Principal Impact

A Reflective Journey with Principal Hackett



Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about student learning; specifically new learning. When a student walks into the classroom, how often do they already know what is being taught? When we give them a task, how many students in that room would have been able to do it when they walked in before the teacher presented the instruction for the day? Do our students already have the answers to the questions we are about to ask? And how often are we checking, as educators, how much our students know about a specific subject before presenting a whole group lesson?

Part of the reason this has been running through my head lately is my own kids. This summer, when Adam Welcome was the keynote speaker for all of the Monticello staff, he said, “don’t do for kids what they can do for themselves.” He continued with a story about his daughter making her bed on her own from a young age…because she could. I am 100% guilty of doing too much for my kids at times. I believe in Adam’s words, but I struggle to always follow them like I should. Maybe I’m trying to rush my daughter out the door and I’m zipping up her coat. It could be that we’ve been running to activities after a long day at work and I’m cleaning up toys off the floor when we get home just to get it done. I know I am not doing my kids any favors by doing things for them that they could be doing for themselves. There’s no lesson to be learned from dad tying shoes or clearing the table. As a parent, we know our kids well enough to know when we are enabling versus helping.

Without a doubt, this isn’t as easy to diagnose in the classroom. However, I think we need to try to understand what our students know when they walk in, so we aren’t feeding them information that they already know. I don’t mean to say that themes, routines, ideas, and strategies shouldn’t be repeated in class so they can be committed to memory. Of course, there’s a place for that in teaching and learning.

I would argue that an engaging teacher can present content that has already been mastered by the students, and, from the outside, that lesson can look extremely effective. The students are paying attention and motivated to raise their hands and participate without hesitation or struggle in whole group or small group because they have what they need already in hand. The teacher feels satisfied because the students are participating, engaged, and having fun. At the end of the lesson, the students take a formative assessment on the way out of class and the results show learning….or do they? How do we know what they’ve learned with this process? And aren’t we doing a disservice to our students if we don’t know their preexisting knowledge of the content about to be presented?

I’m not someone who is going to argue for more testing of our students, but I do think pre-assessments have a place in our classrooms for this exact reason. I think if it’s done well, pre-assessment can lead to a differentiated, student-led, highly effective classroom where new learning is the focus. Instead of “one more thing” we could actually be saving time; becoming more efficient in what is being taught. The possibilities to provide a true depth of knowledge can become a reality when we can start with this valuable information. After all, what are our students learning if we do for them what they can do for themselves?


2019 One Word : Growth

Last year was my first year of embracing the One Word movement started by Jon Gordon. Gordon speaks and writes about picking one word for the year that shapes your vision. It’s not a lengthy goal to remember, but rather a word that keeps you motivated; something you take with you everywhere you go. You can see Jon Gordon’s inspirational talk about The One Word That Will Change Your Life here. Regardless of where you work in education, goals are a huge part of your professional life. Everyone in our field has different experiences with goal writing and goal following and goal leading, but it is always there in some capacity. Selecting a word as your focus for the year is much different than writing a SMART goal. I don’t mean that goals aren’t important because I believe strongly in the power of goals to improve and focus my professional and personal life. The One Word movement isn’t a goal as much as it is a mindset.

Last year my One Word was POSITIVE. Having picked a word for the first time, I wasn’t sure how successful it would be for me and now I know I’ll never go back. There were times (several times) that I failed to approach situations with a positive attitude, positive outlook, positive body language, etc, but overall I know keeping my One Word in the back of my mind at all times made a huge difference in how I went about my days. I can honestly say the One Word focus was the best way for me to change my mindset and to improve in an area that needed attention both personally and professionally.

This year I’m excited for the same results as I select my One Word for 2019: GROWTH. I’m hopeful that for the second year in a row my One Word will impact my daily life both professionally and personally. I want to be methodical and purposeful about improving as a father, husband, and leader. I have always wanted to be the very best at what I do. I don’t know if my motivation to get better comes from a background in sports or the leaders who mentored me or maybe it’s just a trait that some people have. The drive to grow and improve is something that lives in me. So why pick GROWTH as my One Word if I’m already seeking out ways to improve? Well, first, because my efforts don’t always lead to results, and I’m looking to be structured in my quest for GROWTH in all areas (this is where SMART goals come in handy). More specifically, it is the ability as a leader to help others grow that needs my focus for the 2019 year and beyond. How do I help staff stay motivated? How can I show them the benefits of staying current with instructional practices and taking risks to deliver meaningful lessons? How can I reveal to students that every day is a chance for GROWTH and positive change? How can we all better serve the kids and families we work with? These questions and so many more are going to motivate me, and hopefully those I work with, into 2019 with a GROWTH mindset.


The Student Voice of Literacy

I take my role as an instructional leader very seriously. I hope the feedback I provide for our teachers can help them improve. I try to support our programs with the resources and time that will make them successful in our classrooms. I understand it’s best to take my cues for what is needed from the teachers because they are the real experts. At the same time, I’m always learning and sharing new ideas that can make our instruction better. I’ve spent many days during my 6 years as principal trying to be the cheerleader for literacy at Little Mountain. Booktalks for staff during meetings, reading a new book to our classrooms each month, reminding students to read over the weekend every Friday, supporting the different reading programs in each grade, etc. For more ideas on leading literacy, check out this great post from Dr. Brad Gustafson, LaQuita Outlaw, and Dr. Eric Skanson.

All of these strategies and responsibilities are important to the work we do and will certainly continue, but I have truly had an awakening within the last month about the best way to inspire reading in our school. Student booktalks, period. Students having the opportunity to share their voice and their love of reading with other students is changing the literacy climate of our building on daily basis. This summer, Brad Gustafson and I were on the same flight home from the NAESP conference. While we were waiting at the baggage claim, we started brainstorming about a collaborative booktalk YouTube project between the buildings. You can view our latest episode of Booktalk DJs here. We are only 7 episodes in, but the excitement from our students is something that could never be accomplished from something created by adults. All of our students want the chance to dress up, use the microphone and sunglasses props, choose a DJ name, perform in front of the green screen, and, of course, share their favorite books. It’s been beyond fun to watch our students create, and I can’t thank Dr. G enough for having his #GWgreats participate in this collaborative project with me and the students of LME. We look forward to watching and listening to what the students of Greenwood are reading each week.

A few weeks after we started the Booktalk DJ collaboration, I asked Adam Welcome to join our staff meeting through Google Hangout. Adam had been our keynote speaker for the district before school started, and he was gracious enough to check back in with our staff. He asked the teachers what was new and what was working for us. One of the teachers made a comment about the changes to the media center that included a makerspace center, lego wall, and iPad kiosks. If you know Adam, he is always pushing you to be better at whatever it is you’re doing. He challenged us to use our new iPads to help students create through iMovie and Flipgrid. We now have created a grid for all students at Little Mountain to share their booktalks and encourage other students to read their favorite book. The iPads were popular before we added Flipgrid, and now students can’t wait to record their booktalks; some of them even give themselves a DJ name because the Booktalk DJ collaboration is so popular.

The engagement and excitement for school-wide reading as well as students wanting to share their voice is growing each day. It reminds me of a common theme within Jimmy Casas’ book, Culturize. As leaders, if we want our staff members to talk and act a certain way, we need to model that behavior at all times. People are always watching. I believe this translates to our students as well. If we want students to show their learning and excitement for literacy, it is our job to give them the opportunity to lead and create. Our bookktalk projects have given our students that opportunity, and I can’t wait to see what they come up with next!


Repair and Restore

I was looking through my blogs from this year, and I realized it’s been very singular in focus. Relationships, Relationships, Relationships. It’s at the heart of what we are focusing on throughout our school district this year, and it’s clearly surging to the forefront when I sit down to write and reflect. I have several other topics that I need to “get down on paper,” but this always seems like the most pressing, the most important. I hope that I always see it that way. Recently a group of staff members from my district attended a conference presented by Resilience Impact. One of the keynote speakers, Dr. Clay Cook, talked in depth about trauma, resilience, and, of course, relationships. One of the areas of his talk that I found most intriguing was when he presented on the importance of restoring negative interactions with students.

I don’t think anyone in education wakes up in the morning hoping for a negative interaction with students. However, it does happen and it happens to all of us; sometimes it is beyond our control. There are situations when students become disruptive to the point that they need to leave their classmates and cool down. This is an obvious example of a negative reaction between an educator and a student, but after the conference I started to think about the little things that need repair. Are we taking the time to connect with students? It wouldn’t take long to communicate a misunderstanding or reflect with that student about something that happened earlier. I wonder if we are taking the time to always pursue this critical step, and I wonder how different our school would be if we did? How many times do we move along with our day after correcting a student, publicly addressing behavior, or not fully understanding a situation? One of the key ingredients of maintaining healthy relationships is the ability to restore, and I believe we need to be purposeful/mindful of this on a daily basis.

When we start to look through the microscope of every interaction, it can be overwhelming to pick those that might be taken negatively by a student. Our words matter. All of them. Todd Whitaker probably said it best when he said this about our profession, “The best part about being a teacher is that it matters. The hardest part about being a teacher is that it matters every day.” There are no off days, and our words have a profound impact on students; even when we’re not aware of it. The problem is we are all human, and we are going to make mistakes. So then, how do we ensure we are picking our words carefully while holding students accountable to expectations? I believe Dr. Cook would tell us to focus on empathy. If we can do our best to communicate what the student might be thinking, or at least that we are trying to understand how they feel, our chances of preventing a negative interaction have increased significantly.

Our students are resilient beyond belief. All relationships will have their ups and downs. Maintaining relationships with students by being mindful about restoring and repairing after a negative interaction should not go overlooked. Our kids deserve it!



What Happened?

Over the last year, we’ve invested much of our scheduled professional development time into a trauma-informed focus. Throughout this journey, I keep coming back to two words that have been game-changers when working with students who are in crisis or simply made a poor decision: “What Happened?” If you’re reading this and thinking, ‘what happened, obviously you’re going to ask a student that question when they aren’t meeting expectations or you’re investigating a behavior incident’ you would be correct. That “what happened?” is an important question, and we obviously need to know literally what has happened in the last few minutes to process the most recent behavior. However, the “what happened?” I’m referring to is “what happened to you?” As in what happened to you that you would make this poor decision? What happened to you that has you so angry? What happened to you that has made you so sad? What happened to you that you are treating others this way?

I will be the first to admit I don’t always have time to dig deeper into the root of the behavior. There are times we are trying to regulate a behavior in the middle of the hallway, and that is not the time to be asking those “what happened?” questions. There are times when “what happened?” will send a student into the full cycle of escalation because the hurt is that deep. Last week I was working with a student who was demonstrating unexpected behavior. These behaviors (name calling, swearing, bullying-type actions) came as a surprise to his teachers and the office staff because they were not typical of this student. When I asked the student “what happened?” he was very honest about the things that were happening around school and on the bus. When I asked him what was happening to him outside of school to cause him to hurt other people, he immediately started crying and going into detail about his dad leaving the house and how hurt he is. Asking this student, “what happened to you?” completely changed the conversation. I could have easily moved forward after talking about his actions with discipline and a standard call home. Instead, we were able to put a plan into place to support all of the students involved, repair relationships, find support with our social workers, and have a meaningful conversation with the student’s grandma about how school can help through this difficult time.

Any time I blog, I do my best to reference those that have helped inspire me. The leaders in education who have written or spoken on the topic I’m writing about so I can continue to learn from them, and anyone who might be reading can go straight to the expert. I’ve searched through my notes, and I can’t specifically find the author or speaker who first introduced me to “what happened” as the best way to truly understand why unexpected behaviors are happening at school. It could have been Todd Whitaker (“hurt people, hurt people) or Erik Rehwaldt’s trauma-informed training to our staff. It could have been LaVonna Roth’s or Ken William’s keynote talks at First Institute this summer. Did I read it in Kids Deserve It or Hacking Early Learning or Be The One or Talk to Me? Maybe even from Mrs. Rengel and Mrs. Simon, Little Mountain’s amazing social workers? Whether they’ve used those exact words or not, they all have taught me such an important lesson in working with students who demonstrate unexpected behaviors: Until we understand what our students have been through, we won’t fully understand why their behaviors appear how and when they do. And isn’t that the key to moving into a trauma-informed mindset to help ALL of our students?


The Heart of Discipline

It’s officially October at Little Mountain Elementary. We joked that the ‘honeymoon is over’ during our last staff meeting. In reality, we have started to understand our environment, and our students are now comfortable with their friends and their teachers. At times, they are a little too comfortable. We’re starting to see impulsive decisions from students, friendship concerns, and just poor choices. This isn’t anything new to any of us in education, of course. We live this calendar of events each school year. We stress the importance of positive relationships and connections during September, but there’s probably no better time to reinforce relationships than when student choices need redirection.

Systematic approaches to school discipline are everywhere. Google school discipline systems, and you’ll be overwhelmed by the responses. PBIS, positive discipline, conscious discipline, restitution theory, restorative practices, and even yoga will pop up on your screen. All schools deal with discipline, and if we’re being honest, we will always have students who make poor choices. No matter what system we invest in, I believe strongly that the true difference maker is a proactive approach. What we do after a poor choice is made is important, but the time and positive connections with students on a daily basis from our staff members cannot be overstated as what matters most.

With that being said, what is the best approach after a poor choice has been made by a student and they are sent to the office? I’ve learned so much from reading about the various systems and people I’ve worked with over the years that I tend to believe there’s no fool-proof answer. In addition, I’m a big supporter of giving each student what they need. Some people would be shocked to learn that we had a fight on the playground last week, and there was no formal office discipline. At the same time, I’ve had students sit with me during their lunch so we could discuss name-calling during recess. Discipline isn’t black and white. There never has been and there never will be a discipline matrix that links behavior to the one solution that will keep the behavior from recurring.

This thought process can complicate things at times. There are staff members who still feel strongly that discipline is synonymous with punishment. I recently reread Todd Whitaker’s book titled, What Great Teachers Do Differently (a must read for anyone in education). In it, he writes, “When a student misbehaves, the great teacher has one goal: to keep that behavior from happening again. The least effective teacher often has a different goal: revenge. Effective teachers are motivated to prevent misbehavior; ineffective teachers are motivated after a student misbehaves, to punish the student. As educators, we must focus on what we have the ability to influence. We all know we can’t change what has already happened; what’s the point of directing our energy there?” This is exactly why each student and each situation needs to be treated differently. What is fair and successful for one student will be unfair and unsuccessful for the next. But we must always keep the end goal in mind: What do we want for this student?

Regardless of the situation, each student needs to leave the office knowing they are cared about. There’s no incident where the reaction from us is to give up on a student. It’s yet another opportunity to build a positive connection in hopes of increasing more positive behavior. Almost every one of the students who spend time with me in the office for redirection will look for reassurance the next time I see them. This could be a hug, a wave, a high five, or any other call for attention to remind me that they are doing their job. This is how I know my time with the student has been effective. To me, the students are recognizing they made a mistake, they are communicating they are remorseful, and they want to repair the relationship. We use a multitude of strategies to work with the students during an office referral. The one constant is that if they go back to class ready to learn and feeling cared about there’s a much better chance the behavior will not repeat.



All in with Relationships

Over the last year, our staff at Little Mountain Elementary has been trained in a Trauma Sensitive/Informed framework. We are continuing that journey this year with our students and this includes a common language that helps us all learn together. We’re emphasizing mindfulness, understanding our students’ backgrounds, and a different approach to instruction. Relationships have always been the “it” factor in education. Relationships will always be at the forefront of learning. The difference is now we’re saying that relationships need to come first; before, during, and after any academic lesson. And that some students, in reality, more and more each year, won’t learn without a positive connection with their teacher. In Rita Pierson’s famous Ted Talk, Every Kid Needs a Champion, she says, “kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.” This is 100% true and should never be forgotten. In addition, I think we can take it one step further by saying kids won’t learn until they’re ready. Some students will come to us each day ready to learn while others can’t physically or mentally prepare themselves to take in new material because they are suffering from so many ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) that they are incapable of learning. 

As a public elementary school, we are an academic institution. Our job is to teach kids the standards as put forth by the state of Minnesota. We continue to talk about differentiation and the variety of ways we need to meet the academic needs of all our students. We would argue, first and foremost, that differentiation needs to happen for the social and emotional needs of our students. It could be as simple as a smile and a hug when they walk through the door as they come in or a conversation at breakfast before they walk to class. On the other hand, it could be as complex as support from the special education classroom, scheduled sensory breaks to increase learning stamina, or several days a week with the dedicated social workers. Meeting the spectrum of current academic abilities within a classroom of 27 fourth graders is challenging. Asking teachers to ensure each student receives individual instruction and individual emotional support can be overwhelming at first. The key is to give yourself permission to slow down, stop, or redo lessons when relationships within the classroom need work.

Creating a classroom of learners is all about the relationships and every class has unique needs. Last year, one of our classroom teachers, Mrs. King, had a challenging class. Mrs. King worked as hard as she ever had in creating a positive learning environment by focusing on the relationships within the four walls of her classroom. At times, behaviors from students escalated to the point where the other students needed to be removed from the classroom, forcing instruction to take place in the cafeteria or another makeshift classroom. Mrs. King worried about her students’ academic success and their progression towards mastering the standards. She was concerned that her students weren’t keeping pace because she wasn’t getting through entire reading lessons; often times stopping instruction to repair relationships between students or staff. Mrs. King never wavered in her belief that relationships need to come before learning. When the state testing was approaching, she again worried that her students would struggle because her planned lesson did not always reach completion. But relationships won. We celebrated Mrs. King’s accomplishments at a staff meeting this fall by announcing that 80% of her students had met or exceeded the state assessment benchmarks in reading.

Our students won’t learn until they are ready. This looks different for every student and every class. The evidence is clear: we need to give ourselves permission to focus on connections and relationships, even if it means our lessons aren’t complete. Anything else is putting the cart before the horse.


My Job

Last school year, I made a personal goal to start blogging and to make sure I had a new post every month. I realize the importance of reflection, and I love to write, but I fell way short of my goal. Last week, the Monticello School District was fortunate enough to have Adam Welcome, co-author of Kids Deserve It and author of Run Like a Pirate, as our keynote speaker. We started talking about writing and blogging. I again said my goal this year would be to publish a blog once a month. His reply: “Once a month, Bro? No chance. You need to be blogging at least once a week if not more.” So even though I fell short last school year, I’m making it my personal goal to hit publish at least once a week.

I’ve been thinking of writing about the positives of being a principal for a long time. But the idea didn’t come from a positive place. At the end of last year, I was hearing the comment, ‘I would never want your job’ or some variation of those words. I really started to reflect on why anyone would say that. Is it because teachers sometimes need help in resolving conflict with parents? Is it the daily meetings before or after school? The long hours during some weeks? Maybe it’s the way I interact with others when talking about what I do? Why do people concentrate on the negative aspects of this job when the positives far outweigh the tough days?

I recently read a blog post by Dr. Courtney Orzel who is a superintendent in Lemont, IL. Dr. Orzel wrote about accepting a superintendent position even though those around her and close to her told her not to. In her post, she writes eloquently about the perceived challenges versus the reality of the district and position she quickly grew to love. I’m not a superintendent and it is not a position I see myself in at this point in my career, but I can completely relate to the idea of ‘I would never want your job.’ The truth is the principalship is not always easy. There are days you feel isolated, days that you make wrong decisions that impact many staff members/families/students, days that are filled with long meetings, and days that you see the unbelieveable struggle in the lives of your students…

But none of that compares to the truly awesome aspects of what I get to do as the principal of Little Mountain Elementary. I get to have a direct impact on the academic, social, and emotional learning of 640 students in our care. I get to make daily positive phone calls home to parents of students and staff. *Note: if you’re a principal and not making a #GoodNewsCalloftheDay for your students, you need to. It’s the best part of my day.* I get to help students and families who are struggling. I get to work with the most amazing staff and learn from them on a daily basis. I get to read to classrooms full of students and introduce them to new books. I get to prepare our young learners for the next steps, and what could be more important.

So, as we start the school year, I’d like to begin to change this perception of what my job is. It starts with me and choosing my words carefully when I’m discussing meetings, during an encounter with an unhappy parent, or processing a difficult situation with a student. I believe it’s also a call to action to encourage leadership within the building for our teachers and staff. Increased leadership roles for everyone involved can only increase the depth of our abilities to have a positive influence in the lives of our families. All while helping those around me understand we all have leadership abilities that shouldn’t be passed up. Being a principal is proof of that!


One Word for 2018 – POSITIVE

I’m starting my 2018 reflections with my first One Word. I’ve followed several members of my PLN network who have embraced the idea of One Word as a focus and motivating mantra driving their everyday work over the course of a year. I’m hoping that by keeping this One Word at the center of what I do, how I think, and what I want for others, I’ll see improvements in all areas of life.

My 2018 One Word is POSITIVE. First and foremost, keeping this word as a constant focus is needed for my own mindset. I have a tendency to get run down and negative at the absolute wrong times. Keeping a POSITIVE mindset through all situations is what all those around me deserve. I’ve learned so much about staying POSITIVE in following inspirational leaders. The Kids Deserve It, Renegade Leadership, Be the One, Principals in Action, and MN Lead groups on Twitter and Voxer are game changers that keep me moving forward.

As I was contemplating my One Word for 2018, POSITIVE (in multiple meanings and uses) was the choice that kept coming through as the influence I want for those around me as well. In our PLCs, I want our teachers to be POSITIVE that every one of their students can learn at high levels. I hope all of our students come to school and leave with a POSITIVE feeling about their learning and friendships. All of our visitors to Little Mountain Elementary and Monticello Public Schools should leave with a POSITIVE impression about student learning. And finally, I wish for all of us working with students and families to choose POSITIVE in the upcoming year.

I’m looking forward to starting each day with POSITIVE as the main goal. I know I’ll fail at times, but I also know I have a supportive and POSITIVE group of principals and teachers around me who will get me back on track. I’d encourage anyone considering resolutions or goals to keep it simple and focused by selecting One Word.




The Power of One to One

Life in the Hackett house with two kids ages 6 and 2 can be anything but dull. Our kids are often referred to as “busy.” Being in education we know exactly what “busy” means. We lean towards those people who tell us the constant energy, conversation, and curiosity from our kids only means they’ll do great things one day. Recently I came home from work to find my daughter already sleeping. For a little girl with a motor that never stops, this was extremely rare; in fact, it’s never happened. Although I missed my time with her that night, the time with my son, Griffin, could not have been more valuable. We talked about his day on the playground and what he learned in his kindergarten classroom (without his sister interrupting constantly). After supper, he took out his new book, and he was so proud to read it to me. Just me.

Having Griffin in school has made me a better principal; there’s no doubt about it. I get to experience life through a parent’s eyes, and I use those experiences when working with parents at school on an everyday basis. As I was reflecting on my time with him, I thought about how great educators make time for these one on one connections each day. Those connections start with getting to know students on a personal level, but great teachers know the power a one on one connection has on a student’s academic success as well.

At Little Mountain, we have a team-taught 2nd grade classroom. We currently have approximately 50 students with two 2nd grade teachers. This a lot of writing, reading, practicing, and creating to keep track of. The reason this classroom works so well for students and their families is the emphasis our teachers put on connections. One of the teachers in this classroom focused her professional goal around “checking in” with each of her students every day. Often times teacher goals center around the academic growth of their entire classroom, so it was refreshing to have a teacher focus her goal on relationships. Even better than connecting with students is being purposeful about connecting with students; both academically and personally.

Just yesterday, as I was reading through my Twitter feed, I came across a Twitter Chat in which Dr. Mary Howard (@DrMaryHoward) wrote, “For me, conferring is one of the critical factors that is too often ignored. And it doesn’t even have to be lengthy – taking time for conversations in the heat of reading moments are a gift that we give children.” In my observations of classrooms, I find this to absolutely be the case. I watch students come alive when they have the opportunity to share their books or their learning with someone they trust. The value of those conversations for both the teachers and the students goes far beyond assessment.

As anyone in education knows, the hard part is finding the time. Even in my own house, it took an early bedtime by my two-year-old to truly understand the value of one on one time with my son. For all of the parents, coaches, teachers, or anyone working with kids, find time for those one on one connections. If we can be purposeful and make it a priority, it can make a huge difference in so many aspects of our students’ lives!

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