Our Kids Are #semicolonedu Too!

According to projectsemicolon.com, 

“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 projectsemicolon.com 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!

Why We Are Breaking Up (I’m letting go of the words Master Teacher)

Recently at our principals’ retreat I found myself a little more outspoken than normal. I’m a quiet person at first, but once I get to know you I can do some talking. The other thing that makes me speak up is when I really feel I have to something to say because I’m passionate about it or my brain is at full throttle. 

At any rate, our required reading was Turn the Ship Around by David Marquet. He emphasized the need for a leader-leader model instead of a leader-follower model. If you haven’t read it, you should.
And that is why I’m breaking up with the word: Master Teacher.
Nobody is a master teacher. The word indicates that there is a such thing as mastering the art of teaching.  Because best practices are constantly being developed, added to, and changing, mastering the art of teaching isn’t possible (in my not so humble opinion-I know..I could use a bite of humility as my posts have been pretty direct lately).
So master teacher, it’s over. My new love is master learner. Master learner indicates we understand that we learn first and teach second. We understand that we must be perpetual learners who seek knowledge to help us sharpen our teaching skills. We understand that in order to be the best at teaching we must be the best at learning. We understand that although we may master the art of learning, we must work to stay on top of our teaching skills. Being a great teacher today doesn’t make you a great one tomorrow, unless you keep learning.
Until next time-be you, be true, be a hope builder,

Can I Tell You The Truth? (No really.)

A tweet from me-
We owe it to our kids to ensure they are lead learners and equipped to be globally competitive. That means leading by example. #ISTE2015-@latoyadixon5

The honest truth (as if there is another type) is that those who aren’t good learners don’t make good teachers. I’m always baffled by the folks who say “we haven’t had any training on that”. The truth is that this is the 21st century. The best and the brightest train themselves. Get with the program. As educators it’s not about keeping up with the kids. It’s about keeping up-period. We have a professional responsibility to learn. When we signed up to teach, we signed up to learn. In case nobody has bothered to inform you, your learning doesn’t end when you start teaching. That’s where the magic begins!

Another tweet from me-
As a 1999 college grad, none of what I’ve learned at #ISTE2015 even existed. What will Ss say about how we prepared them for their future?-

I mean when you think about it, our teacher prep programs can only prep us for the process of teaching and learning, the pedagogy, and the theory of it all. But let’s recognize that the way our students acquire, consume, and produce knowledge is ever changing. When I began teaching, I was most proud of my colorful hard disks all labeled and organized. When I asked to bring the laptop cart to my classroom so we could create “stuff” and replaced all the desks in my room with tables (so I could stand on them-no really) and so the kids could really work together people thought I was crazy. I remember doing a “teleconference” with a school in New York where my students did book talks in any format of their choosing and the kids in New York did boring poster presentations (Can I be honest? Really?) and the Director of Technology spent an entire day dragging this monstrously huge piece of equipment into my classroom so we could do what would come to be known as Skype, it was a two day affair of preparation for a moment of bliss! Today, we can do that with a touch of the screen or click of the mouse!

Our kids aren’t lining up for training on the apple watch, the next iPhone, etc. They take the bull by the horns and do what my mentor once told me was the best kind of training-on the job training. I like to call it on the job learning now. If you are a teacher or educator, your first responsibility is to learn. Your second one is to teach. That my friends is the way this school thing is supposed to happen. Our students aren’t supposed to be the only people learning. So ask yourself, what’s the last thing I learned? And if you hear crickets, you know what to do. On the job learning! Get to it.

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

An Open Letter to Dream Crushers (and other lessons from #ISTE2015)

A tweet from yesterday at ISTE:
Jack Gallegher, Keynote at #ISTE2015reminds us that our kids deserve the right to dream whatever they want to dream! Don’t crush dreams!-@latoyadixon5
Dear Dream Crushers (myself included),
So often we spend too much time trying to be realistic and as educators we almost become missionaries in helping students develop realistic goals. My experience at ISTE 2015 has stirred my thinking on this quite a bit. Mostly, it’s made me question myself-which is a good practice for all of us. It means we reflect on what we do and why we do it.
Listening to Jack Gallegher, the keynote speaker on Tuesday at #ISTE2015 really pushed my thinking. We (yes-I am assuming you do this too for two reasons-1. You probably do, 2. It makes me feel better) are good at telling our students to be realistic about what they want for their future. Jack spoke extensively about his son, a child with autism, not  his autistic child-I loved the distinction he made. He spoke to us about how labels are limiting and why he made the distinction. He spoke personally and passionately about how much time he wasted trying to help his son fit in and how once he stopped trying to make him into what he thought he ought to be, his son really blossomed.
It leads me to think, who are we to say what is realistic for our students? We don’t know if the next scientist who will find the cure for cancer is sitting right in our classrooms. Or if the next computer scientists who will revolutionize the way we work, live, and play is walking the halls in our school. You’d think with experience we would get better at being open to the fact that although our students are the future, we certainly don’t know and can’t say with certainty what their future holds.  When I think about growing up with my two older sisters in poverty, raised by my single mother, in the projects, I am so glad we were not realistic. We were crazy enough to believe that we were smart enough to do whatever we wanted to do…and we did. If we had been realistic we wouldn’t have had the power to defy every statistic connected to kids of poverty.
Perhaps there is a kid who we perceive as having a non-impact on the future, or an otherwise negative one, who is just waiting for us to stop being dream crushers to blossom. Instead of telling our kids “well, I’d like for you to make a practical goal. Choose something realistic that you can accomplish,” why aren’t we saying-Your dream is too small. Dream big. Why can’t you be the scientist who finds the cure for cancer? Sure you can.
Conversely, it leads me to think or question: Why is it that we think we know that the future of some our students are bright based on their parents or SES status? We still operate under the assumption “You come from a good family so you’ll be fine”. After years of experience, I have seen this theory disproven over and over again. What I am sure of, is that we limit the dreams of our kids, when our own dreams are limited by our thinking.
Success is not a birthright and neither is failure.  Your parents’ success has nothing to do with yours. Who our students’ parents are, their family values, etc. does not guarantee success as student or learner. The sooner we confront how often we make this assumption and how blind we are, the better off we will be. All of our students need to be developed and guided to dream and dream big. Don’t sell your kids short just because you have your own set of issues believing in things you’ve not seen or experienced.
So to all you dream crushers-stop it!
Until next time-be you, be true, and be a hope builder,

Why ISTE Made me Apologize (to my former students)

A tweet from me earlier this morning: Embrace the differences. Quit trying to make kids the same. Allow students to be who they are & embrace their uniqueness!-@latoyadixon5
I am often in awe of how much time we spend trying to press our kids into conformity. We unintentionally tell kids they need to be the same, not different. We instruct them of how the “real world” expects them to talk, walk, look, dress, and act. We fail to embrace their uniqueness and differences and often if we do extend a bit of consideration to their individuality, we remind them of when and where it is o.k. to be their authentic selves. Often we overlook the fact that those who have changed the world have only one thing similar about them, which is that they were different from everyone else. Take a look at some of the greatest leaders of our world-Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani girl who advocates for girls to be educated in her country and continues to do so. Dr. Martin Luther King who fought for equal rights for African-Americans. Steve Jobs who changed our lives by creating tech tools that help us connect and live in ways we never have before.
I am reminded by all three of the aforementioned that they embraced being and doing something different. The didn’t make the world a better place by being like everyone else. They did it by being courageous enough to be different. My colleague, co-principal, and friend Mike Waiksnis (@mwaiksnis-follow him on twitter) often tells students, “Be courageous enough to be yourself.” This is valuable and awesome advice and I often remind myself to do just this even when he is not speaking directly to me.
But what moves me most, is when I remind myself to be courageous enough to accept my students for who they are-accept their differences, their quirkiness, their likes, their dislikes, their interests, their hopes and their dreams. Let us not assume that kids like what we like, that kids are interested in what we are interested in, and that kids are passionate about what we are passionate about. How about we ask them-What interest you? What are you passionate about What do you like? And then…we listen. Listen and be open. This takes practice.

I can remember a student I taught several years ago. David was not into my English Language Arts class at all. It was a true struggle to get him to read and even more of a struggle to get him to write. But when he began writing about how much he enjoyed working on automotives and rebuilding engines, I came to know and to appreciate him. I thought to myself, if I had only known this earlier, what more we could have accomplished. I now realize, I didn’t know because I didn’t ask. And perhaps, he told me, but I didn’t listen. I was too busy trying to conform him and make him appreciate the things I loved and enjoyed. I did not embrace what made him different and what made him, quite frankly, him. ISTE helped me realize that I need to apologize to my former students and for that I am grateful.
I know better now. When you know better, you do better. 
Until next time…be you, be true, and be a hope builder!

What Every Principal Should Know About Trust

I recently decided to write again on my blog. After five years of working on my doctorate degree, my desire to write was relatively low. May 10 marks the one-year anniversary of my earning my PhD.  My desire to write is on the rebound and so I offer this blog post to you.
I think all the time. My thoughts are often unconnected to my current realities and distracting to what I am to be focusing on at the time. Some now call that off topic, random rambling, and attention deficit disorder. I call it enlightenment. This morning I recalled a conversation I had with a colleague earlier in the week. We discussed the difficulty of gaining trust as a principal. I reflected on my experiences as a leader and knew I had to write. One of the biggest misconceptions about trust is that trust is given initially and is not lost until one has done something to lose it. I believe just the opposite. As a leader, you begin with little trust. Positional power certainly doesn’t give you an automatic trust credit, nor does it give you power. Trust begins on a very low level. As a leader, people assess your trust credibility all the time. In the beginning, members of the organization are making observations and gathering information to decide if you deserve any of their trust at all. In short, trust is earned with repeated actions of doing what you say you will do. Trust is earned over time and is lost within a second. It is important that as principals we operate with a high level of emotional intelligence in order to earn and maintain trust. That’s the other thing.  Trust has to be maintained. As principals, we must understand that our every action, mannerism, and emotion is under a microscope. Like it or not, people watch everything we do and say, and based on their observations they decide to trust us…. or not.  We must be consciously aware of emotional intelligence daily.  In a recent series of tweets, I shared my thoughts on trust. Here they are:
1. Trust is not automatic. 
2. People don’t trust you until you break it. They don’t trust you until you earn it. 
3. Trust increases over time.
4. It can take years to earn trust & seconds to break it. Leaders w/ emotional intelligence are highly instinctive about how to handle issues.
5. Great principals understand that facts should drive us & feelings affect us. We make decisions with emotional intelligence-not facts alone.
6. Great principals are reflective. Impulsive decision-making often lacks thoughtfulness and strategy needed for sustainability. 
7. Great leaders understand the importance of listening and patience. The greater the trust, the higher the morale and the more positive the climate.
8. Great principals understand that trust is earned over time by repeatedly doing what you say you will do. Broken trust leads to low morale.
9. Trust is the cornerstone of leadership. 
10. Trust is not easily obtained, but easily lost. 
Being thoughtful earns trust. Making quick decisions cultivates acting without thinking.  There is a great book on this titled, Trust Matters  by Megan Tschannen-Moran  I still have my autographed copy I received the very first year I became a principal.  Every principal and school leader should read it.  My challenge to all my fellow principals, reflect on this question: How are you earning trust?
Be Brave!
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