Somos Immigrantes

Somos Immigrantes

“Somos Immigrantes.”

Norma said it in jest.  But it wasn’t far from the truth. Less than five minutes earlier, the five of us abandoned our chartered bus and decided to walk north three miles into the highlands of Guatemala.  Our bus was originally headed to Huehuetenango, but was in a full stop. Up ahead, there had been a fatal accident that had plugged all traffic. Fortuitously, I made a few friends in the Guatemala City bus station, at 3:00 am, and decided to trust their judgement on this unexpected challenge.

Walking past idling semi-trucks, frustrated drivers, and a violently smashed automobile, we made it through the log-jam. . Then we jumped onto a “camioneta” (local bus). Besides the fact that we had to leave our “maletas” (bags) behind on the bus, our decision turned out to be a good one. We beat the chartered bus. We made it in enough time to check into a low end hotel. And we were able to visit a famous “mirador” (viewpoint) over Huehuetenango.

Walking a Mile (Or Three!) in Their Shoes

Gaining a deeper understanding of the life, culture and conditions of my students has been a primary reason for traveling this far into Guatemala (Read that post).  In conversations with ‘newcomer’ students and families, it turns out that most of them come from the region of Huehuetenango. Getting to this relatively remote place hasn’t been easy or without risk. But it has been extremely meaningful and insightful.

To be clear, there is nothing I can do to fully connect, empathize, or fully know the experience of an indigenous, mother or father from the highlands of Huehuetenango.  I can’t begin to put my mind around the desperation and strength that goes into making a decision to walk away from your country of origin; To leave behind extended family and ancestral burial grounds and towards an American border in hopes finding a better life with possibility and safety.

But I did get a hint of that feeling.  Walking three miles down the road, without a clear plan of how to reach my desired destination, I felt vulnerable and scared.  With a fleece sweatshirt wrapped around my head for sun protection and books in my hands (we were not able to take our bags), I felt under-prepared.  Having gotten up at 2:00am for the first leg of the journey, I felt worn down. Walking past tiny homes, pieced together with corrugated metal, mud bricks and concrete, I imagined my students Antonio or Maira, playing outside. 

“Somos Immigrantes”

These are the ways we can begin to make a difference for our students.  After all, depending on the time and place, we are all immigrants in need of some friendship, assistance, and teaching.

When I think about our students and families finding success in our context, I will think about the friends I made on the journey to Hueheutenango.  They took me under their wing in a stressful and challenging situation. They let me stay with them in their hotel and shared the best of HueHuetenago.  I will also think about Abuelita Cristina (homestay mother) in Antigua. Over small bowls of black beans, white bread, and Nescafe coffee she has come to know me well.  She offers keen advice and laughs at my jokes. I will also think about my Spanish teacher Miguel. While we have become friends, he pushes me hard towards my goal of learning spanish. By the time I leave, we will have shared 45 cups of coffee and conjugated 245 verbs.

“Somos Immigrantes!”

In the News

The BBC just published an interactive story, “US- Mexico border: Step into the shoes of a migrant” that connects readers to the possible outcomes of asylum families, journeying towards the American “frontera.” It is well worth the read.

F(l)ailing in Mexico City

F(l)ailing in Mexico City

So…I received a failing grade for day 1 of the Guatemala experience. In fact, I didn’t even make it there.

After successfully navigating a border crossing into Tijuana and onto my first flight, things were looking good. I even made huge progress on my required reading “Silence on the Mountain,” by Daniel Wilkinson. We arrived in Mexico City as scheduled, and I even located my next gate ahead of time. Making the assumption that I could approach the gate for the following flight 30 minutes in advance, I located, purchased, and enjoyed a delectable bowl of tortilla soup. It was creamy, just the right temperature, and even garnished with charred chiles. After paying the bill, I headed across the hallway to my gate.

“Lo siento, senor, su vuelo ya lo dejo, perdio su vuelo.”

I missed my flight? What? But the plane wouldn’t leave for another 25- 30 minutes! I made some sense of the explanation, learning that all passengers for this flight showed up three hours early and had already been bused to the tarmack. What now?

The answers to “What now?” were not good. In fact, they brought a grown man to tears in public. No thanks to AeroMexico’s TERRIBLE flight policies, here were the answers:

  • Spend over an hour locating your baggage that was left behind.
  • Pay $200 as a penalty for missing your flight.
  • Have your return flights from Guatemala voided.
  • Be offered, then turn down a $600 flight into Guatemala the next afternoon- which cost slightly more than the first class tickets hunted for and purchased for the entire trip, months ago.
  • Travel back and forth between terminals, on a sky train, trying to book a flight out by nightfall.
  • Have your incredible wife on the phone most of her afternoon, working to book flights, dispute charges.
  • Miss the first day of Spanish 4 Educators programming in Guatemala.
  • Give up. Pay penalties. Book a next day flight for $318 with another carrier.
  • Find a hotel. Get a shuttle. Find a bed by 11:00 PM.

Fresh Perspective

Now that I have gotten a good night’s rest, a lukewarm shower, and a little bit of drip coffee, I have a new perspective. If I were on the Amazing Race, I would be out. If I were centrally focused on seeing Latin America “on a shoe string,” I would have to abandon the cause. If I were graded on my ability to navigate a stressful situation in Spanish, I would not have gotten a passing grade.

When I remember why I really left home for Guatemala, I may be getting exactly what I was after. Literally in a single moment, at gate 75A in the Mexico City airport, I experienced pieces of the reality many of my students face every single day.

  • I lost privilege. I went from “first class passenger” to “man without a seat or a plan.”
  • I experienced disorientation in a new environment.
  • I was forced to use my budding language skill in emotionally heightened conversations.
  • The kindness of people who helped me along with way, had an augmented impact on my spirit.
  • Despite my best efforts, I felt defeated.

That said, I want to remind myself of a few things: 1) I am safe. A kind Columbian man highly discouraged my idea of taking the last leg of the journey by bus into Guatemala. Avoid cartels at all cost. 2) When we can solve our problems with money, our challenges are not as serious as they feel in the moment. This was not disease, or prison, or tragedy. Hard, yes. Tragic, no. 3) I have an incredible wife. 4) It’s the journey, not the destination. With some distance, and a safe landing in Guatemala later today, I am going to appreciate this recent episode even more. In the words of my team leader, “These things happen sometimes in the exciting world of international travel.”

I just hope to get a passing grade today!

Why I Think I am Going to Guatemala

Why I Think I am Going to Guatemala

A trusted staff member was the first to hear of the conscience bending, gut wrenching details that illustrate the northbound journeys of our newest students.  Soon enough, the whole country would read about it in the news. Reports emerged covering the shocking realities of children, separated from families and detained in cages well beyond 72 hours.  

“Hace frio!  Hace frio!” A newly enrolled first grader described the cranked up air conditioning of the detention centers that made it hard to rest.  

“Nuestras mantas eran como papel de aluminio.”  Maria shared, the blankets were like aluminum foil.  The children huddled together on the concrete, like litters of puppies, to share warmth.

“Estuvimos allí mucho tiempo.”  She felt like she was in the detention center for a long time.

Then, within days, she found herself sitting upright in a rigorous first grade classroom.  New words, both academic and conversational, whizzed by like camionetas (“chicken busses”) from back home.  There were new rhythms and routines to learn including breakfast in the classroom, guided reading groups, recess, and number talks. It felt like another planet to Maria.  But this was life en “los estados unidos.”

I am going to Guatemala, to see more clearly the reality of our newest families (including strengths, beliefs, cultural practices, hopes, and lived experiences).

Why were they willing to go through all of that? What is it like in their towns and pueblos that whole families would leave by foot, for good? How deeply will children and students be impacted by the arduous journey, senseless separations and lengthy detentions? And how might we welcome, create space, and support this particular wave of new immigrants in our schools?  Who will be their “safe people?” How long will they be with us?

These are not hypothetical questions for our learning community.  

Over the last school year, our school has welcomed over thirty students, originally from Guatemala. They join an exceptionally beautiful and diverse student body; 56.6% of our students identify as Hispanic. 46.6% of them are emerging bilinguals (referred to in most schools as English Learners). No matter how unforgiving their journey was. No matter how steep their climb towards academic success will be. Regardless of their citizenship or legal status in the moment. These kids are our kids.  

I want to be bilingual.

This year we had 42 students become bilingual, mastering reading, writing, speaking and listening with English as a second language. I figure that if our students can do it, then so can I.

Multiple times a day, I get the chance to connect with parents at our school. Many of them speak Spanish fluently, but do not yet have the skills to navigate our community. I want to be able to connect with them, hear their hopes for their children, and capture their best thinking for the good of the school.

I want to lead the charge towards cultural competence.

Sure, we have a culture fair. It highlights diverse cultures represented in our student body.  Whole classrooms learn about those cultures and traditions. Students perform dances and sing songs. Parents jockey for position to get the best photos.

But is this the highest level of cultural competence? I would argue not.

How might our school be a place that welcomes all families, pronounces our cultural differences, elicits participation of all, and celebrates their successes?

I am looking forward to reconnecting with my deepest leadership motivations. I am a school leader that exists to see teams realize equitable learning results for students.  English Learners (ELs) have long been a vexing subgroup. Notably, research tells us that it takes about five years for learners to reach their full linguistic development. But other formidable factors contribute to the historical underperformance of this group of students. I’m looking forward to a) spending time in their shoes- as a second language learner and b) thinking through additional supports that we may be able to provide as they take on a new and challenging language. I lead, in part, to generate and implement creative solutions to the pressing challenges our community faces. This particular challenge demands our best thinking, our deepest empathy, and our persistent efforts. 

For this school leader, it starts with a 9;30 am flight out of Tijuana tomorrow morning, bound for Guatemala.

Follow my learning and experiences here and on twitter: @JustinMPhillips Stay tuned for upcoming post: Why I Really Went to Guatemala

Tackling Dummies in the Front Office

Tackling Dummies in the Front Office

It was a regular stroll through the office. That’s until I spotted the tackling dummies. Three clear plastic bags, packed tight with styrofoam balls, purposed for reading bean bags, were delivered that morning. They stood waist high and taunted me to take them on. Sure, I had classrooms to visit and a tight schedule to keep. But I wasn’t going to back down. So…I took the challenge.

BAM!

My tackling form was ‘on point.’ Onlookers in the office saw why I graduated from my high school as the school’s all time leader in number of tackles #hookem. Following a moment of disbelief, they burst into laughter!

“WHaaaaaa!! HAaaaaaaa!”

Getting up off the ground, I looked off into the distance and asserted “You didn’t know I had that, did you?” Straightening my tie and re-attaching the radio to my belt, I went metacognitive. “Wow, I really needed that.”

That’s truth. I really did.

We all need moments of levity, of play, of laughter in the workday. There is much research that points to the health and value of play in the workplace. It positively impacts our well being. It positively impacts our production. And it positively impacts the working climate.

As a leader, I am at my best when I can toggle between tasks and connection. I am at my best when I can both push our team and connect with our stakeholders. Our work is both urgent and serious. We are preparing students for a future of success. Too many of our students are already behind, not yet demonstrating grade level proficiencies in reading, writing, and mathematics. But this important and urgent work happens through people. People, and teams of people, work best when there is a foundation of human connection. Play and laughter might be the quickest routes to that end.

The question remains, how do we balance the urgent with needed play, in the context of schools, in our roles as school leaders.

I don’t have clear answers yet. But I do know that I need help breaking away from the urgent, to be spontaneous, and to play at work. Recess helps. Bean bags, posing as tackling dummies, help even more.

Literature Reviewed for Leaders: The 4 Disciplines of Execution

Literature Reviewed for Leaders: The 4 Disciplines of Execution

School leaders are busy people. Our days are full. The pressure is great. The rewards are even greater.
Professional reading does not always make it into our daily routines. Leaders who are serious about continual growth lament the fact that they cannot read enough of the best stuff out there.

I want to give you the skinny on the professional reading that I am doing so that you can 1) Identify top priority next-reads 2) Gain exposure to a wider selection of helpful texts and 3) Save time and money by passing on books that do not connect in the moment.

Here’s the ‘skinny’ on The Four Disciplines of Execution:

The 411: The Four Disciplines of Execution. Chris McChesney, Sean Cover, and Jim Huling, Free Press, New York, 2012.

My Tweets: Too many schools analyze performance data after the fact, when it’s too late to impact performance. There are better ways that virtually guarantees success.  #thosekidsareOURKIDS

A Leader’s Take: I want to see our school become both high performing and attractive to families and employees.  It’s important to pay attention to how successful organizations, both for-profit and non-profit, achieve their goals. I am now more convinced than ever to focus on fewer efforts that leverage greater gains. In this text, the authors show us how to do it. It begins with identifying a measurable goal that is inextricably tied to the organization’s mission. Then lead measures (actions your team must take to achieve the goal) need to be identified. Additionally, a compelling and visible scoreboard should be developed to engage all participants. Finally, regular “check-ins” should be scheduled and conducted to update the team’s progress. While this sounds easy enough, there is more than enough data to show that leaders like us are proficient at identifying goals. We fail, however, to identify data points predictive of success and regularly celebrate our team’s growth. In short, we fail to execute. If you are ready for a systematic approach to achieving your organizations wildly important goals, then this may be the framework you were missing.

One Important Take-Away:  Only one in seven employees is able to name even one of their organization’s most important goals. 15% could not name even one of the top three goals their leaders identified. This truth lies at the very center of the organizational stagnation too many of us see.

Your Next Move: Make reading this book one of your top personal goals before 2019. Then execute that goal.

It Gets: 5 out of 5 apples.

The Power of Tostada Tuesday

The Power of Tostada Tuesday

We’ve always known that sharing food is a clear avenue to connection. Some of the greatest leaders have used this method to connect people in deep ways. In high school, my head coach would arrange for the whole football team to share a ‘carb-loaded’ meal at one house the night before the big game. Jesus, a leader in his own right, purposefully dined with individuals from all walks of life, culminating his teaching in the last supper. I once had a boss, in the non-profit sector, who made it a point to host a portion of the staff meetings at local restaurants. He knew that these meals would feed our sense of purpose, in addition to our stomachs.

At our school this year, we are banking on Tostada Tuesdays.  For us, it’s pretty simple. In the preceding week, staff members sign up to bring one of their favorite tostada toppings. They scrawl that selection on the staff mailroom door. A few of our office staff members organize the spread, remind staff to join us, and “voila!”  This relatively brief meal, scheduled monthly, will yield far more than six foot foldable tables, stacked with homemade food.  We are creating hubs for staff connection.

As a leader, Tostada Tuesdays give me both permission and space to sit down with key team members for relational and light conversation. In an industry where complimentary meals and off-site adventures are non-existent, we need spaces for authentic connection. So that I can be completely present during this time, the meal is booked as an appointment on my schedule. Additionally, I work to ensure that sufficient supervision is in place. This way, I am pulled away only in cases of emergency.

When we share food, we are sharing a piece of ourselves.  Not only are we having a shared experience, we are given the opportunity to share a piece of ourselves. Sometimes, our team members bring dishes that reflect their familial and cultural traditions. They show up with masterpieces that were made with love in their home kitchens. We are given the chance to give, receive, share, and express gratitude. And these actions are the building blocks of a healthy team.

Literature Reviewed for Leaders: Micro Resilience

Literature Reviewed for Leaders: Micro Resilience

School leaders are busy people. Our days are full. The pressure is great. The rewards are even greater.
Professional reading does not always make it into our daily routines. Leaders who are serious about continual growth lament the fact that they cannot read enough of the best stuff out there.
I want to give you the skinny on the professional reading that I am doing so that you can 1) Identify top priority ‘next-reads’  2) gain exposure to a wider selection of helpful texts and 3) Save time and money by passing on books that do not connect in the moment.

Here’s the ‘skinny’:

The 411: Micro-Resilience: Minor Shifts for Major Boosts in Focus, Drive, and Energy. Bonnie St. John and Allen P. Haines, Center Street Publishing, New York, 2017.

My Tweet: To be the best leaders we can, we need strategies for interrupting our own fight/ flight/ freeze responses. #MicroResilience offers how-to’s that may transform your days at school. #thosekidsareOURKIDS @bonniestjohn

A Leader’s Take:  Our schools are multi-dimensional spaces with simultaneous demands on our presence and time.  This book does two things: 1) Convince you that multi-tasking is not the goal. We perform at high levels when our brains are dialed in on one thing and we are fully present. 2) Suggests concrete ways that you can refocus our brains, release stress, and build resilience. If you want win more daily battles with mental exhaustion and perform at higher levels, this text holds the keys!

One Take-Away:  I see this as a practical guide to trauma-informed leadership. Instead of being ruled by the primitive stress-response systems of our bodies, we have the ability to interrupt and reset our regulatory systems. “The good news is that we can rewire ourselves and essentially upgrade our human operating system to cope with the challenges we face” (90).

Your Next Move: Make the order. Dive in. Take on just one practice!

It Gets: 5 out of 5 apples.

When the Cable Guy Reminds You of Your Purpose

When the Cable Guy Reminds You of Your Purpose

As a first year teacher, I received a gargantuan assignment. Teach reading to 9th graders who are multiple grade-levels behind. Most were like 6 years below grade level (3rd grade readers). Because they were so behind, we had them in our classes for nearly half the school day. We taught them explicit reading strategies with high-interest text, and saw some fantastic growth.

Some of the students, though, were too beaten down by their own previous failures to try very hard. Several had such well developed avoidance tactics, that they rarely had to struggle with text. Some were just plain hard to deal with. A few, in my honest and deflated moments, I thought were virtually doomed. Without literacy skills or grit, I feared the world would eventually just swallow them up.

V topped that list. V did some crazy things in my classroom to avoid work. One day, I asked him to leave the classroom, but he refused. As I walked towards him, he would run. He even hopped a few rows to stay away and incite a game of chase. His classmates were thrilled, elated by his courage to buck structure and authority. For a moment, he was a star. He just laughed when I called security to come get him.

V appeared completely apathetic when it came to school work. And I wanted to get to the bottom of the “why.

Being an ambitious, driven, concerned young teacher, I drove to his home for an official home visit. Perhaps I would discover new ways to reach this struggling student of mine. What I discovered, though, was less help and more empathy. Here’s why: His grandmother lay in the one bedroom apartment, on a hospital bed, adjacent the living room window. She we hurting, even moaning, and clearly in her last days. V’s father was angry with his son but lacked the English skills to communicate real concerns or explanation for his sons behavior. In a Cambodian dialect I couldn’t make sense of, he screamed at Voungtha, shaming him in my presence. Voungtha’s smirk from class was a world away.

“Where would he do his homework even if he wanted to?” I thought.
“Please encourage V to try hard in my class,” I said.
“What will become of this kid?” I wondered.
“His future is dim.” I projected.

***********************************************
It’s official now: the world did not swallow V up.

In fact, when my DSL installation technician arrived at my doorstep, he looked strikingly familiar. Within moments, I placed him. And for the next half hour, I questioned and praised him.

He made it.
V lives down the block for me and supports a family, including two young kids. He works hard during the day and counts it a privilege to have a job. Many of his friends don’t. He finished school on time (somehow) after being kicked out of our high school in two separate years.
He beat the odds.

That visit was good for my soul.
It reminded me that a) Growth and maturation is a process, often over years and years. b) I am no savior. I couldn’t even keep him in class. c) Moments of grace like these, are a gift. I am savoring it even now.

Cafeteria Lunches with Kids Beat Comped Business Luncheons Every Single Day

Cafeteria Lunches with Kids Beat Comped Business Luncheons Every Single Day

Often administrators struggle with shifting our focus from the world of the kids, to the world of adults.  Instead of teaching lessons and walking lines, building readers and planning field trips, we find ourselves presiding over IEP meetings, planning professional development, meeting with parents, and interacting with district level staff.  In a shift, our new role is to impact student achievement through the adults on our campuses.

But we are in this profession because of our love for young people and our passion to see them succeed and grow.  How do we reconcile this internal tension?  

1. Embrace your new charge. Effective school leaders can and must work with and through adults on campus. This is our charge. Teams of effective teachers and staff members benefit from school leadership that articulates a vision, coaches their practice and resources their efforts.  As a response to reading Micro-Resilience (Bonnie St. John) this summer, I’ve crafted the following personal purpose statement: “To lead teams that deliver equitable outcomes for kids.” 

2. Schedule daily ‘kid time.’  It is honest and noble to acknowledge a need to know and impact students on a daily basis. It helps us ground our decisions and taps our deepest motivations. Given the demands of our roles, we are logistically unable to spend all of our time with children.  Instead, we should find at least one slice of the scheduled day, where quality interaction with students is both possible and rewarding. 

I started out the year challenging kids in games of four square and being present during lunches.  This filled a supervision need and got me outside of the classrooms/ office and with kids.  As the year went on, I found that eating lunch, at the lunch tables, with students, became my “jam.”

Eating lunch with students worked for a number of reasons.  Because I needed to eat anyways, it was and initial act of multi-tasking.  Second, because lunchtime is limited and dedicated time, I it was predictable for me.  Third, I noticed that it ‘hit the spot’ for me internally.  Suddenly, I was learning kid’s names, cutting up over knock knock jokes, and connecting with students in positive ways.  I’ll take cafeteria lunches with the kids at my school over comped business lunches out every single day!

School leaders who connect with students outside the classroom also turn traditional principal dynamics on their head. Students don’t have to associate interactions with the principal as punitive, directly following instances of poor behavior. They are not just seeing the school leader when they are “sent to the principal’s office. And when they are sent there, principals can lean leverage a bank of relational interactions helps necessary action be restorative and character building.

For each of us, the particular avenue for consistently connecting with kids will likely be different.  For me, eating lunch with students daily will keep me in leadership longer and in a state of laughter!

How do you stay connected with students and focused on work with adults?

Image by US Department of Agriculture via Flickr.
Leadership Lessons from a Date Gone Wrong

Leadership Lessons from a Date Gone Wrong

She asked a question that ended our date that night. While the question provided an opportunity for leadership growth and development, it functionally ended the night.

Date night is a big deal in my house.  The frequency of dates with my wife serves as a barometer for the health of our relationship.  It’s also a practice that we remain committed to so that distance does not grow. Arranging successful dates are also minor feats. Lining up free time, securing babysitters, and coming up with a novel, and romantic, can be magnanimous challenges.

My incisors were sinking their way into a piece of artisan pesto pizza; I never did make it through that bite.  

She asked, “Do families know that there isn’t school tomorrow?”

Instead of finishing the meal with a delectable dessert or a long walk on Ocean Beach, we headed up to the school.

You see, it was Sunday night.  And there wasn’t school the next day.  In fact, we were having the first school holiday of the year and we had not blasted a message to families, via email, paper flyer, website or call.  

I could just see scores of families lined up at the gate, only to be turned back home. Frustrated parents would be forced to call in sick from work.

Facing this grim possibility, I did what any other rookie principal would do.  I apologized to my wife.  I drove up to the school.  I searched the custodial space for a ladder and key to the marquee.  I turned the headlights of my car on, and I spelled out the following message, letter by painful  letter:

No School Monday

School Resumes 9/27

Then…first thing Monday, I articulated a procedure with staff, so that this would never happen again.  

Marquee

I learned a few things through this first year foible:

1. Learn to laugh at yourself. While I was not laughing while on top of that ladder, I continue to laugh about the incident today!
2. We all need time away from the work. Dates with spouses, backpacking trips with college buddies, and beach days with the family recharge us and make us better.  When our attention is divided, as it was in this instance, we are not getting true rest and restoration.
3. Systems need fine tuning. The operational systems at our schools need frequent analysis and tweeking, if they are to serve our communities well. Our strategy/ approach to communication has needed lots of tweeking to reach stakeholders.
4. Effective Leaders take ownership. I wrote about taking leadership here.  At the end of the day, the buck stops with us.
5. Leaders makes mistakes too. And that is okay!  How we respond to our mistakes is what makes us.

Image by Glenn Lascuna via Flickr.