Friday, September 20, 2013

Pin Drop Powerful

Wednesday I had the privilege of hearing David and Tina Long speak. Their son, Tyler, is one of the students featured in the film Bully. David is the first person to speak in the film's trailer. He and Tina were brought to Iowa by the excellent UNI Center for Violence Prevention.

I was fortunate to serve as a panelist a year ago when the film's director Lee Hirsch and co-writer Cynthia Lowen visited campus for a screening. It was an honor to be asked to offer something to this important discussion and I tried to share lessons I learned from the kids featured in my book, The Principal's Challenge.

Tyler Long 
Since Tyler hanged himself in his closet after enduring years of bullying from peers, the Longs have been on a crusade to raise awareness and empower educators and communities to take action. They recently launched their own non-profit, Everything Starts With 1, which also has a Facebook presence. Their efforts have landed them on GMAEllen, Hannity and on countless news programs and school and community events from coast to coast.

David & Tina Long
One of the perks of my job is that it puts me in a position to hear a lot of powerful, charismatic and well known people talk about a lot of important things. I've tried to take full advantage, listening to Maya Angelou, Michelle Obama and her husband, The Dali Lama, Joe Biden, Arne Duncan and Cornell West, to name a few. There's a parade of presidential candidates ever four years. I'm almost always glad I took the time. Sadly, I'm going to miss Doris Kearns Goodwin in a couple weeks because I have class that night.

Despite the star power and notoriety of those people, hearing David and Tina Long Wednesday morning was a whole other deal. They aren't politicians, authors or policy makers. They have not made their lives by giving speeches and writing policy or books. Their lives have been made by going to work and raising their family. Tina works as a nurse and David manages a textile plant.

And that's precisely what made their message so powerful. The pain of unnecessarily losing their son after years of bullying and harassment is unimaginable. While I am the first to say that working in education is tough and it is true that educators cannot be everywhere and prevent everything, the response of their school officials was stunningly inept, bordering on non-existent.

At one point, Tina related how, when she complained about the bullying Tyler was suffering through at school, a principal responded by saying, "Boys will be boys. What do you want me to do about it?"

My answer? How about show some leadership? Sure, boys will be boys. I get that, but principals had damn well better be principals. They had better be leaders. No, they can't prevent everything. But leadership gives us a chance. Throwing up our hands gives us...well...

While they're not educators and didn't set out to be public speakers, their appeal and courage was as strong as anything I've seen. A heartfelt appeal from a mom. We can do better. We need you to do better, future teachers. A burning question from a dad. What will be your legacy?

With all due respect to the famous speakers I've heard, they weren't in the Long's league Wednesday. They were pin drop powerful.

They warned the audience of aspiring teachers that they're going to enter environments where the system makes it incredibly difficult to do what we know is right, whether that means teaching in a way that actually promotes learning, rather than increasing test scores to make a governor look good or whether it means one young teacher, not only teaching kids, but also reaching them--letting empty kids who may be hanging on by a thread know that someone cares. And that it can and does get better.

What will be your legacy? I hope we're asking all of our future teachers and leaders because I can't think of a better question. Nor can I think of a better person to ask it than David Long.

Monday, September 9, 2013

You're Welcome and Thanks

Several years ago, we were busy revising our principalship program. We were fortunate that our process coincided with an upcoming visit from the Iowa Department of Education, which happens every seven years. A few weeks after the state visitors left, we hosted two additional reviewers from other universities who would review our program as part of a university-required process. Both were a ton of work but very well timed. It was a busy spring.

As we met as a team to determine what changes we felt would strengthen our program's ability to develop and nurture difference-making principals, we stuck closely to our mission statement and core values, which we had sharpened and put in graphic form in all of our offices a couple years before. We knew firsthand the stresses of being school administrators and the danger of taking on so many things and losing oneself in the process. At that point, our well intended attempt at cautioning our students against the dangers of job stress was limited to finger wagging. I remember telling students, "Whether you run, pray, paint, hike, mediate or watch the Cubs, you better do something because what you're doing now to manage stress and maintain wellness won't be enough when you're the principal."

So, we incorporated some things into a unique seminar course, including a lecture from a colleague in Physical Education who shares stress management breathing techniques and the dangers of Type A personalities left unchecked. Following some reflection and discussion, we require students to complete a template that specifies what they will do in order to maintain their physical well-being, who will help hold them accountable to their plan and what they need in order to make it work. It's a long way from perfect, but the aspiring leaders our program attracts are of a caliber that takes all of this very seriously.

Today, this tweet showed up:

Amy Miehe   Amy Miehe    @AmyMiehe

13.1 completed, personal wellness goal achieved @UNIEdLead @northerniowa @pantherprof @NJPace40 @mcnultyuni @Vlrob

You're welcome, Amy. Thanks for the feedback. And thanks for the motivation to do what we do.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Guest Blog: Unexpectedly Moved

This edition of The Balcony View is guest written by Jamie Cranston, an aspiring school leader in the All-Iowa Principalship cohort at UNI. Jamie currently serves as an Early Childhood Special Education Teacher and Preschool Site Coordinator for the Newton Community School District.

Setting the Stage:

In early June I attended a special education conference in Des Moines with many of the administrators in my district. This conference was a first time experience for me. I had never attended a conference that focuses only on special education or even one that administrators attend. I am not sure that I have ever even attended a conference where lunch was provided!

While waiting for the conference to begin I was looking at the different options for workshops to attend and mapping out my day. I looked up from my very important work to see a group of special needs students standing at the end of the stage with parents and an instructor. They began moving onto the stage

One or two of the dancers appeared to be extremely confident. Another appeared very shy but was still moving toward her spot. The spotlights drew in and they formed a dance pose with their bodies before the music began. My emotions immediately began to take over as they began to move. There was no mistaking that they loved what they were doing and had practiced many times.

As I sat with a table full of administrators I began to feel very vulnerable Tears filled my eyes.  The girls danced like no one was watching and without a care in the world. I slid my chair a little more so that I was turned more toward the stage (and away from the administrators) to make sure that I could see every move and hide my emotions.

The songs continued and the clincher for me was a solo performed by a young lady. She danced and danced and danced and danced. The instructor didn’t even make a move to guide her off stage or encourage her to stop. The crowd loved her enthusiasm and many were like me-- streaming with tears.

 Instead of interrupting the dance, the instructor guided other dancers out to the middle of the stage to dance along side this confident young lady. One young girl lacked the confidence of her peer, so her instructor simply danced with her. In an instant, she had the confidence that she needed to perform in a room of hundreds.

At this point I had to turn my chair completely toward the stage. The finale came with pulling a variety of male teachers and administrators from the audience to join in the dance. This priceless ending provided for many bursts of laughter through even more tears of emotion.  

The performance ended with a standing ovation. As we gathered our things (and collected myself) one of my administrators said “We need to have something like those dancers.” I instantly agreed and realized that all of the administrators had been as moved as I had been. This was the beginning of something new and the ball began rolling on a project that got me more involved than I could have imagined.


After we returned from the conference, I returned to my hectic life as a teacher, wife, and aspiring school leader. About two weeks later I received an email from one of the administrators. She suggested meeting with the dance teacher in Newton to talk about how we might duplicate the performance we had watched with our own students from our own district.

We met and I gathered lists of Level 2 and 3 special needs students from 2nd to 12th graders who usually were unable to participate in many extracurricular activities. After hundreds of phone calls we had a list of eight students who, along with their parents, were committed to participating in a dance program with the high school dance team.

The Purpose:

After countless hours of practice, phone calls and meetings, we performed. Our special dancers were called the Newton Unified Dancers. The Newton Pacesetters (our high school dance squad) joined our Unified Dancers to perform during the opening ceremonies for returning teachers in August.

As the students took their places behind a large black curtain in the high school auditorium, photos of countless practices and  inspirational quotes and our new group's name set the stage. When the students came out from behind the curtain and began dancing their hearts out. Once again, I was taken away with emotion. I couldn’t even look around at staff members to see other reactions due to my crying. In the middle of the performance, each child danced a solo. After the dancers finished their performance fast music came on and all staff members were invited to dance to some fun beats too. We organized a number of staff members to jump on stage and dance and also organized dancers to go into the audience and get people moving.

I have never seen anything like it.

Looking Back:

This experience was incredible. When the students entered the high school stage my emotions surged from exhaustion to excitement…pride in the commitment of the families and students. Love. While I served as a behind the scenes leader for the project, my connection and emotional tie to the project were at the forefront.

There are always going to be things that you would do differently and always things that you can learn from. I have a list of those from this experience but the bottom line is how the students and their families felt. The special dancers loved it and had fun at every rehearsal. They bonded with members of the high school dance squad—girls with whom they would not have otherwise come in contact with in the daily life in a large high school. One high school girl received a gift from a special dancer on the last night of practice. A second grader received a Justin Bieber poster and CD from a member of the high school dance team. One boy with autism, a reluctant dancer, came alive in rehearsals, so long as his sister was with him. As a result, we asked her to participate, which she enthusiastically did.

So what began with me discreetly sliding my chair to avert the eyes of my colleagues out of fear that I would be caught in an emotional moment culminated in something far more powerful. Something deep and inspiring that I will not forget.

I invite you to watch our video, with special dancers in red and dance squad members in black. Tell me you’re not moved.