The First 90 Days: A Reflection and Lessons Learned

The First 90 Days: A Reflection and Lessons Learned

By Dr. Spike Cook

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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?”

 

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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…

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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!

 

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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!

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