Becoming the new principal — Getting out of my comfort zone.

“The biggest rewards in life are found outside of your comfort zone. Live with it. Fear and risk are prerequisites if you want to enjoy a life of success and adventure.” — Jack Canfield

Have you ever had to get out of your comfort zone? Have you been at a place in life where it was time to move or move on? For me, it was leaving my hometown to become the principal of Rancho Las Positas in Livermore. I am a bit of a historian in what I call my hometown of Brentwood. I know many people in the town of Brentwood having lived here for over 40 years; I knew maybe 10 people that lived in Livermore just 20 miles away. I had made a promise in the Rancho principal interview to build relationships and get to know the community quickly. I took an idea from two educational leaders that I admire and set out to do block walks. You read that correctly, I was going to knock on the door of every student and introduce myself. I got a map and the address of every student at Rancho from the office team of Carolyn and Sheila. I sorted the list by the street. I set out a plan, made a brochure and started out to my first house. My goal was to learn more about the community and get to know families and help them get to know me. 

My heart pounded. I had always relied on the fact that I probably knew someone or knew a sibling that I went to school with when I talked to parents; something to build a connection from. In Livermore, I was most likely unknown. I knocked on my first door and no one answered, so I quickly attached a door hanger to the front doorknob, and went to the next house. In the door hanger was a letter from me introducing myself, my business card and a list of upcoming events at our school. 

I walked from home to home. After eight homes someone finally answered. The mom was confused, I tried to explain, they said “nice to meet you”, closed the door and I left. It was anticlimactic; we both were taken aback. What stranger knocks on your door? Salespeople, someone new to the community, religious groups, and trick or treaters. Right? I did not fit into those groups and it was July. I knew I had about ten seconds to make my intentions known and not sound like one of these groups. I regrouped and went to the next home. I worked on my opener. It was like a 2-minute elevator speech. I had to get across who I was, why I was knocking on their door, how they can contact me and answer any of their questions, all the while staying focused on my goal of being recognizable when they came to Rancho, build trust and form a relationship. 

Within a few homes I got into a rhythm and the conversations became less awkward. Several homes stand out. A mom answered the door, baby, on her hip and an incoming kinder peeking out from behind her leg. Mom was very kind, but clearly, this was not a good moment as the baby only stopped crying to see who this guy was at the door. I didn’t want to keep her. She was incredibly gracious, and also in shock. I thanked her and handed her the brochure and my card. She thanked me and told her daughter to “say bye to your new principal.” As I proceeded to walk back down the street to my car I heard a loud male voice say “that’s what I am talking about”. I turned not knowing what to expect. This tall young dad says it again: “that’s what I am talking about”. I answered, “how’s that?”  “My kids principal shows up at my house to introduce himself? Man, that’s just awesome.” I don’t think I could smile bigger. We talked for a while in the middle of the street. He was a nice man and it was his first time sending a child to school. They were excited and nervous. I reassured him told him to call me any time. We shook hands, and I headed off to the next house. Fast forward to the first day of school, he was my new best friend. In fact, every time I saw him we shook hands and he referred me back to that day. I distinctly remember him calling me with some concerns one day. We talked through things and he said he would trust me and the process. It all tied back to the first encounter. I never took that trust for granted or his support.

As I proceeded on my journey going from home to home, I had to keep the conversations brief if I was going to get to the 400 plus homes of the 563 students that attended Rancho. As I walked up to another house, what appeared to be a dad was on the phone as he stood in front of his garage. He was in a dress shirt and clearly it was a business call. It was awkward but I did not want to walk on; this was the last house on the street. I chose to stay and wait at the curb. He looked annoyed and clearly thought I was there to sell something. He hung up and I quickly introduced myself and explained my visit. He remained annoyed. I quickly restated who I was and why I was there. “Wait, you are who?” I smiled and restated “I am Chris Calabrese the new principal of Rancho Elementary school. I am going out introducing myself to families”. He smiled and was in a bit of shock. He asked again, “You are doing what?” We chatted a bit and, as I started to leave, he stopped me. “Wait I need to introduce you to my wife, who practically lives at Rancho.” Against my original ground rules, I went into their home and stayed for about 30 minutes. I met his wife, who was a Rancho alumnus. I chatted and heard stories about the school, concerns, and answered questions. I met their daughters and heard how awesome the school was. They were excited to meet me and I was excited to hear all about the school. We later had moments where we would disagree but at the end of the day, there was trust and a common bond. I also learned they would do anything for their school; they loved Rancho. 

There were many other funny and endearing moments throughout the block walks from the dog that would not stop licking my shoes, the dad that wanted to talk to me about the swings that had been removed two years prior to the PTA mom’s birthday party that I walked in on complete with a full bar. A few of the guests were staff members. They awkwardly pushed their drinks in front of their friends. It was really quite funny. The generosity abounded from home to home as I was offered water, soda, a beer, pizza, tamales, and tri-tip sandwiches. I think I was even offered to go for a swim in a pool. 

It became very evident to me that this little community within Livermore loved their elementary school and really would do anything to support it. Three years later that devotion and love for Rancho would be called upon as we built a running track. Along with many other projects around the school, the Rancho school community fully supported the school. Parents gave financially to support reading programs and counseling programs. They gave hundreds of volunteer hours in support of their children’s school. As a result, along with staff, parents provided services to support students’ academic, physical and social well being. 

Although it was uncomfortable to knock on doors and block walk for three weeks, I was not in my comfort zone until the conversation began. It was without a doubt one of the most rewarding events I have ever experienced in my career. The connections and relationships built would prove to be invaluable. Parents saw I truly cared. For me it filled the piece I was missing leaving my hometown; it provided me with a deep sense of community. I learned stories, I heard amazing things about the staff and the school events that were deeply rooted in tradition. Most of all, I saw the love parents had for their children and how that love represented itself in their care for their child’s education. 

“Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships” Stephan Covey

I tell this story to reinforce the importance of building relationships with parents. Educators make a difference in students’ lives. When we partner with parents and really get to know them the trust and relationship is so much deeper. The relationship between home and school is important and cannot be full of assumptions. As parents, we bring 13 years of a k-12 education with us every time we talk to a teacher or walk on to a school campus; our experiences color the lens we see our child’s education through. As educators, we do the same when we compare or label families and create assumptions based on our own experiences. Assumptions about parents, children or experiences cloud communication and prevent a trusting relationship. When I had a meeting with a parent and I had already been to their house, I did not have to make assumptions. I had a pretty good sense of the relationship and needs. I am not saying all educators need to do home visits. What I am saying is when we take time to get to know our student’s parents it makes for stronger relationships and stronger outcomes.  Raising kids is not only hard work it must be done thoughtfully. When we have good communication between home and school it fosters that thoughtful dialogue and it builds trust. Parents love their kids and they want the best for them. When parents knew I cared about their child they were more willing to partner with me. Home visits are fantastic, but phone calls, conferences, chats on the blacktop are all good, too. Slowing down and listening to one another about the one thing that is important to us, our students….that’s what we need.

With something to think about…

Your friend Chris

Fair and Equitable: When the wrong lesson was taught.

One of the significant conflicts in school and in our homes is the balance of being fair and equitable. I have often heard over the years that a student’s punishment is not enough or it was not fair. I am a firm believer that each situation is different, and we cannot always apply rules and discipline universally. Consistency is important in disciplining, but empathy plays a role too. In order for students to learn they need to understand the value in what we are teaching them or in this case why they are being disciplined; The goal is to positively change behavior it is not always about enforcing a rule.

What is fair and equitable?

What is the goal of disciplining a student or a child?

What is the outcome?

What will the impact be?

Will it change behavior?

What caused this behavior?

Is what I am seeing caused by trauma?

These are some of the questions I would ask myself when handling discipline issues. Some could not be answered or the outcome was not always predictable. Often times when the student felt safe enough to tell their story, the answers came.

It was a warm June night; the wind just started to blow. The seniors were excited. The year was 2000, and it was graduation night. I was one of the class advisors for the Class of 2000 and many of these students I had known for four years. Walking across the basketball courts, I smiled at the students, high fived and got and gave hugs. The energy was building as we prepared to walk out to the field. Tears were already starting for some. Graduation! Such a surreal and traditional event. Years of school, classes, projects, all coming together in one night. The year 2000 made it that much more special.

I was talking to a group of boys, laughing, giving exuberant hugs. Doug, a muscular “wakeboarding” senior, had just set me down from a hug, he was emotional and trying not to show it. His friend had just died recently from a tragic accident out of state. It was an endearing moment from a young man who was a mix of emotions.  “Doug, come here,” I heard as I turned to look as I was walking away. The interim principal had walked up and wanted to talk to Doug about his cap. She proceeded to tell him to take off the symbol he had attached to it. The rule was caps and gowns could not be “decorated.” I had no time to react. Doug started yelling, he was swearing, he was mad. I quickly stood between him and the principal, and I asked him to breathe and assured him “it will be okay.” At that point, she proceeds to tell him he had a choice to follow the rules and remove the cap or not walk. Doug tried to explain it was his friend’s symbol, his brand, it represented everything about him. I began to negotiate, but my efforts fell on deaf ears. She pulled me away and told me it was a “teaching moment.” That it was necessary to enforce the rules. Doug pointed to every student whose cap was decorated. I looked at her and repeated what Doug had said. “Are you going to have all of them change their caps?” She repeated it was a “teaching moment” and that I needed to support the rules. I simply said, “all you taught Doug was you don’t care and rules are more important than his loss.” She said something else and my frustrations filled my ears instead. I then said, “I don’t know what your goal is here, but you have other students to talk to,” as I pointed at some student body officers with decorated caps.
   Doug, still upset, got back in line, and we walked to the field. Speeches were given, and diplomas were handed out. Later that night he came over to me hugged me and thanked me for not letting him punch the principal. I apologized to him and told him that I was sorry. What else could I say or do? It was an ethical dilemma for me. This person was my boss, and I thought the rule was pointless. I valued Doug, and I agreed with him. I also think he put his friend’s symbol back on his cap when she couldn’t see him or get to him.

“Stop being a critic and be a light; don’t be a judge, be a model. I think we are far too critical. I think the best way to correct behavior is to accentuate and affirm positive behavior and to ignore negative behavior. Generally speaking, there is a time to correct, of course; but my biggest advice would be,  Affirm your child.”  Sean Covey

Sean Covey is right, there is a time for correction. Graduation tonight was not that night. Doug’s pain needed to be affirmed, and consoled. Honoring someone’s feeling and showing empathy, not apathy, that’s what Doug needed that night. Sometimes you have to ask why do we have this rule? Why is it in place, who is it supporting? If it is not keeping kids safe or supporting their academics, then why do we have it? Is it equitable or is it targeting someone, not something? These are questions I find myself repeating in my current role. What behavior were we trying to change?

There was a teaching moment, but it was missed. Doug wanted to honor his friend. What he was taught was only some are allowed to break a rule. He learned those in power can exercise their power over someone else. Nothing on the cap was indecent, rude, or derogatory. At that moment I was reminded of stopping and listening to hear both sides of the story. I often told students in my office as a principal, “I will always hear you out.” An assumption was made that night that Doug was breaking a rule simply to be breaking it. That night I saw what he was doing as connecting a significant event in his life with a friendship that meant a great deal to him. I saw Doug recently, he is a police officer; he picked me up and gave me a giant hug as we reunited (I had just set off the alarm to my school). I find great irony in the fact that Doug is a police officer today enforcing rules and the interim principal today…. I have no idea. 🙂

With something to think about…..

Your Friend Chris

Mr. Nash — An unexpected mentor.

“No work is insignificant. All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.” — Martin Luther King

Mentorships are typically sought out. An organization, company or association sometimes offers mentors willing to invest time and energy into someone’s life. We might find a mentor at work who is willing to teach us. Many teachers become a teacher because of someone who positively impacted their lives in a classroom. Clearly, I did. Sometimes in life, a mentor comes along, and they are not from where we expected. They offer up valuable advice or provide security and safety. I have become more convinced over the years that mentoring has little to do with what the job is and more to do with character, vision, and relationships with others. The ability to work with others and emotional intelligence: these skills equate to caring, communicating, and emotional support. Mentors can come from all walks of life; I have learned not to underestimate that.

I typically write about my students and their influence on my life and lessons that can be learned. My point in writing about these experiences is to share those lessons; I hope they add value to others.  Lessons come from expected and unexpected situations or people. Adults that work in schools yet are outside of the classroom often get overlooked as educational contributors. Today I want to share the impact one of these educators had on me. I have had many amazing educators that influenced me in my life: teachers, principals, a reading specialist, and my bus driver, all contributed to my life. One unexpected mentor impacted me in a way I didn’t realize until later in life.

In second grade, every day, I saw Mr.Nash. Mr. Nash seemed to know everyone and was always there to help. When he came to the lunch tables, I sat up straighter. When he asked us to pick up lunch trays, we did it. If he saw us in the hall and asked us to take a ream of paper to our teacher, we did it. I remember one time a kid named Ray was blowing bubbles in his milk to the point of it spilling out of the carton. Mr. Nash walked up, and Ray sucked in so fast he blew milk through his nose. Mr. Nash contained his amusement while we all roared with laughter. Ray said “sorry” sheepishly. Mr. Nash simply said “Ray” in a disappointed and amused voice as he handed him a paper towel. There was no doubt Mr. Nash was respected.

Mr. Nash was always kind to students; he made us feel important. He might have raised his voice, but I never saw it or heard it. If he asked us to do something we did it. We spent every lunch with him. He smiled at us; he said —“hello,” he asked us how we were doing. One day he got a ball out of a fenced-off area and tossed it to me. Let me tell you for a short kid in second grade with a basketball, I just became an NBA player for lunch recess.

I was confused and ultimately dismayed one day when a man in a suit walked by and the kids started calling him Mr. Ibarreta. Students said “hi “to him as he walked by.  I asked Veronica sitting next to me who he was. “He is the Principal.” “Then who is Mr. Nash?” I asked. “Mr. Nash is the janitor.” Veronica asked, “why do you think we call him Mr.Nash? Nash is his first name.” “It is?” I said.

I was shocked that Mr. Nash was not the principal. There must be a mistake. No offense to Mr. Ibarreta but I didn’t remember if I had ever seen him before that day.  To me, Mr. Nash was already doing the job. I was just as dismayed that I had been calling an adult by his first name, something never allowed by my parents. It was disrespectful. It sends the wrong message to children; I remember standing there in shock.

I believed Mr. Nash was the principal because he looked after us, he was an authority figure, he was respected. Every day he was there to help us, to keep us in line with a simple “boys.” He was respectful, dignified and he was my custodian. He did more than greet us; he cared. He was my first mentor as a principal, even if I didn’t know it at the time.

As the new principal of Rancho Las Positas, on my first day, I met Don Ladnier. Mr. Ladnier had been the custodian at Rancho for several years. He greeted me warmly. I asked him what he loved about his job and what is one thing he would like to see changed. He immediately said, “the kids, that’s why we are here.” Don then proceeded to give me a list of things he would like to change! Some were reasonable and understandable; others none of us could improve. We laughed together at his list.  In the following months, I saw Mr. Ladnier interact with the kids, and I noticed he was the biggest kid of them all, always teasing and joking with the kids. In fact, a few times it got him in trouble with the yard duty because he went too far with his joking. Students at Rancho could apply to have “jobs,” and many students coveted working for Don. They helped clean up the cafeteria, wiping down tables, sweeping and putting items away. Students learned responsibility, leadership and how to serve, and they loved it. It was a privilege for them to be part of Mr. Don’s team. Don taught them and guided them in their jobs.

Something had not been sitting right with me, and I went to Don about it. I asked him, “why do the kids call you Mr. Don?” In fact, all of the staff referred to him as Don. Don said it was no big deal, that he did not mind. I respectfully suggested that the students and staff should call him “Mr. Ladnier.” After all, he was an elder on staff; he was a military veteran; he was an educator just like everyone else. At the time he was the only African American educator on campus. It was bothering me that we called him Don, and I could not let it go.  Like “Mr. Nash,” kids were calling him by his first name. He explained that he liked being called “Don or Mr. Don.” I told him my Mr. Nash story. He asked, “does that mean I am the principal then?” We laughed, and I although I said “no,” I also explained that he did have authority on this campus and was an important role model in the students’ lives. He deserved total respect. Even though no one was intentionally being rude to Mr. Landier, I told him I would like to come back from break and ask all staff and student to call him Mr. Ladnier. The funny part to me is he felt his name was hard to say. Well, with a name like Calabrese, I figured they could learn Ladnier. Mr. Ladnier gave it some thought but came back and said he preferred to go by Don. I respected his wishes and, as a compromise, I called him Mr. Ladnier or Mr. Don from there on out when talking to students. I still feel guilty about it. I know it seems like a small thing, but is it? Mr. Ladnier was a caring adult on campus that students went to for help, support, encouragement, and empathy. Mr. Ladnier did all of that willingly. Don should have gone by Mr. Ladnier. I should have introduced him that way and made it official. It was the right thing to do.

Rita Pierson says it best — “Every child deserves a champion—an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection, and insists that they become the best that they can possibly be.”

Anyone can have an impact on a child’s education. Anyone! They are all our kids! Everyone can encourage a student. We can all contribute to creating a positive school culture that positively impacts a child’s education. Research shows connecting students to positive adults can increase their academic achievement and reduce discipline issues and dropouts. Also, students trust more when they see we are willing to spend time with them. Nash Gamino and Don Ladnier did just that. They gave their time to care for kids. They gave as much supervision, counseling, and encouragement as I did as a principal. They were mentors and taught children. My parents taught me my job is never over anyone else. Everyone contributes. Mr. Gamino and Mr. Ladnier added to the lives of children every day, and they contributed to my mine. For that, I am forever grateful.

“If you want to be a great leader, remember to treat all people with respect at all times. For one, because you never know when you’ll need their help. And two, because it’s a sign you respect people, which all great leaders do”.  — Simon Sinek

With something to think about….

your friend Chris

Life experience and balance.

Finding balance as a high school student can be difficult — then life hits and priorities change.

I am always struck by students who are so committed to their education, or academic progress, that they are willing to make a tremendous personal sacrifice, of time and energy. They are incredibly focused. Maybe you were you like that in school? I was just happy to have friends in class and to pass my classes. Really!

High school students came through my doors and some gave their best and others gave a little. Dedicated to academics, sports, and other activities requires a high level of commitment and passion. Tenacity, courage, grit — all great qualities to have as a Marine, a boxer or a student in high school. These are not qualities taught in schools; they come to us through events, situations, tragedies. All of which are very personal experiences.

It is through experiences that we are forged— they shape us. We have a choice to allow those experiences to define us or teach us and guide us. Students that can endure taking on studies, sports and a myriad of activities bear a lot of weight. It is a delicate balance. I often question that balance and struggle with what we ask of our students. That balance presents itself differently for different students. I saw students take on multiple AP classes, sports, leadership, band, and other college application-building activities, only to have the parent ask me —“aren’t they doing too much?” My answer was often, “yes.” I also saw students balance a heavy academic load and work part-time jobs. That balance can tip sometimes and priorities can get out of balance.

We all want children to be successful in life. The qualities that make people successful are often not learned by completing an assignment. Finishing the task, completing the journey and working towards the college degree is of higher value than the degree itself, in my opinion. The journey getting there, the bumps, the missteps, the enduring of an unexpected tragedy, they have a higher value than any assignment I ever gave.

If I were to pull all the stories together from my US History Advanced Placement classes and provide a common theme to them, it would be — going the extra mile, and raising up to expectations. It was an exceptional group of learners that year; they looked out for each other, they studied together, they laughed together and supported each other.

Genny had a smile that was larger than life itself. She was involved in nearly everything she could be: leadership, basketball, volleyball, advanced placement classes, just to name a few. She worked hard, and I don’t think it was ever easy for her, but it was apparent she was learning. She was determined to succeed in all she did.

She reminds me of this quote from the editor of the Saturday Evening Post, George Lorimer, when he said — “you’ve got to get up every morning with determination if you’re going to go to bed with satisfaction.”

I have no doubt on most nights she was tired.

It was May and the day of the USAP exam when Genny walked into my room. — “O my gosh Calabrese! I am so nervous.” She was talking fast, and I was trying to keep up. I could see she was nervous, pale, maybe even sweating. She said she had stayed up late studying. Sleep and rest help a brain to function more than the last bits of information from staying up late studying. As she talked, she mentioned not feeling well. I responded, “Genny you do not look well.” Knowing her mom was a nurse I asked her,  “Does your mom know you don’t feel well?” She passed it off as being nervous. She then said her side hurt. I began to ask more questions as I pushed more than normal because something was just not right. Genny was not herself. I remember telling her, “let’s go to the office and let’s see if we can get your temperature and call your mom.” Genny protested “but the AP exam, I cannot miss it.” I answered, “Really? You are more important than a test.” Together we walked up to the office.

Genny was admitted to a hospital that day having emergency surgery within an hour of arriving. My wife and I went to visit her the next day. She was surprised to see us, and we were grateful to see how well she was doing. Genny had a blockage that was resolved through surgery. She was disappointed she missed the test. I was relieved she was okay.

Looking at the situation from Genny’s perspective at the time, I could understand why she would be disappointed—all that work, studying, writing essays and taking tests. She didn’t have a chance to prove to herself and to others that she could do it. I agree with all of these reasons; however, now looking back on it, Genny learned perseverance. Her health was far more critical then the test and the skills learned in the class were still valuable. Unexpected events come out of nowhere, and they can knock us off our feet. It is during the storm that we show our courage and resiliency not when the wind is calm. Genny showed incredible resilience and courage. She recovered and was back at school. Her spirit was not broken, but her priorities did seem to change. Life was more precious to her and understandably so. Assignments were still important; however, Genny seemed to put herself and her relationships first. As they should be.

I wonder now how Genny sees it now?

Here is Genny’s side of the story:

Applying for colleges, playing varsity sports, leadership activities, part-time jobs, and AP classes were the focus of my junior year. The pressure was on as my friends and I floated ideas about where we wanted to go to college and what we wanted to major in. It was a year I faced personal challenges both academically and physically, and a year that forced me to grow up faster than I could have ever imagined.

Mr. Calabrese was easily the coolest teacher on campus. (this is a total exaggeration on Genny’s part) Everyone knew him, everyone loved him, and everyone wanted to be in his classes. When the opportunity presented itself to be in his USAP class junior year, it was an easy decision. I wish I could say I based my decision to be in this college-prep class because of my desire to excel in US history, but let’s be honest. A guaranteed class with my favorite teacher and a bunch of my friends…I didn’t even hesitate. Mr. Calabrese is fun, loves to tell stories, and is easy to talk to which could only mean this class would be a piece of cake, right? Boy was I wrong!

I remember the first day of class, Mr. C stood in front of the class and explained what we were all about to endure. This was a college course that will require hours of nightly homework, note taking, weekly exams, and an incredible amount of hard work. There would be no special accommodations made for those who have outside obligations; leadership responsibilities, sporting engagements, other AP classes, or anything else that may interfere with succeeding in his class. His goal was to help us to pass the test at the end of the year, but it was up to us to put in the work. I was never one to shy away from hard work, so I was up for the challenge.

For the first time, I was forced to learn how to prioritize. There were times I missed out on things with friends because I had a test the next day or sacrificed sleep because I had to work or had a game and had to read the assignment before the next day. As hard as it was, I knew I challenged myself to take this college-prep course and was warned that it wasn’t going to be easy, so I did what I needed to, to succeed. It was this class, that truly taught me life skills that I use today. I learned time management, perseverance, and goal setting. Unfortunately, I never got the chance to take that exam at the end of all of my hard work, but the lessons I learned from my experience in this class was priceless.

As Mr. Calabrese mentioned, on the day of the big test I was not myself. I remember sitting in his class on a beautiful day, shivering, becoming confused, and with a fever high enough to scare the office staff. I was sent to the emergency room and was in the operating room having surgery within the hour. I spent the next 10 days in the hospital and missed the test. Ironically, this experience in the hospital is what solidified my desire to become a nurse. I guess it is true, everything happens for a reason. It seems as if I wasn’t meant to take that test after all. Mr. and Mrs. Calabrese came to see me in the hospital and it was then that I realized these special people would become lifelong friends. The purpose of having Mr. Calabrese in my life was not about how much he could teach me about history or how to pass a test, it was how he showed me that life is about balance.

A couple of years after this momentous year in high school, I entered college at San Diego State University with the goal of becoming a nurse. I was faced with challenges that made my transition to college extremely difficult. I was desperately homesick, school was hard, I had bills to pay, and the nursing program was impacted, so my chances of getting accepted were slim if my grades weren’t excellent. Talk about pressure! But, I dug down deep and remembered the lessons I learned from Mr. Calabrese and my experience in that AP class. I prioritized my time so that I could study nightly, balanced my class load so that I didn’t have too many hard classes at a time, and constantly reminded myself that I was there to become a nurse and refused to let anything stop me from reaching my goal. I was accepted into the nursing program, graduated, moved back to Brentwood, and love every second of my job.

I will never forget a conversation Mr. C and I had one day. He told me that he admired me because he could see that things didn’t necessarily come easy for me, but the reason that I did well in school was that I had a great work ethic and I never gave up. This was eye-opening for me because I never realized that someone could tell how hard I worked to do well in school, sports, and social activities. I took this with me as I went to college and through nursing school. Now, instead of sports, leadership, AP classes, and part-time jobs, I juggle the workload of being a mom, wife, and Oncology Nurse. I constantly strive for that balance in life, and I can honestly say that I am always a work in progress, which I am ok with.

I often think about how lucky I am to have had such wonderful teachers at Liberty High. I will forever be grateful for Mr. Calabrese and his encouragement, support, and friendship as he is one of the most influential people in my life. I also had the pleasure of having Mrs. Snover for several years while in high school and I will never forget her sweet, kind, and gentle manner. She had the word “Integrity” on her wall and she taught us all how to live our lives as honest people and to always do the right thing when no one was watching. Her words, stories, and lessons stayed with me long after high school. I hope that my children have the same experience I did with teachers who touch their lives in such a powerful way as Mr. Calabrese and Mrs. Snover did with me.

Persistence and resilience only come from having been given a chance to work through difficult problems. – Gever Tulley

With something to think about…

Your friend Chris… and Genny too!

Can you teach Maturity? — It’s Elementary my dear Watson or is it?

Maturity: Being able to stick with a job until it is finished. Be able to bear an injustice without having to get even. Be able to carry money without spending it. Do your duty without being supervised.”

—Ann Landers

I have had the honor of being taught by some fantastic children. You read it right. They taught me. Students can teach valuable lessons. They come from different perspectives and experiences. At times I met children who showed a maturity that is beyond their years.

It is difficult to teach maturity directly. We can support its growth in and out of the classroom; however, maturity has to be modeled by others — at home, in schools, the basketball court, friend groups, at church, and on playgrounds— in order to be successfully duplicated. Some strategies can be used to improve maturity and compliment modeling maturity such as giving children regular jobs to do or taking care of a pet. Letting a child make mistakes and learn from them and then reflecting on those mistakes helps a child to problem solve and learn.

Teaching responsibility is closely tied to developing maturity. Giving children tasks that teach responsibility aids in the development of maturity. In addition, we can directly teach emotional regulation, such as what to do when angry, hurt, or rejected and how to control those feelings and not let them take over. Like maturity, emotional regulation can be modeled. Reflecting with a child or role-playing reinforces this concept. Emotional regulation is a critical factor in living a happier life.

A British study found the following: “So-called non-cognitive skills — attributes like self-restraint, persistence, and self-awareness — might actually be better predictors of a person’s life trajectory than standard academic measures. A 2011 study using data collected on 17,000 British infants followed over 50 years found that a child’s level of mental well-being correlated strongly with future success. Similar studies have found that kids who develop these skills are not only more likely to do well at work but also to have longer marriages and to suffer less from depression and anxiety. Some evidence even shows that they will be physically healthier”. —The New York Times Magazine September 11th, 2013.

New York Times Magazine Article

Emotional regulation —the key to a happier more successful life? Not something we hear every day is it? One way to speed up maturity is to have children work and play with more mature children. The truth is that showing maturity is not always consistent in every aspect of a child’s day. A student showing maturity during one task may not be as mature doing something else, at least that is what I say to my wife when I am being immature. All you can do is model maturity. Children need to see it in action so they can then emulate it. I am not saying immature children come from immature parents, well not always anyway. With maturity comes responsibility and vice versa; they go hand in hand. Empathy and compassion also teach maturity and come from being mature. It’s a circle.

When I saw two boys with maturity and compassion beyond their years, I took notice. Girls typically mature earlier than boys emotionally, socially and intellectually. The Watson brothers came to school so full of compassion for others; it was beautiful to see it played out every day. Justin’s and Jesse’s daily routine was to check in with me, their teachers, and friends. On any given day they asked me —“how was your day?” —“how was your morning?” —“how was your drive to work?” They were always genuinely interested. They offered to help with whatever a staff member was doing. They helped others around the school; finding a lost item, helping a hurt friend up to the office. They cared. They showed gratitude to those around them and even thanked others for allowing them to help. Gratitude is a sign of maturity. It was not attention seeking at all; they truly cared. Albeit to some, Justin’s and Jesse’s offers seemed awkward at times; in their heart, they just wanted to help.

The Watson family

After meeting the boy’s parents, it was clear where the foundation had been laid. Mom and Dad had high expectations of their boys, but they had also fostered caring traits, which in turn promoted maturity beyond their years. Justin and Jesse also had a strong character, instilled by their parents and played out daily. That is where their genuine concern and care for others came from. The boys saw maturity, compassion and caring modeled every day for them and in turn, they showed it to others.

The Watson brothers and I at back to school night.

I don’t recall the boys ever getting into trouble at school. I am sure they made mistakes as all kids do! I can remember one time on the playground where Jesse was physically upset. With a ball in his hand, he ran over to get me. Someone accused him of not sharing the ball. Upon further questioning, that was not really the case. Jesse held onto the ball because the accuser was not letting someone else play. The accuser had told Jesse’s friend he was out of the four square game for missing the ball.

Jesse was indignant that his friend was being treated unfairly,  the person was not out, and they had the right to play. So when Jesse could not resolve the conflict with words, he just held onto the ball which turned into a sort of keep away. I tried not to smile as the students revealed what happened. Jesse’s firm moral conviction would not allow his friend to be tossed to the wayside of the playground. Jesse was upset and he felt it was unfair, but his maturity showed when he merely took the ball and went to find help. He did not have the skills yet to solve the problem alone entirely. He knew enough to seek help and show self-restraint. Jesse’s decision was based on his character; he had a strong sense of right and wrong. He was also passionate enough about the issue to not cave. He stood his ground.

We resolved the conflict, no one got hurt. The game started back up. Fairness won. Jesse went home that day, still bothered by the incident. He talked to his parents about it. Justin, his big brother, gave him advice and encouraged him. Justin was always looking out for his brother. Justin often put others first, another sign of maturity. He reassured him he would keep an eye on them. Justin in his own words pointed out to his brother that conflicts will happen, and that people treat each other that way because they were treated that way. Jesse’s second-grade world changed that day.

The blog is about maturity, but sometimes you have to take a goofy picture with students!

These two boys have touched many lives with their acts of caring. What struck me the most was Jesse was thinking of others. Second graders are usually self-centered and in time they mature and grow. Jesse was showing humanity and care for someone else. Justin and Jesse modeled maturity to those around them; they modeled it for me, too.

Maturity comes from more than time and age alone. When parents ask me about retaining their child to keep them in the same grade because of a lack of maturity may sound sensible the reality is that they will not have the role models to encourage maturity. In fact, classmates are often six months to a year younger. I have seen retention slow the maturity process and revert a child’s social and emotional growth. Maturity is modeled by peers and adults, and it cannot be taught in isolation. For the Watson brothers, maturity was modeled for them by educators and their parents. Justin’s and Jesse’s key to maturity growth was due to — high expectations, actively teaching them responsibility, self-restraint, persistence, self-awareness, and caring for others — together this created an environment for growth.

Justin’s high school graduation

With something to think about…

your friend Chris

For more on maturity check out—Tim Elmore’s article on “The Marks of Maturity.” This is an excellent article on teaching children maturity. He also discusses children today are exposed to more sooner without the maturity to handle it.

The journey begins

Do you enjoy a good story? I do. I love telling stories, and I love a good story — especially those that teach me; that have a moral or a universal truth, that inspire. I set out on this journey to share the experiences and stories that I have had the privilege of being a part of. For the past twenty-five years, I have been a high school teacher, vice principal, and an elementary school principal. The students who came through my classroom doors or walked the halls of the schools I served, taught me more than I could ever teach them.

My hope is you will find value in what you read. A life lesson a reminder that as parents and educators we are, and can make a difference.  These stories are about resiliency, leadership, compassion, friendship, kindness, struggle, hope, gratitude, and going the extra mile. Thank you to all my students for taking me on this journey. I have many stories from working with children, these are just a few who stand out.  Thank you, for going on this new adventure with me.

The story below is where it started for me as an educator. Did I know in 5th grade that I would become a teacher, a vice principal, eventually a principal? No, not at all. I was going to be an electrician. Along the way, my direction changed and I found myself in a classroom. Really, every teacher I had taught me how to care for kids. This story is where the journey began for me. It is where I learned relationship is more important than a lesson and caring for each other has a greater impact than a homework assignment.

Thank you for joining me on this journey.