The Top 20 Tidbits From the Old Gal

Yesterday was the last day of the regular school year. I’m always a little sad to see our kids walk out the door for the summer, but this year it was a blubbering-all-day-long-good-Lord-what-am-I-going-to-do-without-these-kids day for me. It was my last last day of school. Retirement looms on the other side of mid-June. The unknown. The I’m not quite sure yet what life has in store for me step. That being said, this will be my last blog on the Edublog site before I (sometime in the next week) create a new blog and begin writing about whatever happens to come to mind, peak my interest, or just cause me to go “hmmmmm.” Shawn Nash, my amazing cyber demi-god, says that I can easily switch to a new site and take this writing with me. (Easy being the word in question. Has he not learned anything about my cyber capabilities in the past two years?)

So… with that being said, I choose to put into words a bit of old lady advice for educators. What do you say to someone just coming into our field and looking for ways to make it 25 years? Here are a few bits of truthful food for thought. Feel free to add to the list my friends. Our new teachers (who all happen to look 12 to me by the way) can use your wise and honest mentoring.

To all who choose to come into the field:

1) Welcome to the most important job on the planet. It will never make you rich in dollars, but the profession will bring you tremendous wealth in spirit. You will walk into your classroom thinking that you can change the world. You won’t… but you will have tremendous power and influence over the lives of countless souls during your career. Parents bestow upon you an honor and a privilege when they drop their babies at the school-house door. Cherish the gift.

2) Chocolate is an educator’s drug of choice. Always keep some in your desk.

3) Spend the first week of your school year teaching every possible expected classroom behavior and routine to your students (right down to how you expect kids to sharpen their pencils). It will save you countless hours of instructional time throughout the year.

4) Down time in the classroom is the work of the devil.

5) Never….ever…. EVER make the secretary, the lunchroom staff or the maintenance staff mad. They are the people who REALLY run the show. You will need them. A lot. If you, by chance, upset a member of these tremendous teams, refer to #2. Share the chocolate. With groveling apologies.

6) Administrators are people too. Don’t join those who mumble and complain about decisions coming down from the top. You don’t live in the shoes of these individuals and I can assure you they work ten times harder than you think they do, make difficult decisions every single day, and protectively have your back far more than they will ever let anyone know.

7) A little wine after 5 never hurt anybody.

8) Jeans with holes in them are for after hours.

9) Pray. A lot.

10) Take advantage of every bit of professional development you can get your hands on. Teaching is life-long school.

11) Contrary to what some may tell you, I still believe in hugging kids.

12) Do not live in isolation. Share what you know. Help another teacher. Use the tremendous ideas from colleagues.

13) Ask.

14) Say thank you to someone every day. Including the kids!

15) Get your paperwork in on time.

16) Plan ahead.

17) Be willing to throw a plan out the window.

18) If the horse is dead, discontinue the ride.

19) Dig deeper. Keep the data. It truly is your friend.

20) You do not work at WalMart. What you say to your kids matters. Many will remember what you said for the rest of their lives. Make sure your words are affirming.

So there’s my twenty. The most important pieces of advice I can give. Come on my friends. Add to the list…. and may God bless you all!


Feel the Burn

It has happened once again. I entered the conference room at the district’s main office for a monthly principal’s business meeting to find the young, beautiful techno-wizards of the district there and ready to provide us with yet another round of professional development on the road to cyber-literacy. Problem was that a recent bout of illness had me miss round one of a course of learning that now was kicking into round two. Needless to say, within the first ten minutes I found myself totally lost and wanting to hide beneath the table and just wait for the whole thing to be over.

That, however, did not happen. As a behaviorist I have to applaud the skills of my superiors. They know about wait time. They know how to work a room, walking about checking what their students are doing on a given task. They ask questions. In short, they are very good teachers who know how to model eliciting student engagement. Darn it. It’s two days later and I’m still struggling with the assigned task… still haven’t finished… and find myself in a perpetual state of uncomfortable. What I know, and have been rolling around in my mind, is that this is a good thing.

Uncomfortable. We hate it. It raises our blood pressure. Makes us sweat a bit. Causes us to question ourselves and our thinking. Makes us want to throw something. Causes us to grow. I think sometimes as educators we don’t give the feeling enough credit. We disadvantage our students by not causing them to feel the sensation enough. We are afraid to force the stretch.

I know as the principal of an alternative school that there are times teachers shy away from forcing uncomfortable in their classrooms because of the fear of how students may react. Anxiety rises and in my world, often tempers will rise as well.

We need to take the time to help kids understand that uncomfortable is a good place to be. It means we are growing. Bodybuilders know they have to fatigue the muscle to gain mass. Runners know they are going to feel the burn in their legs in order to reach for the extra miles. It is expected. It is process. How much time do we spend teaching our kids that uncomfortable is a necessary part of the journey? Are we passionate about convincing them to savor the sensation as growth, or do we just back off when kids whine and complain? Worse yet, do we “settle” for less so that things stay quiet and we can ease through the day? Do we intentionally think about where to place the uncomfortable as we plan for the lesson?

To my cyber demi-gods I say just grin when I whine at you. Know that I appreciate the push and that you model good teaching in the process. Just know you may need to remind me of my words as you are dragging me out from beneath the table.

The Little Things

I have been sick. For a month.The elephant standing on my chest- stuffy nose- red-eyed- have-no-voice kind of sick that makes a person barely get through the day and drop on to the couch as soon as they walk through the door kind of sick. I hate it.

Two rounds of antibiotics, two rounds of steroids and three doctor visits later I am finally on the mend. I still have no voice but at least I am upright and functional. It amazes me how a body can be taken down by the tiniest of microscopic organisms. Something so small it can’t be seen by the naked eye has played havock with me for a month. Little things. We should not discount them. They carry much more weight than we give credit.

I’ve been giving a great deal of thought to this. The power of the little things. Small incidences or intentional acts have the ability to build up or destroy us. Marriages crumble many times not over the big things, but the day to day tiny words that are said… or not said to one another. Adults remember one small cruel statement said to them by a parent when they were young. A friend grieving a loss is comforted by the presence of someone just showing up. Words, sometimes, don’t even need to be a part of the equation.

One of my fondest memories of my husband involves a time when he was having me sign our income tax return. (That, my friends, was not the endearing part.) Lonnie handed me a pen. A cool pen. Heavy and smooth writing. “Oooooh… I like this. Where did you get it?”

He snatched the pen from my hand, grinning at me. “Give me that,” he said. “I picked it up in a truck stop in Arizona.” Two weeks later he returned from a trip with five of the pens. For me. I’ll never forget it. The gesture was better than diamonds. It said, “I thought about you. I care about you. I listened.” A little thing. Etched in my heart forever.

Do a little thing today. One tiny gesture to make the world a better place for someone else. It’s powerful stuff.

A Poet’s Life

I have met the living proof that one educator’s influence can change a life. I have met the proof that God is a good God who uses the clay of mankind, dry and full of the cracks of  life-journey mistakes to shine his light and make this world a better place.  Her name is Stacey Davis.

The local community mental health center houses community support workers in my building to assist with the needs of our emotionally disturbed youth. These hard working people are a go-to bunch. They offer guidance to our stundents in the classrooms, sit in as advocates for the kids in meetings, offer advice to our teachers and are often the go betweens of communication between school and home.Stacey is one such person. She’s good. She’s very good. The kids, their parents and the staff all love her. That would not always have been the case.

Stacey came up hard. Growing up on the streets of inner-city Kansas City, Stacey is a story of a lost and turbulent childhood. Her neighborhood is one in which you park your car and walk to where you are supposed to be. Car equals drive-by. In the short few years I have known her she has sobbed in my office from the loss of more family members and friends from gunshot wounds than I can count on both hands. She grew up gang affiliated. She was constantly being suspended from school for fighting. She did drugs. She sold drugs. She got caught.

Stacey tells of how a vice-principal found her in posession of drugs and alcohol. Instead of suspending her, she offered up a challenge. Enroll in and pass all honors courses or deal with the police. Stacey took that challenge. Under the very watchful eye of this vice principal she passed. And graduated. And went to college. She now passes on the dream to other kids often in the same circumstances.

I asked her why she did it. Why would this challenge from one woman make her change.

“Because she showed me it could be different. Because I saw all the people I cared about getting killed or going to jail and I didn’t want that to be me. I didn’t want to die.”

I can’t say that I would have been that vice-principal. I’m tough about drugs or alcohol ever finding its way into the halls of my building. I believe in my kids and believe they all have the opportunity to make better choices than they often do, but I know myself well enough to know that I would involve the police any time a kid was in posession. I’m glad this vice principal didn’t. God’s hand. I’m sure of it. Her belief equaled one life saved, who influences another, and another, and another.

Stacey writes about her journey now. She often performs on local Kansas City stages. Her poetry reflects her life. The words are haunting… jarring… and full of truths often  hard to hear. Yet nesteled behind the words one picks up the music of a sweet and child-like soul. God’s child. I’m sure of it.

A Difference in Learning Style

Why do electronic devices not have instruction manuals? OK…. Let me rephrase that. Why do electronic devices  have instruction manuals that can only be accessed online and require someone to have the skill set of a techno-wizard to find them in the sea of knowledge we call Cyberspace? Really? Do the thirty-something tech wizards at Apple not realize there are millions of us over the age of 40 who are still walking around this planet in an upright and  breathing position… and still willing to learn if we could just access the information in a timely manner? It would be quite nice to be able to meander my way through my learning late into the night in the privacy of my own home and not have to constantly deal with the feeling of humiliation associated with a twenty-five year old colleague changing my cyber diaper. Until those of us currently in our forties and beyond vacate the planet for what I hope to be greener pastures, there may well still be a need for some things to be printed on paper.

I am amazed when I think about the difference in learning style between those of us eligible for membership in AARP and those who are within fifteen years of thinking Justin Bieber to be the hottest thing on the planet. Some of us still need paper. When the cyber-savvy beautiful people in my district are teaching me how to manage a new device or access the latest App or web page, I still have to WRITE IT DOWN…. WITH A PEN…. ON PAPER… until I can cement the steps into my mind. My journey through cyber-space floats upon a ship that is a little pink notebook.

Not so, I notice, for the thirty-two and under population. I honestly think their brains are wired differently. It’s like God updated the grey matter model sometime around 1980. The younger brain understands the phrase, “Just click on this, go to your cloud, download the what-ya-ma-jiggie, move it into the thing-a-ma-do, hit the go key and you’re done.” I’m sitting at the table with a blank stare on my face (having long since gone to my “happy place”) while the twenty-something beautiful people are saying, “Awesome. That was easy.” I feel like a kid in the “red bird” group in a 1960’s reading classroom. It’s humiliating.

What I am coming to realize, however, is that my own humiliation at needing to be shown what to do or having to repeatedly play with a device until I “get it” is a tell-tale sign of the generational difference between myself and the youth I work with every day. I have had conversations with a number of high school and middle school aged students regarding their use of technology and how they see themselves differently in their usage as compared to their parents and grandparents. The kids tell me they learn how to do something related to technology by “playing around with it” until they get it. A friend shows them what to do. They try it. If they mess up, so what? They do it again. No anxiety. No heart palpitations. No sense of failure. Just a part of the process. There is, with them, no fear.

What a lesson for this “old dog” to learn from the young pups. When it comes to technology, some of us need to turn our brains on to “play” mode. It may help control our blood pressure while we attempt to keep running with the herd.

Letting Go

I have had a serious case of writer’s block. O.K…. Maybe that’s a lie. I would actually like to believe that what I have been suffering from is  writer’s block when what is really happening is that I have been having a serious case of feeling -sorry -for- myselfitis. The holiday season is here and, this year, it means the halfway mark of my last year before retirement from my job as an alternative school principal. It doesn’t feel like that. It feels like the halfway mark of the last year of my personal identity.

On the outside it appears as if I am nothing but happy about my decision to retire. I joke  with my vice principal about how I am going to call her next year on the first day of school from home in my pajamas just to chat. I talk about getting another job as a dealer at the local casino because I’ll only need to smile at people, make jokes and count to twenty-one. On the inside, I grieve the fact that I am walking away from what, for me, has been a journey of the spirit and sense of purpose for the past twenty-four years.

I know the decision to retire is the right one. I’m not twenty-eight anymore. Hanging on to and attempting to calm an angry eight year old ready to rip a room apart now results in some extremely heavy breathing on my part, as well as a prayer of, “Good Lord don’t let me have a heart attack right now in front of everybody” while a sweet young thing of a teacher asks me “Are you O.K.?” I am passing out on the couch exhausted by 9 P.M. more nights than I want to admit. The last thing I want is to be THAT educator. You know the one. Chubby. Out of fashion clothes. Chunky orthopedic shoes. The one everyone whispers about when she leaves the teacher’s lounge.  “Good Lord is that woman ever going to retire?” I shudder to think.

The transition, however, is hard. I have been doing my duty of transitioning the staff to a new sense of leadership and life without Sisco. I sat in a staff meeting today led by the assistant principal and, for the first time, felt like the grandma who is silently present in the corner chair at holiday family gatherings. They are moving on without me. As it should be. I celebrate that, but at the same time the vanity in me says, “Well crap. By August they’ll forget I was ever here.”

The transition makes a person wonder. Did I really make a diffference? Is there a kid out there whose life was changed even a bit for the better because of the work I did? Are there staff members who will be singing “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead” as I walk out of the office on my last day carrying my cardboard box of belongings, or will someone have learned anything from me? The biggest question that has come to mind this last week  however is, “Have I asked myself every day when my feet hit the floor what I can do to make sure I make someone’s life a little better today?”

As I work to close one step of my  journey and figure out the next, I need to be sure that instead of feeling sorry for myself, I am spending time saying thank you to those who have been such a big part of my life these past twenty-four years. I need to let others know how much I have learned from them. I need to get much better at telling people how much their caring and efforts have meant to me and helped me to grow. There are so many people in this school district who have enriched my days. Shame on me for not intentionally taking the additional effort to let them know.

I have no idea what the next piece of my journey is going to look like. I do, however, know what the next six months need to be. I need to walk that mile with an openly thankful heart. I’ll be darned, however, if I’ll do it in orthopedic shoes!

Holy Relationships Batman!

I am old enough to remember the original Batman series on television. When Gothan City was in trouble, a call went out to the bat-phone and, quite possibly, a light with the shadow of a bat shown in the sky as a signal of need to the Caped Crusader.

In a school, one would think that the bat phone would have a direct line to the office. Not necessarily so. Here at the Colgan Center, sometimes it rings right to the kitchen.

You heard me right. The kitchen.

Meet Mary….aka “Batwoman.”

Mary is a 4’11” stick of dynamite who knows the meaning of the word “team.” When an elementary student of ours ran from his mother last week and perched himself up on the retaining wall of the playground calling his mother some not-so-very-nice-names it was Mary who came to the rescue.

She marched herself out the door, looked up at the child and said, “Don’t you make me go get my bat mask and fly up there to get you down. You get down RIGHT NOW!” He did. Laughing. She stood there and made him apologize to his mother as well.

“She is the only mother you are ever going to have. Even if you are mad at her that never gives you the right to speak to her like that. Don’t let me hear it again.”

She can do that only because she understands the most powerful weapon any of us have when it comes to making things happen with kids… relationships. As I’m sure is evident from the picture, Mary and her team (my “Terrific Trio) work hard every day to establish positive relationships with the kids who walk through our doors.

If the kitchen is the heart of the home, then our cafeteria is the backbone of the school. Our kids are greeted and fed every morning by women who take the time to smile, to hug, and to get to know the kids personally. These ladies hold themselves responsible to help promote a positive climate in our school. They teach and reinforce the social skills lessons presented to our kids through PBIS. They care, and it shows.

Call me blessed to have such women on our team. I know it. If the food service office ever wanted to transfer even one of my ladies they would have to drag them out with me kicking and screaming. These women are my heroes.They make a difference in the lives of kids.


Dear Mr. President

I was reading Will Richardson’s post this evening exploring the Finnish school system and their approach to education. After the days I’ve had the last week or so, the post made me want to stand at attention and shout “Hail, hail!” Seems someone on the planet has remembered the importance of looking at the whole child when it comes to learning.

I guess I’m feeling a bit of a soap box moment coming over me this evening. It’s the kind of soap box moment that makes me want to write a letter to President Obama. It would go something like this:

Dear Mr. President,

These past few days my good intentions of catching up on some data study and getting a running jump on the next phase of staff professional development have been interrupted by matters of just a bit more importance in terms of getting my undivided attention. (Read on and see why I say this with more than just a bit of sarcasm in my voice. The stories are not for the faint of heart. They are ugly.)

An elementary level student of mine has an older brother who, within the past few weeks, has been arrested and charged with shooting another young man to death. My student is an emotional mess. Already street smart at a young age and rarely one to show much emotion, he crumpled in tears in my office sharing that he feared he would be grown and his mother long dead before his brother ever gets out of prison.

His mother cried on the phone to me last week, talking of how she had to sit directly next to the mother of the victim in the courtroom while the court made the decision to try her son as an adult. She recounted the story of the night her son was arrested. I could hear the pain in her voice. More than one family in sorrow. There is more than one victim here. My heart bled for them all. I hung up the phone, closed the door to my office and cried.

Another very young man at my school lost his father to a self-inflicted gun shot to the head a few months ago. Since his father’s death he has moved from house to house, living first with a neighbor, then his grandparents, and now his mother while she awaits a trial that may well place her in prison for quite some time.

This young man has spent a great deal of time in both my office and the office of my vice-principal. He is fidgety and prone to getting out of his seat without warning. He disrupts class. He has a smile that just steals the heart. He wanted to know if I had ever felt the skin of a dead body.

I made a call to Children’s Services today to report the bruises around the eye of one of my tiniest students. He said his dad did it. Mom said his sister pushed him into the wall.

As I was packing up my computer to head home for the day I had to stop, sit down, and listen as a mental health worker in my building came to report to me that two elementary-age brothers attending my school shared that they weren’t sleeping at night because their father had called their home threatening to kill them if he found out that their mother was “fooling around” with a certain man who had been visiting the house. The older brother had already devised a plan to get the younger one out of the house if dad showed up. He told her he had to stay in the house to keep mom safe.

Ugly stories. Families in heart-wrenching pain. I’m betting little Johnny getting his math homework completed is not on their list of top priorities this evening.

As educators, our job first and foremost is that of teaching and learning. As professionals, I am all for teachers and school administrators being held accountable to that job. As we debate the framework of that accountability, let’s not forget to look at how accountable we are to the whole child.

What are we doing to see that the basic needs of food, shelter, and safety are being met for our students? How are we equipping our teachers to manage the needs of trauma affected students in a manner that promotes the healing necessary so that these children can learn? If trauma, untreated, can cause a child to learn at a rate as much as three times slower than that of his peers, how do we judge progress while we work on the healing?

Making progress with these students is a slow and tedious process. Children of trauma or those from families living in chaos often exhibit behaviors detrimental their own learning and may frequently interrupt the learning of their peers. They do not make connections between cause and effect. They live in a hyper-vigilent state of emotion, often misreading social cues and exhibiting outbursts that are reactions to a language very sensory in its nature. The traditional disciplinary measures used in most schools often feed into their feelings of shame and lack of self-worth rather than promote a learning of what not to do.

I am one principal in one school amid thousands in this country. I venture to say I do not stand alone in my story. The stories of these students across our country cannot be an excuse for not moving forward. In no way do I deem their experiences an excuse for not making positive gains in their academic and social progress. We do no service to our students if we do not expect them to learn. I only urge us to remember that reaching and teaching these kids and their families requires planning and resources beyond the traditional scope of that which we call school. I urge us to remember to reach and teach to the whole child.


Debbie Sisco


A Lesson in Temperment

Fall has got to be my favorite time of year. Give me the hues of the season, a bowl of chili, some home-baked bread and a chill in the air that requires a big, comfy sweater and you have my vision of Heaven. It’s the season when I feel most alive.

I’ve spent the better part of the week outdoors as much as possible, cleaning the yard and decorating for the season. Lots of pumpkins, some hay bales, a new fire pit… that sort of thing. Lording over the yard under the big tree I placed a newly purchased scarecrow. Friendly enough looking fellow. The kind you can purchase at any Hobby Lobby across the nation.

He was the finishing touch on my decorating efforts. He pulled the entire yard together. He smiled from beneath the gigantic tree in the corner of the yard, one hand raised in a welcoming salutation to any visitors who entered.

He lasted two days.

“Your husband is on line two,” our secretary said.

I picked up the phone. “Hi Babe. What’s up?”

“I’m planning a funeral for the scarecrow,” was his response.

Lonnie went on to explain that our one year old Boxer, Bella, had gone on a murderous rampage in the backyard. Additionally, my husband did as he always does and found any number of excuses for Bella’s bad behavior. “She’s still just a puppy.” (Yep. Here it comes.) “She doesn’t know any better.” (Uh huh). “She probably thought she was protecting the back yard.” (Oh give me a break!)

Lonnie tried to say that the damage really wasn’t that bad. “The scarecrow’s face is a little dirty, but we can wash that off,” he said. “I hung it back up a little higher so she can’t reach it,” he said.

The reality that faced me when I got home was somewhat different than that which he described. Murderous rampage I tell you. A faceless, filthy rag with a few strands of hay here and there hung limp and ravaged from a low branch of the tree. The scarecrow reminded me somewhat of the scene from a Russell Crowe movie after the bad guys had invaded the Medieval village. Bella sat at my feet wagging her tail in greeting, totally unaware that she probably should be worried that “mommy” was home.

“I can’t get mad anymore.” The words of my superintendent whispered in my head. She had spoken them just that morning in our monthly administrator’s meeting. Dr. Smith was making the point that her most important goal for herself and for her staff was that of creating and maintaining a culture of caring.

She spent a good deal of the morning setting the stage for the next five year cycle of school improvement. Embedded within the planning is the overriding principle that leading equals caring.

Her philosophy is already becoming enculturated into her immediate staff. When pushing, when correcting, when guiding next steps many of the leaders of this district are walking the talk. They are modeling the language of caring while they lead.

The behavior causes those of us who follow to be more open to ask questions and to realize that making a mistake is a learning experience. We are  more apt to risk in search of what will bring about positive change. We are more apt to follow. We trust.

Funny that my dog and my husband solidify the message. I could have chosen anger. I didn’t. Instead I chose to concentrate on how blessed I am to have a husband with such a loving and forgiving heart. I chose to remember that by the time I got home the “scarecrow incident” probably was long forgotten in Miss Bella’s brain. I pet her and let her know I was happy to see her too.

I built a new scarecrow. He’s sitting in the corner of the yard waiting for Lonnie and Bella to get home off the road. We’ll try again on Thursday. We’ll work to teach her that she can’t engage with our straw- stuffed friend. Like the leaders of this district, I have faith that Bella can learn and grow.

Happy Fall!

It’s All About the Attitude

The folks at X-treme Burrito in Saint Joseph really knew what they were doing when they hired this guy. Click on and take a look at this:  IMG_0367

Meet J.J. This young man makes me smile every afternoon  as I pass him at the corner of Frederick Avenue and the Belt Highway. I actually laughed out loud the first time I saw him. It took everything I had to keep from rolling down the window and yelling, “You go my friend!”

For a solid week I would pass him and think, “Now there’s a man who really knows how to enjoy his job.” When I passed him on a day that the heat index was 106 degrees and he was smiling and grooving to his head phones while he passed on his message to eat at X-treme, I realized that God was putting yet another lesson in front of me.

Seriously.  Standing in 106 degree heat holding a sign to advertise burritos would not be on my top ten list of jobs I wish I had. Yet, to watch J.J. dance, I would have given thought to trading places with him that day.

I stopped to video J.J. I told him I wanted to blog about him. I told him what a good job I thought he was doing. That he made me smile. That he made me want a burrito.

He smiled. “I just love to dance,” he said. He asked if I would mind telling his bosses that I thought he was doing a good job. I drove straight to X-treme to deliver my message in person.

Life really is what we make it. We choose how we approach each and every day. Any leader would be blessed to have a building full of people with a J.J. kind of attitude. You can bet the next “cheat on the diet day” I’m heading over to the Belt and Frederick for a burrito. Thanks for the life lesson J.J. Next time, I may just join in the dance.