Middle-Level Leaders Collaborative: Who’s your “go-to” person?

This post is a collaboration between a group of middle school leaders from across the country.  Periodically, these passionate and dedicated middle school principals share their thoughts on issues of relevance for those “in the middle”.  

Working at the middle-level is uniquely challenging.  Nobody can do it alone. Who is your “go to” person?

Donald Gately.  Middle School Principal, Long Island

My wife.  My wife is my “go-to”  person. Danielle Gately is the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in the district just down the road from my school.  She’s smart, funny, generous and caring. Before moving into her present leadership position, her career was spent exclusively in middle school, so she really gets it.    That’s the main thing, you need a go-to person who understands the unique nature of working with adolescent learners. Because they truly are different. They’re not bigger elementary school kids or smaller high school kids.  Middle school kids are singular beings who only edacmp-daniellethrive when they are surrounded by adults who are committed to working with them. Danielle is this person and I’m so fortunate that I have the opportunity to come home from work and bounce things off of her.  In addition to raising our five kids, we talk about everything education and middle school-related. Some people might say that this is a corruption of the so-called “work-life balance”; that to bring home problems and concerns from the workplace isn’t healthy.  We haven’t found this to be so. Probably because both Danielle and I share the same passion for our work that it doesn’t feel like we’re talking about “work”; instead, we are united by our passions. Our work and our lives are very much blended together. I don’t know what I would do without her support and advice.

Dennis Schug – Middle School Principal, Long Island, New York

Hundreds of adolescents spanning several grades may seem overwhelming and appear, frenetic. As anyone who works with kids turning 10 through 14 can attest, there is super-charged energy. Passing times and lunchtime resembles a human popcorn popper.  

From a student’s point-of-view, one may feel as if he/she is the only person navigating adolescent challenges. The struggle to get (and stay) organized, manage time, and prioritize tasks. Friendships, family life, changing bodies, developing minds, and the roller coaster of emotions may feel all-consuming. 

schugOur school’s master schedule includes Advisory, Teaming, and Looping. To personalize and maximize these organization frameworks, school-wide, we ask students, “Who is your Go-to Person?”

A Go-to Person is an adult who a student perceives he/she can trust. This can be a current (or former) teacher, coach, secretary, paraprofessional, school nurse, school counselor, social worker, or school leader, what matters is the connection. 

 We speak early (and often) with our staff about the developmentally responsive side of middle school. When at least 50% of our focus is there, the impact can be seen in “the other 50%”: a student’s attendance, motivation, focus, purpose, and achievement. 

Go-to People know what needs to be brought to our Learning Support Team, and what should be shared with a parent or at a team meeting. Sometimes, though, what matters most is that trusting relationship between an adolescent and an adult with whom a student identifies or they feel simply “gets them”. 

Remember being 13? Who was YOUR Go-to Person?

 Chris Legleiter.  Principal, Leawood, KS

For every great leader, a mentor pushed that person into their current reality. When we think of “who is your go-to person”, my core beliefs and decision-making practices developed from a combination of experiences and individuals. This has been pivotal in my development and from my perspective; here is why a group of mentors is so essential:


  • Learning from others increase greater capacity for growth
    Leadership is “influence upon others”. You must find time to consistently learn the latest strategies, reflect and challenge the status quo. You can learn in isolation, but you have greater capacity for growth when you have multiple people with different perspectives and experiences to learn.
  • chrisIt provides multiple opportunities for reflection
    Having an extensive PLN provides a platform where you get feedback from others.  They can share different strategies that you can consider for next steps.


  • Growth is not automatic but connecting with others becomes intentional practice.  Leaders have very busy lives filled with a variety of tasks, but when you have “go-to people,” it provides daily practices and time set aside to reflect and challenge your thinking.  Growth is what separates those who are successful and those who are not. It takes time to grow and when you have a PLN pushing you, then you will develop over time as a leader. 

Having a “go-to person or people” is critical in any person’s development as it provides capacity for growth, reflection and intentional part of your work.

Brenda Vatthauer – Middle School Principal, Hutchinson, MN

Top 5-Who Is Your Go-To Person?  Who is the first person you seek out when there is a need?  The need might include a problem to solve, to obtain advice, a listening ear, to gain insight and information, coordinate a large event, bring together community partners, etc.  Timing depends on the context and with someone you trust. A “go-to” person possesses qualities to help make one a better educator, parent, spouse, community member or friend. A “go-to” person has a reputation for:

making solid decisions              well-grounded in beliefs

prepared                                         responsible

growth-minded                            talented

well-rounded citizen                 holistic in points of view

give honest feedback                 resourceful

My  Top 5 go-to people, or people I have in my corner, I have had firsthand experience with.  I have grown from each group of people as I reflect on earlier interactions which I valued and learned from.  It is the relationship, not the transaction which makes the experience so powerful. Genuine connections have been developed over time.  So who are these Top 5 Go-To People?

  • Middle School Leader Voxer Group – phenomenal educators who are inner driven, giving honest feedback.
  • Former Supbrendaerintendent (from my first principalship) and Assistant Principals-have a wealth of wisdom, knowledge, and insight.
  •  Administrative Professionals-have numerous connections that are limitless and they are advocates who have your back.
  • Teacher Leaders-have their pulse on the day to day happenings and give input to help in navigating.
  • Community School Coordinator-have a jackpot of resources to tap into along with the coordinating skills to make it happen.

In education, a “go-to” person can make a real difference in your career and life.  Take time to celebrate how they have supported you in your professional and personal growth.

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Middle School Principals’ Collaborative: Beginning of the Year Essentials

This post is a collaboration between a group of middle school leaders from across the country.  Periodically, these passionate and dedicated middle school principals share their thoughts on issues of relevance for those “in the middle”.

Topic: The 2019-20 school year started over the past month across the country.  What are some “essentials” for middle school educators, teachers or leaders, at the beginning of the school year?

Donald Gately.  Middle School Principal, Long Island

For me, it’s important to do something new every year.  There is a truism that we needn’t do new things just for the sake of doing them.  To keep things fresh, I need to always be trying new things, at least that’s how it works for me personally.  This is actually my 18th year as a middle school principal, I know this because my second day as a brand-new principal was September 11, 2001, it was a tragic and challenging start to my career.  This year, inspired by one of my colleagues, Anthony Ciuffo, we implemented with our staff an initiative we’re calling “Learning-Edge Buddies”. Here’s how it works: At our first faculty meeting, each member of our staff responded on paper to the following prompts: What are you going to try for the first time this year or what are you trying to get better at? What’s your plan?  What are some things you’re going to do differently?  Next, each member of the staff crumpled up the paper into a “snowball” and tossed it at someone across the room; pick up the snowball and throw it again.  Everyone picks up a snowball. That is your learning-edge buddy. Your role is to be a cheerleader and supporter for your colleague / new friend as they travel on a learning journey this year. 

EErqieRWkAAKqyJA simple and elegant idea that so far is working beautifully. So many of our teachers have commented that their learning-edge buddy drops them little notes, maybe a small treat, an e-mail, a pat on the back, just to keep each other on track and accountable to somebody besides ourselves.  I’m excited by this initiative. Wondering what we will do next year!

Dennis Schug – Middle School Principal, Long Island, New York

Remember being 13? Who among us, given the opportunity, would actually choose to return to this…day I say, unique time of life?

These questions stick in my mind every September, facing a new school year, lying at the core of my approach with new (and returning) students, families, and staff. Whether for the first time, or a second or even third decade in middle school, September is the time to re-evaluate our memories and perceptions of life in middle school, to reset our perspectives. 

EErq5T_XkAEBoH7Middle School is amazing. Minute to minute, day by day, and month by month, there is this indescribable energy permeating every square inch of space of the building. As adults charged with finding ways to guide, steer, and sometimes harness this energy, a willingness to accept this challenge represents a key to success with adolescents. Catch the lightning in a bottle, and celebrate when you do. 

Middle School is complicated. Personal identity, evolving friendships, and puberty. While these are some of the “typical” struggles associated with adolescence, coupled with real-world issues,  this makes middle school tough to understand, leaving kids (and even sometimes adults) to wonder, “Am I the only one who…?” 

September presents a chance for renewal, a rebirth of sorts. Provided the chance to, not necessarily walk in our own shoes again, but to walk alongside a 13 year-old, that’s where the magic is, the privilege of Middle School. And that’s for us adults as much as the 13 year-olds who we serve.

Chris Legleiter – Middle School Principal, Leawood, KS 

The school year is an extremely busy setting but also provides great opportunities for educators to positively influence and impact others. The middle level is unique as kids are striving to grow as learners, develop independence and find their social place among peers. Educators that thrive at the middle level use the following “essentials” within their work:


  • Foster Effective Relationships – This is the most important factor in a successful classroom and school. It’s all about the people and how do we support and encourage each other. 
  • Effective Instructional Leadership – Both teachers and administrators are instructional leaders, and a primary goal must be student learning. We must always learn new strategies to enhance our work.
  • Focus on Growth – The School year is long but does move by quickly. All educators must focus on getting better at their craft thru learning new practices, becoming connected with other educators, reflect upon the work and adjust as needed.
  • Develop Others – The best schools exist because of its people. They also have a collective efficacy that “we are all in it together “ for kids. We must build others up and focus on “being the best for the team, not the best on the team.”
  • Show your passion – All educators go into teaching because they want to make a difference. We must let others see our enthusiasm, energy and positivity. Those things are contagious and it’s great when kids see the adults having fun in their roles as it creates a “community”. 

EErqieQXYAEYKStThe school year is a marathon, not a sprint. Teaching is hard as everyday matters but it is great because every day matters as we can impact kids. Be You and Be the Difference.

LaQuita Outlaw – Middle School Principal, Long Island

You spent the summer thinking about all the different things you would try to be better this year than you were the year before. Your desire to inspire students is at its peak. Before the feeling passes, find a way to harness the excitement that you have at this very moment. Grab a pencil (or a pen – whatever your preference) and record the fine details of what makes you smile. The children’s genuine admiration as they look at you when you speak. The way their eyes follow your every moment as you introduce a new topic, or even the surprise in their eyes when you show them something they’ve never heard before. Think about the conversations they’re having with their peers around the task you’ve given them, or the work that they’ve produced, which far supersedes anything you ever imagined. It’s these moments that will carry you through the difficult times of the year.   

Use the list that you generated to the sheer joy that brought you into education. There are an endless number of ways to capture, or reignite, the beginning of the year bliss. Here are some to consider:

  • Take a picture that sits on your desk as a reminder of the moment that brought you joy.
  • Celebrate children! A note home to the child’s family, or a certificate that celebrates an accomplishment will bring you back to why you do what you do

Brenda Vatthauer – Middle School Principal, Hutchinson, MN

What Are Your Hopes and DreamsEEr-4qqWwAAa1rs

Each year I look forward to connecting with students, parents and staff when they return to school in the fall.  I ask students “What Are Your Hopes and Dreams” and listen carefully to their responses. This question can become a “coaching” conversation by asking several follow up questions helping each student think about their future.  The real power behind the question comes when 8th grade mentors have a conversation with incoming 6th graders about their hopes and dreams. This is not only a mentoring connection, but an opportunity for growth. 

Parents can play a significant role by carrying out the discussion at home, driving to soccer practice or out for a meal together.  Middle school is a great time for parents to engage in the “Hopes and Dreams” conversation with their child. Teachers can promote this at Open House in the fall by posting a welcome on their SMART board stating “What Are Your Hopes and Dreams.”  The visual allows for a great conversation starter.

I would encourage you to continue the discussion by asking your staff what their hopes and dreams are for the upcoming year.  Ask staff to share their thoughts at a staff meeting before school starts. This allows an opportunity for risk taking and builds school culture at the same time.  We are never too old to have hopes and dreams for the new school year.

Jay Posick- Merton Intermediate School, Merton, WI

The beginning of the school year is when we need to focus on the 3 R’s-

Relationships with students

Relationships with staff

Relationships with family.

Most of the interactions we have before the school year starts are with our staff.  It’s important to provide our staff time with one another and it’s also important to spend time with our staff.  It doesn’t need to be, nor should it be, all professional development. It’s time to talk about our expectations for our students and for one another.

EEW_1k_X4AEW-3fOnce the students are in the building, it’s important to connect with students as much as you can.  Greet them when they arrive. Connect with them in the halls. Eat with them at lunch. Play with them at recess.  Learn with them in classrooms. And say good-bye to them as they leave for the day.

Building relationships starts with the first email you send, either at the end of the summer or as the school year gets started.  We have used flipgrid to have our staff share a brief video. Open House and Family Information Nights also bring families into our schools.

Relationships are developed over time in 15-30 second increments.  Make the 3R’s a priority for the start of the school year and there’s a great chance it will be your best school year ever.

Ted Huff – Educational Consultant / Retired Missouri Middle School Principal

As educators, it is essential to remember what it was like to be a middle school student. Picture yourself back in 8th grade. Two essential questions ring true: First, Will I be accepted? And second, Can I do the work? If we empower our students to confidently answer both questions with a resounding “Yes”, then our students will be prepared to have a successful year.

EEXSJuyXoAAIvnsBuilding positive professional relationships with our students begins with the first days of school. Dedicating the first few days of school to relationship building, academic work won’t begin until the first full week of school. During Character Connection Class (our academic lab) teachers and students work together to foster a collaborative and accepting community through a variety of them building activities. This is continues throughout the rest of the school year. During the “academic” and elective classes, the teachers also focus on class relationships. Here they share the importance of getting to know their students before jumping into curriculum work. 

So goes the first week of school, so goes your school year. Start off on the correct foot by building a foundation based on relationships.

Laura Jennaro – Christian Education Leadership Academy (K-8) , Pewaukee, WI

I love the start of a new school year!  With it brings an opportunity for a fresh perspective and a positive approach.  We educators, are the luckiest people on earth; we get to inspire youth everyday.  While blessed by this endeavor, we also accept great responsibility. It is essential for educators, to embrace this responsibility in the following three ways: show up, be curious about your people, and lead by example.  

SHOW UP  When I show up, I am present and engaged in the moment.  I am not multitasking; I do not have my phone out; I am listening; I am interacting.  I am curious. I seek to learn with and from you. In what ways can we show up?

BE CURIOUS  Stories connect us.  I enjoy learning the stories of my people, be it staff, students, parents.  Commonalities create an invisible bridge over which relationships are developed.  How do you learn other’s stories?

LEAD BY EXAMPLE  It is not enough to talk the talk, we must w


alk the talk.  Model what is expected in all that you say and do. Inspire others with your actions.

Setting the tone for a new school year is essential, and not always easy.  Remember to give yourself grace as you embrace this new school year and the opportunities it provides!

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About learning: You’re not always saving lives

The administrative team in my district recently engaged in a ritual that we have performed for as long as I have been here, we renewed our certification in CPR and basic first aid.  It takes about two hours and the training is usually provided by a few of our staff members, a nurse, PE or health teacher. Our instructors were two of our very best health and PE teachers from our school district.  Their expertise was apparent, their affect was warm and inviting, they encouraged risk-taking and engendered confidence in the participants. Numerous elements of a successful learning experience were in place. Our instructors showed us several videos that illustrated the symptoms of cardiac arrest and the procedures for emergency care.  The animations were of high quality, it was fun to try to figure out if the figures depicted in the video were actual people or computer-generated images.  CPR_training-05

Practice is essential because if you find yourself in a situation requiring CPR, you must have done it before, even though you didn’t perform it on an actual person.  We practiced on first aid dummies, pardon the expression, but they’re literally “dummies” – plastic mannequin-like apparatuses that have a head and torso, but no arms or legs.  You can blow into the dummy’s mouth and, as long as you are holding its nose in proper form, the chest will rise as it would in real mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Chest compressions mimic how it will feel to administer actual CPR, the dummy’s chest depresses approximately 2 inches, manually causing the heart to pump blood to the body.  So each administrator practiced the entire routine at least three times. 

One might conclude that this entire exercise was a matter of compliance, that is, something you just have to do periodically, check off a box to meet a legal requirement D_H1XwiX4AAdi5Lfor training.  But I have found that it’s not sufficient to sit back and “comply” because although the process of administering cardiopulmonary resuscitation is quite elemental, the procedure seems to change every time I’ve been trained.  You’re required to recertify once every two years and sure enough, every two years, the methods to move blood throughout the body via chest compressions and provide a small amount of oxygen through mouth-to-mouth seem to change in each instance.  When I first learned, it was one breath and 15 chest compressions. Then it was changed to chest compressions first, then breaths. Later, it changed again, 30 chest compressions and two breaths. I shouldn’t be surprised that the procedure is in constant flux, we’re talking about life and death here, we’ve got our best people working on it.  In other words, it’s not sufficient to simply put the time in, you’ve really got to pay attention.   

EDJindkWkAALkV9It worked, after this two-hour training, I felt confident about my ability to provide CPR and rescue breathing if called upon to do so (God forbid, my mother would’ve insisted I say that out loud after the preceding sentence). After training, we took a quiz.  If we passed, we received a card certifying us as “Cardiac Lifesavers” by the American Red Cross. I’m pleased to report that every administrator passed the quiz and successfully recertified.  

Above, I have described several variables of effective instruction: the “feeling-tone” of the classroom setting, the expertise of the instructors, the relationships developed in the workshop, the use of media, modeling, cooperative grouping, and independent practice.  Given the subject of this workshop, you might ask, “Why was any of this necessary? You were learning to save lives!” You would think that we could have mastered these techniques even with horrible teachers, in a lousy environment, with no videos and no opportunities to practice on dummies.  But this isn’t true. If none of these factors were in place, we likely would not have successfully recertified in first aid procedures.  

D_H1XwjXkAEouheAs important was the content of this training, the success of this learning experience was due more to the pedagogical factors and the human capital of the instructors than the to the (quite likely) possibility that we may one day have to use these skills to save somebody’s life.  Put simply, if a group of dedicated, experienced, school administrators don’t automatically engage when the content is a matter of life or death, how much do you think your 12-year-old learners are going to engage with a discussion of Shays rebellion or a poem by Dickinson. Regardless of how “essential” we feel the content we are teaching is, kids won’t engage unless we focus on the essentials of learning.  

All great teachers have singular passions for their disciplines.  As a teacher of English language arts, I know that I did. No one needs to convince us of the importance and relevance of our content.  But that’s not enough. Even though we teach our content as though the lives of our kids depend upon it, they won’t learn unless we purposefully employ techniques to ensure the engagement of students.

What are you passionate about in your content area?   How do you ensure that your students “engage”?

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About Learning: “Hey, you had the lighter one”

My wife and I attended a family party at her sister’s last weekend.  Her neighbor and husband stopped by with their five-month-old twins, a boy, and a girl.


Ryan and Harper

As it happened at this particular party, most of the kids were older, not infants.  My eight-year-old daughter Juliet might have been the youngest kid at the party. So these were the only babies enjoying this family graduation party.  And, as usually occurs, the babies started getting passed around like a bowl of guac. All the parents, remembering the good old days, arguing over who’s turn it was to hold them next.  Holding these adorable infants, parents reminisced about the times when their kids didn’t talk back, didn’t leave towels on the bathroom floor, didn’t borrow their cars, and return them without gas.  Oh my — watching your friends hold these two infants brought us right back to those days when parenting was reduced to changing diapers and breastfeeding (my wife, not me).  


Not babies anymore

We have five children between us, a blended family. So each of us has done “baby parent” three times. And when you are the parent of an infant, you have a great deal to learn. I remember that first time I changed my son’s diaper,  how difficult it was: ”Where do I put this while I open up that?  What do I do with this cream over here? It’s getting all over me. Ugh, he’s peeing on me.” Not six weeks later I became an expert diaper changer. I could change my baby’s diaper like a Penn and Teller trick;  you hardly knew it had happened.  I changed my kids’ diapers everywhere. I did diaper duty on car seats, desks, even garbage pails. Anywhere I needed to. I think I could change a diaper in midair if necessary.

And so you learn. 

As an educator, I am utterly fascinated by the way we learn, as we all should be.   Here is an essential question: Does learning have to be difficult? Can learning come without some degree of pain and hard work?  Consider parenting and the lyricism of the reverie that occurred at that party the other night. Everyone who held those babies forgot the vicissitudes of parenting, the sleepless nights, the running around, the worry, not to mention, for the women, delivering the baby, which I hear can be kinda painful.  My mother was fond of saying that if God didn’t put a baby’s face over the pain of delivery,  every kid in the world would be an only child. All of these challenges were forgotten.  These folks preferred to reflect on how much they learned, how much they accomplished as parents, how proud they were of their children.

When it was our turn to hold the babies, they were getting fussy so no one seemed to want to take them from us.  Danielle and I used whatever special parenting tricks we’ve learned to soothe them for a little over a half-hour while mom went home to get bottles to feed them.  You know what, it really is like riding a bike, we are still pretty good at being “baby parents”. Danielle held Ryan, the boy, who loved looking around at all the action.  I held Harper, the girl, and I used some of my special tricks to quiet her quivering lip; she even started to fall asleep in my arms. Of course, everyone at the party was saying,  “Hey, you guys are naturals, you should have more kids.” People always say this.

When mom came back with the bottles,  she took Ryan first. Feeling the difference between the weight of the two when I handed Harper to Danielle, my wife said, “Hey, you had the lighter one.” So funny. 

I guess you learn a lot by overcoming challenging circumstances, but memories of that journey never completely fade away. That’s how learning works.

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About our legacy: What details will be remembered

In 2007 a former astronaut got in her car and drove 850 miles from Houston, Texas to Orlando, Florida to confront a man, also a former astronaut, with whom she had some kind of a love interest.  It’s not certain what her intentions were but she had in her possession a steel mallet, a 4-inch folding knife, rubber tubing, rubber gloves, $600 in cash, and love letters,  all in bags. When she confronted the fellow ex-astronaut, she succeeded only in getting him to partially roll down the window of his car and she sprayed him with pepper spray.images

Despite the intricacies of the sordid plan described above, the one detail everyone remembers about this incident is the fact that in order to endure the long drive from Houston to Orlando, the woman wore an adult diaper.  In fact, Google it, and the first headline you will find is “Diaper-wearing astronaut jailed in love triangle plot”.   There wasn’t a single story published about this incident in which this wasn’t mentioned; in most cases, it was the lead.  

I’m not going to focus here on the reasons why Americans were fascinated by this little detail (although I reserve the right to do so at length in a future post).  Rather, my fascination is with the curious details that can take such prominence that they overshadow the story itself. This, I have found, is a curious phenomenon associated with middle school kids.  Whenever you ask young adolescents about the adults in their lives, their teachers, administrators, their bus driver, the lunch ladies, they always focus on some quirky detail that is the part that becomes the whole:

The social studies teacher who shepherded his students from Jamestown through Reconstruction: 

  • “He always had  M & M’s on his desk”

The lovely lady who served lunch to 804 kids every day: 

  • “She used to whistle songs from Wicked”

The assistant principal who greeted them every day when they got off the bus:

  • ”That guy was really tall.”

So what’s the point?  Middle school kids and probably elementary and high school kids too, will not remember all of the pearls of wisdom and small acts of kindness that we bestow upon them every day, well, maybe one or two. 

Middle school educators should focus their attention on always doing their very best work with kids, don’t worry about the details. Be kind, elevate student voice, work hard, focus more on learning than on “content” … because more than likely, your legacy is going to be some version of  “Diaper-wearing astronaut jailed in love triangle plot.” 

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About parenting: You’re not so bad

For years I’ve had a sneaky suspicion that I was a horrible parent.  It wasn’t anything obvious. I never left my children in a car with the windows rolled up on a hot day.  My kids always have money in their lunch accounts at school. We have a pool in our backyard, that’s something.  We’ve even driven to Disney with them, in Florida, twice. Nevertheless, I have a nagging thought in the back of my mind, or in my horribly dark soul, that I’m really not cutting it as a parent.  

517rvxIMdNL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Fortunately for me, I have discovered a book that has helped me to understand that I actually am a horrible parent.  Just as Marie Kondo’s book The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up has helped tens of thousands of people to look at their homes and offices to realize they are unredeemable slobs, reading Amy Morin’s book, 13 Things Mentally Strong Parents Don’t Do  has helped me to finally particularize the ways in which I actually am the substandard parent I always imagined myself to be.

What are the 13 things Mentally Strong Parents Don’t Do..?

1. They don’t condone a victim mentality.
2. They don’t parent out of guilt.
3. They don’t make their children the center of the universe.
4. They don’t allow fear to dictate their choices.
5. They don’t give their children power over them.
6. They don’t expect perfection.
7. They don’t let their children avoid responsibility.
8. They don’t shield their children from pain.
9. They don’t feel responsible for their children’s emotions.
10. They don’t prevent their children from making mistakes.
11. They don’t confuse discipline with punishment.
12. They don’t take shortcuts to avoid discomfort.
13. They don’t lose sight of their values.


Maybe Juliet could’ve taken the railroad to the game by herself

That describes most weekends at my house… that is… between my wife and me… we cover at least 9 of the 13 “things” at our house between Friday and Sunday night.  I didn’t collaborate with Amy in writing this book but I’m pretty certain she has a webcam in my house that sees me remind my 8 year old to get off her I-Pad for the 4th time in an hour, or me giving my 11th grader a little too much help with his college essay, or scolding my 9th grader for getting an 87% on her science test and not crying about it.  Yes, it’s confirmed, as I’ve long suspected, I am a fairly horrible parent.


Made their beds

But… there’s hope for me, for all of us. Morin’s book offers guidance that can help all of us become better parents.  Many of her ideas are powerful and common sense things parents can do differently; some of her ideas challenge our assumptions about parenting.  Consider this advice to parents who make their child the center of the universe: “Keep the emphasis on how kindness affects other people, rather than how great a person it makes the child for doing a good deed.”  To parents who expect perfection, Morin encourages parents to tell their children stories about their own failures.  We make our kids’ beds and do their laundry but we’re surprised when they

return to live with us well into their 30’s; Morin advises parents to give their children chores and responsibility.

I’m pretty sure you’re a better parent than I am but there’s something in this powerful book for everybody.  Read it and also join us for a discussion at the Jericho Joint PTA Open Council Meeting in the Middle School Library on MARCH 18 at 9:30am.  See you there.

(One last thought.  I do not do Number 4:  “allow fear to dictate my choices.”   I’m trying to talk my wife into allowing my third grader to walk to school by herself; hey, I took the subway to Yankee Stadium when I was in 7th grade.  I’m not winning this argument.)

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Stories: About a boy

It’s been said, if you don’t tell your own stories,  somebody will tell them for you.

This is a story that must be told.

Sometimes things happen in your school that are so awesome, but no one knows about them.  

And if everyone knew, the world would be a better place.

This is about Bess and Lauren, two teachers at our school.  


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Kevin on a chromebook

There’s a sixth grader who is sort of in their class.    His name is Kevin.  Kevin went to one of the elementary schools many of our kids came from.  They know him. He’s registered, he has a student ID number. His particulars, even his photo, are in the student management system.  He’s been assigned to a sixth-grade middle school team of two teachers, Lauren and Bess. But this student has an illness that prevents him from coming to school for the present time.   Kevin’s going to get better, but he has yet to step foot in our school building. Consider how difficult that must be for this boy. Here’s where his middle school teachers, Lauren and Bess come in.

I know that there are robot-like devices that can be used for kids to attend school under these circumstances.  There was an IBM commercial that showed a kid attending school from home while remotely operating a robot that traveled the hallways and even joined his friends in the cafeterias at lunchtime, “Oh my, I can’t wait ‘til the future, it looks so



Kevin’s working with this group

cool.”  There was a story on the news in 2014 about a high school freshman on Long Island who attended school using a robot because he was recovering from appendicitis surgery.  But his mom works for the company that makes these robots.  She loaned one to the school for her son  That was three years ago, I haven’t taken a sick day in five years, still no robots.  


Bess and Lauren didn’t wait for the robots.  They are cutting edge users of technology. That’s not to say that they are always incorporating bells and whistles into their lessons.  Quite the contrary. But they realize that if there’s a way to leverage technology in order for kids to connect with people they otherwise could not,  or obtain information in a way they could not access without technology; then they are eager to incorporate digital tools. They use Flipgrid to give students another means to demonstrate learning in ways that don’t involve pen and paper.  They use Google Hangouts and Facetime to do Mystery Skypes with kids in other parts of the country or across the globe.  These teachers jumped in and got Kevin into the class using simple, free technology available to anyone with a laptop or any device.  Using an app called Appear.in that is designed for video conversations and meetings, Kevin joins the class every day via his computer at home.  Lauren and Bess have leveraged technology to bring Kevin into their classrooms every day. It’s incredible and inspiring.

I had a chance to see this in action recently when the 6th grade at our school organized a student-led EdCamp (read more about #KidCamp here).   The teachers, and sometimes students,  carried “Kevin” around to different sessions as he video conferenced in on a Chromebook. He chose what sessions he wanted to join because the session board was posted online for everyone to view.  He joined a session I facilitated called “Music: What are you listening to? Let’s talk” It was so cool to learn about the music my middle school kids are listening to.  We used a Padlet to post a link to songs we like and the discussion went on from there. We simply talked about the nature of music and why we love it. Kevin had the link to the Padlet and he was able to post his own links and share songs he liked. He is an incredible kid.

Amazing educators, when you ask them, “What do you teach?”, they reply, “I teach kids!”  Great teachers love kids. They love the students in front of them and they understand the sacred nature of their professional responsibility to nurture the academic and personal development of kids.  Great teachers know that relationships are the most important thing; not homework, not tests, not awesome lesson plans, but relationships.  Great teachers love kids more than they love content. They might be historians, they might be scientists, but they are teachers of kids first.  They put kids before the curriculum. Inspiring teachers love students they haven’t even met yet. This is what Lauren and Bess have done.

I think that Bess and Lauren are going to be a little embarrassed that I’m writing about this because they’re not looking for any credit but, think about it, this is so awesome. The agile use of technology, the willingness to think outside the box, their incredible empathy and love for their students, the love of the other kids in sixth grade for their friend, the innovation of Kid EdCamp and including Kevin in it.  How many “Kevin”‘s are there around the world? It’s pretty simple to bring them into our schools and classrooms. It’s great for Kevin, it’s transformative for all of us. Not because people want recognition for something, in fact, the opposite seems to be true. Sometimes teachers are just absolutely crushing it every single day in their classrooms and no one really knows about it. They don’t want you to advertise it.  But, if I don’t tell you about it, you won’t realize how easy this is to do.

Like I said, sometimes there are stories that need to be told…


Amazing teachers put kids FIRST: Lauren, Beth, Bess and Suzanne

Posted in adolescence, Best Practice, edcamp, Educational Focus, Inside the Middle School, Personal Best, Teaching/Learning

About kids and devices: Trying to find the answers

I’m trying to figure something out…

At the risk of admitting my age, I will disclose that when I was in middle school, the following were popular “first run” television shows: the Brady Bunch, the Partridge Family, the 6 Million Dollar Man, Charlie’s Angels, Happy Days, and Laverne and Shirley.  That was some great TV right there.  The thing is, I watched an appalling amount of television when I was a kid.  

At that time, there were articles in newspapers and magazines about the har


Brady Bunch

m being done to children through too much TV watching.  My parents and teachers talked a great deal about it also: all these kids to do is watch television, they don’t play outside anymore; they don’t interact with each other.  My teachers lamented that they couldn’t compete with the nature of the material as it was presented on the television screen.  I distinctly remember my 10th grade English teacher, Rich Settani, ranting to my class about TV and how hard it made his job, “Big Bird, Sesame Street… I can’t compete with that!  I don’t even wear colorful ties!” (We loved Mr. Settani).

To anyone following the present-day debate about children and device use,  these conversations will sound more than a little familiar? Are devices harming our children? As a principal in middle school, I am particularly interested in this discussion.

There’s an informative study from Common Sense Media and a series of 

TED Talks on this subject.  At both sites, you’ll find evidence both for and against device use by young people and adults. Their arguments sound vaguely similar to the disputes about TV watching that proliferated when I was in middle school.

As a principal, I am often called upon to weigh in on this debate and to be honest, I’m trying to figure it out.

I have a small scar above my left eye.  When I was 4 years old, while I lay on the floor watching a TV on a metal stand, I kicked over the stand and the TV fell on my face.  


As far as I can determine, this is the greatest harm that has ever come to me from watching television. 


TV’s hurt when they fall on your face.

Our teachers and students can accomplish incredible things through the use of technology that I couldn’t even dream of when I was in middle school.  Using technology, teachers can gather real-time, personalized data from students about their learning and connect them with each other and with the world in amazing ways. BUT… If I posted a photo of my cafeteria on a Tuesday or a Thursday (not Wednesday, that’s “device-free day”) you’d see too many students with their heads buried in their phones.  This can’t be a good thing, can it? Personally, I rely on my phone to stay organized, to track data, and to connect with my personalized network of other learners who share ideas and give me valuable support.  But the urge to frequently check my phone has become a physical “tic” that I know interferes with my relationships and attention span. So you can see how I’m ambivalent when it comes to the blessings and curses of devices.

Principals often share expertise and conclusions, but what do they do when they don’t have either of these?  Is it okay for a principal to say, “I don’t know the answer to this?” I hope so because that’s what I’m saying…  I choose to believe that there’s power in learning alongside the stakeholders in our school community. I will engage kids and adults in focused conversations, share experiences, help them reflect, and gather data and opinions about our technology use.  I’m trying to find the answers to questions about children and devices, but in the meantime, I hope I’m modelling what it means to be a learner.

How about you?  Are there areas of your practice as a leader or teacher that you haven’t figured out?   How are you modelling your learning? How can we be transparent about the process as we learn new things and try to find answers to life’s essential questions?


I put my device in “phone jail” for a day along with a group of 6th graders.  Try it!

Posted in adolescence, Best Practice, Educational Focus, Leadership, Parenting, Personal Best, Reflections, Teaching/Learning | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

About school: We can make it special

nets sweats

Juliet in her Nets Hoodie

On Halloween I took my daughter Juliet who is 8 years old to a Brooklyn Nets game. That’s right, my daughter just started playing basketball and she was so excited to go to her first professional game that she gave up trick-or-treating to do it.  That’s dedication!

We arrived about 45 minutes before the game.  Juliet wore a Brooklyn Nets hoodie that we bought specifically for the occasion.  Standing just inside the entrance, marveling at all the sights and sounds of the arena,  we were approached by a member of the Nets staff who asked Juliet, “Would you like to be part of the “High Five Line” and stand on the court with the players during the national anthem?“  You don’t you have to guess what her response was. Juliet dashed off with the nice Nets lady so fast I thought I would never see my daughter again.

Juliet and 11 other fans had the opportunity to be on the court and high five the players when they came out for warm-ups. Then, she stood in front of one of the players during the singing of the Star Spangled Banner. The player, Ed Davis, even tapped her on the shoulder and gave her a high-five at the conclusion of the anthem.

It would be impossible to overstate Juliet’s excitement about the Nets, basketball, and her awesome night out with her dad.  She is a lifelong Nets fan now for sure! So grateful to the Brooklyn Nets for going to 


Juliet on the “High Five Line”

all the trouble to make it special for Juliet.   

But was it really a lot of trouble?  

When you think about it, this was actually quite easy for the Nets to do.  Every game, the players run onto the court for warm ups and stand for the national anthem.  It’s a fairly straightforward process to grab 12 fans and invite them to join them when this happens.  They gave all the fans a T-shirt but they were created by a sponsor and every shirt was XXX Large so they didn’t have to worry if they fit each participant, Juliet was able to put it on over her hoodie.

It’s wasn’t complicated, but the Nets were able to create this special moment for a group of fans because they are in charge, it’s their building, their court, their team.  They have the power to make the event momentous for the fans.

JMS staff and proud PB Award Recipient

Our school does something similar to this called Personal Best Awards.

One of the guiding principles of our school culture is “always do your personal best”.   We tell kids, you don’t need to be better than somebody else, strive to be better today than you were yesterday. To focus attention on social emotional literacy and on personal development we have monthly themes and we use the CASEL SEL Competencies to guide our work in building students’ personal capacity.   As part of an initiative to promote this, we have something called  “Personal Best Awards”. Four times a year teachers select students to be recognized for doing their personal best.   There’s a small ceremony after school, students are given a tee shirt and a certificate with the reason they were nominated.  Families are invited to attend. There’s cake ( BJ’s will make a cake with the school logo on it for you) and the middle school jazz ensemble performs as families enter and at “intermission”.  As it takes place on a Friday immediately after the school day, many parents can leave work early and most of the staff attends as well.

Parents are so proud when kids are recognized

Superintendent and Board Trustees join us to present PB Awards

Certificates, tee shirts, music, cake… nothing particularly fancy.   Personal Best Award Ceremonies are special occasions for the kids and for their families but they’re not difficult or expensive for us to plan.  This small, simple event sends a powerful message about what we value as a school and it is a special memory for the students who are honored. Principals and teachers can create singular moments for kids everyday.  Like the Brooklyn Nets, these are our schools, classrooms, hallways, gyms, and cafeterias. We are in charge of these settings.  We can do extraordinary things to create lifelong fans of learning and of our schools.

What are some ways that you make it special for kids in your setting?  How do you generate memorable moments that create lifelong fans for your school and classroom.  


Juliet’s Halloween costume: Rosie the Riveter

Posted in adolescence, Best Practice, Inside the Middle School, Leadership, Personal Best, Teaching/Learning, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

About Work / Life Balance: So much to learn

Dp-xqXxW4AAMWU2The 5th Annual EdCamp Long Island took place last Saturday at Mineola High School. About 400 educators attended an amazing day of learning. There so much to say about the planning and preparation that went into this event. It’s my sincere hope that many people who attended EdCampLI will blog about it to spread the good word about this dynamic, personalized version of professional development.

An awesome session I facilitated with the amazing Danielle Gately (@dmgately) was representative of what makes the EdCamp model of learning so extraordinary.   Dp-MOoGWoAAcirQ

It had been a dynamic, energetic day that begin for most people around 8 AM with breakfast and fervent conversation with other passionate educators. Danielle and I booked a session in the 2 PM slot on the topic: Work / Life Balance.  There were only five other sessions in this slot so we figured this was a good time to post a conversation. We expected a sparse crowd because lunch was awesome, there was a lot of food, it was a gorgeous autumn day, and it was Saturday after all, life beaconed outside the halls of the venue.

Dp90pHXWkAMZiKDWe walked into a room that was packed with people. Seriously, standing room only. We have led this session before and we normally get a pretty good crowd, this time the room was bulging at the seams. Danielle and I looked at each other and looked at the people in the room and started by saying,” We hope you didn’t come looking for answers from us, because we came looking for answers from you!”

For the next hour a powerful conversation on this important topic transpired that likely had a transformative effect on every participant.

Some takeaways:

Nobody has all the answers

Dp9L2GjVAAAnYFiIt’s been said that at Ed Camp, the smartest person in the room, is the room. This was never more true than in this session. We learned about Amazon Alexa, Peapod, Checklists, Google calendar, Calm, Headspace, Voxer, apple watches, and many other tools and hacks to manage life and work. People shared strategies, tips, and struggles.  Everyone who left the session came away with ideas to meet the tremendous challenges of balancing their professional and personal lives.

Honesty is the currency of learning

Dp-Aoa0VAAACCpuParticipants felt comfortable sharing their personal stories about work / life balance in a way that was remarkable. One teacher talked about how, on her commute home from work, she often passes by a beautiful bench by a lake.  She invariably thinks to herself, “I wish I had time to stop and go down there and sit for awhile.” So on one occasion she stopped her car and did just that, visited the bench by the water. When she returned to her car, she looked in her watch and noted that she had been gone for exactly 7 minutes. Seven minutes that made huge difference in her thinking and emotions that day. This story made a profound impression on me as I’m sure it did on the others who attended our session.  There is something uniquely invitational about the passion and energy of EdCamp that promotes this kind of candor and openness.

We need each other

Dp94rVeU8AAhV5BSo many people at the session exchanged Twitter handles, email addresses and phone numbers. The conversation continued at the fifth session at a nearby restaurant where many participants stopped by for a drink and to continue talking about this topic as well as all the learning that took place throughout the day.  I am certain that these connections will fortify these busy educators as they navigate the challenges of the hectic year ahead.

It can be difficult to describe the magic of the Ed camp model.  It’s liberating to cast off the formalities, restrictions, and passivity of conventional educational contexts (read: SCHOOL) and embrace a mode of learning that elevates choice, participation and sharing.  When I’m asked to give an example of the power of EdCamp, I will describe the amazing session that took place this past Saturday on the topic of Work / Life balance. We wish you were there!

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