Monday, November 28, 2016

Friends, Family, Faith and Traditions make the BEST HOLIDAYS!

Thanksgiving Wrap Up: 2016
When looking forward to a few extra days off for the Thanksgiving Holiday, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew we would have a big gathering around the fire, a Thanksgiving Dinner that couldn’t be beat and plenty of catching up to do, but that wasn't till Thursday. My first day off however, Wednesday, found me looking at old #TBT photos, remembering the years here as a Principal and becoming thankful for the relationships, connections and families throughout the building, district and community. Almost growing nostalgic in the process.  

For instance, one tradition is the Boys Basketball Thanksgiving Practice and their insistence on an “optional” workout on Wednesday at 8:00 am and then again on Sunday at 3:00pm.  Getting up out of bed on a “Vacation Day” for a middle school student really shows dedication and commitment.  Then running, practicing, drilling, and strategizing, all in the name of building a program started off as a nice touch but has evolved into a focused period of concentration and deliberation.  I began looking for those old photos, to share with the team the memories and reminders of those that have laid a foundation before them, but discovered much more along the way.  

It seems the friends, faiths, families and traditions is what makes these annual events so important, branding us as part of the bigger picture.  We all want to be part of a group.  We want to feel connected.  We want to be somebody, yet in all our business, preparations and running around, we forget to stop, enjoy the sunset, relish the conversation and reach into another person’s life.  
When we consider how to energize or motivate ourselves, it is often by remembering the reasons why? and for what purpose?  Getting energy from others by helping others is the best way to feel connected and part of something bigger.  This Holiday Season, think of somebody who needs something that only you can supply.  It may be a conversation, a listening ear, a personal visit on an elderly or shut-in to change a light bulb or something as simple as a pleasant and unique greeting.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

An argument seeks WHO is right. A discussion seeks WHAT is right!

What is right?
Who is right?
How can we get past the argument into the discussion?
Competition or Collaboration or Communication?

As we face problems, issues, obstacles and hurdles, I instantly think of the teachers at in my building as the best resources for developing plans to address the problems.  I know some concerns are not easy to articulate and others aren't easy to solve.  Many times, it seems like the problem is so ingrained, it is insurmountable.  Regardless, I think of their opinions, ideas and brainstorming sessions as valuable.  In fact, often times, when I get over my stubbornness, we apply staff created and designed solutions addressing things with deft, tact and creativity. 
Back in the day, a realtor told me, “‘No’ means ‘Maybe’ and ‘Maybe’ means ‘Yes! As someone is looking for a house, they may like everything but the carpet!  That is a ‘Maybe’ and it brings us one step closer to satisfying their housing needs. Additionally, ‘No’ just lets us know what is not working!  All we need to do is keep trying to maximize the benefit for ALL parties, from the students and parents to the teachers and district.  What works for ALL of us?!
Gathering opinions, insights and experiences for the true good of the group maximizes buy-in, effectiveness and participation. Proposing ideas and brainstorming brings out the best.
Keep up the collaboration through the communication and shy away from the competition!

An argument seeks WHO is right.  A discussion seeks WHAT is right!


Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Parent Hopping and Teacher Hopping?



If you are more fortunate than others, 
it is better to build a longer table than a taller fence.

Parent Hopping! AND Teacher Hopping!
The act of asking the other parent when the first parent gave the “wrong” answer. If Dad said “NO,” go ask Mom. At school, we are aware of our consistent follow through and how our students are sensitive to the differences. We may be agreeing just to agree, even if it is not exactly what we think is important. For instance, hats in the building. We ALL will ask a student to take his hat off in the building but does that really have a MAJOR impact on the learning in itself? Can a student learn with a hat on?  Regardless of our personal interpretation, we all agree that consistency is more important and a unified front displayed by the teachers is far more important.
Planners are another factor that may or may not be important to an individual teacher. Yet, we as a team agree to use planners in our classrooms to help student organize as they work their way through their middle years. Do we need them?  DO STUDENTS NEED THEM?  Schools are student centered even though they are teacher led! Therefore, planners it is!
Teacher Hopping, for instance, in the middle school takes on a familiar look as well. A student asked me, “Can I go to my locker?” I was not sure why a student would ask me that question, so I paused. Coach came up and I deferred the question to him. Then, it was clear that the student was trying to “Teacher Hop” and bypass the rule by asking another Staff member! Sounds like at home. If mom says NO, ask DAD. Together, the letter of the rule is not as important as the need for us to be unified and together in our enforcement! We agree to remain individuals but serve students as a team!

An Argument strives to prove WHO is right.
A Discussion strives to prove WHAT is right.
Let's not confuse the two.
Stay on the same page and convey a truly unified front, knowing agreement to serve children is better than proving who is right.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

How do we measure stamina or persistence?

What is the difference between a SETBACK and a DEFEAT?
Think baseball! 
A SETBACK might be related to a pitch called a strike but the batter just stood there. It sets us back, behind or in a weaker position, but it does not mean things are done, completed or finished! An opportunity for success still exists and things could still work out! The SETBACK just makes it harder. A big part of education is working to get over this hurdle and overcome.
A DEFEAT might be the end of the inning, the end of the “at bat” or the end of the game. Regardless, there is a sense of finality in the DEFEAT but a sense of hope in the SETBACK.
School must teach how to overcome SETBACKS.
These window decals mapped out the last few weeks of our school year. We want to sprint to the future but not kick too early. We must finish strong and carry our load all the way to the end. Here, events and special activities are aligned to motivate any and every student in our building. WHO might we be missing? Who is not served in this group of activities? Who are we leaving out? For example, our DodgeBall Tournament pulled in anybody and everybody.
Meet: The Enforcers

At School, we strive to develop the full person, the academics, the discipline, social and emotional intelligence, executive function, financial awareness and exercise. These are just a few of the parameters we deal with on a a daily and nearly continuous basis.  All while students have cell phones, worry about their fashion risks and attend classes on time, while getting homework done, permission slips signed and turned in, and lunch accounts paid up.  But this is the middle school and that is what we do!

Setbacks happen continuously but defeat is never accepted.  Setbacks demonstrate trying, attempting something new and taking educational risks.  Setbacks are expected.  Defeat is not.

Every person who has met success, also met failure!

Friday, August 19, 2016

Was it worth it?

Was it worth it?
Last Saturday night, at 10:30pm, we traveled to the Missouri Botanical Garden to take in the rare blooming of the amorphophallus titanum commonly called the Corpse flower due to the odor and size.  
(Seldom do I see 2:00 am these days anyway.)

After driving an hour, waiting in line for another half hour, then seeing the flower for less than 5 minutes, it makes me wonder…  Was it worth it? YES. Unabashedly Yes. How often would I actually get to see and smell it in "Real Life?" I heard a student say the "Grand Canyon? I will just Google it!" (Imagine the limits in understanding after seeing pictures of the Grand Canyon, and thinking you have really experienced the presence!?) How many other things do I miss because I am in a hurry, on my way someplace else or not paying attention.  I really must take time to smell the roses.  I see these 8th grade students in our building and it does seem like they were just in 6th grade last month. They are growing with leaps and bounds right now and it is amazing the maturity they are showing. Let’s continue to provide them opportunities for leadership.  We were even thinking about having them assist during the first day of school while everyone is trying to get things together, there are still new students, lockers, classes and teachers to find. Mentoring and peer leadership roles are wonderful motivators at getting those students engaged.

It is ALWAYS worth it.

Tom McCracken

Thursday, April 21, 2016

140 Characters, A 90 Second snippet or a Living Room Story?

Elevator or Living Room Version of a Story???

Elevator or Living Room Version of the Same Story???
Middle School Staff Blog
Welcome to Spring
April 21, 2016


Elevator Version or the Living Room Version
My wife and I were invited over to some friends house for dinner a few weeks back.  We sat there in their living room for a time, then the guys went out into the back and lit the grill and the ladies stayed inside.  When it was just the two of us in a smaller setting, we were able to actually have a conversation.  We waited for each other to finish thoughts.  We asked each other direct questions that demonstrated prior knowledge.  We waited for the answers and allowed plenty of time for processing.  We were able to talk about more than the weather, the Cardinals or each other’s health.  It was a time of connecting. I felt refreshed, energized and renewed that I was in a good place in my life.
The next day, Jayne and I were heading down to her doctor's appointment on the 8th floor of the Brentwood Building.  We walked in the building and noticed  another couple looking at the marquee, looking for their floor.  They turned Jayne happened to know her.  They were heading to the 11th floor and so we rode the elevator together.  It was during this time, the ladies began chattering about common friends and family.  Who was ill, why they were in the building, lost friends and even the uncommonly warm weather, but they couldn't really finish anything.  We said goodbye at our floor, the girls promised to “get-together, soon” and we exited on our floor.  I was feeling exhausted from the quick snippets of stories.  Eventually, I realized something when I compared this incident with the evening before.  For the first time, realized the difference between a LIVING ROOM VERSION of a story or an ELEVATOR VERSION of the same story.  
The elevator version is quick, it conveys facts, ideas and basic information but it contains few details and possible important omissions.  The Living Room Version is longer, filled with details, drawn out and maybe even embellished a bit.  There is time for interaction between the speaker and the audience with reflection and segways frequently following paths into deep conversation and thoughts.
From here, I began to wonder about my versions presented here at school.  Do I try and force a living room version when I only have time for an elevator story, shoving too much into a small window, forcing others to “drink from a firehose?” By trying to get it all done, am I really adding to the frustration level? Or, do I give the elevator snippet when more information is needed, possibly the reasoning or back-story or explanation of my limited reasoning?  Regardless, as I continue to practice, hone and develop my communication skills, I realize they will never be perfect. I will never be able to convey my intended message precisely or exactly.  But I can’t let this stop me.  Perfectionism is a manifestation of insecurity.
I wonder about any applications for the classroom, teaching or learning?

Friday, April 8, 2016

From Rich Hill to Invictus...

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
William Ernest Henley

The author, Henley, lost his foot and part of his leg to illness yet he still carries this positive and overcoming outlook on his life.  He is NOT afraid and makes that clear with this writing. At the other end of the spectrum, we meet three young men in the movie Rich Hill.

Rich Hill  
Movie Review: Rich Hill - Watching this film reminded us of a stream of consciousness recording the lives of three young men.  A few things happened in my mind and thought process

  1. I saw the same behaviors, people and characteristics in many of our students.  (It seems like just the names were changed)
  2. The three stars were trapped in a cyclic pattern that was too hard for them to get off without external support. (That could be teachers, coaches or other caring supporters.)
  3. School there looked like school here. (Thinning hair, goat, and rehearsed speech, DFS, troubles and the geographic fix to solve their problems, because things were always better before, in the past.)
  4. Motivation comes through the relationships. (These students tended to drive and push those that could help them the best farther and farther away, just by building their walls, acting out and doing the ONLY thing they know what to do.  WE DO NOT KNOW HOW TO PLAY WELL WITH OTHERS UNLESS WE ARE TAUGHT HOW TO DO THAT!)
  5. We must deliberately remind ourselves who we are, what we do, and our purpose in this place.

Teachers, care givers, coaches, school staff and even administrators act with great confidence and compassion, offer such good variety, interest and enthusiasm all, while contributing to the lives of our students.  Students thoroughly enjoy those contributions to their lives but seldom do they express it the way we like to hear it.  Regardless, keep up the GREAT work. 

Tom McCracken
Winfield Middle School

Monday, April 4, 2016

What is an artificial environment? Ask the Fox

What does the Fox say?

This juvenile polar bear weighs over 1500 lbs, lives in a nice tank and setting at the St Louis Zoo, gets fed twice a day, plays in the water and pretty much enjoys the only life it has ever known.
What if we release him in the arctic wasteland? Will he survive?

We had a lunch discussion the other day about finding an injured wild fox and what it might say. We speculated over some options and what could happen if we took the wild animal home and tried to nurse it back to health and strength. Besides the legal implications of owning and keeping wildlife in the State of Missouri without a permit, we thought only of ourselves. We enjoyed the emotional or sentimental response that doing this good deed might illicit in inside ourselves. We thought bringing something back from the brink of impending doom held a certain mystique, or power behind it. Then we considered the fox and the necessary struggle it needs to grow, get strong, learn how to find water and food. It will also need to learn from its mother how to avoid predators, roads and civilization, including mankind and possible negative outcomes. At the onset, we felt like it would have been nice if we took care of the abandoned animal but at the end, all we did was postpone reality.

So how can we reconcile this cynicism and still teach school? Schools deal with children, communication, growth and feedback? How can we allow a certain amount of struggle necessary to increase stamina, strengthen skills and learn resilience? For one we must allow some failure, but not too much!

Teachers often times know how much to push, blending the right amount of encouragement with a little bit of wait time and some wrestling with the concepts before they even think about giving an answer. Often times they answer student questions with a question of their own, not wanting to give away the answer but make their wards work to get theirs. Teachers walk this fine line with every conversation, supporting a tender reed in one instance and replying with firm yet compassionate clues in other settings.

It’s not what we do! It’s who we are!

Tom McCracken
Winfield Middle School

Thursday, March 24, 2016

The Storm Provides

The Good Dinosaur claims...  The Storm Provides!
Each of us that make it through the storm are able to learn, gain wisdom and come through stronger and better equipped to face the next challenge. Has the storm provided in you life?

In this season of SPRING TIME I remember that nothing is ever permanent or automatic. We each travel through seasons, learning what we can and getting the most from each experience. Those who learn from other people's mistakes are often spared the extremes of life. Those who make the mistakes themselves learn more deeply! Getting to have conversations about what it means to be a teacher reminds me of my passages through stress, discomfort and uncertainty. At Winfield, we do our best to reach into, serve, and provide for our community a foundation upon which students can grow! Our students truly are the future. We don't know what they will grow through or go through but we want them to be as equipped as possible to face what comes their way.

A question asked of me in an interview long ago comes to mind. Mr McCracken, what would you rather teach? Calculus or basic math?” My flippant response of “People, stuff!” did nothing to impress my interviewer, but it did set the stage for my future. Yet, that single question and answer helped me articulate what I thought was most valuable. I realized my goal wasn't this group of children or that group of children but all people. Regardless of their season of life, anyone could become my new audience. Here is where I am growing the most! I might not be able to teach those with more wisdom or understanding but I would like to help create an environment where learning, change and development are the norm and those “aha moments happen daily for everyone. I teaching and lead my peers, most of whom are talented, equipped and specially trained in their area of expertise well beyond my limited education-- either formally or from the streets! I used to think I could actually be the teacher! I am realizing I can only support their learning. Each of us, regardless of our situation in life,must be responsible for our own learning.


Ancora Imparo,
Yet, I still learn


Tom McCracken