Sunday, January 14, 2018

You Can't Do Nothing

For seven years my school and our school community have been committed to,  "Growing Great Leaders!"  Our students, parents, and staff work tirelessly to help our students learn, understand, and experience that success at school and at life is more than just a score on a test.  Our students internalize through explicit instruction and modeling that in order to be a "great leader" you must do what is right even when noone else is looking.  As part of that work I, the principal, host three Leadership Chats a year for each class and team in the building.  The chats are a wonderful opportunity for me to model a few instructional techniques for my teachers and to plant some common language and expectations across the building.  At the risk of sounding prideful, I have been told our Leadership Chats have been "transformative," and I can recount example after example of how our chats have made a positive difference at Novi Woods.  The title of our most-recent chat was, "Let's Talk About Race."

I am fortunate to have so many supportive and understanding parents in our school.  We dialogue, listen, and support each other.  Recently I have been having conversations with several parents about race and how we help students deal with the concept of race.  We have 430 students in our school.  53% are Asian.  38% are White, and the remaining students are Black or Hispanic.  We are a diverse school and district, and we see that as a strength!  Some of our students have been experimenting with discussing race.  There have been jokes and some hurtful statements.  In each account, I have worked with the parents and the students to make sure the students learn what is and is not appropriate. 

These experiences have reminded me that our entire society does not talk about race very well.  Adults sometimes conveniently ignore race altogether by making statements like, "Oh, I don't see color.  I only see what is on the inside."  In working with my students, this statement is very confusing for them.  Our young people absolutely see differences in colors of skin--just like they see differences in hair styles and shapes of eyes.  When they hear adults either ignore or not even notice these characteristics, our students are conditioned that race must be a taboo topic that is bad.  To make it even worse, our students are quite savvy and are aware of what is discussed on the news and  in the media.  It's as if adults unintentionally teach our young people that race is uncomfortable and bad.

Our district openly approaches these topics.  We have a pillar in our district plan focused on social justice.  There is much to this pillar, and it has opened the door for our school to embark on a two-year journey around culturally relevant teaching.  We have partnered with our intermediate school district for more than 40 hours of professional development for our staff over the last two years.  Do we have all of the answers?  No.  Do we see issues about race and its impact on students with new lenses?  Absolutely.

The new "lenses" about culture and our role inspired me to take a risk with our Leadership Chat.  I researched several resources from Teaching Tolerance, and a parent suggested this book by Julius Lester.

The book reminds its readers that every person in the world has a story to tell.  That story is based on our family, when and where we were born, and our likes and dislikes.  Race is one part of each person's story, but it is not the only part of the story.  We must work to see the "true" story of each person--the entire story.

Our students understand all of these concepts.  Whether kindergarteners or fourth graders, students engaged in rich discussions about race and clearly understood that we are more similar than dissimilar.  I even pushed each group a few times about comments I sometimes hear in the cafeteria or hallways like, "What are you eating?  It looks so weird," or "What are you wearing.  That's strange."  Calling things weird or strange is not a nice way to find out about something or someone different.  Students practiced asking questions like, "What are you eating?  We don't eat that in our house."  (We also practiced using nice tones in our voices.  How we say things is just as important as what we say.) 

After comparing our stories to snowflakes (All snowflakes are beautiful and unique, but they also all have 6 sides.), I closed the chat with a final reminder, "It Takes Teamwork to Make the Dream Work!" which has become our school's rallying motto (Yes, from another Leadership Chat.)

Yes, race is part of our story.  We are different.  Race, however, is not our only story.  Together, we make a team that makes a difference.

In planning the chat, I knew I couldn't end there.  It's not enough to just say what you believe.  It's not enough to just proclaim to not be racist.  I challenged the students with a final question.

Without a bit of hesitation in 20 classes, over 430 students told me time and time again that we must:

  • "Tell the mean person to stop."
  • "Help the person who is feeling hurt."
  • "Go get help."
  • "Tell a teacher or our parents to help."
  • "Stand up for what is right."
  • "Remind everyone about this chat.  We're all snowflakes!"
Do I think this Leadership Chat will cure all of the ills in the world?  No.  Do I hope and pray our young people continue to grow and support each other?  Every single day.  In 2018 and with the state of our society and some of its leaders, it's not enough to ignore racism.  As one wise student in my school told me, "Mr. Ascher, you can't do nothing.  You must do something."

Friday, December 15, 2017

Reflections from the End of a Shovel

It snowed in our area this week.  Most schools closed for the day, and this is what greeted me as I went outside with my shovel to clear our driveway.

My wife laughs at me because I like to get outside very early whenever it snows so I can shovel before anyone drives on it.  I say I go out early because it's easier to shovel that way.  (It is.) The truth is, I like the solitude.  I like to hear the silence, experience the quiet, and reflect on what is most important.  There's something about shoveling and seeing my progress that brings me great comfort.  Perhaps it's because "seeing" progress in my job as a school principal is sometimes harder to truly see?

At school there always seems to be more that needs to be completed.  One more email.  One more call.  Just one more conversation about: an amazing lesson or opportunity, how to raise achievement just a little bit more, or what we could do to help even more.  I love this about my job, and I'm blessed to work with colleagues who feel the same way.  We are constantly supporting each other to reach higher, push just a little bit more, or dig a little deeper.  I hope everyone has this type of community in their workplace, but I'm learning we are unique.  What my staff does in our building is special.  What our district does in our community is remarkable.  What our community does is amazing.

While I was shoveling today I was thinking about all of this and how grateful I am.

You and I know not everything is perfect.  It never is.  There are tough conversations and challenges to my job.  There are, of course, difficulties in every job, but I am grateful for my job and my colleagues and the community in which I work each day.  They make me better, and together we make a difference.

How do I know we make a difference?  Well, it's not always as clear as when I'm shoveling the driveway.  This week, however, a kindergartener and our music teacher reminded me what is absolutely most important.

A new colleague and I were touring the building, and we visited our music room.  The music teacher had the students reflecting on what they enjoyed most about their recent concert.  Students were drawing and writing, and we saw lots of smiles.  One boy stood out, however.  He was extra-busy writing on the front and the back of his page the words to one of the songs that our music teacher had taught the students.

May peace be always with you.  May the peace you show make your heart grow.
May love be always with you.  May the love you show make your heart grow.
May joy be always with you.  May the joy you show make your heart grow.

As we close 2017, I know we make a difference, and I am grateful and blessed.

Here's to an even better 2018!

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Continuous Improvement Transforms Lives

Before we begin, this is a light-hearted view on getting better.  I apologize, in advance, if anyone is offended.  Thank you for reading.

Do you have chores at home?  In our marriage my wife and I have some designated chores.  My wife makes sure money is where it needs to be, and I pay the bills.  We both vacuum, but my wife dusts.  (She has never trusted me to safely work around special keepsakes.)  I am in charge of....keeping the bathrooms clean.  Most people get "grossed out" by cleaning bathrooms, but I find great satisfaction in keeping the mirrors, sinks, lavatories and tubs clean.  I like clean floors, and I feel like I can actually see the results of my work.  It makes me feel good to have a clean bathroom.

  • Is it possible to get a bathroom clean?  Yes.
  • Is it possible to get a bathroom cleaner?  Hmmmm.

When I finish cleaning, I don't reflect on how I can get things cleaner.  I try to make sure the job is completed--cleanly--the first time. 

Schools, however, run a little differently.  Our product is not a clean room.  Our students are much more complex than a mirror or a sink.  I/we reflect on how we can get better all of the time.  The paradigm of continuous improvement is so strong that we are constantly trying to do our job better.  We want more students to grow.  We want more students to grow more.  Whatever bar we set for ourselves is never "good enough."  If we hit that bar, we keep raising it.  While moving that bar creates a certain level of institutional stress, we know raising that bar for ourselves is best for our students.  And we would have it no other way.

Our school district will participate in an accreditation engagement review in May.  A team of educators from around the country will visit our district and our schools.  They will review data, observe lessons, talk with stakeholders, and suggest ways we can improve--ways we can "raise the bar" to better help more students.

The accreditation agency, AdvancED, is very clear about their goal:
Our goal isn’t to certify that educational institutions are good enough. Rather, our commitment is to help these institutions continuously improve.
We host these reviews about every five years.  They help us get better, and I am grateful to work in a profession and district that never settles for "good enough." 

True confession--I think I might occasionally settle for "good enough" with my bathroom chores.  Please don't tell my wife.  She might do the same thing with the dusting.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Lessons From Tragedy

Four funerals.

My family and I will be attending our fourth funeral in less than two months.  I don't share this to make you feel sad or sorry, but I have been reminded of a very valuable lesson because of these funerals that I want to share with you.  Also, I learned an even more valuable lesson from a teenager because of one of these funerals.

I am sad, and I am sorry.  One of my best friends died in August after battling cancer for over two years.  I miss Bob.  He was my friend and walking buddy, and he let me glimpse into his life and his death.  That changed me.  Bob taught me to play the guitar.  We had common and eclectic music tastes, and he and his amazing wife have been our neighbors for over 20 years.  His daughter was our babysitter, and his son is not yet 16.

Judy was in our Sunday School class.  Our girls had been friends since preschool.  She was always a bundle of energy and joy.  There was not a pessimistic bone in her body despite the many physical and emotional challenges she faced.  Her faith inspired me.  Her daughter is 16.

Ray was a new acquaintance.  He moved his family across the country in order for his wife to be closer to her family.  His 16 year old daughter was in my mission trip group, and she had never known him without cancer.  I learned at his funeral he used to run Ironman races.

Tom's funeral is this weekend.  He and his wife have four daughters.  His second daughter is friends with our second daughter.  He loved to decorate for holidays, and he had been ill for more than 5 years.

I am sad.  I am sorry.  Each of these people died from cancer, and they left behind families with teenage children.

Reminder #1--  Life is precious.  We spend a lot of time worrying about things that we should probably not worry about.  (The next promotion?  What car our neighbor is driving?)  We also spend a lot of time doing things that really don't matter. (Checking email.  Watching mindless television.)  While I don't shy away from getting better or from being held accountable in my job, I am reminded that time with our families, our health, and our faith are precious.  It sometimes seems way too easy to focus on having the best lawn or the nicest clothes or the latest technological gadget.  Perhaps a little more time with our families--really with our families and friends--is what matters most?

Lesson #1--  Words matter.  I know all of the children impacted by these deaths.  I have known some of them their entire lives.  One of them shared something profound that touched me.  When asked why she hadn't returning to church yet, she responded, "I don't know what to say when people ask, 'How are you doing?'  People don't want to hear, 'I'm doing bad,' or that this is the worst thing that I've ever experienced.  They don't want to hear that I still cry myself to sleep.  They really want to hear, 'I'm doing fine.'  I just wish people would say, 'It's so good to see you,' or "I'm glad you're here.'"

What am I trying to do now?  I'm trying to spend more time saying, "It's so good to see you," and "I'm glad you're here."  Plus, I hug my wife and kids more.  Bob would be happy.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work! Really.

Teamwork makes the dream work!  Really.

This cliche statement has become somewhat of a rallying cry at Novi Woods.  Our students know what it means and looks like.  I have taught leadership chats about it.  We have it written on our school shirts.  It gets repeated by the entire school at the close of our morning announcements.  We use it to help solve problems around our school.  Parents send me e-mails about how their children discuss it around the dinner table.  It's cute.  It's simple, and it's very powerful.

A colleague recently gave me an article entitled: Leveraging Collaborative Inquiry to Increase Collective Teacher Efficacy by Jenni Donohoo.  The article opens with:

"When teachers believe  that together, they are capable of developing students' critical thinking skills, creativity, and mastery of complex concepts, it happens!"

Collective efficacy matters.  Does our staff believe that together they can positively influence student learning?  If we believe we make a difference--together--then we make a difference.

Collective efficacy matters more than almost anything else.  Collective efficacy is one of the greatest factors influencing student achievement.  Collective efficacy matters more than student socioeconomic status, student home environment, teacher clarity, or many other factors as studied by John Hattie, an eminent researcher whose visible learning studies rank "what works best" for learning.

The staff at my school understands how crucial collective efficacy is.  I see teachers supporting each other on a regular basis.  They meet for professional learning on their own time.  They collaborate to implement new instructional strategies.  They dream together.  They laugh and sometimes cry together.  They review hard data and plan together to increase proficiency levels.  They conduct peer observations and provide feedback to improve their instruction.  They take risks--together.  They challenge each other.  They make a difference.

I look forward to reading more about collective teacher efficacy, and I know our school is poised to continue to make a difference---together.

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!