never waste a good crisis

Ledge Street Elementary is a school of opportunity. It has 450 intelligent and emotionally-resilient children. It has 70 staff members who excel at relationship-building and have unwavering faith in the children they instruct within Ledge classrooms. It has parents who view the school as a their extended home where a community of love and respect is fostered. I am the proud Principal of Ledge Street Elementary and it is a privilege to serve each student, parent, and staff member. I believe in Ledge Street Elementary and the positive impact our school has on the world.

These are words that I say to myself in some way, shape, or form each day I walk through the doors of our school to keep me positive and emotionally focused. Sometimes I use it as a mantra, repeating those words verbatim. And in other times it appears through a simple action, or interaction that starts my day with a student, parent, or staff member. Making sure I reaffirm my purpose in this manner every day has helped me keep a positive perspective as a leader during this time of great change, but reaffirming my purpose is not an end in-and-of-itself. It’s actually a means-to-an-end. Navigating times of significant change takes ’emotional bandwidth’. For those who are new to the idea of emotional bandwidth, it is the ability to productively handle your own emotions as well as those of others. The stress and effects of the pandemic have challenged and even narrowed our individual and collective emotional bandwidth. At Ledge we are not allowing this to happen, but instead, we are using these challenging times to come together to expand our emotional bandwidth.

During the pandemic, we have all felt the stress and pressure of isolation, change, illness, etc., from within ourselves and outwardly from those around us. We’ve been with people in our families or at our workplaces dealing with these same stressors. It is unfortunate, but one of the easiest and least productive ways to deal with our current stress is to suppress our emotions. That only serves to paralyze our creative thinking and stifle our positive thoughts, which can be toxic to a school culture. At Ledge, we actively work to push back against this not-so-productive survival instinct. Instead of ignoring our emotions which can lead to the impulse of seeing the world negatively, we are fostering a community where we are leaning into this discomfort by feeling more emotion, communicating more purposefully, and showing more vulnerability. Below are a few examples of what this looks like at Ledge Street Elementary:

  • Go into every conversation, every interaction, assuming positive intent.
  • Personalize.  Take time to build a caring, trusting, relationship, with every person you encounter, adult or child. Get to know each other. Ask questions. Listen.
  • Give kudos in the moment.  Never let a positive thought go un-shared.  It’s important to tell adults and children these thoughts in the moment, otherwise they can be easily forgotten in the chaos of a school day. And you never know, that could be the one moment that turns someone’s day around.
  • Show vulnerability.  For many, sharing our emotions is uncomfortable and anxiety inducing. At Ledge, students, staff, and parents are encouraged daily to share what they’re thinking and feeling in a non-threatening environment. This is the basis for building strong relationships through empathy and trust. It’s like a muscle, the more we do this, the easier it gets and the more comfortable we feel with the process. The morning meeting that we have in every classroom to start our day at Ledge Street Elementary where we get in a circle and talk about how we feel about our day, is a great example of formalizing a routine to talk about our feelings and practice showing vulnerability.
  • Use ‘I’ statements.  The simple action of beginning a sentence with “I” rather than “you” can make all the difference in the perception of what is being said.

Toward the end of WWII, Winston Churchill was quoted as saying, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” That idea is as applicable now as it was then. As we come toward the end of the COVID crisis (and yes, I do believe the end of this crisis will come sooner than we think), Ledge Street Elementary will come out the other side in a way that we not only survived, but thrived, during this difficult time. We will be more emotionally resilient, able to show greater empathy towards ourselves and others, and feel even closer as a school community. And for that, we can credit our consistent and dedicated focus on mindfulness, that like a compass, guided us through.

Where the ‘Urgent’ and ‘Important’ Intersect

Summer can be an amazing time of year for Principals in many ways.  Yes, it gives us time to recharge our emotional-selves and spend much needed time with family and friends, but equally as important, summer gives Principals a brief departure from the tyranny of the ‘urgent’ (day-to-day tasks) and affords us a bit more time to focus on what’s ‘important’ (planning/reflection/goal focus for the upcoming school year).

When I began my career in school administration in the early 2000’s, I didn’t think much of the ‘urgent’ versus the ‘important’.  But now that I’ve been in school administration for close to two decades, I’m able to see how vital it is that I understand where the urgent and the important intersect/balance.  In fact, as I look back on my career, I can see with great consistency that my successes and failures are in many ways related to how I identified intersections between urgent/important and balanced (or didn’t balance!) them adeptly.

As I’m transitioning into a Principal position at a new school this year, I’m challenging myself to seek more understanding in the areas where the urgent and the important intersect, with the goal of finding better balance between the two.  So while I’m immersed in my daily routines this year and I’m faced with a choice…the urgent task versus the important task…I want to consciously pause and think to myself, “Where is the intersection and balance between the two?”  This means specifically stopping and reflecting when I’m faced with situations such as the following:

  • Time spent on emails, paperwork, office-task (urgent) versus time spent on relationship building with students, staff, parents (important)
  • Time spent outside of school on work related tasks (urgent) versus time spent outside of school with family/friends and truly being present (not checking email or voicemail!) when I’m with them (important)
  • Time spent on solving others’ problems (urgent) versus time spent skill-building with teams of staff/students/parents to solve problems together (important)
  • Time spent narrowly focused on solving one problem (urgent) versus time spent in deep reflection and taking in the whole-picture all at once (important)
  • Time spent helping others learn/build skill (urgent) versus time spent on my own PLN with Twitter, writing blogs, etc. (important)

This list could go on with several more bullets of course.  I would like to know how you view the intersection and balance between ‘urgent’ and ‘important’, so I welcome comments!

The Complexities of Relationship-Building

As our school has moved forward with the PBIS behavior expectations reset for 2018, I have become more and more aware of the complex nature of building and sustaining relationships with students.

I feel strongly that consistency, warmth, and a true sense of caring are the foundations of building good relationships with students.  In fact, my good friend Brendan Fetters recent blog post has some great working examples of how these foundational relationship-building skills show up most effectively in a school.  I’m also noticing that after this sturdy foundation is established, it’s highly effective to have a second level of relationship-building occur in order to ensure the relationships are sustained.  That second level involves defining ambiguous words that as adults we often use to expedite a conversation, but unfortunately they can be relationship destroyers.  They include any words that carry with them a lot of assumption in their meaning.  Assumptions that are often based on the situation or the culture of the person making the assumption.  That’s why it is crucial to define for the student (in the moment) these types of words because it helps avoid confusion and misconceptions – which can derail relationship-building in an instant.

The word ‘respect’ is an excellent example of an ambiguous word we toss around in schools these days.  That word is often one of the pillars within PBIS expectations, and frequently shows up in questions we ask students such as, “Are you showing respect?” and “Are you being respectful?”.  As educators, we often talk to students about the word ‘respect’, but rarely, if ever, do we take the time to define for the child exactly what we mean by the word ‘respect’.  As in, what is our personal working definition of ‘respect’ in that moment?

Recently I’ve changed my relationship-building practices in a very subtle, yet profound, way to include defining any/all words I sense are ambiguous or carry a lot of assumption.  In the example of the word ‘respect’, I actively define for students what I believe ‘respect’ is in any given situation.  For instance, if a student is engaged in their classroom by working cooperatively, I might say to them, “Wow, I am really impressed at how you are respecting your classmates views and opinions.  And my definition of being respectful to your classmates in this situation means you’re showing great listening skills and an ability to give constructive feedback.”  It’s interesting how the extra effort I put into defining respect adds something profound to the word’s meaning in that situation.  In my view, it tells the child exactly what I’m thinking.  No confusion.  It takes the ambiguity out of the comment for the child, as well as any chance there would be a misconception of what I might be referencing as ‘respectful’

When students are emotionally elevated, it can be even more important to clarify ambiguous words.  For instance, in challenging situations I may say to a child, “I’d like us to have a more respectful conversation about how you’re upset.  And I’m defining ‘respectful’ as showing a calm voice and calm body.  If you need time to get to a more centered emotional space, I can allow that time for you.”  In that situation, the student knows exactly how I defined ‘respectful’ in an emotionally charged situation so they don’t have to spend energy guessing what it is I need them to do.  Instead they focus on the action that needs to be taken to move forward to a resolution.

The word ‘respect’ is just one example of the hundreds of ambiguous words that we, as educators, need to define for students as we use them in conversation.  If we choose not to define these words for students, it’s likely they will derail the relationship-building process in some form (or at the very least, make it harder for us to achieve the strong relationships with students that we’re seeking).  I’d like to know other ambiguous words that need defining during relationship-building so I welcome your comments!