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!

10 Reasons Relationships Matter

Visiting Odines’ Family in Haiti

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.

  1. We all have something to offer. Positive relationships give all parties the opportunity to recognize and understand that they have value.
  2. You can’t really understand others unless you take the time to get to know them. Deep empathy requires a relationship.
  3. From time to time, other people need help. Relationships are a means to that end — a vehicle for making help happen.
  4. 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.
  5. Strong relationships result in authentic dialogue — people who are willing to “speak the truth, even when their voice shakes.”
  6. Relationships require trust and trust facilitates learning. We typically don’t learn, or take risks, with people we don’t trust.
  7. You don’t change organizations, schools, businesses, or people without taking the time to build relationships. Change requires positive relationships.
  8. While genuine relationships are selfless, people in a positive relationship will sacrifice for one another.
  9. Effective organizations (like schools) are effective teams. Effective teams foster positive relationships.
  10. 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.

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!

My 30 Day Sabbatical

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.

  1. Rest: I need to give myself permission to really rest — to sit quietly, take naps, watch a baseball game. Relax.
  2. 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.
  3. Take a Mindfulness Class: I plan to take a mindfulness class through mindfulschools.org
  4. Go to the Beach: Ocean air. No further explanation needed.
  5. Simplify: I make things too difficult. During my sabbatical I am going to jettison clutter, habits, and anything else that makes decisions difficult.
  6. Walk: This is a chance to get a little exercise, listen to books and music, and think.
  7. Eat Mindfully: I need to break a few habits in this area and develop a few positive habits — like eating a healthy lunch.
  8. Go to Kansas: Visit family, go fishing, and focus on some of the other items on my list — walk, read, rest.
  9. Focus on Others and Gratitude: Find ways to encourage, support, and help others –including things at home (cooking, laundry, dishes, etc.)
  10. Let go of Anger and Frustration: It’s not healthy — for me, or those around me. Just breathe and let things go.

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!

5 Reasonable Ways to Begin to Address Childhood Trauma

cc photo by J. Delp 

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.

I was recently reading a dated article entitled, Why a Great Principal Burned Out — and What Might have Prevented It.  The subject of the article, Principal Nat Pickering, is quoted as saying:

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Consider what you can do to tie into, or support, important community organizations. For example, food banks, health clinics, mental health care providers, and shelters. In our community, the Chandler Care Center, Live Love, ICAN, The Boy’s and Girl’s Club, and Fans Across America are just a few of many organizations that provide resources to combat the effects of childhood trauma.
  5. 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.

Everyone deserves hope.