Open Letter to Parents: Break Old Patterns – Ask One Question!

Dear Parents,

As we begin a new year, I wanted to write a personal note inviting each of you to examine how you interact with your child about school. I would like to think that I am at least somehow in a position to share my experiences, as my son is now 21! He happened to call as I was writing this, and we had a good laugh when I told him what I was doing.

Every day my son came home from school, and I compulsively asked the same questions. It was like a sickness. “How was your day, and how much homework do you have?” This was often followed by, “Did you leave anything at school?” And, my personal favorite, “How was lunch?”

Somehow talking about food made me feel like I was being a good mother, since we battled severe food allergies. My motivation was clearly not just to hear about his day but to plan my evenings and time, as many of you may need to do as well.

I would have hoped as an educator, I would have been even just a little more imaginative in my inquiries. Not surprisingly, our conversations fell into a robotic rut that often left me feeling less than successful as a parent.

Somewhere into my son’s freshmen year of high school, I heard a speaker challenge the audience to ask one simple question of their child when they connected after school, and it was,

“What was the most enjoyable of your day?”

I tried it and wonderful things started to happen. I heard about so many more interesting aspects of my son’s day, than homework and lunch. This question unlocked all sorts of things I really wanted to know but wasn’t asking, such as who were the teachers with whom my son was most connecting and why? What subjects were intriguing to him? Gradually, conversation evolved into a much more natural ebb and flow.

For Type A parents, we often feel the need to check things off a list to budget our evening time, know how to schedule the future, and stay on top of little problems. The issue with that is that a little bit of joy leaves the conversation with this type of agenda.

My challenge to you is to ask yourselves what questions, if any are you asking your kids? The first day of school can be a high pressure time of year for them, too, and answering more questions after a full day can be exhausting for them. On the other hand, you may have a voluntary sharer on your hands. Either way, one simple question can allow for space or a new door to be opened in your developing relationship as your children become young adults.

Whatever challenges your children may face on day one of school, we will come through it together. We are a community focused on empathy. We may not always be perfect the first time we do things, as noone is, but we will keep trying and seeking answers with care and compassion. This begins on day one of the school year with a gifted group of faculty and staff, with whom I have the privilege of working. We are all excited to begin.

Here’s to a fabulous year together!

Rachel M. Guinn

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Lose the Ego-an Ongoing Reminder

Smarter. Better. Brighter. When preceded by “I want to be” these words sound appealing, but how many administrators let their egos get in the way of hiring, or of even doing every day business with another person who may embrace better qualities? I have kept in touch with every assistant principal or intern I have hired, and I recently had the opportunity to discuss my first year as principal with two of my assistant principals at the time.
I was trying to find my own path in a new position, and here were my two newbies asking me questions every day that made me feel like I didn’t know as much as I should know. We were all new to our jobs. It was like keeping a beach ball under water. I was petrified that if the ball came up, everyone would see it; that thing for everyone to see, for everyone to acknowledge what needs work. My immediate response was an autocratic one. I massaged my words,  (or so I thought), to redirect and focus more on their work and less on mine. I asked questions exposing their areas needing improvement. That will fix that, I thought. My immaturity and admitted insecurity gnawed away at me. A month later I came back to them and said, “You know, I really don’t know exactly what I’m doing either, so if you could you give me this year to figure things out a bit more, I’ll be able to answer questions about my role much more concisely next time.”
They were thankful for the honesty and frankly, they were just curious and happy to move on. here. I said it. I didn’t have all the answers. I didn’t even know entirely what I was supposed to be doing. As a mentor of mine used to say, “first year principals are high in passion and energy and low in efficacy their first year” due to their lack of experience. Thankfully, the passion and energy gets most of us through to a brighter, or more effective day. The honesty lays a foundation for those important mentoring, coaching and supervising sessions you will have with your APs in your one on ones.
The larger lesson learned, however, for me was this pressing my APs always do and did.
Chances are that on any given day, your assistant principals could very well do a better job than you are doing in your role, and vice versa. That is the nature of our work, and if you have hired properly, it is just as it should be!
Hire smarter, better, brighter than you. The challenge to one’s ego is well worth the growth for your school.
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On Ice

I had 30 minutes to stop by a figure skating competition before heading to an awards cerermony for artists in Detroit. The girls were dressed up, made up and ready to compete. Although I had been to a figure skating performance before, I had not been to a competition before this one.

High school teams lined up on the side and cheered ferociously for their teammates as they were called up to do their jumps. Their special moment had arrived, and I could not help but notice the level of exposure of each skater. Each girl stood alone. All eyes were on her. Only her.

Growing up in a musical family, I have always identified with the feeling a performer experiences when they sing, play, and construct music. The mistakes one makes can be painfully obvious, and yet there is the gift of improvisation to get one through the rest of the piece when such errors occur.

A teenager from another school took the ice and gracefully glided across in front of us all. Her red lipstick accentuated a  true performer’s smile. She turned to complete her jump and then it happened. She was in the air, turning, and she fell flat on her fanny and continued to slide toward us. The audience watched as she did something nobody else had done. She smiled and blew us kisses, as she continued to slide. We laughed. She laughed. She stood up and raised her hand to the judges to signal that she was going to use her “second chance”, an opportunity all skaters have to use once in their competition. The next time she nailed it.

Two aspects of this 30 minute visit  to the ice arena last week struck me, as I look at the larger connection to education.

How many of us blow kisses at others when we fall down? Is it connected the notion of what constitutes resilience? Fake it til you make it? Or is it this idea that when we fail, we must put everyone, including ourselves, somehow at ease so that we can try… try again?  What I witnessed was certainly a bit of  all of those factors and more.

Then there is the notion of the second chances. Life doesn’t always give us second chances, but when it does, they are wonderful. How many of us embed second chances into our educational practices? Do we allow our learners to raise their hands as the figure skater did and say, I’m going to try again, without penalty? Is that across the board in our grading practices? In our classroom management practices?

Administrators, do you allow for this in working with teachers? What do you do when someone falls flat on their fanny, and how do we help the individual who does not have it within themselves to blow kisses to the audience?



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Stone Soup

I was a first grader at Ann Arbor’s Wines Elementary when Mrs. Geister invited us to reenact the story of Marcia Brown’s Caldecott award winning picture book, Stone Soup. For those of you unfamiliar with the story, soldiers and peasants ultimately enjoy a special meal after the peasants provide every ingredient for a feast under the auspices that the stones are the secret ingredient. The soldiers were to provide the stones.
As we prepared for this soup making ceremony, Mrs. Geister sent me out with my best friend Susie to collect the secret ingredient. I scoured the school yard diligently. Panic set in as I passed by stone after stone. Were we to eat these? What would happen to my teeth? Could I swallow a stone without dying? I did the only logical thing a first grader would think to do and that was run straight home. I ran past my crosswalk, but there was no crossing guard. I sprinted past Mr. O’Sullivans home and the Rummonds. I rounded the corner to Olden and arrived at my driveway one mile later. The garage door was open and the builder was busy hammering away at something. Nobody else was home, so I locked myself in the bathroom and cried. I cried for all the children who would have to eat stones. I cried for my own near fatality. Soon after, I heard a series of knocks on the bathroom door.
“Rachel, it’s Mrs. Geister. Are you okay?”
 No answer.
“Rachel, please let me come in. I was worried about you.”
There was something about her voice that comforted me. In one instant I remembered that Mrs. Geister loved me and cared about me. How could she risk my life with stone eating? I creaked open the door, and through massive sobs I pronounced, “In my family, we don’t eat stones!”
Mrs. Geister threw her arms around me and proceeded to suppress a laugh, and perhaps her own sobs of relief of finding me, while she reassured me that we were not going to eat the stones. I discovered they were merely for show. She drove me back to school where I enjoyed a delicious  pot of stone soup after a visit to the principal to make sure I was in one piece.
As we neared Thanksgiving that year, I was thankful for my life and for the five root beer barrel candies Mrs. Geister allowed me to have while I waited for my mother to arrive so they could discuss the day’s happenings. You can imagine my mother’s astonishment and relief over the outcome.
Surprisingly or not, I was taken back to that same state of helplessness I felt the day I thought I would have to eat stones as we grieved the events in Beirut and France. While the juxtaposition of a somewhat humorous, somewhat sad tale of childhood and terror attacks seem so far removed from one another, in my own mind they were not. They shared a genuine sense of helplessness, thankfully a transient one. What changed that? How do we tap into that resilience as an adult? 
I spent the weekend wondering how we could inspire our students when cynicism and helplessness appear so inviting.  What is the antidote? Then I thought of Mrs. Geister’s reassurances, and I felt an immediate sense of pride in the love and care that my own school community exhibits to one another. I have chosen a profession where I am fortunate to look into all the faces of tomorrow’s problem solvers every day. I have great confidence in our students that they are armed with the most powerful ingredients for our own soup of life: resiliency, hope, compassion and love. That may just be enough. In fact, I would argue that it is. Happy Thanksgiving to all my colleagues in education. 
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Which Wolf?

Eager-to-be assistant principals practice their first discipline, imagine the parent conversation, role play the situation in their office. Almost every interview for an AP includes the question, “What is your philosophy of discipline?” Traditionalists look for an answer that includes consistency, following cues from one’s code of conduct and the difference between equity and equality. Others look for the answer to include discipline as an opportunity to build a relationship with the student or the family, but what about the need to preempt discipline? How does that happen, and what does it take to sustain a minimal focus on discipline in the school? I was fortunate enough to have a mentor in whom I confided during my first year as an AP. Not unlike my first year of teaching, my first year as AP was filled with embarrassing moments that still make me want to crawl under a rock and hide. I specifically recall making a huge issue over a group of boys who were popping lunch bags in the cafeteria. My principal wanted me to do something about it, and I did just that -unfortunately…Oh, the joys of middle school.

My mentor reminded me very simply that I could spend my day looking for every little thing that was wrong as I walked through the halls, or I could look for everything great that kids naturally bring with them every day. That would be their effort, smiles, energy. The list goes on. That simple advice changed me forever. Here’s why: as I walked through the halls some years ago, I remembered being conscious of the fact that I was noticing the wrong things. Little by little, I set out to change it. Little by little, I also noticed I had less discipline, and it wasn’t because I was blind to things that were occurring. It was because I have found when you expect the best out of students, they rarely disappoint. If we look for the worst, it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. The inverse is also true. I started my day looking for everything wonderful kids were doing in the halls. Instead of “Please slow down” and “Young man, come with me to the office”, I changed to “Thank you for walking” and “That’s not like you…can you make another choice?” Nobody wakes up wanting to get in trouble.

I came across this story and could not help but remember that shift in my own thinking when reading it.

A Cherokee elder was teaching his children about life. He said to them, “A terrible fight is going on inside me. It is a fight between two wolves. One is the wolf of joy, love, hope, kindness and compassion. The other is the wolf of fear, anger, cynicism, indifference and greed. The same fight is going on inside of your and every other person too.” The children thought about it for a moment, And then one child asked, “Which wolf will win?” The elder replied, “Whichever one you feed.

Zadra, Dan, Kobi Yamada, and Kristel Wills. 1: How Many People Does It Take to Make a Difference? Seattle, WA: Compendium, 2009. Print.

Which wolf are you feeding?

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Extra Time, More Chances

My friend and colleague, John Bernia, had just posted a blog that we had discussed about his phone malfunctioning. The result was more interaction with humans. There I sat reading his blog, my face buried in my own phone while I was having a mani-pedi done before going back to school after vacation. I felt compelled to put my phone away after reading his post, and the young woman doing my nails began to interact with me, and I with her.

She noted the school emblem I had on my sweatshirt and asked if I was in education. Education to her was everything, and without any prompting, she told her story. She had traveled here from Vietnam at age 24. College was not a possibility, and a quick search of the Vietnamese educational system will reveal why, although she was fiercely proud of her math skills. She spent five years obtaining her citizenship and then enrolled at OCC while working part time at the nail shop. She is now applying to nursing school at Oakland University and so excited to begin her dream career. She told me it was her second chance, actually third.

I flashed back to my past week on vacation where I had spent time with my father —extra time, another chance for him after being seriously ill this year. Somehow these two experiences flashed through my mind and appeared diametrically opposed to some of the messages we have been programmed to give students at various points in education. “Times up! Put your pencils down. Finish your sentence.”

We talk a great deal about career readiness. I thought I would count the number of times a supervisor of mine has said no when I have asked for more time, which I have certainly done. In twenty years, I have never had someone tell me I can’t have a bit more time when I have needed it. Then I thought about a few circumstances when deadlines are absolutely inflexible: state reports, speeches at ceremonies, presentations for groups are just a few examples of those times that are less flexible.

How are we modeling this for students? How flexible are we in our practices with our learners? It is easy to get caught up in the argument of “Well, if I give extra time for one student, then I’ll have to give it for all.” What if we did give it for all who asked? I had a friend who gave flexible test dates. Students could test in a window of three days. Most students chose the earlier date.

Teachers, are we modeling this for our students? Principals, are we modeling extra time and more chances for our faculty and staff with our own actions? I know I can grow in this area.

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It was just a regular lunch hour about seven years ago. Audrey, one of my students, kindly asked if I planned to eat the cheetle and proceeded to explain to her uninformed assistant principal that the residue you get by sticking your finger in the bag and licking it is the best part of the Cheeto experience. We laughed, and I obliged by giving her my bag with the gummy orange powder at the bottom. I gave up Cheetos a while ago,well almost,  but I have never forgotten that seemingly light hearted, casual conversation.

I wonder how many high school principals think of core instruction in each of their classrooms as the Cheetos and all the extracurricular activities as the Cheetle? What if I cherished the Cheetle just as much as the Cheeto? First years are challenging ones for principals. We are trying to learn names, systems, players, protocols. I accidentally stumbled upon the Cheetle this first year. In setting my first year goal as building relationships with students, I thought an easy way, albeit time consuming, was to try to attend or stop in and see as many after school activities as possible: sporting events, music ensemble practices and concerts, school newspaper deadline meetings, a student congress meeting, kick off mentoring meeting, students offer support, and the list goes on.

This past weekend, I had the incredible fortune of spending extended time with one such group at a tournament: Debate and Forensics. Not only did I fully discover an entire world at our school, but I had the incredible good fortune of interacting with students over a longer period of time than my hallway five minute exchanges—maybe six on lucky days.

I could write a post dedicated entirely to the merits and tremendous learning opportunities that exist for those who engage in debate or forensics, but the point I wish to emphasize is that of opportunity for discovery to be found within the myriad clubs, activities and groups. The greater sense of belonging students feel by sinking their teeth into that passion of theirs is not to be taken lightly.

I’m excited to be a part of a school and district that offers more opportunities for students to be engaged in and out of the classroom than I have ever seen. I’m not dismissing the core subject areas; I am proposing that when districts consider making cuts to extracurricular and elective areas, they remember that the Cheeto is nothing without the Cheetle. It coats everything. In fact, there are those that only eat a few Cheetos because they have tasted the Cheetle in the first place.

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