Sunday, July 3, 2016

Top 3 takeaways from my first year in admin.

Just finished my first year as director of this little alternative school we call The Depot. Here are my top three takeaways:

1) A year ago, I had been 100% sold on Daniel Pink's model of motivation--that if you just increase autonomy, opportunity for mastery, and purpose, people will be naturally self-motivated. I was excited to see it in action when I started last September at this little Big Picture school, but by halfway through my first year, I changed my mind.

I'm not saying the model is wrong, but at least in the simplistic way we were applying it, it's incomplete. We need to scaffold the independent learning process and make sure they have the foundational skills they need. My new working model for motivation incorporates Pink, but within a broader framework. It has led to some new supports this year, a new assessment system, increased data tracking and a new incentive and support structure in the works for next year.

2) Speaking of support, the second biggest thing I've learned is how much I need other people. I've always been kind of a self-sufficient type. OK, maybe that's an understatement. But this year it became very evident, very quickly that I could absolutely not do this alone.

I'm still learning this lesson. I'm learning to reach out for assistance when we have students we don't have the resources to serve, for advice when I'm faced with a tough disciplinary situation, and for help when I'm getting overwhelmed. Delegation is something I'm working on, as well as supporting my staff so they can support our students. But I'm also very much aware of the support and encouragement they and others provide me. Without them, I'd never have made it. Together, we had a very successful year. 

3) The last big takeaway is another work-in-progress. I have a lot to learn about balancing demanding and understanding. At the end of the year, I gave the students a survey that asked them to identify the worst thing about the Depot. Four of them wrote, "Bill," and half of them said they didn't feel like they could come to me with their concerns.

Maybe they were students who'd been disciplined or pushed harder than they wanted to be, but it may also represent a real failure on my part. I'm a perfectionist, and that comes out in the way I relate to others. I need to make sure I do as much smiling as I do keeping a "stiff upper lip." As I'm raising the bar, I need to be constantly holding out my hand.

My wife and I watched Lean On Me last night, the classic film about high school principal, Joe Clark. His radical, authoritative approach turned an inner city school around in the 80s. I met his son, J. J. Clark (UCONN's track coach), at the gym the other day, and he recommended the movie. I'm so glad he did. I saw lots of parallels with the Depot this year, and I was impressed by the way Principal Clark balanced discipline with showing care and concern. I walked away with another reminder of my need to work on being more understanding and caring, even as we continue to increase structure and standards.

It's interesting, now that I've got them all down here in print, that these three takeaways have a theme: they're all about support--providing it, seeking it, and balancing it with demands. I'm not surprised that this theme rose up like this, because I'm convinced support is the central issue in education today. I used to think the problem with American education was a faulty model. Now, I'm convinced is just a lack of sufficient support for kids who need it.

I want to be part of that change.

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