Recently, I had the great honor of participating in All Hands Raised Principal for Almost A Day, a 12-year old program that gives Portland business and community leaders an opportunity to shadow a local Principal to gain “a better understanding of how students learn, teachers teach, and principals lead their school communities with the resources available.”
I was excited to learn that I was matched with Principal Mario Alba of H.B. Lee Middle School, in the Reynolds School District, since I had visited Alder Elementary, a nearby feeder school, when I was Oregon’s Mom Congress Delegate in Spring 2011.
In a nutshell…my time spent with Principal Alba and his team was one of the most powerful learning experiences of my life. Below are a few (of the many!) things I learned from our time together.
1. Well Before (and way after) the Bell
We were encouraged to shadow our Principal from the moment their typical day begins; and as I learned when I called him to make arrangements, a Principal’s day starts long before the 7:30 “Morning Bell.” Principal Alba typically arrives by 6:45 a.m. to setup the school gym for students, who arrive early to enjoy Oldies music, basketball, and connecting with their school community in an informal way until hallway release at 7:22 a.m. I wasn’t able to arrive until 7:30…and know I probably missed out on a true highlight of his day.
On most days, Principal Alba is in his office for several hours after the closing bell, answering perhaps 40-60 emails a day and 8-10 calls from parent families. I could certainly relate to this dynamic in my own workday, and it started to become clear how much we have in common in our roles than I’d expected. More on that below…
2. Environments Count. Little Things Matter…A Lot
After getting acquainted a bit, and meeting his energetic Vice Principal Christie Dudley, Principal Alba and I began to walk the school halls and visit classrooms, which is how he spends most of his day. The first thing I noticed was how spotless Lee Middle School’s hallways are. I’ve been in many schools and know how challenging it can be to keep hallways free of clutter. Not this school! Even as over 800 students streamed through between bells, you’d be hard-pressed to find a piece of litter; the moment he sees even the smallest scrap of paper, Principal Alba picks it up immediately. His actions are clearly contagious; I started doing the same, and caught a few students picking up litter, too (without realizing we were watching, either!). We talked about the connection between pride in your environment and pride in the overall learning process, and how you can see and feel this pride cascading into the classrooms.
As we stopped into classrooms, Principal Alba slipped in quietly, and attempted to not disrupt the classroom activity. You could tell the teachers and students were used to seeing him there, as he gets a friendly smile, a trusting wave, and an occasional high five from students passing by. “If they have to stop doing what they are doing to greet me,” he notes, “then it means I’m not here enough. It shouldn’t be a special occasion.” His goal is to visit each classroom, every day.
Ok, so I clearly knew this one already; as the sister and friend of many great teachers, I also witness this every day with our Free Store for Teachers shoppers, at our Tools for Schools backpack giveaway events, and at the many community programs I’ve engaged in throughout this year.. As we all know, teachers and administrators are facing rising pressures to “perform”, with fewer resources than ever before to do so.
But, as I shared with my team when I returned from my day with Principal Alba, you’d never know it by observing his classrooms in action. What I witnessed was teachers who are passionate about helping kids learn and achieve, and a culture of creativity and innovation. I saw Science teachers like Emily Robins, who teaches 7th grade science, using the concept of “Think, Pair, Share” to encourage teamwork and collaboration among her students. Brothers Steve and Jim Anderson, who co-teach 8th grade Science and Technology electives, filled their lessons with creativity, meaning, and humor.
Another great example of this was seen in the classroom of Mrs. Leigh Smith, the Family & Consumer Sciences teacher, who creatively and energetically manages three levels of students in each class she teaches. And, even though Math was never my favorite subject in school, I have a feeling if I’d been in class with 8th grade Math teacher Shannon Machinchi, this might not have been the case. Her passion for math inspired me to so much that I found myself perusing her blog later that week and came to see why she lives by the motto, “Math solves all of the world’s problems!”
The classrooms at Lee also reinforce this feeling of connection, conversation, and two-way dialogue: Posters and handouts lay out learning and accountability goals such such as.“Today I will be able to explain the metric system.” In the classroom of Reading Specialist Ellen Green (above), who teaches Read 180, I was struck by her ability to break down complex concepts into simple and digestible terms to make learning accessible. In addition to the “official version” of the goal stated on her board — to read and comprehend literary nonfiction — she translates it into kid-friendly verbiage: “I can find examples from what I read to support my ideas.” Other posters throughout the school continue these messages:
“What did you learn today?”
“Be a Make-it-Happen Kind of Person!”
“Let’s make better mistakes tomorrow.”
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle.
4. Principals Advocate, Negotiate, and Mediate… and Ideate
I had the opportunity to sit in on a disciplinary meeting with one of Principal Alba’s students. While I obviously won’t get into the specific details here, I’ll simply say how struck I was with his ability to listen, ask questions, and engage the student in a respectful dialogue. It showed how much he values the student’s perspective, while also sharing the bigger picture of what a potential disciplinary action might mean, both in the short and longer-term. Principal Alba also brings personal stories of his own youth – and mistakes he made – into daily dialogue with his students.
This is a community, I should add, where approximately 78% of students are living at or below, the poverty line. Clearly, school “performance” is just one of the many pressures that HB Lee families are coping with, and Principal Alba recognizes this with both sensitivity and accountability that is incredible to witness. He brings humanity to even the toughest of conversations, and encourages students to be “courageous” enough to ask questions and stand up for what they believe in. He also shares a powerful story with them about a time in his youth when he was not courageous, and the impact it had on him. It is a story I will never forget.
5. The End of The Day Is Just The Beginning
As we wrapped up our time together, I found myself wanting to stay much longer, and learn so much more about what we can all do to support Principals and school communities. I was also struck by how much I admire Principal Alba’s leadership style. He tackles the daily challenge of trying to balance the needs of diverse communities within the school and rising external pressures with incredible vision and expertise. Perhaps more importantly, though, he brings heart…and humor, whenever he can. He recognizes that while data is critical to consider in planning for classroom outcomes, that every student and teacher is unique. We also discussed the need for collaboration and connection to ensure that students not only have the right tools and environments, but the right individual motivations and support systems, to learn and thrive. This approach has never been more important than it is today for Oregon’s students.
I feel incredibly fortunate to have participated in this year’s Principal for Almost A Day, program, and look forward to staying connected with Principal Alba and his team to learn more about what we can do to support more schools in our community. As we begin to think about ways Schoolhouse Supplies can continue growing our support of Portland metro area schools, I welcome your feedback and ideas. I encourage you to email me anytime and to consider applying to participate in next year’s Principal for Almost A Day program!
Want to learn more this week? All Hands Raised is hosting a free community event this Thursday, “Raising Our Hands, Raising the Bar: Collective Action for Student Success.” I plan to attend and hope to see some of you there as well!