February Break is Not Needed

One of the built in benefits of the school schedule is the fresh start provided at the beginning of each quarter, semester, and school year. This is a terrific opportunity for every student to “get it right” with attendance, homework completion, and academic achievement. Either the student is continuing his or her strong efforts from previous terms OR he or she gets the chance to start over with good intentions.

As a teacher, I always enjoyed the opportunity to start fresh because a new term usually meant starting a new topic or unit. Historically the third quarter is the toughest on students in regard to rigor, and overall grades generally reflect this fact. It’s a time to really push for  content in our rush toward the Regents exams. In New York State, schools are measured and judged by our graduation rate and by the performance of our students on our Regents exams, particularly at the mastery level of 85 and above. This puts tremendous pressure for improvement on everyone from the superintendent to the principal to the teacher to the student.

As we embrace this new beginning, this third quarter/second semester fresh start, we look forward to only three weeks of uninterrupted instruction when we enter another break, one week off starting with Presidents’ Day. Many of our students will return this Tuesday after a full week off without daily attendance, attending only for their scheduled Regents exams. This February break is a problem.

Any school counselor certainly knows, and most teachers, that the return from and anticipation of school breaks is hard on many children who do not enjoy that time at home for any number of reasons. We just get our kids back in the swing of things, and BOOM, another break.

In my opinion, the February break is a worthless waste of time. Many advocate that we were better off with two weeks at Easter time. I don’t honestly care one way or the other if Easter is one week or two, but can definitely say that the February break is an interruption to student learning that we don’t need.

Typing 101

I’m officially evolving with technology. As someone who took every secretarial class in high school, I know proper typing posture and technique. I can still see Miss Rita Peters at Plum Senior High School walking around the room demanding perfect posture. When you completed her program, there was no need for further training. This is something on which Miss Peters prided herself and rightfully so.

As small as this may seem for my many techie friends, I’ve evolved from my proper keyboard and desktop computer to a new laptop. It may take me a while to get the hang of the little blue dot in the middle of the keyboard (thank goodness I’ve still got a mouse). I love the idea of taking it to conferences and meetings.

I also love the idea of taking something portable with me when I chaperone our school’s trip to London, Paris and Madrid at the beginning of April. It would have to be really light and easy to carry. I keep thinking I could post about our trip each day and all of the nervous parents at home could get a play by play. Heck, I should be able to figure out pictures to post here of the kids too. Since I’ve never added a picture to this blog, I may have a lot to learn.  Any ideas on the best way for me to do this without spending a fortune prior to the trip, please send them my way.

Thought I’d better out myself because many of you probably think I’m somewhat tech savvie. Truth be told, I still think of Miss Peters every time I use the manual typewriter to type an envelope. Who needs to learn how to print labels anyway?

Simple Solutions

Sometimes the fix is so darned simple.

We give the January Regents to a large percentage of our students. We test all the English 11 students on the Comprehensive English exam, all Math A and Math B students, and all of the students who either need to pass a past Regents exam (and have been in a Regents review class) or who want to improve their score. Yes, Virginia, there are students who voluntarily retest to improve the grade.

In my first two years here, counselors spent a large portion of time after the start of every exam phoning those students who didn’t show up. This year, my genius guidance director, Beth, and her fantastic secretary, Janene, sent home a letter to every student’s home telling the family which exams the kid needed to be here for AND they hand delivered a copy of the letter to every kid.

Extra effort in planning=great results on test day.

Because of their extra effort to take on the task of informing kids, without the “well, it’s the student’s responsibility to check the test schedule” garbage, we only had two students who weren’t here yesterday. Two. Awesome attendance on test day.

Which brings me to another point on this topic. One of my son’s teachers. A couple of weeks ago, Tallon missed two of her classes, one for the orthodontist and one for a bass guitar lesson. The teacher called me, as she does with any other parent (and I know this because of the numerous parents who have stopped me to say how much they appreciate her), and she simply said “let Tallon know he needs to stay after with me today to get ready for Friday’s test.” He stayed on Thursday and on Friday thought he did a great job on the test. No attitude from the teacher of “it’s not my problem he wasn’t here, it’s his responsibility”. No big deal for the teacher. Very much appreciated by parent and child. That’s how we show our community we care about their kids, by making that extra effort.

Simple solutions. I like it.

Disclaimer Discussion Continues

Chris Lehmann continued the discussion over at Practical Theory that started with my earlier post about the disclaimer added to the tagline of this blog. I appreciate Chris’ work as he writes about the Science Leadership Academy in Philadephia. He talks in this post about the questions some have about blogging, and concludes with this,

Any student who wants to come to SLA, any teacher who wants to teach here, could Google SLA, find this blog and learn a lot about our values, our process, and the thoughts (and ramblings) of the principal. With luck, that will be part of the process of enhancing our community and strengthening its values. If nothing else came of this blog, that’d be worth it.

Earlier, Christian Long posted at think:lab about this issue , including his tips for success with blogging. His suggestions are prudent and certainly ideas that I follow. However, I do think it’s okay to post first names of students and full names of other professionals when the post is positive in nature. Public recognition is a form of praise that we have much too little of in education.

Both posts listed above remind me again of a conversation I had with Will Richardson at the start of my blogging endeavor. We were talking about audience and I asked Will what will happen when I’m interviewing for a superintendent’s job someday and the interview team looks to my blog to see how I think about different issues. Will’s response, “they’ll hire you.”

I think of Will’s response often, and I keep on writing. Our schools need leaders who are willing to take a stand.

Cheating or Initiative?

Our teachers are giving mid term exams right now. One of my requests is that they completely align the mid terms with the Regents, taking Regents exam questions on content that’s been covered to date and giving a test that mirrors the Regents.

Having said that, if a student goes on-line and looks up all of the old Regents exams and answer keys, works the problems, studies the answers, and scores a 100 on the mid-term, what do you call that? Cheating or Resourceful?

I think this takes initiative, review, and serious study time. The teacher knows the exams and keys are out there, pieces together old questions to make the exam, everyone has the same opportunity to look up the questions and answers, is it cheating?

G-Town Talks Disclaimer

Check out the changes made in the tagline of this blog. This is a disclaimer added after our superintendent attended a presentation on January 12, 2007 by Elizabeth D. Carlson of the law firm, HodgsonRuss. The recommendations include developing a blogging policy where a district must “clearly communicate with its employees where it stands on the use of blogs.” She goes on to say, “If a district actively, or even passively, encourages blogging, a specific blogging policy is advisable to define the acceptable parameters of blogging. A blogging policy should require personal blog users to make certain disclosures and disclaimers. Employees should be required to state clearly that the views expressed are their own views, not the views of the district.”

This proves interesting for G-Town Talks. Certainly, the views expressed in these posts are mine, and are not necessarily the views of the “district”. I sort of thought that was obvious. But who then is the “district”? As a leader in the school, I’m writing as the high school principal about, well, the high school. As the principal hired by the district, my views should be in line with our community, the superintendent and the Board of Education. Otherwise, I’m likely to find myself using this blog to look for employment.

I am always aware of audience when I write and 98% of the time, I tie anything that I’m writing about in my personal life to school. I’ve  fearlessly written in this blog since July when I attended training, paid for by the district, at High School’s New Face. I’ve heard of colleagues who won’t even comment on a blog for fear of “tenure”. I’m not tenured yet either, but believe that if I write honestly, with integrity, conducting myself as a professional, that G-Town Talks could only extend my communication and influence. I’ve written honestly here and I’ve never “hidden behind” the blog, never written anonymously about anything, and never been inappropriate.

Is there something I’m missing? I would never misuse this blog to say anything that I wouldn’t otherwise say to my superintendent, to Board members, to parents or to kids. I just thought that was a given. Hopefully, this post and the disclaimer in my tagline will make it “CYA” clear. Or will it?

Where, Oh Where, Are My Seniors?

I keep watch of our attendance figures and pay attention to trends from year to year. As a district, our overall yearly attendance percentage is relatively consistent. The elementary and middle school averaging around 95% each month, with our 9-12 building averaging between 91-94%. Change is incremental when watching attendance. I want to make enough of a difference in climate that attendance increases.

Here’s the part that has me fried today. We’ve made significant improvements in grades 9-11 for every month this year, but our Seniors are making me crazy! Their attendance was as low as 86.58% in November, while our freshmen and sophomores were each up to at least 94%.

And in case you’re wondering, yes, we have an attendance policy with negative consequences for frequent absences to include loss of credit in a class for 25 days missed in the year. We conduct positive school wide programs to encourage attendance and we work really hard to create a caring, supportive environment where students want to come here.

I’m frustrated because I’m at a loss in problem solving this issue. I’ve read the literature, I’ve tried different approaches, and still our attendance for seniors is down 2.63% in December and 4.41% in November. Even if I compare to the senior class of 2004, prior to my arrival, this year’s class is still down in October and November, lower than any senior class in the past four years. How do I turn that around?

Why do I care? Because currently our senior guidance counselor is meeting with seniors who have done little to nothing in some classes, possibly add in poor attendance, and will fail courses by January’s end that precludes them from graduating. They know they’ve done nothing–it shouldn’t come as a shock, and yet they’ll be frustrated and upset at the news that a diploma is not happening.

Seniors who read G-Town Talks, I know you’re not many and you probably don’t fall into these categories, but please realize that poor attendance and lack of effort have dire circumstances for your peers. I really want to give every one of you a diploma on June 22, but you have to earn it first. Your Gowanda High School diploma means something, it’s earned, not given away. Show up here and participate. Please.

Retirement Ruminations

I’m thinking a lot about retirement lately, despite the fact that I’ve got another 13 years to go until I’m eligible. Why? My mom is retiring in 59 days and like me, her work identity is center to who she is as a person.

I’m the daughter of a working mom. This simple fact has certainly shaped my perspective on career and family. Donna’s  worked for Jendoco Construction since 1965 as a secretary and for the past several years, as their office manager. For my entire life, she’s been connected to the projects, the bids, the owner and his children, the “guys” in the office, and her coworkers. I’ve been to company picnics, Christmas parties, and sadly, funerals. Her work life has largely influenced who she is as a woman. Her closest friends were made at work, and maintained after many of them moved on. These are the women I grew up studying, the women I most considered and wondered about as I became a young woman.

I’ve watched my mom worry over every detail at work, including a decision about pantyhose. Yep, the girls in the office didn’t want to wear pantyhose and my mom insisted. Each time I entered my own work place without pantyhose, I guiltily thought of my mom. After all, Pearl, Mom’s office manager of the sixties would never have allowed it! Those were the standards set for her and she believed it was her role to maintain that standard. She’s also worried over every job, every bid, every letter–always expecting the best performance of herself and of the women she managed.

She’s taught me a work ethic, a loyalty to the organization, and a dedication to the job. Donna Lee’s also taught me that giving 100% effort on every task is the only option. Now that my mom’s retiring, I wonder how she’ll let it all go. The worries about each bid and document completed–what will she fill that time with?

I hope she fills it with longer walks. And more time to read. And coffee with my dad. And many, many trips to New York to see us and to Virginia to see my brother. And shopping. I hope she takes the time to do nothing and to allow herself to feel good about doing nothing. To write in the journal I gave her for Christmas and to fill its pages with every memory that enters her head.

Most of all, I hope she finds the time to breathe deeply. And that the breathing gets much easier. I can’t imagine my life without my mom in it. She’s my dearest friend, my champion. She’s the one who always thinks the best of me, who really listens to every word. I’m looking forward to the opportunity for more time with her.

Mom, I hope you breathe deeply and easily. You definitely deserve it.

The Best Nurses Are Like our Best Teachers

As we’ve settled into this strange routine at Childrens’ Hospital, I’m left thinking about this world that we’re living in. I’m thinking about the surgeons who take the time to answer all of our questions and to talk directly to our son. And I’m thinking a lot about the litany of nurses coming through our lives this week. Actually, we’re visitors in their lives as we live where they work.

Some barely make an imprint, just doing their jobs, efficiently and effectively. Others make an extra effort to ask a question or to notice something about my son. One nurse took me on a tour, two days in, to show me where I could go to get Tallon another juice or a popsicle, something I wish someone had done on the first day. Still another nurse printed information on spleen injuries for me, which I especially appreciated because I like to know as much about something like this as possible. And the best was the nurse we had the second night in who just showed so much tenderness that my son wished for her again.

Just like teaching, there are those in nursing who passed almost anonymously through our lives and those who left an imprint. How simple it was for them to spend just an extra minute and leave us feeling so much better. Showing us that they cared enough to SEE my son, not just another patient in room 910, made a difference to us.

This is exactly the same as what our best teachers do. They see my child, all of him, and they show him that they care who he is. The best teachers, like the best nurses, aren’t afraid to show they care, that they’re interested more in the kid than the task.

Life Happens Despite Our Plans

So I’m hanging out at Childrens’ Hospital in Buffalo these days and even here I’m learning something that affects how I view G-Town.  On Tuesday night, our 14 year old son was sparring and took a thrust kick to precisely the right spot to lacerate his spleen. For any parents who have experienced the agonizing wait of a helicopter, followed by the decision to send a pediatric stat unit to move him via ambulance, you know the “nothing else matters in this world but getting my child the care he needs to come home to us whole” panic. As it turns out, he has a grade three laceration which means total in hospital bed rest for at least three more days and tons of restrictions for the next several weeks, if not months. There goes wrestling, and hockey, and kickboxing, but that seems inconsequential, because our kid is going to be okay. 

My coworkers have been outstanding and Tallon’s friends are texting him constantly. The communication link that’s helping to alleviate some boredom for my bed bound boy is worth any amount of money. And after going home last night for a Board meeting, I’ve made the decision to stay here (we’re about 45 minutes from home) for as long as he is here. I rushed home yesterday so that I could take care of my work responsibilities and then came back to spend the night. Did it matter that I attended that meeting? Absolutely didn’t seem to and it certainly added a tremendous amount of stress to an already stressful day.  So what does this teach me as a principal? As a leader and a manager, my employees need to know that family ALWAYS comes first. At the end of the day, I’ll know I did right by my son and he’ll know I chose him over my career. In the long run, school will have functioned well without me and my kid will remember that his mom was there for him. 

I’ve also thought about the amount of work we give kids to “make up” when out for an extended illness, particularly one of our students who’s out for more than my son’s week. Our teachers shouldn’t expect a child to do all of the work, every assignment given, during the absence. That’s definitely what I always did as a teacher. And I figured giving the student extra time was helpful. Instead, it’s so much harder because the student has to complete all of the work without the benefit of instruction, while coping with an illness, missing out on all the good parts of school, and while worrying about maintaining grades. I wish I could go back and do it again, because I’d say to those students “this is the learning that’s most important from your week or two hospital stay. Take care of these two assignments and I’ll help you with the rest.” Instead, I worried that every missing assignment in my gradebook was filled in. How ridiculous that was considering the magnitude of what the child and family may have been facing.  Every now and then life seems to get in the way of our best laid plans. This is exactly when I’m going to pay  attention to what life’s trying to teach me.