Life in 8A for a Day

The idea to "be a student" for a day came from a Washington Post article I read. The article was predominantly negative and discussed the level of disgust the teacher felt throughout a day filled with sitting, listening, regurgitating information, and “feeling like a nuisance.”

I should mention that a common refrain among administrators, and former administrators, is the inherent sense of loneliness they/we sometimes feel in our position. Our careers are built upon creating relationships with kids, and then an administrative position opens and we believe, “Now I’ll be able to impact more students!” The belief is true in many ways, but the daily execution…well, the devil is in the details. And there are lots of details: state reports, unhappy or concerned parents, 100+ emails a day, last minute memos given and received, meetings and meetings and meetings and meetings and meetings… a broken pipe, an accident in the bathroom, an filled infraction card, teachers whose lives are not as simple and serene as their presence in front of the room may indicate. It's often simultaneously overwhelming and isolating. But make no mistake, it's also quite rewarding.

To the point: as a principal I’ve found that if I want to connect with students I need to be intentional about it. It’s not organic like in a classroom. I literally must schedule it into my day.

This idea of being intentional regarding the daily life of students coupled with the Washington Post article and I decided it’s time to imbed. I allowed the students to petition to be my buddy, and received about 150 requests. Whatever the child did, I would do. No excuses, full uniform, no breaking the rules. One caveat, however, as I did allow myself to keep my phone in case of an emergency, and to document my day – the pictures can be seen on @cathedraleagles Twitter, Instagram and our Facebook page.

It was never my intent to draw attention or disrupt the day; quite the opposite. So while there was a sense of novelty, truly I wanted this to be about observation and experiential research.

My student buddy was 8th grader Ian Mitchell. Ian was a great pick because he’s involved in a lot of things at Cathedral, patient enough to deal with me, and is a solid guy who can run in any crowd (more on that later). Here was our schedule for the day, and I’ll reflect on my big takeaways after...

7:30am: Choir (I didn’t make it to choir because I brought my daughter to school, but I did meet Ian in the hall afterward).

8:10am: Chanting at Mass (Awesome experience; everyone should see Mass from this vantage point)

9:00am: Confession (Ian and I decided it was best if we went to Confession separately)

9:20am: Science (the concept of sound was the focus)

9:45am: English & Grammar (Skyler Rolfes was my table-partner and walked me through grammar and tenses)

10:15am: Training for May Crowning Mass with the Soldiers of St. Sebastian

11:15am: History (Civil War – Sherman’s March was the focus)

11:55am: Literature (Anne Frank discussion – “How are you like Anne?”)

12:30pm: Lunch (awesome table; pork sandwiches were solid and the conversation stimulating)

1:00pm: Recess (I ran inside to check on the front office)

1:15pm: Math (equations and plotting coordinates)

1:55pm: Religion (I missed some of this because an alarm box malfunctioned, but the focus was on discernment and a neat story about a female basketball star who entered a cloistered order)

2:35pm: Physical Education (we ran the mile…for time. I don’t want to talk about it)

Before I begin my reflections on the day, I must admit something: I wondered if I would end the day with a list of things that needed fixing, or that even “shocked” me as the teacher in the Post article reported. I suppose I was surprised, but primarily at not being surprised.

Reflection One: Faith Permeates

From 7:30am to 9:20am the entire focus was Christ, His message, and our role in that message. Remember that we began practicing choir for Mass, then we chanted at Mass, and then we went to Confession. That’s pretty tangible stuff. But the amazing thing is that throughout the remainder of the day He was present.

I think our kids take this for granted, but when you start every class with prayer (or in our case, a decade of the Rosary), then you hear a lesson skillfully infused with the faith it affects the way you look at your neighbor, your teacher, your parents, your siblings. If I could put it into words it wouldn’t be as magnificent as it is, so I’ll just say that Faith is a real, breathing, vibrant thing that our kids experience in myriad ways every single day. It is complemented by the Dignity Code, which is also very real in the classrooms.

Reflection Two: Teacher Rapport

This is a big one for me because I’ve been at quite a few schools and the energy at each is palpable. Each school has an energy that is manifested by the relationship between student and teacher: apathetic, confrontational, dismissive, loving, energetic, fun.

Here’s a common thread of every teacher I experienced at Cathedral on this day: I was a student, thus I was their mission. From Miss Rejda reading her own journal, to the moment she pulled a reading from a quiet student. From Mr. Thedinga’s personalized handshakes, to Mrs. Kuehn’s gentle touch greeting each child. From Mr. Williams expressing that improvement on the mile wasn’t about a time but about how we live our lives, to Mrs. Wiebusch’s quiet and firm motivation that, “Our standard here is different, and I know you’re capable of more.”

I felt loved all day. I was safe, in good hands, and working with people who wanted to make me a better person, not just a better student. Sure, the teachers knew I was in their room, but this was no dog-and-pony show. This was real, and it was expressed in dozens of ways, big and small, when all were watching and when teachers thought no one was.

Reflection Three: These Kids

What can I say about these kids? Yes, the girls roll their eyes and the boys tease. Yes, she’s mad at her and he was a jerk to him. Yes, he’s immature and she’s being snotty. But you know what? So what.

That’s my takeaway from being inside the social circles: so what.

That “so what” is the definition of perspective. That “this too shall pass” approach is a reflection of students who came up together, have seen each other at their bests and worsts, and know that while this phase will pass, the essence of my classmates is what should be trusted. This perspective is one many seem to lose as adults; we become easily offendable, quick to defensivenesss. Example: when the 8th grade boys ran the mile, those who finished first came back to run with those who were last (I should know, they pushed me along). Furthermore, every guy stayed until the last one finished, and then all of them bumped fists and congratulated each other.

The Kindergarten through 8th grade ride is a long one, like a nine hour road trip. Seating feels tight, people get on each other’s nerves, things will get goofy, but at some point the journey becomes the destination and the "target finds the arrow". I’d say in the 8th grade it’s a bullseye.

Reflection Four: Instruction

Even though I was a student I really struggled not to pay attention to lesson structure and teaching method. In 2014-15 I observed over 150 classes; this year I won’t make that many due to missing time for the birth of my son, but I’ll make a lot. Typically I look for three things in a lesson outside of non-negotiables like relationships and modeling the faith…

-Objective: what does the teacher want to get out of this lesson?

-Structure: the spectrum flows from direct instruction to guided practice to independent practice to discussion (more easily explained as “I do”, “I do, you help”, “You do, I help” and “You do”). I could go on for pages here about small groups, station work, etc. But the point is that differentiation matters for myriad reasons.

-Assessment: how does the teacher know if he/she met their objective for the day?

Frankly, we are still working on creating solid objectives that do not take for granted that this is the first time students have experienced the content. We’ve done a lot of work with Teach Like a Champion, and will continue to do so in this regard – stating and focusing on the objective as a fundamental practice.

Structure was interesting and impressive. To varying degrees, every class explored the spectrum above: our teachers differentiated instruction in a seamless manner that kept students moving, the clock ticking, and the lesson flowing. In one class I witnessed the teacher take the previous day’s assessment (which was poor), scrap it, and tell the students, “We missed the mark. We are going to hit this again, and you’re going to nail it the next time.” Then she built the lesson up again from scratch, and left the kids WANTING to be assessed! In another class I journaled, discussed, shared with the class, then took part in a read-aloud. That’s an amazing, efficient and productive 40 minutes.

Little Things are Big Things, and Sometimes That's OK

The talk all day was about the mile. “She said it was easy and went fast” and “I think Mr. Williams just wants to torture us” and “I get so nervous for this I can barely eat” and “I think I’m going to puke” (I'll claim the last one). It was interesting because I remember those same thoughts and conversations; they seemed so big at the time.

The other talk was about the 8th grade Mass: who’s sitting with choir? Who’s sitting with the class? Should we all do the same thing?

The point here is that in many scenarios these little things become gossip. Then gossip becomes hurt feelings. Hurt feelings become rifts, even chasms. These gaps become negative energy that is pervasive. Now a little thing is a big and bad thing.

But not today, and not with this group. This is where our teachers and kids do their best work: these little things are turned into big but good things. Here’s what I mean: the mile run isn’t about the clock, it’s about dealing with pressure and pulling for one another. The clock is a small thing, the rest isn’t.
And who will sit where at the 8th grade Mass isn’t about cliques, it’s about the final moments of this class together and how they wish to spend it. That conversation is guided by the teachers and kept within the boundaries of one focus: how do we want to spend this experience?

Final Thoughts
I’ve had a handful of teachers ask me if they could be a student for a day too. I love this idea, and see nothing but benefits. My hope is to secure the finances to pay for a substitute for one day for any teacher who wants to throw on a polo and khakis (or plaid). Furthermore, I’d like to secure funding so that every teacher can spend the day observing their colleagues. How crazy is it that you can work down the hall from someone for decades and never see them at their craft? Not as crazy as missing out on all the wonderfully gifted educators we have in our building. I must find a way to get these initiatives accomplished.

The day with Ian also inspired me to finish a program for the Diocese: administrative swap. This would be the chance for an administrator to visit our other schools and gather ideas for their own schools. Personally, I’d also love to visit our closest LPS neighbors. I plan to fulfill this program in 2016-17.

Finally, a thank you to Ian, all of the 8th graders, and all of the teachers for entertaining the idea. This was never meant to be about me, it was meant to get a sense of the life of a CRC student. I’m an Eagle graduate, and I must admit that as amazing as my experience was in the early nineties, we’re soaring in 2016.

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