A Letter to My Staff

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July 22, 2018

To the Exceptional Staff at Willis Junior High School,

We are embarking on what I believe is the most important week of the school year.  As I write this letter, our campus is quiet and empty, but on Monday morning it will be abuzz with activity as our students return for the 2018-19 school year. Some will be ready. Some will be nervous. Some will bring baggage — problems at home, poor previous experiences with school, or any number of things that will impact their behavior and performance.. We must be ready them all. Every. Single. Student.

How we conduct of ourselves this week — our interactions, the connections we make, and the relationships we begin to build will truly shape the remainder of our school year and may, in fact, determine the level of success of some of our students. We are a community. We need our students to see evidence that Willis will be different (in a good way) than any of their previous school experiences.

With so much riding on a short period of time, I ask you to focus your efforts this week on making it evident to our students that at Willis they are safe and valued (WJHS Core Value #1).

  • Work as a staff to ensure that every student has at least one positive and personal interaction with an adult on our campus every day this week
  • Learn, and call them by, their names
  • Be diligent about giving students a voice in what happens in your classroom
  • Allow students to share something about themselves and then work to acknowledge that they are a unique person with infinite value
  • Share some things about yourself — they need to see that you are a human being with your own interests and unique experiences
  • Be determined that you will not be offended by a junior high school student, or take their behavior personally
  • Be sure your filter is fully operational — biting sarcasm, rude comments, or any statements that might be perceived as belittling or treating a student as “less than…” have no place on our campus
  • Take every opportunity to acknowledge and reinforce the positive behaviors you see on campus
  • Shake hands, fist bump, high-five like crazy
  • Model kindness, patience, empathy, and humility
  • Be visible — a strong adult presence helps students feel safe and gives them someone to go to when they have questions
  • Smile, affirm, reassure, encourage, and smile some more

Let’s all commit to doing everything in our power to ensure that when each one of our students leaves on Friday they describe this week as the best of their entire school experience. We want every child to know that they matter and to be excited about coming back next week. I have unshakeable confidence in the Willis staff and your commitment to doing what is right for our kids! You are truly the best and I am honored to work with you.

Have a great week!

Jeff


Fresh Paint: A Resilience Metaphor

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cc photo art by J. Delp

I spent Saturday morning at school painting classrooms. Lately, I have been a bit discouraged about the physical appearance of our facilities and the unspoken message that dingy walls, stained carpet, institutional like classrooms, and dated buildings send to our students and parents. Over time, things wear out, students spill things, ink pens break, and hand and fingerprints become a permanent part of the walls. We just can’t keep up. With this in mind, I enlisted the assistance of our local community to make some improvements. On Saturday, one of our recently graduated eighth graders worked with about forty volunteers — as a part of his Eagle Scout Project — to paint two of our classrooms. The difference a few coats of fresh paint made were staggering.

Sometimes life is a little like the classroom walls at our school. We get run down, tired, and even discouraged. The effects of time, stress, busyness, and an unsustainable pace slowly erode our attitudes and leave us like those dingy classroom walls — chipped, stained, and not looking (or feeling) so good. We can’t change what has happened to us in the past, or make those things go away, but we can change our day, week, month, year, or even life trajectory.

You are never to old to set another goal or to dream a new dream. – C.S. Lewis

It is during these times (when we feel beaten down, less than, and discouraged) that we must have enough initiative to seek out a coat of “fresh paint.” This is not to imply that we should — or that we are able to — “paint over” our problems, but that we do need to take the time to adequately care for ourselves. Sometimes we can do the painting ourselves, other times we have to seek out the assistance of friends, family members, and colleagues.

As we ended our last school year, I definitely needed a fresh coat of paint. I am incredibly blessed to work in a profession where I have the flexibility of taking some time off. I spent time at the beach with my wife and daughter. One coat. While we were in San Diego, I met up for coffee with a good friend who I don’t see as often as I would like. Two coats. I visited family in Kansas, saw my nieces and nephews play basketball, and celebrated my parents fiftieth wedding anniversary. Three, four, and five coats. I spent a lot of time being outdoors and fishing. Six coats. In addition, the local community has really begun to pour into our school (I was foolish for not asking for assistance sooner). They are volunteering to mentor, supporting campus projects, and making donations for our Community resource room. Seven coats. While many of my struggles still exist, and I know the coming year will bring more, the “fresh paint” has made me feel more optimistic and resilient — ready to tackle the challenges ahead.

The thing is, we all own proverbial brushes and paint. From time to time we should apply our own coat — take a vacation, breathe, go for a walk, read a book. Whatever it takes to refresh and re-energize. But, we also need to watch out for others who are in need — a word of encouragement, a note or positive email, lunch, or just being present. Any of these actions might be the “fresh paint” someone needs to carry on.

As we finished up finished up Saturday’s painting project, I was checking out the finished product, when one of the volunteers said to me, “It’s amazing what a couple of coats of paint can do. It is so much brighter in here.”

Yes indeed. Things are so much brighter.

This article is cross-posted on my Medium page.

Slow Down to be Fulfilled, Focused, and Purposeful

Kansas Sunrise – cc photo by J. Delp

We have several dogs. One is a West Highland Terrier (a Westie) named Kosmo. Kosmo has a personality that matches his name — he is mischievous, full of energy, quirky, and strong-willed. One of my favorite things to do is take Kosmo to the local dog park where he is free to run wild and socialize. There is only one problem. Kosmo has F.O.M.O. — fear of missing out. Although the park is a small one, Kosmo runs miles as he darts from one dog to the next and from one person to the next — rarely spending more than a few seconds in any one place. It genuinely appears that he is so concerned about what might be happening elsewhere that he must check out every potential source of entertainment, even if it means leaving something good behind. When we leave, Kosmo is typically exhausted from all of the running in his effort to greet every creature at the park (human and canine).

There are many times in life that I feel a lot like Kosmo — running from one thing to another out of concern that I will miss out, or fear that I won’t get everything done. More of my days than I would like to admit are marred by chaos and a lack of focus. In the end, in spite of my busyness, I am left with an empty feeling in my soul and a full to-do list. The frantic pace of my day is counter-productive. Like Kosmo I run all around, spend little time focused on any one thing, wear myself out, and accomplish very little.

This week I ran across a blog post by John Spencer entitled, The Difference Between Being Busy and Being Productive. The post resonated with me, because even though I know better, I still struggle immensely to avoid busyness and stay on the productivity tract. If you have been following my blog you know that I have been considering ways to challenge my current practices as a principal, get back to being a passionate leader/advocate for my staff and students, and redefine the principal position (at least for me). John (for whom I have a great deal of respect), writes about his ideas on the benefits of “breaking up with busy.” In addition to sharing his written thoughts on the issue, John put together this video:

As I explained in a post about my “not-to-do” list, busyness has been my nemesis — even though I am very cognizant of the difference between being busy and being productive. John’s post helped me out by reinforcing the notion that it is worth the time to ensure that I have a plan for being productive — focusing on the “big rocks.” I have always loved this quote by Goethe, but constantly be guilty of allowing “things that matter least” to dominate my days.

Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least. – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

This morning, I found a wonderful piece in the Harvard Business Review that touches on the notion of living a balanced life. In her post, In Praise of Extreme Moderation, author Avivah Wittenberg-Cox explains what she means by investing in extreme moderation.

I want to do a reasonable job at the different parts of my life and a stellar job at the balance between all of them. – Avivah Wittenberg-Cox

As consider what I want as a professional, and as a person, this seems like a pretty sensible approach. For me, the suggestions given by both John and Avivah are not so much earth-shattering as they are humbling. I know what productivity looks like, and I know that is what I want (as opposed to busyness). I know extreme workaholism and I certainly have a sense of what it would be like to live a balanced life. So far, I have just been too stubborn, or to lazy, to make either a priority. The trick (at least for me) is taking the time to slow myself down and be deliberate about my daily activities — moment by moment (i.e. don’t be like Kosmo).

Are my actions moderate in nature? Are they contributing to a sense of chaos, or do they leave me fulfilled, focused, and with a sense of purpose?

While responding to the siren call of email may seem like an act of productivity, in reality it may just be a distraction from what is truly important. Responding to email does not leave me feeling fulfilled, focused, or purposeful.

One of my favorite things to do during student lunches is to go outside and pick-up trash or scrape gum. It isn’t because I am overly concerned about the campus (although I want it to be clean), or because I am a neat-freak (although I can be). This activity provides an opportunity for me to interact with students and model actions and behaviors I want to see in them — allowing them to see that doing little things can make a difference. When I am out scrapping gum, here is a typical conversation.

Student: “Mr. Delp, what are you doing?”

Me: “Scraping gum?”

Student: “That’s gum (pointing to the black spot on the concrete)?!!!”

Me: “Sure is. Would you like a piece. I can’t guarantee the flavor.”

Student: “That’s gross. Can I try (scraping the gum)?”

This pattern of conversation typically evolves into a discussion about what has been going on in the classroom, the book the student is currently reading, the plans they have for the weekend, and a plethora of other topics. What seems like a custodial activity turns into an opportunity to build relationships. All because I spent a few minutes outside scraping gum. Fulfilled? Check. Focused? Check. Purposeful? Check.

Finally, slowing down has a positive impact on our personal lives. It allows us to see beauty and enjoy the little moments of life. We are currently visiting family in Kansas. You might be surprised to know that Kansas is not a popular summer vacation destination. Go figure. However, there is so much beauty to be seen here if you just take the time to see it. The intricacies of an ant pile, the brilliance of a Golden Rain tree, a sunrise, a Sunflower…the list goes on and on.

So while I have developed a “not-to-do” list, I am ready to begin adding to my “to-do” list. The first item — slow down, breathe, and find the beauty and joy in the little moments.

This post is a part of my Redefined Principal Project. Throughout this school year I am looking for ways to purposefully disrupt some of work habits and routines in a manner that will benefit my teachers, my students, and my school community. If you have suggestions, please leave them in the comments, or tweet them at me. I look forward to hearing from you!

My “Not-to-Do” List [first draft]

This post is Part II of The Redefined Principal Project.

And every day, the world will drag you by the hand, yelling, “This is important! And this is important! And this is important! You need to worry about this! And this! And this!” And each day, it’s up to you to yank your hand back, put it on your heart and say, “No. This is what’s important. — Iain Thomas

They say the first step toward recovery is admitting you have a problem. Well, I am addicted to lists. For me, lists are a double-edged sword. They help me get things out of my head (calming the squirrel that runs around in there), but I can also be a bit obsessive compulsive about their organization. However, lists can serve a practical purpose. In his book, The Checklist Manifesto (yes…I have read it), author and physician Atul Gawande outlines how good checklists can be critical to our efficiency and effectiveness.

Good checklists, on the other hand are precise. They are efficient, to the point, and easy to use even in the most difficult situations. They do not try to spell out everything–a checklist cannot fly a plane. Instead, they provide reminders of only the most critical and important steps–the ones that even the highly skilled professional using them could miss. Good checklists are, above all, practical. – Atul Gawande, The Checklist Manifesto

But, this post isn’t about making a list of things I need to do. As I explore the notion of redefining my role as a school principal, I am intrigued by the notion of a “Not-to-Do” list. As the name would imply, this is a list of things I want to remember NOT to do. You can read a little more about the “Not-to-Do” list in this Life Hacker article (just one of many resources on the idea).

As I reflect on my past seven years as a principal, there are many things I have learned, including things I shouldn’t be doing, but continue to do. These are the things that I want to capture on my “Not-to-Do” list. Below is a list of ten things (along with a brief rationale) that I am proposing I will “not do” during the upcoming school year. I picked ten, because it was a nice number and it fit’s in with my “ten things” writing project. In the end, I may end up with more (or fewer) than ten. So here is the first draft of my “Not-to-Do” list (in no particular order).

I will not…

  1. …say “yes” to requests, projects, and tasks without serious consideration. I am a “people-pleaser” so I tend to take on too much without consideration for how it is going to impact my ability to perform other responsibilities. From now on, I will carefully consider how requests benefit my goals for our school community before making a commitment. Don’t worry — I’ll still be nice.
  2. …skip lunch. I am a bit ashamed to admit that I rarely eat lunch. Sunflower seeds don’t count…right? Or breakfast, for that matter. This “not-to-do” item could be more broadly interpreted as I will not sacrifice my mental and physical health for my job. I will take lunch breaks. I will take breaks to breathe and be at peace. I will do what I need to do to stay relatively healthy — mentally and physically.
  3. …waste time feeling sorry for myself. This is a tough one form me. When I am feeling overwhelmed, stressed, or “put upon,” I tend to wallow in self-pity. I’ve written about this before, and this year I need to follow my own advice (see The Cavalry is Not Coming).
  4. …check email throughout the school day (or expect others to respond immediately). Sometimes I am convinced that email is the bane of my existence. It is like a twenty-four hour shared “to-do” list where anyone is able to add to my workload. As a redefined principal, I refuse to allow email to control my day. I will have set times for checking email, I will triage and respond to what is most critical, and I will leave the rest for another time. In addition, I will not expect others to get back to me right away. Email is something that I believe Goethe would refer to as “things that matter least.” I’m still exploring how to do this effectively, but I like the Yesterbox method developed by Tony Hsieh — the CEO of Zappos.
  5. …do work that isn’t mine to do. Let me be clear that I love helping people out, so this doesn’t mean I won’t be doing things for others. It simply means that I currently do a number of tasks that, as a school leader, I should delegate. Again, there is limited time in the day so I need to be sure I am focused on “things which matter most.”
  6. …miss any of my daughter’s swim meets. I have to make many sacrifices as a school principal. I have early mornings, late evenings, a full calendar, and sometimes work to do at home and on weekends. I love my school community, however, I can no longer sacrifice family events for work. Family will be my top priority and I will not miss swim meets. Go CHS Wolves!
  7. …blame others for problems and challenges. Lately (the past few years) I have experienced increasing amounts of frustration when I feel like things are not going my way, or when I feel like our school community and students are being overlooked or short-changed. I get angry and tend to take it out on others (in most instances it is passive-aggressive action). It’s easy to blame people for problems. It’s much harder to devise a solution with existing resources. I need to stop blaming and start problem-solving.
  8. …compare myself to other school leaders, or compare our school accomplishments to those of other schools. Sometimes I feel jealous about the accolades that other leaders and schools receive. Time to get over that. I am different. WJHS is different. It is certainly okay to be challenged by others to seek improvement, but comparing accomplishments in this situation isn’t helpful.
  9. …place anything above the needs of my students and staff (during the work day). My school community must know that they are my priority — email, paperwork, meetings, and red-tape can be scheduled around my commitment to being visible, building relationships, and visiting classrooms (not the other way around).
  10. …make things more complicated than they need to be. One thing I really want to keep in mind while going through The Redefined Principal Project is that being a principal doesn’t have to be complicated. It really boils down to building quality relationships with the community, making decisions that are in the best interest of students, and supporting those who are directly responsible for meeting the needs of kids. This doesn’t require convoluted systems, detailed organizational systems, or a Ph.D. in Business Management (or education, for that matter). Most of the time it simply requires our purposeful and mindful presence.

So…there it is. The first draft of my “Not-to-Do” list. PLEASE take a few moments to comment and let me know what you would add, remove, or change. I’m also curious about what would be on your “No-to-Do” list (even if you aren’t an educator). All input and suggestions are welcomed.

Now I am going to get busy, NOT doing some things.

The Redefined Principal Project, Part 1b

Part 1b of a series (read part 1a here: The Journey Back to Me)

For what it’s worth… it’s never too late, or in my case too early, to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit. Start whenever you want. You can change or stay the same. There are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you’ve never felt before. I hope you meet people who have a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of, and if you’re not, I hope you have the courage to start over again.

– F. Scott Fitzgerald

This is the story of an ending. An ending that is necessary for a new beginning.

This post represents the mental deconstruction of how I have come to define my job as the principal of an urban junior high school. It is the dismantling of my routines, my expectations, and my current expectations for success. For the moment, I am scrapping almost everything to make room for a rebuilding project.

I am starting over.

Next year will be my eighth year as the principal at a school I love. I believe (at least I hope) that there have been many successes. But, there have also been enormous challenges that have left me feeling depleted, discouraged, and at times concerned about whether I am in the right place. Some of this is job related. A lot of it is “me” related. I have high expectations. I want the people I work with, the parents and students I work for, my bosses, and my community members to be happy. I worry. I worry about school and student safety. I worry about school letter grades. I worry about the community perception of our school. I worry about our kids and ensuring that they are prepared for a future of success. I desperately want our school to be successful academically and be a place of physical, social, and emotional safety. This desire and the effort involved in moving in that direction has taken a toll on me (see The Journey Back to Me).

So, time for a change. It is time for me to rebuild my definition, and my expectations, for MY principalship. It is time for me to do things differently.

The most dangerous phrase in the language is, “We’ve always done it this way.” — Rear Admiral Grace Hopper

Over the next several weeks, I am going to take the time to reflect and re-evaluate what I believe it means to be an effective principal. I am going to redefine my role as school leader in a manner that prioritizes my mental and physical health and the well-being of my staff and students. This is a work in progress, but I know that my definition and the associated responsibilities will be centered around the famous statement by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe — a quote that has nearly become a personal mantra.

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

Lately, I have spent too much time on things that “matter least.” My days and weeks are frequently spent reacting to the latest crisis, or hacking through red tape that has little to do with the welfare of our school community. These are more indications that it is time for a change.

The good news is that I have a strong foundation upon which to build my new job description, roles, and responsibilities.

  • I love our school and community.
  • I work with a great staff and wonderful students.
  • I love working with junior high kids (go figure).
  • I am passionate about equity, inclusion, and opportunities for All students.
  • I am committed to success at Willis Junior High School.
  • From time to time, I still have a good idea (or two), and I savor opportunities to use my creativity.
  • I have started asking for help (not an easy thing for me). This is not a job that can be done without the support of our community (a sincere thank-you to all who have responded positively to our Community Cafe).
  • I am willing to be unorthodox in my approach to being a principal and I plan on doing some things that will challenge the traditional definition of this position.

As of this post, I have razed my current job description, leaving only the foundation of my core beliefs, my love for kids, and my passion for justice and equity. Over the course of the next few weeks I will be working to:

  • Develop MY new definition of the principalship.
  • Outline my priorities and key responsibilities for the upcoming school year.
  • Develop a few SMART goals to guide and measure my actions.
  • Create routines and check-lists to ensure I stay on track and reflect/modify appropriately.
  • Create a “not to-do” list to ensure that I avoid pitfalls and focus on the things that matter most.

All options are on the table and I plan on doing whatever is necessary to regain my energy, my enthusiasm, and my focus on being the best possible advocate for the Willis Junior High School community. In the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, “I can change, or stay the same”. I choose change.

Along the way, I will be writing about my “Redefined Principal Project” and sharing outcomes. I welcome your suggestions, resources, and personal experience with similar projects. Please feel free to comment on my blog, connect via Twitter, or e-mail me at jsdelp at gmail dot com. I appreciate your patience, your input, and your support!

Let My Students Play

The Pacific Ocean – photo by Alina Delp

It has occurred to me that we could dramatically improve school climate at almost any school by ensuring easy access to a beach. Simple. The cool, salty air and the inviting sound of crashing waves would be enough to calm teachers and students. In addition, a quick swim or surfing session would surely reduce student cortisol levels and release some brain boosting endorphins. This incredible idea was sparked by thirty minutes of boogie boarding at Pacific Beach in San Diego, California. Another benefit of play — improved cognitive skills and creativity. In other words, it generates ideas.

While it is unlikely that Willis Junior High School will be getting an ocean anytime soon the idea of allowing our students more opportunities for organized play has been on my mind lately. Play and relaxation are critical contributors to social-emotional health for both students and adults. That would explain why I am on vacation right now — attending to my emotional health.

Studies have shown that many students — especially those who have experienced Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) — suffer from chronic stress. Chronic stress results in an increase in blood cortisol levels and high cortisol levels impair brain function. Over time, this can even have a negative impact on brain development. Exercise, physical activity, and mindfulness have all been shown to reduce stress and therefore cortisol levels. That is obviously a good thing.

Unfortunately, as kids get older, we dramatically reduce the amount of time they have to play, relax, unwind, and be mindful at school. I would argue that our kids are suffering because of this lack of play time and that providing more opportunities for organized “play” would — at least up to a certain point — result in students who are less stressed, more focused, and demonstrate better problem solving skills and creativity.

As I was standing in the surf this afternoon, I was reminded of a quote by the founder of Patagonia, Inc. — Yvon Chouinard.

Work had to be enjoyable on a daily basis.

In his book, Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman, Chouinard talks about the importance of play in the work place and the connection between happy employees and quality work. As the title indicates, he encouraged his employees to take regular surf breaks while working at their Ventura, California headquarters.

One of my goals for the 2018-19 school year is to ensure that we have more organized activities at lunch time. This isn’t as easy as it sounds — it requires a great deal of planning, supervision, and potentially material resources. I am working hard, with the help of several members of our community, to recruit volunteers to spend time with our students at lunch — playing basketball, corn hole, chess, soccer, music, and whatever else might interest a junior high school student. Our students have asked for this (in an end of year survey) and I intend to make sure it happens. I know the play will be beneficial, our volunteers will be a mentoring presence, and I believe it will reduce the number of issues we see during our lunch periods, as well as in the classroom.

So….let my students surf!

Okay…maybe they won’t be able to surf, but at the very least, let my students play!

Standing in the Gap

Today, my parents are celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. Not only am I very proud of their devotion to one another, I am incredibly thankful for their parenting and support. I am blessed.

This week, I finished my nineteenth year in education, and my seventh as a principal. In that time, I have seen the positive difference that loving adults make in a child’s life and I have seen the devastating impact of abuse inflicted by those who are supposed to be a child’s most ardent supporters. Just this week, I dealt with an almost unimaginable incident of verbal and mental abuse by a parent — at a level I have never seen. It was a harsh reminder of how fortunate I was (and still am) to have the support of two loving parents. What an advantage I have been afforded simply through steadfast support and unconditional love.

All children should be so fortunate.

But, we know that isn’t the case. Many kids suffer from abuse, neglect, and inattention. Some of our kids have loving adults in their lives who are simply stretched to thin — by poverty, by work constraints, by stress, or by their own traumatic experiences.

We all have opportunities to stand in the gap. Chances to either be the loving adult in a child’s life, or support that loving adult who is struggling to balance the demands of the world. Teachers, administrators, pastors, community members, friends, relatives…we can all be advocates for kids on the margins. For some kids, kindness, love, and support may literally be the difference between life and death.

I am a fan of the 2012 movie, Chasing Mavericks — based on the true story of Jay Moriarty. In the movie, Jay is one of those kids who needs someone to “stand in the gap.” Accomplished surfer Frosty Hesson takes him under his wing, mentoring Jay as he prepares to surf Mavericks — one of the biggest waves in the world. At one point in the movie, Frosty is complaining to his wife Brenda about Jay’s struggles and the challenges of keeping him on the right path. Brenda gently reminds Frosty that Jay has looked up to him his whole life, and then says,

There are all kinds of sons Frosty. Some are born to you, some just occur to you.

Isn’t that the truth. Sometimes sons and daughters just occur to us. Children on the margins. May we all be able, and willing, to recognize these kiddos and stand in the gaps with kindness and love.

Happy Anniversary Mom and Dad! Thanks for standing with me. Love you both!