Thursday, December 22, 2016

Looking Back And Moving Forward

A collaborative post by Tony Sinanis & Lisa Meade

Looking Back & Moving Forward

When you look back on the order of events, it may not make much sense to those in our worlds. We were both successful principals leading amazing teams in our incredible schools. We worked with kids who were excited to come to school, with families who were proud  to share their children with us and educators who put kids at the center of every decision. We felt highly capable in our positions. The principalship allowed us to impact a myriad of decisions, shape the trajectory of a community and nurture a culture of learning for adults and students. We were inspired by the work of other principals in our PLN and kept raising the bar with new ideas and approaches in our buildings because we knew we had to model what we hoped for our in our communities… being learners first and teachers second!

As we begin thinking about what 2017 has in store for us, we paused to think about where we both were a year ago when we were thinking about 2016. Ironically enough, neither of us were even considering a move - we loved being building principals and were already starting to plan for the next year. Yet, 2016 unfolded quickly and before we knew it, we were both embarking on new journeys that involved district level leadership positions. Needless to say, we had some questions but none more pressing than one that we had always considered from a distance… if entering the principalship was considered “going over to the dark side” then what side would we be on when we moved from the building level to district level leadership roles of Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction (Tony) and Director of Pupil Personnel Services (Lisa)? What is darker than dark side?

Transitioning to a new role

Through a different series of events for both of us, opportunities to stretch, reflect, learn and grow were presented. Yet, in that opportunity, we likely didn’t realize the struggle that would exist in saying goodbye to the communities that had become extensions of our families, and even ourselves. When you believe in a building (a team, the students and their families) as much as both of us did, you don’t just walk away without pain, sadness and even some uncertainty. We’d be lying to say otherwise because change is hard; change is uncomfortable; and change is unfamiliar. We left so much in our former districts and made the leap to new positions in new districts and we know we were able to make those leaps because of our previous experiences!

In spite of hurdles we faced when moving on, the challenge of making an even bigger impact in a new space was an exciting opportunity for us. Where we once had a fraction of teachers to support, now we are looking at hundreds of staff members, thousands of kids and a sea of families. The decisions we help to make, or sometimes are making ourselves, are enormous because the accountability is at a whole other level since the impact is so far reaching. We can’t lie - the work can be overwhelming at times because we want everything to be perfect for our new communities, including the new district level teams we are a part of,  but the chance to be part of systemic and organizational work helps us pause and recognize how fortunate we are to have such incredible opportunities in our new roles. Now that we are both in district level positions, we see some things differently and with a greater sense of urgency, at times, than we may have in the past because now the impact is on an entire district - not just one space within a district. Oh boy… how times have changed!  

Appreciating the past

Yet, who taught us the most about what was right for schools? Our building teams where we had the opportunity to lead, learn and inform our practice. Each and every time we meet a new administrator or have the opportunity to talk to someone in an administrative internship, we tell them that being a principal is, by far, one of the best jobs on the planet for so many reasons.

At Cantiague Elementary in Jericho, NY, Tony learned how to work with an entire community to create a student-centered learning environment that functions as a safe haven for children. When children feel safe, they feel confident; when children feel confident, they feel happy; when children feel happy, their brains release endorphins; when the brains release endorphins children are primed for learning. A student-centered school pivots around the core philosophy that schools foster happy, engaged children who have voice in their learning and choice in how to communicate their knowledge. Tony quickly realized, through conversations with staff and families, that students needed to be active members of the school community where learning was at the center.

When the focus at Cantiague shifted from the teaching to the learning, the daily work and conversations changed. Tony, as a building lead learner, tried to model that notion of learning every single day whether through activities within the PLN, or through the reading of blogs or by trying new things in his practice, he was focused on learning and growing. The educators at Cantiague embraced this opportunity to learn too and new ideas and practices sprang up throughout the building. Slowly, the children at Cantiague began to develop a different appreciation for their learning because they understood the work and saw it as valuable and personal. With that slight shift in focus from teaching to learning, Cantiague became much more student-centered and the tone of discourse about learning changed so opportunities to innovate, create, and pursue passions became the norm rather than the exception. The children at Cantiague began participating in school-wide decisions, from planning special events to helping reimagine the school vision statement. We quickly saw that when the students exercised their voices, on some level they positioned themselves as partners in the school experience. We were able to harness the excitement and enthusiasm our children brought to school each day, by amplifying their voices, and letting their positivity permeate the entire community.

At Corinth Middle School in Corinth, NY, Lisa learned the power of culture on a building. Lisa explains, “We each bought into a shared vision for what our school should feel, sound, and look like. Through PBIS and effective use of a building leadership team, we drastically reduced discipline in our building. We took risks (like flipped learning, creating a makerspace and examining our homework policies) step by step. We remembered that at the center of each instructional or behavioral decision we needed to make, there stood a student. Sometimes the students would allow us to help and sometimes they wouldn’t. We tried to not let it matter either way. Faculty meetings became incredibly collaborative through faculty meeting smackdowns and we learned to appreciate the enormous talent pool we had within. Over time, most became comfortable with being honest about decisions they may not have agreed with but still tried to respect as they were rolled out. Earlier this summer, when I made the decision to leave Corinth, I wrote about this departure in the post, For Good.  What I tried to say in that post was how incredibly thankful I will always be to that team for teaching me all about leadership. One of the main ideas I gained was that real leadership can’t be delegated or ignored. Teachers (and support staff) want to be part of a program that puts kids first and is clearly articulated and then adjusted when need be.”

Redefining the role

In each of our new districts, we have been given an incredible opportunity to work with and for superintendents that have found places for a new voice among their team. Leading at the district level and trying to find your voice among an established team (on building, department, and even teacher levels) can be tricky. We often touch base, as friends, about how we are balancing that and how we can refine and improve our practice to increase the potential of having a positive impact. As you might expect, we are better at it some days more than others. What we have come to realize is that even though our new titles come with certain preconceived notions (based on the title itself or our predecessors), we are making the “job” our own and in essence redefining the role. How are we redefining the role? Here are some of the examples…

  1. We remind ourselves that the most important work is done one relationship at a time because over the years we have come to understand that education is about people, not just data, not just test scores or not just meetings;

  1. We have come to understand that important decisions, with far reaching ramifications, have to be made by putting students at the center. In the end, we recognize that some of those the decisions may not be popular but if we are doing what is best for our kids and teachers then we can stand behind those decisions.

  1. We have come out from behind our desks! We are spending as much time as possible visiting schools and engaging with teachers and students within the classrooms so we can build relationships, develop trust with the community and better understand what teaching and learning looks like in our new districts.(Lisa admits that Tony is much more skilled at this than she is -- at this moment!) We are fortunate to be working with educators in our new districts that have been welcoming and supportive during our transitions and have allowed us the opportunity to get to know the kids, who are simply awesome!

  1. We are broadcasting the awesomeness happening in our new districts! From helping to support a district hashtag (#WeArePlainedge & #HFTigerPride) to accessing various social media platforms (everything from Twitter to Instagram to Facebook), we are excited to spotlight all the amazing things happening in our schools and classrooms. From the teaching to the learning, we are proud to engage our families in a different way by giving them a glimpse into the day to day experiences of their children. This work is important because not only does it help contribute to the building of a positive narrative in education across the country, it also helps build trust between the schools and our amazing communities because of high levels of transparency and constant communication.

Finally, we are learning… a LOT! We are learning from our new colleagues including our incredible Superintendents whom are so generous in their leadership. We are also learning from our teachers, our support staff, the building leaders, our new kids, and their families.  While the journey has been humbling because we have stumbled many times over the last several months, it is well worth it because we continue to learn something new and hopefully become better for our new districts! With each and every stumble or success, we move in the same direction --- forward.

“You can't connect the dots looking forward.  You can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something: your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart, even when it leads you off the well worn path.”  - Steve Jobs

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