Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Wisdom for Wannabes: Encouragement from a New Principal

Every fall semester, I begin a new journey with aspiring school leaders who quickly have their eyes and minds thrown open by new, sometimes conflicting ideas, possibilities and controversies as they try to understand school leadership from a broad perspective. I call it the balcony view. They probably tire of the phrase.

Inevitably, we spend time talking about how simple and straightforward good school leadership looks from the safety of a comfortable chair, newspaper article, politician’s stump speech, corporate board room, faculty lounge, or classroom or office tucked away in the Ivory Tower. And every fall semester, through those messy and often long-running conversations, I’m encouraged by the passion, level of commitment and desire to do good work I see in our students.

A couple years ago, I asked Tara Estep (@TaraEstep), one of our program graduates and a new principal, to participate in a blogging project with my class of aspiring principals. I knew Tara, who is as good as they come and now the principal at Hansen Elementary School in Cedar Falls, IA, would have a lot to offer, but I didn’t know she would provide me with something I now view as a virtual classic piece of writing for aspiring principals.

Every December, I send them out the door with this bit of encouragement from one of the best young principals anywhere. This fall, I’m expanding the circulation of that wisdom by including it here.

Hello everyone! I trust you had a wonderful Thanksgiving with your friends and family!

I had the chance to read through your week 8 reflections. They were great…honest and real. I remember thinking those same things! At the time, I was journaling, and I went back to see what my reflections were. Here are a few things I had written down when I was just beginning my journey…

Am I ready to be an island? Ready for the inevitable loneliness?

Am I ready to create relationships that will never turn into friendships?

Am I ready to transition to the “dark side,” and to forever be looked at differently?

Am I ready to go against the grain and no longer with it?

Am I ready to have everyone’s problems become my problems?

Am I ready to think about 400 kids rather than 25?

Am I ready to walk into the lounge and hear the once bubbling conversation come to an abrupt halt?

Am I ready to be the target…the one to blame…the one that gets judged?

These are important challenges to think about. Many of you had these same themes in your reflections. It’s great to reflect on those challenges, so you have a sense of what you’re getting yourself into. But, many have said it and it’s true…the positives of school leadership far outweigh the negatives. Here is the second half of this journal. I finished it toward the end of my program.

I am ready to be a visionary…to share and develop that vision with my staff.

I am ready to affect positive instructional change and always ask, “Is what we’re doing best for kids?”

I am ready to be involved in positive conversations that move us forward!

I am ready to make informed, research based decisions…I’m ready to make those tough decisions…the ones everyone expects me to make.

I am ready to be a motivator, a leader of learning, and a compassionate ear for kids and staff.

I am ready to be a trusting mentor…one who facilitates, assists, and supports.

I am ready to lead with ethical behavior…to lead by example.

I am ready to instill the importance of teaching: an opportunity to teach young minds, touch young hearts, and make a difference each day.

I am ready to take on the politics…fight for our school, and do everything ethically possible to make sure my teachers have the best resources needed to do their job.

I am ready to be involved with teachers and their learning! I am ready to be a collaborator, a listener, and a sharer of ideas.

I am ready to love my job, hate my job, care too much, work too hard, leave too late, cry, laugh, and scream.

I am ready to make a difference.

Ready or not…here I come.

Although it may feel like you are getting a lot of the “doom and gloom” right now, please know that as a principal you get to do all of the above and more! UNI does a great job to prepare you for all the challenges that are sure to arise, but once I got into the job I was more surprised by the positive outcomes I wasn’t expecting. I was pretty much expecting all the other stuff…Well, maybe not all of it.

Will you ever be prepared enough? No. Does it feel like a blur sometimes? Yes. Is balancing really, really tough? Yep. Are you a target at times? Sure.

I truly believe everyone makes their situation as positive or negative as they want it to be. You stand at the beginning of a journey. This journey will make you think, make you question and, at times, make you want to run out the door, but remember why you started on this path.

Most of you probably started like me; you wanted to make a difference in the lives of children.

You will

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Cure

A few weeks ago, I jumped into the Panther Car for meetings with aspiring principals and their mentors. Farmers were working, small town windows had been painted for homecoming and, save for the familiar descent into the cesspool that is political advertising, it was a great day to be out.

I had a few excellent meetings with my students, who are spending a large chunk of money and even larger amounts of time and effort learning to be principals. In class and online, we talk extensively about why they want to lead schools, what they have to offer, and their vision for kids' opportunities. They are among the most inquisitive, coachable, intellectually curious people I've met. And it's refreshing.

On my way back to campus, I caught a couple former students who are in their first year as principals on the phone. I heard about the daily trials that are familiar to anyone who has spent time leading schools--working with teachers to develop plans to get off the NCLB naughty lists, efforts to upgrade technology and  teachers' skills, sorting through homecoming pranks, budget problems, curriculum controversies, and a crazy story or ten about a goofy teacher or renegade student. The best part was that all were eager to talk and  said that, as unpredictable as their new job is, they love it because of the opportunities they have to make differences. That's important, because it's hard to love certain parts of being a principal. If you don't believe me, ask one.

Today a doctoral student stopped by my office while on campus with a group of high school juniors and seniors visiting UNI. We had a great conversation about his upcoming dissertation that will explore the school experiences of young African American males who have dropped out of school. It may also involve retrospective accounts of African American males who dropped out of school and are currently incarcerated. We're not sure yet.

I'm good at identifying the things that frustrate (no, maybe something stronger...disgust, perhaps) me most--paperwork, mindless committees, shallow office politics, turf battles, egos, apathy, byzantine decision making processes and incoherence expanding in all directions.  In thinking about it,  I reminded myself of something. All of those things are just distractions--albeit ever-growing ones--that get in the way but have little or nothing to do with the students I teach.

And so as I slog through my interactions with The Committee on Byzantium, get caught in the crossfire in  a new ego-laden turf skirmish, or fall victim to a new policy or initiative devoid of reason or coherence, I have to remember that there is a cure.

And the cure is more time and engagement with students.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Where it All Started

Winterset, IA, July 29, 2008. My buddy Brad Jackson decides to show everyone he can still throw me around.

Winterset, IA, July 28, 2012. The dude's still got it. Yeah, and that's still Jeff Olson standing beside us, holding a beer. Might be telling the same joke. Not sure.

Fort Pierce, FL, September 9, 2012. Scott Van Duzer, a Republican, hoists POTUS.

Fort Pierce, FL, September 12, 2012. Scott is at it again, this time with former Florida Governor (and former Republican) Charlie Crist.

I know how this stuff goes viral. My mom said the other day she thinks my boy Brad and I started the whole deal. I'm pretty sure she's right.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Gutted and Guarded: What Counts as a Good Day

A long time ago, I worked for an unorthodox, character of a superintendent. Predictably and like many in positions of authority, public opinion on him was mixed. Some hated him and others loved him. I was in the latter group. In fact, most of the folks I thought were working hard to do the right things for kids felt as I did. Though resources were less than minimal, he worked damn hard to provide people with the things they needed to help move kids forward.

Lots of the things he did (and said) do not appear in any of the educational leadership textbooks on my office shelves. But above everything else, I remember something he taught me: the importance of a sense of humor. When I would see him after school, I often asked "How was your day?" Often his answer was, "Really kind of shitty. Almost nothing was funny." Point taken, lesson learned.

I'm a lot more orthodox and by-the-book (sometimes to my detriment) than this former superintendent, but he helped me learn a lot. Despite our style differences, I have figured out that when I have a less-than-stellar day, the cause is often the same: Almost nothing was funny. The days when I do my best work and am the kind of leader--indeed, person--I want to be are days when things are funny (I will save the obvious jokes here about how fortunate I am to work at a university--a sure fire provider of plenty of humor).

So here's a recent good day. You know those cell phone commercials that show the dangers of bad reception where messages are grossly misunderstood? Here's a winner for the next round of ads.

My buddy's son is a really good high school basketball player with a "high basketball IQ," as they say. He was attending basketball camp and was chosen to play in a game against some of the camp counselors at the end of the day. That meant he had the unenviable task of matching up with senior Panther guard Marc Sonnen, below.

It is fairly well-established that I am as biased as they come. It is also well established that I love the way that kid plays. Great storyline, too. He's tough, dependable and not a showman. Tenacious. An eye-contact guy.

So, I'm hanging out watching the game, excited for my buddy's kid. He has a rough go. Really rough. The next day, my buddy tells me his kid called him after the game was over. When he asked how the game went, he heard his son say, "I gutted the kid with the tats." Long pause. Stunned, my buddy asked, "You gutted him? Sonnen?"

Then the reception improved. "Nooooo, dad. I said I guarded him."

Big difference. The truth is, I was there. It is no more true to say he guarded Sonnen than to say he gutted him. He did neither.  But he did mix it up with a great player and good man who any dad would like to see his son emulate, on or off the floor. The reception stayed clear long enough for the son to explain that Sonnen thoroughly dominated him and at one point knocked him out of bounds so hard he thought a couple of Marc's tats might have rubbed off.

Watching the game and hearing the story fit my definition of a good day. Something funny.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Coming Alive With Dead and Gone

Hi.  My name is Alison and I am excited Dr. Pace asked me to be a guest blogger!  When it comes to blogs I am a long time reader, first time blogger.  I am currently in Dr. Pace’s class at UNI in the Ed Leadership program.  I keep plenty busy with two jobs and school; keeps me on my toes!

I lived on the east side of Des Moines when I was younger, but my family moved to a quiet suburb when I was in 2nd grade.  My parents ran out of things to say when my brother and I asked why our bikes kept getting stolen.  The final straw was a man who broke in and was found sleeping in our house.  We landed in suburbia.  Everyone I went to school with looked like me and we all had similar religious beliefs. I was there from third through twelfth grades and was quite happy and comfortable.  If you would have asked me then what I would be doing as an adult, there is NO way I would have every guessed I would be working with alternative high school students and loving it!

Currently, I am finishing up my 6th year at Future Pathways.  I was a Family and Consumer Science teacher for four and a half years, and am now an Academic Advisor at Future Pathways.  Future Pathways at Central Campus is an individual and project-based program with Des Moines Public Schools.  We serve at-risk 17-21 year-old students who have 10+ credits towards graduation.  Many of our students have dropped out or been kicked out of traditional schools for a variety of reasons and are returning to school to earn their diplomas.  We also have students who are administratively placed and others who are court ordered to attend.  Many of our students are pregnant and parenting.  Several live on their own and are supporting themselves financially.  To accommodate their complicated individual timetables, we offer a flexible schedule.  We recommend students attend 4-6 hours a day, four days a week.  Many of these students have had trouble in the past, and we strive to see them as a whole person and give them a fresh start. 

All too often we hear students complaining that school is soooo boring!  Well, the two students who produced this project as a part of Environmental Science thought their project was far from boring!  The purpose of this project was for them to learn more about an ecosystem.  These students chose to learn more about The Congo Rainforest.   The project covered three of the six required skills to earn credit for the semester class.  The skills they mastered with this project are:
  1. Select an ecosystem and develop a plan to understand the relationships in the ecosystem.
  2. Design a correction to a perceived imbalance within an ecosystem.
  3. Compare a variety of disturbances to an ecosystem.
As with each project, the teacher and student sit down together and create the project plan.  The science teacher, Jason Fantz, planned this project with Sharane and DJ.  The students picked an ecosystem, researched it and chose to make a music video as their product.  They wrote the lyrics, preformed the song, and picked fitting photos to go along. 

To me, the best part is how proud these students were of themselves and how this project lit their fire for school once again!  Sharane said she was so excited about this project and she felt she would not have had the opportunity to do something this fun if she were in a traditional school.  They were smiling ear to ear as staff let them know what a great job they had done!  It’s amazing what students can do when they have a say in their education and are eager to learn!  Please watch and feel free to comment!  J

I can be contacted if you have any questions or comments! 

Alison Arnold Alison.

The lyrics appear below.

dead and gone
                                                                                verse 1
you can see the pain their eyes you can see it behind the disguise but we must rise no more crying the congo rainforest is one of the threatened ecosystems and that’s because no one will really listen to what they have to say things shouldn’t be that way the day to day life of the forest people loosing their homes it should be illegal no food to eat nothing to drink kids getting hungry and they getting angry no place to live no place to sleep they feel inside like they got defeated but we must rise no more cries
there's a problem over there there's a problem over here there's problems everywhere like deforestaTion and that’s the big complication but i’m here to lay down some inspiration and give you the right information to make this pLace a better world for every boy and girl because it’s dead and gone
                                                                                verse 2
African rainforest is a beautiful place but to destroy it is such a disgrace over 8,000 species have been discovered if we DON’T DO ANYTHING about it it will be undercover no more animals like elephants they gone just like their elements and to do something about it is a definite so take a stand and forget about the rest of it because this right here is left and if they take it away it will just be dead and gone so come on we need the trees to breath i hope you can see this rainforest is everything we need so don’t back down we can turn this around

theres a problem over there theres a problem overe here theres problems everywhere like deforestaion and that’s the big complication but I'm here to lay down some inspiration and give you the right information to make this pLAce a better world for every boy and girl because it's dead and gone

Friday, April 27, 2012

A Mr. Slinger Kind of Day

I didn't want to run this morning, but I always feel better if i do. So I did. That was good.

Arrived at my office with the intention of spending some time on a book project that is now due much sooner than it once was. As is often the case, the day played out differently than my Google Calendar indicated it would.

The first order of business was to help get some doctoral students situated for writing their comprehensive exams. They started at 9 am and it is after 3 pm now. Several are still applying what they know to some challenging questions. Reminded me of what an important step this is on their personal and professional journeys. That's cool.

Then I started digging into some end of the semester things. Made some comments and notes on a final chapter in a book that my excellent future principals from Iowa's Urban Education Network have been reading. Emailed that to them, as class time in our final meeting next Monday will be devoted to them sharing action research projects they've tackled with real kids in real schools. Looking forward to that.

Next I moved on to a wiki based on their reactions to Diane Ravitch's Death and Life of the Great American School. Anyone who says we are not producing the kind of school leaders we need today has not met the folks with whom I spend my Monday nights. They are passionate, creative, determined, and realistic. Tenacious.

Reading through their insightful and deep comments on the wiki led me to a YouTube video posted by one of the students who works in an alternative high school. The video, created by a couple of her students was so striking I had to call her. Caught her at her desk and asked if she would be up for a guest blog that tells how it came to be. She is. That's something to look forward to on TBV. Asked for the contact information for the students. She's sending it. Said I made her day by calling. Told her she made mine by sharing. Stay tuned.

Then it was time to give feedback to students taking a course aimed at future Activities Directors. The course, which is new at UNI, is aimed not at teaching them how to schedule buses and referees, but at how Activities Directors can effectively lead the entire activities program, not just athletics. As an extensive and culminating activity, they had to dig into action research around a number of things in their schools, like participation rates, reasons some kids are involved, and what barriers exist to getting more kids engaged. If students who are engaged in activities tend to be more successful in school, is that because they're engaged or are they kids who simply have the tools and supports and were likely to do well anyway?

One student's project promoted a school wide survey around engagement in the activities program. Another began breaking out  different participation rates along ethic and socioeconomic lines and asking how to open doors to kids who are currently not walking through them. Another wondered why his school doesn't do a better job of getting the high school kids to serve as role models in the elementary school.

These people are monster talents. No need to worry about the quality of leadership that our schools will have. Likewise, no need to turn school leadership over to business or military experts. They've got this.

Reminds me of one of my kids' favorite childhood books, Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse. When Lilly's excellent teacher, Mr. Slinger was blown away by his students' work, he'd say, "Wow. That's just about all I can say."

Mr. Slinger was right. And he'd like my students.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Mustang Stealth Defense, renewed

I revisited the Mustang Stealth Defense this weekend after saying goodbye to my friend Steve Clark after his battle with lymphoma. I'll miss his loyalty, work ethic, and sense of humor. That was a good man. Through some tears, it was good to revisit the Stealth. Sad as we are, we also know how much Steve loved a good laugh. And that night in Eddyville gave us many over the years. Here's the story, again, for those who have forgotten and for the first time for those unfortunate to only learn of it now.

Saw this beauty a couple of weeks ago and laughed out loud.

In the interest of self-disclosure, I'm part guilty and part proud, in a tongue-in-cheek, can't believe that happened kind of way. On a cold winter night in about 1997, I was coaching basketball at Davis County High School. We were in a tough road game in Eddyville, IA and not playing particularly well. As I recall, there was a timeout and we made a substitution to try and bring some life to our defense.

The players broke the huddle and Eddyville-Blakesburg brought the ball across half court. I thought we looked a little better defensively. That's when my assistant coach and friend Steve Clark said to me with wide eyes, "Coach, we've got six guys on the floor." "Hell, no wonder we look pretty good," I thought.

The opposing coach realized it at about the same time, stood up and started protesting. Wildly. Like he was on fire. After 45 seconds or so, we got the ball and a timeout. And the Mustangs trotted over to the bench, looking a little more perplexed than usual.

While the Eddyville coach freely asserted his First Amendment rights to the officials in an increasingly vociferous way, we sat our guys down in the huddle and sorted out who was supposed to be on the floor. And my mind was racing. If the officials, who never noticed we had six players on the floor, asked me, what was I going to say? "Jeez, fellas, I'm not sure what the hell was going on" or "Yeah, we did. Our bad." Or maybe, "If you don't know, I'm not going to tell you."

They never asked. Instead, they gave the opposing coach a technical foul. We returned to the floor--with five players--and made the two free throws. Then we scored on the OB. And later won.  By four. And so was born the Mustang Stealth Defense. It's there, but you just can't see it.

We laughed through the embarrassment as a team and coaching staff afterwards. And implemented the towel rule for substitutions, meaning that the new guys to the floor had to throw a towel to the guy they were replacing. I know, what keen coaching minds we had.

The next morning, I got to room 134 at DCHS early to get some things ready for class. Long time DCHS Activities Director Dennis Anderson and then DCHS football coach Dave Lukens, who now coaches with Anderson's son, Kent, at Iowa Wesleyan College, were waiting for me. Both had been in Eddyville the night before and both had a twinkle in their eyes.

"Good morning, fellas" I said, a little too enthusiastically, wondering how long I was going to wait before starting to pay a bitter price in taunting from these two.

Lukens said, "Coach Pace, Denny and I have been talking. And we can't decide if you're the worst coach we've ever seen for allowing that to happen or the best for getting away with it."

Long pause.

I said, "Well, fellas, I think we all know the answer to that question."

Fun times.

Since then, at least a couple times a year, Steve would call me from a high school baseball game and say that he had just been chatting with the opposing coach from that fateful night. I'd ask how the old coach was doing and Steve would snicker before saying in his Davis County drawl, "Well, I think he's still pissed."

That was a good man. And one who'll be missed by many. And one who'd want us to share good laughs. Godspeed, friend.