduled liaison meetings anymore, mostly because the climate is so different today than it was a couple of decades ago. (It certainly helps that I’ve hired all but four of the current faculty members!) Instead I’ll have a conversation with a union rep as needed. And our way of doing business works. I ask to speak to the rep about a concern I have as often as he/she will ask to discuss a concern of theirs. We co-exist quite well. And the level of mutual respect is where it should be.

And that’s my perspective.


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Nature vs. Nurture

In earlier posts I have written about my younger years. I grew up in northern New York, near the St. Lawrence River and the Canadian border. My hometown is Lisbon, in St. Lawrence County. I graduated from Lisbon Central School, had a graduating class of 52 students. Back when I was a kid life got to Lisbon well after it had arrived in more populated areas. Remember, when I was a kid there was no internet, no cell phones, no cable tv, no computers…it was the dark ages compared to now. I mean, really, as a kid we got three tv stations. One, a network, was broadcast from Watertown, one was out of Ottawa and the third was out of Montreal, and it was in French.

But I don’t think I missed out on much growing up. What we had was what we knew and appreciated. The Montreal station was actually a good thing…they tended to show more “interesting” movies late at night, after my parents had gone to bed, on weekends. And I even learned a little French. Movies were shown in theaters only on Friday and Saturday, and all of the area movie theaters had only one screen. We got two newspapers daily, the Ogdensburg Journal and the Watertown Daily Times, which provided us with our fill of news, supplemented by the news broadcast on tv…one-third of which was in French.

Lisbon, like the entire North Country, was composed of white people. We were either protestant or Catholic. Diversity did not exist, nor was it even a word I remember hearing growing up. We didn’t need diversity, wouldn’t have wanted it if it had been an option, and were pretty comfortable all looking alike.
So it’s not surprising, when framed in such a context, that we were all racist in our attitudes and our beliefs. We had no opportunity to interact with any racial minorities, they just didn’t exist in my world growing up. There were no religions other than the normal protestant ones (Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, etc.) and Catholicism. I did have a friend who was a Jehovah’s witness, but overall, other than a weird religion, he was pretty normal. There were no foreigners living in the area, if you didn’t count my high school Spanish teacher, Mr. Miro. Why even calling someone a Democrat was an insult. There was nothing or no one to provide opportunities to interact with or even experience differences. We looked alike, we thought alike, we behaved alike.

Our only experiences with diversity came via tv and what we read, experiences that weren’t personal, almost weren’t real to us. And, of course, we were heavily influenced by older kids and adults who had grown up in the same environment we were living in. We didn’t spend time reading about people unlike us, and we didn’t discuss what other people, people very different from us, thought, believed, ate, worshipped, looked like, or did. So we didn’t place much importance on other ways of living, they weren’t relevant to us, they had no bearing on what we did, and we didn’t care. And we had a very biased opinion of most things and people that differed from our own world. Racial epithets were common, as were comments disparaging other religions, nationalities, life styles, ways of living. Calling someone “gay” was the ultimate masculine insult. We only knew our life and anything that differed from our known existence was automatically distrusted, disrespected, and disliked. It was bigotry or racism based truly on a serious lack of knowledge, guess you’d say it was based on plain ignorance. That’s not surprising, after all, isn’t that what all bigotry and racism is based on?

Being so insulated from the real world has many downsides, one of which is lack of exposure to people and ideas which are different for us. Living in the Capital region now I can look back and see how and why we developed and understand how people even today, people who live and develop in such isolation, physical as well as intellectual, have the thoughts and beliefs that they do. It certainly doesn’t serve as an excuse for it, just an explanation.

I began to open my eyes to others at college, yet even SUNY Potsdam wasn’t as diverse as the junior high school I work in today. But, I began to see that the way I grew up in northern New York was quite limiting, that although I enjoyed my youth, I missed out on a huge part of the real world. The process of broadening my understanding and appreciation of diversity of people, ideas, beliefs, and interactions was well underway. It’s a process that never ends, as there’s always more to learn and appreciate.

And that is my perspective.

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The Spoken Word

I’ve been writing my blog since January, about 90 separate posts! Thanks to all for reading, as there have been in excess of 6000 views! During this past summer I spent some time thinking about creating a video, a different approach for me, a way of sharing my ideas in spoken format, something that could be accessible to an even wider audience. So with the help of a colleague and a high school student I taped a short segment. The topic of the video is the need for and benefit of having common goals. I was focusing on common directions for a school, of course, but any organization or endeavor needs to have in place objectives that are shared by the members of the group and that further the aims of that group. The video segment was not edited, I didn’t redo parts of it, I just talked and the video was made in one take. You can view it at:


I would appreciate any and all feedback. Please share your thoughts with me; write a comment in response to this post. Don’t worry about offending me, you won’t. I’ve watched it a few times and have several suggestions for myself. But, hearing from a wider audience can be very instructional. Having multiple eyes evaluating my performance can only help me. I plan to have another video made in the near future and will again post it. I would like it to be “better done” than this first one. Hence the request for feedback.

You can give me feedback on the content, how I speak, voice cadence and dynamics, what I should do with my hands, posture, anything…I welcome your thoughts and suggestions.

Thanks in advance for helping me move down the slippery slope to media star!!

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Playing Favorites

I think every kid at one time or another when they’re growing up feels like he/she’s being treated differently. This usually means they think they’re being treated unfairly, not being given the same reward, punishment, opportunity, etc. as everyone else. I’m sure that in some cases that’s true; unfairness does exist. But a majority of the perceptions are probably incorrect. Many situations are not accurately understood by young adolescents. Some students receive different consequences because they are repeat offenders. Some students are better at a particular sport so they are given the chance to play up a level. There are myriad considerations that go into making decisions that affect multiple kids, and many of these considerations are not easily perceived by those affected.

I learned a lot about fairness from my football coach, Coach K. In fact, I can say that I learned the value of complete fairness from him. His approach was simple, straightforward, easily understood by all: he treated everyone the same. It was obvious at every practice that he didn’t play favorites. We all had to do the same drills, we all were criticized as needed, patted on the back when merited, and given an equal opportunity to play. He based his decisions on what he saw from each of us in practice. This was true even given that there were some players who were better than the rest. I mean each year there were guys on the team who had earned League All-Star status the season before. They weren’t given any free passes. They had to perform.

Coach K was fond of saying that yelling at a player meant he believed that player had potential. You had to be concerned when he didn’t yell at you…that meant you weren’t showing anything that he thought would contribute to the team. You had to kick it up a notch if you wanted to be taken seriously.
We played eight man football at Lisbon, a format no longer seen. There was only one team, the varsity. We competed against other small schools, there were 52 students in my graduating class, in the north country, schools that didn’t have enough players to field modified or jv teams. If you wanted to play football, you tried out for THE team. My freshman year I sat the bench. I wasn’t good enough to play. I would get small amounts of playing time on the field at the end of games, if the game was out of hand. But I was treated fairly. I remember one practice when we were scrimmaging, I was playing defensive safety and this huge running back, Bobby Smithers, broke through the line, running straight at me. He was a starter, a tough kid. So I got in his way, my attempt at tackling him, and he basically hit me with his shoulder and ran over me.

Have you ever had the wind knocked out of you? It’s scary. You can’t breath. You lie there moaning until your lungs re-inflate. You think you’re dying. Well, after I got my wind back I was, to say the least, a little intimidated about re-entering the scrimmage. I approached Coach K and asked if I could sit out the rest of practice. I was, of course, told “no”. The only players allowed to sit out were those who had a legitimate injury, and I did not. I was going to get hit in games, I needed to get used to it. I needed to get right back on the field or I would never confront my fear.
Hmmm, ok. And I did.

Then when I was a junior, I was starting quarterback. But, with Coach K treating all of us the same, I played safety on defense and took part in kick-offs, punts, etc. It didn’t matter that I was an Honorable Mention All-Star the year before, and was a vital cog in our offense this year, I covered kick-offs too. So on one such kick-off in a game, I hit a guy with my shoulder and it went numb. I couldn’t feel my fingers, my arm tingled. I was pretty sure I had dislocated my shoulder. I went over to the sideline and mentioned to Coach K that I thought I had dislocated it. He grabbed my wrist with one hand, ran his other hand up under my jersey and shoulder pads and gripped my shoulder. He gave my arm a yank…a little pain but all the feeling returned. He said I’d be fine and sent me back into the game. (This would not be allowable today, but I’m talking 1971. A lot was different back then.)

Don’t get me wrong, Coach K cared about each one of us, but his caring didn’t interfere with treating us all the same. His fairness in treatment was legendary, all were aware. Everyone knew they would get a fair shot at playing. Your name didn’t matter, your past success didn’t matter, your personal feelings didn’t matter. You were just one equal member of a team, given an equal opportunity to contribute.
As I wrote earlier, I learned a lot about the value of fairness from Coach K’s approach. Once you treat someone differently you have set up a value system and you can never maintain it. Nor can you defend the unfairness of your actions. I learned that people can understand and appreciate equity of treatment, but they take serious issue with inequity. I learned that if you want to be respected, you have to start with being fair. I like to think that I continue to live by this lesson regularly today.

And that’s my perspective.

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Learning From Coaching

I was delighted to get the job. I was a pretty good basketball player, a teacher; I believed I would be able to put out some good teams and we would do well. I jumped at the chance. I stuck with it for three years, a period of time in which my teams won a total of 13 games…and lost close to 40. I should have backed out after the first year when I realized that I wasn’t ready to coach, but I had pride and couldn’t let it go. By the middle of my second season in this job I was miserable. I was much better informed about coaching, the many facets of coaching at the varsity level, the criticisms that inevitably arise, the unfair demands being made by parents, the lack of support that I and our program was receiving, you name it, I was learning it firsthand. And I was turned off to coaching. Partway into my third season I informed the AD that it would be my last, and the season couldn’t end fast enough.

One thing I can say about myself is that I’m a good learner, and those three seasons constituted an obvious “teachable moment” for me. I’m reflective now and I was then. My criticisms were all focused on me and rightfully so. My players were not an issue; they were what they were. I had some good ones, some not so good ones, but they did what I asked them to do. The AD wasn’t the issue; he gave me an opportunity I wanted. A case could be made that he shouldn’t have, that he knew I wasn’t ready, but he did…end of that story. I needed to examine myself, what I did and didn’t do, how I should have prepared better for practices, how I should have talked more with experienced coaches and been comfortable asking questions that would have showed my lack of knowledge, how I needed to acknowledge my players’ parents and worked to include them in my approach, how there was As educators, we generally recognize a teachable moment, one of those times that occurs regularly and upon which a lesson can be learned. I use the term “moment” because that’s the phrase everyone uses; teachable “moment.” It’s usually an occurrence, a happening, an event that takes place right here and now and can be reflected on immediately. We all have them, we all try to use them to provide a life lesson to kids, and sometimes the moment provides us with the life lesson. And it may not be anything close to a “moment,” but instead a lengthy time period that, when viewed holistically, constitutes a teachable experience rather than moment.

When I first started teaching I kind of figured that I would coach at some point. In high school I played football, basketball and baseball; when I got to college I played baseball for four years, JV basketball for one year, and intramural basketball for three years. I was an athletic guy who, surprise, enjoyed athletics. And I felt that I “knew” athletics as well…and maybe I did. Coaching athletics is another matter, however. I, like most people, believed that I could coach all right, I knew the games, I knew what it took to be successful at the games, I could apply my experience and knowledge from a coaching position and be successful.

In this regard, coaching is like teaching. Everyone and their brother thinks they know how to teach, primarily because they spent so many years in school. We all know what it takes to be a successful student, so all you need to do is share your experience and knowledge about learning with students. No sweat! Coaching is just a variation of teaching, and I had this very same attitude. No sweat!
I was provided the opportunity to coach the boys varsity basketball team my second year. community support had I only looked for it and asked for help. In short, I recognized that to be a successful coach you need to work at it, learn the basics of coaching before tackling the top level, and realize that coaching skills develop only with practice, patience, and study.

As fate would have it, a couple of years later I was ready to try coaching again and put into practice what I had learned. I offered to fill a JV girls basketball coaching opening and was given the job. You can be sure that I prepared for the first practice and I was ready with how we were going to approach practices and games. I coached this level for three years, and loved it. I didn’t relax, no, I approached girls JV with the same intensity I did boys Varsity. But I knew what I needed to do to prepare my team for success. We won our first four games then lost a close game…we won our next 35 games in a row! My second and third seasons we were undefeated. 39-1 over three years! Teachable moment indeed!

One of my memories from this period was a comment made to me by a parent of one of my top players. He used to attend practice, sit on the sidelines, watch how we did things. He never interfered. He asked me after practice one day if I knew why my girls were so successful. I started to given several reasons but he stopped me and said, “It’s because you treat them like they’re boys. You don’t take it easy because they’re girls, you don’t care less because they’re girls, like a lot of girls coaches do.”

I thought I just treated them like basketball players…

And that’s my perspective.

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The Value Of And Need For Quality Mentoring

You may be like me in that you have no interest in routine household jobs, have no tools to use even if you were interested in home repairs, and appreciate the value of those who can fix something in a short period of time. You may be unlike me, however, in that I’m fortunate to have a friend who is very talented at repairing just about any issue that can arise in my house. He’s reasonably priced, he’s responsive and timely, and he’s honest…good qualities in any tradesman. I have a problem, any problem, with my house, I call him. He came to me via a reference from a different craftsman who I had a lot of trust in. So if you don’t have such a talented crutch like I do, what do you do? You have a plumbing problem that you can’t, or don’t want to, fix, you need to find a plumber. Maybe you ask friends, maybe you google “plumbers”. But the important question: how do you decide which one to call? How can you know which one will have the qualities that my main man possesses? I mean, if a person is listed as a “plumber”, he must be good, right? How can you tell?

You learn a craft by practicing it. You learn it well by practicing it accompanied by support, insight, and advice by an experienced craftsman. I suppose it’s possible to become good at a job or trade solely by working on your own, but logic says that your level of “goodness” will not match the level of competence achieved with experienced guidance assisting you. I remember reading as a young student of the apprenticeship requirements that have been in place for ages in the skilled trades. The apprenticeships were completed under the tutelage of a skilled craftsman, with the objective that the apprentice would be guided and developed appropriately. Even today, in many trades a several year apprenticeship is required to be eligible for a license to practice that trade.

I write this while looking back at and considering my development as a teacher and subsequently as an administrator.  The undergraduate education course work I completed did not contribute much to my development as a teacher. Really, discussing methods for teaching math in a classroom with other inexperienced undergrads, and a professor who typically had little, if any, practical teaching experience, does not an apprenticeship make. Similarly, the graduate coursework I was required to complete for administrative certification did not directly help me learn to be a principal. In all fairness, it’s not that coursework doesn’t help in any way, because the readings and discussions do help you to begin looking at things differently. This is especially needed and helpful as one works to transition from being a teacher to being a principal. There are clear differences in the perspectives of a teacher and a principal, and classroom work can begin to delineate those differences. But, talking about making decisions is not nearly the same as actually making decisions. That’s where an apprenticeship becomes a crucial facet of development.

I had a good student teaching experience. I worked with an experienced math teacher who wanted his classroom routines mostly maintained, but who also allowed me to initiate my own approaches and practices. We discussed what I was trying regularly, and he was good at helping me think about the implications of my attempts. Even if, based on his experience, he was pretty sure something I wanted to try didn’t have much chance of being successful, he let me work it out. In any job, at any level, you will make mistakes, and learning how to recover from and rectify those errors is a necessary part of job maturity.

The same was true when I completed my internship in administration, working closely with the assistant principal. I was allowed to experience the different aspects of being an administrator, while being guided by an experienced professional. And I made more mistakes in this apprenticeship than I did in my student teaching!

But, student teaching, an internship, an apprenticeship, can only begin to shape you as a craftsman. You do not have “real” experiences during those training periods, those times when you are the one making the decision that others will be affected by, complain about, disagree with, and want changed, until you are no longer an intern, but are now THE person responsible. You are not on your own until there is no longer a skilled craftsman checking your work, or a classroom teacher standing in the background, or the real principal supporting what you’re doing. Like the plumber who just finished her apprenticeship and has just been called the first time for a job, you hope that your training will help, that something you were exposed to then is now relevant, that you will be able do the right thing. You hope that you are prepared…because now the real job begins.

And that’s my perspective.

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The Responsibilities Of Teachers

The average person probably looks at the responsibilities of being a teacher as teaching, I mean, that does make sense. And, of course, teaching means not only instructing five classes daily, but also providing extra support for those students who need it, whether they want it or not! So, teachers have to be available for their students at times other than during classes. For example, we have a built in after school time that is especially geared to provide extra help. Regular dismissal is at 2:17, teachers must be here until at least 3:00. Our district also provides late bus for transportation home for students. Right there is a tailor made support time of 43 minutes daily. Parents don’t even have to worry about picking their kid(s) up, we’ll bus them home!

There are other tasks as well that attend to “teaching”, such as providing work for students missing school, modifying work for very low ability students who are mainstreamed, maintaining and publicizing grades, collaborating with other support personnel, and a host of related instructional responsibilities. A lot goes into teaching that the typical non-educator never considers.

But here’s where my philosophy broadens. Teachers, all teachers, have responsibilities that extend beyond their instructional tasks as well. We all have an obligation to provide extra-curricular opportunities for our students. I blogged earlier about stipends, what they do and what they don’t do, but I’m referring to more than that. If we truly want to provide all students with a thorough, comprehensive chance to “grow up”, we need to involve ourselves in much more than teaching.

One of our priorities is that students have a need to “connect.” Each one needs to feel a part of something bigger. Kids have to have a reason to want to come to school every day and, no surprise, for many students that reason is not academics. When bad things happen in schools, you usually read after the fact that the kid responsible was a loner, wasn’t involved in anything, kept to himself, etc. In short, the kid wasn’t connected to anything positive in the school. I am not blaming the schools for this in any way, but it supports the need to provide opportunities for kids to connect and our responsibility to urge students to get involved in something. The wider the range of opportunities, the more students will find a connection of interest.

As educators we also have the responsibility, particularly at the junior high/middle school age levels, to expose kids to different experiences. Kids come from a wide range of households, some that provide their children with a wealth of opportunities, but many that provide little. It’s not that we are replacing what families should do, we are complementing and expanding on what they do.

Another facet of my beliefs is that teachers, and principals, need to be seen as more than just instructors, that we also have interests and hobbies we enjoy. In effect, we role model behaviors that we hope students will emulate. By involving ourselves in opportunities for and with students, we are also showing that we have an interest in kids beyond their content/skills learning. In other words, we care about our kids as more than just students. We want them to develop in different ways, we want them to have fun in school, we want them to represent our school in different programs, and we enjoy not only the activities, but also interacting with them!

Lastly, I firmly believe that, as educators, we have the responsibility to help kids grow physically, affectively, emotionally, and socially. We certainly have academic growth as our priority, but we need to attend to the many other aspects of growth that all students will experience. Many of the best developmental learning opportunities for these areas are not found in the classroom, but instead are found in clubs, events, and activities that create and call for different expectations for interactive behaviors from children. It is these different interactions that provide excellent growth opportunities for kids. And we are being remiss if we don’t recognize these needs and provide for them.

Good schools offer a wide range of experiences and opportunities for their students. And, good schools have (a majority of) staff members who recognize this crucial facet of education and who take an active role in providing for the comprehensive development of children.

Based on my experiences, that’s my perspective.

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