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!