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.
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
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!
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…
…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.
…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.
…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).
…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.
…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.”
…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!
…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.
…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.
…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).
…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.
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!
Several years ago I traveled to Haiti for the first time. It was truly life-changing. Since that first trip, I have been back so many times I have lost count. There are many ways that Haiti has changed me, but most significant is that I have gained family members — Odines, Amy and Dyno (my favorite three-year old). You see, this country where I originally thought I had so much to offer has instead given me the invaluable gift of meaningful relationships. In January, I had the distinct honor of serving as Odines’ best man when he married Amy. I will continue to return, following the lead of my best friend as he works to make a difference for those on the margins, but my primary purpose for travelling to Haiti now rests in the relationships I have formed. I go because of my friends.
I’m not sure that relationships are always undervalued in our society, but I’m also not sure they are given the attention they deserve.
Building strong relationships must be considered a foundational skill. We should teach it, model it, and practice it. It is that important. Relationships are the pivot point for all meaningful change and difference making in our schools, our communities, and our world.
In the spirit of my “10 Things” posts, here is a list of ten reasons that I believe relationships make all of the difference.
We all have something to offer. Positive relationships give all parties the opportunity to recognize and understand that they have value.
You can’t really understand others unless you take the time to get to know them. Deep empathy requires a relationship.
From time to time, other people need help. Relationships are a means to that end — a vehicle for making help happen.
Sometimes we need help. It’s not easy, or healthy, to go it alone in this world. Relationships allow us to share our burdens and humbly accept the help of others.
Strong relationships result in authentic dialogue — people who are willing to “speak the truth, even when their voice shakes.”
Relationships require trust and trust facilitates learning. We typically don’t learn, or take risks, with people we don’t trust.
You don’t change organizations, schools, businesses, or people without taking the time to build relationships. Change requires positive relationships.
While genuine relationships are selfless, people in a positive relationship will sacrifice for one another.
Effective organizations (like schools) are effective teams. Effective teams foster positive relationships.
We have a responsibility to model positive relationship building for our young people. If you haven’t noticed, our society doesn’t do such a great job at this, and building relationships is a skill that everyone needs.
In some cases, building and maintaining relationships seems to happen naturally (like my relationship with Odines). In other cases, it requires more work. The rude colleague. The disrespectful and defiant student. The angry patron, or upset parent. In those cases, I think we should head the words of Father Greg Boyle.
You stand with the least likely to succeed until success is succeeded by something more valuable: kinship. You stand with the belligerent, the surly and the badly behaved until bad behavior is recognized for the language it is: the vocabulary of the deeply wounded and of those whose burdens are more than they can bear.
Relationships (kinship) are not always easy. But they are always worth it.
I am almost done with school for the year — just a few more days of wrap-up and administrative meetings. In an effort to refresh (and prepare for a new school year), I am going to take a purposeful break. A sabbatical, so to speak.
Here is a list of what I will be doing.
Rest: I need to give myself permission to really rest — to sit quietly, take naps, watch a baseball game. Relax.
Read: I have a diverse summer reading list, and a few more books will probably find their way into the mix. The key is, I am going to read books I enjoy.
Friday was a tough day. I had a long list of things to do — things I had carefully arranged on my calendar to be certain they would all be completed. The day began as planned, with the final session of a book study on The Happiness Advantage with a small group of staff members. We discussed the final few chapters, talked about possible applications in our work setting, and perhaps most important, we laughed and socialized. Next, we kicked off the school day with an excellent guest speaker from NotMyKid who talked about his experiences as a youth, the challenges of life as a teenager, and spoke to our kids about making positive choices. Check. Check.
Things were off to a good start. Then I was asked to help with an issue that was going to involve some student discipline. The situation required an investigation, talking with other students who had witnessed the incident, getting written statements, and ultimately — consequences for a few students. As I spoke with one of the students, they became increasingly frustrated, visibly agitated, and finally extremely angry. Profanities were thrown around my office as the student attempted to engage me in an argument. Our interaction ended when I was told, “Do whatever you f***ing have to do. Nothing I do, or say is going to make a difference.”
I had already spoken to the child’s parent, but they requested the opportunity to call home. I obliged. The conversation between parent and child (of which I could only hear one side) was heartbreaking. Frustration. Loss of hope. A sense of failure. Desperation. Anger. All spewed out by the kid in a tirade of venomous language punctuated by a plea for help. I was at a loss — devastated by what I was hearing and my inability to help. I called for one of our counselors (we have two who are absolutely top-notch). She was able to help the student deescalate…so much so, that the kid was calm and apologizing to me as they left my office. “I’m sorry. It’s not you. It’s not you.”
This student was correct. It wasn’t me. At least not all me. Whatever happened on Friday morning, and the subsequent fallout, was enough to pull the scab off of a much deeper, insidious, and festering wound. A wound left by innumerable traumas in this child’s life. Even after having done this job for years, I was so shaken that I spent the rest of the day retracing the investigation, double-checking all of my information–just to be sure I had everything right. To be certain that I was not “piling on.” While the actions of the student required consequences (it was not a “minor” incident), what the student really needed was a significant amount social-emotional help. The child is still responsible for the decisions made, but their ability to make those decisions has undeniably been shaped by their Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). This students issues extend well-beyond the confines of school.
The education crisis is a mental health crisis, is a medical crisis, is a political crisis. All of that is layered into the school zone.
I believe that these two brief sentences may be the most powerful synopsis of the struggles of public education (especially for schools in high poverty areas) I have ever read. Situations like my experience on Friday are not unusual. On a daily basis, my counseling, administrative staff members, and teachers confront the realities of a society and school system that places tremendous amounts of pressure (academic and social) on our kids, many of whom are suffering from both acute and chronic trauma. Students are asked to deal with high stakes testing, pressure to get on a high school “success track” (AP, honors, etc.), GPAs, and class rank — just to name a few. This can be daunting for grounded kids with a strong support network, but it is extremely doubtful that students who come to school hungry; are the victims of verbal, physical, or sexual, abuse; and live in extreme poverty will be able to focus on what they need to do to be academically successful. Many are just trying to survive. Their success depends on the school and community’s ability to address a plethora of mental health, social-emotional, medical, and financial needs. It is an overwhelming task — for school staff and students. Trauma in our schools is real, and it has a significant impact on our students and our educators.
Childhood trauma can be a significant issue, even where it might not be expected. For example, my school is located near downtown Chandler, Arizona — certainly a more impoverished area of the city, but not considered to be “too bad” compared to other parts of the Phoenix metropolitan area. However, according to a 2015 report, published by the Superior Court of Arizona, our zip-code has the highest number of referrals to the juvenile justice system in the county (see page 64 of the report). This is not to say this is necessarily the most impoverished, or crime ridden area in the county — but it does highlight the fact that high levels of trauma can be hidden in schools and communities where they might not be expected. In addition, one should not misconstrue this data to suggest that Adverse Childhood Experiences and trauma are a “poor school” or “poor community” problem.” Students suffering from ACEs are in attendance at every school in our country. That is why we need more attention, empathy, and support for what our educators do on a daily basis. Just like many other professions, education has become increasingly complex and the stakes for our children have never been higher. For some, it may truly be a matter of life, or death.
So what do we do? In addition to continuing to learn about this complex issue, here are five reasonable ways to begin to address childhood trauma.
I would suggest we take a closer look at the issue of trauma in our communities and how it might be impacting kids in our local schools. It is not a problem we can ignore without a lasting and detrimental impact. We need to have an understanding, an accurate picture, of what childhood trauma looks like in our schools. Know the who and the what.
Provide support and encouragement to those who are engaged daily in helping meet student needs — emotional, social, medical, and academic. In spite of what some might believe, or say, about the education profession — serving the needs of the whole child is a taxing and stressful occupation. Those who choose to dedicate their professional lives to working with our children deserve our accolades, encouragement, and support. I am extremely thankful for my staff and specifically our two counselors. They are absolutely top-notch and the service they provide far exceeds their compensation.
If you are an educator, begin to intensely examine the “why” behind student behaviors. Understand that when kids are walking around wounded on the inside, they are likely to display symptoms on the outside (attitudes, actions, and behaviors). Become informed about ACEs and trauma informed practice so that you can be a contributing member of the team that is needed to meet the needs of the whole child.
Contact your state legislators and ask what they are doing to provide adequate levels of financial support to our schools — funding for appropriate facilities, adequate staffing (including counselors, psychologists, health assistants, behavioral specialists, and teachers). If you are in Arizona, this is especially critical. Our schools are woefully underfunded and current efforts to expand charter schools and school choice are leading to defacto segregation and underfunding/understaffing of some of our schools with the greatest need.
We need to understand the enormous task we are asking of public educators and be willing to support their efforts. I will close with another paragraph from the article about Principal Nat Pickering.
Nat quickly learned that the original game plan of providing order and excellent instruction would make a good start, but was not going to address the deeper issues. The school started adding wraparound services to address socio-emotional needs, adding more assistant principals, a dean and other support staff. “What’s evolved for us over the years is that we try to offer a cocktail of a therapeutic environment, individualized supports for kids who need it and rigorous academic expectations.
Right now, at least in Arizona, the “wrap-around services” Nat mentions are either lacking or stretched to their limits. Children are falling through the cracks and it is time to demand the support needed to give every child hope for their future.