My First Day of School

I sat in my blue plastic chair behind my desk. If you’re a teacher, you know the one I’m speaking of. It’s just an adult-sized chair you find in a classroom, and it signified I lacked the experience to either buy my own chair or steal one from an empty class before the start of school. It was the beginning of the third period, and my students were working on some crossword or word search ditto as they sat in rows. The classroom was sterile as I had put little on the walls. You could hear their pencils scribbling across their paper and periodic whispering.

It was the first day of school for these junior high students. It was also my first day of school as I had missed the opportunity to open a class during my student teaching. My day probably began like most students. I dressed up in my back-to-school clothes. For me, these were brown slacks and a creme colored dress shirt. I even wore a tie. However, I think I spent 15 minutes trying to get my tie to be the correct length. I anxiously stood at the door of our apartment as my wife took my picture. I had no idea what to expect. I had no idea I would be writing about this day almost 30 years later.

I shifted in my seat and continued to read my students “All About Me” note cards. This was one of those strategies they taught you in the teachers’ school so you can get to know your kids. It was also the same school that promoted, “Don’t smile until November.” Unfortunately, I wasn’t getting to know my students as much as I was evaluating their writing. Their penmanship was awful. I could hardly read their writing due to the misspelled words and slang. I still didn’t know their names yet, but Royce was badgering Ashley about something, foreshadowing a pattern for the year. “You better deal with this now and show who’s in control,” I thought. I looked up from the cards and placed both hands on the desk. Pushing my chair back as I stood, the scraping sound of metal feet on the newly waxed tile floors stopped the talking, and all students eyes met mine.

I barked, “Hey! Stop talking and finish your work!” The room fell silent, and the eyes of the students quickly fell away to their ditto. I had that sense of power surge through me and thought I had things under control. The first two periods had gone well, and I was not going to let this group get the best of me. I looked down and my desk before I sat down. That’s when I saw it. I could feel that rush of blood leaving my head. It was the third period. My mind screamed, “All morning? How could my zipper be down all morning and I not notice it until now!” I quickly sat down and ever so carefully put my hands in my lap. My left hand grabbed the cloth, and my right hand quickly jerked the zipper up. My mind was racing in my embarrassment. “Did they see? Does anyone know?”

I have no other memories of my first day. The embarrassment overshadowed all else. I told no one until several years ago. I can only wonder what memories my students had of their first day with me. I have no doubt it was unmemorable as well. I look back on this incident with mixed emotions. I laugh at the insecurity and terror I felt. I am also ashamed of my immaturity, as I was focussed on me and not my students. I had no support staff to guide me. No PLN or framework for supporting behavior. It was old school rows, discipline, dittos, quizzes on Friday, and detention for talking back. It was the way it was, but I am still not proud of how I started my career. I also look back at the beginning of my career and wonder who was more nervous that first day.

Today, I see the first day of school through a very different lens. As my colleague John Martinez shares, we smile because it can change everything. We try to make students and parents smile on the first day and every day. I am proud our teachers collaborate around building relationships and implementing Positive Behavior Interventions and Support (PBIS) at our school. You will not see many classrooms (if any) in traditional rows. Nor will you find time-killer word search dittos. The first day of school is one where we welcome students and let them know we are excited by their wonder, their curiosity, and their desire to be so much more. We are excited to find help our students find their voice, to help them grow, and to help them create.

I am grateful the first day of school will be different for our students than it was for my students so many years back. I have learned so much from colleagues and my mistakes over the years. We will smile on the first day. We will engage students’ minds on the first day. We will make it a safe place to learn and connect with others on the first day. In doing so, we strive to make the opening day memorable, so students are excited to return the second day. And if we do this well, from the heart, the adults will feel the same way; eager to return. I just want to remind everyone to check themselves in the mirror before they leave home.

 

Let’s Catch Up, What’s New With You?

Before we get started…

I shared previously about my apprehension for writing, that blogging is definitely outside my comfort zone, and that I have been inspired to write and blog by all the wonderful educators in the #4OCF Voxer PLN. They have become my PLF (Personal Learning Family coined by Sarah Thomas).

After I posted my first piece, Change The World: Pack A Parachute, I received lots of positive feedback and many friends advised me to keep writing. I was moved by the comments I received, thank you to everyone who took the time to read it. I have chosen to continue writing and posting, even though there’s a voice inside me who screams not to and looks for any excuse to fill my time with anything other than writing (someone please cancel my Netflix).

In preparation of the coming school year, I recently sent a newsletter to staff communicating our theme of relationships. I am expanding on that communication in this post as a way to add some thoughts and be intentionally vulnerable. Why vulnerable you may ask? Well, I am working on some of the characteristics that George Couros identifies for an Innovator’s Mindset, particularly, empathy, risk taking, and reflective. You can read about all 8 characteristics here.

My Recent Newsletter: What’s New With You?

One of the major themes this school year will be relationships. We will learn more about that in coming weeks, but I want you to know that I am pledging to reframe what I do and how I do it with regard to relationships.

But first, I have to tell you why. I have “preached” many times how important knowing your why is. For everything we do in our school, there must be a why. Since we serve children, the why should be about them. I recently wrote a blog (my first ever!) and put it out there on the internet. If you haven’t come across it on Social Media, you are welcome to read it here. Here are the why’s I listed for myself in the post:

      – My why is about relationships and connections.

      – My why is about being my best self and encouraging others to do the same.

      – My why is about optimism, hope, and possibility. (I forgot to include  having FUN)

      – My why is about changing the world one tiny step at a time.

So, my why for relationships is all those points above plus the fact that we have to connect with people as humans before anything else. When we have a positive relationship with someone, our feelings of trust, confidence, empathy, and respect all increase. We feel more comfortable about taking risks with or for people we have good relationships with.

If I don’t know things about you as a person, shame on me. In that scenario, I have missed opportunities to learn about you and connect with you.  How could I ask you to do your best and be your best if I don’t genuinely make you believe I care about you. My words, actions, sincerity, tone, and more will reveal how much I care. And guess what?  I believe I have dropped the ball on that front many times and I must get better. There’s a running joke between Sonya (my wife) and I related to me crying when I watch some movies. She half laughs and half shakes her head because I get emotional over the silliest things on the screen, but MUCH less so in real life. I think she says something like, “You’re ridiculous.” And she is totally right. There’s a wall inside me that goes up from time to time and this slows down my connecting with others. I hope you’d agree that I’m not as bad as the Grinch and that my heart does not need to “grow threes sizes.” Clearly, I have some work to do. I know that if I am better at showing empathy and relating with others at our school, those actions will have a positive impact.

So, back to my pledge. I am going to have a daily goal related to relationships. This is not to say that I haven’t had this goal in the past. It is a reframing effort and action. I am going to double down on relationships. I have specific goals that are actionable and that I will monitor. In other words, I have a vision and a plan so I live into the vision. I hope that over time this year you will be able to say, “My principal cares about me. I know this because…” I have no doubt that if I succeed, the effort will resonate in your heart and it will positively impact your work in our school. If I fail, please tell me. I would much prefer you tell me directly, but I will distribute a survey to should you prefer to tell me anonymously.

So, what’s new with you? I am looking forward to seeing you soon, discovering that, and working on my relationship with you.

Postscript

A couple of days after sending the communication above to my staff, I had the pleasure of attending a keynote by Sir Ken Robinson at the Better Together California Teachers Summit at Cal State Fullerton. Sir Ken Robinson spoke about the need for transformation in education. Below are some of the points he shared (I apologize in advance if I have any of it wrong):

    Teachers have become content providers. Teaching is not like Fedex, it is not a  content delivery system. Education is a relationship, not a delivery system.

    Human resources are a lot like natural resources…

          – they are diverse.

          – they are hidden below the surface.

          – they must be developed and refined.

          – we must find a purpose for the resource.

    The heart of education must be the relationships between the teacher and student or between students. Everything else is inessential.

    Educators are in the miracle business.

 

As I consider my plans for building relationships with my staff, I believe I’m on the right track. My pledge to “reframe what I do and how I do it with regard to relationships” is essential. I also need to do the same with students and parents. My hope is that by committing to relationships, modeling it for others to see, and providing space and time for relationships in the fabric of our school, we will achieve a transformation together. Will you join me on this journey?    

 

Beliefs > Actions > Vision

Co-authored by John Martinez, Sarah Opatkiewicz, and John Staumont

At a recent retreat for administrators, the topic was leadership (what else?). One group presented how the media often portrays education (both teachers and administrators). Negative stereotypes are either the boring teacher (Ferris Bueller) or tyrannical principal (Lean On Me). Both portrayals belittle the work and effort that so many dedicated professionals pour into their work.

One important responsibility of the building principal is shaping a vision of academic success for all students. The question is, how does this happen? Does a principal give the mandate for the vision like Joe Clark, the principal in Lean On Me? Too often in the case of tyranny, the change and “vision” last as long as the leader is there or the leader finds themselves marching alone on to battle with their quest with no followers. We want the adults (and students) in the building to contribute to change with their thinking and perspective, so we hope that you’ll agree with us that this is a poor example of vision creation and delivery.

We probably can agree that a vision requires a brief statement that is future-oriented and requires the organization to truly stretch. This is a pie in the sky long-term goal. If the vision can be achieved in 12-18 months, then the vision was not lofty enough. Moving the organization toward the vision requires consistent and collaborative action. In turn, the daily actions of all stakeholders should be aligned and guided by the vision. However, do all the actions in every organization always align? Obviously not. Therefore, how do you get an alignment of actions to move toward the vision?

Most leadership literature speaks to the power of a collective vision within the organization. For a school, this primarily may be the teachers. However, there are many stakeholders within a school setting (Parents, classified staff, and students). As with a tapestry of many threads and colors, when more voices are interwoven into the process the work becomes more intricate and complex, but the end results more vibrant and beautiful.  Each of these groups is comprised of individuals with individual beliefs. Actions will spring from beliefs. The role of the leader is to help uncover those beliefs and help individuals bring them to the surface.

We can argue whether beliefs are binary or have varying degrees of influence. Some of us hold beliefs but do not always act on them in a binary fashion. My willpower for a bear claw while on a diet is much lower depending on circumstances (and the bakery). What do the people you work with believe? What do parents believe? What do students believe? How do you balance differing or conflicting beliefs within an organization? This exercise in itself can be powerful before you even embark on creating a vision.

Working through a process of gathering the voices of a larger group is time-consuming and will slow the process down. However, it is one way to ensure the voices of your stakeholders are heard and valued. When only a select group are involved in the process a whole section of stakeholders feels disconnected and possibly resentful of the vision. It also gives you a platform to communicate your beliefs and vision to your community. There is power in declaring publically what you believe and where you would like to take the organization. While not a vision, it does communicate your vision as the leader. People need to know you have one and this is a great opportunity.

With that background, we (three elementary principals) chose to communicate what we believe about learners (children and adults). We desire to begin our year declaring our beliefs so we can begin the conversation with our communities and develop our collective visions. At the same time, all three sites are focussing on writing for the coming year and believed it would be good to model what we are asking students to do (create and publish content to impact the world around us). Therefore, in keeping with our effort to shape our culture, promote our writing effort, and begin our visioning process, we would like to clearly communicate our beliefs for all learners.

Beliefs for ALL Learners:

  • Maslow before Blooms (safety, belonging, feeling successful before academic content)
  • We are a learning organization
  • Align our work to a shared vision
  • Relationships, Relationships, Relationships (it’s all about relationships)
  • Continuous growth (always build on successes and learn from failure)
  • Personalized Learning for adults and students
    • 5Cs: Collaboration, Critical Thinking, Communication, Creativity, and Curiosity
    • Differentiated to address interests and needs
    • Take ownership of your learning
    • Move from your point A to B (and so on)
    • Share your learning with others (connected)
    • Apply the learning
    • Voice and Choice
  • High expectations for self and others
  • Embrace a mindset for innovation and empowerment (shift away from compliance)
  • Know your “Why?”
  • Have fun

We understand this is a work in progress. You may find things that are unclear or that we omitted. You may find things you disagree with. We actually hope that is the case because diversity in ideas and discourse drive us to think more deeply, reconsider our views, and articulate our beliefs more clearly. As when reorganizing a home or restoring a car things tend to get messy before they get clear. The work continually refines itself and unveils omissions as a collective clarity is built. We invite you to review our beliefs and consider them along with your own beliefs on learning for all. Tell us what you believe we are missing. Ask for clarification. Point out the error of our ways. In the end, we want to have some discourse around important ideas so we can positively impact the lives of students and adults (all learners). If our role as principals is shaping a vision of academic success for all students, then we need honest feedback from all stakeholders in order to shape our own vision. Hopefully, the dialogue will also present an opportunity for others to explore their beliefs and join us in our efforts.

Mrs. Opatkiewicz is the principal of Shelyn Elementary in Rowland Unified. Shelyn is launching a Mandarin dual-immersion program. Follow her on Twitter @ShelynSharks.