Balance-The Goal for 2016 and Beyond

We’ve all heard it before: Too much of anything is not good. Despite how healthy, how passionate, or how great a habit might be, a balanced life is one well lived and enjoyed. Balance gives us an even footing. Living and working in a balanced fashion gives us the best of both worlds and an opportunity to not sacrifice one aspect of life for another. As we enter 2016, I’ve reflected on what is most important to me at this stage in my life, and that is balance. I want to live a balanced life. I desire to not allow one thing to take precedence over another, but to live and work in a way that is balanced and harmonious. So I guess my one word for 2016 is balance. How will I improve this in my life? Well, below are a few thoughts.

I recently took a 30 day hiatus from Twitter, Instagram, and all social media-including this blog. What I found astonished me. I was more present in my conversations with family and friends. There was not a feeling of being less informed as I had initially thought. In fact, I was less stressed, my thoughts were clearer and my reality less interrupted by the latest tweet. I was present and I liked it a lot. I’m trying to decide how I might utilize social media in a more balanced fashion instead of just reading Twitter at the first instance of downtime. I’m thinking of creating a set time to review Twitter but not an everyday, throughout the day routine anymore. I want to be present in my reality as much as possible and to do that I can’t share all my “moments” with Twitter. I also placed an automatic reply on my email which helped immensely. In a world where everything has the potential to be  convenient and quickly addressed, we find ourselves so committed to being available to everyone else that we aren’t available to ourselves, our families, or our friends. While I understand the necessity of communication, I will work to be more balanced which might mean not being available 24/7. In all reality, who can be present to everyone and everything all the time? When we commit to doing so, we inadvertently make ourselves unavailable to someone or some thing. There has to be a better way.

I began running and exercising on a more routine basis this past June. As my workouts became more routine, I noticed a greater spiritual and physical balance. I saw my anxiety reduced, stress decreased, and overall mood and attitude improved. On top of it, I lost a few pounds. While I don’t desire to become obsessive about excercising, I want it to become a part of the balance in my life. This year I plan to make working out a routine part of my balanced life because it is good for me physically, mentally, and spiritually. I also have high hopes of eating a more balanced diet. Being a principal makes that difficult. Long hours and late nights can make a drive thru attractive and seem necessary. I’m going to do my best to make good choices about what I eat all the time for the sake of balance.

I’m also going to take the time to enjoy things outside of work. While I enjoy working very much, the social aspect of our lives are often what gets us through the tough times of life. When I began working on my doctorate in 2009, I became a principal by day and student by nights and weekends. Now two years after I’ve completed my degree, I find myself catching up with dear friends who I’ve seen minimally because of work or school. That’s going to change. If life is about relationships, which I so deeply believe, I’ve got some work to do to maintain and grow some of the dearest friendships I’ve made this side of heaven. I realized recently that my best friends since my freshman year at Clemson will celebrate our 21st year of friendship in August. We’re all busy with work and life, but that deserves celebrating. So we are making plans for a celebration, and I will be present sans Twitter, email, etc. so that I don’t miss the moment.

Until Next Time-be you, be true, be a hope builder!

Rethinking Success & Redefining Achievement

I’ve worked all of my life to meet or exceed the standard for academic success. My goal growing up was to earn a college degree. I’ve earned four of those. I wanted to be a teacher. I am National Board Certified although I’m no longer in the classroom. I wanted to do my work to the absolute best of my ability, because good has never been good enough. I credit and thank my mother for that all at the same time. And while that type of thinking has carried me and my career a long way, I find my paradigms shifting. I’m not sure if that’s based on age or experience or realizing that academically there’s nothing left for me to prove. I don’t know much of anything for certain, but what I do know is that everyday I’m praying and hoping for some very basic things for my students.

I want them all to stay alive and graduate high school. I’d love for everyone of them to earn a college degree. I want them to not be victims of violence. I want them to avoid the criminal justice system at all costs because once you are on someone’s court docket, another layer of challenge is added to your life forever. I want them to have hope for a better, brighter, and successful future. I want to help them help themselves because I know there are no heroes coming to save them. I always tell them- you must save yourself. Everything they need to succeed, they already have. I encourage them to be their own hero, because nobody came to save me.

I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that my sisters and I saved ourselves. We had the blessing of a great mother who instilled the right values in us, but at the end of the day, (so cliche, I know) it was all up to us. My mother did not wake me up for class as a student at Clemson University. She didn’t check my homework to be sure it was done. She wasn’t there to force me to get the research and reading done for my dissertation. While she has been my biggest supporter and encourager, she always made one thing very clear:

“If you want success, it is yours for the taking. Education is out there for anyone who wants it. But no one can do it for you. You must do it for yourself.”
-Latoya’s Mom

That’s the important lesson I’m trying to teach my students everyday. I’m trying to give them hope that they have a measure of control over their own destiny and that the root of that control is in how hard they are willing to work. It’s in not giving up. I’m trying to help them understand that I’ve accomplished some things I did not think I could. Everyday is a test. I am still pushing myself. I am still persevering. I need them to do the same and they need to do it for themselves.

Because no one is coming to save them, but they can certainly save themselves. I am amazed at the resilience that my students demonstrate on a daily basis. In spite of all they are faced with, they come to school everyday and work. They are amazing people and there’s no test that can measure that.

Until next time-be you, be true, and be a hope builder!
@ latoyadixon5

Stories From The Inside: Bridging the Gap Between Perception and Reality of Being a Principal

Isn’t it interesting to think about how school is one experience everyone has in common? Unlike being an engineer or business leader, everyone has school experience. So when it comes to thinking or talking about what’s right and what’s wrong with school, everyone has an opinion and usually it’s one they feel pretty good about because it’s based on their experiences.

 Lately I’ve been working on telling the stories from the inside of our school. Moving the conversation beyond micro political leadership, partnerships, and general school information. Instead, I’ve been working to tell stories about my students and the challenges they and their teachers face. Like the students who have no home, and bounce from place to place on a daily basis often bargaining with others to allow them to stay the night, or just take a shower. I’ve shared the story of a student who is one of the kindest students I’ve known, who volunteered to take the trays of others to the trash can each day at lunch, but only so he could pick through and eat their leftovers because he was so hungry. I’ve told the story of students who have come to school and requested to use the phone because they were worried when their mother did not return home after a night out, but came to school anyway. I’ve told the story of teachers who are trying to teach these students and garner their attention, despite the aforementioned challenges they face. It is an incredibly difficult task.
So now I ask all to think about your personal school experience. Ever had trouble focusing because you were so hungry that it made you feel ill? Ever had trouble finding a place to take a shower, but gone to work anyway? Ever had difficulty getting the domestic violence you witnessed out of your mind long enough to learn the causes and effects of the Revolutionary War? Ever had difficulty getting to school on time because you were up all night because the shooting you heard down the street scared you to death?
Was that much like your school experience? As educators when people ask us how things are going, we feel compelled to tell them how hard we are working and that we are doing great things to move our schools forward. Sometimes our positivity, while much needed, does a communication disservice to those who are interested in how things are going. When we tell stories from the inside it’s important to tell the whole story. The story that says here is what our kids are facing, but we are working hard and moving forward anyway. The story that says our teachers have an audacious task in front of them, but they give of themselves personally and professionally anyway.
Make sure you are telling the stories from the inside to help bridge that perception of what school might be like and the reality our students and teachers are dealing with everyday. Our teachers and students are doing remarkable under extremely challenging circumstances and they deserve for people to know the whole story.
Until next time- be you, be true, be a hope builder!

Working Through the Tough Times

Lately I’ve found myself overwhelmed. I’m embarrassed to admit it. I’m especially embarrassed to admit it on this blog, but the reality of it is that it’s true. As I have worked so diligently to take a really deep dive with our student achievement data in the last few weeks, I found myself falling deeper and deeper into a less positive state of mind. I’m not sure why that is although I suspect a number of reasons for this. None of these reasons may be correct and I’m not sure they even matter, but I’m going to share them anyway. So here goes nothing.
Am I discouraged by the research? 
I’m a voracious reader. But every since the initial days of my Ph.D. program I haven’t really read fiction. I’ve come to enjoy reading research studies. I particularly enjoy reading about economic mobility, anything related to education and poverty, and early childhood education. When I read the research, I see the same recurring theme: What happens from conception to five matters and the further down the road in a child’s educational journey, the more it matters.
While I’ve read study after study, and been fascinated with what I learn in each one, I’m still left with the same question I think of everyday as a coprincipal of a Title I middle school where we are working our hearts out to increase student achievement: What do I do now? While I have lots of ideas of what might help and some of which I know will help, I can’t help but question is overcoming a multiyear learning gap possible? And if it is, how can it be done? What I know for sure is a traditional approach to teaching and learning is limited in its’ impact and although we have and will continue to positively impact student achievement, will it be enough? High school graduation isn’t that far away for our students and our time is limited.

Do I have the right  perspective?
I’ve also been fussing at myself for being what some might call negative-I like to think of myself as a realistic optimist who can be brutally honest. Many of my colleagues have encouraged me to focus on the positive. And yes-there is lots of positive to celebrate. I’ve just been unsuccessful at ignoring the harsh reality of what it means to improve the proficiency of a group of students who are more than three or more years behind where they should be in reading and/or math. How do I do that? Can I do that? Do I have the skills and expertise to lead that charge? What resources do I need? Will I be able to obtain them? Am I too focused on the reality in a way that I am not balanced to have a healthy perspective? Am I too negative? Does focusing on sunshine and rainbows make you more productive? Does focusing on the opposite paralyze you from acting? Again, I don’t know which is best. All I know is from my own experiences.
In my previous principalship, I had the same issues. Always looking at what I could do better or improve and never stopping long enough to celebrate the good that we had accomplished. But that mindset led us to remarkable results. We saw improved student achievement for five consecutive years. No flunctuating-just up,up,up and I am very proud of that.
Do I take my work too personally?
Do I take my work too personally? As a child of poverty, looking at my students who are in the midst of poverty in an objective manner seems nearly impossible for me. I look at them and I see me. In reality, I know they are not me and I am not them, but in my heart we are one in the same. I can’t help it. I owe it to them to help them in every way I can, and I can’t do that by just thinking if I only help one then I’ve done well. They all need my help. They all need our help. The baggage of being poor has never left me. Read through my previous post and you’d agree. I even wrote a post titled, Why I’m Stiil Just A Poor Kid From The Projects! I guess that’s because under all the degrees and professional success, that’s what I am. I work hard out of fear of having to experience poverty again. Some would not understand that but once you’ve been poor and made it out, you never want to go back. I want the same for my students. I want them to make it out. It’s that simple. And I know that it was education that set me free from the projects and from poverty. Breaking the cycle of poverty isn’t as simple as pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. It’s far more complex than that but that is for another post. 
I had a very dear friend tell me recently to try not to let my work define me. I reflected on that advice and I think she’s right, but I’ve yet to be successful at doing that. That’s something I certainly need to work on and improve.
Is my best enough?
For so long I’ve been one to say if I only make a difference in the life of one student then my work has mattered. However, as I work in a high poverty school where student needs in the social emotional realm are as great or greater as their academic needs, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I need to impact more than one student to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty and help my students help themselves beyond their K-12 educational experience. I’m doing my very best everyday. My momma used to always say as long as we did the best we could at something we could not ask ourselves of anything more. I know that I am giving my all!  But I guess I am just afraid that my best may not be enough and that makes me incredibly sad and disappointed.
I’ve grown so much as a person and a principal in my current role. The experience has been one that has taught me many things. I’m sure there is more to learn too. Mostly I want to overcome this feeling of being overwhelmed but not by ignoring the issues. I want to overcome it by making a difference for all students, but a difference that will matter for generations to come. In a world where a high school education or less negatively impacts your health quality, quality of life, and more we are charged with doing more. Our students may not see the impact that right now will have on their future. They would never imagine how heavy they weigh on my heart or how often I wonder, what are they going to do as adults? Only time will answer that question and lately I seem so impatient.
I am proud of myself however for sharing my vulnerability via this blog. No matter how things may seem, I’m only human. I think all educators experience these feelings that I have but we are not “allowed” to acknowledge them. This work we do is incredibly harder than even I imagined when I made a decision to become a teacher in the early 1990’s. I never expected it to be easy. I realize that I am not alone in this. All across the country and world, many educators are feeling this. Some might see this post as negative but I see it as brave. I’m brave enough to say-I’m trying really hard and I’m worried my best efforts may not be enough. Is there something wrong with that? I don’t think so and I don’t think I’m the only one. And so I shall continue to plug along…hoping it all turns out ok.
Until next time-be you, be true, and be a hope builder,

Poverty and The Miracle Workers: We All Bear the Burden

A miracle is defined as an effect or extraordinary event in the physical world that surpasses all known human or natural powers and is ascribed to a supernatural cause (according to I may be way off, but sometimes when I think about education and the achievement gap, I feel that as educators we are the miracle workers. That’s not because we are solely responsible for the success or the lack there of for our students. And it’s certainly not because we are actually working miracles on a daily basis. I mean, sometimes we are foolish enough to believe we have supernatural powers-but most of us know that we don’t.  Mostly, it’s just because we are more in tune with the struggles of poverty that our students face on a daily basis, yet we are working our hearts out (quite literally) to help them defy the odds. 

Essentially, we are trying to work miracles. I’m certainly not saying that it can’t be done. If I didn’t believe what we did makes a difference, I wouldn’t still show up everyday-seventeen years later after I started. We work hard everyday. We tell children that the odds are in their favor, even when we know they have so many stacked against them.  We persist and ask them to do the same, even when things are hard. We build hope every minute of every day. We don’t let test scores, school report card grades, or school to school unfair comparisons discourage and define us. We march forward in spite of it all, sometimes pretending to be oblivious to what is really being asked of us and what our students are really facing outside of the school day. However, it’s high time all of us (educators, policy makers, community members, and everyone else) take a deeper look at poverty and its’ layered and complex impact on public education.
Last weekend, I read an article on the implications of poverty on children and their school achievement. The Early Catastrophe, You can read more on this study here. The article describes a research study by Hart and Riley in which they studied 42 children beginning at birth. They specifically sought to find the difference in language and vocabulary acquisition and expression at various income levels. What they found, astonished me. By age three, there was nearly a 30 million word gap between children of affluent families and their impoverished peers. Some have criticized their study noting that the methodology was flawed while others have cited it as clear evidence that the achievement gap begins in the womb. While research is an important piece of information that assist educators in our decision making in schools, the personal narrative of teachers, principals, and students cannot be ignored. So often we hear the importance of triangulated data, yet as schools we are judged on one quantitative measure. The personal narratives matter too.
This morning I read an article that nearly brought me to tears. The article, in today’s Washington Post, Graduate, but to What?, paints the bleak picture of a high school senior’s journey to graduation and his quest for life afterwards trying to find a job. It seems life dealt him a bad hand from the moment he entered the world. He left the hospital with his grandmother from birth. Never receiving the nurturing and love all kids need from their mother, for its’ the natural order of species on earth. The article goes on to cite roadblock after roadblock, some caused by poverty, some by poor decision making that he faced. Summarily, it gives the reader an inside view to how intergenerational poverty and where you grow up poor, has far deeper implications on the future of children as opposed to circumstantial poverty. This quote from the article, moved me so deeply: “Here in the Deep South, poverty perpetuates from generation to generation like in no other region of the country, data shows, and the obstacles that hold back new high school graduates shine a light on a vast economic struggle that differs in its expansiveness from the concentrated problems seen in urban hubs.” It’s an article worth reading:
I have worked as a teacher, coach, assistant principal, and principal with students in the deep south, many of them from poverty. Perhaps it is the personal narratives that came rushing back to me from students whose hope I am working to restore or build or maintain, because no matter how positive I am, trauma, poverty, violence, and mere chaos surrounds them every minute that they are not in school. Poverty matters and so does a quality education. Over my seventeen years in education, I’ve heard many say, “Look at you. Being poor is not an excuse.” They are right. Poverty is not an excuse, but it is an explanation. While it may not be the only explanation, to dismiss it as an excuse and not give any credence as to the role it plays in the lives of our students is abysmal. It matters, just as high quality teaching, great leadership, and focused efforts matter. It matters too.
It is an explanation for why obtaining a high quality education is so much more challenging for students of poverty than for others. It is an explanation for why paying attention in class is difficult when you are hungry, or cannot see, and do not have the glasses you need. It is an explanation for why your papers are not signed by a parent, because they are working multiple jobs and are only home to sleep. It is an explanation for why studying is difficult when there are not lights in the house because some other priority (food, shelter, transportation) took precedence over the electric bill, and the person who should help you can’t because they do not know how to help, not because they do not want to do so. It is an explanation for why bringing in your project proves to be not worth the trouble of explaining to your teacher why you did not follow all the criteria on their list because you used what you could find to complete it rather than having all the requirements that the other kids parents did for them anyway. It is an explanation for why some students are quick to anger, cry, or have trouble placing the trauma they face from home (abuse, neglect, drug addiction, domestic violence, alcoholism, unemployment) on “the shelf” for seven hours so they can focus on their education to get out of the situation they are currently in right now. It is an explanation for why I graduated from Clemson University, with several thousand dollars in student loans, and used a great portion of my income to further my education for all three of my graduate degrees. It takes money to borrow money. Some people just don’t get that. I’m proudly Dr. Latoya Dixon, but that title has a $30,000.00 price tag along with the hardest academic work I’ve ever done. 
So I agree. Poverty is not an excuse. There were no excuses made for my sisters and me. My mother would tell us, “an excuse is whatever you want it to be”. However, poverty was an explanation of why my mother begged the used car dealer to give her the loan on a 1987 Ford Tarus in 1991, even though her credit did not warrant such, and even after he said no, so she would have dependable transportation to get my sister to college and back home. Sad part of this is that the car broke down on us taking my sister back to college after Christmas of her freshman year. And so the cycle of fixing the car continued taking priority over other things that we needed. It is an explanation of why I began working at McDonald’s at age 15 and saved as much money as possible until the summer of my sophomore year in college, because I knew to become a teacher, I would have to do student teaching and catching a ride was old. People get tired of taking you and they overcharge for gas money because they can. It is an explanation for why my sisters and I sharpened pencils with butter knives, and made glue with flour and water, and used shoeboxes and coat hangers to do our projects for school, instead of the beautiful three section backboards that were often required in our projects-taking a lower grade for not following directions when we did the best we could. In a recent conversation with one of my sisters, I said to her, “Thank God we grew up poor where we did.” As I continue to read more research about economic mobility and intergenerational poverty, the more I believe that if my mother had raised us in a different geographic area of the country, our story’s ending might not be quite the same. 
So no, poverty is not an excuse for why students are not performing as others say they should be or to the standard required by state policy makers. It is, however, most certainly an explanation for why their performance so greatly differs from others who are not experiencing the trauma and crisis that often comes with being poor. To simply dismiss it as an excuse is wrong (in my humble opinion). It’s like dismissing addiction because we know that cigarettes, drugs, and alcohol aren’t good for the body or mind. While we realize that smoking can cause lung cancer, we don’t bother to help those who desire to quit and can’t because they are addicted, because addiction is no excuse for continuing to smoke, or drink, or do drugs for that matter. Make sense? It doesn’t to me either.
WE are the miracle workers in education. We don’t just talk about the issues. We work to make things happen. We are on the ground level day in and day out helping our children in a world where it might seem impossible to them that they can make it out of their situations. We are the miracle workers who come in early, stay late, give of our personal selves and resources, to make the educational experience the best it can be for all of our students. And yes, it is our job and professional responsibility, but some days it seems the moral obligation of such belongs only to us. 
In a discussion on twitter with my co-principal and a fellow administrator in a different state, we began discussing our reactions to The Early Catastrophe. When my co-principal posed the idea of universal early childhood education, the other colleague asked, “Should tax payers bear the burden?” I don’t think I ever answered him, but here’s my honest answer:
We all bear the burden. We build schools and give our best effort to build productive, contributing, and productive citizens in spite of all they face. When we create a more educated society everyone benefits. Personally, I’d rather bear the burden of building a preschool instead of a prison. While I don’t have all the answers for how we combat such an overwhelming problem with sobering statistics, I certainly know that I’ve had the opportunity to serve with some of the most committed, dedicated, and hardest working people who are trying to work miracles, in spite of the accountability rhetoric that names our schools as failing, and our children as numbers in a data set. Behind every number there is a story…and WE are the miracle workers.
Until next time-be you, be true, and be a hope builder,

Our Pain is Our Power.

Today I listened to a great keynote speaker at the Responsive Classroom Leadership Conference. The speaker was Ceasar Cruz. He was awesome and inspiring. What I liked most about what he shared is that he was honest. Sometimes his honesty was painful. He crammed so much information into an hour and fifteen minutes and I have a new list of books I want to read. But mostly, he helped me to reach the realization that often it is our pain that gives us our power.

I, too, like him have spent time sharing the story of my childhood and how I grew up and into who I am with multiple audiences. People are inspired when they hear how my sisters and I trudged our way through a life of poverty to accomplish a great deal. I go through all my barriers-single parent home, absent father, rebellious child, basketball playing curious girl who wasn’t a bad rapper, growing up in the projects in South Carolina. I’ve often looked at so many of my obstacles as pain, but Cesar Cruz helped me realize that my pain is now my power.

Growing up the way I did taught me many things: Efficiency. Determination. Resiliencey. Courage. Focused. Delayed Gratification. So much can be learned from the absence of what we believe makes a well rounded childhood. And I’m not sure the presence of what we believe to be the necessary components of a stable and productive childhood are a garauntee for success either. What I am sure of, is that growing up in my circumstances gave me a sense of power that others don’t always have and can’t produce.

When things go awry, I often remind myself, “This is nothing,” because usually it is no comparison to the things my sisters and I faced and overcame. Not having my father around taught me one thing-Do it anyway. No matter the circumstance you face-Do it anyway. No matter the situation-Do it anyway. So what if people don’t believe in you or aren’t sure you can accomplish the goals you have set for yourself. Do it anyway. Figure out what you want and go for it!

Not having money taught me something else-Figure it out. I am a creative problem solver. I know how to “make do” as my mother would say in a way I would not otherwise know and I recognize that it is not the end of the world. There is a way around almost everything. If you are faced with a situation that requires your creativity, you instantly become a lot more creative.

Growing up in the projects gave me something else-A sense of intuition that I have a hard time verbalizing. I read people well and I sense things around me and in others that are not spoken aloud.  Developing an appreciation for Tupac’s linguistic abilities and attempting to imitate him in my own raps that I started writing in 5th grade taught me that I can be an intellectual who loves rap. I do not have to choose to be one or the other. I can be both-and my students appreciate that although I am not sure others understand it or even desire to see the complexity of layers within my personality.

For a long time in my life, I saw my obstacles as pain, but I have learned to use them as power. I recognize that I have developed a tenacity that cannot be inspired in someone, but only earned through experience. I have a determination that I have developed over time by facing obstacle after obstacle and overcoming each one. So my pain is my power. Now, all I have to do is figure out is how to get my students to see their pain as their power. Ideas anyone?

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

Tradition-The Enemy to Great Schools? Part 2 #imaginary schools

The more I think about this topic, the more ideas I have. To rethink how we operate within the educational institution, would mean totally scrapping everything we know about how teaching and learning should occur. This is a grand task. In a conversation with my co-principal, we recalled that between that we’ve each had 34 first days of school. After experiencing school in it’s traditional fashion for over 30 years now, I’ve decided that what we need is a real shake up. Not an innovative way to do things that we’ve traditionally done, but a true way to do the opposite of all we’ve ever known. I continue to look at the traditions that keep us from being truly innovative.

Tradition #4 Personalized Learning with Generalized Accountability
Why is it that we have spent so much time on the whole child and personalizing the learning experiences that we provide for students, yet generalizing their academic success or lack there of? I find it quite interesting that although we know students do not begin their academic journeys in the same place, we make no adjustments to the finish line. Proficiency has no personalization. The emphasis on standardized testing and student achievement create this oxymoron.  But in my imaginary school, taking into account the needs and styles of a variety of learners won’t end at the learning experience. We’ll extend that to personalized academic goals. Mastery will be our focus and we’ll accept that mastery may happen at different times for different students at no consequence if the “end of year” test arrives and students just aren’t there YET.

Tradition #5 Academic Priority before Social, Emotional, and Leadership Learning
Why is it we squeeze out time to provide students with direct instruction on self regulation, making and maintaining eye contact, tracking the speaker, and other pro-social and pro-learning behaviors? We’ve become so hyper focused on test scores and data, that in some ways, we’ve sacrificed these important skills. Also, why aren’t we teaching students what it means to be a leader and what leadership looks like? Oh, wait, we don’t have time! We’re so busy being sure we are teaching content in time for the assessment! But in my imaginary school, we’ll start our day with this kind of teaching and embed it though out the day. Learning behaviors that help students succeed will be more important than the academic content itself because we know the second cannot happen without the first. Our work won’t be driven by test scores in my #imaginaryschool.

As I continue to think about how we might reinvent school, I get more excited about thinking about breaking all the rules. I keep sharing the #imaginaryschool, and I’ve already got some folks who have tweeted that they’d love to join the movement. I wonder what we might come up with if we can just keep thinking about what we’d like for our imaginary school to be for ourselves and our students. I’m guessing we could blow ourselves away. Tweet your ideas with the hashtag #imaginaryschool. I can’t wait to read them.

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

Tradition, The Enemy to Great Schools? #imaginaryschool

I’ve been thinking. I do that often these days. I recently posed a question to myself. What are the traditional measures of schooling that impact our ability to do what the research says we should? I have a few theories. Bear with me.

Tradition #1: The Faculty Meeting

We know that collaboration is key to improving teacher efficacy and student achievement, yet we fill up teacher time to do this with meeting after meeting. And we don’t dare not use the all the time that’s alloted for these staff meetings. After all we know teachers work best after teaching for 7 hours and are bright eyed and ready to learn after school.

What if we cut faculty meetings to the bare minimum? Meet once a month and utilize technology for communication beyond this monthly meeting. How might this give more time for teachers to actually plan instead of sitting and listening to all the things they need to add to their to do list? What if we didn’t try to get the attention of teachers after a full day of work? I haven’t worked outside of the education realm, but I’m wondering if corporations like Apple, Google, and Amazon schedule their meetings after work. I’m guessing the answer is no. I’m always amazed by the educators who talk about Google’s 20% time they provide to their employees, and then claim to implement the same thing in their schools but conveniently forget the autonomy to work on what you want to work on that comes with it. Are you mad at me yet?

Tradition # 2: The Planning Period
If we want teachers to be designers of engaging, authentic, and rigorous curriculum, we might want to rethink the traditional planning period. I remember my first encounter with this thought. As a new elementary school AP, I wondered how teachers of all subjects for 20+ kids design work and plan in 45 minutes? Take away the time it takes to escort their kids to art, music, etc, to use the bathroom, and to return a parent phone call, and you can easily watch 45 minutes become 25 minutes. Add to that a grade level meeting and there you have it-no planning. We continually ask teachers to design quality work that is challenging and engaging for students, yet give them little time to develop it. Designing this type of work should mirror the same rigor and challenge we want students to experience when they engage with it. This takes time and lots of it. I’m baffled by how we ask teachers to do amazing things in ridiculously small amounts of time that’s often compromised with duties, meetings, and more.

What if we moved to a 4 day school week and the fifth day was a full day of collaborative planning for teachers? What if we held no more than two formal staff meetings a month? One might be a faculty meeting and the other a grade level or department meeting.  What if we stopped being suckers for education publishers who promise they have the best worksheet aligned  to our standards, even though they have never met our students? If we gave teachers the time they needed to plan, we’d call the planning period the meeting period with a bathroom break and move to a four day school week with a full day planning period. Are you imagining this yet?

Tradition #3: The Solo Principalship
Although we know collaboration is critical for our professional development, we continue to make administrative roles solo ones. Other than our traditional monthly principal meetings, we don’t create structures for principals to collaborate. The same is true for assistant principals and other administrative roles as well as for our fine arts teachers in many instances. We expect a single person to increase the individual efficacy of a dynamic and complex group of people. Realistic? Not at all.
If collaboration is good for classroom teachers, isn’t it good for everyone else?

I continue to believe more and more that we need to rethink how we do school. This means moving away from the way we’ve traditionally conceptualizer education and thinking about this differently is a real challenge. That’s why I’m creating an imaginary school in my head. There’s no model for me to reference so I’m starting from scratch. Too often in education we go searching for an example of what we’d like to see. This forces us back into traditional thinking and doesn’t push us to be innovative. Tweaking an already established idea isn’t innovation. It’s replication with a twist. So my challenge to educators is simply this: Let’s redesign school and totally forget everything we already know. What’s there to lose! If you’re interested in being a part ofmy imaginary school, follow me on Twitter @latoyadixon5 using the hashtag #imaginaryschool and tweet your thoughts and ideas. Ready to join? Let’s start a movement!

Until next time- Be true. Be you. Be a hope builder!


Walking In A Teacher’s Shoes: Do Your Feet Hurt Yet?

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about what an audacious task teachers have before them. I’ve tried to really think like a teacher and consider what is asked of them on a daily basis. I began my career as a teacher in the late 1990’s but so much has changed about the way we educate kids. In a conversation with a new teacher who shared with me his astonishment at the varied number of academic levels in each of his math classes, I suggested to him to consider differentiating and utilizing more small group instruction as a way to meet the needs of every student. I offered my support. I told him I was willing to sit down and plan with him when he was ready to implement this in his classroom. He was grateful and thanked me. I told him I did not want him to feel overwhelmed, but whenever he was ready to move in that direction, I’d be happy to help him plan for this.

Several days later our conversation came back to me on a drive home. As I chatted with my co-principal I began telling him how incredibly difficult, time consuming, and complex planning can be when a teacher truly makes an attempt to differentiate in their classroom. It’s like writing a lesson plan for 26 kids, I told him. The entire planning process is different and requires so much more time.

Today, we are no longer asking teachers to write lesson plans, but learner plans. We are asking them to take a look at each student’s strengths and weaknesses, and plan for how they might bring that student to proficiency based in their learning needs and styles. What a grand request! A planning period doesn’t begin to meet the time requirement needed to accomplish this. Then we top it off by utilizing our teachers’ planning periods to hold meetings, requiring them to submit meeting minutes, asking them to listen to us talk about the important upcoming meetings and calendar events, or quizzing them to see if they have read the book study book or viewed the latest greatest video we’ve seen as principals and thought was so awesome, or we use it to conduct a professional development session. Some meetings can’t be avoided, but we can be more strategic and focused about when we meet and how often we do so.

As principals, it is our duty to protect the time of teachers. I’ve always been a proponent of meeting less and collaborating more. As I reflected on my conversation I began to feel an overwhelming sense of panic about what I’d suggested to the teacher. I recognized that I needed to go back to him and offer to help again. I understood we would need multiple days to really plan for this and get it right. And so I will do just that.

However, it doesn’t take away from the fact that what we ask if teachers is incredibly complex. How we support their work matters. We can’t do that by filling up their calendars or creating due dates with non priority matters. I’ve never been a collector of lesson plans for this reason. For most of my career I’ve known teachers who were required to turn them in yet received no feedback on them. The reality of the situation is this, how many principals have the time to give every individual teacher the feedback on their lesson plans that they deserve? Very few that I know. Instead, I ask teachers to have their plans available because I feel confident that I know good instruction when I see it. A lesson plan doesn’t tell me if the teacher has the ability to use the pedagogical knowledge that they have or to adjust and monitor in the midst of a lesson when students aren’t understanding. Collecting them in my opinion is an excercise in futility. Feedback I provide from an observed lesson and a collaborative follow up conversation has proved to be far more valuable to me and the teacher. So…that’s what I do.

This year marks the tenth year since I have not been a teacher in the classroom. What I fear most is forgetting what it is like to be a teacher in the classroom and making decisions that I truly don’t see the impact of on the classroom teacher. Because of that I sub when possible and on Friday I did just that in a reading class. I do it, not because I have the time, but because it keeps me grounded. It helps me keep my feet in the shoes of a teacher and ultimately it helps me make better decisions in the instructional leadership realm.

The support we provide to teachers as lead learners and principals is critical. It is hard to lead someone if you are not familiar with their daily experiences. An immersion back into the classroom can be very valuable to administrators. So I challenge the principals out there to teach for a day. Give a teacher an additional planning period and cover their class. Plan a lesson for a class and teach it. Walk in their shoes every once in a while.

You’ll be amazed at how that will feed your instructional leadership perspective. Do your feet hurt yet? Mine do.

Until Next Time- Be true, Be you, & Be a Hope Builder!


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
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