117th DFHS Commencement: Finding Your Path

The following address was delivered at the 117th DFHS Commencement on June 16, 2018.

To the Board of Education, Superintendent Brady, Mr. Berry, Administration, Faculty members, Parents, Family members, Friends, Students, and Graduates: Good evening once again, and welcome to the Dobbs Ferry High School Commencement of 2018.

Tonight, we come together as a community for an event that truly captures the essence of what it means to be a member of Dobbs Ferry. The Village of Dobbs Ferry has a long and proud history dating back to the early 17th century. Named after Jeremiah Dobbs, whose family ran a ferry service along the Hudson River out of this very location, the hills that overlook this Waterfront were a site of prime strategic importance for General George Washington during the American Revolution. In 1861, at least 20 Dobbs Ferry residents enlisted to fight for the Union in the Civil War, and if you take a look at the flag pole in front of our high school, you will see the names of hundreds Dobbs Ferry residents who fought in the First World War. The residents of our village have always had great pride, and have looked to give back, just as Edwin Gould did in 1924 when he donated the land that is now Gould Park.

At the center of our amazing little village of course are our incredible schools. The first high school in Dobbs Ferry was formed in 1897, and the main campus of our current high school was built in 1934. Sitting before us today, we have the 117th graduating class of Dobbs Ferry High School. And this graduating class is now part of the long and proud history of this village. Many of the students sitting here attended all three of our schools since the age of five, and they had the opportunity to come full circle as they walked the halls of Springhurst for one last time earlier this week. In fact the grandfather Sal Giuliano, one of our graduating seniors, was a graduate of the DFHS Class of 1938, the first to attend our current school building for all four years. Our school and community have truly stood the test of time, and we are all part of a legacy of excellence that will continue long after all of us are gone.

117 classes of Dobbs Ferry graduates…and each was comprised of graduates who had hopes, dreams, and plans for a better tomorrow just as you do right now. And for some, the path that they had mapped out for themselves played out to the letter. For the majority, however, the path would ultimately need to be adjusted and modified time and again.

Your whole life you have been told that working hard, getting good grades, and getting into a good four year college will lead to success, happiness, and a fulfillment. That’s the way it was with so many past generations, and that thinking has been instilled into all of you. And while that path will certainly lead to success for some of you, the truth is that many of you will find yourselves on a path to success that is completely different from what you have in your mind right now.

A few months back I was scrolling through Facebook and I came across a video by Jay Shetty.  He launched his own YouTube channel in 2016, and has since produced hundreds of short videos clips that focus on finding fulfillment, success, balance, and perspective. He is also a perfect example of a person who is under the age of 30 and has already found himself featured in Forbes because of his out-of-the-box thinking and the non-traditional path that he has taken to achieve his personal goals. If you haven’t checked out his videos I definitely encourage you to do so.

In one of his videos, called “Before You Feel Pressure,” he provides the perfect message for all people, including high school graduates, to think about and to consider. As the video opens, we see a room full of eleventh grade students who are listening to their school principal speak about the very defined and certain path that they have before them. He explains that they will take their exams, will soon graduate from high school, and will then go on to study in universities all around the world. They will attend an advanced graduate school, get a job in one of the top institutions around the world, buy a house, get married, have children, and that their path and life will be forever set. Sound familiar? When he finishes, there is a quiet tension in the air as he says these last words, with a claustrophobic feeling among the students around the pressure of that one narrow path that is being set out for them. Then Jay Shetty steps up and says the following…

I’m sorry, but let me tell you why that approach may fail you. I know people who graduated college at 21 and didn’t get a job until they were 27. I know people who graduated college at 25 and they found work immediately. I know people who never went to college but found what they loved at 18. I know people who have found a job straight out of college making decent money but hate what they do. I know people who took gap years and found their purpose. I know people who are so sure about what they were going to do at 16 and changed their mind at 26. I know people who have children but are single, and I know people who are married but have had to wait 8 to 10 years to have children. I know people in relationships who love someone else. And I know people who love each other but aren’t together. So my point is that everything in life happens according to our time, our clock.

You may look at some of your friends and think that they’re ahead of you, or maybe you feel that some of them are behind, but everything happens at their own pace… they have their own time and clock, and so do you. Be patient. At age 25 Mark Cuban was a bartender in Dallas. It took until the age of 32 for JK Rowling to be published for Harry Potter after being rejected by 12 publishers.  Steve Carell only got his break after 40 years old. Morgan Freeman got his big break at the age of 52.

Getting your college degree after 25 is still an achievement. Not being married at 30 but still happy is beautiful. Starting a family after 35 is still possible. And buying a house after 40 is still great. Don’t let anyone rush you with their timelines because as Einstein said not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that’s counted truly counts.

I share this with you because it is important to remember that graduation is not an end. It is a beginning, and you are all just starting to forge a path in life that works for YOU. As a graduate of the Sewanhaka High School Class of 1992, I can distinctly remember sitting among my classmates, feeling directionless, and without a clear sense of what the future held for me. I had a class rank that was at the bottom third of the class, my only goal was to have a fun summer, and my plan was to make as much money as I could by working in the local deli, before starting at Nassau Community College in the fall. It took three years for me to find my way, transfer to Boston University, and begin my career as a middle school English teacher. And at the age of 43, I am still forging my path, and in some respects the future for me at this age is as wide open as it is for you right now.

In Dobbs, we have seen many others who have pursued alternative paths, We saw it with Eric Paschall, who we honored a few weeks back for his success on the national champion Villanova Wildcats, and we see it with this year’s valedictorian, who has courageously decided to take a gap year to gain real world experience before starting at Harvard University.  And in different ways, we will see it with all of you, as you search to find the path that is right for you.

And when you find that path, my best advice is to be tireless in the pursuit of your dreams, to commit yourself to a life of growth and improvement, and always seek to contribute beyond yourself. As graduates of Dobbs Ferry High School, I promise that you have the skills that you need to accomplish all that you set your mind to…so now the rest is left up to you. Always remember that you have a community who is behind you with family and friends who will always be there to support you. So go out there, find your path, and live a happy and fulfilled life. I wish you all the very best. Thank you.

Yearbook Caption: Class of 2018

To the Graduating Class of 2018,

During a 1958 speech at Loyola College, Senator John F. Kennedy stood before a group of alumni and spoke about the importance of remaining unified as a nation in order to bring positive change for future generations of Americans. In doing so, he urged “…not to seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past—let us accept our own responsibility for the future.”

As graduates of an IB World School, your voice is more important than ever, and you have been prepared with the necessary skills to flourish in an unpredictable and ever-changing world. In doing so, it is important that you think critically, thoughtfully, and consider all viewpoints with respect to each issue. The political party that you might affiliate with should not cloud your thinking, and it is my hope that you will instead strive to be true independent thinkers who are prepared to change the world.

This year our nation faced another unspeakable tragedy at Parkland High School in Florida. As true IB students, each of you joined together to have your voice heard in a way that was unified and extraordinarily powerful. Our peaceful protest, which included a student led walkout, speeches, letter writing, fundraising, and the creation of a quilt that was displayed in Washington D.C. were non-partisan efforts that served to bring our student body together as one community. It is my hope that experiences like this one will remain with you as you work to promote togetherness in a divided world while striving to achieve the IB mission of “creating a better and more peaceful world.”

It has been an honor to be your Principal for the past four years. I wish you all the best for a happy, healthy, and prosperous future.

Sincerely,

John J. Falino, Ed.D.

Principal

ASCD Empower18: A Time for Reflection and Learning

I attended my first annual ASCD annual conference in 2000. I was a second year middle school English teacher at the time and was passionate about anything that would expand my knowledge and thinking about all aspects of education. I paid my own way to attend that conference in New Orleans, and I remember feeling that it was a small price for what was truly a “who’s who in education” event. This was before Twitter, before social media actually, so the only way to connect with the “big names” was at a place like the ASCD conference.

I remember seeing Todd Whitaker present at that conference. His focus was on “dealing with difficult teachers,” and as I took notes on my yellow legal pad I thought about how I aspired to be just like this inspirational principal from Illinois. Fast forward a few years later and @ToddWhitaker has made a pretty big name for himself. I also remember seeing some of the “newer” voices in education speak at that conference. People like Carol Ann Tomlinson, the late Grant Wiggins, Jay McTighe, and Robert Marzano were changing the landscape of education. I remember being mailed a full ASCD conference catalog, and I spent hours in advance reading the descriptions of every workshop for every session while carefully mapping out my days. My “ticketed session” of choice was “Interviewing for the Principalship.” Pretty gutsy for a second year teacher, but that was the type of young teacher that I was.

Fast forward to 2018 and while much has changed for me professionally, many things are still the same. I’m still drawn to ASCD because it simply represents the very best in terms of publications, professional development, and of course regional and national conferences. Add Boston to the mix and attending this year’s conference became a “no-brainer” for me. The areas of focus for this year are also compelling, and directly speak to me in different ways as I move toward the end of of my seventh year as the principal of Dobbs Ferry High School in Westchester County, NY.

As a high school principal, I spend time each summer creating school-wide goals and professional goals that build off previous years’ work. As a school leader and English teacher, I truly believe that in the importance of reflecting and “taking stock. ” It is especially critical for teachers and school leaders who are in positions that are incredibly multi-faceted, fast moving, and ever-changing. The annual conference allows for a perfect opportunity for this type of reflection, and the areas of focus (below) provide a jumping off point to do just that.

  1. The Whole Child: Focusing on the “whole child” is certainly not a new concept though the importance of doing so is now more important than ever. It seems that more and more students are facing some form of emotional crisis by the time they reach high school. Despite this trend, and a now national call to focus on the mental well-being of students in light of tragedies like the one in Parkland, schools continue to put the majority of their focus on academic skills and preparing for admission to college.

Questions for Reflection: How are resources allocated in the school budget to support the whole child? What type of professional development do teachers receive to identify students who may be in crisis? Is empathy embedded into the fabric of the school? How can schools integrate mindfulness on a daily basis for teachers and students?

  1. Transformational Leadership: The misconception by many is that transformational leadership falls solely on the shoulders of the principal. Sure, the best schools have dynamic leaders who push the instructional agenda while creating a culture that promotes collaboration, professional learning, open-mindedness, risk taking, and a true belief that all students can succeed. But show me the best schools and I will show you a staff top-to-bottom that has individuals who possess these traits and beliefs.

Questions for Reflection: Are faculty and staff truly empowered to make decisions? Are teachers empowered to take risks in their teaching and professional learning? Who sets the vision and mission for the school? How is a sense of ownership achieved by all? Is the principal a lead learner or a building manager?

  1. Global Engagement: The world is more connected than ever before, and words like “interdependence” are quickly replacing “old school” words like independence. Social media has certainly played a role in facilitating this shift. For schools, the implications have been tremendous as students are now developing the skills needed for success in potential careers that don’t yet exist in places well beyond our borders. It is no wonder, then, that more and more schools are looking to programs like the International Baccalaureate (IB) because of its focus on international mindedness and “real world” application.

Questions for Reflection: How is international mindedness emphasized in all aspects of the curriculum? What opportunities are students given to think globally and act locally? How is diversity and culture promoted in the school? How is technology used as a vehicle for promoting connection and understanding? Are students being provided with a 20th century or a 21st century education? (think hard about this last one)

  1. Poverty and Equity: There is inequity in every school, including the highest performing schools in the most affluent suburban towns. All schools have students who qualify for free or reduced lunch, all schools have students with special needs, all schools have students who require ENL services, all schools have students who struggle to “fit in,” and all schools have students “in the middle” who are most likely to fall through the cracks. Despite these inequities, all students deserve an education that allows them to maximize their potential while providing opportunities for all students to connect to the school outside of the traditional day.

Questions for Reflection: What programs and organizations are in place to level the playing field for all students? Are all students challenged with the most appropriate academic program? How are resources allocated to ensure access and equity? What co-curricular programs are in place to further connect all students to the school? Does the school truly offer the very best education for every student? What systems are in place to ensure that no students fall through the cracks?     

  1. Redefining Student Success: It is inspiring to see so many workshops at this year’s conference focusing on topics such as authentic learning, real world application, performance-based assessments, and “soft” 21st century skills. How we define student success in 2018 has certainly shifted significantly from 18 years ago when I attended my first ASCD annual conference. Despite this, too many schools are still defining student success through a quarterly number on a report card while operating within the old school paradigm of memorization, content regurgitation, and hours of homework each night.

Questions for Reflection: How do administrators, teachers, parents, and students define success? How is student progress shared with parents and students? Do assessments focus on application of understanding or a retelling of facts? Are assessments varied and ongoing? Do students have opportunities to apply their learning outside of the school building? Does the school truly support teachers who introduce alternative forms of assessment? How is student success communicated to parents and colleges?

6. Teaching and Learning: How a school defines student success will (or at least should!) directly impact all aspects of teaching and learning. The last few years have seen massive shifts in teaching and learning as many schools have transitioned to full one-to-one environments, an emphasis on independent research across the disciplines, and at least an equal focus on the development of 21st century skills over memorization of content. The workshops at this year’s conference certainly reflect this shift, and there is great hope that a renewed focus on teaching and learning will positively impact all of the “areas of focus” discussed above.

Questions for Reflection: Is the principal a true instructional leader? How do students learn best? Are teachers differentiating to meet the needs of all students?  How do teachers learn best? Is professional development differentiated to meet the needs of all teachers? Is technology truly enhancing teaching and learning? Are students being prepared with the skills necessary for success in jobs that do not yet exist?

The Empower18 “areas of focus” provide a wide (yet specific) lens for all attendees to design a conference schedule that is truly differentiated based on individual need and interest. ASCD represents the very best in curriculum and leadership, and this year’s conference provide a perfect opportunity for all educators to learn, reflect, and enjoy!  

The Principalship: Focusing On What Is Most Important

I wrote a post a few years back on the Principalship and the most important aspects of the position. As I move toward the end of my seventh year, the position continues to be multi-faceted, fast moving, and ever-changing. In fact, no one day is ever the same. The busiest days are typically the ones when the calendar is clear and I walk into school thinking that it will be an “easy” day. I’ve learned by now that there’s no such thing. The information comes a mile a minute and I can literally find myself in ten different conversations over the course of twenty minutes on topics and issues that are dramatically different yet critically and equally important. That happens all of the time. It’s the nature of the position.

@DrSpikeCook wrote an excellent piece on the Principalship in response to a friend who asked what a principal does all day. Click on the following list to check out his list:

http://drspikecook.com/2012/01/30/what-is-it-like-being-a-principal-are-you-in-meetings-all-day/#.USK3gx3IElh

Pretty incredible, huh? And, amazingly enough, he probably got at about 50% of what a principal actually does. But rather than putting together a “Part II,” I instead discussed some of the most important aspects of being a principal. To use a baseball analogy, it was my “keeping your eye on the ball” list. I have since gone back to my original list and made some updates.

1) 21st Century Skills: Take a look at any school’s vision and mission and you can be sure that it will be rooted in the belief that schools must prepare all students with the necessary 21st century skills for success beyond high school. “Survival skills” (@DrTonyWagner) such as problem solving, critical thinking, collaboration, communication, adaptability, and initiative are a major focal point at DFHS and they serve as the foundation of what we value instructionally as an IB World School. For principals, it’s perhaps even more important that these same 21st century skills are applied each day. As noted in the introduction, there is no day in the life of a principal that is exactly the same. In fact, the only certainty is that tomorrow will undoubtedly include “a twist” that is either unexpected or unlike anything that has happened before. So either you love that about the job, or you hate it. For me, that’s what I love best because it’s on those days that the “principal instructional manual” gets pushed aside and the real world skills come into play.

2) Focusing on Students: Principals can become so easily bogged down with issues and minutiae that they can lose sight of why we are really here in the first place. Don’t let that happen! A general “self-check” for principals is to consider how each issue either impacts or furthers the education of the students in that respective school. If it doesn’t, then chances are it is time to turn the wheel and head in a different direction. In doing so, principals (much like guidance counselors) must have a big picture view of all students and advocate for the whole child accordingly. This includes success inside of the classroom, the social and emotional well-being of all students, and of course involvement in extracurricular activities that enhance the experiences of all students. The best principals attend concerts, sporting events, academic competitions, and much more while working constantly to differentiate the school’s offerings so that there is “something for everyone.”

3) Safety & Security: No matter how you look at it, student safety is by far the most important responsibility of any school leader. When parents send their children off to school each morning, they do so with an ingrained trust that their children will be “safe” and protected. From lockdown drills to debriefing with key security personnel as “real world” scenarios unfold both locally and nationally, it is the responsibility of principals to ensure that everyone is prepared for any and all emergencies in order to protect all students in the best possible way. In doing so, principals must not only know their building and campus both inside and out, but must have clear protocols in place to ensure efficiency and immediate response during any emergency. For us, that means strategically placed security cameras, protocols for entering and exiting the building, and clear roles and responsibilities for all members of our staff and security team. Unfortunately an emergency is only a day (or minute!) away, so it is imperative that all members of the organization can respond with little to no warning.

4) Building Management: Unfortunately, “old school” managerial skills are too often overlooked when schools are looking to select a principal. This has been particularly true in recent years as more and more attention is being place on both classroom instruction and the shift that is occurring in all schools as a result of increased testing and the common core. While I’m not suggesting that instruction should take a back seat in any school, I’ve seen schools flounder with leaders who possess great instructional minds but little in terms of organizational and managerial skills. It is critical that principals have clear routines, procedures, and protocols in place for all aspects of building operations and to ask “what if” to all potential scenarios and adjust accordingly. Central to this is the importance of having a strong assistant principal (@careim2) as well as a staff who both carries out these tasks and makes sound recommendations for ongoing improvement.

5) Instructional Leadership: There was once a time when a principal’s primary function was to serve in a managerial capacity. That time has long passed. In fact, the paradigm has shifted so dramatically that it is now a general expectation that principals possess a broad and deep understanding of curriculum and instruction and act as “lead learners” in schools. This of course begins by establishing and articulating a clear instructional vision and includes all aspects of curriculum design, the CCSS, assessment, educational technology, and differentiation. Principals also need to negotiate the top-down push for increased standardization with the importance of teaching for meaning and the development of the “real world” skills that are needed for life in the 21st century. Schools with leaders who lack this skill-set are likely to remain stagnate while hovering in the realm of “bad” or at best “good.”

6) Getting Inside the Classroom: Visiting classrooms and supporting teachers with practical feedback is perhaps the best form of instructional leadership and professional development that a principal can provide. It is also the best way to get the true pulse of the school and the needs of the students. Too often, principals pay “lip service” to the idea of getting inside of the classroom and then spend most days dealing with issues behind closed doors. Of course, getting out of the office is sometimes easier said than done, so it is important to build time into the schedule each day to make sure that it happens.

7) Empowering Others: Perhaps the best advice that I ever received about the Principalship was from my former principal in New York City. As an assistant principal, I took on everything, micromanaged all aspects of the building, and basically had a direct hand in all tasks that required completion. She warned me at the time that this approach would ultimately sink me as a principal. While the adjustment was difficult at first, I have seen our school and organization rise to new levels in recent years as more teachers and staff members are empowered in all areas, including professional development, building protocols, and academic programs and initiatives. At DFHS, this has been especially critical as our school completes year five of our 1:1 Chromebook program while moving into our second full year of being authorized as an IB MYP School.  I’ve written several posts over the past years on this topic, including two on “the power of empowering.” Check them out!

Please feel free to comment and share some ideas of your own!

Gearing Up For The Job Search: 10 Tips For Interviewing (Updated!)

It’s that season again. The calendar has turned, spring is upon us, and schools are once again beginning the process of hiring for next year. I was reminded of this last night by a former colleague who called me for some advice as he begins the process of interviewing for a new position. Similarly, my school is filled with wonderful teaching assistants and permanent substitute teachers who are now in the midst of searching and interviewing for teaching positions for September. I wrote a post about this about a year ago and thought that it was worth going back and updating it with some new thoughts. For some, there is perhaps nothing more stressful than the daunting task of interviewing for a teaching or administrative position. While school districts continue to make budgetary cuts and many cities remain in a hiring “freeze,” we are seeing thousands of certified teachers who are without a position and hundreds of resumes for a single position. It’s certainly a “buyer’s market,” so it is critical that candidates distinguish themselves from the rest in order to land a coveted position. Above all else, the place where this happens is in the interview.

Over the years, I’ve been on both sides of the table and have met hundreds (thousands?) of applicants as both an assistant principal in New York City and now a principal in Westchester County. I’ve seen candidates who have “knocked it out of the park” and many others who have struggled mightily. There’s certainly a fine line, but what I’ve found is that those who struggle to present themselves in the best possible way typically do so because they are either under prepared, overly anxious, or unfamiliar with how to effectively interview for a position.

So as you prepare for your next interview, don’t go in “cold” or feel defeated before you even enter the room. Instead, consider the following ten tips and you will hopefully be well on your way to a position that is right for you…

1) Understand the Process: When interviewing for a teaching or administrative position, it is rarely the case that the first interview is the last interview. In most instances, candidates will participate in a process that will include an initial screening interview, a committee interview (parents, students, teachers, administration), a demonstration lesson (for teachers), a performance task (for administrators) a writing sample, and a final interview with district administration and/or the Board of Education (administrators). Of course, there are no absolutes and the process (along with the length) will vary based on the time of year, the location (suburban vs. urban), the degree of urgency on the part of the school, and of course how well you are doing in the process.

2) Know Your Interviewers: It’s always a good idea to get a sense of who will be conducting the interview as opposed to going in blind. By finding out who you will meet with in advance, you will get a sense of the different constituencies that may be represented (parents, students, teachers, etc.) so that you can better anticipate the types of questions that you will receive. Visualization is key and will absolutely help to reduce anxiety both before and during the interview.

3) Know Your Resume: Simply stated, do not put something on your resume if you are not prepared to talk about it. When conducting initial screening interviews, I will always work off the resume as opposed to a list of pre-determined questions. I can still recall the candidate from a few years back who noted on his resume that he was a member of ASCD. Interested since I too am a member of ASCD, I asked him to tell me about a piece that he recently read in Educational Leadership that had informed his practice as a classroom teacher. Instead of a response that focused on the latest in research and practice, I unfortunately received only crickets and a blank stare.

4) Prepare for the Interview: The biggest mistake that a candidate can make is to walk into an interview unprepared and with a plan to simply “wing it.” If this is your plan, there is an increased likelihood that you will stumble on certain questions, your thoughts will be disorganized, and you will leave out important points that may distinguish you from the other candidates. When interviewing for a teaching position, for example, you are absolutely going to get questions that fall under one of the following headings: curriculum and instruction, assessment, classroom management, student support, special education, and parental communication. Embedded in these headings will be questions that are specific to your discipline, including content-based questions, the CCSS, differentiation, educational technology, and examples of best practice. The best way to prepare is to go online and search for typical interview questions (there is no shortage) and begin to practice responses to different questions that you may receive. The trick of course is to know the “big ideas” of what you want to convey so that you can adapt to variations of these questions while not sounding rehearsed and robotic.

5) First Impressions: While this feels like one of those “goes without saying” pieces of advice, the truth is that candidates often blow the interview before it starts by showing up dressed in casual attire. As an interviewer, I’m instantly thinking that if the candidate arrives casual to the interview, imagine how s/he will dress after a year on the job. My advice on this one is to keep it simple. Invest in a nice dark colored suit (or two).

6) Opening Question: Regardless of the position, one certainty is that your first question will sound something like this: “Tell us a little bit about yourself, your experiences, and why you think that you are a good fit for our school.” Now that you know it’s coming, think about what you are going to say. Too often, I have seen candidates stumble over this seemingly innocuous question and never recover.

7) Answering Questions: There is a bit of an “art” to answering questions in an interview since only a certain amount of time is allotted and it’s likely that the attention span of the interviewer will be somewhat limited given the long list of candidates waiting to be interviewed. The best advice that I can give is to avoid long-winded answers that circle around the question and ultimately leave the interviewer wondering if the question was in fact answered. Instead, concentrate on remaining concise while connecting your ideas and thinking to specific examples and/or experiences. This is where the preparation comes in. Furthermore, don’t panic if you get stumped with a question and don’t be afraid to admit that you are unsure about a certain aspect of a question. If you come in well prepared (see #4), chances are you will be relaxed, confident, and able to respond to unexpected questions in a fairly reasonable way.

8) Asking Questions: You will likely be given an opportunity to ask some questions at the end of the interview, so it’s a good idea to come prepared with a few. This is also a good way to show the interviewers that you have done some research on the school and that you are genuinely interested in the school and not the idea of getting a job in general. During this final phase of the interview, it is important to avoid peppering the interviewers with too many questions that are either irrelevant or inappropriate given the respective stage of the process (see #1). Also, avoid questions about money or what your schedule will look like if you get the position. Again, inappropriate. Instead, ask questions that reveal something about you and your work ethic. Here’s a good one: “Do you have a mentoring program for new teachers?” Here’s another: “What types of professional development opportunities are available for teachers in the district?”

9) Be Yourself: Despite the temptation, it is critical to refrain from providing answers that you think the interviewer wants to hear if those answers are contrary to what you believe. This is a sure fire way to come off as disingenuous and, if you are truly unlucky, with a position in a school where you are not a good fit. This is especially critical for administrators.

10) The Intangibles: There’s so much more to getting the job than looking good on paper and having all of the “right” answers. As a Principal, I am always on the lookout for teachers who are smart, cutting edge, flexible, student-centered, growth-oriented, empathetic, articulate, approachable, composed, confident (not arrogant!), collaborative, organized, independent, dependable, and always professional. That’s about it. Is that you?

Parting Words…

It goes without saying that finding a full-time job in education is a challenge. You need to know your stuff, have great timing, and be a little bit lucky. As you go through the process, you will likely send out a countless number of resumes, will go on many interviews (hopefully!), and will find that looking for a job can quickly become a full-time job. If you are a teacher and have in fact advanced to a demonstration (“demo”) lesson, here’s some additional tips:

https://johnfalino.com/2015/03/19/gearing-up-for-the-job-search-the-demo-lesson/

Hopefully you will get the first job that you aim for and will be on your way to a long productive career. More likely, you will face some rejection despite your qualifications. That’s okay! Just stay positive, don’t give up, and proceed with the knowledge that your hard work will pay off and that you will ultimately land the job that is right for you. Good luck!

School Safety: Letter to Parents (#neveragain)

Dear Parents,

I met with our students and staff this morning to discuss school security and the national #neveragain movement that is now taking place to ensure student safety. The safety and well-being of our students has always been the first priority for us in Dobbs Ferry. To that end, we have implemented many security protocols and resources over the past several years and meet regularly to discuss additional measures that we may take as a school. Specific changes that have occurred include a full security plan that is re-evaluated on a regular basis, full-time security officers, security doors, reduced entry points, lock-down drills, a high school Dean, cameras throughout the campus, regular police presence in our schools, daily walk-throughs by the DFPD at various times each day, and much more.

This morning, I spoke with our students about the importance of having our voices heard with regard to the national discussion on school safety. As an IB World School, we strive to develop civic-minded citizens who “think globally and act locally.” This mindset is ingrained in the fabric of our school and puts us in a position of strength to make a real difference on both a local and national level. Our high school student-body president also spoke at this morning’s assembly and provided details of how all students can have their voices heard. The members of our student government (“Legislative Branch”) are now soliciting input from our students and will meet to generate ideas for how our school community can work to promote positive change both locally and nationally.

As a principal and parent of three children, I am fully aware that there is absolutely nothing that is more important than keeping our children safe. Please rest assured that our high school will always be dedicated to ensuring that this is our first priority. Dobbs Ferry is a small, close-knit town that can truly make a difference on a broader scale. It is my belief that our students are truly poised to lead the way in this endeavor.  

Sincerely,

John Falino

The IB Connection: DFHS Science Research

Guest Blogger: Erica Curran (@dfsciresearch) is the Science Research Coordinator at Dobbs Ferry High School in Westchester County, NY.

The science research program at DFHS continues to grow and is currently on par with the most competitive programs in Westchester County. We hired a new science research coordinator, Erica Curran, three years ago and the program has continued to reach new heights as a result. Each year, our students choose specific areas of scientific inquiry and design college-level research studies that are shared locally, nationally, and in some cases internationally. Recently, one of our graduates, Blake Hord, had his work published in The Astrophysical Journal. Please click on the link below to read Blake’s abstract:

http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.3847/1538-4357/aa8fcf/meta;jsessionid=2D5DE4917DF7BF3395A42AFA323ABA5F.c1.iopscience.cld.iop.org

A few years back, Ms. Curran wrote a piece on the science research program at DFHS and the types of skills that students develop through the program. An excerpt from her original piece is below… 

As an IB World School with a science research program that continues to develop and grow, it was also immediately clear to me that students are not only prepared for the rigors of science research due to the IB, but are are also more able to get the most out of their science research experience due to the many “intangible” 21st century skills that they have developed along the way. Some of the specific 21st century skills that students develop through both programs are as follows:

Ownership and Problem Solving: The IB Program describes IB students and teachers as “lifelong learners who develop an intrinsic ownership of their own understanding of the world around them.” I have found that the Science Research Program is able to instill a sense of true excitement and ownership of learning in students as well. The ability of students to choose the topic that they wish to engage in from any number of areas allows them to investigate real-world issues that they find applicable and important. They are also able to delve deeply into areas that would not otherwise be addressed in their academic careers and become “experts” in their respective area by developing an understanding of their topic that rivals all but researchers specializing in their field.  

Critical Thinking and Creativity: While there is a solid structure in place to support and assist students in their skill development in science research, students are ultimately in charge of their own project. They develop their own questions and find their own resources while attempting to answer them.  No two projects are ever the same. Since students are developing their understanding of a different topic, they often become the person most suited to answer the questions that naturally arise. Again, there are mentors and instructors there to support and guide; however, the questions that arise in science research programs are not the kind that can be answered by Google. They are the types of questions that may never be fully answered, though tremendous knowledge can be gained just through the action of attempting to answer it.

Collaboration and Communication: The summer internship aspect of the Science Research Program is integral to the ultimate success of students. Giving the students the support and guidance of top researchers, scientists, and engineers in their field allows each student to have access to experiences that would not otherwise be available to them. Students are required to work closely and effectively with not only each other and their mentors, but often with graduate students and college administrators and other personnel involved with their project. The students learn that research cannot be accomplished in a vacuum or on one’s own, but that it requires significant cooperative work from large groups of individuals all looking at different aspects of the same large, global issue.

Additionally, a large focus of the course is focused on developing each student’s ability to present and communicate their ideas and findings in ways that multiple levels of audiences can access and digest. The student becomes a very real part of the global community that is investigating and researching their chosen topic. Learning how to become a true participant in the global scientific conversation that is occurring in the scientific community is an opportunity that is unique to this program.

Technology & Analysis: Science research students required to become experts in the most commonly used software in colleges and the workforce, such as Microsoft Word, Microsoft PowerPoint and Microsoft Excel. In order to compile and analyze data, generate reports, and present their findings, these tools are significantly depended on. Additionally, each student is exposed and often required to utilize cutting edge technology in their field of research. Tools such as FMRI machines probes that the students find necessary to answer the big questions they have found.

At DFHS, we are fortunate to run two exceptional programs that work in concert with one another. As a result, we find that our students develop into internationally minded individuals who not only posses strong skills in research, but also the necessary 21st century “survival” skills to excel in whatever path they pursue upon graduation. Does your school offer both the IB DP and Science Research? If so, comment below! We’d love to hear your thoughts!

Promoting Togetherness, Unity, and Acceptance in an IB World School

The results (and aftermath) of last year’s presidential election continue to prompt protest, division, and unrest throughout our nation and the world. Just yesterday, a number of players from the NFL refused to stand during the national anthem in a form of protest while other protests have sadly turned violent like the one in Charlottesville this past August. At DFHS, post-election emotions were also running high and our classroom discussions reflected that passion. Our students debated the various issues and, as true IB learners, remained open-minded and respectful of various perspectives and points of view. This is a regular occurrence at DFHS.

Soon after the election, several groups of students inquired about creating co-curricular clubs that espoused specific political agendas with allegiance to particular political parties. As the Head of an IB World School, I did not support the creation of these types of partisan clubs due to their exclusive and potentially divisive nature. As an IB World School, our focus is always on the IB mission of creating a “better and more peaceful world” and the events of this past year have provided us with an ideal opportunity to further promote that message. In doing so, the IB Learner Profile is deeply embedded into all aspects of our school, including our curriculum, behavioral intervention strategies, school events, co-curricular clubs, and the course offerings that we have for our students.

A point of pride for us at DFHS is the increasing diversity that we continue to see in our community. This trend is one that we welcome as it adds to the richness of our student body while allowing us to further promote international mindedness within our school. When talk of the elimination of DACA heated up a few weeks back, we took the opportunity to further support ALL of our students regardless of background. In addition, we invite all of our students to join one of our many co-curricular clubs, including our vibrant International Club, Friends of Rachel (anti-bullying club), Model UN, GSA, Political Debate, Fundraising, Habitat for Humanity, and many other student co-curricular clubs that promote togetherness, a safe environment, and the importance of embracing multiple perspectives and points of view. We are also proud to have been named a “No Place for Hate” school by the Anti-Defamation League for the past four years.

The Role of the School Leader

Perhaps the most important role of school leaders during these highly emotional times is to create a school environment that is fully inclusive, respectful of all points of view, and most importantly safe and comfortable for ALL students. While this clearly needs to be the mindset for school leaders each day of each year, the events of the past year have certainly placed some school leaders in uncharted waters given the complexity and nature of what has been happening. Here are a few tips on how to create a balanced and safe environment that is respectful of all:

  • Provide Leadership and Direction: While I will always trust the the professional judgement of the faculty and their ability to remain neutral and balanced despite their political views, it is important to provide a message to the staff that promotes unity and understanding. As the IB Head of School, I framed my message within the vision and mission of the IBO. A similar approach would work for any leader of a non-IB school as well. In addition, school leaders need to provide mentoring and guidance to teachers (particularly new teachers) about how to lead what can become volatile and emotional discussions so that no students feel ostracized or intimidated. This might also be a worthwhile professional development for the staff either immediately or at any time during the school year.
  • Avoid Politically Charged Narratives: While it’s important to spread a message that promotes peace, unity, and togetherness, it’s equally important to be mindful of politically charged statements that can be construed as coming from the “left” or the “right.” This is specifically the reason why I did not support the creation of partisan-based political clubs that support a specific political party. Following last year’s election, our students generated signs and quotes that were posted throughout the building to reinforce community and tolerance without identifying with particular political parties, groups of people, and/or causes. This non-divisive approach helps to unify all students around the core beliefs that we all hold as caring human beings as opposed to creating an “us vs. them” feeling throughout the school.
  • Capitalize on the Teachable Moment: Our students discussed the election results and their perspectives in their classes the very next day and the discussions are ongoing based on events that happen daily. I had the opportunity to sit in on several of these post-election classes and was proud of how respectful our students were toward one another. The most important reminder (and challenge) for teachers is to lead balanced and curriculum-based discussions around a topic that continues to generate a great deal of passion and emotion. Last year’s election was one of the best “teachable moments” that we have had in many years. Schools need to embrace the moment and not shy away.
  • Organize Events that Build Community: As part of our upcoming annual school-based “MAC Field Day,” all of our students have joined together to raise money for the victims of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma through the non-partisan charity “One America Appeal” that is directly backed by our past five former Presidents.  One thing that we know is that students always rise above and find positive ways to channel their energy and passion. Schools not only need to encourage this, but must also provide positive and tangible outlets for students to rally around.  
  • Address Negative Behavior: As always, any type of negative behavior by students needs to be addressed immediately so that it doesn’t fester and/or grow into something bigger. This is a basic tenet of behavioral intervention and student discipline. In the event that students do promote divisive rhetoric (whether it’s hate fueled or not), school leaders need to tackle these incidents right away and capitalize on them as teachable moments. The counseling department certainly needs to be included in these discussions as well as classroom teachers where applicable. What’s most important in this regard is that a safe environment is created with zero tolerance for hurtful words or behavior that is designed to instill a divided culture.

A school leader’s genuine attempt to unify, or to solidify, the culture within his or her school community during a challenging time will undoubtedly have a positive, long-lasting, impact on the organization as a whole.  Times like these require reassurance and acknowledgment of what makes a school great: the faculty, the staff, and most importantly our students.

What are some to the things that have been happening at your school to promote understanding and unity? Please share!

Surviving (and completing!) Your Doctoral Program

Ask anyone who has successfully completed a doctoral program about their experience and they will have a story. I know that I have one. Ask anyone who has not and they will also have a story. Their stories will probably be a bit longer. Maybe. The truth is that completing a dissertation is singularly the most challenging task in education. You don’t have to look far to find individuals who entered a doctoral program, failed to complete the dissertation, and now are going with the fall back title of ABD (All But Dissertation).

A recent study by the Ph.D. Completion Project estimates that the ten-year completion rate for doctoral students in the social sciences is 56 percent, and that the number of ABD students continues to increase worldwide. I was part of those negative statistics for a long time. After completing around 90 credits at Teachers College, I took on a new job and had my share of “life getting in the way” moments. Sure enough, the dissertation was put on the back burner and soon my TC career was a thing of the past. Thankfully, Manhattanville College created a program for individuals just like me who were ABD and were interested in finishing the dissertation once and for all. I enrolled in 2014 and successfully defended in January of 2016. In all, the process took me 12 years from when I started at TC in 2004. Phew.

So how can doctoral students avoid becoming just another negative statistic? Here are a few suggestions that I wish I had been told before I got started. Unfortunately I had to learn the hard way…

1) Understand The Doctoral Program: Perhaps the greatest obstacle for students entering a doctoral program is getting past the fact that they have gone through a lifetime of schooling, were likely overachievers all the way back to their first undergraduate class, and have been conditioned to do whatever necessary to earn an “A” on each paper and class. While that level of dedication can certainly be helpful if channeled correctly in a doctoral program, it’s important to recognize that getting an A in all courses will mean nothing without the successful completion of the dissertation. Period. When I started at TC, I didn’t realize that approaching my courses (and program) in the same manner as I had my courses at the master’s level was actually leading to a “hamster on a wheel” effect as I amassed credits but, ironically, made marginal progress toward the successful completion of the degree. When the time came for dissertation seminar, I was essentially starting from scratch and quickly realized that I was still miles away from the finish line. I wasn’t alone on this point, and not surprisingly I saw students pulling back and falling off one by one…adding to the long line of “non-completers” and becoming yet another statistic.

2) Take Courses That Build Your Base: Please don’t misunderstand the point above to mean that the courses that you take at the doctoral level are not important. They are critical! A strong core of courses will not only provide a deep understanding of research methodology, which will be vital when designing a study down the road, but will also transform you into thinking like a critical researcher. This last point is really what it’s all about. So the trick in the early stages is to choose courses that support what will potentially be your research base. In order to do that, you need to be thinking about your dissertation, reflecting upon potential “problems” and questions that need to be answered, and building a base of research that will serve as the potential underpinning of your study.

3) Start Building a Literature Review: Yes, start building your literature review on Day 1 and keep building it until you have narrowed your research problem and research questions to a point where you are heading toward developing your official proposal. The Literature Review is the heart of any research study. It provides the context, the rationale, and answers that critical “who cares?” question. It is also the most daunting part of the dissertation for any doctoral student because the sheer volume of studies can just be overwhelming. Professors often say to “just keep reading until the findings start repeating or trends can be identified.” While that doesn’t seem like very helpful advice, the truth is that it’s the only advice because there is no shortcut. A good literature review can take over a hundred hours to write so the key is to start building one right away. For every study read, log the bibliographic information along with the key findings in a table and keep building the document as you go. You will be happy you did when the time comes to develop and narrow your topic.

4) Stay Focused on the Dissertation: Perhaps the biggest (and most obvious) part of successfully completing a doctoral program is writing your dissertation, so make sure that everything that you do leads to that outcome! In addition to choosing courses and analyzing research that support the necessary academic base that is needed, it’s important to prevent (or limit!) distractions that might get in the way of its completion. Life always seems to get in the way for doctoral students. Whether it’s a new job, starting a family, or a million things in between, there are bound to be distractions that pull you away from writing. While it’s impossible to fully prevent these “life getting in the way” moments, the key is to compartmentalize them so that the dissertation is given its proper place and attention. A dissertation is singularly the most independent task that you will take on. There are no “due dates,” professors will not call you daily to see that you are working, and universities allow the process to drag on for years if that’s the path you choose.

5) Build The Right Committee: This starts with choosing a dissertation sponsor (“committee chair”) who has expertise that will directly support the writing of your dissertation. This can be with regard to content knowledge, methodology, or a combination of both. It’s also super important that you have a sponsor who is responsive with feedback so that you can keep going. The faster you get the feedback, the better off you will be. Once you have a sponsor in place, you should look to round out your committee with individuals who will fill in any gaps that may be lacking so that you are best supported. Just be sure to be thoughtful about selecting committee members. One bad choice can lead to lots of headaches.

And finally…

Just Do It.  

Stop reading this blog right now and start working on your dissertation. Stop procrastinating, stop asking questions, stop thinking, and start researching and writing. Be like Mike. “Just do it.”

Updated for 2017: What’s Most Important on Opening Meeting Days?

It’s hard to believe that the start of another school year is quickly approaching. As school leaders are putting the finishing touches on a summer that was filled with scheduling, staffing, professional development, and a multitude of other tasks that go along with ensuring the successful start of a new school year, teachers and staff are starting to return from a much needed summer break with renewed optimism and a high degree of positive energy as they prepare to meet their new students in only a few short weeks. For school leaders, the first official meeting days for teachers (prior to when students return) are viewed as a critical time to review important school procedures and for professional development that is in-line with the instructional agenda. But what do teachers need? This question is asked far too infrequently and, if unaddressed, can literally sap all of that positive energy in only a few short days. I’ve seen it happen. Last year I wrote a similar post on this topic and am now coming back to it as we prepare to welcome our staff back for another year.

Here’s a short list of some of the things to consider as we prepare to welcome our teachers back. Once again, the narrative has been updated based on the new initiatives and work that we are doing at our school…

1) Collaborate and Plan: Prior to the opening days, it is important to collaborate with leaders in the building to design a practical plan that is both in-line with the vision and mission of the school while giving teachers what they “need” for a smooth opening. This year, I met with our school’s department leaders to not only create a plan for the opening, but also to create departmental and school-wide instructional plans for the upcoming year. In the past, we looked to the work of @JohnCMaxwell since our department leaders’ ability to lead “from the middle”  plays a pivotal role in the overall success of our entire organization. This year, we examined Todd Whitaker’s (@ToddWhitaker) What Great Principals Do Differently and focused our discussion on the importance of making instructional decisions around the individual needs of our teachers, students, and community. 

2) Fulfill Basic Needs: School leaders too often get lost in all that “needs to be covered” and lose sight of the basic needs that teachers have in order to get the year started in a smooth and positive fashion. Think Maslow on this one. “Basic needs” include: supplies, enough desks, working computers and technology, working copiers, paper, textbooks, class rosters, working email, internet access, and of course a clean classroom.

3) Be Available: While this one might seem obvious, there are often a variety of issues and questions that staff members may have as they prepare for the first days of school. Therefore, it is critical that all school leaders (including teacher leaders) are “out and about” and highly visible to both welcome staff and address small concerns before they turn into big ones. While this a fundamental component of effective leadership all year long, it is especially critical on the first days of school.

4) Share the Vision: An opening faculty meeting to reconnect is essential for building a strong community and sense of togetherness among the staff. In doing so, it is important to lead the group in a discussion of past accomplishments while providing a renewed sense of excitement, direction, and purpose. A discussion of the “vision” of the district is also a good way to “connect the dots” for teachers so that they can make better sense of what may at first seem like competing instructional initiatives. At DFHS, for example, we are now a fully authorized IB MYP school, we have an ever-growing IB DP that is guided by our belief in the importance of equity and access, we continue to expand our  1:1 Chromebook program, and are now prepared to implement digital portfolios for the first time. In order to avoid what can easily be perceived as a “flavor of the week” situation within the school, it’s important to connect all of the smaller parts to the larger vision of the school (and district) so that they can be viewed interdependent as opposed to exclusive of one another.

5) Allow for Teacher Collaboration: The first days are a critical time for colleagues to collaborate as they prepare to meet their students for the first time. This one falls under the “basic needs” umbrella but goes beyond supplies to what is most important of all: students. During the opening days, teachers need to meet with co-teachers, counselors, and department members to review student IEPs, analyze student data, plan upcoming lessons, design pre-assessments, and a variety of other tasks. All of this “upfront” work is essential and will make a tangible difference for each student if it is done thoughtfully and carefully.

6) Time, Time, and More Time: The idea that teachers need (and want!) as much time as possible should not come as a surprise since there is such a high degree of preparation that goes into getting ready for the first days of classes (see above). Given that, it is surprising that school leaders often “miss the boat” on this and instead inundate teachers and staff with meetings that run too long and professional development that would be much better received a week or two into the school year. Think quality over quantity and plan accordingly.