Stop Putting Out the Fires and Start Lighting One

As an assistant principal in a high school, I can easily spend much of my day being pulled in many different directions.  At any point during the day there will be students in my office, a teacher needing a meeting, my name being called on our building radios, and a scheduled meeting I may or may not be running five minutes late to at that point in the day.  In my office suite there are the three assistant principals and we put out fires.  We work as a team and we put out fires all day.   It was because of the strong team we have become that I could stop putting out the fires and start trying to light one of my own.  

When you hear the phrase, “being part of a team”, it means something different and usually very specific to different people.  Our administrative team was built five years ago and quickly gelled into a strong net of four individuals who challenged each other, listened to each other, problem solved together, argued a bit, laughed a lot, and put out fires together.  The first year we were together we learned one another’s strengths and weakness.  Over those first few months trust was built through the daily grind of administration.  Over the past three years, the team has changed, but we have kept the strong bond built on trust.  We have said goodbye to some team members, had others move into new positions in the district, and welcomed new team members into our Cardinal Nest, referencing both the physical space we may be meeting in at the time and the safety and support of the colleagues you were sitting with at the time.  We have taught our new members how to be a part of a team who can put out the fires while coming to work each day with not only excitement, but also passion.  Because of this team, I was able to take time each week to grow professionally through reading groups and book clubs.  

Ms. Yvette Panasowich (@ypanasowich) and Dr. Damian Bariexca (@_drdamian) and I began our professional reading group last winter once a month in which we jigsawed the Educational Leadership magazine from ASCD.  Before we began our reading group we had all admitted that the magazine would come month after month and we were not committed to reading it, yet knew there were useful articles inside.  For our a year now, the three of us has met monthly to take a an hour to discuss the new topics, skills, or theories in education.  It is an hour that sneaks up on a us through the month, but one that we all value and have continued to keep on our calendars.  We have found that we reference our articles in teacher pre or post observation meeting, high school administrative meetings, and professional development planning meetings.  The act of reading the articles doesn’t take much time and the benefit of sharing ideas and discussing the topics with colleagues has added to our educational toolkits.  

Damian took the initiative to invite me to join him for a book group.  I had admitted to my colleague that I wasn’t a lover of reading and therefore, he and his English teacher background kicked in and he picked the book (one I had recommended to me a couple of times), made the reading schedule, and even put the meetings on my calendar.  For the past two months, we have met every Friday afternoon to discuss, Friday afternoon to discuss, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood and the Rest of Y’all Too by Christopher Emdin. This means every Friday afternoon I have ended my week discussing teaching pedagogy, challenging the status quo, and becoming excited about learning.  What have I not done every Friday afternoon…put out fires.  I trusted my colleagues to protect my professional growth time and handle the fires for that last hour of the day…that last hour of the week.  Instead of sitting in the office discussing the crazy day, the busy week, the difficult teachers, and ongoing problems, I closed my week learning about myself and learning about teaching.  

So what’s the next step?  We have invited two others to join our next book club to bring more perspective and we chose the book, “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”.  Although the format is a different and I will need to challenge myself to read a bit more over a longer period of time, I look forward to one of the most rewarding professional experiences I have had in administration.  Moving forward I will continue to put out fires in my building, but I will always create a team who supports me in lighting my own.   

And if you haven’t read the book…do so immediately!

What do we say to our kids?

My school was one of the lucky few that  did not have classes on Wednesday, November 9, 2016.  We had a professional development day scheduled for the district long before we knew what the election season would hold for everyone.  This professional development day is then followed by two days of a statewide teachers conference where all public schools are closed on Thursday and Friday.  During these days my administrative team prepared a statement that we sent to our teachers and another one to our students.  Below are  my original thoughts to teachers before edits by my colleague.  The statement we shared with staff is much shorter and cleaner, but I could not let my original thoughts go without sharing them as a part of my way of making this world stronger and better and processing this unprecedented election.   

We hope everyone has enjoyed the teachers conference, a little time away from the daily routine, and a bit of time with family and friends.  Thank you to all who participated in our day of learning on Wednesday, November 9.  We had a good morning session focusing on our literacy goal with a focus on next steps as you challenge yourselves to “make thinking visible” in the classroom.  

As well as attending professional development sessions on Wednesday, many of you had questions and concerns about what may happen on Monday when students return after the election.  Below are some ideas on how to address the situations that may arise in your classrooms and although this is not an exhaustive list nor does it have all the answers, this is a start as to how to have conversations with students.  We are a building of professionals and we ask that you will support one another as we experience this election results together.  

Points to focus on with students when the discussion happens in the classroom:

 

  • All students are valued no matter off race, religious, or gender.  There are students (and staff members) who do not feel valued right now and we must tell they are valued and appreciated.  We must tell them that all people’s opinions, thoughts and feelings are valued here at our school.  
  • All students are safe at our school.  When some of our students may not feel safe outside of our walls, we need to continue to tell them they are safe with us.  We must tell students that in our classrooms, hallways, and sports fields they are safe from words or actions that seek to hurt them.  
  • We seek for understanding.  No matter what the outcome to the election would have been, there is always more than one side and someone will always feel they lose something.  We have to protect all students, no matter what their political view, especially with students who sit on the opposite side of the partisan line from us as the teacher.  We must not allow anyone to feel attacked for their thoughts, feelings, or beliefs.  

 

Students may need space to talk about the way they are feeling, concerns they have for the future, relief because of the outcome, or a myriad of other things.  Our counselors and administration will be available if needed for individuals or small groups of students throughout the day.  

Feel free to reach out to any of the administrators if you would like support in your classroom Monday or in the coming weeks.  

Thank you for your continued professionalism and honest support and care for our students.  It is during a time where our country is divided in our want for a President that we will come together to show that all people, students and staff, are valued and needed to make our country and world a special place to be.  

Just the act of writing this email provided a bit of therapy for me.  When writing I was forced to consider both sides while keeping  the safety and well-being  of our students and staff as my focus.  Although we begin by asking the question, “What am I supposed to say to my students” I cannot forget our staff members who are seeking to understand and need support themselves for fear of the act on promises made throughout this campaign.  

During the afternoon professional development session I attended the topic was intended to be Cultural Competency.  Dr. Ali Michael (@alimichaelphd) presented in September to a different group of teachers and focused on steps to creating a positive racial identity and then seeking to understand the racial identity others go through in their lives.  Before the session began, she asked if it was ok to discuss the election results since so much of the political rhetoric has been tied to race, religion and gender.  This is exactly the what people needed at exactly the right time.  

For the next three hours, nine people created a safe space to feel, think, talk, ask questions, and begin to create a plan on how we are to look at the faces of young people and make them feel safe and valued.  Much of the email we sent to staff came from blogs and emails such as the one Ali wrote “What do we tell the children?” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/what-should-we-tell-the-children_us_5822aa90e4b0334571e0a30b?ncid=engmodushpmg00000004 via @HuffPostEdu

I do not have all of the answers to the questions my students will ask, but I do know that they are resilient, hopeful, and persistent in creating a better school, community, and world..  This is what keeps me coming back day after day.  This is what provides happiness and satisfaction in my soul even in the darkest times.  Making American Great Again? Yes, I believe we can.   

Setting Goals to Make Myself Uncomfortable

In August I was told, as I am every year, to set two goals for myself for the purpose of helping me grow as an administrator.  It was emphasized that these goals should be personal and truly push me to grow professionally and possibly outside of my day to day responsibilities as a high school assistant principal.  Throughout the summer I prepared for this directive; therefore, I let the idea of challenging myself to “become an expert” on something sit with me for a while before I said it outloud.  I was in the car with my husband, also an educator and even more so also an administrator, and tried to find the right words to describe the part or parts of my knowledge base I could strengthen in order to consider myself an expert.

Let me back up a bit, in my current position, I become an expert in whatever the school or district needs me to become an expert in at that time.  Over the past four years my expertise ranges from NWEA to PARCC to summer programs to the Danielson model of teacher evaluations to discipline to professional development in higher order questioning to name just a few.  As I mulled over this idea of creating a goal that was truly about me and not about my district, I had to ask myself two questions:  1.  Have I found passion in something I have done in the past four years?  2.  Is there a need for this passion in other parts of our school, district, county, country?  

Alternative education and programing continued to come to the forefront of my conversations with my husband, as he is the only one I dared to share my thoughts with at this early stage.  Alternative education then become cultural awareness or cultural competency.  It was only after attending a professional development session offered by Ali Michael, Ph.D. from Penn GSE, that the words racial competency clicked inside of me.  For the first time in seventeen years in education, I put a goal down on paper that scares me, excites me, and holds me accountable to something that is well beyond my comfort zone.

Last year I took a group of students and staff to a county wide “Day of Dialogue”, which was dedicated to getting 10 students and five staff members from each high school in the county to sit in a room together and “learn” how to talk about and face the truths the students and staff know about their own school.  The activities were structured, the conversation honest, and the students frustrated by what they see as a cyclical pattern of microaggressions in the classroom and standard of expectation changing based on what someone looks like.  Let me step back and say that my students are also very compassionate people with great empathy for their teachers; therefore, after the students describe a situation they provide excuses or reasons for the teachers behaviors and actions because they do not want to believe anyone would purposefully hurt them.  I sat with this information for several months and was not sure where to begin until the August goal setting meeting when I decided to suit up and accept the challenge of making my school uncomfortable for the purpose of deeper understanding, empathy, and accurate self-reflection.   

In order to begin the process of moving from dialoguing to creating actions that are both personal and systemic within the school, I will educate myself, challenge myself to have difficult, uncomfortable, and possibly heated conversations for the purpose of creating a better learning environment for my students and teachers.  I will be documenting this year via my website and blog jessicacincotta.com.  I hope to create a better school by living in the uncomfortable.