Writing it down...

The other day I was on Twitter and came along a blog post by Kara Welty (an educator I follow). She had shared a blog post about her hopes as an assistant principal, you can see it HERE.

After I read it, I was inspired. Basically, she wrote down reflective questions that will help keep her focused on her role as an administrator. I thought this was a brilliant idea! There have been so many moments that I have ran these thoughts or questions through my mind but I have never really put them down on paper. Another idea she had was to post it on her door for parents, students, and staff to see. These were questions she would ask herself and/or others. We often talk about our beliefs and philosophies but how often do we share them with our co workers and students? How often do we refer to them in our day to day?

As I reflected on my beliefs and what guiding questions I feel will keep me centered on the main thing, I came up with these.

S-Is this putting STUDENTS first?

P-Are we PROMOTING leadership (in students, staff, myself)?

A-Will this help our campus ACHIEVE?

R-Are we encouraging RISK TAKING?

K-Are we building relationships? Do we KNOW our students?

It worked out perfect because I believe our purpose as educators is to help create that spark for our students and staff we work with. We want to motivate, encourage, and inspire. We want to promote curiosity, risk taking, and innovation.

We always talk about the importance of reflection and writing with our students. Sometimes, I think we forget how powerful it can be for us as educators.

What would be your guiding questions? What would be the words or questions you would jot down to help center your focus as an administrator, teacher, or counselor?


Remembering Your Why

Sometimes educators get to a point in their career when they have to remember their "why." Why are you doing what you're doing? Why are you in your exact job at your campus? Why did you choose to be in the profession you are?
I like to think back to my why often and reflect on my purpose. I remember back to college when I had my heart set on being a doctor and even graduated high school a year early. I can recall working at a daycare and realizing I wanted to be a part of kids' educational, emotional, and social development. I fell in love with education working at an after school program in Wichita Falls and from that point my heart was instantly attached to education.Being in a school literally feels like home, it's my happy place.

Being in education takes a lot of work and a lot of love. That's why it's always important to remember why we do what we do so we don't get lost in our frustrations and growing to do lists.

Often, when we question why we are doing what we are doing, it's during those trying moments. When you feel you didn't do your best, you're facing tough issues, or you don't feel the "magic" you used to.

This may sound silly but something I started doing my first year teaching was keeping a "happy box." I still have one to this day. I have stored past boxes in our attic but try to go through them every once in awhile. Every time I received a kind note, card, drawing, or letter from a student I would add it to my box. On rough days or in moments I questioned if this was where I am meant to be, I would read through my "happy box" and quickly remember why I do what I do.

This may not mean creating a box for you, it may look different. But I think in education, it's important to be reminded why we do what we do. We all have rough days and moments in our lives where we have to stop and reflect on our why.

Education is ever changing and so are the issues we face but one thing is always constant and that is we have a big job to do. Our purpose is to motivate, inspire, and open a world of thinking to students. There are sometimes obstacles in our way but when we have the passion and drive to create the best schools and classrooms for our kids, we are unstoppable.

So, whatever it may look like for you (a happy box, a mentor, a special letter from a student), remember your why. You were created for a great purpose!


Choosing Joy

The first day of the second semester is upon us!  While our teachers have been back for a couple of days, our students will pour into our classrooms once again on Monday, and our school will be a buzz with innovation, creativity, critical thinking and problem solving.  I cannot wait!

Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed every minute of the two week winter break with my family, but when you love what you do, it is a JOY to go to work each day!  It is a joy to walk into the band room and see the focus of our students as they work together to hone their skills and prepare for their next performance.  It is a joy to walk into the learning center and see our students collaborating on a project in our makerspace.  It is a joy to look out the window of the school and see our science students searching for microhabitats.  It is a joy to walk into a history classroom and hear our students considering what their colony would look like if they were to establish one.  This is what real learning looks and sounds like. These are the opportunities our teachers have to measure our students' learning authentically.

Unfortunately, our legislators decided in the previous legislative session that everything a Texas school does each day can be boiled down to one single letter grade based largely on one standardized test.  This is oversimplifying the very complex work that professional educators engage in each day.  If you have ever been in a school on a standardized test day, you know that students are sitting in straight rows in silence.  Zero collaboration, communication or creativity is allowed to happen during a STAAR test. This the antithesis of what a typical day in our school looks like.

On any given day in our school (and I would venture to say most Texas schools), you will see groups of students huddled together collaborating to solve a problem, developing a new idea or creating a prototype.  You will hear students communicating, wondering, thinking out loud and asking questions.  It is a rare occasion that you would find students sitting silently in rows unable to communicate, collaborate, or create.  Yet, those days... those days that are very different from other days of learning are the days by which we are now going to be graded.

We have a choice.  We can choose to be defined by the grade the state is going to give us.  We can choose to place our focus on one day of testing…OR we can chose to renew our commitment to transforming the learning experiences for our Texas students. We can choose to renew our commitment to equipping our students with the skills that they will need in college and in the careers of their choice - skills like communicating effectively, adding value to collaborative conversations and experiences, and generating solutions to complex problems.

I see these learning experiences happening every day in our school, and I bet you see similar things happening in your schools.  Carrying out our real purpose as professional educators brings me joy.  This is my purpose and my passion.

On Monday, as hundreds of energetic middle school students pour into our school, we will be ready to welcome them back with big smiles, an abundance of enthusiasm, and meaningful learning experiences. We are passionate about what we do.  We are difference makers. We choose JOY!


Launch: Design Thinking

The way educators teach and the way students learn has evolved so much in the past few years. We strive to blend high expectations and rigor with student creativity, innovation, and curiosity. Megan and I have mentioned on the blog a few times how important student choice is to the equation, as well. 

I truly believe that for students to move to those higher levels of engagement, they have to make a meaningful connection. Their curiosity must be ignited and fostered and we know that looks different depending on our students' needs and interests.

So how can we create learning environments that meet students needs, challenge their thinking, and motivate them to move to the next level?

I recently was participating in a Twitter and saw someone mention the book Launch: Using Design Thinking to Boost Creativity and Bring Out the Maker In Every Student by John Spencer and A.J. Juliani. The educator in the Twitter chat was a bit skeptical about the maker movement while also teaching content at a higher level but said this book changed their view. I must say that I have a growing list of books I am reading through and moved this one to the top of my list. It may be one of my new favorite books.

In the book, it discusses the Launch Cycle:

Look, Listen, Learn
Ask Lots of Questions
Understand the Problem or Process
Navigate Ideas
Highlight What's Working and Failing

I especially loved how the authors broke each part of the cycle down specifically.  A powerful piece was questioning. It said to ask a good question is like training for a marathon, we must train our students and regularly use strong, higher level questioning  and create an environment so that it is an active habit of mind.

The authors further explain the cycle of teaching content and sparking interest, teaching the students good questioning, understanding the clear picture of what the problem to solve is, collaborating with others to create, looking at what is working and what is not (learning through mistakes), and sharing their product with others which can lead you back to the beginning of the cycle.

Without giving too much of the book away, the essence of it all is that we have to allow creativity and create an environment where it's okay to make mistakes and learn from it. We must also continue to hold high expectations for our students. We should want more for them because they deserve it. We have to help make what they're learning come alive.

I love the quote on page 166 that says, "We are human. We've always been creative. We are natural makers. And when we create, we come alive."

What this describes is far more than maker spaces or genius hour (which are amazing), it is about changing the way we teach. What is even more exciting is seeing so much of this already taking place in our local schools.

What are some ways you are creating opportunities for curiosity and creativity in your classroom or on your campus? Please feel free to share in the comments below, we would love to hear them!


What Do You Think?

"What do you think?" These four words are so simple yet are so powerful.  Have you ever taken a step back to realize that communication in schools is often one way?  Most educators do a great job of sending emails, creating newsletters and updating websites, but how do we make that communication two way?  How do we include student, staff and parent voice into the decisions of our schools?

If we truly believe that this is our school, then we value the voices of all stakeholders.  Each person's voice matters - the staff, students parents and community. It's one thing to say that, but how do we invite those voices to be heard?  This is something that is constantly on my mind.  I believe this is something school leaders must do well in order to be effective.  I will share some of the ways we make two way communication intentional at our school, and I would love to hear your ideas, so please leave a comment below!

Our staff is amazing!  Highly qualified professionals with sound beliefs, innovative ideas, and a commitment to excellence, they are masters of their craft.  Their ideas, feedback and voice is important to me.  How do I communicate with my words and actions that I value their voice?

  • Leadership Retreat - In late Spring, we go on a leadership retreat all the way to….my house. :)  The leadership retreat is important to me, because it is a time when I can get the department chairs, administrators, counselors, instructional specialist, and instructional technology specialist all together for a significant amount of time to have honest conversations about our goals, how we're going to achieve those goals, what we're doing well, what is not going well, what could be better with some tweaks, and what barriers exist for us to reach our goals.  It is a great day, and we all leave excited about the next school year.
  • Anonymous Feedback Form - Each week I send an electronic newsletter.  While most of the content changes each week, one item that is a constant is a link to an anonymous feedback form. Staff members can submit ideas, concerns, and questions at any time.  We check the form for feedback during our weekly leadership team meeting.  
  • Surveys - Whether it is a quick one or two question survey or a more in-depth questionnaire, we ask for feedback often.  We ask about everything from when would be a good time for a fire drill to what their thoughts are on the master schedule.  The staff is directly affected by most decisions administrators make, so it is important to us that their voice is a part of the decision making process. 
  • Department Chair Meetings - We meet, at minimum, monthly to touch base about various things. Typically, I have an agenda set with topics to discuss, but something that is important to me is that we begin the meeting with celebrations - good things happening across departments - and that we always end with "your turn," a time for department chairs to bring questions and concerns to the team for discussion.
  • Teachers New to Campus Meetings - Once a month, we invite the teachers who are new to our campus together to talk about what is on their minds.  They set the agenda.  We also give them a heads up on any upcoming events, initiatives, processes…things our veteran teachers already know but that may require more discussion with those who are new to our campus.  This gives the new teachers an opportunity to bond as a group, ask questions, and express concerns in a safe environment.
  • We also have multiple committees and focus groups on various topics.  For example, we have staff who participate in our Campus Improvement Committee and our Discipline Committee.  If we are considering a campus-wide change to a system or process, we form a focus group to examine the problem or challenge and generate solutions.  One of us may have a good idea, but together we generate better ideas.

Our students are the reason why we do what we do.  We need to know if what we are doing, offering, and the decisions we are making is working for them as a learner or not. This is an important element to ensuring that our school is student-centered.  Their voice must be heard.  Some of the ways we include student voice are:

  • Surveys - If you ask them what they think, they will tell you!  For example, we offer clubs and enrichment opportunities during our campus-wide intervention time for those students not participating in intervention.  Our students generated the ideas for the enrichment opportunities that they have during that time.  Another example is that we do a monthly happiness survey that is a simple way for us to tell if our students are generally happy or unhappy at school.  We do these during times of the day when we are not interrupting instruction.  For example, the staff on duty in our common areas before school or during lunch will walk around with the survey pulled up on an iPad, and students will simply click how they are feeling about school in general.  
  • Principals Advisory Council - Any student can choose to join this council.  We meet at least monthly to discuss topics relevant to them.  I typically have some things I want to get student feedback on, but I also open it up to them for any ideas or concerns they may have.
  • Anonymous Tip Line - We have an anonymous tip line where any student can report a situation or student about whom they are concerned. Every student has a QR code in their campus folder where they can access the tip line anytime of day and from anywhere.
  • CIC - We invite students to be on our Campus Improvement Committee and plan to expand that to other committees as well.
Each day our parents send us their greatest treasure - their child.  Our parents choose to buy or rent a home in our attendance zone.  They choose our school. They deserve to have a voice.

  • PTA - We have an active PTA of which all parents are invited to be a part.  
  • Anonymous Feedback Form - Each week I send an electronic newsletter to all families.  While the content changes each week, one item that is a constant is a link to an anonymous feedback form. Parents can submit ideas, concerns, and questions at any time.  We check the form for feedback during our weekly leadership team meeting.  
  • Front Office Question - We are always wondering what our parents think about various things related to processes, procedures, etc., so we ask them.  We post a question in a plastic stand so that as parents stop in to pick up their child or drop something off, they can quickly scan the QR code to share their thoughts on whatever question we are asking at that time.
  • Surveys - From time to time, we send out surveys to our parents to get feedback on our school, programs, processes, procedures, etc.  We always have a place for comments so that they can also add any feedback that is important to them.
  • CIC - We have parent representation on our Campus Improvement Committee and plan to expand this to other committees as well.

Being intentional in including all voices in the decision making process will help our school be the best it can be.  Each stakeholder has a different perspective of the school and, therefore, can contribute something valuable that other stakeholders may not have considered.  With all of us working together to contribute, the value added will be beyond what any one of us thought possible.


The Power of Failure

When you think of failure, your proudest moments probably don't come to mind. You think of defeat, despair, and inadequacy. Yet, some of the greatest innovations in time have been the result of failure. How can we use failure as a positive tool that teaches our students resiliency and fuels their curiosity to continue?

As a student, I was never the best. At a lot of things, I was far from the top but there was one thing that kept me going...I wanted to learn and soak up anything and everything that could make me better and I had to work hard. In our own schools we have students very much like that. We also have students who are highly intelligent and always excel and when they meet failure, they are paralyzed with what to do next. We have students who don't appear to care and are okay with "failing," although we know that is far from how they really feel.

So what can we do as educators (and parents)?  I think there are lots of ways that we can cultivate a growth mindset but there are three things that really stick out to me (at least from my experiences).

1. We have to change how we talk about failure

When I worked as a counselor, I did a lot of academic conferences with kids. In these conferences, we would discuss where they were with their grades and classes and then set goals of where they would like to be. When students used the word "fail" it was heartbreaking as to how defeated they seemed to feel.  Many times, they would say there was no point in trying because they were already failing. We had to change how we talked about failure. It was not a permanent, shameful place to be. It's called being human. Then we talked about how it was a learning experience and not a forever state of being. We have to have conversations about failure. I love the video with the founder of SPANX and how she said every night at dinner, her and her family would discuss something they failed at that day, they laughed about it, and then talked about what they learned from it. Check out the video below!! We have to change the connection that kids make with failure and embarrassment. Many times, that's why kids would give up. They were embarrassed and didn't want to to risk that feeling again through failure.

2. We have to celebrate GROWTH but still have expectations
This is such an important piece. I truly believe growth equals hope. If you don't celebrate the "in between" from where you're struggling and where you hope to be, it can be a long, unrealistic road. If you have a student making a 63 (even though it's not passing) but they went up from a 52, CELEBRATE. Obviously they are doing something to head in the right direction and we have to encourage whatever they are doing to make progress. It's important to balance celebrating progress yet still having high expectations. We want to encourage their success along the way but still have high hopes of where they are going!

3. Reflect and Support

The thing about failure is there is always something to be learned. If we want to create the connection between failure and learning, we have to make sure kids are reflecting on what exactly it is they learned from the experience. I believe that having meaningful reflection is the biggest piece in creating this growth mindset in our kids. When they experience failure and are reflecting on the why (why did it go that way) and the how (what can they do different next time), that is when the most exciting ideas and meaning come about. That's also the time when it's important to provide support. As educators we have to let them know it's normal to fail at things and the exciting thing is that there are many more chances, and we are right there to support them.

With education focusing on innovation, student choice, growth mindsets, technology, and things like maker spaces we have to change how we view, discuss, and confront failure. Our kids have to realize that they are so much more than a number, a grade, or an embarrassing moment...they can turn those moments into moments of great ideas, inspiration, and success.


You are the One!

The day has finally arrived!  The day we have spent countless hours preparing for…the first day of school!  The bulletin boards are done, the pencils are sharpened, and soon the seats in your classroom will be full. This day represents the hope of new beginnings, fresh opportunities and endless possibilities. 

Yet…you will face challenges this year.  Not every day will be as exciting as the first day.  Some days will be excruciatingly hard. No matter how much you care and how hard you work, things won’t be perfect.  Sometimes lessons will go wrong, a student may be disrespectful, a parent may be rude, and you will be exhausted. 

But even on those days, whether they are five or fifteen years old, they are counting on you.  All of those faces are watching you.  They are learning from you.  Even on the hard days. They are learning that when someone is rude, you can choose to show grace. They are learning that you make mistakes too, and, through that, they’re learning resilience.  They are learning to find their voice and to share their thoughts, and they are learning how to contribute. They are watching on the good days. They are watching on the hard days.  They are watching you, and I see you.

I see you pouring over your lesson plans, collaborating in PLCs and giving your very best.  I see that tear slip down your face as you cry over the student who just told you his mom has cancer.  I see you sneaking that student lunch money, because you know it’s the only good meal she will eat today.  I see you pouring over the data and wondering how you can teach that concept better.  I see you feeling like you aren’t enough.  But you are. You are the one.

As the seats in your room fill up tomorrow, you will wear your best smile.  Look into those eyes filled with hope as they peer back at you, and let each one of them know they matter, that no matter what, you will not give up and so neither can they.  Give them the gift of hope. 

Let’s win this first day of school.  Let’s win the second day.  Let’s win the first week and the first term.  Let’s win the semester, and let’s win the year.  Our students are worth every exhausting minute, every hard day, every frustrating moment, because they matter.  They are worth it.  Every one of them deserves an excellent teacher, and you are the one they need.