Thursday, September 14, 2017

Consistency Makes a Difference

"Well, what did your mother say?"

Conversations with my father when I was young often started with him asking that question.  Do your kids ever go to someone else until they get the response they hope for?  You know how it goes...

"Mom, can I have friends over to play on Saturday?"

"No, I'm sorry.  Remember, we are working as a family to clean up the flower beds.  Maybe you can have friends over next week, however."

"But Mom..."

"Oh honey, it will be fine.  If we work together we might be able to finish early and go to the park."

10 minutes later...

"Dad, can I have my friends over on Saturday?"

At the risk of bragging, my parents were brilliant "parent tacticians" because they always responded the same.  I stopped even asking to do things I knew I should not have asked because they always replied in the same way:  "What did Mom say?"  "What did Dad say?"  Sometimes they mixed it up and  said, "Let's go talk with Dad about that."  Or, "I'm not sure right now.  Let me talk with Mom, and we'll get back to you."

The consistency and "team" my parents offered helped shape me into the person I am today.  I am so grateful to see this in so many families at my school.  Consistency makes a difference in many aspects of our lives.

It is sad, however, when a child learns to manipulate his/her parents because the parents are not consistent.  Children keep looking for loving limits, but this can become very negative--quickly.

Our school is in the process of implementing more consistent language around behavior.  We are the Novi Wildcats, so we are slowly teaching students to "Lead with PAWS."  We expect students to:
  • Practice Kindness
  • Act Safely
  • Work Together
  • Show Respect
Over the next several months our students will explicitly learn what PAWS looks like in our school.  They will better understand what PAWS means in the hallway, the cafeteria, the playground, and classrooms.  To kick this off we even have a PAWS song which is sung to the tune of Buddy Holly's "It's So Easy to Fall in Love."

It's so easy to lead with PAWS!
It's so easy to lead with PAWS!
We're a group that's on the move.
Getting better is our groove!

We practice kindness (practice kindness) -ooh, ooh, ooh
And act safely (act safely) -ooh, ooh, ooh
Work together (work together) -ooh, ooh, ooh
We show respect (show respect) FOREVER!

It's so easy to lead with PAWS!
It's so easy to lead with PAWS!

It's exciting to help our students become even better leaders, and one way to do that is by providing consistency.  Consistency makes a difference.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Proactive Transitions Make A Difference

It's official.  I now wear glasses.

For well over 45 years I have been privileged with good eyesight-both near and far.  Recently, however, I have been squinting to see the small print when I read books or articles.  When I drive at night, everything seems muddled.  Large print books look more and more enticing, and  I have been increasing the font defaults on my computer.  My eye doctor has been telling me this was coming for several years.  He gently nudged me to purchase some over the counter magnifiers to use when I read, and I have a prescription for nighttime driving.  Both help me significantly, but I have uncovered something new about transitions.

Nobody ever told me about the "culture" of wearing glasses, and I have been struggling to adjust.
  • Where am I supposed to store my glasses if I don't need them?
  • What if I need them and I don't have them?
  • What if  people "make fun" of me?
Each of these questions are rather silly, and they all have reasonable answers.  Plenty of people wear glasses, and I know they can help me.  The transition to being a glasses "wearer," however, has made me think about other transitions and how we our school helps.  The beginning of the school year is filled with transitions for our students, staff, and our entire school community, but we are very intentional with what we do to help students succeed.  

Our school hosts Kindergarten Screening Days and Kindergarten Parent Night in the spring.  Each August our PTO president, the director of our public library, and I meet with new families who have registered over the summer.  Our school has "Open House" for all of our students and families about a week before school starts.  Our school secretaries and I give many tours of our school, and we even train a team of student tour guides for visitors.

Whenever we have a new staff member join our building, I meet with them and share a packet of "tried and true" hints and suggestions about being a part of our family.  Also, our district assigns formal mentors to all new teachers, and I help new staff create an individualized development plan to help them grow and be successful.  Most of all, our entire staff welcomes and supports each other on a regular basis.

Every teacher on my staff was in the building this summer working to ensure the transition to a new year would be successful.  Without extra pay, staff were present multiple days to set-up their rooms, take additional training, prepare technology, determine service schedules for some specific students, help interview new teachers, and support each other.  This work does not go unnoticed by me.  It is simply inspiring to me, and this "unsung" dedication helps makes our building and district so special.

This year several of our staff,  in my opinion, went "above and beyond" to help a number of our students transition to a new school year.  I have written previously about supporting "all" students in our school.  We recently realized transitions are extremely challenging for some of our students.  Four staff members researched and hosted a "Sensory Friendly Open House" for twelve students.  These students and their families were scheduled and given private tours of their new room and the school.  The quiet, calm setting helped alleviate anxiety, and each student was given a personalized social story to help them better prepare for the new year.  Feedback from the parents indicates this extra step will help make a positive transition for each of these students.

I encourage all families to talk with their children about the transitions they will face as the school year begins.  Use language of empowerment and strength to instill a sense of positivity and perseverance around change.  Be excited and happy for the transitions.  Listen for any concerns, and implement a plan to get started on the right foot.  Our children notice the words and tone adults use.

Transitions are not something to be forgotten.  As we begin a new year, I am more aware than ever that how we manage transitions is just as important as what we hope our students to learn.  I am grateful I work in a school where our families, students, and teachers intentionally work together to make a positive difference for our students.

Here's to the best-year ever!

Sunday, July 2, 2017

A Learning Organization is a Leading Organization

Where do you work, and what is your organization's core mission?  

Perhaps the core mission is to increase shareholders' value?  Maybe you work for an organization whose core misson is to provide quality healthcare or entertainment?  

Core missions can vary depending on the area.  As the leader of a school and an employee of a school district, our core mission is learning.  We are designed to help young people learn and to reach for more academic and social/emotional growth than they thought possible.  At the end of the day, all we do in our district - from Board members and superintendents to groundskeepers, teachers, and bus drivers - is focused on increasing learning for students.

One strategy our district embraces to reach our core mission is to invest in learning opportunities for their staff members.  Our district has a long history of providing and encouraging quality professional development for their staff.  I am aware of training for all levels of our oranization.  Some of this training is from our own local experts.  Sometimes we bring in nationally renowned speakers.  We regularly partner with our county-wide intermediate school district.  Many of us are members of state and national organizations who offer many learning opportunities.  Our staffs also host book studies - usually on their own time - for specific topics of interest.  Adult learning is part of our culture, and I believe this has made a distinct, positive impact for our students.

I just returned from a week at Harvard University and the Harvard Graduate School of Education where two other colleagues and I participated in a week-long workshop entitled The Art of Leadership.  We were joined by more than 130 educators and school leaders from 8 different countries and 22 other states and the District of Columbia.

Over six, very full days we were challenged, inspired, pushed,  praised, and provided time to reflect on our leadership practices.  All we learned was coordinated around our core mission -learning for our students.

The daily themes were led by internationally respected researchers, lecturers, and practitioners, and each day was engaging and filled with active learning.
  • Sunday, June 25: Taking an adaptive leadership stance
  • Monday, June 26: Building capacity through experiential learning
  • Tuesday, June 27: Evaluating personal and organizational strategy
  • Wednesday, June 28: Examining expectations for student success
  • Thursday, June 29: Leading data driven instruction
  • Friday, June 30: Collaborating for effective leadership
The week was rich, thought provoking, and occassionally overwhelming.  I have a binder filled with notes and reflections.  My inbox has links to new friends, colleagues, and resources from around the world.  I have already ordered and read three books from this experience.   I was reminded of the importance to be intentional about change, to operationalize a plan, and to be deliberate around equity and tolerance.  We experienced why learning should be fun and different ways to tell and interpret our stories.  I have new protocols to help me see challenges as opportunities.  We practiced the case-study method to see other perspectives, and we were passionately reminded that schools have a moral obligation to help all students learn.  The week left me with practical applications that I can use immediatley as well as a collection of thoughts that will require me to think and reflect with my colleagues even more.

In many ways I was affirmed that what our school and district are doing is correct, and I now see more clearly ways that we can improve...improve the learning for our students.  I am grateful to work for an organization that expects, respects, invests in, is committed to, and encourages learning for all.  We are a learning and leading organization!

PS:  As you can imagine, the week was filled with quotes.  This final quote of the week spoke to me, and  it puts into words better than what I can say for why schools must ensure learning remains as our core mission.  Ironcially it does not even use the word, "learning," but hope for a better future has always been the natural outgrowth of learning for me.  This quote seems to best encapsulate the "why" of my entire week at Harvard.

“Hope is the presentiment that the imagination is more real, and reality less real, than we had thought. It is the sensation that the last word does not belong to the brutality of facts with their oppression and repression. It is the suspicion that reality is far more complex than realism would have us believe, that the frontiers of the possible are not determined by the limits of the present, and that miraculously and surprisingly, life is readying the creative event that will open the way to freedom and resurrection.” --Ruben Alves

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Dear 4th Graders: 2016-2017

Dear 4th Graders,

It doesn't seem possible the time is almost here for you to transition from Novi Woods to being 5th graders in your new school.  My guess is you're excited but also a bit anxious about your next steps.  That's OK.  Living somewhere between excitement and anxiousness is normal.  Perhaps you recall those same feelings when you started at Novi Woods?  Many of you, of course, started at Woods in kindergarten, but several of you have joined us in 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and even 4th grades.  Regardless of when you joined Novi Woods, you have made a difference, and the community at Novi Woods is richer because of you.

Together, Novi Woods has partnered with your families to grow great leaders!  Together, we have learned about and demonstrated grit, empathy, passion, compassion, frustration, understanding, perseverance, sadness, joy, and so much more.  There have been awards, rewards, retirements, and many new faces.  I've been privileged to help you laugh, learn routines for success, and to learn how to think about the power of "yet."  There have been some band-aids along the way, but there have been many more high fives.  You've shared wiggly teeth, your smiles, your tears, and some of you have even shared new siblings with us.

  • Concerts, Art shows, Field days, Woods workouts, Parachutes, Recorders, Clay, Book check-out, book fairs, curiosity kits
  • Dens, Pride Circles, Paws for Great Leaders cards, Leadership Chats, fire drills, a human pizza and sundae, principal for a day, lice checks
  • Open houses, Walk to school days, Halloween parades, conferences, Valentine's parties, crafts, games, and recesses on the "big" playground!  
  • "It looks like a good day for sledding, Novi Woods."
  • Are you a bringer or a buyer? Morning announcements, Words of Wisdom, the Pledge of Allegiance.
  • NWEA, M-Step, Friday folders
  • Yearbooks, Family Fun Nights, Spirit Wear, Family Picnics, Multi-Cultural Night, Milk and Cookies Night, Fun Runs, Assemblies, ArtSmart, Field Trips, 4th grade clapout..
4th grade clapout? 

Yes, before we know it the entire school will be honoring and clapping for you as you exit Novi Woods for the final time. It will be touching and a little surreal, I promise.  And while it's fun to look back on all of these fond memories, my hope for what you may remember as you move forward is quite simple.  You are the great benefactors of a community of parents, teachers, secretaries, bus drivers, maintenance professionals, groundskeepers, custodians, a nurse, noon aides, cooks, cashiers, superintendents, Board members, paras, CARE  workers, volunteers, directors, coordinators, administrators.....and a prinicpal who have done our best for you and your classmates.  Quite simply, my hope for you is that you know you were loved by an entire community--a special community called Novi Woods.  

"Let's make it a great day, and remember, it takes teamwork to make the dream work!"

PS--Listen to and respect your parents.  They will always be your first and most important teachers.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

An Immortal Team?

Are you immortal?

Of course we know the answer.  Nobody is immortal.

Whether good or bad, we tend to think of ourselves as super-human or even irreplaceable.  I am 100% guilty of feeling like I am the only one who can do my job or the only person who can make sure our building runs smoothly or facilitate solving problems.  My favorite place to be in our district is at Novi Woods.  I am often required to be at workshops or meeetings away from the building, but I feel most satisfied when I am at Novi Woods working directly with our staff, parents, and students.    Life, however, has other plans--occassionally.

I didn't know what back spasms were until I first experienced one in the summer of 2013.  I learned that a back spasm can make you laugh and cry at the same time.  I learned what it means to look at your wife and say, "Just push me over a cliff so this can all be over."  I learned that sometimes your body is in charge of you so much that you can't walk, stand, or sit without being in extreme pain to the point that not even strong medications from your emergency room visit seem to help.  Fortunately, this happened in the summer, and I was able to heal without it impacting my work.  (I did get a brief reprieve from vacuuming and mowing the lawn at home!)

My back spasm returned with a vengeance last weekend.  Oh I wish I could say I had hurt my back by lifting something heavy or by wrestling with a wild animal to protect my family.  I'm embarrased to say it happened when I bent over our garden cart to remove a piece of plastic.  Yes, a piece of plastic sent me to the ER and has kept me away from work.

The doctor said this would take several days to get back to a manageable level.  Begrudgingly I gave it a day and stayed home from work.  After some reflection, I believe I have only ever missed about 4 days of school in over 20 years for any medical reason for either myself or my family.  After all, I'm immortal!

My staff was amazing.  I sent them an email Monday morning, and everyone was supportive and understanding.  They reminded me to listen to my wife, the doctor, and my body.

My wife suggested I stay home one more day.  I, of course, said I was fine and went to work on Tuesday.  I had some ibuprofen which allowed me take the edge off the pain and to drive safely (The other meds did not allow me to drive.).  While I moved in slow motion, Tuesday was a busy and long day.

And then Wednesday came.

Wow.  By 5:45 AM I knew I was in trouble.  But--there was absolutely no way I could miss work.  We had a school improvement team meeting scheduled.  I had car duty and morning announcement responsibilities.  Our noon aides were meeting for lunch to make plans for the rest of the year and for next year.  I had several students who needed my assistance.  I had an observation to complete, and I was hosting a meeting for kindergarten parents.  Throw in some much-needed data analysis and a couple of reports, there was no way I could not be at work.  After all, I'm immortal.  All I had to do was get dressed and in my car.  It would be fine.

But...When your wife needs to put your socks on you, your immortality comes into question, and you begin to think clearly.  The  pain shook me to decide to stay horizontal, on the strong meds, and in bed for the day.

My next thoughts were about how to make sure Woods would be OK.

Step 1.) Contact your boss.  I am blessed.  I mean--BLESSED that I can call my superintendent at any time of the day or night for help.  Within minutes and by 6:30 he rearranged  his schedule to do my car duty, morning announcements, and to host the kindergarten parent meeting with another staff member.

Step 2.) Alert your secretaries  Mrs. Rodriguez and Mrs. Marson, our school secretaries, are amazing.  We call and text each other almost each morning at 6 to make sure the day will go smoothly.  Without missing a beat, Mrs. Rodriguez proclaimed that I shouldn't worry about a thing.  She and Mrs. Marson would handle everything.  (And they do on a regular basis.)

Step 3.) Share with trusted colleagues.  The administrators in Novi are more a team than ever in our history.  One simple email, and two of my closest friends and fellow principals knew they are "on call" for any emergencies that may arise at Woods.

Step 4.)  Reach out to staff.  I called a member of our improvement team, and she agreed to include me on speaker phone for the improvement team meeting.  I also emailed the entire staff.  The improvement team met, and we covered everything and more on our agenda.  Staff reminded me to listen to my wife and to not worry.  They are so understanding and supportive.

Do I worry?  Yes.  I like to be at work.  I've been told I make a difference, and my students depend on our team to be as effective as possible.

Which, I suppose, is the point.

I'm not immortal, but the team at Novi Woods is stronger than any one person.  It needs to be, and surely it is stronger than the principal.  Perhaps the most important action a principal can take is to build the best possible team for the school and students?  The team at Novi Woods is stellar, and I have no doubt today will be a great day at Novi Woods because our students, staff, parents, and community are a team.  Like we say, "It takes teamwork to make the dream work!"

Now about back had better cooperate!

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Thanks, Moms

What do you say when you don't know what else to say?

Perhaps that's why I have never written about the so many mothers who have directly impacted my life?  I just don't know what to say.  I am blessed beyond belief, and I know it.  The words just never sound right.  In fact, I always feel a little boastful when I put on paper the moms in my life because I know many of my students do not have this in their lives.  My hope is that in sharing my story I may inspire someone to reach out and be a mother for someone who needs it or to be a better mother than they thought possible.

Both of my grandmothers are alive and doing well in assisted living.  They have always been integral parts of my life, and I was grateful to grow up living and being close to them.  As their oldest grandson, I always felt like I was the favorite, but I know there isn't really a favorite grandchild.  Despite raising large families of their own, I was spoiled by them, and I now go out of my way to spoil them as much as possible--even though I now live 7 hours away from them.

My mother in-law lives less than 5 minutes away from us.  Who knew that anyone could ever take you in and become another mother in your life?  For more than 20 years, Sandy has been a friend, a trusted confidante, a supporter, and a faithful inspiration through life's many ups and downs.  She is always on the look-out for the underdog, and I jokingly say she is the most valuable player on "Team Ascher" as my wife and I work to raise our daughters.  "We" would not be "us" without her.

Mom.  It's such a simple word, but my mother is nothing but simple.  She and Dad spent careers raising my sister and me, and then she worked even harder in the telecommunications field doing jobs in technology that were not even created when she first started working.  Nothing is ever impossible for my mother.  Need to mow more than an acre of grass each week without a riding mower?  My mom did it.  Need to feed a hungry family on a tight, tight budget?  We never went hungry, and we always felt like we ate like royalty.  (Who knew that meatloaf wasn't gourmet?)  Need to do a busy family's laundry without having a washer at home?  My mom did that for years!  Need to have wonderful birthdays and holidays where there was always room for one more person to join us?  Absolutely, Mom did this.  She did all of this and more even before she was 30!  (The next 30+ years require their own blog entry.)  My mother is an amazing listener, and she never passes judgement or thinks less of people because of their struggles.  What a wonderful gift she has tried to give me.

While not officially one of my "moms," my wife is perhaps the most important mother to me.  She is mother to the two most precious blessings in our life--our daughters.  She loves me despite my many quirks and faults, and she has helped turn two little girls into self-confident, independent young women.  Kim is forgiving and relentless at the same time.  She always goes at 110% until she comes to a halting stop and sinks into deep relaxation mode.  She has a wonderful ability to leave her work at work and to completely focus on what is at hand at that time.  She is able to plan ahead and resolve all possible hurdles before they become hurdles.  Most of all, her faith is pragmatic but filled with fire.  Simply put, she is my best friend, and she makes me a better person than I really am.  I am not complete without her, and I love her more than she probably really knows.

Are each of these women the same?  Absolutely not.  Are there more women in my life who have been like mothers?  Yes--many.  Are any of these women perfect?  For sure, no.  Perhaps that is why I love them all so much?  Maybe the fact that each of them has overcome trials and tribulations is why I love them?  Even more, none of them ever puts themselves first.  They have always put others before themselves.

As we get ready to spend a weekend celebrating Mother's Day, I encourage you to reach out and thank the women who have been mothers to you.  If you don't have any women in your life who inspire you, please contact me.  I know at least 5 women who would love to help you!

Happy Mother's Day, Grandma Ascher, Grandma Mac, Sandy, Mom, and Kim.  I love you.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Wisdom from Under the Sea

100 dives!  Wow.  I couldn't believe I was going to complete my 100th dive.  I've been a certified SCUBA diver for many years, and it's something I really enjoy doing because it usually means I'm on vacation where it is warm.  Also, our daughters were certified several years ago, and I enjoy it even more since I am with them.

Just to be clear, I am a "fair weather" diver.  While I've dived in cold water, I appreciate the warmth and comforts of the Caribbean!  Since we live in Michigan, I really only get to dive when we are traveling.

I was looking forward to my 100th dive while my family and I were on a recent trip to Grand Cayman.  Over the years I've been fortunate to see and experience diving with sharks, eels, sting rays, eagle rays, octopi, goliath grouper, and sea turtles.  Who doesn't love to see the "big stuff"  when you're exploring?  I was expecting nothing less for my 100th dive, and I let our dive master/guide know that.  I had really built up number 100!

Dive number 99 was amazing.  We saw six sea turtles in one dive.  This is remarkable, and I was anticipating my next dive.  The guide let me know he had a "special" loccation picked out for us.  We were headed to The Aquarium reef to see sharks and eels and maybe an octopus.  Bravo, I thought to myself.

The dive started like most dives.  We suited up, did safety checks, and completed a giant stride into the water.  Once everyone checked in, we headed down to about 60 feet.  The reef was beautiful and teaming with wildlife.  We saw schools of fish in all shapes and designs.  Deep blues, yellows, greens.  The colors reminded me of a rainbow.  We saw coral and sponges.  The sound of bubbles from our respirators put us in the mood to see something huge.  And I kept looking.

Coral reefs are elaborate eco-systems.  While coral might remind you of a rock, it is actually made of living creatures.  The combination of light, organisms, nutrients, and moving sea life requires a delicate balance that only can be achieved when every piece of the eco-system is working together, and the Aquarium Reef was working together.  Still, nothing huge.  No eels.  No octopus.  No sharks.  I was let down, but then I started thinking.

The reef was alive, and when I took time to look a little closer I saw that the entire reef system was working together.

Schools and school systems are very similar to ocean reefs.  Every day is not a "big" day at school.  From arrival to dismissal, we have systems in place to make sure our students are focusing on learning.  We have systems in place to greet students.  We have systems in place for students to share their lunch choices  Teachers create systems to alert students to the agenda and the accompanying learning targets for the day.  Classrooms have systems in place to share leadership with the students and to provide formative feedback.  We even have systems for what to do when a student is ill.  And yet, none of these systems are what I would call "mountain top" experiences.

We have other systems that go unsung.  How do we make sure our building is maintained?  We have a process?  How do we identify and hire the best staff?  We have a process.  What do we do if an emergency happens?  We have systems that we practice.  Let's not forget about the systems we have regarding working with our community, parents, and volunteers.  The list is endless.

Our school has just over 400 students.  Our district has close to 6500 students and over 600 employees.  Together, with our community, we have created a system that works together that is just as beautiful as a Caribbean reef!  It's called a learning system!

(PS--We saw a shark on dive #101!)