Blessed Beyond Measure, But Need Your Help

I have recently been notified that I have been nominated for National Life Group’s 2017-18 Life Changer of the Year Award by one of my Degan families.  I am honored and humbled by this nomination, but must acknowledge that is our students, staff and Degan Community who make this honor possible.
This award gives Degan another possible way to show the world what a great school we have of diverse populations that come together and value each other, collaborate, and solve problems in productive ways to grow and become better every day.  Additionally, there is a monetary award.  Personally, this award would assist me continuing my graduate studies.  Doctoral school is an expensive endeavor and having a high school senior that is about to begin his own college pursuit, any amount helps.  Additionally, depending on the level I might achieve, Degan could receive up to $5000 which would go a long way to purchase much-needed headphones for our students.
Judging is based not only on the nomination but also the comments on my Life Changer of the Year profile page:
 I hope you might take a moment to go to this page and leave a comment, maybe it is the impact you have received through this blog, our collegial relationship in education, or things you have heard or seen about the great things going on at Degan.  Your comments matter.  Taking just a moment can have a huge impact on our campus and community to spread the greatness of Title I Schools and public education.  I have recently been reading stories of how they have had nominees on the Today Show sharing their stories, and you know how I love to tell everyone Degan’s great story and advocating for Title 1 schools.  You can also request support for me and for Degan by sharing this link on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media.  Please use the #LCOY and the judging committee can see those posts as well.
Thank you again for your consideration and support. Being principal of Degan is the best job ever and my dream come true.  I  wish you all a blessed Thanksgiving holiday.

Sincerely,

Vanessa Stuart

What Really Makes a Great School

So, I talk a great deal about my amazing students, my incredible staff. All true. Today I am grateful for my unbelievable parents. Last night, I shared a situation at our PTA Meeting and 5th-grade performance, I shared a situation with them and asked for their support. Their commitment to our school and community is unbelievable. This might be a given if you were talking about a roomful of people from the same backgrounds. I have families from all walks of life, all different viewpoints. One thing is undeniable-they love our school. I had a situation where an outsider made some judgments based on paper scores and a school rating website. I asked them to be more vocal about Degan and they stepped up to the plate.

And just as a public service announcement, STAAR is only as good at telling you about a school as you compare apples to apples. It doesn’t tell you that my current fifth graders entered 1st grade with only half knowing their letters and sounds. (Because some of these kiddos just didn’t have the opportunity to have quality learning experience before coming to school and not because their parents didn’t love them with all their hearts. It’s all about access to resources!!). I can tell you that these same students were only about 61% passing STAAR on math as third graders. These same kids were over 70% passing in math last year and after our first district benchmark was over 90% and ABOVE the district average.

Before you judge a book by its STAAR scores you might want to dig a little deeper to see the untold story. Does the TEA accountability report tell you that? Does it tell you how my diverse students wrote their own performance? Does it tell you how they “circle” and as a group work through their issues with each other and show value? Does it tell you about how innovative they are and how they use technology to create products to show their thinking or that one of my students is creating a documentary on being an NEU school and how that has affected her? I mean really, if kids could pass the test when they walked in the door does that prove a school is good versus one who grew kids like I described?

Oh, don’t worry. We are taking care of STAAR too. Not with test prep or drill and kill. But rather by deep learning. My students will accomplish whatever they dream of because they are amazing, they have incredible teachers, and because of our parents….they are the best in the world and support their school. They aren’t afraid of diversity and are willing to do whatever it takes, too.

Game On- Level UP!

As I prepared for the 2017-18  school year, I had lots to consider:  my learning the past year as a part of the Texas Principal’s Visioning Institute, the feedback that I received from my students, staff, and parents through various data points, the past that had resulted in the path Degan was on, and the aspirations that we had for our students. The question that kept ringing in my head was “How in the world do I create a vision to help us move forward with all of this to consider?”

My campus had been fortunate to experience lots of success and recognition for the accomplishments we have made with transformation.  At the same time, we have also experienced some pretty big hits to culture. It’s hard to put this much energy into getting our flywheel moving. I think we all thought after three years, it would be starting to have its own momentum.   It’s not very comforting to hear that real change takes three to five years when you are in year four.  How would we keep moving forward? What would be our rallying cry for this next push to transform learning in meaningful ways so that our students could be successful?

The answer was actually in the data.  It was clear that as a campus we had made great strides in understanding what it was students were to learn and proven strategies to ensure that learning.  We understood our changing demographics and could relate to them and build meaningful relationships.  Yet, we were still short of the goal.  What our data showed was that we needed to evolve in how we were having teachers use technology and that teachers wanting to design more engaging, innovative work, but they needed time and practice to make this happen.

Then it hit me.  It was time to get our “game on”, literally, and level up learning for our students.

I love the mental image this theme created.  It acknowledges that first, our work, like games should be fun!  It should be challenging enough to keep our interest, while still being attainable.  We should receive feedback that adds value and helps us shape our decision-making to improve our processes.  We need to feel a part of a network in achieving the goal.

I am so excited about this year.  Today, we had our first professional learning and we made connections to the work of Jane McGonigal and her book Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World.  While not everything in learning has to be digital, it recognizes that games release some of the control to the gamer and allow them to test out theories to achieve the goals.  My teachers had the chance to explore how to incorporate some of these concepts into their learning design today.  Today teachers created and shared some cool new ideas.  I can’t wait to see the impact in the classrooms with students!

For my afternoon learning, I got to reconnect with the Texas Principal’s Visioning Institute.  Listening to Alan November just reinforced my belief that my campus is on the right path.  When we only focus on testing, we don’t have fun.

Our current generation of students has never lived without technology in their lives.  They spend 2-3 hours a day “gaming”.  According to McGonigal, over the course of their school years from fifth grade to graduation, they will likely spend as much time on games as they do in school.  We have to prepare these new learners for a new future.  That may mean that as adults, we have to “learn” how they learn and incorporate it into the knowledge we want them to gain.  It’s time to level up and do things differently than we have always done. GAME ON!

 

Hills to Die On

The phrase “a hill to die on” is the idea that the battle you are facing could cost you everything.  This metaphor may have originated from the Viet Nam War and the Battle of Hamburger Hill when many lives were lost, but it seemed to be a position of little strategic significance.

"What makes this battle so significant is that the hill was of little strategic value, which was proven by the fact that it was abandoned by the US forces two weeks later. But more significant is the fact that the fall-out from this battle back home forced the Nixon administration to order the end of major tactical ground operations in Vietnam. So in a sense the hill and the battle were won while at the same time losing the war!"

As a first-year principal, I remember often saying “that’s not a hill to die on for me.” Essentially, I was trying to communicate that the things my staff members were asking about weren’t a battle worth risking everything for in my opinion. My mindset was if it doesn’t matter, why not let someone else win. Whether schedules or teaching resources, these weren’t the things that really mattered and so if it allowed for some power and control.  It was worth it to me to let them have that satisfaction of choice.

However, at some point, I realized I hadn’t established the hills I was ready to defend.  Establishing your hills actually takes more work as a leader.  It involves picking the things that really matter, and you will never give in when they are in question.  Choosing is critically important because one can’t defend every position, or you spread yourself too thin.  As a leader, determining your “hills” is probably one of the most important things, you will do in establishing your campus culture and eventually your legacy.

It was probably during my third year as a campus principal I could finally articulate my ‘hills.’ First, no matter what, I wanted to make sure every decision made on my campus was what was best for kids.  Sometimes this wasn’t what was easiest for adults, but it was always what was best for kids. After all, in a school, children are our entire reason for existence.  I think I knew this one from the time I entered education.  It is simply our purpose.

My second hill took longer to determine, but now it is so easy to stand behind.  EVERYONE grows. From our students to teachers, to parents to me.  We all grow. If you can’t grow, how in the world can you teach others to grow? I personally don’t care how fast you are growing as long as you do.  Sometimes, the person the furthest behind grows the fastest because they have the most room.  Sometimes, you may have a rock star who thinks they’ve reached the finish line.  I will take the person who grows over someone who is stagnant any day.  Ultimately, you can’t teach someone to learn and grow if you aren’t an expert in a growth mindset and constantly this skill yourself.

My third hill is advocacy.  With public education under attack today, I believe public educators must stand up for their school, their district, and public education as a whole.  We have an important job. It is the job that makes all other jobs possible.  We can prepare our students to be better at collaboration, communication, and problem-solving than the generations before us.  We can teach them to value those that are different from themselves and live in harmony.  It does not mean that public education is perfect, but it does mean that it is vital.  We cannot afford to allow others to spread misconceptions and false information about what we do, and we certainly cannot be thesource of such detriment.

I do believe you cannot defend every hill.  Outside of these three things, every other decision I encounter means considering how that decision impacts these three priorities. If it does matter, I let it go. A while ago, I encountered a colleague where everything was a big deal.  Everything had to be a battle. It was hard to support her, but because it was exhausting.  I think if you try to defend everything, you just end up losing it all.  It is impossible to feel that passionate on every battle, so you end up just expending all your resources. People aren’t willing to continually risk what they have if you ask them to take risks for things that don’t matter.  Be strategic. Defend the important hills, but choose wisely.

 

 

 

A Flock of Eagles

So I have this student. He’s struggled since he walked in the door a little over a year ago. Last year was some improvement, but even then, working with him was a huge challenge.  He lacked trust in staff and confidence in his own abilities. This year, he is off to a great start. Today, his teachers gushed over his test scores, his behavior, and his leadership. As a result, he earned my first “My Principal is Proud of Me” pencil, and it was well-deserved. I’ve got several other similar stories because that’s what my teachers do. They change lives. Sometimes it takes us about a year (sometimes even more), but when these tough ones finally fall in with the flock, they soar.

My campus mascot is the Eagle, and yes, I know Eagles don’t typically move in flocks, but at my school we do.  This is because even though an Eagle is known for its independence, we know that we are better together as a collective. When birds flock together, they move across the sky in a wave.  They pick up on the direction of others and adjust.  This is what my incredible staff do to ensure that each and every student falls into the flock.

I think schools could learn a great deal from the success of flying as a flock. 

  • Each bird has to be aware of those around them and takes responsibility for their own steering to avoid crowding or bumping.  They work hard to match the direction, alignment, and speed of the others for cohesion.  This is how a great system works. In schools, we need each member making sure they work to fit in with the group to ensure a successful flight.
  • A flock has to have a strong leader.  Flying in formation reduces fatigue on the group.  It takes a strong bird to do this, but there has to be someone willing to step up and fill the lead when the “leader” needs a rest.  Shared leadership is key to success for any school or organization.
  • A flock has to share.  Birds benefit from the updraft created by the bird in front of it.  In a successful school, teachers have to share with others and be willing to let others rise from their work, knowing it will be given back to them at some point.
  • A flock also takes care of the weaker birds. If a bird is hurt, another bird stays with it until it recovers  Teaching is a tough job. We always need someone by our side during the tough times.
  • Finally, flocks understand the concept of resistance.  When one bird is out of sync, it moves to the back to prevent drag on the flock.  It’s only normal for a member of an organization to get out of sync every once in a while.  But in a great organization, those who are out of sync don’t keep trying to keep their place; they get out of the way, move toward the back and work their way up again.  There’s no judgment, just appreciation for putting the system first.

Flying as a flock improves chances of survival in a tough world.  It’s hard for a predator to focus on a single victim when there is a group and a group is going to be a tougher fight.  Even more important is that a flock can fly further with less effort.  I think these are critical keys to success for schools with such an important task in a culture that is not always supportive.

So you may be thinking, we’re not birds.  I don’t think it matters.  Whether your school is eagles, cardinals, mustangs, or stars, all you have to do is live the principals of a flock.  BIrds of a feather, or whatever you are, flock together, and within the flock is the key to success.

 

Why do birds flock together? (n.d.). Retrieved September 18, 2017, from                      https://www.howitworksdaily.com/why-do-birds-flock-together/

Celebrate Success (Even When It’s Someone Else’s)

It’s pretty easy to celebrate your own accomplishments.  I mean, you know your journey.  You know what you have been through to carry out the goal.  However, it can be harder to celebrate the success of others.  It got me thinking.

  • Do we not celebrate the success of others because of the competitive world we live in?  Maybe we don’t celebrate because we are fearful that someone else’s success diminishes our own.  Maybe it makes us feel a little safer with our own status.
  • Do we not notice? Let’s face it, it’s a fast pace world we live in. Maybe we get so busy, we just don’t see anything going on with anyone else because we have hyper-focused on our own circumstances.
  • Do we doubt the impact our “congratulations” mean to someone else?  Maybe we think that the other person will question our sincerity or even value our acknowledgement of what they have accomplished.

Recently I had a colleague of a campus that had been through a tremendous challenge to help her campus meet some specified accountability standards.  While I had not directly experienced the steps and measures they had gone through to achieve the goal.  I knew it was certainly arduous.  Her team rallied. They invested.  They learned. They reflected and they grew.  Most importantly, they never gave up.  It was huge accomplishment when they achieved this task they had worked on for years.

As I watched them celebrate, it hit me how important it was that not only they celebrate for themselves, or be acknowledged by superiors, but that they be acknowledged by peers and colleagues.  I didn’t know whether my words would really matter to them, but it just seemed important.  When we live in a world where education is constantly under fire, we must stand together in good times and in bad. It just seems like it’s easier to acknowledge and feel pity for someone’s struggles. We must not compete against each other, but celebrate each educational organization as a part of the great big “whole” of public educators who make a difference for children.  That is why my teacher leaders did a twitter storm of celebration for this campus marrying their hashtag and ours to celebrate their success.

I don’t think it matters if you are a district, a school, or a teacher of a classroom.  As Susan Phillips says “Celebrate the success of others.  High tide floats all ships.” When you are in a battle, you unite your armies, not battle over who is the frontline or the support. Both are critical to winning longterm.  We must recognize that every success of any campus is asuccess for all public educators.  It’s a check in the win column to tell the world what a difference a group of educators can make in the lives of children when they have a common vision and purpose. Congratulations, Central Elementary! You have accomplished great things.  You have shown grit, growth mindset, and grace under fire!  You did it and you make us all look good because of that!

 

 

A Time to Rest

Screen Shot 2017-08-09 at 9.42.45 AM

This year I will enter my 26th year as an educator.  It is hard to believe.  I remember as a new educator looking at teachers with 20+ years of experience and being in awe of their talent and stamina.

I love teaching.  I love school.  While I love summer, I can never seem to wait to get back and always have found myself creeping back into the building long before my contract began.  Whether it was to teach summer school, set up my classroom, or plan for the upcoming year, I couldn’t seem to stay away. Screen Shot 2017-08-09 at 9.35.31 AM

This past summer was a little different.  My feelings and passion hadn’t changed, but I was just so tired.  Every time I thought about going to school or planning, I just felt a deep exhaustion that seemed to be back behind my eye sockets.  I couldn’t focus and get started.  It led to some deep guilt.  Who was I letting down?

Ultimately, I had to come to the realization that twenty-five years of non-stop “going” had finally caught up with me.  I had to give myself permission that taking care of myself WAS taking care of my people.  My body and my mind needed rest for me to continue to be able to give my best to my students, staff, and community. I’m now almost two weeks back in, and I am realizing the world did not come crashing down.  We are off to a great start and everything will get done.

Of course, it helps that this is my fifth year in the principalship and fifth year at this campus.  I was fortunate that no emergencies that needed to be taken care of while I was do a good joboff-contract. I feel certain that if something urgent had come up, my adrenaline would have kicked back in. What I also realized once my exhaustion started to wane was that maybe, if I did a little more self-care during the year, I might not reach that level physical and mental fatigue.

I think sometimes as educators, our passion creates an adrenaline that allows us to keep going at superhuman rates.  Our sense of urgency drives us through the “tired” when most would say “enough”.   However, I think we have to find that place where we recognize that rest is critical.   Pushing ourselves to this point is not healthy and can certainly lead to bigger issues. Filling our own cups and allowing time for rejuvenation is necessary if we intend to fully pour ourselves into others. Sometimes grit and growth mindset is about finding balance and giving ourselves the grace we so easily give to others. There is a time for work.  There is a time for a sense of urgency.  But, there is also a time to rest.

I wish all the educators out there the best school year possible as we ready for the return of our students. Just remember: There is a time for work.  There is a time for a sense of urgency.  But, there is also a time to rest.

Symptoms and Bigger Issues Related to Physical and Metal Exhaustion

Sticks and Stones

In today’s world, everyone seems to feel empowered to say whatever is on their mind. Don’t agree with someone?  Say it to anyone else who will listen.  Unhappy with a decision? Post it on social media.  Being pushed out of your comfort zone? Defame, distract, or disrupt in any way that you can to take the heat off yourself.

I guess what bothers me about this is the disregard for the other person/people in this circumstance.  Growing up, my mom taught me that if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.  Unfortunately today, so many people succumb to the belief that if I am unhappy, I have every right to vent and even disparage your character rather than have a conversation focused on the issue.

Don’t get me wrong.  I am certainly not innocent in this scenario.  One of my greatest regrets as an educator was after completing my first year of teaching.  I had a student during that year that was really struggling, but his mother refused to consider testing for a disability.  When the family was moving to a new district the next year, I felt it was my moral obligation to prepare the new district and go beyond a simple statement of fact and include my personal opinions in the child’s cumulative folder.   The family arrived at their new school district and the district shared my remarks.  Needless to say, the mother contacted my principal and the remarks were removed from the record. While my statements weren’t false, they were opinions.  While I felt I was being honest, I am sure they were hurtful to that mother.  I was held accountable.  After becoming a parent myself, I finally understood the impact of my judgemental words.  Now rather than being held accountable by someone else, I do this for myself.  I try to consider daily that in my work, I am dealing with someone’s child and my words matter more than the point I think needs to be made.

A couple of years ago, I was working in a district that hired a new superintendent.  He began his role by having all the campus administrators share their discontent with the district administrators. The facilitator framed the conversation in a negative, “give me all the dirt” kind of way.  I sat in shock as I watched the room of typically well-spoken professionals turn into a shark infested feeding frenzy.  It seemed everyone got wrapped up in unloading years worth of frustrations.  Of course, there were things that could be improved upon, but all that good that had also been done was forgotten.  Over the next few months, I watched outstanding professionals demoted or lose their positions.  I’m not sure anyone in the room sharing their discontent expected what was to come next or wished professional downfall on anyone, but that is exactly what happened.  Words are powerful.

Whether you are a parent concerned with your child’s teacher or school,  a colleague frustrated with a teammate or supervisor, or politicians who seem to have opinions about everyone, we need to put some humanity back in our 21st Century digital world by remembering those that we have these opinions about are human. We also need to remember that our actions model to our children and teach them what is acceptable behavior. We cannot be shocked when we see students bully each other on social media when adults are modeling this behavior themselves. For some reason, people are becoming more and more bold about saying whatever it is that comes to their mind without consideration of the impact those words may have.  Lack of accountability for the words we say perpetuates the cycle and makes us feel more empowered to spew our venom at whoever may be getting in our way.

Wouldn’t it be a better place if anonymity made us feel braver to spread positivity and that if a negative topic was truly important enough to discuss, it must be done face to face and be based on actions rather than character attacks? More importantly, if you weren’t ready to do address a situation in this manner, you said nothing at all.  It’s not just sticks and stones that hurt.  Words can cause long-lasting damage.  To someone’s reputation.  To their position.  To their self-esteem.  If you are ready to do that kind of damage to another human being, the least you could do include them in the conversation.  Maybe my mom’s old adage needs to be revised: If you don’t have something nice to say, consider the other person and the impact your words will have. Stick to facts rather than opinions, and be brave enough to look them in the eye.  If not, it’s not important enough to say because words do hurt as much as any stick or stone.

This I Believe

When I was growing up, I wanted to be a leader for the wrong reasons. I wanted to be a leader because I thought that was the person in charge. Then, with maturity and many failed leadership experiences, I began to see the heavy burden that comes with the leadership role. Leadership even became something I avoided for a while. This is because I came to believe leadership is not about power, but all about service. Service to people, service to the community, service to a greater cause.

This I believe…

Leadership is about knowing the people you aspire to lead and being willing to make the sacrifices necessary for their success. It is about filling their cups, taking their burden, celebrating them whenever possible, and having a deep enough relationship with them that you can tell them things they need to hear to improve without damaging the connection.

Leadership is about recognizing that bad leadership will motivate people to be different, while good leadership will motivate people to be more. Leaders must show grace even when none is given in return. Walking the walk, inspiring hope, constant reflection and always considering the “what ifs” for improving the human condition for those they serve are the traits of a good leader.

Leadership is about having a continually developing a vision of where your organization needs to go to make the world a better place, and having the skills to continually learn and grow to adjust and correct the course to get there. It really is never about the destination. Rather, it is always about the journey and the experiences that shape us along the way.

Leadership is about modeling risk-taking. Sometimes risk-taking results in failures. But part of that modeling is getting back up, learning from mistakes, and starting again with a new perspective. Even more important is recognizing that sometimes you have big wins when big risks pay off. But even then, you don’t stop. You celebrate the moment and then form your next plan…you keep learning….you keep growing…you keep getting better rather than settling for good enough.

Leadership is about developing the capacity of others. True leaders recognize that the most important missions are too big for any one person. Therefore they teach and model and release responsibility so that a legacy exists long beyond the leader’s time. Leaders recognize when the required path is uncomfortable or hard but build on the strengths of those they lead to accomplishing the task despite the challenges. Leaders grow leaders, so the vision expands and has a greater impact of good.

Leadership is about being humble and giving all the credit to those you serve when things go right, but a true leader is willing to be accountable when things go wrong. This type of leader continually reflects on what they may have done to set others up for success so it can be repeated, but also considers the deficits in their actions that caused the failure and is willing to adjust their actions so that it doesn’t happen again.

Leadership can be exhausting. It can be thankless and focal point of blame when things don’t go right. Sometimes it would simply be easier to say, “This is how it’s going to be done because I said so.” Sometimes you want to close your door, or say “Not now.” You want to say, “What about me?” Sometimes, it can even be, “I give up.” Then I remember this is not leadership and start again.

This I believe, when done right, leadership cultivates others who are willing to serve and inspire others and this is how you make the world better.

Thank you to N2 Learning for this experience that helped define who I am as a leader, my partner in the experience Donna, my district administrators for this amazing opportunity, my constant support and mentor Sherry, for my incredible Degan Community who make me want to be better every day.

This I Believe 

Where He Guides, He Provides

The picture the teacher sent me after she confirmed my email was a grant to help pay my doctoral tuition and fees.
Twenty years ago, I finished my Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Instruction and was immediately accepted into the doctoral program at the same university.  I had always seen myself with this degree, from the time I began my teaching career. Unfortunately, two months later, before I could even begin the program, my husband’s job  relocated out of the area.  It was such a huge disappointment.  I decided then and there, a doctorate was just not in my future.  Even when I decided to get my principal’s certification, I decided to go an alternative route, rather than a tradition college certification, because I was still grieving the lost opportunity.

Recently, I started to have the old stirrings.  I’ve never stopped pursuing learning in various venues, but that doctorate was a goal that had eluded me.  I began searching possible programs, but finding a match of a program, a university, and funds was the key.  Then suddenly, out of no where, my alma mater, the school I was accepted to twenty years ago was offering the program I wanted as an online option.  I decided this was a sign.  The only challenge was that  I had just two weeks to get everything submitted.

Luckily, that happened and I was able to take the GRE (which by the way is a whole crazy story in and of itself) and was accepted to the program.  However, as excited as I was, I was overcome with some intense anxiety.  The potential cost. Thinking about the cost raised doubts in my mind about whether this was truly the path I was supposed to be on or whether I was forcing a dream that should have died long ago. I wondered if I was using the idea of being an example to my students and that this program came along as an excuse while potentially putting my family at risk with unneeded debt.  Was I being selfish?  I am one of those fortunate enough to fall in just the right income bracket where financial aid isn’t a possibility based on need and where I don’t just have extra dollars lying around.

But then, something wonderful happened.  I was sitting in a training and an email popped up from my university.  Honestly, I read it thinking “what do they want from me now?”  However, as I read it, I truly couldn’t believe my eyes.  I handed my phone to the teacher next to me and asked her to make sure I was reading it correctly.  Out of nowhere, the College of Graduate Studies offered me a fellowship to cover a big chunk of my costs over the next four years.  I didn’t apply for it.  Heck, I couldn’t even figure out how to complete the stupid FAFSA form.  It seriously wasn’t because of my GRE scores (remember it has been twenty years and that’s a whole different story!)  My only explanation is that God truly knows our path and if it is His will, He will provide.  Sometimes, even when we begin to doubt if we are on the right journey, we only need to be willing to take that leap and trust in Him.