The New Principalship Isn’t a Solo Experience. (From our Co-principalship Blog)

*This post was originally posted from our coprincipalship blog. 

The New Principalship Isn’t a Solo Experience.

We love telling others that we are co-principals because it is usually met with a series of questions. What is that? How does that work? How do you split responsibilities? Who’s really in charge? Do the kids try to play you against each other? Do the teachers? That’s when we answer like this: It works great. We don’t split anything. We do everything together. We share our leadership. The kids now mix up our names because they know they are going to get the same answer from both of us. The teachers love it-and no they don’t try to play us against each other because they know we share everything with each other. Telling one of us something is like telling both of us. We have a high degree of professional and personal trust between us and that makes our work successful.

For far too long, those of us in education have allowed our conceptualization of the principalship cloud our ability to think about in a different way. Just recently @education week posted this on twitter:
And I believe it is true. My first principalship, as was Michael’s was a solo experience. We became collaborative partners and began presenting at conferences, founded the first EdcampSC (South Carolina, and worked on numerous projects together. It was in that experience that we found how much our work together was helping us survive the principalship. As two new, and then young, principals, we found ourselves sharing the challenges we faced in our individual schools (we worked in the same district, but not in the same school previously), and began relying on each other to offer a shoulder of support or view/perspective other than our own. Finding time for this was usually over the telephone on the way home from work, or a quick phone call or text message during the school day. As our professional partnership grew stronger, we craved an opportunity to work together.
The educational rhetoric around teacher collaboration is strong. Whether we are referencing the research regarding professional learning communities, co-teaching with special and regular education teachers, or simply the strengths of collaborative work design, we continue to emphasize that teaching is not at its best when it is treated as an act of isolation. As principals, we are taught to push our teachers to collaborate, but what about us?
We take a complex problem of educating the masses and associate the success of such with finding a singular person who can lead. Contradictory? Just a little I think. Despite all the research regarding the challenges related to principal longevity and the stress of the principalship, we remain in the box. In a twitter chat this morning, #leadupchat (It was #leadupchathack today because you just can’t stop a mass of lead leaners!), we talked about revolutionizing education. This immediately pushed us to think about revolutionizing educational leadership. If collaboration is good for teachers & must be embedded into the school day, why wouldn’t it be grand for principals?  The principalship is stressful, emotionally taxing, and lonely. A coprincipalship creates a voice outside of your own head. Principals need partners. We can say without a doubt that our coprincipalship has extended our leadership endurance.
If we want to continue to burn out great lead leaners, keeping the principalship as a solo endeavor is a guaranteed way to do so. Isolation is the enemy. It is the enemy to great teaching as well as the enemy to great leadership. Together, we are better leaders and better learners. In one year, our leadership abilities have grown in ways that could not have happened in a solo experience. The co-principalship needs to be scaled up and used-especially in high needs schools. It’s been an amazing experience for us and we have learned so much about ourselves and each other. It’s not just about emotional support either. It’s important to note that there is an intellectual stimulation that occurs as a result of our coprincipalship that just didn’t happen when we were solo principals. We challenge each others thinking. We have both grown stronger in our ability to look at a situation from a perspective other than our own. We are able to give ideas we may have never thought of on our own consideration, and many times bring them to implementation in ways that would not have been if we were not coprincipals.
The demands of the principalship can be overwhelming. What we expect a single person to do for a dynamic and complex group of folks (teachers, students, parents, community members) may not be realistic. Being a great principal hasn’t necessarily been about heroic individual leadership in the past. It’s always been about collaborating and leveraging the strengths of everyone in the organization while working with key stake holders to create a quality educational experience for every child. Why we attribute that task to one person is beyond me? No wonder 85% of principals are highly stressed. No surprise to us.
We could not be more proud of the work we have done together. The co-principalship has increased our leadership longevity, reduced our stress level, and increased our leadership abilities and perspectives. We want to share our experience with everyone who wants to listen. If you want to hear more from us, please continue to read our blog or contact us via Twitter at @latoyadixon5 and @mwaiksnis. We’d love to share our journey with you!
Latoya and Mike

Why I’m Still Just A Poor Kid From the Projects

In a recent conversation with a friend, I was attempting to explain how being poor is something that you always think about once you’ve experienced poverty. It’s different than forgetting about how awful Grandma’s pound cake was, and you ate it anyway or how you once wanted to be a transformer  (I’ve always wanted to be Optimus Prime-don’t laugh! ). Once you experience poverty, it sticks with you–even when you aren’t poor anymore.

I still get excited about Papermate lead pencils and Mead trapper keepers. I coveted those two things as a kid growing up in South Carolina. Now I buy myself a pack of Paper Mate lead pencils before school begins each year. I had to do some serious perusing to find them in Staples this year–but I found them and they are in my backpack. Back to school time was a highly stressful time in our family. Each year my mother worked hard to provide us with five pairs of pants and five shirts, a pair of sneakers and a pair of Sunday shoes that could be worn to school and church–often they were charged on her JCPenney’s credit card or placed on lay-a-way and retrieved after Labor Day.

I am so grateful for all that my sisters and I have accomplished in our lives. We all have successful careers in Business, Engineering, and Education. However, I am still extremely sensitive to how hard back to school can be on kids and their families. There’s nothing worse than pulling out your paper and pencil and folder while watching beautiful, big packs of Crayola crayons and name brand glue sticks, along with big three ring binders with dividers and pencil pouches sitting on the desk next to yours. When the teacher collects them and asks you when you’ll be bringing in the rest of your supplies, you lie, “Friday”, knowing full well this is it.

I am not in that situation anymore. However my experiences have shaped the way I learn, lead, think, and feel about school. Often friends will tell me, “but you don’t have to worry about those things anymore”, and I want to say but I do worry. I worry that the kid who doesn’t have their school stuff will be perceived as not smart, unprepared, irresponsible, unwilling to try. I wonder if they are as ashamed as I was to not have everything on the list. I wonder if some even know how hard it is/was to obtain what little some have on the first day of school.

I am still a child of poverty. I always will be. My heart will always have a special place for this. I value education so much. It literally changed my life and the lives of my sisters. We broke the cycle. And that is why I feel so indebted to give back as an educator. I look at things still through the lense of needs vs wants. I have a clarity regarding needs versus wants that I believe few others have and that was established out of necessity.

So as the year begins, I request of you your patience with students who may not have a pencil box, the right kind of folder, a glue stick, or a beautiful 24 pack of crayons. Most of all, I hope you’ll be a hope builder!

Until next time-be you, be true, be a hope builder!

The Power of a Made Up Mind

When I was a little kid, I used to listen to the old folks say “ain’t nothing like a made up mind”. I used to wonder exactly what that meant. As of now, I am sure of its meaning. Sometime this summer, I made a decision to start running. In July, I ran here or there, but not as consistently as I wanted to run. When August came, I made up my mind. I started setting fitness goals, a goal for how many miles I wanted to run each week. If there’s one thing I know about myself, it’s that when my mind is made up and I’m focused, there is no stopping me. Needless to say, I’ve ran 34 miles since August 1. Now some might say, I’m over doing it. Others might say you should start slow. They could be right, but unfortunately that’s not how I live my life.

For most of my life, I’ve had to make up my mind to get things accomplished. I think back to the many obstacles my sisters and I faced growing up in Boyd Hill Projects. There I learned the power of a made of mind. I made up my mind to get out, get an education, and make my way. I learned that if you really really want something-in a way that you can feel it on the inside-and you are relentless in your focus and pursuit of your goal, you can accomplish anything.

So I became addicted to having a focus and a work ethic so sturdy and strong that it could not be shaken. I always told myself I may not be the smartest or the fastest, but I know how to work hard. I pride myself on working so hard that there’s nothing left to give and I’ve left it all on the table. I learned to not give up easily no matter what I faced or how challenging something may have seemed.
I believe in mind over matter. This is the lesson I hope to give my students. I want to let them know that there is power in a made up mind. I want to help them learn that everything they need to succeed they already have inside them.

My grandmother used to say if your mind is not made up, you’re in trouble. So wherever you stand, stand firm, stay steady, and keep your mind made up to have a fantastic year. Decide what it is you want for your students. Commit to making it happen by doing whatever it takes. Remove the word but from the equation. Stay away from excuses. As my mother would say-“An excuse is whatever you want it to be!” If you’re on the fence, you’re in trouble. Remember there is power in a mind that’s made up!
Until next time-be you, be true, be a hope builder!

To Take Care of Others, You Must Take Care of You! #fitnessedu

Something totally awesome happened today.
I woke up and had a cup of coffee. Then, I went to the gym and ran three miles. After it was all over, I tweeted this:

 11h11 hours agoThree mile run this morning! Hope I can keep this going when school starts back!

I took a shower shortly there after and got a notification on Twitter that my tweets this weekend regarding my running had inspired someone else. Someone in my PLN had been inspired and tweeted this:

 9h9 hours agoJust ran 3 miles in spite of it all! Inspired to do it by Thanks ladies

It was only a few seconds and someone else tweeted this:

 9h9 hours ago we should start a Twitter edu fitness motivation chat! Lol

And tonight, the #fitnessedu chat was born. A quick voxer chat started by @loriannegreen and our chat was set. Two questions, thirty minutes. Share goals and encourage each other.
  maintaining balance in our lives starts with taking care of ourselves!

Just that quickly, four educators had connected their desire to be fit and share their goals and successes. This is why I love twitter. What a great opportunity for all of us to encourage and motivate each other to be fit. We all know that we must take care of ourselves to take care of others. As we get ready to start the school year, and for those who have already started, on behalf of all of us-@MrsVanderborne, @1AVA3, and @loriannegreen and myself (@latoyadixon5), we invite you to join us in working to take care of yourself this school year. If you missed it, you can catch it here:

Whether novice or experienced, fitness is for everyone….and it feels good too!

Until next time-be you, be true, be a hope builder.

Get Out of the Way! (Of Great Teachers)

One of the biggest errors I see new principals make is that they get in the middle of everything! In their newness, full of energy, excitement, and ideas, they want to be smack dab in the middle of everything! Instead of building a strong, solid, and simple framework for teachers to operate within and focusing on the goals and results, they begin to dabble in the action items and steps to reach those goals. I believe whole heartedly that teachers can usually find their own way with the right support and guidance, but muddying up the details isn’t support and isn’t guidance. It’s micromanagement.

As a leader, I view my role in this way:

1. Clarify the vision. Make it as clear as possible. Focus the expectations. Keep it simple.

2. Repeat the vision often. Keep it simple. If you can’t say it in one sentence it’s probably too much. Support teachers as they work to make the vision a reality. Give them the tools and support needed to meet collective goals. (Don’t tell them what to do. This is where many get it wrong. Ask them what they need from you to meet the goals you’ve collectively set. Focus on their development as people not on monitoring whether or not they’ve done tasks x, y and , z! )

3. Celebrate their accomplishments. Create a sense of urgency for goals not yet met. Repeat steps 1 and 2.

I believe Fullan is one of the greatest writers on the tight-loose-tight leadership model. The focus is on the development of a strong system, not on a plethora of micro details. When the leader develops an effective system (think picture frame) the details take care of themselves. We can move from putting out fire after fire to refining the system-designing an effective mechanism for teaching and learning as our teachers do hard and challenging work.

When we focus our efforts as leaders on the development of a great system, the details take care of themselves. This is why I believe whole heartedly in the Professional Learning Communities model. The premises are incredibly clear and simple although implementation of it as a system of teaching and learning is incredibly hard. It emphasizes the tight loose tight model. Tight-a strong focus on what kids should know and be able to do. Loose- utilize collective inquiry to develop and refine common formative assessments and analyze the data to inform our teaching. Tight- focus on the learning not teaching. Take a close look at the results to determine who learned what we wanted them to learn. Refine.

Great leaders are skilled at clarifying the vision. They make it so clear that teachers feel confident and purposeful in their work as well as empowered. When teachers reach goals they feel the sense of mastery and professional autonomy that human behavior requires to continually grow and learn. Great leaders celebrate the efforts of teachers.

So my challenge to all principals is simply this: Ask yourself, How clear is your vision? How focused are you in your communication to teachers? Are you sending one clear message? Are you working on the frame, the system, or standing smack dab in the middle of the picture?

If you hear crickets when you ask yourself those questions, get out of the way of… great teachers!

Until next time-be you, be true, be a hope builder.

Quality trumps quantity. Always.

As we enter the upcoming school year, I am reminded that how much we do will never matter if we don’t do any of it well. What I know and feel as a leader is that there is no greater task for administrators than to clarify and focus the work of teachers. When teachers are able to articulate the focus of their work in one simple statement, there is a greater potential for us to excel. The quality of our work will be better.

So often in this rewarding, yet challenging field we are tempted to try a little bit of everything. We treat our work like a buffet of great desserts. We can’t just choose one. They are all so good we want to have a taste of it all. We end up with a smorgasbord of great strategies. We go to a workshop or attend a professional development and hear of another great strategy and think-We have to do this! As a result, we end up trying to do it all, but rarely doing anything well except for being able to check boxes on a list to say, ” Yes! We’re doing that!”
Too often educational leaders miss the mark in the art of simplification. When we simplify and focus the complex work teachers are asked to do, we increase the quality of the work. Our effectiveness is a result of quality work. It is not connected to the quantity of strategies we are pushing teachers to execute. Being able to make the complex simple is a skill that is developed over time. It is not easy and requires a great deal of strategic thought. You must plan with an intention to focus. Just like taking a photograph, the initial picture in the frame isn’t focused. It is in the second and third steps, that the picture becomes clearer. It is with the help of lighting and being sure one has the best angle that produces the clearest picture.
So my goal for the year is quite simple. Focus. Clarify the vision. Recognize that every interesting or neat idea doesn’t have to be executed. Forget the checkboxes. Instead of talking about all we are doing, work to be able to say, “Here’s what we are focused on and here’s what we do well.”
Simply put-quality trumps quantity. Instead of asking yourself are we doing this and this and this, ask yourself what are we doing well? If you hear crickets, adjust the light and the lens and…focus!
Until next time-be you, be true. Be a hope builder!

Our Kids Are #semicolonedu Too!

According to, 

“Project Semicolon (The Semicolon Project) is a faith-based non-profit movement dedicated to presenting hope and love to those who are struggling with depression, suicide, addiction and self-injury. Project Semicolon exists to encourage, love and inspire.” You can find more information on their website and/or follow the #semicolonedu hashtag on Twitter to get an idea of what it’s all about.

For far too long, (in my not so humble opinion) schools have ignored the mental health crisis in our schools. While the #semicolonedu hashtag has mostly been about educators sharing their personal struggles with depression and the like, I’ve longed for a conversation that also focuses on what our students are often struggling with as well. When I began my career as a teacher in 1999, I never considered that any of my students might be struggling with mental illness. Aside from the now ever so common ADD/ADHD, it really did not cross my mind. Despite having an aunt who struggled with mental illness for most of my childhood until her death in early January of my freshmen year in college, I did not even think that any of “my kids” might be depressed or suicidial.
Fast forward to 2014, where I now serve as a middle school co-principal in a Title I school and I find myself having weekly conversations with my colleague and co-principal about the high rates of depression among our students. It’s rampant. Guidance counseling has taken on an entirely new dimension. Kids are cutting themselves. They are lonely and depressed. Many are struggling with feeling any sense of self-worth. Our counselors are spending a great deal of time connecting students and their parents to outside mental health agencies for greater assistance. 
This inspires me to push and continue saying we need mental health workers and counselors inside our schools. We can no longer view it as an outside service. The struggles our kids face can’t be measured by any state standardized test, but it certainly impacts their achievement when they don’t get the help they need and deserve. What will it take for mental health to become a structural part of our educational system just like lunch? It is needed as much as our kids need lunch each and every day.
My aunt was an awesome person. She was incredibly funny and by far the best braider in the family. I miss her dearly. I often wonder if there was ever one educator in her life who thought that perhaps there might be some sort of imbalance. In her memory, I realize that I can be a voice to those who need help and don’t know where or who to turn to for help. I can spend time listening to the student who feels hopeless. I can give my attention to the student who is depressed. I can work my hardest to share a little hope with them and try my best to advocate for them in the best way I know how. 
The semicolon project is all of us. Everyone of us knows someone who struggles with anxiety, depression, or the like. Some of us have our own battles with it. We all have the power and responsibility to help the students who we interact with each day as best we can. Our kids are the semicolon project too.
Until next time-be you, be true, be a hope builder!

Teamwork: From Cliche to Reality

Teamwork: From Cliche to Reality
This morning I participated in #leadupchat. It’s a collaborative platform for edu leaders. It happens on Saturday mornings at 9:30 CT. Today was my first chat and it was AWESOME. Literally.
The topic was on building great teams. Building teams is something near and dear to my heart. As a former coach and athlete (basketball-I still have a mean crossover. Ask the kids at my school!), I believe and know the power of teamwork. But I also know that teamwork is hard, heart work. We underestimate how very difficult it is to build great teams.
As much as I’ve tried to filter over the years, there are some things that need to be told in raw form. Let’s just be honest. It is hard to work together. Especially if you are working with a person or group of people you don’t trust, don’t respect, or don’t like. Now, I’m sorry but I have to share this thought. Those folks who say, “I can work with anybody” are just pretending. Perhaps you can pretend to work with them or go along to get along, but real working together is messy, complicated, taxing, and fun and rewarding at the same time. True teams embrace the hard parts because they know the payoff is greater than the moment. As leaders, one thing we have to do when we start encouraging people to work together is acknowledge how difficult it is. Alert them that it will not be easy, but if they can find the courage to agree to work through it all for a cause greater than themselves it will be worth it. This is why I love the concept of PLCs. Real PLCs make it happen. Below, please find my thoughts from this morning’s #leadupchat on building great teams. Each tweet is accompanied by what I like to call a “Latoya translation” (LT), which means here’s the raw truth.
1. Great teams are honest and confront issues head on. As I used to tell staff-Sometimes you have to fall out to get together.
LT: Quit pretending like the issue isn’t there. Instead of ignoring the elephant in the room, eat him first-one bite at a time. Oh, and be nice about it.
2. Great teams learn from other great teams. They look for great models of collaboration!
LT: The will of one might be inspirational but why try doing the same work four different ways instead of multiplying the strategy’s effect by putting forth a focused effort. One person can’t do two people’s work-no matter how smart you are…or you think you are (just saying-to myself also)
3. Great teams get this: The power of WE is greater than the power of me!
LT: It’s not about you!
4. Great teams use an ALL IN mentality. Call out team members when they lose focus. Understand the power of togetherness is > I.
LT: There is no 50% model of teamwork. It’s all the way or no way. Go hard and all in or go home!
5. Great teams are relentless in pursuit of their goals. They don’t let up and instead of thinking we can’t they think why can’t we?
LT: Quit trying to anticipate the obstacles. Instead think about how you can prove all the negative naysayers wrong. Find a way to say yes!
6. Resilient teams use falling short as a catalyst. They view their shortcoming as a trampoline instead of a ditch! #Getup!
LT: No matter what happens, when a team knows and has a purpose, lying down is not an option. Stop looking for a miracle of hero. Remember-the hero lies in you! Be your own hero!
7. Great teams understand that relationship building takes deep work. They give the lingo more real time and less air time.
LT: Get to know those you don’t understand and who aren’t a carbon copy of you. You’ll be better for it. We often fear what we don’t understand and my mother always told me do not allow fear to stop you from doing anything! That includes the fear of learning something about yourself that you might need to work on! (Side note: I’m working on being less opinionated. I’m not sure this blog is helping. Funny, but true.)
8. Great teams aren’t afraid to disagree. They value the process as much as the product. Great teams see conflict as an opportunity to mine for the best solution and not as disharmony. Conflict breeds solutions!
LT: A disagreement is the beginning of progress. Don’t be discouraged by it! And if there are no disagreements on your team ring the alarm! The folks who agree all the time win Oscars and Golden Globes (hint hint)!
9. Great teams appreciate diversity of thought. They are able to consider ideas that they may initially not agree with as well.
LT: everybody doesn’t and shouldn’t think like you. We are products of our experiences. Challenge yourself to not just hear an idea but to LISTEN to it and consider it. This takes lots of practice. (Hard to believe I know, but I am still working on this)
10. On a great team, personal emotions run low & team emotions run high. All team members  understand they are working for a cause greater than self.
LT: Get control of your emotions. The work may require a personal investment but don’t take things personally. Don’t internalize everything that isn’t aligned with your thinking as an attack on your skills. See number 3.
11. Great teams understand the impact of professional jealousy and egos. They have honest and open conversation in order to do the real work.
LT: Now nobody wants to admit this but it’s a real issue in any organization. Understand that the success of someone else isn’t a deduction from your worth to the organization. Understand that when your personal pride becomes the center piece of your work, your humility will be on display shortly for all to see if you don’t swallow it.
That’s all for today and as my Grandmother would say, I think that’s a plenty!
Until next time-be you, be true, be a hope builder!

Change Starts In The Heart (and other wisdom according to Latoya)

A tweet from me yesterday:
The heart always changes before the mind. –@latoyadixon5

I could be wrong about this (I don’t think I am) and if I am, then…oh well. This post is for all, but I’m hoping principals are reading.

Change is hard. I’m always baffled by people who proclaim, ” I love change”. Maybe they do but…I don’t believe it. What I believe is that they have conditioned themselves to accept change. Some are even able to embrace it from years of experience. In case you haven’t figured it out, change is inevitable. It happens and it happens all the time. Nothing stays the same-especially in education.
I mean who remembers Oregon Trail? I do. However, you won’t hear me saying the only experience with technology I had in school was with Oregon Trail and I turned out fine (I’m still a work in progress). I’ve heard that song from so many before but what I really hear them saying is I don’t want to change.  Don’t make me learn something else! Dealing with change isn’t an issue of mind over matter. It’s an issue of heart over matter.
One thing I know for sure about change is that real change happens in the heart and then, the mind follows. Nothing is more powerful than a change of heart. So my challenge to all of us (myself included) is that when we find ourselves resisting change or afraid of it or hesitant to accept it, let’s search our hearts for the reason why, not your head. After all, you and I both know that our minds can play tricks on us, but our hearts cannot be fooled.
Until next time-be you, be true, be a hope builder!

Don’t Let Them Poison You!

I can remember when I began my teaching career in 1999. I was so excited to finally have my own classroom. I was full of ideas and excitement. It was a dream come true. 

And then I went to school. Dodging the negativity was like ducking as random spears were thrown from every direction. From the day I started to present, I’ve worked hard to protect my fire. Yep. It’s so awful, but we all know those who pride themselves on making sure you are realistic by pouring negativity, complaint on top of complaint, and bitterness on every exciting moment possible.
 I’ve come to realize that I am responsible for stirring my passion when it needs to be stirred. I stoke my own fire by reading, dreaming with those who believe, collaborating and connecting with like minded folks.  And I’m also responsible for not letting those whose fire has been stomped out with bitterness because they lack the will to believe infect me with their poison.
So my message today is to encourage educators everywhere to stoke your fire this summer. Find someone who wants to dream of what could be instead of anticipate what can’t happen. Stay far away from those who want to infect you with the poison of negativity. Pay attention to how and who you are spending your professional time with-you may be susceptible to being poisoned and not even know it. Stay on the bright side, don’t just look at it. There’s a challenge for all of us.
Until next time-be you, be true, be a hope builder!