Sunday, September 18, 2016

Resiliency or Growth??

What is more valuable in leadership and school climate coming into an underperforming school... a growth mindset or a resilient mindset?  When speaking in terms of mindset, perhaps resiliency is even more important with schools that were previously struggling.  Acknowledgement of students that show grit and moxie, families who see our vision and are devoted to our mission despite what the state determines is our "grade," patience and determination of staff trying to make multiple years of gains with our students who deserve to have the achievement gap closed; these qualities are not always necessary in high-performing, low-poverty schools but are imperative in ours. While I feel a growth mindset is extremely important, I believe in order to succeed in a high-needs school, one must have a resilient mindset.

According to the article:  This set of assumptions, or attitude, is referred to as a 'mindset.' A resilient mindset encompasses the following features:
  • Feeling in control of one's life, or being confident.
  • Knowing how to strengthen 'stress hardiness.'
  • Being empathic.
  • Managing strong feelings and impulses.
  • Displaying effective communication and other interpersonal capabilities.
  • Applying problem-solving and decision-making skills.
  • Establishing realistic goals and expectations.
  • Learning from both successes and failures.
  • Being a compassionate and contributing member of society.
  • Living a 'responsible' life based on thoughtful values and ethics.
  • Feeling special, but not self-centered, while helping others to feel the same.
  • Being more optimistic rather than pessimistic.
  • Being flexible and adaptable to change and obstacles.
Having a resilient mindset does not mean that one is free from stress, conflict, or pressure. It just means that one is better able to solve or cope with problems as they arise.
The urgency to move forward a school that was failing the students can sometimes be overwhelming.  The teachers put in extra hours, the students are not only learning content, sometimes they are learning real-life character skills that should be celebrated as well.  Learning to share, manners, evidence of respect; for some of our students these skills were missing last year and are now overwhelmingly evident.  However, that emotional intelligence data isn't always measurable on a standardized test, so it isn't always recognized by outsiders.  We must take the time to celebrate growth in that regard but also ensure that it doesn't become the pseudo-focus.  One example that comes to mind is a student who has made an incredible turn around this year.  Last year, he ran out of class, cursed at teachers, openly was defiant about doing work or putting in effort.  You would not recognize him this year. He's on task, excited about learning, engaged in class, and has a deep love for the school evident by the many posters he takes time to make at home.  This won't show up on a standardized test, but it's a HUGE gain for our school.  It's an even bigger gain for our kiddo who has not been in trouble one time this year. He has found himself as a leader, he's resilient and has overcome some very serious issues outside of school and we are incredibly proud of these emotional gains. 

You see, the day of a leader is typically filled with highs and lows, I just notice that they tend to be heightened in a school in our position.  Any misstep or disappointment from a parent ends with the following statement... "and this is why you're an 'F' school."

Example- "Your school lunch isn't nutritious enough"... Wait for it... "and this is why you're an F school."

"You're hallways don't have enough student work... and this is why you're an F school."

"You're letting the students have too much fun..."

"You're not letting the students have enough fun..."

"You're under disciplining other children.."

"You're expecting too much from my child..."

We wear it, we accept it, and at this point we expect it.  I'm one of the weird administrators that loves feedback and genuinely tries to grow from it.  In fact, I spent Friday night calling back a parent who wanted to share some observations.  I appreciate the feedback and we are always looking to improve. 

Honestly, I think what drives us forward isn't our growth mindset as a school it's our resilient mindset.  This is not a sprint.  This won't happen overnight.  We know that huge gains today may slide back tomorrow, and that's ok.  We are on a journey. If we focused only on our growth mindset we might get discouraged when we don't see the results of our labor immediately.  This is tough work people.  Only the strongest can handle this type of pressure and accountability.  

We are in this together.

It's a fragile system... but our resilient mindset, #failforward moments, and hunger to consistently improve will be the game changer.

My point of view is that in our position, having a resilient mindset might be even more important than a growth mindset.   

Thank you to an incredibly resilient TRIBE of Very Brave Educators!

We can and we will do this!

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Servant Leadership

Today my youngest son and I brought my husband lunch at the Palm Bay Fire Department.  It stirred some deep thoughts on how we both ended up in our careers.

Fifteen years ago America was changed forever.  I was in college at the time the events unfolded that ended up welding Americans together through a horrific tragedy that was documented from so many different perspectives, which made it almost impossible not to internalize and personalize.  What it did for the United States was communicate our strength and show that when we are united together, we are capable of enduring anything.  As a country, people from all walks of life began commiting selfless acts because we felt instrinsically motivated to think outside ourselves.

At the time, I was a typical college student, working my way through my education at the University of Florida.  I worked late the night before closing down the lounge of Chilis and I was exhausted.  I'll never forget my husband running into the room that morning exclaiming a plane had hit one of the world trade centers.  I ran out to the couch and I don't think I moved for the next 12 hours.  I just sat there, sobbing, as the events unfolded.  We held each others hand and came to the conclusion that we had to drive up to New York that day to help.  We felt compelled to do SOMETHING because I think we just felt so helpless.

We know that September 11th changed America, but I think that was also a moment that changed my husband and I.  Our committment to servant leadership surpased our individual needs and desires, and confirmed our deep down desire to serve others.  While the reality of rent payments, classes, and work didn't allow us to leave Gainesville, I think it changed our career paths.  Sean ended up becoming a fire fighter, something I feel was always a desire for him but was confirmed through the tragedy and I decided to steer away from law and focus on education.

I've always really loved the quote from Martin Luther King Jr. that says, "Life's most urgent and persistent question is, 'What are you doing for others.'"  I think this event made this extremely relevant to think about.

Now that I'm in year fourteen of being an educator, I think I feel even more committed to being a servant leader.  The cause of everything we do is to encourage and inspire others around us.  I would feel fullfilled in my leadership if I could build leaders around me and create a sustainable growth not just in my school, but in my district.  It's beyond an individual goal and it certainly isn't driven from selfish desire or needs.  To be effective as a lead learner, there has to be a commitment to the whole and a realization that the tribe is more important than any single individual.  All of this, for me, comes from a focus on the children... who are the ultimate goal in education.

Servant leadership is what creates systemic changes.  In my opinion, anyone can quickly change an environment, but to create sustainable growth, you must work on building up those around you.  Fifteen years after a day that changed America, I hope to continue to grow and build up others around me to help keep America inspiring and hopeful for all families.  What I've realized after taking time to reflect a lot today is that sometimes inspiration comes from tragedy.  I'm proud to say that my husband  is a Lieutenant in the Palm Bay Fire Department, and has devoted his career to keeping others safe. I wonder how many other familes have taken on a path of serving others from moments that seemed unbearably difficult,

Our goal will always be to serve others with open hearts and minds.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

What's best for kids?

I'm going to just put this out there... ready?

I've never EVER seen a kid come back from a suspension "ready to learn." Never.

Not once.

Why are we fixated on out-dated practices?
If a child misbehaves in elementary school, shouldn't our first reaction to be to teach them?  Why do we immediately resort to harsh punishment and ruining relationships?

This needs fixing.  Last year at our school I am embarrassed to say that suspension was the number one tool that adults used to manage behavior.  It was the expectation that when children acted out, they needed immediate removal from class or the school.  It didn't work.  In fact, the immediate removal of students led to reinforcing students that if they wanted out, they could start removing themselves.  HELLO ELOPEMENT!!!

We made a vow to fix this.  I'm proud to say that by focusing on the reasons behind why some of our students were impulsive: chronic stress, hunger, academic stimulation, time on task; we have seen a dramatic decline in the behaviors at our school.  We can take the time now to rebuild our relationship with our families and work with them to help find solutions and answers, instead of avoiding what might be the real issue. 

There was a moment in my role as a principal last year that I think will stick with me throughout my entire career.  I was only at Vero Beach a few weeks and there was a pivotal event that changed my view and outlook on discipline.  I've never been a fan of out of school suspensions, but I think this moment made me re-think every philosophy I had about how to handle challenging behaviors.   It was pouring outside and we were trying to get our students in their dismissal location during rainy day procedures.  It was a hot mess.  I was rushing through the hallways trying to help get all our students where they needed to go when I came across a kindergartener who was in the middle of the hallway throwing himself on the ground and cursing obscenely at every person walking by.  The teacher was trying to manage the behavior by grabbing his arm and yelling at him to stop the foul language.  The hall was full of other children who were trying to get by but they were also enjoying the show, stopping and pointing.  My initial reaction was to start yelling too and get the student, "back on track."  However, I didn't.  This poor thing was melting down fast, and I could see that along with him so was the teacher, who I genuinely believe had the best of intentions but just didn't know how to handle it.  Instead of yelling, I had a moment of grace.

I walked over and scooped up this kindergartener.  I don't know what made me do it, but I grabbed him tight and just hugged him.  I hugged him and he latched on and I could feel his entire body go from tense to calm.  I carried him up to the front office and he wouldn't let go. So,  I ended up holding him through 30 minutes of dismissal in my arms.  I had my megaphone in my hand and called out students names as their parents approached, all while holding on to him.  He's just a little boy.  He needed the hug and reassurance that he was safe.  You see, I didn't know that this little kiddo was homeless.  I didn't know that he's been through a heck of a lot. I'll never understand why the rain triggers him, but every rainstorm after that, we knew he needed safety and love.  We became pro-active instead of reactive. 

You see... these are children.
They are not "bad kids." 
or "Problem kids."
or "kids from bad homes."
or "kids with lazy parents."
or "kids who need to show respect."
They are KIDS. 
They need us to show grace.
They need us to model love.
They need us to guide them.
They need us to love them.

They need the adults to hold it together so that when they have moments when they lose it, WE can help them. Not escalate them.

They need us.  

Removing them from school when they need us most is not the answer.  It's those moments that we tell families we don't value them or their children.

I'm so lucky to have an amazing group of educators that have come together to do what's best for kids. Harvey Lee and Jennifer Riddick go so far out of their way to make sure every single kids needs are met at Vero Beach Elementary.  Our focus is on reteaching, deescalation, and pro-active positive behavior support.  We are lucky to have strong community partnerships with the Vero Beach Elks who continue to write grants to support our PBS program.

Finally, we have the support from Dr. Lillian Torres-Martinez, Executive Director of Student Services, who ensures we have resources we need to move forward with our vision as a Kids at Hope school.

Every child. Every day. No exception.

Here is a video that shows just one event that changed our climate to a student-centered environment.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

TRIBE work makes the VIBE work.

I never thought that I would enter the world of being a Principal in the fashion that I did.  Last year, I was tasked with making a split-second decision that has forever changed my role, in both my family and my district; I accepted a Principal position at Vero Beach Elementary.  There was no sugar coating the reality of the school.  It was in need and serious action was required to turn the school around.

I was given the opportunity (blessing) to bring along a team of administrators on the journey. While only one remains with us on this adventure, I couldn't even consider this a possible task without her.  Rachel Moree, Assistant Principal and Lead Learner is the Yang to my Yin.  I don't think there is another person on earth more opposite, in the most amazing ways, to help us create a balanced positive VIBE as this journey to innovation takes place.

To be honest, I was nervous taking on the challenge. I had heard stories from local educators, warnings from colleagues about gangs, and horror stories of what to expect; let me just tell you... they were wrong.  This school was home to some of the most amazing little humans that I have ever met.  It took just one day to realize that this would become my passion and my mission. To help create the environment and belief in our TRIBE that we can and we will turn Vero Beach Elementary from a school of transformation, to a school of innovation.

I won't pretend that there weren't many moments from January through June that I didn't seriously contemplate, "what did I get myself into," and "am I really the right person to lead this journey?"  Several days I actually envisioned a camera crew jumping out and saying, "just kidding, you're being pranked." From students eloping from class, to almost 1,000 discipline referrals written and no clear tiered process of support for behavior at all; to irate parents cussing us out multiple times a day despite best intentions to help children through some stressful situations, we had our work cut out for us.  There were the nay-sayers who felt that I was probably too young, inexperienced, and lacked an elementary school background.  I had one thing going for me, the Superintendent believed in us and our vision. There were people from the district that were extremely supportive, and there were others who pretended to be to our faces, but would talk down about our school and our children to others.  What I have learned is that it doesn't matter how equipped you are for something, people will always find reasons to devalue the leader.  It forced us to hold our heads high and build our team from within.  Hey, they may have even been right.  However, what they didn't know or understand about me is that I never back down.  I have always loved the kids that others feel are "challenging."  I've never felt a kid was "too far gone" or "unreachable." Now, I just needed to take that sentiment and multiply it times 760 students. What they couldn't have understood is that I'm momma bear, and these are all now my cubs.  Watch out.

The good news is, those days of chaos were limited.  It's hard to immediately change an adult-centered environment into a student-centered one.  Sometimes tradition can be great and sometimes it can be something that people hold so tight to that they forget to look at what's best for children.

This is our journey. 

This is the story of Vero Beach Elementary.

Our Tribe is writing it together this year. 

What created the change?  Several key components:
Finding the true TRIBE, Accountability, Choice and Voice for staff, students, and the community, and starting with a positive climate.

1. Find the TRIBE
The administrative team opened the door to anyone who wasn't 100% committed to the hard work that would take place over the course of this new year.  There was complete transparency as to what the expectations were.  


We started at the end of last year by creating an atmosphere that required science-based collaborative units to take the forefront of our professional learning.  No more teaching in isolation.  No more departmentalization.  The students need a person- and the school needs consistency and less transitions.  While pockets of innovation were extremely impressive, we needed to shift our mindset to create a school and culture of innovation.  Our students all deserve to come in and feel loved and challenged.
We are no longer happy with "good enough" or simply "keeping kids safe." We have a year to make meaningful change in these kids lives.  We need to make every single day count.

Which lead to part 2 of finding the TRIBE, hire strong.

We ended up with 17 spots to hire for.  9 spots were positions needing filling from our substitute positions from last year. Yup, let that sink in.  What I will say is it gave us an advantage to hire first.  We didn't have to wait to find out if the subs were coming back.  This allowed me to really invest the time.  Which leads to my admission, this summer I became an addict.  I raise my right hand up and admit, I'm addicted to my districts online hiring system.  I spent every night diving deep into every single application that came through.  I vetted each applicant to make sure they were just right for the high-needs of our students.  It takes a very special person to work in a school where 90% of the students are on free-and-reduced lunch.  It takes an even more incredible person who will take this on when the principal tells them that although there are some challenging behaviors, we will not be suspending the students. I repeat. No suspensions.  If there was even a hint of hesitation, they were quickly removed from the list of potentials and I moved on.  Sometimes, this was after already putting in 5 hours of research.  I told applicants, "Hi, I've already stalked you and you seem like the right fit."Some laughed... Some were scared.  I think some of the most incredible were actually flattered by my 9:00 pm phone calls and direct enthusiasm to have them join our team. The result, the most amazing group of tribe members to join our staff of committed educators.

2. Create a climate of accountability
We have a huge data wall that takes up the entire front of the administrative office.  This data wall holds administration and our staff accountable.  It requires us to throw out old practices and prioritize on high-yield strategies that will help us make the learning gains our students deserve.  It empowers us to #failfoward and look to areas of success and ask the right questions to figure out how to multiply success across multiple grade levels.  It's not intended to be a "gotcha" but a way to open up conversations about best practice and eventually create a culture where we are begging to get into each others classes to see what is working for our students.

3. Give a voice to the staff
Before trying to figure out what we needed on our own, we listened to our staff.  We invited anyone who wanted to have a say to a round-table discussion that was held before school last year.  As a team we created our vision for the school year.  We chose to focus on our ViBE:

Visualize Success
Inspire Learning
Believe in the Tribe
Exceed Expectations.

This has inspired every action we have taken from the Tribal Council Leadership team.  The one that we found has been most difficult in breaking bad habits has been surprisingly, believing in the tribe.  We still have some staff that are quick to judge the students, or a situation.  It requires consistent accountable feedback to keep momentum moving forward.  However, when all stakeholders feel responsible for holding each other accountable, that is when true progress is made.

4. Give a voice to the students
Voice and Choice are two KEY elements to moving a school forward.  I'm sick of hearing people say that elementary students don't "know what they want."  Ummm... Yes they do.  They want to be heard and they have amazing ideas.  This year we completely revolutionized the students "specials" in 5th grade.  Noticing spikes in behavior, it was clear that the students had certain days that they would "act out."  The previous model required our students to do a day of each special, each week.  Very traditional.  (Ex. Monday music, Tuesday PE, Wednesday Art...)
The students are ready to CHOOSE what they want to be enriched with. As a result, we now have a full 5th grade band program at VBE, a student-run morning announcement journalism and camera crew team, a STREAM program, and two physical activity sports teams.  They love it.  You know why?  They chose it.
It's that simple.  Give the students a voice.

5. Give a voice to the community
VBE started a coffee-talk round table discussion with our families and community, we call it our "fam-unity."  Truth is, our school came out as an "F" by just one point on the Florida Accountability model. We have to embrace where we are if we're ever going to move forward.  That "F" created a sense of urgency that we have to acknowledge as leaders.  We wanted to hear and address their concerns and also share all of the innovating programs that will take place at our school.  Our first coffee talk topic focused on parent and community involvement.
Our second coffee talk topic focused on enrichment opportunities.  We have allowed the community to pick each upcoming topic to make sure it's relevant to what they feel we need to be addressing.  This requires us to be open, honest, and transparent.  Three things I feel all leaders should strive to be.

6. We prioritize building a positive climate
(This is the most important element)
This started with our summer retreat.  With so many new faces, we couldn't wait until the stressful days of pre-school inservice to get our staff meshing.  We planned a full-day retreat at a cabin in the orange groves.  It was full of creating staff songs, staff flags, tribe handshakes, interactive games, and good old fashioned team building. 

Grade level chairs did mini-pd sessions based on chapters of one of the most incredible books ever written to establish strategies for working with our students, Eric Jensen's book, "Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind."
It was essential for building the foundation we needed to bring our school from a strong positive climate, to hopefully a strong positive culture.

I have to thank my #PLN of #momsasprincipals for helping me come up with one of the most creative ways to build positive team building, goosechase.  It's an online scavenger hunt.  It was hilarious and engaging during our first week of school.

As we take our "little indians" from potential to fruition.  VBE will once again be a school that our community is banging down the door to get into to.  This is our journey.