March 1st. Katie Charner-Laird. K-5 Principal. Heinemann Fellow.

I’m not really sure I know how to do this whole Slice of Life business.  And what exactly is interesting in the life of a principal anyway?  I tend to think that what is interesting is working with children.  So at least for starters, this is where I will direct my thinking.  This first story happened just this week.

I heard the frustrated teacher’s voice from inside my office.  “You need to be able to let go and move on.”  I heard the whimpers of the child who clearly was not going to be able to let go.  I peeked my head out of my office door to catch Ms. Wilson’s eye.  She walked toward my office and flopped on the couch.  “This notebook!  She needs her notebook, but she can’t find the notebook.  I’m just not sure this tool is working.  She has been able to do nothing all day.”  While I have some sense of the full story behind this notebook, what I sense from Ms. Wilson mostly is frustration.  She can’t get through to her 7 year old charge, no matter which approach she takes.  I can tell that what she really wants is to focus on teaching.  Instead, she is dealing with a bit of a tantrum that seems like a 3 year old coming from the mouth of an incredibly intelligent 7 year old.  Sensing that both need space to cool down, I encouraged Sasha to come in my office where she would hopefully be able to calm down, and Ms. Wilson to return to her classroom where she could focus on teaching, which in and of itself would calm her down.

 

“Sasha, I think you should take a few minutes to calm down before we try to talk about this.  I have a few choices for you.”  Sniffling, shoulders still shaking, Sasha walked over to the couch area of my office.  I offered a few different types of calm down options: a container of thera-puddy, a card game that involved matching cards based on certain attributes, and a set of tesselating puzzle pieces.

 

She got right to work with the tiling turtles .  This was such a great addition to my office “toys” this year.  These laser-cut, wooden turtles can fit together in a multitude of ways, so there’s never really a way to be DONE tiling the turtles.  Sasha laid the turtles out on the couch and quickly formed them into a square.  As she worked through the tesselating pattern, tears that had been streaming down her face started to dry, the sniffles slowed, and her breathing calmed.  So it was time to ask her if she was ready to talk.

 

Sasha is a child with a very quick mind; some might say gifted.  We don’t really use that label where I work.  But it is safe to say that she can do math in her head that I probably learned in high school and have long since forgotten.  So she uses her notebook to manage her emotions and behavior in the classroom when she is frustrated, anxious, bored, etc.  It has seemed like a pretty good coping tool and I have always seen it as just that– a tool she uses to help her focus and keep her cool.

 

“So Sasha, talk to me about the notebook.  What’s going on?  You seem really upset,” I open.  

Almost immediately, the calm that had been brought by the wooden turtles evaporated, and with heavy breathing, Sasha began, “I don’t know where my notebook could be. I need my notebook but it’s gone.  I have to find my notebook.  It has all of my work.  I have been working so hard on it.”

 

I was initially stumped– do I coach her to face the fact that the notebook is gone and begin the grieving and moving on process?  Or do I try to reassure her that of course the notebook is going to turn up and she can rest assured and just focus on other things in the meantime.  I don’t know the right answer.  Is there a right answer?  I decided to test the waters with a vague statement, “Well, it is possible that the notebook is gone, Sasha.”

 

The tears came free flowing now, “Really?  Do you think it’s gone?  I don’t want it to be gone!  I don’t want to start all over again!”  

 

I quickly backtracked.  “I don’t know for sure that it is gone, but it is possible.”

“But, What. Percentage. Do. You. Think. Is. The. Chance. That. It’s. Gone?”

Perhaps I was too blunt with this one, but I replied, “Well, what percentage would make you feel better?”

In a bit of a rage, Sasha emphatically stated, “I don’t WANT the percentage that would make me feel better!  I WANT the percentage that you really THINK!”

Taking what I thought would be the easy way out, I answered, “Well, I think it’s about a 50/50 chance that it’s gone.”  I’m not sure this was actually the easy way out. I think she expected my percentage to be closer to certain that the notebook was not lost.  
Sasha eventually made it back to the classroom and made it through the rest of the day.  When I met with her teacher the next morning, checking in about the day, and trying to offer some encouragement for the day ahead, I encouraged her to do something I rarely do.  “Ms. Wilson, I think you should lower your expectations.  How about a goal for Sasha for today–get her mind off of the notebook and onto the learning 3 times today.  That is, three times, for a minimum of five minutes each time.  That will be a victory.”  At lunch time, I gave Ms. Wilson a high five because Sasha was already at two!

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5 thoughts on “March 1st. Katie Charner-Laird. K-5 Principal. Heinemann Fellow.

  1. Katie, I love seeing this little peak into your day and your work as a principal. I don’t know what the right answer would have been either (I probably would have said 50/50, too), but I think the fact that you treated Sasha with respect and honesty is really a testament to your work as a teacher and caring adult… and not only to Sasha, but also to her teacher. I love that you gave her teacher permission to let go a little bit (ironic that that was the same advice that the teacher was giving Sasha, too). Thank you for sharing this… I can’t wait to hear more! 🙂

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  2. Hi, Katie. I really enjoyed your story and seeing a window into your day. I’m a teacher so I don’t know what it’s like to be a principal. It’s evident that you’re actively engaged with the teachers and the students and a huge source of support for them. Congrats on taking the courage to write and join the SOL challenge.

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  3. I loved how you worked with teacher and Sasha here, Kate. I felt her angst and her despair. You were honest, thoughtful, loving. I wondered, too, did she ever find the notebook? No matter. You captured here what is so intangible about being a school administrator: figuring out what to do in all of those moments when you just have to show up and do something. Welcome to Slice of Life!!!

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  4. Hey Katie! It’s Carrie fom Midlothian! We “met” via Skype with Ellin Keene and our math workshop crew last fall. It’s so exciting to see you here – writing for the SOL Challenge this month. WELCOME! It will be fun reading about your adventures as a principal. Your most striking message in this slice, for me, is that we never really know if what we say (to kids, to adults, to people…..) is the “right” thing. That’s it in a nutshell. We don’t know, but yet we do our very best each and every day. Just like you did with Sasha…and her teacher!

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    1. Oh hi Carrie! Gosh that feels like an eternity ago! How are math workshops going? We’re stumbling and struggling a bit but learning every day!

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