Archive for the ‘Reflection’ Category

#SAVMP 2016-2017

Moving ever onward out of my comfort zone in the name of professional growth, I signed up to participate in SAVMP for the 2016-2017 school year. SAVMP is the School Administrator Virtual Mentoring Program, and I volunteered to serve as a mentor to aspiring and novice administrators.

I know I’m only just beginning my third year, but in my experience, being in a position such as mentor or student teacher supervisor has helped me to clarify and codify my own thinking on any number of topics, situations, or challenges.  I’ve spent the last two years learning by the side of some excellent mentors in my own district, and while I’ve also tried to pay it forward to my admin colleagues who joined the district after me, I’d like to think I also have something to offer a fledgling administrator elsewhere in the Twittersphere.

Back in the heady days of 2007-2009, edu-Twitter seemed to me to be more about connecting with and learning from one another (it’s felt more like a self-promotion engine/mutual admiration society to me for the last few years, but that’s another post for another day).  The teachers we interviewed for The End of Isolation called out the networking and professional collaboration aspect of Twitter specifically as a primary benefit of the service.  Maybe it’s nostalgia, maybe it’s something else, but when I heard about the call for mentors, I thought this would be some small positive step I could take to help someone out as I’ve been helped as I transitioned to this new professional role.

An additional benefit (for me) is that apparently there will be blogging prompts.  I look forward to those, as I’ve been lacking for structure and focus for blogging of late.  I anticipate this will be a mutually beneficial project for both my mentee and me.

If you’re interested in seeing what this is all about, check out the hashtag #SAVMP on Twitter.

ICYMI: My Faves 2014-2016

I tag each post on this blog with some categorical classification, and one I started using a few years ago is Damian’s Favorites – this tag represents what I feel are the best posts on this site (or at least the ones I wish got read more than the others).  Periodically I like to do “Best Of” recap posts; I did one in 2011 and one in 2014, so I figured I’m due.  Below are some of my favorite posts I’ve written since my last rerun post recap in September 2014:

Happy New Year, everyone; let’s make 2016-2017 the best one yet.

Year 2: Highlights & Lessons Learned

This week brings my second year in administration to an end.  I started 2015-2016 off remarking how different the start of Year 2 felt from the start of Year 1, and as the end of Year 2 approaches, I feel like the year is slowly and (more or less) gently coasting to a stop, as opposed to the “careening toward a brick wall” feel of Year 1.

This was a good year.  Much like my second year of teaching and my second year as a school psychologist, I was able to put much of the newness and uncertainty of Year 1 behind me and make what I feel was a substantial contribution to the district via my position.  In addition to the expected job responsibilities, I focused a great deal of energy during my first year establishing relationships, both with the folks under my supervision and with the building and district administrators with whom I work.  I have long believed – and this bore out in my dissertation research – that trust and open communication are bedrock elements of good leadership (and ultimately, good for the health and growth of the organization), and I would like to believe that my efforts in that area – along with the tireless efforts of my staff – helped bring about some positive growth in our district.

Some of these highlights include:

  • The Quartweet Project: I wrote about this extensively here and here; a neat postscript to this event is that months later, the performance of one of our student compositions was aired on German television!
  • Arts Advisory Council: This definitely warrants its own post, but briefly: I envisioned a ’roundtable’ of sorts made up of art & music teachers from across the K-12 grade span, the goal of which is improving and building the arts program in our district.  We met four times throughout the year, and typically had about 8-10 teachers participating at a given time.  We got quite a few interesting results from this collaborative time, and a major goal for next year is to develop a formal mission and vision for the arts program in the district that aligns with our district strategic plan (like I said, more on that over the summer).
  • Northfield Community Middle School site visits: Tons have been written about the work Kevin Jarrett, Glenn Robbins, and the crew at NCMS in southern New Jersey are doing w/r/t school culture (I know Kevin’s Digital Shop is kick-ass, but it’s really about so much more than that).  I coordinated two site visits for a variety of teachers, librarians, and administrators in my district to see what was going on and how – if at all – some of that might be applicable to our district.  I have since seen tangible evidence of the influence of those visits in our district in the development of makerspaces, reconsidering student voice and learning spaces, and the planned renovation of our intermediate school computer lab.  None of these are close to the final products, nor are they the be-all, end-all of education, but the conversations and consideration happening around them are crucial.  I’m happy to have played a small role in instigating them.
  • Curricular Expansion at the High School: I supervise an eclectic group of disciplines: Technology, Art, Music, Business, and Family & Consumer Science, as well as our libraries across the district.  It’s no secret that many districts are making cuts in the arts or outright eliminating difficult-to-staff positions like FCS once teachers retire.  This year, I asked my high school teachers to identify gaps in our curriculum with the intent of developing new courses to bolster our offerings in these disciplines.  We ran a new course this year in our Business department, Introduction to Social Media.  While enrollment was on the low side this year (understandable for a course that didn’t hit the Course of Study til after most of the enrollment was completed for 15-16), it has proven to be such a popular and timely course that enrollment has doubled for 16-17!  That course is being revamped with the benefit of the past year’s experience and will be even better next year.  Additionally, I am proud that our high school will be offering new courses in both Family & Consumer Sciences (Nutrition for Healthy Living) and Music (Theory & Composition courses with a focus on either guitar or piano).

Of course, this is an incomplete list, but this post is already nearing 1,000 words.  So my lessons learned?

  • Decisions can’t always be made by committee (but we should do it as often as possible!).  It’s not a sign of poor leadership to consult your teachers on decisions; it says that you value their input as professionals and the perspective they have which we, by the nature of our non-instructional positions, lack.  This is the underlying philosophy behind my desire to create the Arts Advisory Council, but nowhere is this more crucial than in the hiring process.  I am grateful to the staff members who volunteered to serve on interview committees with me and my admin colleagues; I believe their input is a major reason why we have been as successful with our hires as we have been.
  • Organization can be hard, even for the super-organized.  Without exaggeration or hubris, I am one of the most organized people I know.  I have many weaknesses (just ask my wife), but disorganization is not one of them.  That said, I had a few administrative tasks that slipped through the cracks this year that should not have.  In reflecting on how I can do better with that, I decided to put together a Year-At-A-Glance list, in which I note some of the BIG picture tasks that need to happen each month (e.g., budget submissions, curriculum revisions, etc.).  I also put some recurring items on there (e.g., reminders to staff about spending down budget) that are important but can easily get swept aside in the daily madness.  Putting it down in writing now, after staff and students have left for the year, allows me to give it the time and thought required, and it’s an organizational investment that will pay off during the school year.

I head into my second summer as an administrator happy with the year that passed, excited about the opportunities and challenges coming in the 16-17, and ready for a little downtime before we start it all over again.  August 18th doesn’t seem that far away.

Sound, Fury, & Navel Gazing

Ever since I discovered blogging back in 2006ish or so – and even more so since I started this one in 2007 – I’ve been a vocal proponent for the power of blogging as a reflective tool.  Why, then, am I having such difficulty putting metaphorical pen to paper?

The month since my last post has been busier than usual, and only in the last week or so have things eased up a bit, both personally and professionally.  I try to keep myself to the blogging schedule I set for myself back in December 2008, and I’ve been fairly successful.  While I have a growing list of “to blog about” topics in my Evernote, the motivation to do so has been scarce when it’s all I can do to keep my eyes open after dinner most nights.  The few times I have sat myself down in front of the screen with the intention to write, I’ve more often than not ended up staring at a blank white screen until I simply decided not to stare at it any longer.


If blogging for the last 8+ years has taught me anything, it’s that writer’s block is usually temporary, and that sometimes all I need to knock the cobwebs off is to push out a quickie post like this one, almost as a statement of purpose or resolve or something – even as a pseudo-cognitive-behavioral approach to getting back into the writing groove.  I don’t know why it works, just that it usually does.  So here’s hoping this is sufficient to get me going again.

If you have any tips or tricks for overcoming blogging ennui, please share!

Deven Black

At the time of writing, I’m supposed to be researching school reform initiatives for a grad class assignment.  Instead, I’ve spent the last hour or two refreshing my Facebook and Twitter feeds, watching educators from around the country mourn the loss of Deven Black.

I came to know Deven, as I have so many other wonderful educators in my career, through our shared activity on Twitter.  When we first “met”, Deven was a special education teacher in NYC, and he and I had many conversations about education (special and otherwise); we would later co-moderate a weekly chat on Twitter geared toward special education issues, which we did fairly regularly for the better part of a year.  He struck me as an interesting and deeply thoughtful guy for many reasons, not the least of which was the route he took into teaching.  From his blog’s “About” page:

After a stellar career as a middle school student I dropped out of two different high schools and a college, all before I was 17. That started what has been a long-lasting and continually evolving interest in schooling.

I started teaching at age 50, after being a newspaper reporter, radio newsman and talk-show host, voice-over artist, political campaign operative, bartender, restaurant manager, advertising copywriter, and public relations person. Of these careers, teaching is the most difficult, lowest paying and most rewarding. It took a long time to figure out, but being a teacher is what I want to be when I grow up. Like that is ever going to happen.

His career path in education later took him into the role of a school librarian, and I remember the zeal with which he approached his new position at the time.  He was written up in the School Library Journal in 2013, and won the first Bammy award for school librarians later that year.

While the specifics of our many conversations have long since faded from my memory, what stays with me from Deven – and what continues to inform my own work – is how much kindness, humanity, and thoughtfulness matter in teaching.  In the day-to-day work, it’s easy to get frustrated by and hung up on things that are, in the greater sense, ultimately pretty trivial.  Sometimes we – children and adults alike – put other things ahead of kindness: bureaucracy, pedantic rules, paperwork, outdated notions of authority, whatever.  In the long run, though, none of it is as important as showing kids you care.

His perspective, to me, was that of the underdog.  That may not be exactly the right word, but I guess what I’m trying to say is that he often pushed back against popular notions or opinions; sort of a “But did you ever consider…?” in defense of whatever people were tut-tutting about in the “these kids today” vein.  I don’t know if that was influenced by his own experience with formal education (as noted above), but it seems possible.  Listening to him was so valuable to me in part because that was a very different perspective than my own, as someone who was always very compliant and good at “doing school” as a kid.  He helped me get more in touch with my own empathy and humanity, which was particularly helpful in my position as a school psychologist.

Even in casual conversation, Deven challenged my thinking in such a way that even after we had fallen out of touch, I would (and still do) ask myself from time to time, “What would Deven have to say about this?”  He is one of a few educators whose influence – unbeknownst to them – acts as my own internal Jiminy Cricket, constantly checking my assumptions and gut reactions and forcing me to reexamine stances, situations, conflicts, and resolutions from multiple perspectives.  It’s a fairly short list of people who actively influence my thinking on a regular basis like that, but Deven was most certainly on it.

The circumstances surrounding Deven’s death are, to be frank, shocking. Maybe delving into that is appropriate for a piece on how it might and should have been prevented, but there are far better ways to memorialize the man, which is why I haven’t linked to any news articles here.  There are better things you can read.

Go read Deven’s blog.  There’s nearly four years worth of his collected writings on education archived there.

Go read his Twitter feed.  It seems to have been hijacked by spam most recently, but scroll down to the tweets dated early 2014 or earlier to see the kinds of resources he shared and hard questions he posed.

Go read his interview with the School Library Journal and find out why they called him “Middle School Maverick.”

Go read ALA’s writeup on his Bammy award win.  Regardless of what you or I think of these awards, he was recognized by his peers as one of the best.  That has to mean something.

Go read his interview with Wide Awake Minds, wherein he discusses the value of failure, curiosity, and school (h/t Ira Socol for the link).

Go watch his 2012 talk at #140Edu, “How to make dropping out of school work for you” (h/t Kristin Hokanson for the link)

I only knew the man for 7 or 8 years.  I certainly didn’t know him as well as others did, and I only actually met him face-to-face once, but through his writing and our conversations, he has had a tremendous influence on me.  I will miss him.

Update, 29 Jan 16 6:00pm

As expected, the tributes to Deven from the many people he impacted are starting to roll in.  I’ll add them here as I come across them: