administration, being a teacher, new year, principal

A Letter from My Principal for the New School Year

If you have ever spoken to me about the amazing district I work for, Oregon School District in Wisconsin, chances are you will have heard tales of how amazing our principal, Shannon Anderson, is.  Shannon is a huge reason to why I am a seventh grade teacher, she is the reason many of us love our school, and she is also the type of principal that I wish every single educator could have.  The following blog is her welcome back letter to us, it moved me, I hope it will move you, and I am so grateful that she allowed me to share it here.

Twenty-two years ago I was a first year teacher at Verona Area High School. There was more than one occasion that first year when I paused during class in a moment of panic and thought to myself, “Why in the world did someone actually entrust me with this classroom full of students? I have no idea what I am doing!” I was teaching five different classes in four different classrooms. I was planning lessons the night before, I was afraid of parents, and I had crazy grading practices (Why not give extra credit for bringing in boxes of Kleenex? I needed Kleenex boxes!). I look back on that first year of teaching and cringe.

That same year Jacklyn Keller was a ninth grade student in my Art Foundations class. She drew with confidence and grace. I remember her maturity and inquisitive nature. Jacklyn took several classes with me while in high school, and she never ceased to amaze me with her artistic skills and insightful observations about art-making and life in general.  Sometimes when I stop to pause and reflect on my former life as a high school teacher, Jacklyn is one of the students that brings a smile to my face.

Several weeks ago, I was attending Literacy by the Lakes, a three-day conference for Wisconsin teachers sponsored by the University of Wisconsin-Madison. On the first day, I noticed a woman sitting in front of me that looked like Jacklyn. I tried to read her name tag every time she passed me, but I could not read it. Finally, I gathered up the courage to ask her if she ever attended school in Verona. Before the words were even out of my mouth, she exclaimed, “Ms. Roper, it is you! You were my favorite teacher in high school!” (Yes, Ms. Roper was my maiden name.) I was stunned for a minute. I was stunned because it was indeed Jacklyn. I was stunned because she actually remembered me. But I was even more stunned that I was her favorite teacher from high school. Sure, I remember having a good relationship with her when she was in high school, but I never thought I was her favorite.

Jacklyn, a former high school teacher, is now a elementary school librarian in Madison. During our short conversation, it was clear to me that she is passionate about the learners she serves and committed to making learning engaging and successful. As we ended our conversation, I was a bit overwhelmed with the sense of pride I felt. Jacklyn was no longer the amazing teenager I remembered; she is now a passionate and successful educator.

During the 2016-17 school year, you will touch the lives of hundreds of students like Jacklyn. The relationships you develop with them will likely last longer in their memories than the curriculum or lessons you teach them. Some students will let you know how much you mean to them, and some will not. In fact, in many cases you will likely never know the impact you will have on their lives. I think that is one of the most amazing things about dedicating your life to education: you can make a difference every single day and not even realize it. Something you do or say can change students’ thinking. You can inspire them to take risks. You can encourage them when they are ready to to give up. You can help them to see something within themselves they cannot yet see. You can expose them to new possibilities. You can help them turn mistakes into opportunities. But most importantly, you can show them you love and care for them.

Looking back, I acknowledge the fact that I did not have much of clue about curriculum, assessment, best practices, engaging lessons, or communication with parents that first year of teaching. However, my brief reunion with Jacklyn reminded me of Maya Angelou’s words: “At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.” Even though I had a lot to learn about teaching as a first year teacher, I was able to develop some positive relationships with my students that made a difference.

As we prepare to welcome students back into our learning spaces (at OMS), I want to thank you in advance for the impact you will have on their lives. You will make a difference every single day!

Be the change, principal

What Amazing Principals Do and You Can Too

image from icanread

I used to think I would end my days as an administrator, now I laugh at the notion. Nothing against administrators, but being a teacher has proven to me that I have no dreams of being a principal anymore.  So I cannot pretend to write this post as a letter to a future me, instead, I hope it will serve as a small homage to the amazing principals I know and as a guide to those just starting out.

Dear principal,
I offer you a wish list of do’s, some hopes and dreams, some things I have seen amazing principals do, from this single teacher to you.

Do be accountable. When you say you are going to do something, please do it, no matter how big or small.  If the every day gets in the way, please let us know, we understand there are only so many hours in a day. Tell us your plan for getting it done or why you can’t. Don’t make promises you cannot keep.

Do be confidential. It is hard to open up to your boss sometimes so confidentiality is key, and  not just with our personal lives, but also with what happens in our classrooms. If you see areas we need to improve, let us know, but please do not tell other teachers, it only breeds embarrassment, not an urgency to change.

Do trust us.  Part of being a strong leader is allowing yourself to trust others to do their best, even if their idea sounds a little crazy, even if they teach in a different way.  Ask questions, be curious, but do trust our methods when you can.

Do share you stories but keep them short. It is wonderful when a principal has experienced something similar, that tells us this is not a singular event. Acknowledge the similarity and then help us problem solve, time is precious, let’s not waste it.

Do listen well. Part of being a role model is showing teachers how to be effective leaders, and great leaders listen well. So while you may have much to share, wait until the right time to interject, sometimes teachers are only looking for a shoulder rather than a solution.

Do advocate. Sometimes we need you to advocate for us to others, please stand behind us when you can or come to us when you can’t. We should be in this educational journey together, so have our backs.

Do lead by example, but be wary of titles. I see many principals call themselves the lead learner, the lead thinker and so on. While I embrace the notion of setting an example when you take that title it can diminish what all the other staff is doing. If you are the lead thinker then no one else will ever be expected to think as much as you or even think differently than you. As the lead learner I would expect you to learn more than me, learn better than me, and also share more than me. For some principals that is true, for others it is not. I am not sure that a title is either needed or conducive to foster joint responsibility or innovation.

Do draw your own conclusions. Part of being a fair and trusted leader is to make sure you have the full story, so seek people out, do your own research before decisions are made and above all, be fair.

Do be connected.  Some of the best principals I have met have been connected ones. They bring new ideas into their schools, they have a finger on the pulse, and they are the first to share the amazing things happening at their school. So connect in some way with others, not just to promote your school, but to learn from the world.

Do be visible. A principal I worked with knew the names of every single child and parent in the building. This meant something to the people he encountered every day and he did it partly by being out in the school. I know there are mountains of things to do in your office, but take time to be seen. It shows us that the people matter, not just the duties.

Be honest. Being a great leader also means being honest with yourself, with your staff, and with the kids. If I am doing something that needs improvement I would like to know. If I did something amazing, let me know. Don’t sugarcoat it too much, cut to the chase and stay honest.

I am sure there is much I have left out, what else do amazing principals doI am a passionate (female) 5th grade teacher in Wisconsin, USA, proud techy geek, and mass consumer of incredible books. Creator of the Global Read Aloud Project, Co-founder of EdCamp MadWI, and believer in all children. I have no awards or accolades except for the lightbulbs that go off in my students’ heads every day.  First book “Passionate Learners – Giving Our Classroom Back to Our Students” will be released this March from Powerful Learning Press.   Follow me on Twitter @PernilleRipp.

hopes, New Adventure, principal

Dear New Principal

There you are with all of your hopes and dreams, your expectations, your trepidation, and a staff waiting eagerly to see how you are going to run things.  Will you be someone who comes in like a mouse or will you slug us all with your hammer of power?  What the future holds we can only guess but I know there are some  things we would love to say.

First, be kind.  We are new to you and we may need an adjustment period.  We know you have many changes and visions for our school but take some time to get to know us first.  Figure out the dynamics of our school and see what really works before you start to change and dismantle.  There are many powerful things happening that would be sad to see destroyed.

Second, know your way.  We want to be led by someone with a vision, someone who has convictions.  And yet, make sure your vision doesn’t cloud your judgment.  Does it fit with our culture?  Does it fit with the community we get to call home?  Does it fit with us and you and all of the kids?  If yes, then go ahead, if not, then perhaps discuss, reflect and reevaluate.  For whom are these changes being made?

Third, make it about the children.  We have always been focused on the students and want to stay that way.  So get to know them as you get to know us, make yourself visible and always keep their interest in mind.  Trust me, the children would rather not be tested more or discussed as mere numbers on the wall.  They do not care what standard they are being taught right now but instead whether the curriculum is engaging, relevant and allows them a choice and voice.  They are complicated, delicate, curious beings that we are privileged to work with.  Relationship first, then we can get to the academics.

Don’t exclude us but think of us as your team.  We want you to be successful as much as you want us to stay that way.  Believe in us and our crazy ideas.  Push us to do new things but know when to hold back and perhaps even hold our hand a little.  Trust us as professionals who do really want what is best for the kids but sometimes need some guidance.  Bring in new ideas but one at a time, let us figure out one before we rush into something new.  Don’t micromanage but believe in our judgment and also in our dreams.  Make friends but don’t create cliques, we are a family here and yes we may disagree but we take pride in who we are and what we create.  Trust us as professionals and defend our decisions if you agree with them.  Don’t lose yourself in trying to please everyone.  Be fair but listen to all the sides, don’t take sides whenever you can.

Don’t punish when it doesn’t fit the crime, whether student or staff.  Push us to excel and give us someone to look up to.  There are many leaders in this school but look for new ones as well, there are people here who who have such incredible ideas but never can find the words to share them.  Tell us when we do well, tell us when you notice something and do the same for the kids.

Welcome, new principal, I don’t envy your position but we are excited to have you.  We hope you are everything we have hoped for.

attention, principal, school staff, talking

Dear Administrators – Will You Write to Me Instead?

Dear Administrators and Administrators To Be,
I know that some of you out there read this blog and for that I am very grateful.  I don’t often address you directly because I don’t feel it is my place but I have a simple plea as some of you embark on a new year.  An idea to plant, to spread and hopefully that can grow into a movement.  Something so simple, yet powerful, that we all should have realized a long time ago.

Many of us are in the midst of the back to school hustle in North America.  As excitement builds, time grows sparse and meetings pile up.  The other day I read a post from Lyn Hilt, a principal you should connect with if you don’t already know her, and something she stated rung so true to me that I wanted to shout it from the rooftops.  She writes in her post about her in-service day “It’s Kind of Magical”

“Wait, Lyn, what about the laundry list of informational items you have to share with teachers on Day 1? Schedules, lunch and recess routines, important dates, blah, blah, blah?” I’m blessed with a faculty full of teachers who are capable of reading print.

See Lyn discovered something powerful.  We teachers can read, in fact, many of us are quite proficient readers and pay better attention to written information than to spoken words.  Many of us even tell our students’ parents that we prefer to communicate via email because it gives us time to digest, to process, and to reflect, while also providing a paper trail for all of our communication.  So what Lyn did, when she placed all of that important information for her teachers into a Google document was a huge step in the right direction; cutting out the time to tell teachers things that they can just as easily read on their own.

You see, people in education seem to be talkers, not all, but many, and so what happens at some of these meetings is that they drown in stories or longwinded explanations where really an email could have sufficed.

So dear administrators, as you plan for a new year or continue the one you are in, ask yourself whether what you need to say can be communicated in writing?  Can it be shared in a blog post for your school?  Can it be sent in an email?  A newsletter?  Or a Google doc for continued collaboration?  Can you spare your words and leave us time to collaborate instead?  Will you give your staff the gift of time to solve problems, share learning or even just cut out staff meetings (it has been done successfully)?  Will you go away from being the sage on the stage at meetings and welcome in more time for learning opportunities instead?

Lyn did it and so can you.   I wish you good luck and remember to keep it brief.



education reform, observations, principal, teachers

A Teacher Can Dream

This blog is in response to Tom Whitby’s rally for blogging about education reform.  While this may not be an answer to the major problems, it does serve a purpose in discussing a cornerstore of the misconstrued”tenure for life” debate – observations by principals and how teachers would change those if they could. 

It is time for the observation schedule to start at my school and I know I am on the list, after all, this is only my 3rd year teaching and I am therefore still on probation and under observation.  The first year I was observed twice, last year once, and this year also only once.  While something beneficial always comes out of my observations, here is what I wish they really looked like.

  • I wish there were more.  I am not an excellent teacher, I have many years to grow from, so any feedback is important to me.  However, when that official feedback is only given once a year after a 30 minute observation, major things may go unnoticed or not be discussed at all.  What a missed learning opprtunity.
  • I wish some were surprise observations.  I sweat over my observation, I ponder and torture myself as I prepare only to realize that I am in essence putting on a dog and pony show.  My students act totally different than they normally do, not because I ask them to, but because the principal is sitting in my classroom and that is uncommon.  So therefore my lesson looks, feels and is different.  It is not in order to deceive but an adaptation to the situation.  If observations were more frequent and less formal a true snapshot of my teaching would be gathered much more easily and I could be observed in a genuine manner rather than in a staged one.
  • I wish there were other observers.  Most principals have a view of education that has been set by their own educational experiences as a teacher.  Feedback, therefore, is often derived from this knowledge set.  If others come in to observe you, differing ideas or viewpoints will be brought to light. How amazing would it be if a different principal came in to see you or someone not in administration?  Think of the various feedback that could be given.
  • I wish principals still taught.  In Canada, some principals such as @MrWejr are required to teach a class while working as assistant principals.  I think this is an incredibly powerful idea.  If a principal still teaches, their observations on your teaching will be much more relevant because they are not relying on experiences in their past, but rather in their present.  They become more relatable and also more current in their work and can thus provide up-to-date feedback and encouragement.
  • I wish the conversation continued.  Often a post-observation conference is scheduled, held and then nothing else is discussed until the next year.  In my fantasy, goals are written and discussed throughout the year.  And not loose goals either but actual tangible, observable goals decided in a partnership with the observer.  That way I know specifically what to work on, how to achieve it while being provided a chance to discuss progress and setbacks with someone.  The learning therefore continues after the observation is officially completed.
While these are my major wishes, I wonder what observations would look like if teachers were able to shape them instead of being told how they should look.  Imagine the conversation and reflection that would be gained from such a task.  So fellow educators, what do you wish for, what is your fantasy and more importantly, how do we make it a reality?