Book Review – Transforming School Culture

Source: Amazon.com

Transforming School Culture: How to Overcome Staff Division, Anthony Muhammad

Book Review – Spike C. Cook, Millville, NJ

Are you looking for a leadership book on school culture that integrates data, practical advice, and strategies tailored to your school’s unique needs? Honestly, anyone who is an administrator in a school is looking for such a book! In Transforming School Culture (2nd Edition) Anthony Muhammad provides a road map for aspiring and current school leaders who are interested in addressing the daunting task of improving school culture. For this new edition, Dr. Muhammad has updated the research, added a frequently asked questions section, and added further guidance to equip leaders to take their school’s culture to the next level.

Throughout the first section of the book, Dr. Muhammad provides an overview of the current reform movement as well as a detailed analysis on the four types of educators he found in schools while doing his research. The four types of educators and their goals:

  • The Believers are focused on the core values of healthy school culture, feel that all students can learn and that they have a direct impact on student success.
  • The Tweeners are new to the culture and still experiencing the honeymoon phase.
  • The Survivors are a small group of educators who are burned out, overwhelmed and struggle to survive.
  • The Fundamentalists are vehemently opposed to change and through political power become a major obstacle in reform. They are usually against the Believers.

Source: slideshare.net Linda Hopping

As you read the brief overview of the four types of educators, did these descriptions make you think about your faculty? If you had to group your faculty into the four groups, how long do you think it would take? According to Dr. Muhammad, identifying these four groups is essential in understanding the real culture of the school. The next step, and perhaps more difficult, is to take action so that you can transform your school culture. Through this work, you will learn how (and why) to transform the culture by developing the following:

  1. Systemic focus on learning
  2. Celebrating the success of all stakeholders
  3. Creating system of support for Tweeners
  4. Removing the walls of isolation
  5. Providing intensive professional development
  6. Implementing skillful leadership and focus

These six steps may appear more difficult to implement because of the overwhelming tasks required to operate a school with the demands of the 21st century. Have no fear because Dr. Muhammad provides practical, easy to implement exercises to support you on your journey. All you will need to do is put the framework provided into practice!

In the final chapter, Dr. Muhammad includes the questions he has encountered from the emails, messages as well as the in-person discussions since the release of the first edition in 2009. These questions will resonate with you as you may have already penciled them into margins as you read the book. For instance, one of the questions could spark a much needed conversation on the four types of educators such as what if a Fundamentalist believes that he or she is a Believer? I can honestly say I thought the same thing!

In conclusion, Transforming School Culture: How to Overcome Staff Division 2nd Edition will be worth the read. Dr. Muhammad understands school culture not only as a researcher and author, but also as a former teacher, vice principal, and principal. He led a staff transformational process in a high poverty, high minority school with a toxic, low expectation school into a nationally recognized school and earned a Principal of the Year in Michigan for his efforts.

 

Spike C. Cook, Ed.D. is Principal of Lakeside Middle School in Millville, NJ. Connect with him via twitter @drspikecook or check out his personal blog drspikecook.com.

What to do over Holiday Break?

Source: elephantjournal.com

The Holiday Break is upon us. There are many educators who thought about this time for the past week, month or maybe even since September, but no matter how long you have prepared yourself it is finally here. There seems to be a lot of preparation and planning about what to do over the break.

 

I saw this quote on the Elephant Journal website and I thought I would share. I think it is powerful…

Stop waiting for Friday, for summer, for someone to fall in love with you, for life. Happiness is achieved when you stop waiting for it and make the most of the moment you are in now. Elephant Journal

I am grateful that I saw that quote during the most stressful time for schools (which is clearly the week before Winter Break). The quote made me stop and think about the present moment. Most of us are always wishing for that time or person who will make it all better as opposed to seeing the beauty in the now.

This Winter Break I plan to do the following (not necessarily in any order) and these plans are not definite.

  • Read Brene Brown’s Braving the Wilderness. I am intrigued by her work on vulnerability.
  • Float. I’ve heard about Float Tanks/Sensory Deprivation tanks for some time. Basically, you get into a tank for a few hours and become suspended in your thoughts, intentions without any distractions.
  • Hike. I love to get out into the woods and walk. Southern New Jersey is somewhat mild in the winters and there are plenty of trails near where I live.
  • Couch time. Although I sometimes struggle with couch time, I feel it is essential practice to a balanced life. Whether I am watching a documentary, sporting event, movie or binge watching a television series, I find solitude on the couch!
  • Write. I am working on a few things and I could see myself spending time in a coffee shop typing away at something or nothing!
  • Friends. I love hanging out with friends. There is always an adventure on the horizon.
  • Podcast. We recorded a podcast this morning on the PrincipalPLN. Our goal is to get one more in before the new year.

So now is the time for the break. How are you going to spend your break?

Do you have Financial Peace?

Source: daveramsey.com

Recently I had the pleasure of going through Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University through a local church in my area. I was very reluctant at first. In fact, I think the first time I was introduced to FPU was about 5 years ago. For some reason, though, this time it clicked. Who doesn’t want Financial Peace?

Preconceived issues with money

At the beginning of the class we were asked to write and discuss our philosophy on money. This was an excellent exercise because I had a lot of issues with money and I wasn’t afraid to share. In my journal I wrote the following:

  • Money is the root of all evil
  • People with a lot of money are not philanthropic
  • Some debt is good especially for housing and education
  • Balancing a budget is as easy as looking at your ATM statement
  • If you need more money then you need to work more
  • If you can’t afford something then just put it on a credit card and pay off later
  • Truly religious or spiritual people do not care about money
  • Trips to Starbucks are a necessity!

Source: daveramsey.com

In Dave’s first session, Super Saving, he literally gets to the core of what money is and isn’t. He also uses Biblical references to support his claims. I was dumbfound because almost everything I wrote about (in regards to my preconceived notions about money) Dave addressed. I felt like he was talking directly to me! I can honestly admit that all my preconceived issues regarding money were wrong!

Throughout the remaining 9 weeks we reviewed Dave’s videos, worked in our notebooks and discussed the concepts plaguing most people. We learned about the baby steps to Financial Peace as well as how to relate with money in our relationships, how actually plan and execute a budget, how to purchase big ticket items, how and why we need to save, and ultimately how to be more philanthropic.

You can take this course online or through a local church or organization. The curriculum was impressive. The videos are informative and easy to follow. The workbook severs as a guide to take notes and to further the understanding of the concepts. On Dave’s website there are countless additional resources and tutorials.

By the end of the class I was definitely sad. I really looked forward to Tuesday nights. I met some really cool people in the class who were in the same boat as I was in. Our facilitator was very open and honest with us, and did a great job of guiding us through the process.

If you live like no one else, later you can live and give like no one else ~ Dave Ramsey

I will be honest that in order for FPU to work, you have to do a lot of work. I probably allocate at least 5 to 10 minutes a day on my personal budget. I spend at least an hour a month reflecting on the previous month of spending and planning the next month. Since beginning the class, I have only used my credit cards twice and both times I paid those purchases by the end of the month. I have an active savings account. I have a plan to pay down my existing debt and not to incur more debt. Starbucks visits are a treat, not an everyday occurrence. I now view my relationship with money so differently. I use the Financial Peace University philosophy as a grounding exercise and budgeting no longer causes anxiety.

Check out this video about Financial Peace University

Finding the Young!

Mya Reid, 11 year old poet

Spike Cook, Millville, NJ

As a Middle School Principal of 1,100 students it is sometimes difficult to make individual connections. We are all busy but there are times when we have to stop in our tracks and listen to the youth, and find the young! Earlier this year, 11 year old Mya Reid, published her first book of poetry apply titled Finding The Young.

When I talked with Mya about her passion for writing, she told me that she started in 4th grade when a teacher gave her a journal. Since that time she has written many poems, short stories and ideas in that journal. Fortunately, she connected with Mikey Wayward, a local Millville poet, who helped Mya to take her poems to the next level. She admits that life hasn’t always been easy but she finds solace in her writing.

Mya’s partnership with Mikey Wayward, known as Mr. Mike, has continued to flourish. He has helped her and encouraged her to continue writing and expand her language. They have a new, collaborative book of poetry due out this month.

I highly recommend you check out Finding the Young. There are 44 poems in the book and you will be mesmerized by her words! Here is one of my favorites:

Friendly Hollow
I’ll be leader, you be the follower.
I’ll show great leadership
Because my name is friendly hollow.
I sleep in the night
You play in the day.
We’re totally different
But, we think the same way
Your friendship I don’t borrow
I keep
I know because you sweep me off my feet
I respect your expectations.
So you I follow.
I hope you follow me, friendly hollow.

An Attitude of Gratitude

On October 4, 2016 I met with a Professional Development coach hired by the district to assist administrators with whatever they were struggling with as a leader. At the time I was stressed about a lot of things such as the beginning of the year challenges, there were a few initiatives that were not going so well, and personally I was drained.

Her first question to me after I went through everything that was going wrong really threw me off… She asked, “So what are you grateful for?” I struggled to even remember what gratitude meant, much less what I was grateful for.  I quickly replied, “I am grateful for my kids.” She validated my answer but challenged me to look more micro. She went on to talk about sunshine, trees, life, food, someone smiling, showers, etc. Then it hit me … there is so much to be grateful for.

She taught me how to make a gratitude list and how to incorporate it into a daily mediation that would be completed in the morning. She also recommended that I purchase The Magic by Rhonda Byrne. I highly recommend to get this book! I read it and applied each of the suggestions in the book for a month and it did wonders for my life and my school!

Everyday (well I have missed a day or two here and there) since October 4, 2016 I wake up and complete a very basic Gratitude List. I focus on 5 things I was grateful for from the previous day. As I stated before, this was very difficult in the beginning because I was focusing on the wrong things. This journal has helped me overcome the stress, anxiety of being a father, and a principal.

Practical Applications for Schools

Those in the field of education can empathize with the stress, and demands of our profession.  Whether it is federal, state or local initiatives, fights, bullying, curriculum, poverty, etc we are always facing some type of challenge. For instance, prior to doing the gratitude list I would be extremely disappointed when we had a fight in our school. It would be as if the entire day was ruined. Since doing the gratitude list I can put things in a better perspective. Now, although I am disappointed, I realize that there were 1,100 other students who came to school and did not fight. I realize that there were thousands upon thousands of interactions with students that did not result in a fight.

So as you can see the Gratitude List can make small, important changes in your perspective. As an educator you will be transformed through gratitude and pretty soon you may even have your students and teachers writing gratitude lists!

Getting Real with Project Based Learning

Students working collaboratively with community members

The Lakeside AVID team is committed to community involvement. AVID’s mission is to close the achievement gap by preparing all students for college readiness and success in a global society Throughout this year we have worked with the Millville Neighborhood Alliance on several projects such as Lightning Strikes Bogarts, The Front Door Project and most recently the Shark Tank.

Beginning in August of 2016, representatives from the Millville Neighborhood Alliance and Lakeside Middle School’s AVID program organized a purposeful PBL for our students. Each month community members, teachers, and administrators met to identify areas in the city that would benefit from improvement. The MNA presented on the history of Millville in October and the kids presented on Lakeside Middle School in November. In December we had a local architect, Larry Merighi,  work with the students on Design Thinking and Planning which really helped the students see the relevance and real-world  application of PBL.

The winning team from the Shark Tank

From January through March the students worked tirelessly on their projects. They researched, interviewed, and designed their projects. Each group tried different options and most importantly, failed many times on their projects. Eventually, they narrowed their topics and crafted their proposals.

On March 22 we assembled a group of community members such as the mayor, local business owners, administrators, and Larry Merighi, the architect who met with the students at the beginning of the project. All of the groups did an amazing job with their presentations. Our Superintendent funded each group with a $500 grant for the students to use to accomplish their tasks. Checkout the video from SNJ here.

One of our project was even featured on A Community Thrives website which is part of the USA Today Network. Take a few minutes to watch the video our students put together (click here).

Even if we do not get the $50,000 grant, it is clear that our kids understand and can implement a Project Based Learning experience in a Middle School with fidelity!

Professional Development is as easy as 1, 2, 3

Encourage staff to collaborate using tools

Professional Development is as easy as 1, 2, 3

How do we grow as professionals in the ever changing world of the 21st Century? How do we make learning relevant for adults and children? If you are asking yourself these questions, the answers could be as easy as 1, 2, 3. Step 1 – Identify The Problem

Problems are not necessarily bad or good but should be seen as opportunities. One easy way to identify a problem to explore is to get your key stakeholders together and ask them 3 things your organization is doing well and three things they are struggling with. Chances are, no matter how many people you involve, there will be 4 to 5 themes. After you reveal your themes, then you can narrow your focus.

Step 2 – Explore Solutions

After you have identified your problem, it is time to begin working on possible solutions. We suggest that you ask your key stakeholders what they think the organization will need. This will require you to brainstorm creative approaches to address the problem. After you have brainstormed areas to address the problem, it will be important to create an action plan focused on how long the professional development will take as well as resources to support.

Step 3 – Relevance, relevance, relevance

In order for the professional development to be effective it needs to be relevant. We suggest that you tailor the professional development to meet the individual needs of the participants. For the most part, people want to know why this would be beneficial. Every professional development needs to address the why (want to know more about this, please check out Simon Sinek TED Talk). If you can not provide the relevance, ask the participants to identify their own why and tailor the learning to suit their needs.

 

 

The First 90 Days: A Reflection and Lessons Learned

IMG_6394

My main man… Corell

About 90 days ago, I embarked on a new venture as the Principal of Lakeside Middle School. I used the book, “First 90 Days” as a guide to help me transition into the school and my new role. Throughout the process I am gaining knowledge on so much: learning, teaching, leading, and the most important part… people!

“Where have you been?” 

In my last post (First 13 Days) I was able to capture the initial transition, which was April 2, 2016 and, now today is June 26, 2016. It is not as if I lost internet connection or my blog expired, but there was no way I could get back to here until now! For me blogging is an ebb and flow, blogging every day for a year or taking time off balances it all out. Honestly, there was a little blogger guilt that I wasn’t able to get back here, but I believe it was due more to the sheer volume of change and transition I was experiencing. I did get a few messages from friends asking if I was OK, I was more than OK, I was focused on the task at hand.

Lakeside Running Man Challenge – What Teachers do When the Students Leave

Reflection on the first 90…

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” ~ Drucker

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Students on a field trip having fun!

As I reflect on my first 90 days at Lakeside I am amazed at the energy of the building. In a school with over 120 staff members caring for about 1200 kids a mountain of variables is expected. My first goal was to individually interview every staff member. I was able to get through 75% of the staff for one on one interviews, asking them two questions: what is going well and what needs to be improved on? One of the constant themes in these conversations were how much they like each other and the school. Every single person I interviewed had a similar response and it was genuine. As the new person on the block it was remarkable to continually hear such positive statements. I just wish they would tell each other more often how more much they like each other 🙂

 

During the first 90 days I was able to scratch the surface on the climate and culture of the building. Throughout the transition period, I paid particular attention to the symbols, beliefs (mission/vision) and the language. Often listening to what was being said and comparing it to what was being done. For the most part, there is a match on the espoused theories and theories in use. Most people are passionate about their craft, no matter what role they play, which leads to a lot of conversations centered on “how do we get better?”

 

IMG_0537

Autism Awareness Month.

So what needed to be improved? In the beginning I was hearing a lot of comments such as “staff morale, communication, and admin turnover.” All of these factors are not attributed to a particular person, and honestly some morale issues are a result of local, state and national perceptions of our profession. But then, there became a shift in the initial interviews, changes were already beginning. I am not quite sure when the shift in the conversations happened. I do know that people were no longer mentioning staff morale or communication. So maybe it was the Lighting Round, Teacher Appreciation Week, staff meetings, becoming a regular on the morning announcements or everyone began to tell their co-workers how much they liked each other.

 

In my opinion, the administrative team played a huge part in the shift. Everyone from Vice Principals, Supervisors, Guidance Counselors, and the Child Study Team stepped up in ways that teachers and students needed. All of the support personnel (secretaries, security, maintenance, cafeteria) played an incredible role in the transformation too. I began to hear parents, students and other staff remark on how everyone appeared to be working collaboratively. Honestly, they have always been collaborative and positive but maybe it was just a difference of getting the story out there.

What do the kids think? 

Lunch with the Principal

Lunch with the Principal

Granted the Principal’s main responsibility is the staff, but it is extremely important to connect with students. I was fortunate that I knew a small percentage of the kids at the school because they went to the elementary school where I was Principal for the past 5 years. When I first started I made it a point to talk with kids I didn’t know. I asked kids the same questions “What do you like about this school? What do you want to change?” I also visited classrooms to get a chance to see what the learning look liked.

 

I scheduled a “Lunch with the Principal” day. I asked each teacher to select one or two students that were model students to have lunch with me. I gave the kids awards and read the comments their teachers made about them in the Google form. At the end of the lunch period, I asked them what they liked about the school and what they wanted changed. In addition, I attended as many extra curricular activities (dances, sports, music etc) as possible to see the kids in a different setting.

Lessons learned…

image2 (4)

You have to be willing to be dunked!

I learned so many lessons over the first 90 days. As I stated before, I had to focus on the transition to the new school. Requiring me to let things go of things such as Social Media, writing, podcasting, etc… because I needed to be mindful of my time and mental state. Days were busy and at times exhausting, so I had very little gas left in the tank to write a post, or sign up for a conference. Temporary sacrifices for long term progress.

 

Laughter is the best medicine. Hopefully the staff can see that I don’t take myself very seriously. I laugh at myself and the unusual events that happen in the school. My goal is to make people want to have fun at work. I firmly believe that this will translate into happier kids. Let’s face it, middle school kids can be disenchanted, or appear to have a chip on their shoulders, but they like to laugh just like we do.

 

I want to work at a school where are no mistakes, no boxes, and everyone is encouraged to take risks. I feel it is important to create a culture of learning. In order to do that you have to think outside of the box, learn from mistakes, and take the opportunity to try new things. I made a lot of mistakes over the first 90 days. Many days I drove home without the radio or podcasts playing and reflected about my mistakes, or learning experiences. Often times I would walk out of the school wondering if I made any difference. Reflection really helps and I began to find people to help me decompress. These people are the true gems!

 

6 suggestions for transitioning into a new position

  1. Focus on what is important – People. Learn names, positions, family and whatever else you can.
  2. Do not try to change things too fast. It should take you a complete year to fully understand the organization. Proceed with caution and remember only fools rush in!
  3. Actions speak louder than words. Want people to be visible? Be visible. Want people to be positive? Be positive.
  4. Find and use your Principal voice (See Corwin Connect article here). What can you do to amplify the awesomeness of the school?
  5. Sunshine is the best disinfectant. Be prepared to discuss everything and allow opportunities for open dialogue.
  6. Interview everyone. Interview kids, parents, staff about the school. Look for themes on what is working and what needs to be improved.

 

So, what’s next? 

I know this will be a long journey. I often think of these two quotes, “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” and “We are planting forests, not gardens.” This is just the beginning. Stay tuned for more!

 

First 13 Days out of 90

In preparation for my new position as the Principal of Lakeside Middle School, I re-read The First 90 Days by Michael Watkins. Even though I had read the book before and was a Principal for the past 5 years, I wanted to ensure I wasn’t under estimating this transition.

The President gets 100 days to prove himself; you get 90 ~Michael Watkins

 

Source: amazon.com

Source: amazon.com

In the book, Watkins emphasizes a period of planning prior to the transition. This time spent planning is invaluable as you must develop a transition plan. For my transition, I researched as much as I could about the school. Fortunately, I already worked in the district, but I had no idea about the most important aspect of the school: the culture. It didn’t matter how much data I could collect on the website, I knew I had to develop a transition plan to understand the culture. This is why I set out to interview every person who works in the building. Obviously, this can not happen over night but over the first 13 days I was able to meet with 27% of the staff.

In addition to the individual meetings, I hosted 6 group meetings. In each of these meetings I asked the same questions:

  • What are three things going well at Lakeside?
  • What are three things we need to improve?

The meetings and informal data collection have helped me tremendously to understand, as Watkins suggests, “The norms and patterns of behavior.” These meetings require me to listen, listen and listen. There have been times when people want to know what I stand for or to discuss my vision for the school. When I articulate my vision, I say the following:

  • I want to create a culture of learning
  • I want to promote the awesome things going on in the school for the world to see
  • I want to increase student achievement, decrease discipline, and increase student attendance

At my first staff meeting as the new Principal, I reported out on my first 13 days. Part of promoting a culture of learning is modeling transparency. Here is the presentation I shared with the staff. It includes the highs and lows of the first 13 days as well as outline the next 18 days until the next staff meeting:

Change can be tough. I will not underestimate the impact of change on the staff. In my last position, I had a teacher tell me that it took her 2 years to trust me. I never realized that but knowing it puts things in perspective. It is crucial to prove yourself every day. Never take people for granted!

I know that I will spend the majority of the rest of the school year learning about the culture and climate of the building. Of course there will be some decisions that will need to be made, observations to complete, and a whole host of end of the year activities. For me, I am building relationships (which is paramount) with people who I will be working with for a long time. I committed to building a strong foundation!

 

 

Thanks for the memories

IMG_0344The last few weeks have been extremely busy and life changing. After 5 years at RM Bacon Elementary, I am moving on to a new venture as Principal at Lakeside Middle School.

At our last staff meeting, I made a video for the staff because they truly are my “heroes.” Not to be outdone, the wonderful staff at Bacon made me a video tribute. It was one of the nicest things I could have ever imagined.

I will always remember my time at RM Bacon. I learned so much about my leadership through the experience.  I know “Once a Bear, Always a Bear” and “Then, Now, Always Family.”

Here is the video the staff made for me:

 

Here is the video I made for the staff: