The words Data Retreat and Empowerment do not seem like they belong in the same sentence. That could not be further from the truth. On Monday, like a lot of school districts across the country, the DC Everest School District sat down as schools to look through our data and identify actionable goals for the upcoming school year that align with district priorities. Still doesn’t sound like much fun? It is when you look at what happened on Monday.
As a young teacher at Oshkosh West, I worked under a number of principals who felt that a top-down approach would move the school where it needed to go. After all, the principals were experts and professionals and we expected them to have all of the answers. Too often, though, they were experts in their content areas and sometimes sound school managers but could do little to move the needle on student achievement. Towards the end of my time as a classroom teacher, two administrators – Ann Schultz and @Erin Kohl – trusted the staff as professionals who believed in teacher self efficacy and they let go of the reigns.
Ann got some tough feedback her first year as our principal and rather than rationalizing it away or dismissing it, she took that feedback and made meaningful changes to empower staff the following year. It was the beginning of a turn-around.
Erin came in after a career in elementary education and quickly recognized what a tremendous staff she had and she continued to leverage the power of her staff and leaders. She worked with a team of staff leaders who read Jim Collins Good to Great and developed their “Hedgehog” focus – that one thing Oshkosh West could do great. And then she worked with staff and got out of their way.
This takes me back to the photo that leads this post. In the middle of all of our messy work, we took time out to take in the wonder of the full solar eclipse. Some staff members took a quick look and passed welding masks or glasses to other members so they could experience the same totality. I became even more impressed when some of the staff took the equipment to a group of student athletes so that they, too, could share the experience.
That one small act exemplified the work we had done that morning and afternoon. Teachers wanted to share their passion and excitement with students and each other. As administrators, we jumped right in with our staff and enjoyed the ride – rather than act as task masters who had to complete an assignment.
As we went back inside to continue our work, the excitement seemed to carry over into the room. As administrators, we solicited even more staff input into our building goal and how we might measure progress towards that goal. Several staff members also looked for ways we might solicit student input into our decisions. I felt the same excitement that Ann and Erin must have felt years ago as they let go of the reigns and trusted the staff to make decisions that will support student learning and achievement.
Yes, there will be pockets of staff that will resist or not share the “wonder of totality” that we did, but I believe in the power of those teachers in that room. I believe that one small act like making time for the eclipse can change the dynamic and begin to change a building’s culture. And I believe that this is just the beginning. DC Everest Senior High School is a great school – I believe we have changed trajectory towards becoming a phenomenal school. I cannot wait to see where this rocket ship takes us.
How about you? Can you pinpoint the moment where everything changed at your school? In its culture? In its success? I’d love to hear how some of you have experienced totality.
The past few days have provided great opportunity for reflection, horror and inspiration. As I noted in a Twitter post last night, at one point I almost felt overwhelmed.
What led to this overwhelming feeling? Well, it all started with a Mindshift article titled “Why Discipline Should Be Aligned With A School’s Learning Philosophy.” As I read that article, I reflected on my early teaching career. I felt a combination of shame and horror as I though about my interactions with students and administrators regarding student discipline. As I painfully revisited those interactions, I felt like I was “dreamwalking” in an episode of Jon Harper‘s My Bad titled “I Was A Hypocrite with a Double Standard for Learning and It Made Me Weak.” Mentally, I apologized to those students, and even attempted to reach out to former administrators to apologize for Jeff See 1.0.
If we give students the opportunity to improve or correct mistakes in every other learning area except discipline, what message do we send them about school?
After allowing myself 15 minutes to feel self-pity and remorse, I started reflecting about the difference in my academic teaching practices and my discipline teaching practices as a young teacher. Ultimately, I asked myself “If we give students the opportunity to improve or correct mistakes in every other learning area except discipline, what message do we send them about school?” The English teacher in me cringes at the awkwardness of that sentence, but at the time it felt “right.”
So, Instead of my usual short, pithy comment when sharing articles on social media, I share the article on Facebook with that poorly worded sentence.
Then I continued with my article dig – using the Nuzzle App – and came across a fantastic post by George Couros titled “Finding Inspiration in Yourself.” In the article, George highlighted the challenge of “trying to inspire others to action, when you can’t find ways to inspire yourself.” The piece really resonated with me, and I started thinking about my new role in my new building in my new district and wondered how I could inspire myself to reflect more and share my risks, struggles, and challenges with my new team of educators.
As I wrestled with that thought, my PLN friend, Mark French replied to my comment on Facebook.
Hmmm…why would someone want to steal something I said? Nonetheless, I told Mark he could use the quote.
And I went back to revisit George’s post. George said, “Take a breath and think about where you are today, and then think about where you have come from. It would be easy to think about the negatives, but try to focus on things that you have overcome and that right now, and find growth.” That took me back to Mark’s request, and I reread my original comment. Despite the rough wording, that was my original thinking about a topic with which I struggled so often early in my teaching career. The new lens I have as a building admin has me asking questions I could never have asked as a young teacher trying to manage five classes and learn a new curriculum.
At that moment, I could not help but feel inspired and realize that something I experienced and though made someone else think. Suddenly, I finally understood what Angela Maiers has told us for years.
I won’t get carried away. It was one original thought and it resonated with a few of my Facebook friends and PLN members. More importantly, I can see how far I have come and how I now make sure that students know and staff know they are important and matter. And I have more thinking to do about the mixed messages we send kids about school when we allow them to “fail” and improve with every aspect of school but discipline.
I have to see if I can find those former students now and apologize in person. I’m so sad that they only knew Jeff See 1.0. Jeff See 5.0 cares much more about them as people and understands that despite my “cutting edge” thinking about allowing students to make mistakes in their academic work and correct them to learn, I absolutely failed them when it came to discipline learning.
And to my former administrators: Keith Rodda, Tom Parker, Chuck Grable, Pete Cernohous, Jay Jones, Tom Wissink, Julie Mosher, Matt Zimmermann, Tim Doleysh, Lexi Ballweg, Ann Schultz, and Erin Kohl…I’m sorry it took me so long to understand. I wish you, too, had worked with Jeff See 5.0.
I honestly cannot remember the last time I took an actual break from educating and leading. For my entire career, I have put in extra hours, losing family time I can never get back. All of that has changed this summer. After getting hired as the new assistant principal at D. C. Everest Senior High School, the only way we could make it work because of the long commute and the long hours required of an AP was for me to move in with my in-laws while my wife, Jenny, stayed at home so our daughter, Meghan, would have a “home base” in her final year of nursing school.
That’s right. I spend week nights at my in-laws and weekends with my family in Oshkosh or the trailer in Green Lake, WI. As challenging as this arrangement is, it has added clarity about what is important and requires attention.
Before accepting this position and making all of these life changes, I learned that I would become a grandpa next year.
That little peanut above is my grandchild. I don’t even know if we have a he or a she, but it does not matter one bit. That child served as a wake-up call. I cannot serve others – as a husband, father, grandfather, family member, and leader – if I do not take time to be “present” in my life when life happens.
Seriously, school and the upcoming year could not have been further from my mind.
I took actual vacation for the first time EVER. My laptop bag and iPad stayed behind at home while Jenny and I took a road trip and just enjoyed our time together out-and-about.
I stopped thinking about school and enjoyed the view from a Tiki Bar in Elkhart Lake, WI. We even took a photo in front of “Antoinette” in Plymouth, WI, the “Hub City” of the dairy industry. We did take and post pictures, but my thoughts stayed on that precious time with my wife the entire time. Seriously, school and the upcoming year could not have been further from my mind.
Those two folks on the left are my amazing in-laws, Mary and Ken Lawrence. Without them, I could not have said yes to the phenomenal opportunity here at DCE. On the right is my godson, Max, who may or may not even know I’m his godfather – we see him far too seldom.
Neither of us have ever seen me relaxed before.
My point here is that even though I have returned to the work of preparing for the school year, I will keep remembering to find the balance. After leaving work yesterday, Mary called and said her sister, Lois – the spunky lady just to Mary’s left – had invited us to watch Max perform on the patio at a local restaurant. I immediately said “Yes,” and I’m so glad I did. I cannot ever remember feeling as relaxed as I did yesterday evening. I enjoyed singing along as Max belted out Darius Rucker’s “Wagon Wheel” and the Eagles’ “Hotel California.” And I laughed along with my family members as we told funny stories. I was reminded of when I came home that first weekend, and my wife greeted my with “What’s wrong with you? You look different.” You see, neither of us has ever seen me relaxed before.
Work Will Always Be There
I came into work early this morning, so I could write this post and watch the response to the promo video I spent yesterday filming and editing to tease the upcoming home opener for varsity football. Work was right where I left it, and I easily picked up where I left off yesterday. The difference this time? Last night, the only thing that mattered was time with family and friends. When I leave tonight, I will head to the trailer in Green Lake and enjoy laughing with my youngest sister, Rebecca, and my brother-in-law, Regan.
Don’t lose sight of what is important: your significant other, children, grand babies, family, and friends. Make work important and your passion while at work, but in the words of the venerable sage:
I wasn’t sure I would be able to write this post, but my reception at me new employer has lifted my spirits and reminded me that when district leadership – from school board to district administration to building administration – does the hiring and on-boarding process right, it can make all the difference for hopeful new hires.
Now, I have worked in education for 21 years, so I understand the “Honeymoon” period as well as the next person. However, since the day I accepted my new position as Assistant Principal at DC Everest Senior High School, I believe I have experienced an intentional, well-thought-out process from interview to offer to acceptance to on-boarding. If you have only known a process like this, I have to tell you that this does not happen everywhere.
After several years of hearing “Google it” when I needed more training or felt lost, I have had access to professionals at district office who made it their mission to integrate me into the district before I even showed up for my first day of work. From HR to payroll to benefits to IT to support staff, these folks have made a potentially difficult transition as smooth as possible. Add in a welcoming staff that has treated me better than I deserve, a principal who has made sure I had whatever resources I need (including some I have yet to need), a PHE-NO-ME-NAL mentor who truly wants me to succeed, and a superintendent (@suptgilmore) who encourages me take on projects that match my interest and skill set, and you have a recipe for success.
Follow along this year as I try to make visible my challenges, opportunities and learning in my new role.
The graphic below has made its way through my Facebook feed more times than I can count. As a former English teacher and student who loves books, this always strikes a visceral chord with me.
I previously wrote about one of my students whose lack of access to books and love of Star Wars pulled at my heartstrings. I thought it was time for an update.
When last we left off, I hoped you understood why I wanted to help “Sam,” and I stressed to you all my wish that he and his children will have hope one day. My Facebook friends and family spoke loudly and acted clearly.
Answering The Call
Paul Hankins jumped right in and started making recommendations: Origami Yoda series, Di’Terlizzi’s beautiful picture book, Jeffrey Brown’s young Jedi series, and more. My longtime friend Teresa Saxton Bunner wanted to know if we had a Barnes & Noble nearby. My sister said she had some books in a bag for me. My high school classmate, Jennifer Laura Foley sent a link to a list of 10 Books For Kids Who Hate Reading. Donalyn Miller – yes, she of The Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild – wanted to know if Sam liked graphic novels and suggested the Amulet series by Kazu Kibuishi.
And the list goes on and on. Amy Gilbert, an Assistant Principal in Paul Hankin’s school asked for “Sam’s” real name and a mailing address to send something if she found the right book. Julie Fitzgeral saw my post through Teri Lesesne and recommended an update of A New Hope: A Star Wars Novel.
Most of these people have never met me face-to-face, and yet when they heard about a bookless child in need, they came forward en masse.
Brenda Valencia, from the La Habra City School District in California sent an Amazon gift card which allowed us to purchase the Trilogy Box Set for Jeffrey Brown’s Jedi Academy series.
When we returned from Thanksgiving break, I talked to Sam’s teacher and gave her the boxed set with which to surprise Sam. She wanted to bring me into class to give it to Sam, but that just doesn’t fit with my view of servant leadership. I want to serve my students by providing when they have needs; I just don’t want them to know it came from me. I’d prefer to leave it that somebody cares about them and wants them to enjoy books. She asked where the books came from, and as I explained the response from my Facebook family, I think we both teared up a little.
We removed the plastic wrapping and opened the first title and Sam’s teacher said, “It’s a graphic novel! He’ll love it!” That’s all I needed to hear. As she left my office, she said she couldn’t wait to tell Sam and that she’d just say these books came in and she just knew he’d love them. They will stay in her classroom for now, but eventually they will become a part of his own library.
Yesterday I came home from school, and not feeling well, laid down for a quick nap. Four hours later, I awoke and went downstairs to see this sight.
Wow. My incredible cousin sent a check to help out my kiddo, and she apologized because there was a delay. No apologies are necessary, and I cried last night as I looked at the check.
More recommendations come daily via private message, Twitter, and email.
On Monday when we returned from break, Sam came into the office to find me and asked if we could keep reading the book. I smiled and we read some more. I can’t wait to see how he grows as a reader now that so many wonderful people have provided the opportunity for him to have access to books he likes and a library of his own.
I will leave you with the graphic that began my post. This….
Let me warn first that you can probably categorize today’s post under “Longform” – minus the journalism. So I warned you – this is long. If you choose to read it on, I think it is worth the time.
Yesterday, on my ride home from work (I have an hour-long commute from Clintonville to Oshkosh), I reflected on the strife we have seen since Tuesday night. I worked this week to help keep those most vulnerable in my school safe, and it led to a lot of reflection. I thought about the highlight from my week: reading to a young man who in spite of his uncontrollable fits of rage (or maybe because of them) has me rooting for him. When I came home last night, I made a decision and sent out a post to my friends and family on Facebook.
The response was incredible. I have so many titles recommended that I cannot wait to talk about with this child on Monday. Some very kind folks are also sending some books or means to get some books for this student. My sister even reminded me that I have some ancient action figures that might make this boy smile. Thanks, Wendy!
As part of my Facebook post, I promised to tell everyone the entire story in a post on my blog. I’m hoping if folks see this young man as I see this young man, more of them will choose to rally to his cause.
I first met “Sam” (not his real name, but having to say “this boy, child, young man” feels disconnected and artificial) last year when Scott and I went to the elementary school to meet and welcome our future students. Sam stood out immediately – he with his fists clenched, a sullen look, and inability to make eye contact – because he swung from rage to elation so quickly. He knew we were coming, so as soon as he saw us he came over to share the paper airplane he made. That was our first fist-bump.
This school year has been an understandable adjustment for Sam. New building. Bigger kids. New bullies. Earlier this year, Sam struggled greatly. When he became angry, he would put his jacket hood on his head, clench his fists, and “march” like Frankenstein’s monster down the hall, not hearing or seeing anyone who got in his way.
One time in particular, students in the cafeteria for breakfast made it difficult for Sam. The next morning, I ate breakfast in the cafeteria with Sam, reassuring him with a fist bump that “We got this.” I also started making up reasons to show up in his classes or bump into him in the hall. One morning for breakfast Sam looked at me asked, “Are you stalking me?” I laughed and said, “No. I missed our fist bump today. You were mad at something and left me hanging.” He grinned and said, “Not today. Tomorrow.”
Several weeks ago, one of Sam’s teachers came to me before school and said he felt Sam needed to talk to me about a consequence. He was sent to that room for help on reading but was refusing to read and had started swearing at the teacher about this. [Let me reassure everyone. This teacher is not naive; he has worked with emotionally and behaviorally disturbed students for decades, and understands when a student needs intervention beyond what he can offer in the classroom.] I told the teacher I would swing by his room after school started and have a talk with Sam.
When I came into the room, I saw Sam trying to concentrate on one of Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet Adventure Books. I asked him to come with me so we could chat. He got up right away and started to follow. Then he stopped, went back, and put something in his cubby hole in the back of the room. I asked him if he needed any of that for his next class, but he said his teacher just had him keep that stuff in the classroom, so he wouldn’t lose it.
As we made our way to my office, I asked Sam why he didn’t want to read chapter books. He replied, “I don’t like that I have to answer questions while I read.” We talked about how we don’t always have to answer questions. Next I asked him what kinds of books he liked to read at home. He said he didn’t. When I asked why, he said “We don’t have any books at home.” That stopped me short. Further questions helped me learn that he liked books with adventures and that he didn’t like chapter books in middle school because they didn’t have as many or sometimes any pictures compared to the books he liked reading.
Once at my office, we talked about how Sam might have handled the situation with his teacher differently next time. He had a lot of great ideas, and I learned that the will to read was there. We just hadn’t found the right books yet. As we neared the end of our chat, Sam said he needed a consequence for his actions because he didn’t handle it the right way. While it lifted my spirits that Sam knew he hadn’t handled his frustration well, I knew this was a blip. We had about ten minutes left in class, so I said that if it made him feel better he could sit in the ISS room until the bell rang but that he wasn’t being punished.
At that moment, he took time to look around my office. He said, “Hey…do you like Star Wars?” I asked why he asked, and he correctly noted that I had thirteen different Star Wars things in my office. I told him that I LOVE Star Wars, and he screamed, “Me, too!” I told him I was just about his age when the original Star Wars came out in the theater. He said, “Wow. You are old.” We fist-bumped, and Sam headed to the ISS room.
After a minute, I checked on Sam and told him he could just sit if he wanted, but I asked him to think about reading his book. He opened it, and I said, “Sam, don’t do it for me. If you feel like it, do it for you.” A minute later, Sam came into my office asking for a pencil and paper. I asked why he needed those, and clearly exasperated with my lack of knowledge, Sam sold me in his best “Duh!” voice, “Because he’s going to have questions for me about my book!” I smiled a lot after that.
That weekend, I ended up inside Barnes & Noble, looking for Star Wars chapter books with pictures. I found lots of great-looking titles and settled on Star Wars: Before the Awakening.
Thursday morning of this week, I went down to that same teacher’s room and asked Sam to come with me to my office. I think he thought he was in trouble, because he pulled the Frankenstein march on me. When we got to my office, I pulled out the book and showed it to him. Sam’s face lit up and he just had a look of awe. I explained that this told the stories of some of the characters in The Force Awakens before we meet them in the movie. I talked about Finn and Rey and Poe. And then a funny thing happened. Sam leaned in close and whispered, “Actually, Mr. See, I haven’t seen the new movie. I don’t know who those people are.”
At first, I stopped short. How had he not seen this movie? In the next breath, of course, I remembered that Sam is homeless and lives in a motel in town. No, he had not seen the movie. I said, “Sam, it’s OK that you haven’t seen the movie. Unlike most of us, you will know these characters before you see the movie. I bet you’ll enjoy it even more than I did.” He said, “My dad can’t afford that movie.” I simply reassured him that “We’ll figure out a way.” His reply cut right at my heart. “I didn’t think I’d ever get to see it.”
Sam started out reading, but struggled with some of the words. I helped him pronounce them, and we talked about what they meant. At one point he became so frustrated, that I said I could find an easier book, if he wanted. He looked at me and said, “Not a chance!” Like I have done since I read the Lemony Snicket and Harry Potter books to my own daughters, I created voices for all of the characters. As tension rises, so does my voice. When a whisper is called for, I use that, as well. I lean in on the action when I have to and cover my eyes when I don’t want to watch.
When it was Sam’s turn to read again, I pulled up short again and felt that pesky, salty discharge in my eyes. You see, Sam read and created voices for the characters, and even though it did not match the action of the story, he had tension or softness in his voice. I had not expected that.
As I read Finn’s story, which starts with a tense battle simulation, Sam literally squirmed around in his chair, squatting or moving from one knee to another as the battle action called for it. Together, we lowered our heads to the conference table in my office, spying for FN-2000 and FN-2099 and the enemy gun.
When I closed the book after the action-packed battle simulation opening, I told Sam that this is his book and that when we are done it is his to take home. His jaw dropped and he asked so questioningly, “Mine?” When I said yes, he whispered, “I’ve never owned my own book.” I want to remedy that problem, so that’s why I posted to Facebook.
I’m not so naive as to think I can “fix” poverty or even that I can save every one of our students in need. Instead, I’m hopeful that each time I have the opportunity, I can provide hope that ripples outward. The battles raging on social media right now are beyond my ability to repair. What I can do is make sure that a little boy who has never owned a book, gets some books to call his own. Maybe he will one day read to his own children. And maybe they will have hope.
I apologize for the lengthy post. I hope you felt this story that needed telling was worth your time.
Yesterday, I shared with everyone why I struggled so much the day after the election. Not because one candidate lost but because my students did not feel safe in the wake of a historic election. I also told you I’d tell you more about the community, families, and students I serve.
Twenty five years ago, the poverty rate in Clintonville, WI was extremely low. Home of the Four Wheel Drive, Clintonville sustained a thriving, working, middle class community.
During the intervening years, jobs were lost, development stopped, and the Clintonville so many people remembered had changed drastically.
Today, in the Clintonville Public School District, poverty rates hover near 50 percent and unemployment is high. At Clintonville Middle School, we report 52 percent free-and-reduced lunch, but the actual number is 60-66 percent. For a variety of reasons, not all of our families complete the necessary paperwork, but we know our demographics mirror that of the elementary school, and they report 66 percent free-and-reduced lunch eligibility.
Why are those numbers so important?
First, school report cards in Wisconsin have a multiplier based on poverty levels. Because not all of our parents fill out the paperwork, we report low, which lowers our overall report card grade.
Second, eligibility for many grants factors in free-and-reduced lunch rates. Clintonville already qualifies for many grants, but we would qualify for more grants, and in much higher amounts, if we reported actual free-and-reduced lunch rates.
Most importantly, though, if our parents complete the free-and-reduced lunch paperwork, our students who are hungry could eat.
Statistics Are People, Too
At my very first open house as an administrator in Clintonville, two parents approached Scott and I and openly wished us luck dealing with their son. At the end of the previous year, he had “destroyed” the principal’s office, and they just wanted to prepare us for the challenges ahead. During that first year, that student did challenge us, communicating loudly and in a way many staff members did not want to hear. Scott and I worked with the dad, but that young man had high absenteeism and struggled to succeed in school. Many times dad came to us for help with parenting, but he struggled to follow through.
At the end of the year. Despite the dad’s initial fear of working with the county due to some negative contacts for him, we convinced him to at least consider voluntarily “wraparound” services. Dad was not ready to commit, and last year began with more struggles for this student. He missed a lot of school and on the days he attended, he wanted to fight everyone, even me.
Many people who do not work in schools today, or have never worked in schools, cannot imagine students so angry and in distress that they would harm themselves or others while at school. One of my most vivid memories as an educator is of standing outside an empty classroom to ensure this student did not harm himself while simultaneously dodging the shards of glass he chose to throw at me after shattering a window. This child needed our help, and whether or not I appreciated the medium, he was communicating loud and clear.
Afterwards, the student missed more school, had increased negative law enforcement contacts, and struggled to find any success in classes. On the plus side, dad agreed to fill out the free-and-reduced lunch paperwork. They qualified, but our young man refused to get lunch.
Fast forward to this year. Over the summer, the student participated in long-overdue counseling and the family received much-needed, mandatory wraparound services.
I will never forget the first time I saw this child’s face this year. He smiled and laughed, and when we asked him to eat lunch…he did. This went smoothly until mid-October when last year’s paperwork expired and our cafeteria staff denied this student lunch. He spiraled out of control again, until Scott got the father to come in to fill out new forms. The father struggled to read the forms, and his pride caused him to write down more income than he had. Initially, they only qualified for reduced lunch costs. Scott called the dad in one more time, and after reporting actual income, they qualified for free lunch.
When uninformed, unknowing people demand that people in poverty submit to drug testing before receiving benefits, I always hear the line, “If I have to pee in a cup to get a job, why shouldn’t they?” I don’t know what the correct answer is to that dilemma, but I do know this: I’m sure that punishing adults can feel right “in the moment,” but since I’m in the kiddo business, I want to know how that consequence helps children in need. We need to remove barriers to success, not erect them.
The family I highlighted today is in a long-term cycle of distress. The child has experienced unimaginable, unspeakable trauma in his life. The father battles his own demons but tries so hard every day to do right by his son. When we choose sides. When we decide to denigrate one group of people. When we worry about what others have that we do not, we miss the bigger picture. Every day I see the difference eating breakfast and lunch makes for this child. He is healthy. He has grown for the first time in years, and most importantly, he looks as healthy as many of his peers. And that smile…
If all of our families who qualified for free and reduced lunch filled out the forms, our school report card would likely jump up an entire level to “Exceeds Expectations,” and we would potentially receive more grant money. While that looks good on a resume, it ignore the most important outcome: all of our students who go hungry could eat, which makes focus on school so much easier.
The other day, our student returned to school after an extended illness. I asked him if he was feeling better. He whispered, “Yes,” and he asked me if he could eat lunch again. I asked if he was hungry and he laughed loudly, yelling, “Oh my God, am I hungry.” It was music to my ears. It should be music to yours.