What I Learned By Opting Out of My Office

cc photo art by J. Delp

For the past several weeks, I have been sending the following email to my teaching staff. I call it, my office opt out.

If you would like some principal assistance, I have the following openings available for this week: [this is followed by specific dates and class periods]

I am willing to:

  • Give (or monitor) an assessment and allow you to work elsewhere, run an errand, make copies, etc.
  • Work with a small group
  • Be an extra set of eyes and help answer questions, while you are teaching
  • Run a lesson (with some direction), so you can catch-up on email, IEPs, paperwork
  • Participate in an activity with kids — THIS IS MY FAVORITE ūüėČ

First come first serve…let me know how I can help and I will do my best to make it work.

So far, it has been a pretty successful endeavor. It has allowed me to spend “non-evaluative” time in classrooms, visit with kids about their learning and school experience, and hopefully help out some teachers. I have run a small group, participated in activities with students, monitored a class while a teacher administered a student assessment, assisted with a math intervention class and observed a number of outstanding lessons.

On Friday, I was asked to visit one of our classrooms and participate in a small group discussion. This is something the teacher periodically does with her students, and the topics vary¬†dependent upon student interest. For this particular group session, the students chose to talk about family units — specifically fathers.

We circled up our chairs and the class took a vote to allow me to participate. The group consisted of approximately ten male students, the teacher, and a few staff members — including myself. The teacher reminded the students of the norms that the class had agreed upon and then the session began.

In the interest of privacy, and respect for each individual student, I am not going to give much detail about the discussion. However, after everyone introduced themselves and gave a quick rating (1-10) on how their morning had started, students went around the circle and talked to the group about their dad — with the teacher asking a few follow-up questions.

I am in my ninth year at my school, and my seventh year as principal. In that time I have seen and heard a lot of things. Almost to the point that nothing shocks me any more. I know of students who have experienced unspeakable trauma in their lives. Working with kids in these situations is not a yearly, monthly, or weekly occurrence. It happens every single day. That being said, I can honestly say I was not prepared for what I was about to hear from these young men in their small group.

As we went around the circle, each boy described the absence of a father in their life. Some described a dad who “ran away” from the family. Several explained that their fathers were in prison. One described a father who passed away several years ago. I kept waiting for someone to say, “My home life is great. I live with both my parents.” But, it never happened. ¬†The closest we came was a young man whose father had spent several years in jail, but was now back with the family. The shocking fact is that these students were not “selected” for this group discussion, or class. It just so happened that EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM had suffered loss or trauma in their family. ¬†The session drew to a close, with one of the boy’s explaining that he had recently gone with some friends to participate in an outdoor activity. He stated that it was a lot of fun, and then explained,”For a few hours, I was able to forget about everything.”

My heart felt as if it had been crumpled, and balled up, like a piece of scratch paper.

What an incredible experience. I was humbled to be allowed to participate. I was heartbroken for the boy’s in that room. I was thoroughly impressed with the respect, empathy, and compassion they showed one another. I was in awe of the strength demonstrated by those kids. As emotional as it was, I walked out of that room proud of the students, proud of the teacher — with hope.

For me, this experience reinforced several of my core beliefs about education and working with young people:

  • Don’t assume you know. It is so critical that we take the time to know our students and, as best we can, understand their circumstances. This isn’t so we can “feel sorry” for them, or lower our expectations, but so that we are able to provide the supports they need in order to be successful. It is no secret that relationships matter, but I still think we underestimate their power to make a positive difference with those we serve. There is no way students would have openly had the discussion I witnessed if they did not have a trusting relationship with their teacher.
  • Social and emotional elements of teaching (especially at the middle school level) are just as important — if not more so — than core content.¬†We do not invest enough in addressing the social/emotional needs of kids. We need to be teaching and practicing the social skills kids will need to be successful adults. In addition, left unchecked, emotional crises and trauma are capable of derailing any students access to a quality education. Many of our students carry around so much emotional baggage it is unreasonable to think they can focus on academics. They need help.
  • Teachers and counselors are saints and they deserve a lot more — respect, training, salary, and support.¬†A teacher ran the group I sat in on and she did an exceptional job. This is not a requirement, or expectation, but she knows this is what her students need. I dare say that she didn’t learn this in her teacher preparation program…she figured it out on her own. Our schools are desperately understaffed for meeting the growing social and emotional needs of students. Counselors are stretched WAY too thin, and most schools operate without social workers. Even assistant principals and deans are underappreciated, underpaid, and ill prepared for the emotional toll of dealing with the level of trauma, discipline, and chaos they encounter on a daily basis. If we want to see true change in education, start investing in the people who are “in the trenches.” I guarantee it will make a difference in our schools and ultimately our communities and economy.
  • Most of us have privilege and we need to be aware of how that shapes our perspective and approach to working with young people.¬†I am a white, middle class, male with a strong family unit. I grew up with loving parents who, to this day, provide consistent support and encouragement. I have privilege in the areas of race, socio-economic status, and family structure. All of those things have helped pave my way to at least some degree of success. ¬†They are not solely responsible, but they afforded me opportunities that are not available to others. I am not ashamed of that, but I am also aware that this is privilege — I did not earn my race, my socio-economic status, or a wonderful family. As an educator (and human being) I must recognize the role that privilege plays in providing opportunities, be cognizant of injustices, and advocate for those who are at a disadvantage. Fair is not always equal.
  • Seeing is believing.¬†We have to be deliberate about what we choose to see, what we want to know, and sometimes, what we may be avoiding. It is hard to witness and accept injustice. As I mentioned, I thought I had seen everything. I didn’t know I could be shocked anymore. I was wrong, and the only way I discovered this was by taking the time to participate in a class activity. By being present.

It is impossible to see the challenges of educators and students without being in classrooms, so my “office opt-out” days will continue. ¬†Not teacher evaluations. Not simply checking classroom visits off of a list. Deliberately spending time in classrooms to serve my staff and my students — witnessing their daily challenges and successes.

I am grateful for the EVERY DAY efforts of my staff. Spending meaningful time in their classrooms is the best way I know to show my appreciation.

A Day in the Life of a Student

Things aren’t as easy as you might think.

I like school.

My classes don’t start until after nine o’clock, but I’m usually awake early — sometimes by six fifteen. My Mom, or my Nana, drop me off at school by seven-thirty so that they are able to make it to work on time. There are a lot of days when I arrive on campus before the teachers, and even the principal. I don’t mind being there early. Some days I just chill and listen to music. Other times I shoot some baskets, or talk to friends who also get dropped off early. If I didn’t have a chance to grab a bowl of cereal for breakfast (and if I have money), I might walk to the convenience store for a soda and chips, or head to McDonald’s with friends.

My first class of the day is math. I used to hate math. H.A.T.E. – hate. But, this year I really like my teacher. She doesn’t get frustrated with me when I don’t understand. She’s always asking me about stuff. You know, like what I did over the weekend, how my soccer game went, and what kind of music I listen to. I don’t really think the math has gotten any easier, but I’m willing to work a little harder for my teacher — and she notices. That’s THE FIRST THING I wish all teachers knew:¬† if I feel like someone cares about me, like they have an interest and recognize the positive things I do, I’ll work a little harder and behave a little better. Most of the time.

My second class of the day is what they call an elective. Some kids get two electives, but I only get one. You see, even though I’m in eighth grade, I’m not a very good reader. It has something to do with my Lexile level. Whatever that is. So one of my electives is what they call a reading intervention. It’s okay, and it seems to help, but I don’t really understand how it can be called an “elective” since I didn’t get to choose it. My other elective class is art. I did choose art. I love to draw and I am learning new ways to express myself and share my interests in this class. My elective — art that is — is one of the main reasons I enjoy coming to school. I’m glad that class didn’t get taken away. So, every other day, I look forward to second period.

Next, I’m off to social studies. It’s a pretty cool class. I like the news — my teacher says we call the news “current events.” Sometimes I’ll watch the news at home when I’m not playing video games or watching my little brothers and sisters. My social studies teacher is pretty cool. We have lot’s of good conversations and do a lot of work in groups. This is THE SECOND THING I wish all teachers knew: it is really hard for me to sit still and stay focused for very long. When teachers talk all the time, I get anxious, and I’ll be honest, I sometimes quit paying attention and act out a little. I like it when my teacher has us work in groups and when we really get to participate in the class — sharing our ideas and opinions. Sometimes, it seems like me and my classmates are teaching social studies — and that’s okay. It makes me feel good to think that the teacher believes we can handle this.

It’s lunch time. Finally. I am starving (especially if I didn’t make it to the convenience store, or McDonalds). My lunch is free. I don’t completely understand this, but it has something to do with my Mom not making enough money. I don’t really mind. A lot of kids at my school get free lunch. Sometimes, I’m a little jealous because some of my friends get to buy extra stuff — like chips, an extra burrito, or even ice cream sandwiches. If I’m lucky, and they are feeling generous, they might buy me something. After I eat, I’ll head out to play a little soccer. Even though it’s sometimes hot, this is really the only time during the day when I get to run around, so it’s worth it. I think the exercise makes me less stressed and helps me focus.

After lunch, I go to language arts. This is my least favorite class. Like I said before, I’m not a very good reader and we do A LOT of reading in language arts. We also have a lot of homework in this class, but I don’t do much of it. Sometimes I don’t do it because I don’t understand it. Sometimes I don’t do it because our apartment is so noisy and my brothers and sisters bug me. And, sometimes, I don’t do it because I don’t like it. Right now, I’m failing language arts. My behavior also isn’t so great in this class. The teacher talks A LOT, and expects us to sit still and stay quiet. I get frustrated in language arts — sometimes even angry. There are times when I misbehave just because I am angry (because I can’t read very well) and I want someone else to be angry. How in the world can I be in 8th grade and not be able to read?! The teacher say’s things to me like, “Why don’t you care more?” and “Maybe, if you actually tried, you would be passing this class.” This does not help. This is THE THIRD THING I wish all teachers understood:¬†don’t make assumptions about kids — sometimes there is more to the story. I do care. I just don’t always get it. I’ll admit that sometimes I don’t know how to handle myself when I find things difficult, so I act out. But I do care. I also want to ask my teachers if they were always focused on “improving their education” when they were in junior high, or did they sometimes act like normal kids? I wonder.

Science is my last class of the day, and it’s a little “up and down” for me. My teacher is a man, and I don’t always do great with men. My dad has been in and out of prison, and therefore, in and out of my life. Even when he is around, he doesn’t always treat my Mom very well and sometimes he is really mean to me. I think that’s why I don’t always get along with my male teachers. I like all of the hands-on stuff we do in science class, and really, my teacher is a nice guy, but sometimes I’ll do things that aren’t very respectful, just to see how he is going to handle it. He usually does pretty good. Even when I mess up, he’ll give me a chance to explain what is wrong, he listens, and then he says to me, “Well, tomorrow’s a new day.” And he smiles. This is THE FOURTH THING I wish all teachers knew: when I mess up, I need to know that you will give me another chance. I need to know you aren’t going to “stay mad” at me. I need to know that tomorrow is a new day. I need to see you smile.

That’s it. End of the day. Sort of. My language arts teacher wants me to stay after school for tutoring, but I have to go home. I told her I’d be there to avoid a lecture, but I can’t stay. My little brothers and sisters have already been home by themselves for a couple of hours and I need to get home to make sure they aren’t destroying the apartment, or hurting each other. My Mom says that’s my responsibility, until she gets home.

I’ll try to do some of my homework tonight, but no promises. There isn’t a quiet spot in our apartment, and I share a bedroom with my brothers — so lights go out early.

But, I’ll be back tomorrow. That’s THE FIFTH THING I wish all teachers knew: I’d rather be at school than at home. It’s a safe place for me. I get to be with my friends, and for the most part, I like my teachers. In fact, I don’t really like weekends and vacations — we usually don’t have the money to go anywhere and I get bored. Besides, it’s a lot of work to babysit my siblings.

Please don’t give up on me.

I like school.

Things aren’t as easy as you might think.

The “Things That Matter Most” Protocol

There is too much time in my day and I don’t have enough to do.

…said no one above the age of fourteen. Ever.

For most of us, packed schedules and long to-do lists make every day an exercise in determining opportunity costs. If I choose to do activity “y”, what will be the impact of forgoing activity “x”? There simply is not enough time in the day to get everything done, so we have to prioritize, identify our most critical tasks, and then make choices about where we are going to invest our time and energy.

Perhaps my favorite quote (and I am a quote guy) is one by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Things that matter most must never be at the mercy of things that matter least.

This is a powerful phrase, and it implies several responsibilities for the reader:

  • We must be keenly aware of what is most important in our many roles (professional, personal, spiritual, etc.)
  • We must recognize, and accept that some uses of our time are more valuable than others
  • We must be incredibly vigilant to ensure that our limited amount of time is spent in a manner that supports the things in our life(or individual roles) that matter most

None of this is easy to do in a society that glorifies busyness and where the “tyranny of the urgent” often drives our day-to-day living. There are days that pass where I (1) can’t figure out where the time went, and (2) am unable to clearly identify what I actually did. I was incredibly busy, but I accomplished almost nothing of substantial value. This happens more often than I would care to admit.

Obviously, I am not writing this post from the perspective of an expert, but as a someone who struggles (every single day) to ensure that I am giving appropriate attention to the things in my life that “matter most”. I have read countless articles, and books, about how to be more productive (and I’m sure I will continue to do so) — looking for a quick fix, or a “system” that will solve my problems and “tell me” what to do. So far, I have not only been unsuccessful, but I have recognized that most blog posts on this topic repeat the same advice — over and over. Have a plan. Schedule your critical tasks. Take time for reflection. Say no. All, probably pretty good advice, but most of these suggestions still leave me feeling like I spend a majority of time “checking things off my list” and leave me wondering if the things I am doing are really making a difference.

(Before I move on, I do want to say that there are a few books I have found to be particularly helpful when it comes to living a meaningful/purposeful life: Essentialism by Greg McKeown, The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor, and Broadcasting Happiness by Michelle Gielan are especially helpful.)

As an example, I am the principal at a diverse, urban junior high school in Arizona. I have grown extremely tired of the current educational narrative in our society that says the right things (kids come first, we must value our teachers, principals should be out in classrooms, etc.) but then doesn’t “walk the talk”. This brings to mind another one of my favorite quotes by Ralph Waldo Emerson:

Your actions speak so loudly that I can not hear what you are saying.

We have an educational system that generates enormous amounts of red-tape for teachers and administrators, demands investment of time and effort that goes well beyond inadequate recognition/compensation (at least for teacher and support staff), fails to adequately invest in kids (especially those with the greatest need), and standardized tests students into oblivion. Unfortunately, there is a significant divide between hopes for an ideal educational system that supports ALL stakeholders and our current reality.

As an administrator, I see this in my job as I struggle to manage paperwork, district initiatives/requirements, emails, budgets, school safety, student behavior, data, testing, teacher evaluations and a plethora of other minutiae. Honestly, many (not all) of these activities “suck the life” out of my day. Some of them, I don’t enjoy and I must struggle to make any meaningful connection between their completion and a clear benefit for my students, or my school community. That is why I have recently been considering ways to “redefine” the principalship in a manner that is consistent with my core beliefs and values about education and that allows me to ensure that “things that matter most are never at the mercy of things that matter least”.

I typically make every effort to get into classrooms every day, but this past Friday, I spent my entire day on campus. I covered for a teacher who was absent, but didn’t have a substitute. I helped with labs in a couple of science classes. I interacted with kids during lunch supervision. I taste tested some awesome peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and I ran an AVID tutorial class. I did not answer emails, work on district initiatives, or wrestle with red tape. It was BY FAR the best day I have had this school year. It was meaningful, encouraging (to me — and I hope students and teachers), and helpful. It allowed me to actually see what was happening in classrooms, experience lessons from a student’s perspective, and engage in the student learning process. My day on campus also prompted me to think about my core beliefs as a school leader and how I should invest my time. Being a “type A” personality, I’ve actually considered a protocol to help me decide how I should make decisions about my day-to-day activities. Here are a few of the questions I am going to begin asking when making decisions about how to spend my time. Note: these questions are based upon my personal mission and beliefs about my responsibility as an educator. Your questions may vary.

Should I work on, or do ______________ (insert action/activity here)?

Does this action/activity help build positive relationships with my students, staff members, and/or parents?

Does this action/activity address a specific need of my school community, or alleviate a burden on someone else?

Does this action/activity contribute to a positive climate on campus and/or in our school community?

Does this action/activity contribute to improved teaching practices, an increase in student learning, or a more productive learning environment?

Does this action/activity encourage a student, staff member, parent, or member of our school community?

Does this action/activity “add to my cup”, thereby allowing me to do a better job of serving others?

If the answer to any of these questions is YES, then it is probably worth investing my time to get that task done, or complete the activity. If the answer is NO, there are a couple of additional questions I need to ask.

Will there be negative repercussions (for me, or for our school) if this activity is not completed?

If NO, don’t do it, say no, or take a pass.¬†If the answer is YES:

Is this just a hoop that I am required to jump through (is it cutting through red tape)? 

If YES, complete the activity with the minimum amount of time and energy investment to avoid negative repercussions. Just get it done. If NO, do what needs to be done to avoid negative personal or school community consequences. This may sound like a questionable approach, but consider opportunity costs. Spending significant time on a “hoop” means losing out on opportunities to work on high impact projects/activities.

In summary, it is critical that we spend our time attending to what is most important in our life at any given moment — whether that is at work or at home. Our decisions need to prioritize people over process, purpose over “hoop jumping”, and critical content/activities over red tape. I have come to recognize that in order to maintain my ability to sustain efforts to support others, I need to make reflection on my personal “what matters most” protocol a daily deliberate practice.

In your life, or your job, how do you make decisions about where to invest your time and energy, and how much to expend? Please share your ideas and strategies in the comments.

(I’m working on an actual flowchart/protocol sheet to use as a reminder for my daily decisions. I will share when it is done.)

What If We Are Only As Good As Our Fifth Runner?

St. John, Kansas Cross Country Team – State Champions 2016

I love cross-country.

You know, the sport where you run off-road, up hills, and around trees.

I was an average cross-country runner in high school, but I learned a lot from the sport and really enjoy my teammates and camaraderie. Here is a link to article that does a pretty good job explaining some of the life lessons that cross-country teaches young people. But this post isn’t about those lessons, it is about how the sport is scored. Yes. Scoring.

Cross country is a team sport in which the finishing position of the top five runners is totaled to arrive at final score. The lower the number, the better. For example, a perfect score in cross-country would be fifteen (1+2+3+4+5). The important thing to consider in this scoring method is that a team is only as good as its fifth place runner. A team that puts four runners in the top ten could still lose a meet if their fifth runner struggles. My brother coaches cross country in Kansas, and last year his team won a state championship with only two runners in the top twenty. They won the meet by one point. Every position mattered — even (or especially) that fifth runner. In the sport of cross country it pays to invest time in EVERY runner, from the fastest to the slowest, because any of the runners on your team could be the difference between winning and losing.

That’s a great philosophy to apply in a lot of situations. Perhaps, there are times when we are only as good as our proverbial “fifth runner.” Our greatest challenge. That means we not only need to invest in building upon our strengths, but also in overcoming our weaknesses.

From a individual perspective, perhaps you excel at many aspects of your job, but you struggle with accepting what you can, and can not, control (I don’t know anyone who struggles with that….eyeroll). It certainly makes sense to continue to build on your strengths, but getting beyond frustrations over what can’t be controlled is probably going to be a limiting factor to success (a “fifth runner”). It makes sense to invest some time in addressing this challenge.

From a organizational perspective,¬†you may be the leader at a school where many students do exceptionally well and make tremendous yearly growth. But, perhaps you should consider defining the success of your school based upon the students who struggle the most (the “fifth runners”). It can be a real challenge to support these kids without doing so at the expense of the high performing students, but it is worth the investment. At least from an educational perspective, how many students can you “leave behind” and truly be considered an exceptional organization? I have heard this concept applied at the adult level by saying that a teaching staff is only as good as the teacher on staff who struggles the most, or a district is only as good as it’s school that faces the greatest challenges.

Finally, from a societal perspective, perhaps we are only as good as the way we care for the most marginalized in our communities (and our world). We can have thriving neighborhoods, a strong economy, and any number of success indicators, but maybe the true evidence of our success as a society is our advocacy for the poor, the homeless, the victimized, and those who experience discrimination — our unwillingness to accept these conditions (the “fifth runner”) as inevitable. ¬†In a world that is so focused on success and status, this can be a real challenge. Whenever I consider those on the margins — in our schools, neighborhoods, and our world — I am reminded of the words of Father Greg Boyle (a man who has dedicated his life to working with some of the most despised and marginalized people in our society — hard-core gang members).

I’m not opposed to success, I just think we should accept it only if it is a by-product of our fidelity.¬†If our primary concern is results, we will choose to work only with those who give us good ones.¬†‚Äď Greg Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart

Sometimes it can seem counterintuitive to invest time, energy, and resources into the proverbial “fifth runner,” but perhaps that is actually the key to our success as individuals, schools, organizations, and as a society.

Don’t forget the fifth runner.

NOTE: if you are interested in learning a little more about the sport of cross-country, and its potential life lessons, I would suggest you check out the documentary The Long Green Line.

I also recommend watching this ESPN 20 for 20 clip called Run Hopi — an inspiring and heart-wrenching story about cross-country on the Hopi Reservation in Arizona.

Run Hopi from Scott Harves on Vimeo.