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Behind the Change: Principle or Principal

My goal for this blog is to share my successes as an elementary principal and give some insight, based on my personal experiences, into making & sustaining powerful changes in school culture and ultimately student achievement. 

A bit about me. I’m an elementary school principal in a rural community in Central Texas. This is my 28th year in public education, my 9th year as a campus administrator, and my 6th year on my current campus, Williams/Ledger Elementary.  I engage in a daily reflective practice and I journal, but up until now, I have not been an active blogger.

My goal for this blog is to share my successes as an elementary principal and give some insight, based on my personal experiences, into making & sustaining powerful changes in school culture and ultimately student achievement. So my question for you, the reader, is it the principles (beliefs) or the principal (person) that has the largest potential for impact?

When I joined my current campus in 2012, it had been labeled as “academically acceptable” in the Texas accountability system, and “did not make adequate yearly progress” in the federal accountability system. I knew these facts when I accepted the position. I also knew that my campus has a significant mobility rate (25%) and a growing economically disadvantaged population (59%). What I didn’t know was the “emotional state” of the campus; I did not know about the climate & culture.  I met with my leadership team and asked them to identify the best thing about our campus. 100% responded that “the people” were the best thing. I am a “people person,” so that was great news! In that moment, I knew that I could make a difference.  In its simplest form, working with people means leading with heart and working WITH your team to achieve the desired outcome. So, how do you get there?

Looking back, I would describe 2012-13 as a year of transformation and the beginning of something much larger than I dreamed. Through the implementation of common language and the creation of a common vision, my campus culture came to life. Since that time, my campus culture has been described as “a cult in the most positive sense of the word.” We became the OWL family. Ironically, OWLS was initially “just” an acronym for a new student recognition started by my school counselors: Outstanding Williams Ledger Student. Then I realized that the “S” could also stand for staff.  Before long, our way of doing things became known as “the OWL way.”

Together with my team, I implemented school-wide PBIS (positive behavior interventions & strategies) so that students knew the behavioral expectations for all common areas. Why is this important? My “littles” (students) have to know what is expected of them; it has to be taught explicitly and then modeled. Even my staff needs to know what is expected of them. It is unrealistic to expect people of any age to “Just know” what to do. This does not mean I sit in my office and give orders; I  am in the hallways & the classrooms on a daily basis. A leader MUST be present – physically & emotionally.

A leader must also AFFIRM. I tell my staff that the behavior that gets attention gets repeated. The mindset behind PBIS is to reward those students who meet expectations. When I celebrate student successes, the student’s name is paired with the specific desired behavior. Likewise, when I affirm my staff, I am recognizing their specific achievement.  When affirming my “littles” or my staff, I use handwritten notes, I mail postcards, I make announcements, and I send emails. People of all ages like to be acknowledged for a job well-done.

Over the course of 5 years, I have watched the student, staff & parent climate survey results trend at the highest levels of satisfaction. Students feel safe & cared for; parents feel welcome & know their children are safe, cared for & well-educated. Staff members feel engaged and appreciated and are PROUD to work here! Staff turn-over is among the lowest in the district. Our student discipline numbers have steadily declined to be the lowest number in our district. Our students WANT to meet expectations and enjoy the rewards that come with success. Academically, we are moving in the right direction on our state assessments, watching achievement gaps close each year, and seeing our collective hard work paying off.

Do we still have room to grow? ABSOLUTELY! And without a doubt, I can tell you that my campus is 100% committed to a growth-mindset and helping our kiddos excel at the highest levels.  I’ll leave you with the question: when facilitating & sustaining school change, where is the tipping point? Principle or Principal?

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Are You a Bucket Filler?

The choice is yours!

Recently, I’ve begun to follow a number of “principal pages” on social media. I absolutely love the infusion of new ideas that are coming from all over the world. Even though it is likely I’ll never meet most of the people in those groups, the collaboration and networking is amazing. One of the frequent discussion threads revolves around the topic of work/home balance and stress management. I’ll be the first to admit that I have not always done a great job of maintaining that balance. However, I will also be the first to tell you that since 2016, I’ve been intentional in creating a healthy balance between work and home. Additionally, I’ve made healthier life choices that have significantly reduced stress levels (and lowered my blood pressure) on a daily basis!

So what’s the “trick?” In all honesty, there is no trick; it’s all about choice. Once I realized that I was not the best version of myself, I identified the things I could do that would help me create my best self. It’s not a once and done sort of thing; it’s developing daily habits of self-awareness and growth. Starting with simple things like increasing my water intake, becoming more active, and eating a healthier diet, and then moving to the more time-consuming things like journaling each day, blogging, finding podcasts that feed my soul and keep my brain active, and using social media to network with others in my field.

I’ve always heard it said that you can’t fill other people’s buckets if your bucket is empty. And, in my job, I am the “chief” bucket filler! This means I have to make sure my own bucket is full. About three years ago, I made a commitment to myself to get healthy and become the best version of me. As a result, I feel better than I’ve ever felt in my adult life, I have more energy to share with others, and I am eagerly pursuing personal and professional growth opportunities whenever they present themselves.

In my role as principal, I have the responsibility of creating and maintaining the culture of my campus in order to create a place where everyone (staff, students, and parents) feels safe and is able to be his or her best self. This is a responsibility that I take very seriously because it impacts every aspect of campus life. In order for kids to learn, they have to feel safe and loved. In order for teachers to make kids feel safe and loved, they have to feel loved and appreciated. Knowing these realities, it is critically important that I take care of myself so that I have the energy to “pay it forward” and take care of my campus. #selfcarematters

What does all this mean for the reader? It’s simple. You matter. Whatever your role, it’s important for you to be your BEST self. If that didn’t happen today, the great news is, you can make it happen tomorrow. Choose yourself. Whatever it is you love to do, do more of that! I am confident that if each of us brings our best self into EVERY relationship, the world will become a better place. The time is now! Change your life and you change your world! It’s 100% up to you!

Gratitude & Leadership

What impact does an attitude of gratitude have on leadership?

As a school principal, I’ve come to realize that my energy (my ‘vibe’) is a key factor in the climate of my campus. Knowing that, I choose to take full responsibility for my attitude each day, or rather, each moment within each day.  Anyone who works in public education knows that there is constant change, increasing academic expectations without an increasing budget, changing student (and parent) demographics, and a more litigious environment than ever before.  Knowing all these realities makes me even more aware of how important my attitude is and how much it impacts my campus life. 

I start EVERY single work day by journaling… setting a personal and a professional outcome for the day and by choosing a positive affirmation (an “I AM” statement) to guide my day. Additionally, I take the time to journal at least one, if not more, gratitude statements along with the reason WHY I am grateful for that person/thing/relationship (whatever it may be). At the end of the day, I write a 1-2 sentence reflection on the day. I have also searched out several podcasts to listen to when I drive to/from work. These podcasts focus on positivity, personal growth and development. In short, I am immersing myself in positive habits and positive messages. All of these things work together to keep me in a positive mental and emotional mindset. 

As I have developed these habits over the last year, I have noticed several benefits. I am more focused each day because I have set specific outcomes. I feel less stressed than ever before because I am accomplishing my outcomes and celebrating that success each day. I am more aware of how blessed I am both personally and professionally because I am taking the time to write my gratitude statements. I have a greater sense of JOY and PEACE because I am choosing my attitude/affirmation each day, and that means no one else controls how I think, feel or respond. This has resulted in some amazing conversations and coaching opportunities this year.  

As with any year in public education, this year has been full of change and new ideas/approaches. Typically, change results in high levels of stress for teachers which then results in students feeling (and responding poorly) to their teacher’s stress/anxiety.  However, my leadership team is focusing on positive feedback & growth, and we are providing purposeful feedback to our teachers. We are helping identify practices that we already had in place that are simply being called something different this year; we are focusing on our shared vision of changing students’ lives for the better; and, we are building in more collaboration and planning time for our teachers as they continue to grow and improve their craft. 

As we are quickly wrapping up the first semester, I am excited about all that’s been accomplished so far and I am even more excited about the possibilities that await in 2019. I am GRATEFUL for the opportunity to work alongside such an amazing team of dedicated educators. Together, we are developing lifelong learners and future leaders. 

Fueling UP

There are “cycles” within the school year. From the outside looking in, you’d probably never even realize that they exist. Even as I am winding down year 28 in education and year 8 as a principal, I find that I forget what those intensively busy cycles “feel like” every year. Whether it’s the back-to-school crunch, the before-Christmas busy-ness, pre-Spring break excitement, state testing, or end-of-year fun, exciting, yet hectic schedule, it’s almost like I discover a new level of physical & mental exhaustion. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely LOVE my life as a principal! The day-to-day rewards (seeing teachers and students grow) are a constant source of JOY!  My staff and students are my “why” and keep my heart fed on a daily basis.

I am currently participating in a book study, reading The Big Leap by Gay Hendricks. As I read the chapter for today, my big take away was that I was letting something I love (writing) get pushed aside for the day-to-day “stuff” that consumes my time and energy.  I haven’t posted a blog since November. I’ve written in my journal daily. I send my staff a weekly Friday email without fail – every Friday of the school year since 2012. My journals are filled with ideas for blog topics that I’ve intended to write, but then neglected to follow through. As I shared this with one of my dear friends and mentors, I renewed my commitment to myself to resume my blog.

So why the title Fueling UP?  For the past two years, I have taken personal responsibility for creating my own “vibe;” I am responsible for my outcomes, my attitude, and my energy. Doing the things I love (unrelated to my work) is just one way that I “fuel up” for my days. Whether it’s exercise, playing with my grandchild, cooking, or just spending time with people I love, it’s super important to do whatever it is that feeds my soul. I make a point to encourage my staff to do that every weekend. Turn off the “work world” for a couple of days and just do what you LOVE. When I take time for me, I am creating a better version of me. This makes me more effective and impactful in each of my roles: principal, wife, friend, mom, and Amma. It’s not as easy as it sounds to “take care of me.” I think we are all programmed to put ourselves last and do for others first. And yes, I think there is a time for that as well. However, you can’t possibly give your BEST to others if you neglect yourself (physically, mentally, emotionally or spiritually).

So, this blog’s purpose is two-fold, to fuel my soul and to encourage my readers to do the same. Whatever the “thing” is that you love to do… take the time to do it, love it, and not feel guilty. I’m worth it, and so are you.  #choosejoy #fuelyourownflame

 

Circle of Control: Its impact on Stress

Feeling anxious or stressed with an ‘over-filled’ plate? Pause and reflect.

This is a time of year that finds many people feeling stressed. The holiday season is quickly approaching, and if you are an educator, your plate is filled to capacity with a never-ending stack of things to do and deadlines to meet. Your classroom is filled with high-energy kiddos; some are excited about the upcoming holidays, and others are full of anxiety because the holidays are an uncertain time in their lives.  You may feel like you are walking a tight rope between control and chaos. You definitely feel like you are being pulled in every direction possible.

As a campus principal, I see the cycle of stress ebb and flow throughout the year. I am cognizant of the emotional temperature on my campus, not just with the littles, but with my staff family. Being emotionally aware is one of the areas of leadership that I prioritize. Of course, I could choose to ignore it and just “press on.” There was a time in my life when that was my response. However, as I have spent time in the role of principal, and as I have learned more about leadership, I realize that my team relies on me to be responsive to the emotional state of my campus. It is my job to acknowledge the day-to-day stressors and provide coaching on how best to respond.

In each phase of my educational journey, I’ve had the opportunity to read a plethora of professional/leadership books. In his book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey talks about the circle of control, circle of influence and circle of concern. The longer I am a principal, the more I realize how important it is to distinguish between these 3 circles. I depend heavily on my circle of influence. I don’t consider myself to be a ‘controller,’ I prefer the term ‘influencer.’  Over the last 2 years, I have focused on the things that I can control: my attitude, my actions, my response; I have let go of those things I can not control: other people’s actions/attitude/response. It is exhilarating!

At the campus level, when class sizes are overflowing, state testing demands are growing, budgets are shrinking and student needs are at an all-time high, it is critical to realize that those realities are NOT in my circle of control. (They fit into the circle of concern.)  Much like world peace… I can worry about it all day long, but it’s not in my control to ‘fix.’ I CAN, however, have a positive impact on the emotional state of my staff & students. I CAN impact their lives during the time they spend at school each day.

My coaching to my teachers, and to my readers, is to focus your thoughts and energy on your circle of control. Be mindful of those things that you can control and set your outcomes based on those things. It all comes down to choice. There will always be “stuff” that we can’t control; there will always be negativity. At the same time, there will always be “stuff” that we can control and there will always be positivity.  Energy and actions follow thoughts.  I believe that choosing joy… focusing my energy on the things in my circle of control leads to a new level of peace and contentment.  The CHOICE is yours.

Wishing you JOY & PEACE today and everyday.

#choosejoy

#outcomedriven

Trust: Earned or Expected?

I learned it was no longer realistic to “expect” trust simply because I was in a certain role.

Trust is a ‘hot topic’ these days.  I grew up in the era where teachers/adults were respected and trusted simply because they were adults. When I started teaching, I quickly realized that kids were not brought up under that same belief; I learned that it was no longer realistic to “expect” trust or respect simply because I was in a certain role or just because I was an adult. I made it a personal imperative to earn my students’ trust and I have continued with that same mindset as a campus principal.

As a teacher, I found it easy to establish positive relationships with my students as well as with my co-workers.  I’ve always been a “people person” and that has helped me be aware of the importance of relationships based on trust. Likewise, as a principal, establishing trust is vitally important; it’s the foundation of my campus culture. Since becoming a building level principal, I’ve moved to 2 different campuses where the majority of the staff did not know me. Each time, I’ve followed my own “blueprint” for building positive relationships founded on trust – trust that I earned over time.  Long before I heard the term ‘transparent’ (with regard to leadership), I was honest & open with my new school team(s).  I asked them to take a leap of faith as we got to know one another. I let them know that I was not “just expecting” them to trust me based on the fact that I was the new principal.  With that in mind, I am on first-name basis with my staff.  I believe this helps me (and them) look beyond “roles” and see people.  I spend time getting to know each staff member and I am honest about who I am and what drives me. I work along side them to achieve our desired outcomes. I cook for them. I celebrate with them. I cry with them when there is a loss. I’ve had several teachers tell me that I “keep it real.”

Trust goes hand-in-hand with respect. I believe that public schools/teachers MUST model respectful relationships. There is a huge disconnect thanks to social media and the entertainment industry; being deceitful and being disrespectful is often made to look “cool” or look like the “social norm.” In 2017, it’s more critical than ever that educators are positive role models to our students and to their families.  Trustworthiness is one of those “soft skills” that is crucial for success in life.

As a principal, I depend on earning trust from each stakeholder within my school community: students, parents, teachers/staff, and community members. I choose to be transparent & vulnerable with my interactions. I am the biggest advocate for each member of my campus family. I stand firm in doing what’s right for kids. Does it mean I never have parents (or staff members) with concerns or complaints? Absolutely not. But it does mean that I can count on my team to work together towards a common vision – doing what’s best for kids. I trust them to have my back, and they trust me to have theirs. It’s a win/win!

 

Purpose

I’ve been blessed to have some amazing mentors during my career. Knowing my “why” has been essential along my path in public education.

I grew up in a family of educators. My paternal grandmother was an elementary teacher, and both of my parents were band directors.  I guess it’s in my blood. Outside of a very tiny window when I thought I’d enjoy being a veterinarian, all I’ve ever wanted to do is work with kids. I remember when I first started teaching; it was 1990.  At that time, becoming a principal was nowhere on my radar. I was “done” with school and just wanted to teach.

It took about 2 years and I was ready for grad school. Because I was teaching music, I had the opportunity to have special needs’ students integrated into my classroom. Funny thing was, I had zero “text book” knowledge about their unique needs. As I learned how to work with them and help them succeed, I became interested in the idea of music therapy.  Upon researching that field, I discovered there was not a graduate program available near Central Texas. Being an out-of-the-box thinker, I decided that I needed to get my Masters’ degree in education, but with an emphasis in special education. I was fortunate to have an professor who let me customize my research and pursue my interests as I completed my degree. I continued to teach music for several more years.

Somewhere along the way, I began to want “more,” and that led to my pursuing my mid-management certification and becoming a reading interventionist after 13 years in the music classroom. Again, I had an amazing supervisor who allowed me the freedom to design a program to help struggling readers. I was not bound to curriculum; I was allowed to do “whatever it takes” to help them succeed. (aka: pass the state test) I had NO IDEA that seeing students succeed academically would give me the same “emotional high” as seeing a group of students perform. Although I had committed to at least 2 years in this role, I had the opportunity to become an assistant principal (at the same campus) only one year later.

Being an assistant principal was exciting and challenging. It was also the first time that parents were not happy with me. I was in the position to deliver ‘bad’ news more often than ‘good’ news about their children.  This was a very different experience than what I knew as a teacher. While it gave me reason to pause, it never changed my heart for kids.  I stayed in this role, with many learning opportunities, for 5 1/2 years before becoming a building principal.

Knowing that my readers are not all educators, I pose this question: What is it about your chosen career that keeps you coming back? What is your purpose? Obviously, in public education, it is NOT the paycheck. I’ve been blessed to have some amazing mentors during my career. One of my mentors calls it “fudge.” Another refers to it as “knowing your why.” I’ve heard the expression, “what brought you to the dance?” Knowing my “why” has been essential along my path in public education.

In any relationship, there is something (usually intangible) that draws you to your significant other. This is true of friendships, marriages, and yes, in the workplace. It’s also true that no relationship is perfect. There are ups and downs. Yet, when it’s a relationship of value, none of us gives up. So I ask again, what is it about your career that keeps you coming back?

For me, it is my ‘littles.’ It’s also my staff & the parents. I LOVE knowing that I have the opportunity to touch the future every single day. But wait, there’s more! If you keep up with the news at all, you know that public education is constantly under fire. Teacher attrition is at an all-time high. There are legislative mandates every year, most of which have no money behind them. There is “stuff” every year that educators don’t agree with, “stuff” that is not good for kids, yet it’s required. (ie: state testing) You won’t find a public educator who sings the praises of state assessments. My message to my staff and parents is this: These tests are snapshots of one moment in time. They are NOT a reflection of the child. Yes, it is the measuring stick for public school and we want to succeed; however, it is NOT our purpose.

My job is SO much more. My job is to educate the WHOLE child: mind, heart, soul. My job is to love them & teach them to love others and to celebrate diversity. My job is to teach them how to act in a socially appropriate manner and become good citizens. But there’s still MORE. My job is to teach parents how to lift their children up, how to support them as they learn and grow. My job is to meet each and every ‘little’ who comes through my doors right where they are… meet their parents where they are… even when their beliefs or habits are far different than mine. 

My “why” is to make a difference.. EVERY DAY. I am there for my OWLS: staff, students, and parents. No matter the challenges, the rewards are HUGE. They defy description. For you, my readers, my hope is that you, too, have that fulfillment. Dig deep… know your “why.” Let that purpose drive your choices. It’s an amazing gift!

#justgettingstarted