On-the-Ground Intel: What Happens During the First Days of School?

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This past week was Back-to-School Week for many of us. Or the week before was. Or next week will be. But anyway, whether we are students, teachers, administrators, parents, or all of the above, Back-to-School Week is a Big Deal. It is filled with excitement and hopes and good intentions and packed lunches and probably nerves and hopefully not too many disappointments.

My Back-to-School Week began with three Institute Days with staff, and two days with students. The morning of the first day for students, I was privileged to receive and read this blogpost, written by a school administrator from another district who also happens to have two daughters in my schools. This was the perfect read to start my morning… a wonderful reminder that every child is precious, and that we must carefully examine our school systems and practices through lenses that include celebration of the individual, unwavering high expectations, and a commitment to equity.

As a new superintendent in a PreK-8 school district, there are of course many To Dos on my list as the year gets started, but the item at the top was obviously being in the schools with the students, teachers, secretaries, custodians, and principals. So those first couple of days, I got to traipse all over the place, from one elementary school’s First Day Flag Raising Tradition to another’s early morning breakfast. I got to meet excited Kindergarteners, savvy fifth graders, and confident eighth graders. And the hair – the fades and the bright colors and the gold-woven braids! And the fashion — Oh the fashion! So maybe we’ll start there, as my goal now is simply to let you glimpse some of my favorite moments of those first two sun-filled days.

Students Announced Themselves through Garb and Gear:

  • A first grader passed me in line in the hallway, turned my way, and proudly stated, “I’m wearing a tie!” Yes, indeed he was. And a checked shirt. And checked bermuda shorts. Every color imaginable going on in that ensemble – a style-maker, for sure! (Yep, check out the photo at the top… that’s my little friend, captured perfectly by our Media Relations Specialist, Leslie!)
  • A second grader showed up with a t-shirt that said School Rocks! Ok, it would have been even better if that t-shirt had been on an older kid. But who am I kidding — that is just unrealistic.
  • And the sassy tutu dresses! And the mermaid backpacks!

And here are my favorite Kids Encouraging Kids and Friendship Moments:

  • A child happily shouted to mom, “I made a new friend!” YES!!!!
  • A Kindergartener turned to a tablemate and asked her, “You’re going to be my best friend, right?” (I’m happy to report that she agreed with this plan!)
  • First grade class was huddled up around a book. Child 1 raised a hand to answer a question, but then was stymied for an answer when called upon. Child 2 answered. And then Child 3 turned to Child 1 and said, “Is that what you were going to say?” What a way to support a buddy!

It seems that I spent a lot of time in first grade. Well, I mean, first grade is just joyous… how could I not! And here are two more of my favorite first grade moments:

  • Here’s the picture…

Here’s the narrative: “Today is Batman’s birthday!” (Yes! Yes it is!)

  • Teacher was reading aloud the book First Grade Stinks by Mary Ann Rodman, and one happy student announced, “First grade is the best grade I’ve ever been in!” What an old, wise child…

I got to see students at various grade levels using sensory supports to help them ease into school:

  • Students in some classes had flexible seating… they self-selected the type of chair that would best help them to learn. Stool or armchair? Low or high? Wobbly or sturdy?
  • A barely verbal girl with Down Syndrome soothed herself by happily unpacking a box of stuffed animals, greeting each doll lovingly. This moment was very quiet, and very magical.
  • Some smart and creative primary teachers gave their students little tubs of Play-Doh to help them keep busy and calm while supplies were unpacked and checked in and such.

If it appears that I didn’t spend a lot of time with older kids those first days, it isn’t so. But the older kids tended to keep their excitement on the Down Low, carefully checking each other out as they staked claim on their places in their new classroom societies, so I just don’t have bunches of cute stories to share about them. Of course, this former fifth grade teacher knows that those older kids will get comfortable mighty soon, and then their personalities will come pouring out!

Students in our Early Childhood Center didn’t start until this week. I can’t wait to greet those little ones tomorrow, to see school as they see it! In the meantime, I will watch this video one more time tonight. We invited families to secretly send in Back-to-School videos of the students in order to greet the staff on our first Institute Day. Leslie, our Media Relations Specialist, put it all together with great flair. Enjoy… it is a special peek into how many of our students feel about the start of school. Of course, we know that there are students who don’t greet the first days of school with unbridled joy. There is separation difficulty and social anxiety and disappointment and much more. Whatever past experiences and emotions our students bring with them at the start of school, we are here to support them through those first days, and every day beyond. I promise.

Welcome back to school, friends!

Standing in the Same Space

Photo Credit: Larry Glickman

To tell you the truth, I don’t know all that much about architecture or design. I’m glad that many people are passionate about these topics, because their excitement means that I get to live in a more beautiful world. Nonetheless, I’ve been able to get pretty old without delving much into the design choices that architects make when creating spaces. There. I said it.

So, when I learned that I was going to spend a couple of hours in Spring Green, WI, touring Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright’s home, I figured that this would be a pleasant way to spend the morning. Didn’t think much more about it, except to be grateful to my mom-and-dad-in-law for this generous gift. But then I found myself standing next to this excited man in the gift shop, and it all changed.

We were both looking at this chair, a replica of one of Wright’s designs.

My picture, not Larry’s…

I thought it looked cool, and kind of uncomfortable. He was mesmerized. Something in his demeanor, in the excitement that was buzzing off of him, let me know that it would be ok to strike up a conversation, and so I did. I learned that this was his fifth tour of a Frank Lloyd Wright property. No, he wasn’t an architect or a designer. He was a SuperFan! Well, he didn’t quite say THAT, but it was really, really clear. He wanted to buy this $1,745 chair, and the screen behind it, and the lamp next to it, but knew he could afford none of these. I gave him some space while he took photos of these beautiful objects, and we talked a little bit more about his love of architecture, and his reverence for this particular architect. And while I was learning from him, I just kept thinking, “Oh, I hope he is on our tour!” I mean, excitement was just shooting out of the top of this guy’s head, and I knew that my visit to Taliesin would be greatly enhanced by his presence.

I admit to feeling a little disloyal to my husband, who was with me at the time. Larry DOES love architecture, and already knew quite a lot about Wright! It is just that we’ve been a couple for thirty two years, long enough to be able to predict each other’s responses. He knows me well enough to expect that I wouldn’t quite share his level of enthusiasm about the trip, and so he fell into the pattern of just pretty much keeping it to himself. But this Gift Shop Man didn’t know that I wasn’t as excited as he was, so he freely allowed all of that electricity to shoot right at me.

Alas, Gift Shop Super Fan Man was not on our tour – he was scheduled into a different excursion of the grounds. Probably this was just as well, as I might have stuck a little too close, risking his enjoyment and maybe my reputation. But no matter, I was now primed to be passionate about this topic. Like any great teacher, he had kindled my enthusiasm, and now he was stepping out of the way for me to discover the thing myself, which indeed I did.

There is no doubt that Taliesin is absolutely beautiful. Our guide was a master storyteller, and certainly he helped me to understand and appreciate some of Wright’s design principles. But, alongside learning about the interplay between natural setting and construction, I visited the school on the grounds and heard about the architect’s constant goal of teaching his visitors about design, and thus ultimately I could not help but default to my own Geek Arena – and that is Education. And so as we worked our way through the living spaces and studios, I learned as much about Frank Lloyd Wright the Educator as I did about Frank Lloyd Wright the Architect.

Case in point… while Larry studied the spaces, the lines and light, and took gorgeous pictures like this:

…I enjoyed the beauty, but probably spent equal time thinking about all of the young apprentices Wright influenced over the years, and poured over old photos such as this:

The teacher in me also couldn’t help but pay attention to how the youngest tourists were experiencing the visit. I loved having the chance to learn from one girl of about fourteen or so who murmured, “They’re different blues” to her mom. What? Oh!

While I was noticing something else in the room, this girl was observing that the two chairs at the table did not match. (And then our guide told us a story of how that came to be, but I’ve already forgotten the story, because I was lost in the wonder of all of these strangers standing in the same place, seeing different things.)

And that’s where I’ll leave this one. Frank Lloyd Wright was a genius and a flawed man – indeed there are many unflattering stories about him. Sixty years after his death, there we all were, learning about and from this master whose legacy continues to inspire artists, architects, designers, photographers, collectors, educators, students. There we all stood in the same space, bringing our backgrounds and perspectives and experiences and passions to the moment. Just like we do all of the time, with everything. And my curiosity was kindled at the start by observing someone else’s passion for the topic. As teachers start the process of transitioning back into school-year-mode, perhaps they are thinking about how to transfer their own excitement about learning and/or content to their students. A reminder from my mom-and-dad-in-law to the Gift Shop Super Fan Man to me to them: sometimes all it takes is letting your own inner excited light shine. And then you have to stand back and let your students illuminate the place for themselves.

What’s In Your JunePile? Reboot…. (10 Days of Positive Impact)

Just over a year ago, I wrote this post, reposted below if you are a scroller, not a clicker. Lots has happened in the past year, and now the JunePile is different (but also, sort of the same). New thoughts, below the old post….

May 28, 2018:

It started when I was a teacher. Every year, every May, there would come a day when I would just start tossing things in a pile to deal with “later”. Later meant after the last smile was shared with a student, after the last grade was given, after Field Day. After the last day of school. I never knew when the day would come — just one afternoon I would realize that there were only a few weeks and lot left to do with my class, and I could only spend precious time on papers, projects, and tasks that would really mean something to my students. The rest would have to wait until school ended, in June. The JunePile.

It continued when I was a principal. I tried to keep an organized office, so the JunePile became a JuneBox which was stashed under my desk. And if something wasn’t important to others before the end of school, well, then, it wasn’t getting done until everybody went home.

Of course, now, most of my JunePile is electronic — more of a JuneList, if you will. And as an assistant superintendent, I have many projects that are best done in the quieter summer months, anyway. But nonetheless, the habit continues. I’ll get very stressed about how quickly the end of school is coming, and one day will breathe a little sigh of relief when I remember that there are SOME things on my list that don’t have to get done right away. And anything that won’t directly affect students, families, or staff gets put in the JunePile to be dealt with after the school bus pulls away for the last time.

The end of the school year is always such a rush, isn’t it? Educators are amused when folks who have not devoted their lives to school ask in May, “So, is school winding down?” Winding down? Winding DOWN? Hilarious! School does not wind down. We run like crazy to the edge of the cliff, and try very, very hard not to fall off of it. That’s it, and everyone who lives by the rhythm of school knows it.

But that last day of school WILL come, and then indeed it will be time for me to dig into my JunePile. This year I’m wondering, though, why am I even considering doing things that don’t have a direct impact on students, families, staff, or other administrators? So, perhaps my primary responsibility on my first day after school lets out should be to cull the pile, continuing my commitment to spend time on work that is important. Yes, there is filing that went undone this year, and I’d eventually be sorry if I couldn’t find something I need. Ok, I’ll crank the music up in my office and file. But I’ll hold myself accountable for ensuring that everything else enhances the work or life of someone, or supports my own learning and reflection.

Truth be told, writing this blogpost was indeed in my JunePile. It definitely did not have to get done prior to school ending! But then it was Memorial Day weekend, and I had some time, and was in the mood for reflecting. So I went for it.

Of course, summer is much, much more than a time to catch up with work. For me, it is also reading in a hammock and walking after dinner with my husband and exploring Chicago neighborhoods with my daughters and going to Botanic Gardens with my parents and eating on a patio with friends and completing the Summer Challenge at my yoga studio and if I’m lucky, some traveling. Many years ago, inspired by a Chicago Tribune column by Mary Schmich (or perhaps Eric Zorn? — I cannot find the column, I’ve tried!), I was motivated to capture my summer memories by buying a pack of notecards, numbering and dating them, and every day of the summer writing down at least one summer activity that I enjoyed that day. I still have those cards in my nightstand, and occasionally use one for a bookmark, finding peace, adventure, or luxury in a summer memory. I just pulled one out; it reads, “7/3: Getaway to Wisconsin — Lazy Nap, Lovely Anniversary Dinner, Movie — Spiderman!”

And there you have it — those summer pleasures are what really belong in the JunePile. So, what’s in yours?

June 1, 2019:

So, why bother to repost about the JunePile? Well, because a lot has changed for me. I am an educator, leader, and learner in transition, and that has somewhat changed my JunePile. A few months ago, I was offered a new job, and thus am transitioning out of the position of Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources in one school district and into the position of Superintendent in another school district. 1 transition is actually 3 transitions:

# 1 I am transitioning into my new role with new administrators, central office team, Board of Education, teachers and staff, all with the help of the generous superintendent who is retiring.

#2 I am transitioning all of the projects and responsibilities (and physical stuff) of my current role to the wonderful administrator who is taking over as Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources in my current district. And HE is currently a middle school principal in this district, so…

#3 We hired a new middle school principal, and the two of THEM need time to transition.

All of this takes an enormous amount of time. So, what am I doing on a rainy Saturday morning when I have 100 transition tasks in front of me? Writing a blog post! But the writing is purposeful, as truly it helps me to keep the Main Thing the Main Thing. And what is that Main Thing? Positive Impact.

About two weeks ago, I was having a pretty hard day. And at the end of that hard day, my response was to realize that I only had 20 work days left before turning in my keys and ID, taking a glorious two week vacation, and starting my new job. Now, I’ve never been a person to count down to the end of something — for me, that’s just never felt like a positive way of looking at time. However, once I DID, well then, I KNEW. And I realized I would keep counting down, which caused me to understand that I needed to attach something meaningful to the countdown so that the passage of time would be focused positively.

Thus… Days of Positive Impact

Every day, starting on Day 20, I’ve had the countdown in my calendar with that label (so, yesterday said 11 Days of Positive Impact). And at the end of the day, I create a list of all of the people or situations that I think/hope I’ve positively impacted that day. I recognize that I’m letting myself be kind of vulnerable here, announcing this strategy — depending on who you are and how you roll, Days of Positive Impact may seem a little “woo woo” and dorky. Don’t care — it’s how I roll.

Last year at this time, I wrote about the importance of culling the JunePile, and knowing that I should only do the things that have a direct impact on students, families, staff, or other administrators. I knew I needed to cull the pile, continuing my commitment to spend time on work that is important. Well, friends, now that I’m leaving my job, that commitment is ever more important. It would be very easy to focus on details that are not meaningful. I could make myself crazy by crossing every T on things that won’t help anybody, that will just allow me to feel finished. I could worry about all of the projects that I wanted to do in this job but just couldn’t complete or even start. There are many! But I’ll leave those for the new guy.

So here we are. Monday will bring 10 Days of Positive Impact. 10 days left. I can spend them on work that will help the organization and people around me, or I can spend them on busy-ness. I know how my time is best spent. Yep. Time to get to work!

That We Know of… YET

Karen and I met in and supported each other through graduate school, each acting as guide, confidant, editor, and cheerleader for the other. When I think of driving back and forth to Urbana during a hot summer in the mid ’90s, trying to figure out how we would get all of the work done, I think of Karen. And then our lives went in separate directions, and we lost track of each other. All of this was before Facebook and Twitter and texts and it was flat-out easier to fall out of touch, and so we did. This was indeed a terrible loss for me, one I let happen.

Then recently, I had reason to reconnect with Karen: I have accepted a new position in the school district where she worked back when we were in graduate school, and letting her know this was the perfect reason to find her again. And then, just as I was getting ready to send a message to her, I learned that a teacher I know had been a student of Karen’s, just around the same time when the two of us were such close friends. The teacher told me with excitement that having Karen to guide her was one of the reasons that she chose to become an educator. Karen is strong, smart, and passionate about education and making a difference, and so is the teacher who was her student. Amazing – both women whom I admire and respect, connected so long ago. Yet another reason to reach out. And so I did.

Karen’s response to me was lovely, no surprise, and it included this, about her former student: She was a bright young woman, a great athlete, strong sense of empathy… I always saw in her a bit more than she was ready to hear. In one phrase, Karen had summed up the essence of what we should all be doing with our students: seeing what is possible, seeing the greatness that glimmers around the edges of our students’ poor choices and fears. Really, now, think back to your best teachers. Is that what they did for you? Probably, in some way, yes. Karen is currently the director of a regional Safe Schools program, serving young men and women who need something extra to be successful in a school setting. So, you know she is still seeing more in students than they are ready to hear.

This brings me to Ladybird, the beautiful Greta Gerwig film that I saw separately with each of my young adult daughters over the past year or so. This movie hooked me as a mom who raised teenage girls (What did I get right? What did I get wrong? HOW wrong?), and also caused me to think deeply about the messages of empowerment and positive risk-taking that we give (or, sadly, sometimes don’t give) to our young people. High school senior “Ladybird”, who renamed herself as she was becoming who she was becoming, is faced over and over again with adults who do not believe in her, or who are afraid to show that they believe in her. Her guidance counselor outright laughs at her college dreams. Adults fail Ladybird all of the time.

One of my favorite moments in the film occurs between Ladybird and her principal, a good-humored nun who actually does support her, who sees and celebrates Ladybird’s spirit and strength. “What I’d really like,” Ladybird says, “is to be on Math Olympiad.” The nun answers, with some kindness, “But math isn’t something that you’re terribly strong in.” And wait for it… Ladybird responds with, “That we know of YET.” (Want to see the scene? It is at the end of the trailer.) That phrase has stuck for me, and I keep trying to find ways to sneak it into encouraging conversations. It is a spark of hope. It is breaking through. It is believing that something else is possible. It is what we need to give to our students. For sure, it is what many of the adults in Ladybird’s life did not give to her — she had to give it to herself. It’s what Karen clearly gave/gives to her students.

Personal development for all people, at all ages, has been on my mind a lot lately. Stretching. People trying things out, doing things that they haven’t done before. And that’s where Honky Tonk Angels comes in. (What now?) If you happen to have read any of my other blog posts, you may already know that my husband has been taking guitar classes for many years, and that sometimes I hang out with him at the music school, or at a nearby coffee shop. And that last year I even took a vocal ensemble class while he was strumming away in another room. This winter, however, Larry cajoled me into taking a class WITH him — we are both signed up for an ensemble class called, you guessed it, Honky Tonk Angels, where we are, in essence, a band that practices (and eventually performs) a set of songs written by female country/western musicians. There are a few guitar players, a guy who plays fiddle and bass, and me, a “vocalist”. Look at that, I had to put it in quotation marks. Say it, a vocalist! But the thing is, unlike the rest of the group, I don’t really play an instrument. I played guitar in college, very, very badly. I can play piano, just a little. But secretly, for the past few years, I’ve craved the drums.

Now, just the vocalist part is already basically new for me. I have plenty of past singing experience, but it has all been more musical theater and choral singing. I have never actually FRONTED a band before. (Never mind that I’m paying for the pleasure of doing so – that’s just a side detail, right?) And then, today, I nudged myself even further out of my comfort zone. After harmonizing on one song in the background while someone else was singing lead, I thought, “Why not?” and quietly spoke up, “Could this song maybe use someone on the drum kit?” And it was YES. And I DID.

Here’s what I’ll say: Drumming isn’t something I’m terribly strong in. That we know of YET! Ladybird would be proud. And Karen would believe in me! I’ll have to tell her about it the next time I see her.

Reference Calls — Listen for the Truth (8 Tips)

I was a newer principal, and I had recently dismissed a pre-tenured teacher. She wasn’t terrible, just not good enough for my students. I had written her a reference letter, the kind you write for just this type of situation — strengths, as everyone has them, with lots of holes that I hoped other interviewing administrators would find. Then I took a call from a principal in a nearby district. We knew each other by association, but that’s all. He was eager to hire her, and this call was his final stop. I answered his questions, and thought, “I hope he listened carefully, and realized that I wasn’t really recommending her.”

Years later, this principal and I landed together in a new district. Early in our professional relationship, he told me, “You know, I had to let that teacher go after one year. I couldn’t believe you had recommended her to me – I was always so annoyed about that!” “What?” I said. “I didn’t recommend her! I was trying to tell you NOT to hire her!” It was a perfect example of what happens over and over again. He was listening only to confirm his decision to hire her, and I was being positive, and hoping he could read my mind.

I share this story often in my current role as Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources. Administrators (and hiring executives in other organizations, I am sure) work diligently to find the very best person for their opening. They carefully comb through applications and resumes, conduct screening interviews, 1:1 interviews, and often team interviews. By the time they get to the reference checks — well, that’s what they are often doing — checking a box. This is the last step in the process of finding the Perfect Person. They are already sold on the candidate, and, if they brought in a team to interview, so is the team! Who wants bad news at this point? And so, like my principal friend from many years ago, they miss what a reference might be trying to convey in an oh-so-indirect way.

Hiring is one of our most important administrative tasks, particularly when hiring teachers and principals. This is the time when we really need to get it right, because getting it wrong can make for a very, very bad year. (And, depending on a whole bunch of variables, one mistake can be prolonged for much longer than a year.) So, how do we get it right? Here are a few tips:

phone-call-two-people

  1. Before starting to make those calls, promise yourself that you are open to hearing bad news. Honestly, that’s what is most important. In fact, when I interview with a team, I ALWAYS talk about how important reference calls are, and let team members know that sometimes we have to go another way after we’ve made those calls. Experienced interview teams know that the person who came to the interview is not always the person who “shows up” at work, even if it is the same person! When I remind my team of that, they are understanding if we end up going with our #2 choice, or even if we have to interview more candidates.
  2. Try to establish rapport with your reference at the start of the call. Yes, yes, everyone is busy, but find a way to connect with the reference as a person. It will be harder for your reference to evade your questions or straight out lie to you if he/she likes you on the phone — even a little bit!
  3. Do you have flexibility with your questions? If so, make sure to ask, “Would you re-hire this person?” Or, if you are speaking with a colleague, you may get useful information with, “Why do you think X would be interested in coming to a new school/district/organization?” And if the first answer you get seems bogus, find a way to dig a little.
  4. Even if you have to use a standard set of questions, surely you can ask follow-ups. When I sense that someone is choosing words very carefully, or is trying to brush past a question with a pat answer, I may ask, “Can you tell me more about that?” Often, they will.
  5. Pay attention to the reference’s tone of voice, and listen for the pauses. Your reference may be trying to figure out how to answer a question in a way that is semi-truthful without hurting the person’s chances for getting the job. This is the perfect place for those follow-up questions.
  6. What about those references who ask you to simply email them the questions, and they’ll email you the answers? Yes, they might just be really busy, but they MIGHT be trying to control the situation by carefully wording their answers. You can’t see pauses in an email, you can’t hear tone of voice, and asking follow-up questions is then even more time-consuming. I try very hard to get people to talk to me on the phone. When they won’t, I don’t necessarily decide that there is a problem with the candidate, but I don’t put much stock in that particular reference.
  7. Think carefully about who you are calling. For the most part, avoid calling your candidates’ colleagues, or only do so if you are also calling a supervisor or two. A teacher’s teammate is rarely going to tell you that his/her colleague had classroom management problems or didn’t communicate well with parents, and an administrator’s lateral co-worker is unlikely to tell you that projects were not finished on time. I won’t hire anyone without speaking with his/her current supervisor, although certainly I will agree to make that call last, after I’m satisfied with the results of other calls. Also, you may be able to glean quite a lot of information from a supervisor from 2-3 years ago. Sometimes, the supervisor won’t remember much — but sometimes he/she will remember A LOT, and will be ready to talk when no longer in regular contact with the candidate.
  8. Finally, use your resources. The best reference call is with someone you know. Even if you don’t know any of your candidate’s references, someone else who is part of the hiring process might! If so, hand that call over to your colleague to get the most truthful information.

I still enjoy a friendship with that principal colleague who hired that marginal teacher. We still talk about this. We both learned. We are both still learning.