All means all

downloadIn the education world, it is understood that we are educators for ALL children.  We are champions for ALL children who enter our school buildings each and every day.  Not just some children, but ALL children.  Think about what “all” means.  All children – regardless of race, gender, income, family background, class, socioeconomic group, intellectual ability, size, shape, or religion – deserve an education.  We teach them all. Period.

Easier said than done.  Educating students is one of the most mentally challenging and physically exhausting professions in the world.  Managing students and their behavior is a daily struggle of  their will vs your will and it gets more difficult as they get older.  What do you do when a student comes to school unprepared?  How do you treat the student who has daily behavior problems?  When do you do when a student is violent or aggressive towards other students, teachers or administrators?  Do you write them off as “unteachable”?  How do you reach the angry defiant student who has that look in their eyes that says, “don’t talk to me”?  Do you just ignore that student and chalk that one up to a total loss?

We are all guilty at some time or other in our education careers of writing off a student.  It’s easy to do, especially when there is no parent calling and following up on their child.  When the family unit is broken, the household is run by a single parent who works the night shift,  the car is not working, the water bill wasn’t paid and now they cannot take a shower; then that parent is very unlikely to be involved in the education of their child.

It’s easy to gloss over that one student and give them the bare minimum.  Those students are easy to dismiss, especially the repeat offenders with a list of discipline offenses as long as the Mississippi River.  As educators, at some time in all of our careers, this thought has crossed our mind: “Hey, if the parents don’t care, why should I?”  After all, we are human too.  We have all had the student I am describing in our classrooms.  We like to put them in the corner where they are less likely to disturb others, and if they happen to fall asleep, just let them.  At least they aren’t causing any problems in the classroom.  After all, they are going to fail anyway, right?

But let me offer you this story.  The student I just described to you is on my campus.  He’s an angry young man.  He has that defiant look in his eyes.  He is not polite or respectful.  He walks and talks in a threatening way.  Every time he’s been in my office, it hasn’t ended well.  He leaves cussing, bowed-up, fists clenched, threatening everyone within earshot, and slamming doors.  He has been in ISS or DAEP more days this year than he’s been in the classroom.  Needless to say, he is failing every single class.  When his name is spoken, everyone rolls their eyes with “the look”.  I will be the first to admit, my first impression of him was: he’s unteachable.

Yesterday, he came to my office and asked me to print his report card.  As I was pulling up his academic records, he spoke softly and told me the coaches had been watching him and had asked if he’d ever thought about playing football.  I printed his report card and handed it to him.  He stared at it for a minute in silence and then looked up at me.  I had to do a double take.  Gone was the defiant, hardened look and the set jaw.  He spoke quietly and asked, “What can I do to bring my grades up so I can play next year?”  That one statement shook me to the core and humbled me.  I immediately felt guilt because here in front of me was a young man asking for help.  I had written him off based on his discipline record and his poor performance in the classroom.  Shame on me.  He is failing miserably and no one has reached out to him.

I felt so much shame for forgetting that I am a champion for ALL students, including this one.  I took a deep breath and began counseling him.  The entire time he was in my office, which was all of ten minutes, he didn’t once threaten me or raise his voice.  This was a different child than the one I’ve seen every time before.  I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing.  We came up with a plan to help him bring his grades up and improve his discipline record. I asked him to come to me if he needs any help at all in reaching his goal of playing football next year and I meant every word of it.

As I left school yesterday, I had to reflect on why I entered the arena of public education: to be a champion for ALL children.  I recommitted myself to ALL students, especially this one young man.  He has a long hard road ahead of him, but if he’s willing to try, then so am I. He will probably never know the lesson he taught me yesterday, but it’s one I won’t forget: ALL means ALL.

 

 

 

 

When parents are angry

parents

One of the most satisfying aspects of being an assistant principal is building relationships with the families in the school district.  I view every parent, grandparent, aunt, or uncle who walks into my office as an opportunity to build a new relationship.  As a parent, I know that I feel good about the relationship I have with the administrators in my child’s school district.  I know I can call them if I need to, and my daughter can go to them if she needs anything.  I want the same for the parents and students in the district where I work.

When a parent comes to my office, most of the time it is unannounced and I have no idea why they have come to see me.  I don’t know if they are mad and upset, or if it’s a simple situation with an easy fix.  I immediately start reading their body language looking for any outward signs that may give me a clue about the nature of the visit.  The mothers are the easiest to read.  When a mother comes in, I start looking at her eyes.  If the eyes are snapping, I know the conversation will be tense. And then I brace myself and let her start talking.

When I was new to administration, I dreaded these conversations.  I did not want the parents raising their voices and yelling at me.  I didn’t have any skills to deal with these conversations.  Most of the time I didn’t even know what to say to them.  I always just hoped for the best not really knowing what the outcome would be.  I knew this is one area upon which I needed to improve.

At the suggestion of a college professor, I read a book called Crucial Conversations, by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan and Switzler.  I am not one to say that something has completely changed my life, but this book comes close. After reading Crucial Conversations, I was able to start having more productive conversations with parents.  I am able to talk to parents when they are angry and their feelings are hurt and guide them towards a solution.  One critical game-changer I have learned to say to an angry parent is, “What would you like to see as the outcome to this situation?”  And I listen.  And listen some more.  I take notes while the parent is talking and I sit squarely in front of them while I am listening and taking notes.  At the end of the conversation, we arrive at a solution.  I make every effort to work towards the solution the parent would like to see as long as it is fair and reasonable.  Even if that means I have to give a little…or a lot.

Over the course of the year, I have found that I no longer dread these conversations or get flustered when I have to invite an angry parent into my office and shut the door.  I have a new set of skills that I can use as I navigate through these sticky situations.  I always keep one thought in my mind and that thought is this: try to win the trust of the parent and let them know that you care about their child and you are fair.  Do not let that parent leave angry.  That is not a win for the school.  I am all about getting the parents on the side of the district.  Having crucial conversations is just part of my daily job and if I can have these conversations and win a parent over, then it’s a conversation worth having, no matter how difficult.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s not always black and white…

relationships

When I first became a campus administrator, I put a lot of thought into how I would manage student behavior.  It is a right-of-passage that assistant principals handle the majority of the discipline problems that arise throughout the day.  I knew I didn’t want to be a known as being “soft,” but I also didn’t want to be known as someone who rules with an iron fist.  I wanted to be consistent and fair.  Being fair will gain you more respect from students, especially high school students, than anything else you can do.  Kids know when something is fair or not.  You can’t trick them.

I felt fairly confident as I entered my new position on a high school campus of 726 students.  The school board had recently adopted a discipline grid which was going to streamline the discipline across the district and make the punishments consistent from student-to-student and not arbitrarily assigned.  In theory, if a principal tends to be more heavy-handed, it should temper his punishments and on the other hand, if a principal is too lenient, it should help that principal tighten up.  Seems simple enough.

But it’s not always black and white.  For example, the discipline grid has a punishment for “minor insubordination” and also for “disruptive behavior.”  By definition, insubordination means refusing to follow orders.  However, if a student has disruptive behavior, then he or she is clearly not following orders if they are disrupting the classroom.  By this time of year, teachers have routines and procedures in place and students know they should come into the classroom quietly and get started on their assignments.  If a student is disruptive, then they are also insubordinate and not following orders.  The discipline grid allows for one day of ISS for disruptive behavior for a first-time offense, however, if the teacher deems the conduct to be minor insubordination, then the punishment is a phone call to the parent and redirect the student to a more appropriate behavior.  That’s a big difference.  As an assistant principal, when I get the referral, I have to assign the punishment based on which offense the teacher chose.  After all, I wasn’t in the classroom, so I don’t know what happened.  All I have is the referral the teacher sent to me.

Now that we are thirteen weeks into the school year and becoming familiar with the new discipline grid, I am starting to see that the grid is not so black and white.  If a teacher wants that student out of class, then he or she will assign “disruptive behavior” to the student. Otherwise, the write up will be coded as “insubordination.”  So, what to do?

I don’t want to see students sent to ISS for disruptive behavior for a first offense.  Time out of the classroom is not time well-spent.  It’s lost instruction time, and a student can’t ever get that time back.  On the other hand, I also do not want to override the teacher and change the referral code.  I cannot build trust with my teachers if I engage in that practice.  My solution is to gently remind teachers of the subtle differences in the offenses so that they are acutely aware of the punishment.  If I can get “disruptive behavior” changed to “insubordination,” then that is a win for the student.  If I can get a teacher to make that phone call to a parent before the second or third offense, then we have built a relationship with that parent that says “we care”.  And that’s a win for the district.

This is just one example that the discipline is not always black and white.  There’s usually the gray area.  I have learned to look for the gray area and embrace it.  It’s the area that gives me room to be flexible and work with both the teachers and the parents.  It allows me not to rule with an iron fist and shows students that I am fair and I am willing to work with them, not against them.  That’s how relationships are built, and relationships are the foundation of education.

 

 

 

 

The second six weeks

As the leaves start to change, I start to think about how close we are to the fun holidays such as Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years.  Football season is in full swing and the weather is finally cooling off.

For those of us in public education, we are exactly in the middle of the semester;  halfway through the second 6 weeks.  This is the part of the year where the new has worn off and we are in full swing.

How do we keep students engaged?  This is the test of true teaching.  Teachers must up their game and get creative with the lessons.  They must take the time to prepare so that they can reach every student in the classroom.  At the same time, the teachers start looking at data from assessments to see where they need to improve and step up their game.

For the administrators, we must also step up our game.  The campus improvement plan that we worked so hard on over the summer?  Yes, remember that one?  It wasn’t just to have something to do to pass the time.  It is a real, live, working document that must become our compass for the year.  Time to get it out and dust it off and give it another look.  We all have to tighten our belts and concentrate on our campus mission and the goals tied to that mission.

We are in it for the kids and we must be all about the kids otherwise we need to remove ourselves from public education and find employment where the stakes are not so high.  The kids are our future.