Posted in School governance, School Leadership

Learning From Those Who Came Before You

Here’s some advice if you’re currently leading a school.

Do a checkup on your cumulative files.

Because there is a good chance a non-educator will be sending out cumulative files in the future, I’m using this time to sort them out and get things out of them that need to be removed.  While doing this, I’m also learning a few things.  Here’s some of what I learned.  If you’re a parent, this will tell you what to watch out for.  If you’re a teacher or a school leader, this will help you to understand what not to do (as well as what to do!).

Continue reading “Learning From Those Who Came Before You”

Posted in Catholic leadership, School governance, School Leadership

Protection

I write, once in a blue moon, about my boss, but only indirectly.  He’s a priest, and heads our parish, of which the school is a ministry.

He has a lot of strengths and people generally like him.

But he has some weaknesses.  He doesn’t like confrontation (and heck, neither do I…who is supposed to do the confronting if neither of us can?) and he seems to have a whole lot less faith than I do in the parishioners and what they can do, if asked, and in God and what He can do.  But I accept that sometimes I’m a little too Pollyanna (Hayley Mills version, at any rate) or Anne Shirley about things, and so I can accept that maybe I might be a little too sure that God can work through our parishioners to save us when the lesson might be, “look, guys, you gotta close.”

Yesterday, though, I learned that this decision was botched badly, and the Diocese is in the process of advising me on how to work through it all because, since my boss is gone for two weeks, there are (as you might imagine) things to do, things that would have been better handled had we taken these two weeks to get our ducks in a row first and then announced our closure second.

There is little vindication in being right about how this should have gone down.

There is little excitement about doing the right thing here, which is protecting his career and making sure that parishioners are okay with his authority to the extent possible.  That’s what the Diocese and I are doing now.

My family says I should let him deal with the mess he created; and I will…later.  He can fix the parish.  But at this point, my job is to try to save this for the kids, to try to focus on getting them into another Catholic school and arguing for the money necessary to pay for them to go to school there and for the jobs necessary for as many of my people as possible within the Catholic schools here.  If I’m going to work on getting them as much money as possible, I can’t very well destroy things here in the meantime.

If I don’t focus on doing something, it’ll be like Agamemnon (and yes, I am dramatic).  The kids loved this story: the story of having no choice but to fight to get Helen of Troy back due to a pact he made when he was a suitor to Helen (they didn’t pick him), then he can’t get the wind to sail so the oracle tells him to sacrifice his daughter, which he does, then goes off on a boat to Troy, fights the war, and brings back Cassandra (the prophet cursed; she spoke the truth, but no one believed her) as his mistress, and tells his wife to take care of her, as he’s gonna have a bath.

Not surprisingly, Agamemnon’s wife, Clytemnestra, conspires with her new boyfriend to stab Agamemnon in the bath.  Of course, the Greeks can’t let this stand, so her two surviving children will do her in later.

But heck, I get why she’s mad.  It’s not bad enough he has to fight to reclaim an old girlfriend, he kills their child, then comes back with a mistress, like she’s nothing to him.  And (this is the point I am actually making here) she’s had time to stew about it.

That’s what we’re fighting now.  Two weeks to stew about how messed up this is, is quite possibly not going to make any of us happy campers when he returns.

But if I can focus on the kids, and the Diocese can focus on the PR and logistics, well, maybe we can compartmentalize our anger in such a way that we can direct it to help him learn from this, rather than having us instead set fire to what’s left of the parish.

Metaphoric fire, of course.  We do understand that a real fire would be bad.

This is the strangest lesson in leadership: what to do when your boss really messes up, but apparently this is the one I get to learn…hopefully.

 

Posted in Catholic education, Catholic leadership, School governance, School Leadership

School Courtship: Hoping to Beat the Odds With Careful Planning

When Catholic schools close or consolidate, most everyone ends up in public schools, no matter how careful the planning.

We have a unique situation, though, where the ones who wanted to give up already gave up last year, and those who remain would really rather stay together, if they could.  We are also within a mile of two other Catholic schools with a third slightly further away than that.

So, we’re courting the closest, our first “daughter” parish, the second oldest school in town.

On paper, this is a good arranged marriage: fact one, they need us.  They need our kids and our money, such as it might be, because they are the next to go, on paper, if they can’t right themselves financially.  Unlike us, however, they have more reserves since families were wealthier when they began and they have had the time to grow and nurture that investment.  They have the time that we didn’t.  We have an interesting dowry, too, with a whole lot of books that are new, and a nice endowment of our own for scholarships.  And a parish who will be feeling guilty soon about how they let this closure happen, so I’m hoping to negotiate for more scholarships besides.  We think, but are still investigating, that a merger means they get credit for our Title I kids, and all of my kids were Title I eligible so they will get increased Title I services, if this is the case.

Beyond that, they are the most liberal, educationally-speaking.  We were caught in the 70’s, and the school that “everyone will say” we should join is lagging behind by about two decades.  They have already failed one of our students (she will never go back there) and their unsportsmanlike behavior and bullying have gone unchecked; I have family that has just said, well, that’s the mean class…as if that’s okay.  Meanwhile, our intended school has historically been more progressive, educationally, so it is arguably the best match philosophically.  They have had fidget toys in the classroom for nearly a decade and used to use a popular program called “the Daily 5” (maybe I’ll find they still are!) which encourages choice and independence in educational decisions, though with more scaffolding than we’ve managed to build in, so it tends to be easier for parents to understand.  I believe they use the same math books, or have in the recent past.

Then there’s the aesthetics.  Their school was actually built before our current building, but has many of the same features: big rooms, high ceilings, natural light, and they boast a bigger, but traditionally set-up church, with real aisles and stained glass instead of what I jokingly call “theatre in the round.”

Finally, because there’s no guarantee our parish won’t close next, they are the most likely to be ready to take on Hispanic ministry, should the parish merger ever occur because they are more progressive socially and have a native speaker of Spanish on payroll to teach Spanish.  We are hoping that, if this works out, we could encourage these parishes to join, if they must.  They are both downtown, after all.  Alternatively, if all goes well, we believe they would be better able to help guide what happens to our old building if it should be repurposed as a school again in the future because they have an older building as well and will have connections who understand managing these beauties.

So, after talking to their principal, we’re beginning the courtship this week.  It’s Catholic Schools Week, the Catholic school equivalent of homecoming, and they are having a dance at school, with littles and bigs together.  My middle schooler will love being able to stand off to the corner and talk to his friends (he has two there now) instead of being in the office with the adults.  My tiny kids will love dancing with friends their own size.  And their kids will LOVE that we might be bringing them more kids in the very age range they have lower numbers.

And he’s invited the parents and wants to come to us to meet with them and talk, too.

He’s also interested in my teacher, if he has an opening.  Multi-age teaching experience, much less love for it, is hard to find in a teacher.  She is eager to make a good impression, because she wants to stay in town with Catholic education.

So we will begin dating, and see if we will marry.

One of my parents, the one who already was thinking she’d be pulling her child out at the end of the year, is thrilled by this, and wants us to end the year AT this school.  She wanted more kids around, and this will solve her concerns.  Another was also considering moving her child at middle school because of numbers as well.  This would increase the numbers for them, too.

On paper, it’s the perfect match.

We’re praying this courtship turns into love and marriage to follow, because if I can keep these kids (and hopefully their teacher, too!) together and beat the odds, that will still be a very big win.

Posted in School governance, School Leadership

Snow Day

We live in the upper Midwest.  That means snow, sooner or later.

When you’re a large school district, you get advisers to tell you what to do.  You also have district boundaries and general expectations.  Our bigger districts have a rule that if you can’t get there (teacher, student, whoever), the absence is excused, so then they can have school for those who need it.  It’s not a horrible rule, but it also makes some parents worry if they can’t get their kids to school that some attendance boogeyman is going to get them.

I grew up in a rural district.  That means I have been stuck on busses and been on busses going into ditches.  It’s not fun.  It’s also not un-fun, since you kind of joke around until the replacement bus comes and you then go off on your jolly way.  But I am also Autistic, so I recognize if I, myself, am driving the car, it’s going to set me up for a bad day since I’ll worry about what happens if the car goes into the ditch or flips or whatever.  It’s not like a school bus that has a “system” and procedure for what to do and replacement busses at the ready (and no, there’s no system for a flipped bus…just damage control at the district since they had school on a day that bad).

The small schools like ours usually wait.  And wait and wait.  We look to see what everyone else is doing.  The trouble is, I think the big school districts do that, too, since there’s peer pressure associated with school closing.  You are a wuss if you close school and the weather is fine.

Today is a little weird, too, being MLK day.  Some schools are in session, and others aren’t, so “checking out the neighbors” is a bit tricky on a day like this.

The thing is, though, leadership is knowing that it’s always better if kids are safe and knowing your kids and your families.  For some places, this will mean having school in a blizzard since that means someone will be able to watch the kids and it’s best if they’re not home alone.  For other places, it’s better to close since the kids are old enough to watch themselves/have siblings/have parents at home, or some other supervision nearby.

I have some kids who walk to school and the sidewalks will not be shoveled yet.  I have some who come from great distances (45 minutes or so on a good day, which this is not).

And the rest of us just want to stay home sometimes.  We work hard.  What’s a bonus day off going to hurt?

I closed before anyone else in my area today.  I’m okay with this because it’s best for my kids.  I’m the only Catholic school that closed.

But I’m also at the school that doesn’t take chances with people’s lives (we run with scissors when it comes to ignoring what schools are “supposed” to do, but so often THOSE things are more dangerous than what we actually do).  We’re the school that knows sometimes a snow day is good for us and beats the heck out of anxiety and worry.

Sometimes leadership is being the only one who does what is likely the right thing to do, regardless of the local peer pressure.

Good school leaders realize that good students will learn anywhere.  There’s a good chance my kids will read today, play some Lego today, and/or login to an online game where they can play with their friends in cyberspace.  Some will definitely help shovel, too and probably play a little in the fresh snow.

All these things are learning, too.

And a bonus day off?  Almost everyone loves that…in small doses.  While my kids do like order and routine, they do also like a day off the routine here and there.  We are currently debating the merits of year-round school since long breaks like summer are too hard on everyone.  But these unexpected days off to do whatever we’d like?  Fantastic!

Sometimes one of the most frustrating parts of education is having the whole summer off, but being very stingy with the snow days.  I’m not sure who that works for, but it’s not my kids.

If you’ve got icky weather and get a day off, enjoy it!  I know we will!

Posted in leadership, School governance, School Leadership

Leadership as Vocation

Last night, I found myself in the sub-basement of the school with our new maintenance volunteer head and, later, his wife.  He wanted to walk through again and look for building plans, and I’d sworn I’d seen them downstairs, but alas, we couldn’t find them there.

Regardless, we were actually there for the fish fry, so it was somewhat comical to be crawling around the basement when the place was full of people, but everything was covered and calm, so we could “talk shop.”

When he continued to prowl and she joined us, she and I chatted about the school and its future.

And yes, it has one, thank you very much (you all know that…but sheesh, I had to tell people who had heard that we were closing that no, that wasn’t the case).

Anyway, while we were chatting, I think she saw how overwhelmed I had gotten by all the junk still scattered all over the school.  10+ years of neglect will do that to a building as large as ours, where you can hide everything in some room or another.  She then switched to talking about vocation and how it was clear I was in the vocation I was called to be in and how lucky I was that it was the case.

Continue reading “Leadership as Vocation”

Posted in Advocacy, Catholic education, Catholic leadership, School governance, School Leadership, Teaching

That Principle is a Bitch: What I Believe About Education

So we’ve recently had some “scandal” in my school regarding how my priest and I colluded to ruin the school.

Keep in mind, we only had between 60 to 70 students in the last decade or better except for one spike at which we briefly went up to 90 and went right back down.

Also, Catholic schools that close almost always have over 100 students in them at the time.

Also that we have to run the school as the parish hall regardless so fewer students means fewer staff members so the difference between running the school with and without kids is financially negligible.  Because there are few of us.  If I have to hire more people, we get into the danger zone.  So we’re fine now, and actually BETTER on paper than when we had 60 kids.

But somehow Father and I destroyed everything.

One Protestant who pulled all her kids out is getting all her gossip from someone who is making things up in her head about what is happening.  It’s somewhat hilarious to see her calling me a bitch all over the place when we have never once spoken.

Ever.

Oh, and she spells my job as principle, which is amusing to me.

So, in her honor, and in honor of all my naysayers, I figured I’d write about my beliefs of education, which are also, not surprisingly, the underlying principles of my school. Continue reading “That Principle is a Bitch: What I Believe About Education”

Posted in School governance, School Leadership, Teaching

Calming Christmas Season

Since we’re still in the mist of the Christmas season (Catholics and Orthodox have a long Christmas season; all that stuff before the day of is Advent, not Christmas), it’s not too late to tell you how our Christmas went this year at school.

For this to make sense, you first have to know what last year was like.

My last-year principal insisted on a few things:

  1. The most important thing in the world was the Christmas show.
  2. Parents expected it, and it had better be perfect.
  3. This was her big marketing piece for the year.

Clearly this made no sense to me because

  1. Isn’t, you know, preparing for Jesus coming the most important thing right now?
  2. Aren’t parents busy trying to make Christmas perfect and in panic mode, and doesn’t this show add one more thing to that?
  3. Doesn’t marketing imply at least some people coming will, you know, not already have bought the product?

However, what did I know?

Continue reading “Calming Christmas Season”

Posted in School governance, School Leadership, Self-Care

Seclude/Restrain and Other Pointless Forms of Discipline in Schools

[Image: eighteen wooden, red-tipped matches are lined up in a semi-circle (that presumably continues outside the frame) against a black background. The eighth match from the right is lit] image from Pixabay]
Not again.

We have a school district not too far away that keeps doing things that make no sense.

A few years ago, this district had a situation where the principal decided a meltdown didn’t end fast enough and she sat on an elementary student’s legs and held him down so she could, in her eyes, force the meltdown to “peak” so it could end faster.  That was about 2.5 years ago.

Last month, the district decided to hit the news again.  This time, a young child (this district only has grades K-3 in these schools, so these are little elementary kids besides) took one of the other students’ play-doh and decided to throw it at people.  The teacher called in the principal when the kid wouldn’t give it back, and the principal dragged the child down the hall and put him in a closet.  Okay, now it’s a “time out” space, but it was effectively built to be a closet, so…it’s a freaking closet.

For throwing play-doh.

Continue reading “Seclude/Restrain and Other Pointless Forms of Discipline in Schools”

Posted in Autistic Identity, Parenting, School governance, School Leadership

Autistics Make GREAT Moms

This post should be about how much I am insightful about my child’s needs, judging from the title.  And I believe I am good at that sort of thing.  However, this post is not that.  Instead, because I was asked if I was another person’s mother multiple times yesterday, I thought this would be far more interesting to talk about, given the current Autistic community speaking out about being great parents in the wake of #BoycottToSiri.

As the setup to this story, I have a lone 8th grader.  He’s pretty amazing, if I do say so myself, and part of why he’s amazing is how much progress he’s made in the last year and a bit since I came to this school.  He used to be very silent, especially around adults, and took a very long time to read.  His work was adequate at best and he seemed to be behind grade level.

This year, he’s at grade level and can explain things better than most 8th graders in other schools (since we have no basis for comparison here, we have to look elsewhere; this is probably a good thing and less stressful for him anyway).

Because we have a large developmental gap between him and my next youngest student who fits in best with the 4th/5th graders, he likes to work in the office.  This works out fine because 1) we get another person to answer the doorbell, 2) I can teach him in between my work, if he needs it, which frees up the one-room schoolhouse, and 3) we can, when we’re both stressed play Uno or Yu-Gui-Oh, or what have you.  He’s seemed to move along even faster, academically, since now he can choose the order he does things in (being mindful about what time I have that’s free to teach), and he still joins the rest of the class for meals, gym, and art.  He even DIRECTS gym now, teaching the other kids games that country school kids used to play years ago like “Ghosts in the graveyard.”  He learned about this game online.

So, this is my 8th grader, and because there IS such a gap between him and the others, and because he’s going to have learned as much as he can, being in the office with us, he wants to go to another school next year, and we found a charter that is project-based and quite small, with lots of quirky students he should fit in great with.

SO…here’s the story.

Continue reading “Autistics Make GREAT Moms”

Posted in Advocacy, Catholic education, Catholic leadership, leadership, Parenting, School governance, School Leadership, Teaching

Focusing on Forever: the Difficulty of Catholic School Administration in a Here-and-Now World

As a school principal and a parent, I get a few things about education in a way that other parents and principals might not.

First, I get that school is a “right” in a theoretical sense.

But I also get that administrators have to balance rights against each other.  In other words, they have to make school safe for the majority with the limited budgets they have.

It was that understanding of reality that made me decide to homeschool our Autistic son.  There is no way I can expect him to be in a group of other chatty people and have him have any sense of happiness.  Perhaps if we had found my school with me as leader when he was younger (as in, pre-kindergarten in his case; his school damage was gigantic), it might have been different.  We didn’t, and he doesn’t even like the idea of going back to school, so he won’t at this time.  I figure, that’s okay, we’ll make it work.

But we have enough privilege to be able to have jobs that involve working at home.  I used to score standardized tests at home, and my husband does testing for an Autistic-friendly company.

Not everyone has that, which is why I’m glad to have my school.

As a Catholic school principal, I am not merely charged with getting kids ready for college.  I am, however, charged with getting them ready for college, work, to be a mom, dad, religious sister or brother, priest, etc. as well as getting them ready for heaven.

We take the long path.  We are focused on much, much more than grades and college-preparation. It is a slow, winding journey with many missteps.  We sin, we fall, but we confess and we learn and we do better the next time.

It is not as easy as preparing kids for college.  There is so much more at stake in a Catholic school.

My kids know this and are good at forgiving each other for mistakes of all kinds.  At least, they normally do.  Long-term parents, also, know, that little dust-ups shall pass, and they move on pretty fast because they know the kids love each other and this is a safe place.

However, sometimes parents can be a bigger issue than the kids.

I had an issue this week with a parent who was upset because a student struck her child.  He was uninjured.  He hit back.  She was uninjured.

Here’s what happened, and how the parent over-reacted because she was too busy advocating for her own child at the expense of other children.

Don’t be this parent.

Continue reading “Focusing on Forever: the Difficulty of Catholic School Administration in a Here-and-Now World”