Monday, August 26, 2013

The best first day of school ever

Remember the first day of high school every year? Walking in quietly, looking around, trying to blend in.  Dublin Jerome is starting its 10th year, and the very best tradition we have is how we welcome students back to school.

Ten years ago, when Jerome first opened its doors as the third high school in Dublin, we wanted to do something really special to welcome students to Jerome and let them know what a special family and school they were now joining.

At our opening staff meeting just prior to school, one of our teacher-leaders, Sondra, suggested that the entire staff line up and "clap" the students in on that first day.  We have a main hallway that has doors on each side in which students enter and on that first day the entire staff made one large tunnel from one entrance to another.  We gathered early and this tunnel, an amazing sight 10 years ago, still reigns supreme as our best tradition.

Every year our staff still forms one large tunnel that stretches from door to door and claps and cheers loudly for every single student who enters on that first day.  Since no other entrance exists, every student is greeted by every staff member in a raucous celebration that reverberates through the hallways.

You can hear it from outside the building, and because we have developed a terrific freshman transition program, the staff is now joined by our CAP (Celtic Advisory Program) student mentors.

We have worked hard to develop a quality student-led freshman transition program with student mentors who plan "a school within a school" for the freshman first day.  They plan the entire day from the pep rally for freshmen only with learning school student section cheers to learning to stand up and clap with the band on stage playing the fight song with gusto and the cheerleaders cheering.  The entire day is scripted for the freshmen with a partial day of going to classes and the rest of the day divided into groups all led by our student-leader mentors.

But first, the freshmen join every other Celtic and enter the building to wild applause and cheering.  What does it mean to be a Celtic? Something special. And every school year starts like this.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

In pursuit of happiness, one day at a time

Over the last couple of weeks, I have spent a lot of time thinking about happiness and optimism in life.  In the wake of a tragedy I am always amazed by the resiliency demonstrated by those even in the throes of deep tragedy. 

I believe it was Mark Twain who stated that "most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be."  How is it that some people are always able to exude positive spirits while others seems to struggle to even find even one happiness in daily events?  Life often seems to be a study or test of how each of us live our lives, face adversities, and move on.  We could most likely deem this study a happiness project. 

Thursday was our first day back with our teaching staff and I always LOVE the positive vibe of the day.  Our district hosts a Convocation and for two consecutive years now it has been in our building.  After the summer break it is always a joy to not only be with our staff again! Convocation brings all staffs, certified and classified, from all 20 buildings together, filling first our cafeteria for camaraderie and then moving into the gym for the welcome back program.

Our gym is transformed from an athletic venue to a full house of excited and happy educators, from secretaries and custodians to teachers, administrators, and central office administrators.  A video showing children and educators from each building loops behind the stage and noisy chatter fills the gym.  There is nothing like the start of the school year!

One of the speakers was the leader of the Dublin Education Association and he read aloud a writing of his entitled "And on the 9th Day, God made a teacher."  It was a tribute to Paul Harvey's The Rest of the Story and was remarkable.  We all encouraged him to publish this poignant celebration online.

Our new superintendent kicked off the year so positively by recognizing individual teachers himself by reading positive notes and letters further stressing his tenets of appreciation, collaboration and trust.  As it ended I became to get so nervous about my upcoming staff presentation to our staff.

I have to admit that I completely obsess about it for days, spending hours synthesizing areas of celebration, future PD focus areas, inspirational readings and videos and recognizing staff.  This year I became particularly interested in positive energy and happiness and how we can continue to better understand how we can encourage staff members to embrace changes and challenges positively.

One gift that my daughter gave me this summer for my birthday was the impetus to my summer's pursuit of happiness focus. It is a book entitled The Happiness Project: One-Sentence Journal, a Five-Year Record .  In short, each page of the journal is each day of the year by date, with a place to write one sentence about that day for each of the next five years.  What an amazing concept! Each page has a motivational quote at the top and my daughter personalized some of the pages with quotes of her own, especially on family birthdays and anniversaries.

In short, at the end of five years I will be able to look back at the last five years and see that for five years I experienced something"happy" on every day of the year for five years.  So far, I have not missed a day and it has been easy to remember something good about every day.  It has been an uplifting experience.

Even on the worst of days, such as Stephen's death, I was able to come home after the candlelight vigil and write about the outpouring of love on that baseball field that night.

Since there is only room for one-sentence, the journal allows the writer to focus on just one good aspect of every day.

Does every day have at least one good aspect for you? Even those bad days where it seems nothing is going right?  My bet is that for most days for us, we can all take time and write down one good thing about the day, thank God, for except in extreme circumstances, our days are good ones.

I have to admit that doing this has been both comforting and inspirational to me and I look forward each day to reflecting on what "appreciation" to chronicle.  Most days I find I write one big run-on sentence listing many positive experiences and other days it is just one favorite.

One reason is that I consider myself a genuinely happy person.  I am blessed with good health and so is my family and I have the very best job in the world as a high school principal at Jerome.  I wake up every day at 4:45 am, work out, and am eager to get to work.  I have such a great admin team and staff and they make me laugh every day. My mind races with thoughts of how to make the day better for our students, staff and parents, and I enjoy collaboration and problem-solving when things do not always go well.  I love my daughter, son-in-law and husband dearly.  I love life and I love being happy, and I love spending time with our students during the school day and in after-school activities. 

This summer I read The Energy Bus and really do feel that its 10 rules for positive energy in life, work and team are truly viable.  We sent virtual "Energy Bus" tickets to every staff member and introduced a few of the principles to our staff, including inviting Positive Passengers and all staff to join us in the ride.

One of the essential principles of The Energy Bus is No Energy Vampires, which addresses how exhausting and detrimental negative attitudes and negative energy can be to a team or organization.  I really enjoyed this visual and my fervent hope is that we can all move forward positively together this year, even with the massive changes facing educators, including OTES and growth measures.  Being an educator has never been easy and it certainly seems like it is getting harder, particularly for those people who have a harder time staying positive in tough times.

In the end, it seems there are thousands of quotes, books, journals and articles that offer advice on how to motivate others and ourselves to be happy and positive in organizations and life.  As a high school principal I have read and studied many of these and certainly have shared their main precepts professionally with colleagues.

But perhaps the best way is for every person to take time every day to write one sentence about what is good about the day, listing the date and year. At the end of our lives, wouldn't it be remarkable to read about all the memories of the goodness in our lives, one day at a time?

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The hardest part of the job

As a high school principal, I am often asked in various venues what the hardest part of the job is.

Last week at this time if someone would have asked me that question, I would have answered as I have done to many of our stakeholders and our greater learning community.  So let's pretend it is one week ago and I am discussing what is the hardest part of being a high school principal in a PTO meeting or perhaps one of the Parent Breakfasts that I host every two weeks.  Bear with me as we proceed on this pretend dialogue briefly.

Question 1: Is bullying and harassment a hard part of your job,  particularly on social media sites such as Tumblr, Twitter or Instagram?

Answer: Yes, certainly those are problematic leading to sometimes serious situations involving bullying, pornographic or obscene photos and harassment often spilling over into classrooms and lunchrooms. We certainly worry about and try to be proactive about social media and bullying and harassment and work to educate our students and parents. It is a difficult part of being a principal.

Question 2: Is the threat of violence in schools and the presence of weapons in schools a difficult part of your job. 

Answer: Absolutely, that is the concern of every principal of every level in every school in America.  After Sandy Hook, our district reviewed every security measure we take and we have undertaken new measures in school safety that we are still working on today and every day.  You bet, school violence is a really difficult part of being a principal, and we will continue to focus and improve our efforts in this area.

And so on.  Drugs?  Yes-- very difficult.  Communication?  A challenge. . . And so on.

Yes, a week ago if you would have asked me I would have certainly identified all of these areas and more as hard parts of being a high school principal.

Last week I would also have told you I was worried about this upcoming school year with all of the proposed changes in education.  I was worried about my opening staff presentation on Aug. 15 and the first workday.  How would we present our data, inform our staff about how we are proceeding with growth measures, OTES, our literacy focus, feedback, differentiation, the change in our special education model, meet with department chairs. . . and so on.  and so on. and so on.

Throw in that our new office carpeting hasn't been installed, our new lockers haven't been painted or installed, a resignation of an assistant principal on July 31, and schedule pickup days next week and it seemed that all of these things make being a high school principal difficult work.  Really tough.  Hard, really hard. Throw in interviewing and hiring a new assistant principal in August and it just adds to the list. Yes-- we are busy people with big problems to solve.  That's what we think most days, isn't it?

I mean, just look at all of the actual problems from above.  Wow.  I thought last week at this time that all of these things were tough.  Tougher than tough.

Well, Sunday changed all that.

"What is the hardest part of being a high school principal?"

You see, on Sunday, I got up, clicked on my smart phone about 9 am and saw numerous Messages and Voicemails that brought me the news that reminded me of the REAL answer to the question.

One of our students had been killed in a tragic car accident early that morning.  The world stopped turning for an instant for all of us.  I had to sit down.  Try to get info.  What? Stephen?  Stephen can't be dead.  We had hugged on the stage of graduation with an O-H and a response of I-O as we were sending him off to my alma mater of Ohio State.  He was going to be a great Buckeye and study chemical engineering.

Stephen?  One of the most popular seniors in the class of 2013.  Baseball player, football player, excellent student leader, the kind of boy you would want your daughter to marry.

Sunday was filled with tweets, posts, messages and phone calls.  Everything else at work and at home stopped.  It just didn't matter anymore.  And at the end of this day, the most amazing event came together with the positive power of social media.

Hundreds and hundreds of people swarmed onto our baseball field starting as early as 8:30 pm for the 9:30 pm vigil.   Churches donated hundreds of candles and droves of alumni, former Jerome families, community members, teammates, other administrators, staff, friends, neighbors  . . .  1000 people.  2000 people.  Unbelievable.

And under a star-filled sky hundreds of candles were raised high to remind us how much Stephen lit up our lives.  Student leaders spoke, his best friend spoke, parents spoke, his cousin, assistant principal, his coaches-- all spoke eloquently and passionately about how much we all loved Stephen and how much value he added to our lives.

And I worried, for as the principal and as the vigil proceeded I worried-- Is it good enough?  For Stephen deserves only our very best, in life and now, unbelievably, in death.  I wanted it to be perfect for Stephen and for his wonderful family.

And I spoke, for I, too, loved Stephen.  And I was not afraid to say it aloud.  For to know Stephen, was to love Stephen.  He is why we are all educators.  We were so blessed to have Stephen for 4 years and watch him transition from a freshman to such a fine young man.  Watch him lead the student basketball section in crazy outfits, watch him lead the football and baseball teams, and watch him smile EVERY morning he came in school.  A great, great person and student.

I was and am so honored to be his principal, and I know I will never forget him.

How do I know?

One reason is because Stephen is unforgettable as a person and student.  But secondly, it is because I can name, as most assuredly every other principal and teacher in this situation, every student we have lost as an educator.

The first student I lost was in my first year of teaching. He was Cliff, a senior, who also worked as a custodian in the small rural school in which I taught English because Cliff and his family needed the money.  Every morning I came into my classroom in the old 7-12 brick building and found a note from Cliff on my blackboard.  Yes, it was a real blackboard.  The white-chalked note in squiggly small writing usually said, "Hi, Miss Smith, Have a good day. Cliff."  I looked forward to the notes and really liked Cliff, a wonderful shy farm boy who was so kind-hearted.

One Monday morning I walked in, read and erased Cliff's note as usual, and started preparing for the teaching day when the teacher next door walked in to let me know sadly that Cliff had drowned in a farm pond over the weekend.  Just like that.  The notes stopped and I had a hard time understanding how to deal with a student's death.  I didn't believe it, and I am sure I did not handle it the way I should have with his parents and with my students.  I didn't know what to do.  I was 4 years older than Cliff, and his death was incongruous.

Others followed, sadly. Car wrecks.  Kids and cars.  Still a worry.  Every one of these students was special, and I remember each of them vividly.  I can name them all, and I remember the calling hours, the long lines, grieving parents and sobbing classmates.  Hard. Really hard.

And now Stephen.

What is the hardest part of being a high school principal, or any principal? Being a leader of mourners, instead of a leader of learners. I cannot imagine being a principal in a building rocked by school violence as this would be certainly the most difficult and unimaginable part of the job.

But I will admit that I struggled Sunday with comforting others and leading a memorial service on a baseball field instead of cheering on these wonderful students.  Didn't I just shake Stephen's hand on this field on his senior night with a Go Bucks?

Turning school fields and halls into vigil sites instead of their intended use of joy and celebration.

Burying a student.

A week ago-- the things that seemed the hard part of a being a high school principal seemed to consume my time and thoughts.  Bullying, OTES, Growth Measures, resignations--

These things are now petty and minor.  I am not able to focus on them or anything else so inconsequential. 

A life cut short at 18-- now that's hard.  Life's tragedies have a way of adjusting our priorities and identifying what is really hard about a job-- but more importantly, life.

And even this tragedy has reinforced what I really know about this job or any job.  Life itself is more important than any job at any time. As hard as these times are, they pale with the suffering and pain that Stephen's family is feeling.  Burying a student is hard.  But burying a child-- truly one of life's greatest tragedies.  It makes even the hard part of any job trivial and petty, and that is a valuable lesson from this week as well.  I am more acutely aware of that than many, for we too have buried a son, and in times like these those memories become vivid once again.

That is why I know that it is an honor to be a servant leader in these situations for our families.  We strive for perfection this week in particular because we want to support Stephen's family in the best way possible to honor them and his memory. It is the right thing to do in life for a family in need, and if that is our job, then we do in out of love and service.  This I do firmly believe is also the mission of an educator.

Especially when we get bogged down in things that we think are important and hard when they are not. 

So if you are fortunate to have someone in your life that you love, hug them today. Then hug them again. I know I will.  As Jon Gordon says in The Energy Bus, life is not Disneyland.  We can't get on this ride again, and neither can our loved ones.  And that is what is really hard.