One of the things that I admire most about our profession is that teachers deliver day after day in an environment where they have to be always at the top of their game. The consequences of their actions and words are always impactful and they literally have the ability to change the lives of their students.
I loved sports and in high school I quickly became the prototypical gym rat. I got up early and got to school when it opened, often asking the janitor to turn on the gym lights so I could shoot some hoops. The trouble was that I really wasn’t that good. My initial technique was to throw the ball in a two-handed overhead motion toward the hoop (picture a soccer throw in). I didn’t know any better, but I practiced so much that I actually got pretty good at it.
The right kind of difference came one morning when one of our PE teachers approached me in the gym. I had come to know him a bit as both a teacher and coach and he would always say hello to me in the morning when he got in. On this particular morning, he approached me and said something like: “Listen, I see you in here every morning shooting hoops, and you’re driving me crazy. You’re not even doing it right. I need to show you how to do this.”
From there, he took the time to show me the correct shooting technique – bend the knees, set ball in the right hand, bend the elbow, push upward as you rise with your legs, release with a bit of backspin, and finish with the wrist. I would imagine the whole exchange took less than five minutes, but it was all I needed. I would like to say I went on to become a high school basketball star, but I didn’t. I did manage to play on our teams, but I did grow into a really good shooter, and it made playing the game a lot more fun. I still remember that exchange, and remain thankful for the time that my PE teacher took with me.
Much like basketball, I had a similar academic profile. I was no report card all-star, but I did ok. I worked hard and knew the content of what we were learning about in class. When I was in high school in Ontario they had just eliminated the mandatory grade 13 year. In the transition, students who required upgrades or OACs (Ontario Academic Credits) to attend University, often needed to come back for an informal “grade 13” year. As a result, if you were in an OAC class, you were there because you had sights on University.
Much like it is now, University acceptance was a competitive game. You needed good to great marks. Like me, many students scanned the course options and looked for those courses that could get you the grades you needed, but also offset the intense rigor of core courses like Language Arts, Mathematics, or Sciences. Courses like drama and fine arts were fun and easily favourites of many of my fellow students. A new course, Art History and Appreciation, appeared among the selections and I decided to give that one a shot.
This Art History teacher was a long-serving staff member at the school - late 40s or 50s, short, stalky, and bald. He was a serious teacher who taught the most difficult math courses in the school almost exclusively. He was passionate about the subject matter, and expected a lot of his students. I had heard he was very strict and was notorious for assigning homework and holding students accountable. He always wore the stereotypical sport coat with the elbow patches, and would wear his glasses low on his nose. He could hold a stare that could do his talking for him, and it was icy. In short, he was the most intense teacher I would ever know. To say I was intimidated walking into the class would be an understatement.
The wrong kind of difference came on the first day of Art History. The students filed into the room, every one of us glancing around the room to see which of our friends were there. Mine were not. In fact, most of the kids in the class were what I would call our school’s academic elite who had come to love this particular teacher during the math classes they had with him.
The first five minutes of Art History class were the usual introduction and syllabus review. I think I was the only one in the class who had not had this teacher in any other class. The teacher then asked “who here is looking to go on to University next year?” and, since it was an OAC class, every single student put up their hand. The teacher scanned the crowd with his icy glare and his eyes locked on me…
“Fero, you’re looking at going on to University?”
How could I possibly respond to that? Normally I would have probably dropped a quick and witty one-liner, but this was not the room for that. It was all I could do to breathe. I went through five different emotions in about 10 seconds – anxiousness, fear, embarrassment, sadness, and anger. I settled on anger. I think about this exchange from time to time.
In the decades since that day I have entertained many ideas, including getting in contact with this teacher. I guess I just wanted him to know the impact he had on me in that moment and how it’s shaped my own career as a teacher. I had a romantic vision of this conversation, which would end up with me forgiving him.
This, however, is a reconciliation that doesn’t need to happen. I’ve been able to forgive the teacher for his misstep, because I know it happens. It’s unfortunate, but in the life of a teaching career – number of days taught, number of interactions in a day - I’m sure he had no idea at the time, no memory, and no need for forgiveness. Time heals, and I've learned other lessons.
I am sure that there are many students out there, like me, that are may be hanging on to something from school. It’s this realization that makes me aware of the impact that my actions and words have on the students that I interact with. Toward this end, here are some simple rules that allow me to make the right kind of difference:
On any given day, a teacher can be my former PE teacher, or my former Art History teacher. Always be aware of the influence you have over young lives. What might seem like an insignificant moment, or a fleeting comment can be the ones that matter most. Memories of these moments, positive or negative, can last a lifetime.
Thanks for reading. My hope is that this week's blog post might spark a memory of a teacher who made the right (or wrong) kind of difference for you. If you would like to share your story, please leave a comment. You can also message me on Twitter via @PrincipalFero or email at email@example.com. I can post your comments for you if that's easier.
I look forward to the start of each and every school year.
It’s August, but I’ve been thinking about the new school year since the third week of July when I woke up from my self-induced coma.
Yeah, I should probably be off enjoying my summer vacation, but I’m heading in to work anyhow. Which excuse will I tell myself today to justify working when I don’t have to?
I like it when no one else is in the school. It’s all clean and quiet and I work best like this. Leave the kids with grandma for a while so I can have some time to myself.
I convince myself that I am just committed to the profession, but I NEED this. I need to have some internal conversation. How do I arrange my classroom furniture this year? Where will the student supplies go? The conversations are cathartic and all very necessary.
I’m taking the next few days off to think about things. Yep, just needed that one day…
Back in. That one day wasn’t enough. I painstakingly consider, reconsider and overthink everything. Move things and then move them all again. Over and over. I have spent hours deciding on the big things and the little things. It’s a process, and one I have to go through on my own. Soon, after many hours, everything is in order.
Take a few days more days off…
Back in. I love my teaching team. We’ve planned together and know what we need to do to get these kiddos where they need to go. Many more hours invested, but well worth it. I feel better than ever about our plan for the year. Did I mention that I love my teaching team?
First day. New outfit. Looking good. Feeling good.
The classroom is ready. Can't wait to meet my new students.
Actually, am I?
That clock is moving way too quickly. Supervision will start soon.
Time for one last, lonely moment.
Hard work done. Everything in the right place.
You got this.
Best. Year. Ever.
And it begins.
While I am positive you non-teachers don’t want or need me to tell you about the benefits of another holiday, in our world Spring Break seems to come around at the most opportune time. It is a vital part of the calendar for many reasons. Here are just a few:
Spring Break might mean a getaway vacation for some, but a staycation can work just as well. Regardless of your plans, Spring Break benefits students, teachers and families, and is a much-needed part of the school schedule. Enjoy it for what it is, and hopefully we all return rested and ready to rock and roll through to June.
Student-Led Conferences are now a staple in most schools, yet I hear from many parents that they still find these non-traditional conferences very confusing. The top comment is that parents aren’t really sure what exactly they should be doing. Well, here are some simple DOs and DON’Ts to lead you to a parenting win at your child’s next student-led conference.
Attend! – This sounds simple enough, but in the flow of the school year many parents may feel that things are going well and there isn’t much to say about your child that you haven’t already heard. It’s also highly possible that you’re leading busy lives with extra-curricular activities and sibling events. While this may be true, you should view this opportunity in that your child has a starring role in a one-person play. I don’t think anyone would want their child to do without an audience as they took the stage for their big night.
Listen In – The star of the show will be well-prepared to share the best of what they’ve got and they’re anticipating an attentive audience. In their excitement, they are very likely going to whip through things really fast. In many cases they will have a script or agenda to run down and they may be overly eager to get through it all. Stick with them and pick out some key points to refer back to. Pro tip – leave your phone in the car.
Ask Questions – When you get that right break in the action, and after you tell them how happy you are with their work, keep the conversation going with some key questions. Depending on the age, they may lead you with “so this is my writing” before they start flipping through the pages. On the other end, they may begin their sharing with a complex review of curricular outcomes which can sounds just like boring technical language. Some great questions might include the following:
Focus on Conversation with the Teacher – This particular evening is not the time for you to review your child’s progress with the teacher. Your child has spent a long time preparing for your visit and they’re expecting to be the star of the show. If you feel that a separate conversation is needed, just indicate this to the teacher at the end of your visit, or send them an email at another time and make a time to chat about your questions or concerns.
Compare Your Child’s Work to their Peers – Since many student-led conferences are set up in open house style format, the work of all students will likely be on display. While you may be inclined to compare, keep the focus on your own child. In that brief moment when you switch your attention to another child’s work, your own child will recognize that you’re sizing up their work up. Students don’t like to be judged at any time, let alone on the night where they have you all to themselves.
Focus on Little Mistakes – In browsing through your child’s work, you might notice some particular pieces that might not reflect their best work. You can easily encounter spelling errors, rushed drawings, mathematical miscalculations, incomplete assignments, teacher comments, and graded assessments. In fact, you will likely encounter more imperfect work than perfect work. Keep in mind that you’re looking at assignments in various stages of progress so don’t derail a great evening by focusing on the one or two things your child didn’t really prepare for you to see.
Thank you in advance for making your child the star of this conference. From a teacher perspective, student-led conferences as one of the highlights of the year because each child has a chance to share their day-to-day life in school with the most important people in their lives. Hopefully you might use this advice to make your visit a memorable one. Finally, if you really want to get it to the next level, taking your kid for an ice cream after the conference may just put you in parent-of-the-year territory. Enjoy!
My picture is yours. Saturday mornings. In Calgary. Cold, snowy and bleak. Week after week.
Month on month. L O N G. S I G H.
The regular routine consisted of me waking early, creaking past the slumber teens, grabbing a cup of warming tea and watching with a smile as my devoted Brittany, Scarlett, would follow me around the quiet morning house. Always at my heels. Nails on the hardwood as I moved stealthily toward the office to retrieve my laptop. Weekly blog awaited. Words would flow. Blissful moments punctuated by that dog, now sleeping at my feet.
The now routine has brought about a few changes. Tea to-go. Devoted Brittany eager and excited in anticipation. Still on my heels as I try to pull on my big boots. Layering on winter wear. Walking past the office and into the garage. Words become emerging thoughts as I stroll alongside the frosted, frozen Bow. Blissful moments punctuated by the bounding dog, running through winter’s worst.
Changing the picture.
Dog over Blog.
High School was all about freedoms, but there was also a fair share of routine. One of the routines was rushing home after school to watch the ever-popular Video Hits which came on at 4:00. Initially greeted each day by Dan Gallagher, the show moved to Samantha Taylor who ushered me through my teen years.
Adding to the excitement of Video Hits was the fact that all your friends and classmates were doing the same thing. Shortly after the show, we would all run to our landlines and call around ranking the best of the videos. We’d slag the bands and genres we didn’t really like and critique the quality of the videos. For me, Hungry Like the Wolf by Duran Duran was the benchmark from which all other videos were to be judged. Needless to say, we all started Beta and VHS collections of the recorded show, which we then watched over and over again.
Returning to school the next day, we all vied for attention as we staked our claims to having for being a bigger fan of a particular band or artist and proclaiming newly aired videos as hits or duds. “Discovering” a new band was a pretty big deal and committing to a new band could put you on the firing line of scrutiny and trust me when I say a horde of high school boys could be brutal toward their friends for stepping out of line. It would usually go something like this: “Hey, that new Pet Shop Boys video was pretty cool.”
What you really wanted to hear was a simply “Yeah”, but what you usually got was “Oh man, you’re such an idiot”, or “Of course you love the Pet Shop Boys you freakin' preppy”. You really needed to be sure you were on board with a new band before you were willing to subject yourself to these kinds of risks.
One other thing that Video Hits offered was a commitment to Canadian content. I think that commitment was critical to the success of fringe acts like Glass Tiger or Platinum Blonde who, in my retrospective opinion, were able to carve our sales and a fan base based solely on their video plays. One day a grainy, poorly filmed, instantly Canadian video rolled out. I can still recall the exact experience because it was the same each and every time an experimental Canadian video aired – “Man, this is gonna be great to shred this with the boys tomorrow in the cafeteria”. The video rolled and the first line you heard was “Ladies and Gentlemen, our very own Tragically Hip”… Tragically Hip? What?
I can’t remember if there was a phone conversation that day after Video Hits, but I do remember the Tragically Hip coming up right away in the cafeteria the next day. My friends Dave and Rob immediately proclaimed Small Town Bringdown as a success, only to be met with laughter and ridicule from the rest. My comment? “The Tragically Hip are tragically s&%t!” a line which I proceeded to use for the next couple years while Dave and Rob became immediate fans of the band. They tried to push their EP into the cassette players only to have them immediately ejected and maybe even tossed in the backseat or across the room. They stayed true, and as true as they were, I was even more insistent about their demise uttering, at will, my now immediate refrain, “The Tragically Hip are tragically s&%t!”
Then came a day not unlike any other day, whether it was on Video Hits or Much Music, the long-awaited new release from The Tragically Hip was about to drop. I licked my proverbial chops ready to slam the latest offering to my two Hip-loving friends. I can only say that what came next was perhaps my first lesson in humility. The first few chords of Blow at High Dough literally kicked my butt and before the video had ended I went from the biggest hater to a legitimate fan. There was no denying that Dave and Rob had staked claim to something big. They were right, I was wrong, and I was all in.
To say Up To Here was amazing would be an understatement. It was the gateway to a decades long love affair and quite literally and simply, the soundtrack of my life, corresponding with the most critical ages of my maturity into adulthood: Up to Here (18), Road Apples (20), Fully Completely (21), Day for Night (23), Trouble at the Henhouse (25), Phantom Power (28), etc.
Since the announcement of Gord Downie’s terminal cancer diagnosis the entire country embraced, re-embraced, or embraced the band harder. We all realize and accept that The Tragically Hip have affected all of our lives in some way, but the best part is how each of us have managed to create and hold on to many special moments that belong to no one else other than ourselves.
I never met Gord or the band, but in listening to the many stories of the life of Gord Downie over the last several days I feel like I knew him. In my mind I would run into him randomly somewhere, be immediately awestruck by his celebrity and struggle for words only to have him kindly introduce himself and go about asking questions about who I am and what my story is. This is the simply Canadian essence of Gord Downie and those who knew him best have confirmed it. As a related aside, I knew this genuine warmth and humble nature because I was fortunate to have had an amazing friend, Brett Kilroe, who would also treat everyone with intense kindness and who had that unique ability to make you feel like you were the only one in the room, and the only one he cared about. Sadly, Brett passed last year due to a long battle with cancer, but I think that Brett lived his life like Gord, and this was tragically mirrored in their passing.
Gord Downie’s passing last week causes aches for many small reasons which collectively make a larger void. Ultimately, I feel that I want to thank Gord Downie for all these small things. Gord Downie, thank you for:
Last weekend I got into the car with my 16 year-old son to head to a hockey tournament in Banff. I let him drive so I could DJ the drive into the mountains. I couldn’t think of any better way to celebrate Gord Downie’s life than this. The first song was Small Town Bringdown and my son turned to me almost immediately and says “I don’t really like this, can we listen to my music?”
I just turned to him and said “give it some time, it’ll grow on you.”
Please feel free to comment and share your story. It's been so amazing to hear all the great ways in which Gord Downie and The Tragically Hip has intersected all of our lives.
Inspiration is everywhere. As an educator it’s one of the most amazing parts about the job. One of the most inspirational moments in my early career came when I was teaching grade one. There were more than a few students in my class that had trouble reading and I knew that it was going to be a long year with a lot of hard work ahead to get these students where they needed to be.
As I began that year of teaching I came in with the intention of covering all my curricular outcomes for the year. My fancy teacher binder housed all my day, week, month, and year plans and I was ready for the year. Accompanying my plans, I had an actual checklist with all my grade one learning outcomes and I was set to go through them one by one until I could successfully say that I had done my job and taught the entire curriculum.
My first mission was to make these non-readers into readers as quickly as I could so that I could check that box off and just get on with other things. On a day-to-day perspective, working with these struggling readers was daunting. There was little additional support, and success was slow or non-existent. One student would start to make gains, and then two more seems unresponsive to intervention. It felt like the proverbial one step up, two steps back. Every. Single. Day.
My day plans soon went out the window. My month plans got set back. My year plans therefore also needed a complete overhaul. What were these non-readers doing to me? I was a complete and utter wreck because everything I had set up before the year had even started were now obliterated thanks to all the time I was needing to devote to basic literacy skills.
I decided to turn my blame on to others - the kindergarten teachers, the parents, the school administration, my team partners, my educational assistant, my university professors, and my teacher preparation program. If I’m honest, I even thought about dropping my intervention altogether and turning my attention to my other students who could read. I thought, “maybe these students just aren’t ready to read yet” and wondered if I could just leave the heavy lifting to the grade two teachers.
For a time, the despair was a constant in my world, but there was another constant, and that was a group of eager students who wanted to read. One day, one of my students with whom I was doing intervention came up to me and said “Mr. Fero, when can we read together again” and that simple comment provided all the inspiration I needed.
So I didn’t give up. When one strategy didn’t take hold, I tried another. I consulted with colleagues and accessed system supports. I made sure my readers had the right materials, and I was giving them the right feedback. But the most important part of the work is that I didn’t lose faith. I persisted. And while I thought it was my efforts that encouraged my students, it was the persistence and resiliency of my students that pushed me on. You see; they didn’t give up either.
I would love to say that the story had a perfect ending. I would love to say that each of those non-readers became great readers, but that would be a lie. While they all didn’t become readers that year, many did. What each of them did achieve during that grade one year was a set of skills that would benefit them in the years going forward and I would like to think that they developed a sense that there were teachers there to help them, and push them and work alongside them.
For me, the year taught me many things too. It taught me that despite the best laid plans that things may need to go in a different direction. I realized that my work might not be THE work, and that the students and their needs were the most important part of the job. I thank my non-readers for providing me that inspiration, and equally thankful for the lessons they taught me.
This year, my blog posts will be focused on the moments and things that inspire me as an educator and as a person. I am continually in awe of the many ways in which we are inspired and what particular things we choose to be inspired by. Happy reading, and thanks for taking the time.
The late spring is a great time to reconnect with friends. After a winter of hibernation, the decks and patios get cleaned up, the barbeques fire up, and the good times begin. During these times, my non-teacher friends begin their barrage of (mostly good-natured) comments about June being “movie month” and how everyone at schools appear to be pretty much in “shut down” mode gearing up for summer. The reality though is that this could not be further from the truth.
For students, teachers, and even families, June is the most stressful and difficult month of the school year. Here is what June really looks like in schools.
For students in an elementary school environment, June is a roller coaster ride of emotion and many of these them don’t understand why, or have the words to express their feelings. You see, they know the end of the year is coming and their brains begin to realize that this will bring about a significant change in their lives as they transition away from the teacher who has been by their side for the past ten months. They have come to know their teacher as their champion, their confidant, their coach, and maybe even a friend. Their teacher has seen the best of them, and the worst of them and knows every single trick in their playbook.
Looking back to my classroom teaching days, I would always play a game with my students I called I Know You Better Than You Know Yourself where I would go around the classroom and predict the summer plans for each of my students, how they were likely feeling about that, and what their hopes and fears were for the next school year. After I would finish a prediction, I would ask the student to tell me if I was a) perfectly right, b) mostly right, c) somewhat right and somewhat wrong, d) mostly wrong, or e) way wrong. I can say that I never got anything other than a “perfectly right” or “mostly right”. My favourite was always the look of the student who would almost invariably look at me as through I were a magician and say something along the lines of “how did you know that?” These are the types of connections teachers make with their students, and they are significant and powerful.
The student reaction to this change can be equally significant and powerful. Some students begin to get teary, others start to get real quiet, but the most obvious sign that the change is hard for students is in their behaviour. June is by far the most difficult month for behaviour concerns and as a principal; I believe it’s because of this emotional roller coaster. And while I am not a psychologist, I can draw some immediate parallels to separation anxiety.
For teachers, June is our busiest month. On top of the regular day-to-day planning and assessment, there are report cards and what becomes a million end-of-year to-dos. We are also back-loaded with performances / farewells and, in the case of our grade sixes, achievement exams. Compounding this complexity is that teachers themselves have a hard time saying good-bye to their students. That emotional bond between student and teacher goes both ways.
On an individual professional level things are incredibly stressful. Some teachers are looking at moving to new opportunities at other schools, or even securing a contract for the next school year. For those teachers happy to be staying at their current school, they could be faced with a change in school administration, the prospect of moving to a new grade; and for those who are staying in the same grade, their teammates, or assigned classroom may be different. Again, the cumulative nature of the amount of change over a very short period of time has a significant and powerful impact on our teachers.
We know where our parents are coming from too and understand that your life will look very different at the end of June. For working parents, the prospect of finding two-month childcare can be certainly daunting. Of course it’s not even just about childcare. You want to provide your child with exciting and stimulating opportunities which means summer camps. Finding the right summer camp for the right price can take time to organize, and then you need to hope that the camp isn’t full. For many, vacation may be looming and this brings further organization, time commitment and another big financial layout. At home you’re also managing the emotional change in your child (see above) and of course all of this is happening at a time when spring sports and activities are winding down - including competition season and playoffs. Add in evening school events, and your own work commitments seem like they take a backseat in June as well. Many nights just getting dinner on the table and sitting down to eat it can seem like a parenting win. The saving grace is that you’re mere days away from not having to pack daily lunches, and doesn’t it seem like summer break is worth it for that alone? Moving back to the teacher perspective to connect that the vast majority of our teachers are busy parents too.
Overall, it’s pretty clear that June is no cake-walk for anyone. Students, teachers and families are going full tilt. For teachers, the payoff for making it through this busy month isn’t what you might think. Whereas the pending summer break can been seen as the reward, the real reward is seeing our students off in the right way and celebrating the end of another successful year together.
I hope that some of my teacher colleagues and parents may comment based on their experiences and feelings through this hectic month. Sorry to the break between posts. It has indeed been a busy time for me for all the reasons listed above.
A blog post one year in the waiting, and decades in the making.
I would like to share some thoughts about a life with my first teacher - my dad.
Just like any young boy, I loved spending time with my dad. There was no need for any rewards because time with dad was reward enough. My earliest memories involved him taking me for a walk down to the creek near our apartment with my little sister in tow. I had sweet rubber boots and an even sweeter one-piece “creek suit” and was free to roam about wherever I wanted. I made dams and sent stick ships down the creek to my amusement. Minutes seemed like hours in those days. We visited all of the parks around the city too. Whenever there was a new park we were early visitors. I couldn’t get enough. And my dad wasn’t the type to sit on the sidelines. He chased my sister and I all around, and encouraged us to be fearless of heights and new challenges. I never heard "don't do that" or "get down from there".
As I got older, we did all those goofy things that most boys and their dads do. We would exit a building and immediately start racing to the car – first one to touch it won (I don’t think I ever did). Other days we would be playing catch and my dad would drop a wicked curveball, or if he really wanted to show off, would fire a heater right down the pipe and into my glove. Sometimes he would show me the power of the short punch, holding his fist inches from my shoulder before thundering in and then calmly asking me to give it a go and pop him back. My attempt always seemed to hurt my small fist more than it did his muscular shoulder.
Spending time with dad almost always involved a trip to downtown. Compared to metropolitan cities, downtown Thunder Bay wasn't much, but to us it was everything and it seemed like my dad knew everyone in town. We were always running into people he knew, and each time we would stop to talk to everyone he would say “hey, you remember my boy, right?” and I remember those big, large men stopping to shake my hand, tussle my hair and perhaps even reach inside their pockets to hand me “two-bits”. Ultimately we’d end up at the Arthur Café where I would be treated to fries with gravy and a coke. I recall my dad walking by tables and grabbing cheques off his friends’ tables and carrying them up to the register and taking care of them. “I got it,” he would say.
On top of this all, my dad was the best hockey player I knew (soooo fast), and just seemed to be that kind of athlete that could try something and just be a natural at it. In his 40s he decided to take on something new, a triathalon, and completed it almost completely on will and natural athletic ability.
As I got older our relationship changed in the ways that they do as kids become teenagers. “Time with dad” just became less of a priority as I explored my independence and time with friends. My dad just rolled with it, but continued to give me what I needed. You got some pocket money? Gas in the tank? Car running ok? He came to watch all my high school basketball games and was always a happy spectator, standing in the back and taking it all in. That pride carried over into University where he always made sure my tuition and books were taken care of. Just like at the Arthur Café, he was still grabbing cheques, but this time they were mine.
Throughout his life as my dad, Tom Fero made his living on the docks of the Thunder Bay waterfront. As a Graintrimmer, his job was to load grain from the harbour elevators on to the lake freighters which would come up the Great Lakes to Thunder Bay from all around the world. As a key break-of-bulk point for prairie wheat, Thunder Bay was a busy place. I knew enough to know that this wasn’t always easy work. Winters in Thunder Bay were bad enough, but a winter on the waterfront was a savage environment of its own. I remember the cold, snow, driving wind and rain, and thinking “Dad is working outside? In this?” I would lie in bed, listening to the intense thunder (the city was appropriately named) and staying partially awake listening for the door to open signalling me that dad was home safe and it was ok to go to sleep. I don’t remember my dad missing a day of work in his life.
This post could not be complete without recognizing that my dad, for all his beautiful ways did have his share of shortcomings. However, like most things with dad, this too had a way of turning itself into a teaching moment and I learned from the person closest to me that not everyone is perfect.
From the tense I have been writing in, you can surely tell where this post is heading. It was just over a year ago that I lost my dad. The tough, athletic, unbreakable man I knew and loved was stopped suddenly by heart failure. In his final days my dad was able to pass quietly, surrounded by the love of those closest to him and under the watchful eye of my beautiful sister who was his faithful sentinel, refusing to leave his side over days and nights. He didn’t want anyone to make a fuss over him, and used his fading words to only ask others how they were doing, and how life was for them.
Losing a parent is tragically unbearable and I know many others have been unwillingly forced to manage these times as well. I’ve had my tears and my dark moments, but I hold the best thoughts closely. When I think of my dad, I smile. I smile because my memory can easily transport me. When I close my eyes...
I still hear the slow trickle of the creek by the apartment.
I still feel the bony arch of my back as I sneak past dad’s tag on the park.
I still sense that anticipation that our next race to the car would be mine.
My hand stings from the fastball, and the shoulder from the short punch.
I still taste the fries with gravy.
I still see his hair flowing from his helmet as he streaks down the right wing.
I still feel that sense of comfort afforded when the front door opened after a cold, rainy night.
He’s always standing quietly in the background at my game.
I always have pocket money. The gas tank is always full. The car runs fine.
I will never forget looking into his beautiful blue eyes and sharing our final farewell: speaking the words “I love you” and hearing the same in return.
My first teacher was mine from birth. While he never set out to teach me one lesson in particular, he ended up teaching me almost everything I needed to know. There will always be a lot to smile about.
I try not to overestimate my role as school principal. I know that it's the teachers and support staff that do much of the heavy lifting in the building on a day-to-day basis. Through my years as an administrator, I know there are benchmark moments in the school year where I am asked to make key leadership decisions that will strongly influence the life of the school and those same teachers and staff which commit so much. One of these moments is budget time.
I highly respect the way our district allows principals to make the important decisions for their schools through the budget process. The simple explanation of the process looks like this - the school is allocated funds based on a variety of factors, but primarily projected student enrolment. From this allocation the principal then leads the decisions regarding staffing for the school. The entire district knows this as RAM time (with RAM an acronym of Resource Allocation Method) and planning begins in earnest in April.
While teachers and staff have an understanding of the process, it does not make times any less worrisome. If the school population is likely to stay the same, staffing will likely look similar. If population is projected to increase, there is a good chance that additional staff will be hired. Finally, if a school population is on the decline, hard staffing decisions need to be made. Staff will often begin to predict the budget implications and it's impact on their position almost immediately.
As a leader, these are the difficult times. As I have talked about in my previous blog posts, the school staff become a family of our own. Everyone puts their heart and soul in their work for our students and school. We come to know each other as professionals, and as friends. While I am fortunate to receive amazing counsel from my administrative team, it is ultimately the principal that signs off on all budget decisions. I'm not going to lie, these difficult decisions are heart-wrenching. In the end, I rely on some key principles to guide me through these times:
1) Students First - the first step is to work with the current staff and school administrative team to determine the needs of the students moving into the next school year. Key elements in this stage are ensuring class sizes start at right numbers, and that students with complex needs have support staff available to assist.
2) Listen to the Staff - beginning as early as February we begin to analyze school needs as a staff. It often occurs past the mid-way point of the school year, which is enough time to determine the value of decisions made for the current year. No one knows better than the staff what needs to stay the same and what needs to change for the next year.
3) Staff over Stuff - when you value relationships as part of student learning, you know that investing in the relationships and the people that build them is essential. At the school level, we can often look at alternative options such as limiting copying and paper use, or forgoing tech purchases, in order to keep the staff that matter at our school.
4) Deliver News Directly - when bad news is coming it becomes evident right away and everyone knows it. There is no need to delay the delivery of news. My way of working is to talk with staff directly in a one-on-one manner. I also don't delay the news or "sugar coat" what's coming. I say what needs to be said as straight as I can and, if needed, provide the rationale for school decisions.
5) Support Staff Through the Process - Delivering bad news isn't the last step, and in my view it's just the beginning. Frequent check-ins afterward are important, and it's even more essential to find out what the preferences of that staff member are toward their next steps. From there, I try and reach out to colleagues in order to gauge the possibility of a match for our displaced staff. I remain on their side, always.
Being a leader in good times is pretty easy. I've been in the position to add staff throughout this process and to ensure everyone at your school has a guaranteed position and to welcome in new people into the fold can be exciting and fun. Leading through a lean budget isn't easy at all. As I muddle through the series of difficult decisions the common refrain from friends is "oh well, that's why you get paid the big bucks". I am fully aware that my decisions impact people in both their professional and personal lives and I don't take that responsibility lightly. My only hope is that my guiding principles make the process a bit easier for those impacted.
I am an elementary school principal, passionate about engagement, innovation, and learning from the unique skills and interests of students and fellow educators.