Life as an elementary school principal was often unpredictable, poignant, challenging, and sweet. Being a principal meant, for me, learning the names of every student in the school because relationships mattered. Being present on the bus ramp when our buses were delivering students in the morning and picking them up in the afternoon was a great way to get to know each child better.
Even after a few years, I still enjoy reminiscing fun and funny moments on the bus ramp with some really great staff members at what was arguably the best elementary school in Florida. One little first grade boy, as he was about to board his bus, heard his bus driver call out to him, "You better hurry. I was about to drive the bus off without you" to which the little boy whipped his head around and said, "What the WHAT??!"
To ensure everyone's safety on the bus ramp when the buses were coming, we would stop kids by putting up our hand and calling out "Freeze!" The kids were so good about it, maybe even too good. One morning when it had dipped below 60 degrees (remember, we were in Florida?), I remarked to one of my co-workers as she came out of the building, "It's freezing!", to which a little girl stopped dead in her tracks and put up her hand to the other children around her.
Without a doubt, though, my best memory of the bus ramp was Isabella. A sweet and beautiful 1st grade girl, she had deep brown eyes that could reflect her soul. She was one of the many military family kids who came to our school. She also had a knack for making my entire day better. As she would get off the bus, she would always come up to give me a hug. I treasured those dear hugs, and I always told her (and her precious mom), "I don't have children of my own, so I rely on Isabella hugs at school and puppy kisses at home." She would giggle as if I hadn't told her that one, before. After several weeks of bus ramp and hallway hugs, Bella made my day one cold morning when she came up behind me and put her tiny little hand in my pocket to hold my hand. She warmed my heart. Perhaps because I had gotten tickled, the next day she came up behind me and put her hand in my jacket pocket, even though my hand was not in my pocket. With her little hand in my pocket, she walked beside me on the sidewalk for a bit while we talked. I remember thinking it was adorable how she enjoyed the attention. Frankly, I did too. So, we held hands and walked. Quite a few times that year.
Bella is one of the five children of a dear, dear family who will never forget November 27, 2006---the date their dad's F-16 crashed in Iraq. While I wasn't present at the funeral in Arlington Cemetery, I have seen many heartbreaking and touching photos of Bella's mom at that service, walking to the gravesite alongside her children. Everyone was visibly grieving...and so they held hands.
Not all of us know what it is personally like to lose a loved one to war. But we don't have to experience it, personally, in order to thank someone who has served in the military or honor those who have fallen for us. For this weekend, we have only to bow our heads, say a prayer and remember to hold hands.
Thank you to all who have sacrificed so that I could be free. Without you, I may never have served as a principal and had the blessing to get to know Bella.
I'm pretty good at directions, and I can even navigate through Manhattan pretty well on my own. I have a "sense" about direction, as well, which typically bodes well for driving around new towns when I am on travel for work. I want to get that out there, as you likely won't believe it once I tell you my sad tale.
Several years ago, I had rented a cabin in North Carolina for a month while working on a book I was writing. My daily routine was to write all morning before taking L.N., our Labrador Retriever, out for a hike in the afternoon. We both loved it, even though we both missed Dave, who was still back at home in Florida, working. One day, L.N. and I set off as usual to a new trail. We parked the SUV and I double-checked the map at the trailhead. It said there was a 3 mile loop trail. Perfect, I thought. We would be finished in about an hour or so. Off we went, L.N. running out in front of me but always turning around to look back to make sure I was catching up. I wasn't, usually, so she would have to turn back and come fetch me. What a beautiful afternoon it was, with the sun peeking through the tops of the tall trees and the birds high above us, chattering away at L.N. and me. I'm not certain when it registered with me that it had been well over an hour since we had left the parking lot and we still weren't back around the loop. We kept walking, as it was a loop, right, so we would most certainly get back to the car in a matter of minutes. Until we didn't. And then, all of a sudden, the sunshine turned to dark clouds and the sweetly singing birds turned to evil-sounding crows. Okay, the last sentence is just a great work of fiction, but I will admit I started getting a tiny bit worried. L.N. turned to look at me like "What gives? Don't you know where we are going?" I looked at her and said aloud, "You are the one who has a super-snoop nose. Can't you sniff your way back to the car?" To which she answered,.... Oh please, she is a dog. You know she didn't "answer" anything, right?
I'm not sure how long I stood still, trying to figure out why we hadn't made it back around the loop, when I realized I should maybe try calling for help. I checked my phone, saw that I had a couple of bars, and dialed 911. I know, I know, it wasn't really an emergency but who else was I going to call? I got through to the local police department who, after not recognizing where I was, asked the name of the trail I was on. I told him the name of the loop before my cell phone lost connectivity. I tried to call back once I walked up to higher ground to no avail. I considered turning around but I was on a loop, right? So that didn't make sense. I would surely soon find my way back to the car if I just kept walking. I got through to the same guy at the police department one more time but lost him again 30 seconds into the call. After walking another 15 minutes more, I realized there was no way the loop was only 3 miles long. I don't know why I so much resisted turning around except that I felt I would be walking so much further. What if the parking lot was simply around the next bend or over the next hill? When L.N. and I finally did decide to turn around and go back the other way, we had been walking for over 3 hours! When we eventually made it near the parking lot, I heard loud voices calling my name and Basset Hounds baying for L.N. Apparently, they had sent a search party out for us when they couldn't get in touch with me via cell phone again. What we ultimately discovered is that somehow, L.N. and I had gotten off the loop trail and we were headed off on another trail, entirely. I asked, "So, if I would have kept walking, where would we have ended up?" The guy with the Bassets looked at me, cocked his head to the side, and said, "I would guess in another hour or so, you would have been in Georgia." What the what??? To say that L.N. and I slept well that night would be a massive understatement.
Fast forward to today, when Dave and I were up Pennsylvania for a work-related trip for me. We had taken today to go hike part of the Appalachian Trail, which I love to do whenever we are nearby a section of it. We decided to simply hike out one direction for about an hour and then head back an hour to the car. At one point in the hike, there is a by-pass that hooks back up with the AT a mile away, but it avoids a beautiful section called Wolf Rocks that is known for some gorgeous overlooks. Dave and I naturally took the beautiful route, which in Appalachian Trail language most certainly translates to "get ready---you are about to have to climb up 1000 feet of rocks". Halfway up the massive rock party, it began to rain on us, so the already difficult-to-traverse boulders were now slippery. What an adventure! When we got to what we thought was the top and did the cursory "Yes, this is pretty" look out at the vista, I asked, "Why don't we just keep going? This will most certainly hook up with that by-pass and we can go back along solid ground instead of hiking back down the rocks?" I cannot adequately describe the look Dave gave me, not only because I had rain in my eyes but also because it was a look of disgust. He asked, with his voice dripping with derision, "Did you not learn your lesson in North Carolina, I mean Georgia, a few years ago?" He definitely had a point---always take the known versus the unknown---but I couldn't tell him that as his sarcasm had made me stubborn. "It is totally up to you" I said. "We can go whatever way you want." I think he may have told me exactly which way he wanted me to go, but I wasn't certain I could hear over the thundering rain.
I guess the moral of my story is I certainly need to be reminded to keep in mind the lessons I have been taught. So many of those lessons come from our own silly (or not so silly at the time) past mistakes, but some come from the wisdom of people whom we trust unceasingly. I am grateful for those who have gone before me and taught me so much in life about love, faith, hope, and happiness. My hope is that you have those people in your life, as well.
I'd love to hear some of the best lessons you have learned in your life. For now, I am going to go dry out my hiking clothes and shoes!
The problem is, we aren't really sure who said this. I once heard a speaker who attributed this great verse to Aristotle. Then I heard that Plato said it. Maybe Socrates? The fact of the matter is, I actually can't find any direct quotes from any of them. No matter. I can say that Maya Angelou, in her infinite wisdom, said, “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”The words, however you craft or quote them, are worthy of a discussion or two...or six or seven. Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? I often wonder if we know better, will we do better? Most people are inclined to say "yes", but what about smoking? I think we can be reasonably certain that we know, now, that smoking harms people's health. My mother admitted she didn't know, in the 1950s, that it was harmful, but by the 1980s, we were fairly clear of the dangers. And yet...she continued smoking until 1992, when she was diagnosed with cancer in her voice box. She had to have her larynx removed and died in 2005 from recurring complications.
I'm thinking my mom was not the only one who has fallen prey to that nasty little thing called denial. Or maybe it's self-will. Or maybe it's something entirely different. All I know is, I think we have to pay close attention to the middle part of that quote---love the good----in order to get the part where we do the good.
"Get to the part in which you relate this to education, Shelly", you might be saying. Well, as luck would have it, I have several scenarios in which I believe this applies. The first is in one of my passions---kids with character. As a former guidance counselor who loved so very much to go into classes and teach lessons on character traits, I often found that the students could quickly be taught about character traits like honesty, integrity, respect, responsibility, etc. The kicker was moving them from knowing it to doing it. After a lesson on integrity, I could ask any child in the class what they would do if they made a promise, and virtually 100% would likely answer "Keep it". And yet...when they told their teachers they promised they would bring their homework back the next day,...well, you get the idea...not likely 100% would do it.
I have been an absent parent these last three days, which is not good when we have a new puppy. I just talked to Dave (my dear, dedicated husband) who may or may not be ready to throw Kirby the Lab puppy right out the window. It seems that Kirby has reverted back to pre-potty-trained ways this past weekend. If you said, "uh-oh", you have won the prize! To say Daddy Dave is not happy is quite the understatement. "He KNOWS not to pee on the floor!" Dave says. So why isn't he doing it? I wanted to say, in my best counselor voice, "I guess there must be something he is getting from that behavior", but I actually want to stay happily married, so I resisted. What is the missing link? If he knows better, he should do better, right? But what if he doesn't LOVE doing the good? What if (and I may or may not ever say this) Kirby is somehow searching for Daddy attention and he gets it when he potties inside? Or...maybe it is too much trouble to be good and wait at the back door for someone to let him out?
We want to grow teachers, this I know for certain. And I think we all know that helping teachers grow in their practice requires us to talk with teachers about that practice. Then I wonder why there are still people in districts all over the country who still talk TO teachers instead of talking WITH them? If we know the good practice, why don't we all do the good practice? Ask any teacher and they will likely tell you they know they have something they want or need to work on. Whether we want to improve the practice of allowing students to take some ownership of classroom routines or we want to write more meaningful lesson targets, we all have ways in which we can improve to better equip our students with the skills they need to become productive people in the world. Recognizing this knowledge, why don't we simply all improve? If we know it, why don't we or can we do it? Maybe because we need to love it (or, if that strikes you as a bit too gooey, how about embrace it?).
Just for today, perhaps we can take a look at the things we know we should or need to do and figure out what is keeping us from doing them? Maybe the step is to love the thing, or at least embrace it.
For now, I have to run to catch my flight back home to help Dave with Kirby!
On Mothers' Day, I figure it's appropriate to look back on the things I remember the most about my Mother. As an avid nature lover, Helen Armstrong instilled in me a love for the outdoors. What didn't "stick" so well on me was her green thumb. I can grow old much better than I can grow flowers. And gardening would be great, except there is all that dirt under my fingernails.
So many more things Mother left me included her quirky sense of humor, her love of writing and a love of reading. Oh, and shrimp. We both loved shrimp.
I was thinking about this legacy she has left me, and I believe the same thing happens with those of us who work in schools. Every time we communicate with students, fellow teachers, fellow administrators, etc., we leave behind a memory. For what do we want to be remembered? I am not naive. I realize that I am not everyone's cup of tea, but I am certainly hopeful that I can be conscious of how I treat other people and leave behind goodness at least most of the time.
What impacts this reputation? I believe it is dependent on three main things: communication, relationship and enjoyment.
Communication: In my dissertation, I researched what impacted the level of trust teachers felt for their principal. Did the principal's character or competence matter more? Did the number of years a teacher worked for their principal matter, and to what end? But, most of all, I wanted to know what actions, behaviors, and characteristics of the school leader mattered most in building teachers' trust in the principal? What I found out was the quality of communication between principal and faculty mattered the most---did the principal tell staff members what was going on in the school before they heard it somewhere else? did the principal share training they had with the teachers in the school? Communication is the key to so many work and personal relationships. We need to focus on how to continue to build communication between school leaders and staff members, particularly if we want to support growth in people.
Relationships It is no surprise I wrote countless letters to my mother (and she to me) the first year I had moved out of the house. The fact is we had such a bond, it was hard to imagine a day going by without some contact with her. I am blessed to have that "want to share everything" feeling with Dave, now. Relationships matter, and not just in our personal lives. One of the other pieces of information I learned from my dissertation research was that teachers wanted to feel a connection to and support from their principals. "Why can't my principal ask me about my ailing grandmother?" "I so appreciated it when my principal sent me a card after my cat died." Sound like little things? Not so much to those who want that connection. I have a friend who worked for a boss for a few years. She said, "I always appreciated her competence in her work, but after awhile, I realized I was missing something big from her. She never asked me about my family. She has no idea how many children I have---in fact, I bet she doesn't even know I have children!" Relationships make the days of work so much easier. Cindy, the administrative assistant when I was principal, was the best relationship-builder with parents I have ever seen in my life. She could tame wild beasts single-handedly. She knew that parents would likely forgive a mistake by one of us if we had a relationship with them.
Enjoyment Working with people with whom you have fun makes a tough day a little bit easier to handle. One of my consulting colleagues (and dear friend, as well) and I love to teach together because we can bounce ideas off one another and have silly conversation in the car ride to work and back. Cindy (the one and same administrative assistant from above) and I used to sing silly songs together any time I would pass through the office. Inside jokes, fun texts, fellowship over meals for no reason, and loads of laughter make long days at work somehow not so long. I am so grateful to have experienced so much enjoyment with colleagues where I have taught, been a school leader and as a professional development facilitator. Dave jokingly cautions me when I call him from the airport after a day of training, "Don't tell me it was the best day ever. Not every day can be the best day ever." But, I say, "Why not?"
Just for today, my prayer and hope for each of you is that you are able to leave behind a legacy to those with whom you work and play that transcends all legislation, mandates, and paperwork.
For what do you wish to be remembered?
When L.N., our oldest Lab, plays with our foster pup, Kirby, she is smart. They play tug-o-war with a chew bone. L.N. holds one end of the bone while Kirby tries desperately to wrench it from her jaws. L.N. holds tightly to the bone as long as she can. I've watched her, and her expression says, "I can't let go of this too soon, or Kirby will know he is in charge and can do whatever he wants." Kirby, on the other hand, is just doing what pups do---playing with all his heart in it. He wants so badly to "win" at the game of tug. But L.N. is a wise soul and she knows if she gives in too soon, she'll never be able to be in charge again.
I was talking with my students (who are all teachers) in my Educational Law class the other night. Some of the local districts will be finishing up with the school year in the next couple of weeks, and a couple of my students started talking about how this time of year is so tough because the students just seem to be done and over with school. One student said, "But we perpetuate that, don't we?" He went on to talk about the policy of turning in grades a week early, and how students then know the school year is over except for the fun and games. When I was a principal, I used to jokingly suggest we should have a real last day and a "students think it's the last day" day (which would be a week later). On the real last day, we would simply say, "I know you thought we had another week of school to go, but today is it! Go home and enjoy your summer!" Think of all the shenanigans we could avoid!
But, in all honesty, we have to remember who is in control. No matter what the students might think about the end of the school year, we simply have to make sure that learning is taking place until the last day, or we will lose credibility and end up with the proverbial inmates running the asylum. I know I have been tempted, when teaching this four-hour night class, to cut things short and let everyone go early (including myself!), but I have learned that, as long as I continue to plan engaging lessons that spark interest, curiosity, and thought in the minds of my students, we actually go right up until 9:00 (which is typically my bedtime, I might add) without even realizing it. We simply don't let go of the chew bone too soon.
What can we do, then, to keep up the momentum until the end of the school year? Here are my top suggestions:
1. Plan engaging lessons for the last week that summarize learning from the school year.
Some of the best lessons can be projects that culminate learning for the year. What would that look like in your classroom? Group projects? Advice for next year's students? Have students be the educator for the day? In online environments, I love having students take turns moderating the discussion and give each other feedback. What a perfect way to synthesize techniques we have learned throughout the term.
2. Learning masked as play can be even more rewarding than "knocking off early".
I believe that students prefer structure to lack of structure. Why? I base that on Maslow's Hierarchy of Basic Needs. I think that students need and crave structure as it provides safety. When we go free and easy because we think the kids will love us for having fun, we see it backfire all the time and hear teachers say, "Now, I thought I could trust you guys to enjoy free time, but I guess I can't. Everyone put your heads down." Oh, I so hope I was just exaggerating and nobody really does this anymore, but you get the point. In the name of trying to do something "fun", we wind up with such lack of structure, kids can't handle it. I have a secret: adult learners can't handle it, either. I suppose we all crave a bit of structure.
3. Answer the question: What educational value is inherent in having students clean my room?
Yep, I know it, I just stepped on the time-honored tradition of "Have the kids help clean up the room the last day/week/month of school. And I can't wait to hear some comments from those of you who somehow incorporate learning into this task. But, if it really is simply trying to keep kids busy, why not do something that keeps their minds cognitively busy and engaged? Trust me. I have my adult learners help out with end-of-class tasks, as well. Sonia picks up the materials boxes, Liliana takes the charts off the walls, Casey gets everyone's left-over trash, etc. The difference? We do this after class is over.
4. Reflecting on our learning can take so many shapes and can be done in a variety of locations.
Some of my favorite things to see teachers do are those celebrations that include sharing projects and products. Angelle invited parents to her classroom for the Writers' Celebration. Yes, they enjoyed cake and punch, but at the same time, the students were sharing their favorite piece of writing from the year. And other students were expected to provide constructive feedback to the presenter. How about students going out on the lawn, sitting on a big blanket, and sharing their favorite excerpts from their favorite books with one another? If each student had their own phone or i-pad or other device, they could even take pictures of the books their peers had read that they might want to read over the summer.
5. The students will respect what you expect.
You know this is true. Our puppy, Kirby, is watching us all the time. He is waiting to see if he will be expected to sit at the front door before we go for a walk (he will); he is watching to see if I scold him for trying to climb over the couch (I will); he is watching to see if we make him sit and down stay in front of his food dish before we let him eat (we will); he is watching to see if he is going to get in trouble if he plows through the bushes (he is). Students crave boundaries but will never, ever tell us they do. We have to believe, in our heart of hearts, that we are doing the right things for the right reasons. What are your right things? What are your right reasons?
Please share your ideas with me and with others. Synergizing is the way to winning the game of life, I fully believe. Happy May. Happy end-of-school for many of you. Don't let the magic end too soon!