Here I was, thinking -- as the principal of a 500-student elementary school -- that I was in charge of the instruction occurring within our walls. I was scrutinizing the teachers' lesson delivery; strengthening the implementation of curriculum and informative assessments; building capacity through professional development, intentionality of best-practice teaching, and relentless self-reflection; and ensuring that every student had access to the highest-quality instruction on this side of Pluto.
Then it hit me.
Education isn't just one way. It, like most avenues of life, travels with reciprocity. And as the principal, the Chief Everything Officer and Instructional Leader, I found myself simultaneously astonished and inspired at the lessons that were delivered to me by the very students to whom I've pledged to deliver lessons.
Every decade is special. The 1970s had bell-bottom pants and disco music. The 1990s introduced us to interns with thongs. The 1770s were full of revolutionaries with white wigs. Well, the school year just ended marked my 10th in school administration, so I thought I'd wax poetic a little bit as I stroll down memory lane.
However, like the Roman god Janus, I'll maintain my forward vision as I'm peering back. Today, while I reminisce about the last eventful decade, I will scrutinize the lessons taught to me by the students I've known so that our future endeavors in the principalship might yield even better, stronger, more consistent results.
What follows is but a sampling; I'd encourage you, dear reader, to record your own.
10. Never give up. I was cussed at, spat upon, shoved, insulted, threatened, and told I have pointy elf-ears, all by a boy named Marcos. Nevertheless, it was my responsibility -- nigh, my obligation -- to remain steadfastly professional, respectful, and optimistic, so I sought deep to see the talents and gifts of this 12-year-old. Beneath the bullying exterior was an intelligent, athletic little boy -- who was destined to be a leader. Keeping a strengths-based view allowed Marcos to stay in school, to eventually turn that scowl into a smile, and become a leader on his high-school track and field team. Without the consistent support and chances to be successful, he may have been a coulda-been drop-out street punk.
9. Nothing works for everyone. Exceptions prove the rule, don't they? Whether we're talking about behavior plans, lesson delivery, classroom management, assessments, extracurricular events, or even daily schedules, it's important to consider the individual student's strengths, tendencies, goals, and motivations. Let's allow Danielle to stand during circle-time since she's antsy; let's permit Conner to doodle in his journal during a lecture because it actually helps him listen; let's sanction Barney's 15-minute break every hour because it will prevent a 3-day suspension for destruction of property when he throws his desk in frustration from the demands of being a quiet student. Though each of those actions violates the school rule, the exceptions are necessary for the individual child in question. Without them, it hits the proverbial fan.
8. We've got two ears, too. We need to listen to our kids. A student named Michelle used to be a chronic castaway from the library because she refused to sit down for the read-aloud. The teacher gave her the obligatory three chances, then sent her away for being disobedient. Upon arrival in the office, she'd accept her punishments with a scowl and sadly count the days til the next library class. Turns out Michelle had a bone condition that prevented her from sitting on the floor for extended periods of time, yet her teacher had never allowed her the opportunity to explain herself. Once it got out in the open, a simple solution presented itself: she could sit in a chair on the fringe of the group. Without intending to do so, by not listening, we were damaging this girl's love of stories and learning.
7. Relationships, relationships, relationships. I heard a good quote the other day: They won't care to learn until we learn to care. I'm not sure who gets credit for it, so I'll leave it at that. Nevertheless, I had a young man named George, who came to his teacher one year with a tremendous reputation for being a troublemaker. He spent the majority of the year as a troublemaker, and had conflict after conflict with his hapless teacher. They had never bonded and built the rapport necessary for his own sense of efficacy. Before considering a move to a more-restrictive behavior-intensive program, we moved George to a neighboring classroom with a teacher he respected and who returned that respect. George turned over a new leaf and flourished -- because of high expectations, a sense of effort-optimism, and a strong teacher-student relationship.
6. It takes a village. I used to think it was my responsibility to reach just one student in a deep, profound, grasshopper manner. Then I sought to reach 'em all. Well, to the ol' Pete I say Good luck, pardner. Relinquish control. It's not just you, the principal, that makes a big difference. Every child needs an adult, not always the CEO. If I relate to a particular student like a shin and a shin-high rose thorn, but another adult has a magnificent bond, fantastic! If I don't have any ideas to support Althea's learning goals, but a team of six staff members comes together and brainstorms a plan that will work, wonderful! They're our children, not just mine and not just yours.
5. Set goals. Without a goal, we're just meandering down the river of life paddling for the sake of paddling. If we don't know where we're going, we'll never know when we get there, and we'll be awfully tired and grumpy along the way. Katie, a first-grader, took one look at an end-of-first-grade reading passage and crossed her arms defiantly. She said she'd never read all those words, but when we divided the words into more manageable portions and set short-term goals, she met them easily! She was reading like a second-grader by the time the snow melted in April.
4. Attend to the whole child. I worked with a fourth-grade girl named Lori who was a miserable student, full of self-doubt, and whose shyness made her difficult to approach socially. She struggled in school and struggled with making friends. Academic tasks had no meaning and she began to spiral downward. Then we had a special performance of a dance troupe, and they asked Lori to join them on stage, in front of our entire student body, for a dance-off. Shy, uncomfortable little Lori sprang to life before our very eyes. Oh, could that child move! From then on, she beamed as classmates recalled her skills and poise, and she began to connect with peers and, subsequently, academics. What if we had noted that skill earlier in her school career? Could we have staved off her insecurities and tapped into her esteem?
3. Simple is good. We sometimes think the most sophisticated computer games, the most elaborate playground structures, and the most otherworldly activities are the answer for our students' TV-like, five-minute attention spans. Foster, a fifth-grader, is one of many I've seen who can sit under a giant tree, pick at the dirt with a stick, and pretend to unearth fossils of creatures from yesteryear. I've had a group of 20 play soccer with a broken chunk of a bike helmet when I lost the ball-shed key. Countless students have figured out how to slash and jab at each other with invisible light sabers. Abe Lincoln, not one of my students, learned to write by scratching coal on the smooth side of a shovel. Creativity and imagination are our friends, and we ought to encourage them.
2. Laugh. What are our faces telling those around us if they aren't smiling? One particularly rough day, when the discipline seemed to fall from the sky like gumballs pouring out of a wrecked gumball-delivery truck, the teachers were grumpy as a green Muppet from Sesame Street's famous garbage can. I must have been seething and fuming down the hallway when a first-grader stopped me and asked, "Mr. Hall, are you mad?" I didn't answer right away, but then said, "Well, yes, actually I am." Then he replied, innocently, "Is that why your face and your socks turned red?"
We all have a Marcos, a Danielle, a Foster, a _______ (you fill in the name), and each has a story. How do we view them? What lessons are they teaching us? How can we use those lessons to turn a profit (in human capital) in our high-stakes educational system? Those lessons, and all that follow, take us to the #1 lesson:
1. Always strive to be a better you. What did you expect? The time is now. Let's learn our lessons.
Article by Pete Hall
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