Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Moving in the Same Direction

I'm sure you've heard them.
  • Everyone needs to be on the same bus.
  • It's important we are all rowing in the same direction.
  • We need to sing from the same hymnal.
  • We need to work hand in hand.
Each of these phrases or idioms explain the importance of working together.  I believe that in any organization with more than one person we have an obligation to explicitly embrace and teach the expectations we have for people.  Schools are no different.  In fact, schools probably have the most-urgent need to help everyone work together towards common goals.

Our school has recently implemented common, positive behavioral intervention and supports (PBIS) strategies.  Since our district mascot is a wildcat we say we are "Leading with PAWS!"  We have signs and even a song around how to do this.


I recently asked my students why we should Lead with PAWS.  Their answers varied but included:
  • It helps keep us safe.
  • We work together more.
  • We will have more fun.
  • We will learn more.
Clearly our students have this figured out which is why we are taking this to the next level by explicitly teaching through videos and discussions how Leading with PAWS looks in specific areas of our school.  

Also, we are asking our parents to help us.  The parents in our school are amazing, and they understand that building community and working together makes a difference for each student in our school.  You can view the video we created for our stakeholders here.

Yes, it really does take teamwork to make the dream work.















Thursday, March 22, 2018

Will It Fit Through The Door?

Our family got a puppy when I was about 4.  Barney (This was pre-the-purple-dinosaur.) was a black lab mix, and it was clear she was going to be an outdoor dog.  I can barely remember my father building a doghouse in his basement workshop for Barney, but the following legend of the doghouse has remained strong in our family for the last 40+ years.  The story played out something like this:

Mom:  Bill, that's a nice looking doghouse for Barney.
Dad:  Thanks.  The kids are sure excited to have a puppy in the family.  I'm afraid the kids will smother her with too much love.
Mom:  I'm not sure too much love is possible.  I'm glad you're making the house big enough so she can grow into it.
Dad:  I figured I could get a bale of straw to put in the house with her so she can stay warm.  The way the kids are with her, they will want to move into the doghouse with Barney!
Mom:  Uhm...Bill, do you think the doghouse will fit up the steps and out the door?
Dad:  What do you mean?
Mom:  Well, it looks like the roof of the house is wider than our basement door, and then you need to make that sharp right turn to get it outside.  What do you think?
Dad:  Beth, it will be fine.  You worry to much.  I'll make it fit fine.  There's plenty of room.
Mom:  Well, I don't know.  Whatever you think.
Dad:  Let me finish here, and I'll take it outside for Barney.
Mom:  OK.  Oh..that's the kids.  I hope they're not pulling her tail.  I really have to keep my eye on David lately.  Let me know if you need any help.

20 minutes later

Mom:  Bill, what's that racket?  Is everything OK?
Dad:  It's fine.  Don't worry about anything.
Mom:  Bill!  What are you doing?  Don't smash the doghouse.  It looks good.
Dad:  I'm not smashing it.  I have to take it apart.
Mom:  Why.  It looks like you're finished with it.
Dad:  It doesn't fit.
Mom:  It what?
Dad:  It doesn't fit.  Go ahead...say it, "I told  you so!"
Mom:  Oh no.  I'm not that mean.  What are you going to do?
Dad:  Well, I need to take the roof off and put it back on when we get this house outside.  Can you help me here for a moment?  The kids--and the dog--will be fine.

I know I'm not telling this story 100% accurately.  I bet there was some colorful language, sarcasm, and laughter involved.  The short story is our puppy needed love and a doghouse, and the house Dad built didn't fit through the door.

Part of my job as a building principal is to figuratively manage what comes in and out the doors of the learning environment for our staff.  I'm not talking about monitoring the cameras or the physical doors.  Rather, I have the responsibility to help my staff adjust to changes, receive the necessary training, and still make all of this "fit" without overwhelming any person or the entire organization. 

The reality is any person, group of people, or a system has only so much capacity for change and  learning--just like a door has only so much space.  If you don't fill the door of learning, your system loses out on opportunities.  If you overfill the door, you either need to start over, remove some critical pieces, or risk not moving your system forward as a unit.

Truth be told, I tend to error on the side of my father.  I'd rather have too much innovation than not enough.  This can backfire, however.  As a principal I can't risk burning-out my staff.  I am grateful my staff faces new challenges with a growth mindset.  They collaborate and find balance together.  We have weekly treats, and I help coordinate monthly lunches.  I try to clarify and prioritize different initiatives.  We have a school improvement team who helps our school think strategically so we can address the needs of our system.  Small teams approach changes and challenges with a  "can-do" spirit.

And yet, there are still some days when I feel like I am having to "knock the roof off the doghouse."  I know my staff feels the same way sometimes.

In the end, we keep working.  We continue to collaborate and partner.  We lean on each other.  We dig deep.  We innovate.  We laugh, giggle, and cry.  We worry about things we can actually control.  We listen to each other, and we celebrate whenever possible. 

Just like love and a warm house for a new puppy, it's what our students deserve!




Friday, February 9, 2018

A Love Story

Let me tell you a love story.

It's not a love story about adults.  It's not a "puppy" love story or even a "first" love story.  Actually, this isn't a love story at all.  It's more of a story about love - the love a first grade boy has for his teacher and how that love can change a life--actually many lives.

This boy is like many other boys his age.  He likes to play games and run.  He likes to be with his friends, and he likes to be independent.  He likes to listen to music, and he enjoys building things.   He likes robots, and he likes to be funny.  He has favorite foods, but he also knows what he does not like to eat.  He doesn't like to hear loud noises, but he likes to make loud noises.  Yes, this boy is like many, many first grade boys.

This boy is like most first grade boys in other ways too.  He has a mother and a father and an entire family who love him very much.  He is a good reader, and he has a very good memory for things he likes to remember.  He is good at math, and he is working to be a better writer.  He likes to get his own way, and he really likes to know what is going to happen in his day and his week before it happens.

Yes, this boy is like most boys in many ways, but he is different too.

This boy, after a full day of school, goes to therapy five days a week for two hours.  This boy, you see, has autism, and the therapy helps him develop strategies to better cope in a world that only sees him as different.  This therapy helps him learn to better control his behavior so he can be more like other students.

This boy is different from other first grade students in more ways too.  This boy knows the flag and capital for every - yes every - state and country in the world.  This boy has a remarkable sense of what is called "theory of mind" which means he thinks you think what he thinks.  You will want to reread this last sentence, but you could say this boy struggles--really struggles--to empathize with others.  And yet, he does empathize.  This boy has discovered something that we want all students to know.  This boy has learned that his teacher loves him.

Of course, it's not a romantic love, but it is more than just respect or caring.  This teacher sees this student as special, but she also sees him as she sees all of her students.  She expects him to be safe, to help others, and to never give up.  Most of all she expects this student--as she does all students--to learn.  And he does.

But like all first graders, he has some tough days.

Some days are  tough because he doesn't feel well.  Some days are tough because he did not sleep well.  Some days are tough because he doesn't like what he has to eat or what he must do.  Some days are tough because he gets so excited that he can't calm down right away.  Like all of us, some days are just tough.

One day this boy was so frustrated that he couldn't calm down without help, and this teacher helped him-of course.  She would do this for every student-for every person.  But this boy is different.  He thinks you think what he thinks which means he couldn't easily calm down and he got even more frustrated when this teacher wasn't frustrated too.  She was, of course, calm and caring which is the right way to respond to this student, but he was still frustrated.  He was so frustrated that in his frustration he hurt his teacher.

Oh he didn't mean to hurt his teacher.  He didn't hit or kick or bite or throw something at her.  But, in trying to calm his own body, this boy did hurt his teacher.  It was not on purpose, but it was one of those hurts that is more shocking than hurtful at first.  She knew she needed to go to the doctor.

She went to the doctor, and she learned she was going to need to see other doctors to help fix what had happened.  She learned she would be OK, but it was going to take several appointments and weeks to fix everything.  She also reflected that perhaps she should have consoled this student in a different way.  She thought that she could have done something different to better help this student?

When this student's parents learned what had happened, they were apolgetic and offered to help as much as they possibly could.  They were very concerned for the teacher and only wanted the best for her.  In fact they offered to go above and beyond to help her.

What makes this story so poignant is that this teacher still loves to teach.  She wants to help students.  Helping students is a part of her.  She doesn't hold a grudge and is not mad at this student. She understands in her heart that if a flower is not growing, you don't give up or just pull the flower from the garden.  Sometimes you must build a better garden for that flower.  Sometimes the gardener must work even harder to try new ideas and strategies to help each flower in her garden grow.  Most times every flower needs a little something special.  This teacher knows that she must teach the students she has right now and not the students she used to have or the students she has read about in books.  Like her colleagues, she seeks-out new learning to apply new strategies to help the many new and unique students she wants to help.  She exemplifies what a professional is, and she inspires others with her growth-mindset towards teaching and learning.

Now this is not just a story about a student and a teacher.  There are supports, of course, for this teacher and this student.  This teacher works in a school with an entire staff full of amazing teachers and staff who care and support her and each other every day.  This student goes to school in a school and district that allocates significant professional learning and resources for all students to have the absolute best education possible.  This student attends a school full of remarkable students who work together to grow and learn.  This student and teacher are in a school with a parent community that understands ALL really does mean ALL and that each student is special.

What makes this story a love story?

The day after the accident happened, the boy made a sign that said, "I love you."  The teacher was so touched that she hung-up the sign and told her principal about it.  The sign in itself is special and endearing, and it could be the end of this story.



But what really makes this story a love story?

A few days after the boy brought the sign he had made to apologize to his teacher, his morning work had a sentence starter that needed to be completed.

Morning work is pretty common in schools.  It gives the students an opportunity to independently demonstrate basic skills on a worksheet as soon as they enter the classroom so the teacher can facilitate attendance, lunch count, and get the day started.  It's not supposed to be hard.  It's supposed to be practice--unless you are different.

And as much as this little boy is like other boys.  He is different--very different.

The sentence starter on this day was, "Write a sentence about your teacher."

How did this boy respond?  How did this boy who is so like other boys but is so, so different at the same time?

This boy wrote, "She loves me."


Happy Valentine's Day.




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.