Blogging provides an excellent resource for reflection. As I thought about this year, I was able to look through my posts (on this blog and on other sites) and see how much I have grown. Over the course of the year, I learned a lot about balance and the power of gratitude. As I look into 2018, I am poised to continue to help other educators through my writing, podcasts and presentations.
Here are my Top 6 posts/moments that I am grateful to have experienced. Please click on the links to help me travel through 2017!
As I scanned the blog for the most clicked on post for 2017, this post on gratitude was at the top. I am very grateful for the support and it encouraged me to work on a follow up to be published very soon!
One of things on my bucket list for the winter break was to do a “float.”
For those of you who have no idea what a float is or never heard of a sensory deprivation tank, here is the best description I can find:
Floating is an experience of ultimate peace and relaxation in which you spend one hour in a private, specialized tank filled with ten inches of highly-saturated Epsom salt water causing one to float completely effortlessly atop the water at near zero-gravity.” Float Haven Spa, Pitman, NJ
There are many benefits from floating and it has been around since the 1950s. Recently, Float Tanks have become popular from celebrities such as Joe Rogan and Stephen Curry who use them on a regular basis.
I wanted to give it a shot for a few reasons. First, I have never tried it and I believe in the statement, “When was the last time you tried something for the first time?” Secondly, I wanted to experience sensory deprivation in order to gauge my mindfulness practice. Lastly, I have had many people I respect in the yoga/mindfulness community highly recommend it.
An hour isn’t enough – It does take some time to chill out once in the tank. For me this process took a while even though I was practicing my breathing.
You are going to bump the walls – I laid as still as I could be inevitably I gently bumped against the walls of the tank.
Eyes open and eyes shut – Throughout the experience I tried a few different techniques. I would keep my eyes shut for some time and open as well. Since there is literally no light in the space, it probably doesn’t matter.
It is salty – I could feel the salt crystals on my face and chest as I floated. This salt is what keeps you buoyant and provides restorative healing. After the float you can wash this salt off but I was instructed to let it stay. I sort of feel like I just got back from the beach.
One session isn’t enough – I plan to go back at least two more times. Now I have a better grasp on the experience, I feel there are things I can do in preparation to ensure that I get the most out of the float.
Visuals – It is dark, very dark!
Overall, I had a very positive experience during my first float. I wasn’t able to solve all the world’s problems, or invent a new form of technology, but I was able to get an hour of peace, disconnected from the world with literally nothing holding me back.
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:
Systemic focus on learning
Celebrating the success of all stakeholders
Creating system of support for Tweeners
Removing the walls of isolation
Providing intensive professional development
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.
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.
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?
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!
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
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.
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!
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!
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.
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
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?”
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
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.
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
Focus on what is important – People. Learn names, positions, family and whatever else you can.
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!
Actions speak louder than words. Want people to be visible? Be visible. Want people to be positive? Be positive.