Recess Baseball Club: Season 2 (The Sugar Beets Edition)

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”  – Helen Keller

Two years ago I started a recess baseball club at Hemmeter Elementary School.  It was a way for me to share my passion for baseball with the students while also building relationships.  When kids see their principal in a t-shirt, shorts, and Detroit Tigers baseball cap, it allows them to see you through a different lens.  I first wrote about recess baseball club in the following blog post:

https://classroomcommunities.com/2017/09/09/building-relationships-in-unexpected-ways-the-story-of-recess-baseball-club/

I noticed that sometime around the beginning of April, the kids were buzzing on the playground about baseball.  Not a day would go by that someone didn’t ask, “Are we doing recess baseball club again this year?” I set the dates for each day in May and decided to see if I could find some community support to help with recess baseball this year.  A friend suggested contacting a new Collegiate Summer Baseball team that had just formed in Saginaw, the Saginaw Sugar Beets. I was hoping that we could get them to come out for one recess baseball game to play with the students. I knew the students would think it was awesome to play with some real college baseball players.  The community has amazing potential to provide wonderful experiences to students, all you have to do is just reach out and ask.

I met with a representative from the Sugar Beets the following week.  We talked about the team coming to Saginaw and how they really wanted to put roots in the community.  They wanted to be more than just a local baseball team; they wanted to help grow a love for baseball with kids in the community as well.  I told him about our recess baseball club and asked if the players would be willing to visit for a day to play with the students. He loved the idea, but asked if we would be interested in having the Sugar Beets more involved.  Of course I was!

After a 45 minute brainstorming session, ideas for a way to form an awesome partnership between the Sugar Beets and Hemmeter Elementary were created.  The Sugar Beets agreed to send players to every single recess baseball club game in May. The students were so excited for the first day, and the Sugar Beet players didn’t disappoint.  I was immediately impressed with how well the players connected with the students. They took time to talk to each student. They would talk about video games, school work, and (of course) baseball.  They were always positive and genuinely interested in each student and the students loved talking to them. The following two interactions impressed me the most and really show the great community and school partnership that was formed during this experience.  

A kindergarten student was swinging at pitch after pitch, but the result was miss after miss.  The kindergarten student told him, “I never hit the ball. I haven’t hit it once in my tee ball games yet.” The Sugar Beet pitcher came over to the player and asked him his name and where he played tee ball.  He showed him how he was chopping at the ball and explained in kid-friendly language why chopping made it hard to hit the ball. He corrected his stance and had him take some level practice swings. He asked the student when his next tee ball game was before going back to pitching.  Sure enough, after a couple more misses, the student started hitting the ball fairly consistently. Two days later, I heard the player call the student over, by name, and ask him how his tee ball game went the night before and if he got a hit. He did. The Sugar Beets players see over 200 students during their time at recess baseball club.  The fact that he remembered the student’s name and the day of his next tee ball game shows how invested the players were in the students.

recess baseball2

During the same week, I watched another Sugar Beet player working one on one with a student on pitching.  The student told him he was going to be pitching for the first time ever in his Little League game. The player took the time to show him some tricks of the trade to help his first experience be a successful one.  After the practice, the Sugar Beet player that was working with him asked me where South Little League was located because if he got done with a meeting early, he wanted to go watch the student pitch. This Sugar Beet player was going to watch a student pitch in his Little League game.  That is the powerful bond that can be formed when you build community and school relationships. Can you imagine that students excitement when a Sugar Beet player showed up to his Little League game?

The Sugar Beet players had such a great time at recess ball club that they offered to do some after school camps for the students. The camps provided fun, high-quality instruction on the basics in softball and baseball.  At the end of camp, I was blown away when the Sugar Beets said they had a surprise for the students. They provided every student that participated in the camp with a Sugar Beets t-shirt, bubblegum, and two tickets to the first Sugar Beets game.  Furthermore, they gave the students a code so they could get $4 tickets to all Sugar Beets games during the season. All of this was done as a complete surprise. The organization said the players had enjoyed their time so much that they wanted to do something nice for the kids and were so excited to see the kids they had gotten to know over the past month at the games cheering them on.  

recess baseball

Recess baseball club continues to be an experience the kids look forward to each year.  I am so glad that I reached out to the Saginaw Sugar Beets to form a community partnership this year.  It has been a great relationship for all of us. This wonderful experience already has me thinking about more relationship building we can do next year in the community.  These partnerships provide experiences that we will never forget.

How My Fitbit Made Me a Better Principal

Earlier this week, I received an email that I have been waiting four months to receive.  This long awaited email was from Fitbit and it was my 30 pound weight loss badge. Fitbit awards users various types of badges for accomplishing different things: number of steps in a day, total steps since joining, flights of stairs climbed, and total weight loss.  I’m very proud of this accomplishment. I have stuck with my New Year’s resolution for four months. During that time, I have logged at least 10,000 steps every single day. I have more energy, my blood pressure has greatly improved, and I even started playing hockey in a men’s league.  My health is better thanks to a change in diet and exercise. My Fitbit plays a big part in keeping me motivated with both. My Fitbit has also helped to make me a better principal.

30 lbs

I didn’t notice it right away.  In fact, when I first bought my Fitbit, I thought it would be a pretty useless tool for me.  My daily routine was pretty set, and I was certain I had about 10,000 steps every day. To prove this, I decided to make no lifestyle changes when I first bought the Fitbit.  I was just going to follow my normal week and check the results. As an elementary principal, I am pretty active during the day and assumed I easily would amass 10,000 steps without even thinking about it.  Wrong! I was shocked to see that during my test week my steps per day ranged from 3,238 (Did someone carry me to work? I am pretty sure it’s more steps than that to walk to and from the building.) to 14,730 (Recess soccer with the fifth graders is so much fun).  My average for the week was 8,340 steps.

When I reflected back on the week, I noticed 2 days were really low (3,238 steps and 5,098 steps).  Furthermore, I had 2 days that were pretty high (13,294 steps and 14,730 steps). I thought about my attitude during the week, my stress level on those days, and how much energy I had for family time at the end of the day.  It is probably not surprising that there was a direct correlation between number of steps I took in a day and how I felt at the end of the day. More steps = more energy, less stress, and a better attitude. My Fitbit became a tool for school culture.  I am the leader of the school, and I can’t be the best me if I have low energy, high stress, and a bad attitude.

I quickly realized that I didn’t feel better just because I was taking more steps during the day.  I felt better because the activities that required me to take steps were also the activities that are essential for being a good principal.  Coincidentally, these are also the activities that make being a principal an awesome job. Examples include activities like frequently visiting classrooms in the building, talking to kids and engaging in recess games with them, and walking around before and after school talking to parents and teachers.  I also realized that the activities that didn’t require me to take steps are also the activities that are necessary but also the boring part about being principal. They are activities like answering emails, filling out never ending reports, and reading memos…long, long memos. All of those things are essential parts of my job that I am required to complete.  However, it is way too easy to get stuck in my office doing those things and neglect the importance of being out in the building.

One feature on my Fitbit that I love is the hourly reminder to get at least 250 steps.  There is no excuse for me, as a principal, to go a full hour without ever talking to a student during the school day.  Reports have to be completed and emails have to be answered, but students are the most important part of my job. That alert on my Fitbit reminds me of that very thing.  Principals have more and more responsibilities every year. Recent surveys show that principals are more stressed than ever and have more demands on their time than ever before.  It is easy to get stuck in my office all day long. My Fitbit helps to remind me how important it is to not let that happen.

Last week was the perfect example of how powerful this simple tool has been for me as a principal.  I was bogged down with state testing paperwork and school improvement surveys. I needed to send letters to incoming families, write a 504 plan, and hadn’t even started writing an evaluation report that was due to the Superintendent.  No way was I getting out of my office but that pesky buzz reminded me that I had been sitting for 50 minutes without taking a single step. Although I almost ignored it, I also can’t deal with a missing red dot on my Fitbit app, so I stood up and headed out of my office.  Get the 250 steps and get back to work on the reports.
Amazing things happen at Hemmeter every day and I can’t ignore them even if I have a mound of reports due.  Outside the office, I started talking to students and visiting classrooms and chatting about books and posting pictures to our Facebook page.  An hour (and 3,300 steps later) I felt recharged. I helped a teacher fix their Promethean Board, watched students present to parents about what they learned during a coding unit, learned from students how to use MicroBits, witnessed the largest Keva block tower I have ever seen, and did an impromptu book talk on Ghost Boys to a student browsing my principal’s bookshelf.  I’m glad I didn’t ignore that Fitbit alert. I would have missed an awful lot sitting in my office.

What’s the Matter, Child?

I had the privilege of presenting at the annual Michigan Reading Association (MRA) conference last week with two amazing colleagues: Kelly Hendrick and Nicol Howald. MRA is always a fantastic conference, but this year I was even more excited because one of my favorite authors, Jason Reynolds, was presenting.  I had my copy of Ghost, When I was the Greatest,  All American Boys, and A Long Way Down packed in my suitcase.  When I arrived at the event, I picked up the program and scanned for sessions that Jason was leading.  I was both surprised and disappointed to see that Jason’s only event was guest speaker at the luncheon on day two.  I was even more disappointed when I discovered that luncheon was sold out. I brushed off the disappointment and was ready to make the best of the rest of the conference.  The first day ended up being great. Our group decided to meet up in the hotel restaurant that night to share our learning and reflect on the conference. As we were getting up to leave, a gentleman walked past me.  It took me a second to react, “Nicol, that’s him! That’s Jason Reynolds leaving the restaurant.”

Like two crazy groupies, we took off speed-walking after him through the hotel.  We were still about 50 feet away when he got to the elevator. I was ready to give up. I had resigned that I just wasn’t destined to meet Jason at this conference.  Luckily, Nicol was not willing to accept that fate. She took off sprinting and reached her arm in the elevator just as it was about to close. “You’re Jason Reynolds, right?” she asked.  I am sure he was a bit shocked, but he didn’t immediately sound the alarm on the elevator which was a good sign. Instead he graciously stepped out of the elevator and shook our hands. We spent the next couple of minutes talking about how much we loved his books (No, he would not tell us what happens after A Long Way Down).  We assured him we don’t usually run people down in the hotel lobby, but told him this was probably going to be our only chance to tell him how much we loved his books.  We explained our confusion about him not having any sessions other than the lunch engagement and how we didn’t sign up for it in time. He ended by telling us to just come to the luncheon.  There is always standing room in the back.

Although they didn’t have food for us, the MRA organizers were gracious enough to let us attend after telling them our Jason Reynolds’ elevator story.  Jason’s speech was as humorous and inspiring as I imagined. One part really stuck with me though. He was telling a story about his mother, a teacher. She taught him to always make decisions based on love.  He shared that she modeled this in her classroom by asking students a simple question when they were misbehaving or  not engaged. She would simply ask the student, “What’s the matter, child?” Mrs. Reynolds knows what all of us know deep down: a misbehaving child is often facing another underlying problem.   Sometimes the most compassionate, most effective, and most obvious thing we can do as educators is simply ask, “What’s the matter, child?”

MRA is always an amazing weekend of learning.  Weekend conferences are great because they don’t require you to be gone from school, but they can also be difficult because you don’t get much downtime before you are right back at it the next week.  The travel and lack of sleep can make for a rough first day back, especially when you start the day by putting out a couple of fires from the previous week. So when a teacher called down to the office for a second time about a student that was being disrespectful, I had run out of patience.  I went down to the classroom and asked the student to come out into the hall. We talked privately and I told him to grab his stuff and we would continue this conversation in the office. I fully intended to suspend this student, send him home and let his parents deal with his attitude for the day.  I had my mind made up as I walked down the hallway. He slouched down in the chair in my office, arms crossed, eyes defiant. I stared at him for a couple of seconds choosing my next words carefully. Although frustration and tiredness were on the tip of my tongue, Jason Reynolds’ mom was whispering in my ear as I asked the boy, “What’s the matter, son?”

We spent the next two hours talking in my office.  Without giving too many personal details, he shared why he was so angry.  He had every right to be. It’s easy to forget the hardships our students are facing each day.  Just like the students in Mrs. Reynolds’ class, he was misbehaving for a reason. He was trying to get attention, any attention he could.  As the conversation continued, I could see the defiance melt away from his eyes. Instead of suspending, I decided to mentor. We now meet every day.  We talk about what is going on in his life, how to better deal with stress and anger, and I try to support his passions. I recognized right away that he loved to draw based on the Dogman comics he had created in his notebook.  I told him it was the best Dogman drawing I had seen. We spent a lot of time talking about the behavior expectations of the school. Being respectful to the teacher was non-negotiable. We brainstormed some ways to better deal with his anger.  He sat down with the teacher and apologized. He explained what he was going to do to better handle the situation in the future. He accepted responsibility for his actions and was back in class.

I could have easily suspended the student.  It may have even led to a change in behavior for a couple of days.  I don’t want to change behavior for a couple of days. I want to change behavior long term.  I want to build a relationship with the student so they want to change their behavior. I believe when we put the child first that we can change the entire trajectory of their life.  I really felt like I had gotten through to the student. I knew I could mentor him and make a difference. I wasn’t naive enough to think that change would be easy or immediate. I knew we would hit bumps in the road.  However, I didn’t expect to see the student and teacher in my office again just two hours later.

“Mr. Bailey, Kevin* has something he wants to tell you.”

“I made this for you,” he said and handed me a brand new Dogman picture he had drawn.

art

“This is the picture drawn by the amazing artist and Hemmeter student that now sits framed in my office.”

*Not the actual name of the student to protect his privacy.

12:00 a.m. Phone Calls

12:00 a.m. phone calls are never fun.

First ring:  Foggy, confused.  What is that noise?  Am I dreaming?  Phone lit up.

Second ring:  Focus eyes.  Screen is too bright.  12:01 a.m.  A call from Saginaw Township Community Schools.  What?  Did I over sleep?  No, it says 12:01 a.m.  That’s too early.  Sudden panic!

Third ring:  Leap out of bed, fumble with the phone, accidentally pull the charger out of the wall.  Adrenaline is pumping.  What is going on?

Hit green accept button just before the fourth ring.

This is a message from Saginaw Township Community Schools.  All STCS schools are closed tomorrow, Monday February 26th, due to a threat circulating on Social Media. This will give the Saginaw Township Police Department and school administration time to investigate. As always, the safety of our students and staff is our first priority.

All Child Care is closed

Staff need not report.”

I had to immediately go to my email to read the text from the phone call.  My brain is still a little cloudy and I can’t process what I just heard.  I still question if I’m dreaming.

Snow days, cold days, freezing rain days, and foggy days still give me butterflies even as a 39-year old adult.  The butterflies are still there at 12:03 a.m. but the feeling is completely different.  Sadness, fear, frustration, and anger.  

I open the Facebook app on my phone and start scrolling.  Parents are getting the calls at the same time.  Several posts, similar sentiments:

“This is getting ridiculous.”

“This is out of hand.  I don’t even have words for this.  Frustrating.”

“School is canceled tomorrow because of a threat on social media.  I am grateful that our school takes it seriously, but this is getting crazy.”

I shake my wife and tell her about the message.  She sits straight up just as confused.  Suddenly my son stumbles into my bedroom.  Hair sticking up, Michigan t-shirt and pajama pants, barely awake, but startled by the strange phone call.  He heard my wife and I talking about school being canceled. “We don’t have school tomorrow?” he innocently asks.  “I checked, we don’t even have any snow.”  I can almost feel my heart break just a bit.  Deep breath.  Swallow the frog clinging to my throat.  Quick cough.

“We will talk about it in the morning, buddy.  Just go back to sleep.”  What do you say to a 9-year old and a 5-year old?  How do you explain a gun threat day?  How is this even happening?  How did we get here?

I wish I could follow my own advice, but that’s not happening as my mind is racing and running through a gauntlet of emotions.  After ten minutes of tossing and turning, I head to the living room.  I try to distract myself by reading Elly Swartz’s new book, Smart Cookie, but find myself going back to my phone every few pages.  School shootings and school security have been on my brain almost nonstop since February 14th.  I have read countless blog posts (see Tony’s post and Aliza’s post on this blog), engaged in Facebook/Twitter discussions (some insightful and some completely asinine), listened to ideas from politicians and community members.  I have wept for the students at Stoneman Douglas and lost sleep wondering how this can happen again and again in our country.  The phone call hits me like a Ronda Rousey punch to the gut.  This is happening in our city, our community, our schools.

I don’t want the focus of this post to be on the debate on gun control or mental health.  There have been plenty of great articles published on both topics.  I do want to focus in on the increasing number of threats that are being made and shared on social media.  First, here is how I asked talking to both my sons.  For the kindergartener, I simply told him we are taking a day off to make sure everything in the school is safe.  He doesn’t need to know anything more than that.  It was a bit more complicated for the 4th grader.  He has heard bits and pieces from the news about the school shooting in Florida.  I told him that someone at the high school threatened to hurt some of the other students at school.  The person that made the threat was probably joking, but whenever there is a threat at schools it is taken very seriously and the police investigate it.  It happened late at night which means they didn’t have enough time to properly investigate so they canceled school to give the police more time.  The person that made the threat is going to be in big trouble with the police, even if it was just a joke.  It is never OK to joke about hurting other students.  If you ever hear any threats at school, make sure you let a teacher know.  I ended by assuring him that school was a very safe place.  I imagine the conversation would be different if my sons were middle or high school students.

I appreciate that I work in a district that puts school safety at the top of the priority list.  It was undoubtedly the right decision to cancel school.  Safety of the students always comes first.  This threat, like so many other recent copycat threats, turned out to be uncredible.  After an investigation by the police and FBI, it was determined that the message was copied and pasted and had likely been shared all over the country.  I have heard similar threats all around the country that turn out to be “jokes” or hoaxes. However, I don’t find anything funny about it.  I hope the police charge both the students and the parents to the full extent that the law allows when threats like this are made.  We have to send a clear and strong message that this type of “joke” will not be tolerated.  It’s offensive to the communities that have gone through real tragedies and increases the anxiety and fear in our students.  

As parents, we need to be responsible for our children.  Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter all require users to be at least 13 years of age as part of their terms of use.  Furthermore, just because your child is old enough to meet the terms of use for social media, doesn’t mean they should have unsupervised access.  Parents, we need to do a better job monitoring what our kids are doing online.  Smartphones, tablets, and Chromebooks can be great tools for learning, but they can also be tools for isolation, bullying, and threatening behavior.  Parents need to be held responsible for these tools.  We should all have our children’s passwords and let them know that we can ask to check them any time we want.  This isn’t a violation of privacy or trust, it is being a responsible parent.  I have talked to several families that take their kid’s phone at night.  I think that’s a responsible start.  Some other families have shared how they use apps like Kidslox to monitor and limit access.  As parents, we have to be responsible for knowing what is going on in our children’s lives.

As schools, we have to do more to build relationships with students.  I know the academic demands are greater than ever, but everything we do starts with a solid foundation of a relationship.  We need to check in with students frequently and make sure we have resources to help them when needed.  In almost every threat situation, there are signs that a child needed help.  We also need to spend time talking to our students about the seriousness of making threats.  They need to know these “jokes” are going to be investigated and will result in life-changing consequences.  

I want to thank and recognize the students in these schools where threats are happening.  They are doing exactly what we are teaching them to do: if you see or hear something unusual, report it to staff or the police.  When it comes to school safety, it is better to be safe and report something than let it go.  This is something we can fix.  As citizens, community members, schools, staff, and students – it is time to say enough.  Stop the violence.  Stop the threats.  Stop the hate.  This needs to stop now.  America, we are better than this!  

As I was finishing this post, my cell phone rang.  It was my wife.  She said her school was on lockdown because shots were just fired at Central Michigan University.  Central Michigan University is just a couple of miles from her school.  It turns out 1:00 p.m. phone calls are just as terrifying.

Recharge, Refill, Refresh

As an elementary principal, I consider it a call to action when one of my best teachers walks into the lounge and says, “I just need to get through this week.  I will give myself an attitude adjustment over the weekend, but I just need to get through Friday.”  Late January can be an incredibly tough time for a teacher in Michigan.  It’s dark as you drive to school and it’s dark when you drive home.  It’s often too cold for the kids to go outside during the day. (Our district has a policy that the windchill must be at least 10 degrees Fahrenheit to go outside.  I personally hate this policy, by the way, but that is another blog post).  It is the heart of NWEA testing season and Spring Break is still months away.  Even with a great school culture and positive teachers, late January can be rough.  

This amazing teacher I mentioned wasn’t complaining.  She was simply acknowledging her feelings and sharing with supportive colleagues.  Although she wasn’t looking for anyone to solve her problem, I knew I wanted to do something for her.  She is an absolute rock star teacher.  She always has a positive attitude.  She serves on many committees, leads professional development in the district, constantly reads professional books, listens to education podcast while she works out, and is never afraid to try a new idea.  If you could genetically create the perfect teacher, she would be your outcome.  So I knew if she was feeling stuck in a rut, it’s likely others were feeling the same way.

I started thinking about how I could help with her self-proclaimed “attitude adjustment.”  I spent quite a bit of time brainstorming ideas to lessen the stress just a little bit for her.  I thought about a note with some encouraging words or maybe a sweet treat, but neither idea seemed like it would really relieve that overworked stress. I started to think about one of the best gifts I have ever received.  It was from my superintendent last year.  He said, “I can’t give you a big bonus, but I can give you the gift of time as a thank you.”  He told the building principals in the district to take some time off and do something we enjoy. (By the way, I chose to spend my afternoon reading at my favorite local bookstore while sipping my favorite drink of choice…coffee).  This ‘gift of time’ was exactly what she needed.  I knew she was an avid reader and would appreciate nothing more than some quiet time to read, to recharge, to refill, and to refresh.  

Each staff member at Hemmeter Elementary completes a “Favorite Things” survey at the beginning of the year.  Once completed, we share the results in a Google Doc.  The survey includes things like favorite hot beverage, favorite magazine, favorite snack, favorite candy bar, and many more.  It’s a great resource if you want to give someone a token of appreciation or surprise them with a treat.  I checked the teachers’ favorite list and picked up a copy of the latest issue of People magazine, a XL pack of peanut M&Ms, a bottle of water, Cool Ranch Doritos, a frosted donut, and a Tim Hortons hot chocolate.  I put it all in a gift bag and headed down to her room.

I left the bag in the hallway and entered her room.  I asked if I could talk to her class for a couple of minutes.  She called her class to attention and alerted them that I wanted to talk to them.  “Can you please leave your work right on your desk, push in your chair, and quietly head across the hall to the computer lab.”  Everyone looked slightly confused, but they followed my instructions.  The teacher was at the end of the line, but I cut her off before she could exit.  I handed her the gift bag and told her the one rule: no work allowed.  I then told her I’d be back to deliver her class in 45 minutes.  

I took the kids over to the computer lab and I did something I love to do with the students: I played coding games with them. The students showed me the Scratch games they have been creating and we challenged each other to solve the different programs.  It was a blast!  About halfway through the allotted time, I received this picture from the teacher:
donut

Based on her tears when I left the room with her students, I know the teacher was very touched by the gesture.  This was about much more than giving a teacher some relaxation time.  It was about more than saying thank you with some of her favorite things.  It was about telling this teacher: “You are special, you are valued, you are appreciated, and when you need a pick me up, I have your back.”

I could sense the rest of the staff could use a little pick me up as well.  I went back to the “Favorite Things” Google Doc. and looked at the favorite hot beverage, favorite candy bar, and favorite donut list.  After a quick stop at Starbucks, Kroger, and Tim Hortons I had everyone’s favorite drink, candy, and donut.  I loaded them on a cart and went to visit each person including the kitchen crew, recess aides, and custodian, in the building.  It was a small gesture, but an unexpected one.  I think that is one of the things that made this meaningful.  It was a seemingly random act of kindness.  It was out of the blue on a random Friday in January.  No one was expecting it, but everyone needed it.  

In the end, the kicker is that I think I ended up getting recharged, refilled, and refreshed the most.  It feels good to do something nice for someone else.  It especially feels good to do something nice for the most amazing group of people I know: teachers.  Please share your random acts of kindness with me on Twitter @jcbailey3

Through Their Eyes: What Teachers Want Their Principals to Know

Psst!  Principals, over here.  We need to talk.  This blog post is for us.  More specifically, it’s about what we can do to support the most hard-working, amazing people I know: teachers.  It’s a rough time to be a teacher.  They are asked to do more and more with fewer resources and less support.  They likely have more students in their class each year and less dollars in their paycheck. Often times it’s easier for society to blame the teachers instead of looking in the mirror and facing the real problems that plague our country: poverty, lack of affordable healthcare, and opportunity inequalities.  These are big issues that we need to tackle, but they likely have long, slow solutions.  Fortunately, as principals, there are things we can do immediately to better support and appreciate our teachers.

I really want to be a good principal.  I care deeply about the students in the building and want them to have every opportunity to reach their full potential. I want my teachers to see themselves as I see them.  I want my teachers to feel valued, appreciated, and HAPPY.  I know I often come up short being the principal they need, but I am determined to do better.  If principals are going to better support teachers, we need to understand what they need and what they want us to know.  I can’t think of a better way to find this information other than asking.  So that is exactly what I did.  I sent the following email to several teacher friends from all different schools.

 

Hello,

I am working on a blog post for the new year.  I know the culture and climate surrounding teaching has been negative lately.  I know you probably feel like principals don’t always know the struggles, fears, obstacles, and vulnerabilities that you feel as a teacher.  If you have time and you’re comfortable, please respond to the following question:

What do you want your principal to know about your teaching, your classroom, or your students that they might not know?

All responses will be kept completely confidential.  The responses may be used in the blog post, but no names will be tied to any of it.  

Thank you in advance for your responses.

Jim

 

The responses were both incredible and eye-opening to me as a principal.  They were eerily similar to one another.  Regardless of the building, the grade level, or the experience level of the teacher, each and every response had a very similar message.  Here were the most frequent responses:

“I want my principal to know that I am doing my best and even though I make mistakes, I’m working to improve.”

“Don’t punish me for a job well done.  I can’t serve on every committee and serve on every team.  It is burning me out.”

“A little acknowledgement goes a long way.  A simple note, text, email, or passing word in the hallway makes my week.”

“Check in with me and be available.  I need a principal to listen.  I don’t need a solution to every problem but I want to know my voice is heard.”

“When you make a mistake, as we all do, own it.  Admit the mistake and try to correct it.”

“I want the principal to be a real person who is visible to teachers, students, and parents.  Be involved in the school activities and not just sitting in the office.”

“We believe in your (or the district’s) vision, but stick with it.  Give us time to implement new strategies and programs.  We can’t chase every shiny new idea.  Let’s pick good practices and perfect them before abandoning them or trying something new.”

However, this was the message that rang the loudest to me:

“Don’t forget what it’s like to be in the classroom.  The stresses, the demands, the pressures, and the many balls in the air.  Remember that lessons go wrong, especially when trying something new.  Teaching and learning is messy.”

I love the rawness and honesty of the responses I received from teachers.  They weren’t bitter, although you certainly couldn’t blame them if they were.  When they complained about lack of services, class size, or resources, it wasn’t because it was an inconvenience to them; it was because they cared deeply about helping their students.

We need to be better about acknowledging the tremendous work they do each day.  This can be a quick email, text, kind word in the hallway, or a sticky note on their computer.  We need to check in frequently and ask how we can better support them as teachers.  This can take many forms including covering classes for them so they can observe colleagues, providing more opportunities for collaboration and professional learning, and giving them time to implement new strategies.  We need to stop bouncing from new idea to new idea.  Instead, let’s focus on getting better at the strategies we are already using.  If we are going to preach for teachers to innovate and be risk takers, we need to understand that lessons will not always go as planned.  Teachers need to be praised for taking risks, not punished for a lesson not going perfectly.  I often tell my teachers, “I would rather have a lesson be a complete disaster while trying something new than have everything go according to plan with an outdated practice.”  

The message teachers want us to hear is loud and clear.  They are working as hard as they can.  They are doing everything in their power to help the students in their classroom.  The classroom is where the rubber meets the road.  Teachers are the ones working directly with students.  The responses to my email provide a roadmap on how we can better support them.  Principals, let’s make sure 2018 is the year every teacher in our building knows that we have their back and support their work.

Building Relationships in the Wilderness

This is my view from work today.

img_0180

It’s incredible, awe-inspiring, and beautiful.  Hartley Outdoor Education Center sits on 300 acres of hardwood forest.  It includes a pond, wetlands, historic coal mine, several original log cabins, and the Fowler one-room school house.  It is an educational staple in the Great Lakes Bay area in Michigan.  The three day, two night trip our fourth graders take every year is one of the most memorable experiences of their lives.  I don’t remember much about my own time in elementary school, but 28 years later I still remember every detail about Hartley.  I am fortunate that I am able to return every year with our fourth graders.  Hartley is so much more than just a nature center. It is an experience. It is an opportunity to truly get to know the students in your building in a way only an overnight trip can provide.  Hartley is the trip that turns your class into your family.

It starts with teamwork and collaboration.  The Confidence Course is one of four sessions that the students complete during their time at Hartley.  The students have to work together to complete a maze while blindfolded, build a log cabin with timbers, cross a moat on a rope swing, and find a way over a ten foot wall.  Regardless of how athletic or smart you are, these tasks cannot be completed without teamwork.  It never fails.  The students always struggle at first.  They struggle to listen to each other.  They struggle to take turns.  They struggle to get past the first obstacle.  Just when they seem to be at their breaking point, they come together.  The listen to each other.  They divide the tasks and share responsibilities.  They complete obstacle after obstacle TOGETHER.  You can almost see them becoming more kind and more empathetic right before your eyes.  Although the tasks are hard, they make success even that much sweeter.

One of my favorite things to do at Hartley is watch the students during free time after the confidence course.  They are not in their “normal” friend groups.  Everyone is talking to everyone.  Everyone is playing with everyone.  The relationship between the students has changed.  They are not classmates anymore.  They are family.  They forget about who is a rock star in math and who is the best soccer player.  It doesn’t matter who has the coolest clothes or the biggest house.  These people are your friends because they helped you across the moat, they encouraged you to swing when you were too scared to let your tiptoes leave the plank, and they believed in you and supported you.  These new qualities are so much more important than any of the previous status symbols.

Another session at Hartley is the outdoor survival course.  This course is built around the book Hatchet by Gary Paulsen.  Hatchet is one of my personal all time favorite books.  I read it when I did my student teaching in 4th grade, and it was the book that turned me into an avid reader.  The students, just like Brian in the book, have to learn to survive in the outdoors.  They build a shelter, start a fire, and devise strategies for finding food.  

Students spend almost the entire three days at Hartley outdoors.  They learn to appreciate nature and embrace its beauty.  Hartley is more than just an outdoor experience for students.  It is the first step towards independence for most students.  

For many students, Hartley is the first experience away from home without family. It’s the first time they are responsible for cleaning tables, serving food, and scrubbing the bathroom floor.  They gain a new appreciation for keeping the floor clean as they are responsible for vacuuming.  Hartley challenges students to be brave.  It challenges them to be problem-solvers, collaborators, and good teammates.  It scaffolds them toward independence.

img_0175

Hartley is an exhausting three day trip.  The fresh air tires you out and with 90 students in the dorms, you get very little sleep.  However, I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.  I am so thankful I am able to attend this educational experience every year with my students.  This year in particular is truly special for me.  As I look out the window one more time, I see my son’s group approaching.  They are back from their trip to the confidence course.  I get a little teary eyed typing this because I know his time in elementary school is rapidly coming to an end.  He is not the scared kindergartener that grabbed my hand walking to the door.  He’s the young man that helped his team navigate through a maze while blindfolded.   He’s having the time of his life. Thank you, Hartley Outdoor Education Center, for providing him and countless other students memories that will last a lifetime.