Saturday, November 21, 2015

Rethinking Success & Redefining Achievement

I've worked all of my life to meet or exceed the standard for academic success. My goal growing up was to earn a college degree. I've earned four of those. I wanted to be a teacher. I am National Board Certified although I'm no longer in the classroom. I wanted to do my work to the absolute best of my ability, because good has never been good enough. I credit and thank my mother for that all at the same time. And while that type of thinking has carried me and my career a long way, I find my paradigms shifting. I'm not sure if that's based on age or experience or realizing that academically there's nothing left for me to prove. I don't know much of anything for certain, but what I do know is that everyday I'm praying and hoping for some very basic things for my students.

I want them all to stay alive and graduate high school. I'd love for everyone of them to earn a college degree. I want them to not be victims of violence. I want them to avoid the criminal justice system at all costs because once you are on someone's court docket, another layer of challenge is added to your life forever. I want them to have hope for a better, brighter, and successful future. I want to help them help themselves because I know there are no heroes coming to save them. I always tell them- you must save yourself. Everything they need to succeed, they already have. I encourage them to be their own hero, because nobody came to save me.

I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that my sisters and I saved ourselves. We had the blessing of a great mother who instilled the right values in us, but at the end of the day, (so cliche, I know) it was all up to us. My mother did not wake me up for class as a student at Clemson University. She didn't check my homework to be sure it was done. She wasn't there to force me to get the research and reading done for my dissertation. While she has been my biggest supporter and encourager, she always made one thing very clear:

"If you want success, it is yours for the taking. Education is out there for anyone who wants it. But no one can do it for you. You must do it for yourself."
-Latoya's Mom

That's the important lesson I'm trying to teach my students everyday. I'm trying to give them hope that they have a measure of control over their own destiny and that the root of that control is in how hard they are willing to work. It's in not giving up. I'm trying to help them understand that I've accomplished some things I did not think I could. Everyday is a test. I am still pushing myself. I am still persevering. I need them to do the same and they need to do it for themselves.

Because no one is coming to save them, but they can certainly save themselves. I am amazed at the resilience that my students demonstrate on a daily basis. In spite of all they are faced with, they come to school everyday and work. They are amazing people and there's no test that can measure that.

Until next time-be you, be true, and be a hope builder!
@ latoyadixon5

Friday, November 20, 2015

Stories From The Inside: Bridging the Gap Between Perception and Reality of Being a Principal

Isn't it interesting to think about how school is one experience everyone has in common? Unlike being an engineer or business leader, everyone has school experience. So when it comes to thinking or talking about what's right and what's wrong with school, everyone has an opinion and usually it's one they feel pretty good about because it's based on their experiences.

 Lately I've been working on telling the stories from the inside of our school. Moving the conversation beyond micro political leadership, partnerships, and general school information. Instead, I've been working to tell stories about my students and the challenges they and their teachers face. Like the students who have no home, and bounce from place to place on a daily basis often bargaining with others to allow them to stay the night, or just take a shower. I've shared the story of a student who is one of the kindest students I've known, who volunteered to take the trays of others to the trash can each day at lunch, but only so he could pick through and eat their leftovers because he was so hungry. I've told the story of students who have come to school and requested to use the phone because they were worried when their mother did not return home after a night out, but came to school anyway. I've told the story of teachers who are trying to teach these students and garner their attention, despite the aforementioned challenges they face. It is an incredibly difficult task. 

So now I ask all to think about your personal school experience. Ever had trouble focusing because you were so hungry that it made you feel ill? Ever had trouble finding a place to take a shower, but gone to work anyway? Ever had difficulty getting the domestic violence you witnessed out of your mind long enough to learn the causes and effects of the Revolutionary War? Ever had difficulty getting to school on time because you were up all night because the shooting you heard down the street scared you to death? 

Was that much like your school experience? As educators when people ask us how things are going, we feel compelled to tell them how hard we are working and that we are doing great things to move our schools forward. Sometimes our positivity, while much needed, does a communication disservice to those who are interested in how things are going. When we tell stories from the inside it's important to tell the whole story. The story that says here is what our kids are facing, but we are working hard and moving forward anyway. The story that says our teachers have an audacious task in front of them, but they give of themselves personally and professionally anyway. 

Make sure you are telling the stories from the inside to help bridge that perception of what school might be like and the reality our students and teachers are dealing with everyday. Our teachers and students are doing remarkable under extremely challenging circumstances and they deserve for people to know the whole story.

Until next time- be you, be true, be a hope builder!

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Working Through the Tough Times

Lately I've found myself overwhelmed. I'm embarrassed to admit it. I'm especially embarrassed to admit it on this blog, but the reality of it is that it's true. As I have worked so diligently to take a really deep dive with our student achievement data in the last few weeks, I found myself falling deeper and deeper into a less positive state of mind. I'm not sure why that is although I suspect a number of reasons for this. None of these reasons may be correct and I'm not sure they even matter, but I'm going to share them anyway. So here goes nothing.

Am I discouraged by the research? 
I'm a voracious reader. But every since the initial days of my Ph.D. program I haven't really read fiction. I've come to enjoy reading research studies. I particularly enjoy reading about economic mobility, anything related to education and poverty, and early childhood education. When I read the research, I see the same recurring theme: What happens from conception to five matters and the further down the road in a child's educational journey, the more it matters.
While I've read study after study, and been fascinated with what I learn in each one, I'm still left with the same question I think of everyday as a coprincipal of a Title I middle school where we are working our hearts out to increase student achievement: What do I do now? While I have lots of ideas of what might help and some of which I know will help, I can't help but question is overcoming a multiyear learning gap possible? And if it is, how can it be done? What I know for sure is a traditional approach to teaching and learning is limited in its' impact and although we have and will continue to positively impact student achievement, will it be enough? High school graduation isn't that far away for our students and our time is limited.

Do I have the right  perspective?
I've also been fussing at myself for being what some might call negative-I like to think of myself as a realistic optimist who can be brutally honest. Many of my colleagues have encouraged me to focus on the positive. And yes-there is lots of positive to celebrate. I've just been unsuccessful at ignoring the harsh reality of what it means to improve the proficiency of a group of students who are more than three or more years behind where they should be in reading and/or math. How do I do that? Can I do that? Do I have the skills and expertise to lead that charge? What resources do I need? Will I be able to obtain them? Am I too focused on the reality in a way that I am not balanced to have a healthy perspective? Am I too negative? Does focusing on sunshine and rainbows make you more productive? Does focusing on the opposite paralyze you from acting? Again, I don't know which is best. All I know is from my own experiences.
In my previous principalship, I had the same issues. Always looking at what I could do better or improve and never stopping long enough to celebrate the good that we had accomplished. But that mindset led us to remarkable results. We saw improved student achievement for five consecutive years. No flunctuating-just up,up,up and I am very proud of that.

Do I take my work too personally?
Do I take my work too personally? As a child of poverty, looking at my students who are in the midst of poverty in an objective manner seems nearly impossible for me. I look at them and I see me. In reality, I know they are not me and I am not them, but in my heart we are one in the same. I can't help it. I owe it to them to help them in every way I can, and I can't do that by just thinking if I only help one then I've done well. They all need my help. They all need our help. The baggage of being poor has never left me. Read through my previous post and you'd agree. I even wrote a post titled, Why I'm Stiil Just A Poor Kid From The Projects! I guess that's because under all the degrees and professional success, that's what I am. I work hard out of fear of having to experience poverty again. Some would not understand that but once you've been poor and made it out, you never want to go back. I want the same for my students. I want them to make it out. It's that simple. And I know that it was education that set me free from the projects and from poverty. Breaking the cycle of poverty isn't as simple as pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. It's far more complex than that but that is for another post. 

I had a very dear friend tell me recently to try not to let my work define me. I reflected on that advice and I think she's right, but I've yet to be successful at doing that. That's something I certainly need to work on and improve.

Is my best enough?
For so long I've been one to say if I only make a difference in the life of one student then my work has mattered. However, as I work in a high poverty school where student needs in the social emotional realm are as great or greater as their academic needs, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I need to impact more than one student to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty and help my students help themselves beyond their K-12 educational experience. I'm doing my very best everyday. My momma used to always say as long as we did the best we could at something we could not ask ourselves of anything more. I know that I am giving my all!  But I guess I am just afraid that my best may not be enough and that makes me incredibly sad and disappointed.

I've grown so much as a person and a principal in my current role. The experience has been one that has taught me many things. I'm sure there is more to learn too. Mostly I want to overcome this feeling of being overwhelmed but not by ignoring the issues. I want to overcome it by making a difference for all students, but a difference that will matter for generations to come. In a world where a high school education or less negatively impacts your health quality, quality of life, and more we are charged with doing more. Our students may not see the impact that right now will have on their future. They would never imagine how heavy they weigh on my heart or how often I wonder, what are they going to do as adults? Only time will answer that question and lately I seem so impatient.

I am proud of myself however for sharing my vulnerability via this blog. No matter how things may seem, I'm only human. I think all educators experience these feelings that I have but we are not "allowed" to acknowledge them. This work we do is incredibly harder than even I imagined when I made a decision to become a teacher in the early 1990's. I never expected it to be easy. I realize that I am not alone in this. All across the country and world, many educators are feeling this. Some might see this post as negative but I see it as brave. I'm brave enough to say-I'm trying really hard and I'm worried my best efforts may not be enough. Is there something wrong with that? I don't think so and I don't think I'm the only one. And so I shall continue to plug along...hoping it all turns out ok.

Until next time-be you, be true, and be a hope builder,