Sunday, July 13, 2014

PLN Redefines PD

There it is... The PLN = PD... And for those of you who don't know what the letters stand for here it is... the Personal Learning Network equals Professional Development! My words of wisdom... My profound moment for the day. Done!

Ok... so this may not be too profound and not so wise because most of you reading this probably realized this idea a while ago but this was crystalized for me over the last couple of days while at the National Association of Elementary School Principals (#NAESP14) Conference in Nashville. NAESP '14 was my first presentation at a national conference - needless to say, I was beyond excited and totally nervous. I was fortunate to be invited to speak on the Power of Branding and the importance of telling your school story (check out the resources from that presentation here). Don't get me wrong - I have presented on this topic before but never on a national level. Furthermore, the presentations I had done in the past were never really that "fun" for me (let alone the attendees) and I never felt like I hit the "sweet" spot were the overall experience was not only powerful but that people left the room inspired to try something new. That all changed over the last couple of days.

So, we all know the feeling of being at a conference with members of your PLN - I recently read a great post by my dear friend Amber Teamann on this very topic after going to ISTE a couple of weeks ago - but this experience was really different for me at NAESP. Yes, it was AMAZING to hang out, connect, share, learn from and just laugh with some of my favorite people on the planet - Todd Whitaker, Peter DeWitt, Melinda Miller, Joe Mazza, Erin Simpson, Jeff Zoul, Jenny Nauman, Vicki Day, Eric Bernstein, Dan Butler, Kathy Melton and Don Jacobs just to name a few - but I felt the power of my PLN on a whole other level during the morning of my presentation!

You see, my presentation was happening at 8am on a Saturday morning. I was pretty convinced that it was going to be relatively empty because who the heck wants to be at an 8am session on a Saturday, which also happened to be the last day of the conference? I was guessing that some of my friends would show up to support me but the truth is, I wasn't really looking forward to the session. That's right people - I wasn't really looking forward to my own session.

Well, that all changed after members of my PLN started entering the room. Suddenly I started to get kind of excited about the possibilities because, after all, I felt like I had prepared a pretty slammin' presentation. With that being said, I didn't let myself get too excited because there weren't too many people in the room at around 7:50am. Before I knew it though, the room started to fill up and I was getting pretty psyched and I knew it was going to be different. Whenever the levels of enthusiasm start overflowing, I like to have music on so I decided that I would play some for the audience before the presentation kicked off. And if you know me at all, I am not talking about music you hear in an elevator - I am talking about loud music that makes me smile and want to sing along (don't worry, I didn't sing). So, I played songs like Happy, Problem and even pulled out an oldie but goodie... Jump Around by House of Pain. That's right - Jump Around! And you know what? Someone actually started jumping around on their way into the room and people were throwing their hands up and singing along to the song. It was AWESOME! The whole feel and tone in the room had changed and people were engaged, laughing, talking and smiling - I was definitely feeding off the positive energy in the room and was pumped about the presentation.

Fortunately, the 2 hours that followed went pretty well. I was able to follow the outline I prepared; I created opportunities for people to share at their tables and exchange idea; I was able to spotlight a few tools/resources that people could use to tell their stories in their own schools; I was able to have my friend and co-author, Joe Sanfelippo, join us from his home in WI for about 15 minutes (we used a Google Hangout) and he shared his perspectives as a superintendent; and I was able to end it by sharing a link/QR code to a google doc that featured resources that could be useful when thinking about branding your school. Overall, it was a pretty decent presentation and I think the people had a good time and actually learned something. Was it perfect? No! Were there things I wanted to do differently? YES! But, all things considered, I think it went well and it was clearly different than any other presentation I had done before. Why you ask? Because of my PLN!

Remember the idea that the PLN = PD? Well, that is what happened for me that morning. The presence of various members of my PLN in the room gave me a level of confidence and excitement that had been lacking before. They brought a certain energy and enthusiasm (and silliness cause they always make me laugh) to the room that shifted my frame of mind and boosted my confidence. They helped me access a whole other skill set during the presentation that made it go much better than it would have gone had they not been in the room. They reminded me of the importance of interactions and conversations and how those impact learning so I did as much of that as possible during the presentation. They reminded me to speak with confidence because I was an "expert" on the presentation topic. They reminded me to inject just enough humor (not too self-effacing) to keep the tone positive and fun in the room. And that is just the tip of the iceberg but the bottom line is that the PLN impacted the experience and helped me be better. 

Even though members of my PLN were technically in the room to be learning from me, I was learning from them. They were helping me developing my presentation skill set. They were helping me access and bolster my self-confidence. They were reminding me about effective presentation techniques - no one wants a "SIT and GET" experience! They were giving me the best Personal/Professional Development I had received in a while. You see, the PLN helped me realize that the definition of PD must be broadened. No longer can we think about PD in very concrete terms - it is not about a document or packet that you get at a conference and take back to your school and stick on a shelf. PD is about both personal and professional development. For example, that morning I learned that I need to access my self-confidence during a presentation because it will impact everyone in the room and the experience. Although this is a "personal" thing, it is an area I needed development in and it will not only impact me on a personal level but will also shape future professional experiences. My PLN, made up of some of the most amazing people who I respect and learn from each day, became my PD and started redefining the parameters of PD. I am no longer looking at PD as PROFESSIONAL development - I am seriously looking at the blurred lines between PERSONAL and PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT thanks to my amazing PLN! 

So, if you haven't done it yet, get connected and build your PLN because you will suddenly have access to the BEST FREE and PERSONALIZED PD in the world!  


Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Really, We Wrote a Book

If you told me a year ago that at this point I would have co-authored a book with Joe Sanfelippo on the importance of school branding and telling your school story, I would have two reactions... I would have laughed out loud (LOL) and I would have asked, "Who the heck is Joe Sanfelippo?" Seriously... who is this Joe guy? Just kidding... everyone knows that he is the #GoCricket guy!

Truth is, although Joe was a member of my PLN at the time, I wouldn't have considered him a member of my inner circle at that time. We periodically exchanged tweets and participated in the same chats every so often but we never really connected beyond those 140 characters. Then, out of the blue, he sent me a message on Twitter and we exchanged phone numbers and started talking. He was preparing for a trip out east last fall (he and his family came to NY) and was planning on attending #EdCampNJ, which I was going to attend too. Through this connection and the few interactions that followed, we were ready to collaborate on something new and exciting - we decided to do a session together at #EdCampNJ on Telling Your School Story/Branding Your School. 

That is when everything changed - Joe went from a random member of my "outer PLN" (there is a future piece coming about how the PLN is stratified based on my research) to someone who has become like a brother from another mother! Joe is a colleague who I respect tremendously and learn from each day. As a result of that session in Jersey, we connected with the moderators from #edtechchat (Thank you Tom, Sharon and crew) and they gave us the platform to build on this session and on the next day continue the conversation through a well attended Twitter chat. We were suddenly giving voice to the Power Of Branding across the country and educators from every corner of the nation were talking about branding and the importance of telling the school story. People were buzzing about telling their story before someone else tells it for them and thus, the power of branding was born!

Now, how did this connection and experience turn into a book you ask? Well, the awesome, amazing and brilliant Peter DeWitt had the idea for a series of books (he is working with Corwin) based on the experiences of Connected Educators and he wanted us to be part of that series. Needless to say, we were shocked, honored and excited to be included in this group! We said YES without even reading a contract or considering the expectations and demands of writing a book or even really thinking about what we would write in the actual book... we just said YES! Well, a google doc, a few text messages, phone calls and months later, our book was done! Check out the cover...

So, if you are an educator you NEED to consider your brand... whether you are in the classroom or running or school or leading a district, you NEED to consider your brand! What do you stand for? What do you believe in? Does the brand promise you are making to the community match the brand experience? If you are not sure or have not considered these questions the time is NOW!! Read our book (you can click HERE to pre-order your copy) and get ready to BRAND YOUR SPACE and TELL YOUR STORY!!

Monday, July 7, 2014

Patience: A Principal's Pal

Although I have a bunch of strengths and weaknesses as a Lead Learner (aka - the principal) one of my biggest initial challenges was accessing patience when I needed it most. I had the tendency to react to situations, often with an emotional layer, and thus would create new problems because of my less than patient and reflective reactions (this is still a problem for me sometimes). But here is the reality my friends... no educator, let alone principal, can be successful with kids if they aren't patient. That is the bottom line!


Fortunately for me, becoming a father in 2004 helped me develop some levels of patience that never existed within me. After Paul was born I started to see that if I was going to be successful as a parent I needed to be patient, reflective and logical whenever possible. Paul taught me what really matters in life and even though I have been sleep deprived ever since he was born (almost ten years my friends) I was suddenly able to access some amount of patience with greater ease than ever before. Unfortunately, I was still struggling with dipping into the patience pool while at work. I am not sure if it was about maturity or experience or what but being patient at work was not as easy as being patient with Paul at home. Fortunately, as a result of a very difficult situation, that all changed in the spring of 2008...

It was Friday, May 2, 2008 when the call came at 7:30am. Initially I didn’t answer the call but then my secretary came down to my office and explained that it was the mother-in-law of one of our teachers and she insisted on speaking with me. This teacher, Mary (not her real name), had just returned to school the day before from a three-month maternity leave. Her son, Joey (not his real name), was born in late January and she struggled with whether or not to return at all that school year but because excessing was a possibility, she needed to maintain her seniority. I assumed the call that morning was to share that something had unexpectedly come up with the baby and that Mary wouldn’t be able to come to work. After congratulating the woman on the birth of her first grandson, I asked how I could be of assistance and she quietly responded, “Mary died last night.” 

Needless to say I was in shock and all I kept muttering was how sorry I was for her family and for Joey. This was the most challenging experience I had as an educational leader thus far in my career. This 31-year-old young mother who had just returned to work the day before was now dead and it was my job to figure out how to tell the staff, her fourth grade students and the community. How could I explain that this young woman we all loved and adored had died? We had all seen her the day before and she was beaming and looked to be in perfect health and now she was dead.

After allowing myself about 30 minutes of crying in silence, I immediately started developing a plan of action. I was only in my second year as an administrator so the first person I called was one of my mentors – a principal of 30 years. He dropped everything he was doing and came right over to my building to help me enact the plan. I started by calling the central office administrative team and informing them of her death. I then announced that there would be a short emergency staff meeting at the end of the day. Next I spent about an hour walking around the building and visiting classrooms like I did everyday. Walking around the building that day felt surreal and I struggled to fight back the tears. Luckily it was a bad allergy season so I chalked up the red eyes and sniffles to my allergies and no one questioned me. 

Slowly, throughout the morning, members of the district administrative team started arriving in our building for support. In retrospect, although I appreciated them being there, I think their presence raised concerns among the staff because they rarely visited and certainly not as a whole team. With the help of two of my colleagues I drafted a letter that we sent home to the families of Mary's students explaining that she had died. Being that we felt death was handled differently within the various cultures represented in our community, I asked that the families please explain to their children over the weekend that their teacher had died because we would start the day on Monday with a class meeting where the children would have a safe space to share, reflect, emote or just sit quietly if necessary. I then had our Main Office staff make contact with one family member of each of Mary's students to ensure that they knew about the sealed letter coming home in their child’s backpack that day and that they would be certain to read it and address its contents. 

Before I knew it, the end of the day had arrived and our entire staff was gathered in the library for our emergency meeting. After thanking them for juggling their Friday afternoon schedules to be together, I uttered the following words, “Somewhere along my studies I read that a community is defined by the way it handles tragedy and adversity. Well, today, we must handle a heart breaking tragedy and my hope is that it brings us together as a community so they we can rely on each other’s strength to come to grips with this devastating news - Mary died last night.” 

At that moment I learned about the importance of patience at work, especially when dealing with tragedy. On that spring day, I didn’t allow myself to react; instead I tried to respond in a patient and thoughtful way. On that spring day I learned that being a principal was rarely about addressing my needs but instead it was about supporting our entire community in a patient and gentle manner. On that spring day I learned that patience can be a principal's pal and necessary best friend.


Saturday, July 5, 2014

Breakfast With My Kids

It was late August in 1997 and I had just received my class list for the new school year. I was slated to be teaching 5th grade at a New York City Public School in Queens. I had just graduated from NYU a few months prior and had spent the summer hanging out, going to the beach and watching soap operas - my family had all been huge All My Children fans - what can I say? I hadn't spent any time familiarizing myself with the state standards in the various curricular areas or thinking about the standardized tests my students would have to take in the spring or even thinking about how I wanted to plan my units of study. Don't get me wrong - NYU was an amazing school but nothing could have prepared for day one of teaching 5th grade in Jackson Heights!

There were 37 names on my class list - yes - 37 5th Graders in ONE relatively small room! A room, by the way, that had NO furniture. I remember feeling panicked, overwhelmed and defeated on that day when I got my class list. The moment I had been waiting for over the last three months garnered the complete opposite feelings of what I was anticipating. How could I possibly effectively teach 37 kids in one room with no furniture? Forget about the lack of furniture - there were no books or materials in the room either. Nothing. It was a pretty barren room with an inexperienced teacher who really had no idea where to begin. 

At that moment, I went into survival mode. I didn't have time to feel overwhelmed and stressed - I had been dying for my own classroom since undergrad and here was my chance - I was going to create an awesome space for the kids - we were going to be a community. I wasn't sure if my kids would learn anything academic but I was determined to make 5th grade an experience they would never forget. 

First thing was getting furniture for my kids so I spoke to the custodians and colleagues and within two days my room was filled with stuff (I did "borrow" some furniture from a few rooms after dark but that is a whole other post). I also ran out and bought a carpet - if there was nothing else in that room, there was going to a space for us to meet as a community to learn, talk and share. The carpet was going to be that space (even though it violated fire code) where we were going to build our classroom community - a community that, in the end, would extend beyond those four walls and establish roots throughout the borough of Queens. I had no units of study pre-planned, I wasn't sure what math topics had to be learned and I wasn't clear on what books we would read but I was determined to make this a year we would never forget.

Well, fast forward 17 years and there we were this morning having breakfast at a local diner in Queens. A bunch of my former 5th grader students (now almost 28 years old) joined Paul and I for breakfast. This wasn't the first time we had gathered to break bread - they reach out to me at least once a year to get together and reconnect and reminisce. Well, this morning's meal was particularly special to me because they spent a good portion of the time parading down memory lane of our 5th grade experience. They remembered learning about Greek Mythology (what can I say? All the years of Greek parochial school came in handy); they passionately recalled our class study of Hamlet - that's right - my 5th graders read and performed a version of Hamlet. I had totally forgotten that study but I was quickly brought back to 1998 when my colleagues laughed at me for suggesting that my kids could be exposed to Shakespeare and actually understand it. Well, as a former English Literature minor, I was determined to make it happen and here we were, 17 years later, and they had vivid memories of that Hamlet experience. They remembered the entire story line and were having an in-depth conversation about Hamlet and his inner traits. The last thing my kids shared was that above all else, they would always be grateful to me for making them feel safe, respected and loved. They all felt like they were my favorite and they all knew that I adored them beyond words - they were my kids!

So, in the end, my kids may not have learned what the state standards said they should have learned and they may not have scored the highest on the state assessment but we created a community that reached far beyond those four walls and changed us all for the better!


Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Principals Are People 2

One of the clearest memories I have of undergraduate school as an education major was someone along the line telling us that when we had our own class, we should not let the children see us smile until December - at the earliest! If they saw us smile, they could see "cracks" in our armor and would quickly take advantage of them and all order would be lost and anarchy would unfold (ok - those weren't the exact words but you get the idea). Well, I am thrilled to share that I barely made it through an hour on the morning of day one and I couldn't contain my joy, enthusiasm and excitement - they saw me smile day one. And you know what? There was no anarchy; there was no lack of control; there was some chaos but it was the best kind and in the end, I had an amazing eight years as a classroom teacher filled with joy, happiness and awesome memories. I knew there was something about those words of advice that did not sit well with me!

Fast forward to my days as a graduate student in an educational leadership program and I have another pretty strong memory. That memory revolves around the words of one of my professors; the words went something like this... No one can ever see the principal sweat or get frazzled or show much emotion - everyone is looking to the principal to decide how to react. Really? So the principal is supposed to be a robot that lacks some of the essential qualities of a human being? How could that really work?

Based on how well the whole "DONT SMILE TILL DECEMBER..." thing worked out for me you can imagine how the no sweating, no getting frazzled and no emotion thing played out in my time as a principal. To be honest though, during my first two years as a principal, I tried hard to abide by those words of advice - I walked around with a smile on my face most days, put out everyone else's fires before I even ate or used the bathroom and always stayed organized and tried to be calm. While that might have worked in the building, I went home and cried about four nights a week about how stressed, overwhelmed and defeated I was feeling by the job. It was killing me because I was trying so hard to maintain this facade that I was slowing dying inside - fleeting was the joy, passion and fun that I experienced each day as a teacher.

Needless to say I knew something had to change - either I wasn't cut out to be a principal (still a very likely possibility) or I needed a fresh start where I could show emotion, where being frazzled might be a possibility and sweating wouldn't be frowned upon. Before giving up on the profession (quitting doesn't come easily for me) I decided that maybe starting over again at a new school would be worth the try. Well, here I am, six years later as the Lead Learner of #Cantiague Elementary School and I can honestly say that this change has reignited my passion and excitement because I threw those words of advice from educational leadership school out the window before day one and I decided to be me - the whole package - the good and the bad - the pretty (ok - there isn't much of that) and the ugly - the teacher and the learner - I decided to be Tony, the person!  

You see, the thing is, principals are people too. Sure, we are technically the leaders of the organization (although from my vantage point the students, teachers and staff all assume leadership in some way, shape or form but that's a whole other post) but the bottom line is, we are people with emotions and lives inside and outside of the school that impact our work each day. We get speeding tickets when we're running late (at least I do); we forget to respond to an email every once in a while (even though my email shows up on my phone); we have to choose between work and family on many occasions (this one is so tough); we forget to eat lunch or use the bathroom (I think at one point I went almost two days without doing either); we get happy, sad, excited, angry, etc. - you name it, we feel it! That's right - principals are people too. And you know what I have learned from my experience at #Cantiague as the Lead Learner? That because I try being transparent with those around me as often as possible, they have come to appreciate me as Tony the person... not just Tony the principal! Yes, they know what I stand for and believe in as an educator but they also know that I cry because my son has to have surgery every six months and that I love to drink Mountain Dew on a somewhat regular basis and that my heart bleeds blue and orange for the Mets and that I am prone to pulling into the parking lot at school most mornings with the windows down and music blasting! You see, they don't only know me as Tony the principal but they have come to care about me as Tony the person too.   

So, if you are a #Cantiague community member and you are reading this post - thank you for supporting me and for accepting Tony the person! 

If you are a teacher who might have raised your eyebrow or snickered at some point when your principal spoke or did something that seemed ridiculous, try and give them the benefit of the doubt and remember that at the core, they are people too (even though we may seem unemotional and robotic at times). 

And if you are a principal reading this post remember to be real - be transparent and honest with your community! Be a learner first! Remember to always keep kids at the center! Don't be afraid to openly reflect on your failures as often as you celebrate the successes! Be a person first and principal second because I believe it will serve you well!

Finally, a special shout out to some very near and dear friends of mine who joined me on this blogging challenge and posted their own takes on the idea that Principals are People Too. Check out their posts here...

Curt Rees