What Starts Here Empowers Greatness!

          It is back to school time once again!  The energy in the air among teachers is magnetic.  Each year it inspires me more and more as I see teachers go up to their schools weeks before school starts to begin working in their classrooms, paying attention to every minute detail to ensure that they create the perfect learning space for their students.  They do this because they care, because they are passionate about their work, and because they want to make this the best year ever for their students. This compels them to invest enormous amounts of their own time and their own personal resources.
        This is also the time of year when administrators are busily working behind the scenes to prepare for the year ahead. Fine tuning every detail from the master schedule to establishing the instructional framework are important tasks to create a safe and collaborative learning environment.  However, how do you ensure that the work the administrators are doing and the work the teachers are doing are in sync?  How can all of you be working on different tasks yet feel united and cohesive in your work? It all starts with working as a team to establish a set of beliefs upon which you will work as well as a purpose statement that will serve as your compass, pointing you to true north in times of uncertainty, crisis, and victory.  As I have had the incredible opportunity of opening a brand new PreK-6th grade campus this year, Linda Lyon Elementary School, I thought I would share a little bit about how we went about doing this. I would love for you to add your ideas as well in the comments below.
        As we built our staff for this campus, we had teachers coming from several campuses across the district as well as teachers coming to us from other districts.  It was very important to us that, as we began our work as a staff, that we were all on the same page, working towards a common goal with a common set of beliefs.  It was also important to us that every staff member had a voice in contributing to this work.  In addition, as I worked with parents and students throughout the previous spring semester, I kept a running list of words, phrases, and ideas that they shared when they described their hopes and vision for our new school.  
        Early in the summer, I sent out an invitation for all staff to join me for a Linda Lyon Design Day.  Our goal was to establish our beliefs and our statement of purpose as well as create some action teams. Because it was summer, the meeting was optional.  While many more wanted to come than were able due to vacations and other commitments, we still ended up having two thirds of our staff present.  We also invited those who were unable to attend to contribute their ideas via email, text, or sharing their ideas with a colleague who would be present. 
        We started our work that summer day by talking about how we want to be known in our community, our school district, and throughout the world.  What will Linda Lyon Elementary School be about? We talked about how the work that we began that day will shape who we are, why we are here, and how we are known.  We talked about what skills we want our students to have when we send them off to middle school.  Next we worked in groups to generate words that came to mind when we think of the culture we want to create, the students we want to produce, and our purpose for being here.  After each group posted their words on large chart paper for the whole room to see, they also shared their words and phrases out with the whole group.  
        A time of quiet reflection and writing followed in which each staff member wrote a draft of a purpose statement for our school. They were able to use the words and discussion we engaged in prior to this to help shape their statement of purpose.  Each person then shared their statement draft with their table group.  Next, each table group was challenged to write a purpose statement that evolved from the individual statements.  Each table shared out their purpose statement, and then we worked toward developing a campus statement of purpose from the table group statements. 
        This is where the work gets hard, and I would advise proceeding cautiously.  It is important that the facilitator creates a safe environment for all to feel comfortable contributing and being honest. Invest the time to do this, and it will make the entire process flow much more smoothly.  Each table group wrote their purpose statement on large white boards that we placed around the room.  Each participant was then given a marker and did a gallery walk. They were responsible for circling and underlining key words that they felt very strongly about including in our purpose statement.  
        We knew we wanted our statement to be powerful, to be memorable, to be something that we could call up to our memory in times of success, frustration, and failure.  We wanted to be united in our encouragement of one another as we work together to live out our purpose as a team.  Going through this process allowed us to really key in on the words we felt passionately about as a staff.  While it is a messy process, we knew when we nailed our purpose statement.  The whole team broke out in spontaneous applause.  We knew that the statement "What starts here empowers greatness," described our work and would continue to compel us to give our best each and every day.

        Our next step was to draft our belief statements.  We really worked through a very similar process as we did when we designed our purpose statement.  We asked ourselves, now that we knew our purpose, why we are here, what beliefs must our work be founded upon in order to empower greatness in our students?  We started by having each person write 3-5 belief statements individually.  From there, they shared their statements with their group, and each group wrote three statements.  The groups each wrote their statements on the white boards, and then we again did a gallery walk in which each staff member had an opportunity to put a check mark by those beliefs which they felt strongly about, circle words that they felt passionately about, and underline key phrases.  It was absolutely incredible how quickly this process went and how united the team was on the words, phrases and statements that they wanted to include.  I really think this process went so well, because we knew our why.  We were completely united on that, so we had a focus, a goal.  The following belief statements are our final product of what compels us to empower greatness in our students, one another, and our community:
  •  We provide opportunities that nurture collaboration, innovation and creativity.
  •  We take ownership of our learning and our school.
  •  We embrace mistakes with resilience and grace.
  •  We build relationships in a safe, joyful environment where all learners are excited to be a part 
      of our school.
  •  We honor the individual growth and voice of all learners.
  •  We value the strength of our partnerships with our families and our community. 
        The work that emerged that day has driven all of the work we have done as a team throughout this summer as we prepare to open our doors for the very first time.  If you were to walk into Linda Lyon Elementary School tomorrow and ask any staff member why they are here or what is so exciting about being a part of the team, they will tell you "what starts here empowers greatness."  We are all united in our belief that whether we are putting up a bulletin board, making class lists, designing learning experiences for students or meeting with a parent, we are empowering greatness in others. Our actions, the words we speak, and the way we approach our work should all point to our purpose, "what starts here empowers greatness." We are energized, excited, and ready to open our doors to our very first Linda Lyon Cubs on August 28, 2017!


Educator Spotlight: Reflection from a First Year Principal (Steven Pesek)

This past year, I had the wonderful opportunity to move to the elementary level from middle school as an assistant principal. It was a privilege to work with an administrator I previously worked with and it was his first year as a a principal. I hope to one day have the experience of being a first year principal and I was curious to know what his big takeaways were from the year. Thankfully, Steven Pesek was happy to sit down and share a little about himself and his reflections from the past year.

  • Tell us a little about yourself.

I was born in Shiner, Texas in 1980 to Lawrence and Beverly Pesek.  My father was 1 of 11 children and grew up farming and picking cotton.  My grandparents worked to make sure that all of their kids had a good education and instilled an attitude of service and dedication.  From the eleven kids three went to college one of those being my father.  My father and mother both went into education.  This attitude from my grandparents trickled down to the grandkids as well.  Out of my 46 cousins 36 went to college.  Some of this could be due to the fact that in the summers my brothers and I worked for roofing companies, construction sites, and farming.  We loved the work but also enjoy air conditioning.  

  • Share with us some of your professional experiences that you have found the most useful in your first year as a principal?

I was able to move within the district to several schools when I was an assistant principal.  This put me at three different buildings in four years.  With this movement I was able to work for three strong administrators with different leadership styles which helped me define what my style was.  The hardest part of this was that I felt like I was unable to build any sustainable programs due to moving.   

  • What has been the greatest lesson you have learned over the past year?
Surround yourself with amazing people.  This job is much too big to take on by yourself if you want to keep your sanity.  I have an amazing team of people that can say no to ideas, change plans for the better, and that take on responsibilities without hesitation.  

  • What would be one word to describe your leadership style?
Collaboration- We have worked to make sure that teachers and students have a voice on campus.  This is a culture that we would like to instill in everyone on the campus.  I would tell you that I have been told in the past not to ask for feedback because you can’t make everyone happy.  While it is true that we are not going to make everyone happy,  we can be open and honest about what we are working on and why.  

  • What advice would you share with a new administrator (assistant principal or principal)?

Schedule your time to be an instructional leader in your calendar and be diligent about keeping those times.  You will lose your day if you allow other things to take priority.  This is by far the hardest thing for my first year.  We even put it on our schedule, but we still let other issues take priority.  So this is something I will continue to work on for year 2.  

  • As you reflect on this past year, what is the one thing you hope your students and staff have gained this past year under your leadership?

Trust.  I hope that the teachers, parents and students feel that they can work with me on an issue.  I want them to know that we are going to listen and that we are going to make decisions in the best interest of the kids.  I want them to be able to tell me when something is not working and be open and honest about problems and solutions.  

Thank you so much, Steven, for sharing your reflections from this past year. It sounds like having a collaborative approach, a growth mindset, and the desire to include teacher and student voice are all vital aspects for success.

We hope you are all having a wonderful summer and have some time to unwind and relax before the most exciting time of year! Don't forget you can follow us on Twitter @meganandmel and  @megangist and @melroseacker


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.