“What is YOUR why” Dr. Eric Thomas

Back in July, I was at an IPLI (Indiana Principal Leadership Institute) 2-day workshop when one of the other principals in my regional cohort mentioned Dr. Eric Thomas and “What is your why?” When I returned home from that great experience, the question “what is your why?” was still ringing in my head. I sent an email to our staff and challenged them to reflect on their “why.” I sent this video from Dr. Eric Thomas to them all. I changed the screen saver on my computer to “What is your why?” The signature line on my email is the same thing. Dr. Eric Thomas inspired me to remember, every single day, why I do what I do.

Fast forward to today, the day before Thanksgiving. I am sitting in my office thinking about all I have to be thankful for, and “why” I love doing what I get to do every day.  Below is a message I sent to our staff this past Friday.

The first semester is rapidly drawing to a close. We are about to enter that silly season of standardized testing, so again I ask you to reflect on “What is your why?” None of us “got into” education to dole out standardized tests, but it is the nature of the beast at this point in time.

So, what is it that causes you to get up in the mornings and come to school? What is it that drives you to do what you do? The answers may vary from person to person. Maybe part of it is you were inspired by a teacher and you want to be that inspiration for others.

As we get busy in the holidays, testing, life, etc don’t forget about your “why”. Don’t forget about what drives you. I tell people all the time I am blessed to work where I do, with the people I get to work with, serving the students and community I get to serve. I get to play school every day, I work on weekends at home. How can life be any better than that?

When life, state testing, demanding students/parents, the daily grind, etc. begin to get you down this year, remember your “why.” Remember “why” you do what you do.

Until next time………. “what is your why?”

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Challenge Accepted

This post is long overdue. But, better late then never I guess.

Way back in August at the start of the school year, I issued a challenge to our students. I showed all the students grades 6-12 this video of Michael. After I showed the video, I asked the students if they knew why I had shown it to them. I had a variety of different answers, but mainly just blank stares. I explained to the students that last year when I would be in the cafeteria at lunchtime I noticed we had many Michaels.  Not necessarily that they were Autistic, although we do have Autistic students as well the students do a great job of including them. I told them that most of our Michaels were students that were just a little different, socially. That because of that difference, they usually sat alone at lunch.

This is where the challenge comes in. I challenged the students to make sure that no student sat alone at lunchtime. That every student had someone to sit with. I explained that sometimes students that suffer from a social anxiety may not seek out a group of other students to sit with. That it is safer for them to sit alone than to be rejected. What happened next blew my mind and warms my heart, still now 11 weeks into the school year.

Every day we have a few students that “try” to sit alone in the cafeteria at lunch. Every day we have students getting up from their tables, carrying their lunch over, and sitting with that person that is alone. Sometimes it is just one student going over, sometimes it is multiple students going. Point is, we do not have students sitting alone at lunch most days anymore. There are the occasional days when it happens, but most of the time it does not. I challenged the students to not allow students to sit alone at lunch, and they accepted.

When I thank the students for moving over with the student sitting alone, I always get the same responses. “No problem Mr. Stoner.” “It is ok, he is kind of cool.” “He/she is my friend now.” Warms my heart and makes me a very proud principal. It is not just our middle school students either. The high school students do it too. Male, female, it does not matter. They have decided that no one sits alone at lunch. I told my assistant, if I do nothing else right the rest of the year, at least the challenge was the right thing to do for a few students that would ordinarily sit alone.

Until next time………………………..Challenge the students–they will rise to the occasion!

Homework or No? #homeworkorno #savmp

Before I start writing this post, I would like to apologize to all who read it. I have several thoughts running through my mind on this topic and I am afraid this is going to sound rambling and disconnected. I hope not, but it may very well. But, here goes anyway.

Homework or no homework is one of those philosophical questions that some people are very, very passionate about. Whether for it or against it. When I taught, I was very much in favor of homework. I did it, survived it, and so will the students. I taught middle school math for 10 years. The math series we used at the time had 30 problems for the homework set, and my students received 30 problems most nights. That was what was in the book, so that was what they were getting. I was so wrong! I did such a disservice to my students. I stifled so much learning in those 10 short years. I wish I knew then what I know now. I think I would have been so much better for them.

I also worked with a science teacher possessed the mindset “the students are not going to do it anyway, so why assign it?” He too was wrong!

In the past 5 years I have read several articles, blog posts, tweets, and books  addressing the subject of homework. What kind to give, when to give it, why give it, should we give it, who to give it to, etc, etc.. Now I will add one more blog post to the long list of posts about this topic.

I think part of the problem with homework is the name itself. HomeWORK. The title of it carries a negative connotation for students right away. Not all students want to “work” at doing school after the leave school. If we tell educators they need to do some homework to make themselves better at what they are doing there are typically excuses like; “I have papers to grade”, “I have lesson plans to do”, “I don’t have time by the time I take care of dinner, dishes, the kids”. We don’t like homework either, but we do it to our students. Why don’t we call it homeLEARNING? Shouldn’t that be the purpose of it anyway? To continue the learning while at home?  For me, that sounds a lot more positive than, “homework.” I have heard several people over the last couple of years say “we do school to the students, not with them.” Homework is another of those things we do to them.

I do believe there are times when homelearning is necessary though. Sometimes we have to continue the learning at home because there was not enough time in the school day to get it all done. On those occasions when learning needs to continue outside of the school day, it needs to be learning that is important and serves a purpose. Giving homelearning for the sake of giving it should not be a valid reason to assign it. Most students are busy enough after school, they don’t need to be doing busy work. Are they going to always like the homelearning assignment they have to do? No, but most will do it if they know it serves a purpose. We don’t always like it either, but most of us do it if we know it serves a purpose. That purpose cannot be “because it is in the book.” There needs to be real, genuine learning that takes place as a result of the assignment.

The more we can make that homelearning relevant to the students lives, the more likely we are to get the assignments back. If they are just doing 30 problems out of the math book because that is what is there, we run the risk of them not doing it. Instead of that kind of assignment, what if we had them take 5 pictures of different angles they see around their home, upload it to a google drawings, then measure those angles. Parameters can be established like there must be 2 acute, 2 obtuse, and the 5th can be any angle they choose. Maybe then they begin to see the relevance of angles in their lives just a little bit.

I also believe these homelearning assignments need to be a time of practice. The students are still learning it. It is in the name; homelearning. We do an injustice to the students when we start assigning points to this learning. It should not be a time of “catching students doing something wrong”. Feedback on these assignments is more important than assigning points. I think this is a tough shift for students and teachers to make. All are used to points being assigned for homelearning. Students will ask, “how much is it worth.” Teachers will say, “if there are no points assigned for it, they will not do it.” I used to use that same argument, and I was good at arguing that side of it. If they are given the right feedback on it, that is worth more than the points. It is a difficult shift that really needs to take place.

I don’t know your thoughts on homework/homelearning, or if I changed your mind or not. I do hope, for just a minute, you thought about what your practices are. Let’s try to make it extended learing, not extended work. Let’s also try to make it valuable for the students so they see the need to continue to learn.

Until next time………….homework or homelearning? What are your thoughts?

What a country jam session taught me #SAVMP

Recently my wife and I took a couple days, right before Christmas, and went to stay at the inn at one of our favorite Indiana state parks. I felt like I just needed a short break away from the world of education. On the last night we were there something took place that got me thinking about teachers, administrators, and students; and how we all relate to each other. So much for a break from the job.

We had finished eating dinner and went into the large gathering area to sit by the fireplace. There were a small group of people kind of sitting in a circle near the fireplace, so we chose some seats off to the side so we did not infringe on their group. There were about 6 of them sitting there talking when they all started pulling out instruments. Guitars, a violin/fiddle (not sure I really know the difference), a banjo, a mandolin, and a steel guitar. A little jam session broke out right there in the lobby of the inn. They went around the circle, each selecting a song to play. What happened next was the part that got me thinking about school.

A little guy, probably about 10 years old, pulled out a violin and joined in. When it was his turn to select a song, Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star was the  selection he made. You could certainly tell he was a beginner, but that did not stop the rest of the group from joining in with him. The smiles on the groups faces were so heart warming. Here was a child, playing off key, struggling with the fingering of the violin, and yet the group was so very pleased with his efforts. He joined in on some other songs with them, trying to play right along with the group. They continued to smile and welcome his attempts to play. Why did this make me think of our jobs as educators?

There are so many times in a traditional classroom that the first time students try something new we tell them what they did wrong. We don’t give them that encouraging smile that makes them want to keep trying. Had anyone in the group pointed out any of this young musicians mistakes in Twinkle, Twinkle he would not have been so willing to continue playing along with the others. Yet as educators, that is exactly what we do. We point out what the students do wrong, and not what they are doing right. Even on the first time they try something new. We want, and expect, our students to develop a love of learning, yet we are quicker to tell them what they are doing wrong instead of what they are doing right. For a student that may struggle with school, this negativity right away is a definite deal breaker. Why do we do that?

My goal for 2016 is to try and find the positive in everything our students are doing. Instead of finding things they are doing wrong, I want to find the things they are doing right and point that out. As beginners, they need to know they are doing some things right, that they have hit some of the notes the correct way, so they can continue to build on that. Not to be shut down by what they did wrong.

 

Until next time……………share that heart warming smile.

Why I Lead #SAVMP

15 years ago I started my teaching career. It was actually my third career. I was a manager in a grocery store for a while, and then I was a department scheduler in a factory for a few years. With the experience I had had in management before I started teaching, I thought I may want to become a principal some day, I just did not know when. I had no time frame on it, I was going to wait until the time felt right. After 10 years in the classroom teaching middle school math, I felt the time was right for me to move on to the next challenge.

So why do I lead? For me, I do not lead because I want the power or to be out in front of everyone else. It is actually quite the opposite for me. I lead because I like to help others. For me being a principal gives me the opportunity to let the light shine on the great things our students and teachers are doing. I like to lead from within the group. There are few decisions affecting the school that I make on my own. The majority of the time I will consult with the teachers to see what their thoughts are first. I feel I can make the decision, but they are the ones that have to do it. If I collect input from them, then I know “it” has a better chance of being a successful implementation. Whatever “it” may be. I know that sometimes I have to be the one to make the decision, but if I can consult with even a few teachers first, I will.

I still enjoyed being in the classroom with my students, I left the classroom because I felt like as a principal I would be able to have a greater impact on my students than I did as a teacher. School needs to be fun for the students and staff. If it is a place they dread coming to, then their performance will show that. My motto is “If I cannot have fun, then I don’t want to do it any longer.” Every day we need to find a reason to smile. Something good happens every day, we just have to look for it.

I lead because I feel like that is what I am called to do. This is not a job for me. I am blessed that I get to get up every day and come in to play school. It is not work, it is enjoyable.

Until next time……….what drives you to do what you do?

Time Flies When You Are Having Fun

Today is the last day of school for the first nine weeks and time for fall break. As we get ready for a 4 day weekend, that includes a camping trip for me, I wanted to reflect a little on how the year has started out.

First: It has gone by incredibly fast. It is so hard to believe our first quarter is done already. I seems like it was yesterday when school was getting ready to start, and now a fourth of it is over. They say time flies when you are having fun, and I do believe that. I try to have fun every day when I come to school. If I cannot have fun, why do it. I like to go out and see the kids in the halls and classes and have fun with them. Some of the best times are at lunch when we get to talk about things that are not related to school. We get to talk about interests outside of school. A time to get to know the kids for who they are and let them see us for who we are. I do not subscribe to the old adage of not letting them see you smile until November. Our students see me smile on the first day of school and hopefully every day after that because I am glad they are here. It is our job to make the learning fun for the students!

Second: Our district started a 1:1 initiative this year with all the high school students receiving chromebooks. It has been fun to see how the different teachers, and students, are using the new technology to enhance learning. Teachers that I thought would have a difficult time finding a use for them are excelling at their use and value in the classroom. The efforts of the teachers and students to learn something new have been so refreshing to me. The excitement they have when they find something new to use in class is very contagious. I look forward to seeing what all of them will find to use next.

I feel very fortunate to be in the school I am in. I am surrounded by great teachers that truly enjoy their jobs and their students. I am surrounded by students that by in large put forth their best efforts every day. I am also surrounded by a community of parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc that care deeply about the successes of the school and the students that attend here.

I look forward to the fall break as we get ready to end the day. Not as an escape from the job, but as a time to relax and get ready for the next quarter.

Until next time…………..enjoy yourself so that time will fly

Building Relationships

Almost two weeks ago Brian Verwolf (@BrianVerwolf) asked a question on Twitter using the hashtag #principallife. He asked; “What does a principal actually do?” At the time, I answered very briefly that we build relationships with teachers, students and parents. I really could not elaborate on the answer in the 140 characters Twitter allows, so I thought I would through this format.

Teachers

Without strong relationships with the teaching staff, a principals life becomes exponentially tougher. Every principal has their way they like to see things done. If we do not first build positive relationships, the teachers willingness to do things that particular way diminishes. I was fortunate enough I was able to work with our teachers as an assistant principal for two years before becoming the principal. By the time I was named principal, the teachers had a good idea of what I stood for. I had the support of our teachers to become the next principal and have been able to foster that open communication relationship with them to date. Without the support of our teachers, we are nothing.

Students

If we take the time to build strong relationships with the students in our buildings, they will move mountains for us. I don’t just mean asking them how their classes are going. I mean sitting with them and truly getting to know them as a person, not just a student. Take the time to find out what their interests are. Find out what makes them tick. In the end, it is so worth it. I have had students tell me they are not afraid of me. They are not afraid of making me mad, they are afraid of disappointing me. Without strong relationships, that comment is not possible. I am not saying you need to become their friend. I have seen teachers and administrators that become too friendly with the students and a lack of respect from others begins to develop. Be supportive, caring, loving; just not their friend.

Parents

Probably the toughest of the three is the parents. I only say this because we do not see them every day. It is much easier to build that relationship with everyone if you see them all the time. The best way to build the relationship with the parents is to be where they are. If there is an athletic event, be there. If there is an academic event, be there. Talk with them at the grocery store, the gas station, the bank, etc. Make that positive call home. Find their student doing something right and call home about it. This is one of my weak points. I do not make enough of those positive phone calls home. When we make the positive connection first, things go much smoother later on if we have to make a negative call home. When we have the support of the parents, the years go by much faster.

I know there are other groups that I did not mention here; custodians, secretaries, aides, cafeteria, bus drivers, etc, and positive relationships are important here too. I just feel like parents, teachers, and students are  the big 3.

What are your thoughts?

Until next time………….keep building those relationships.