The First 90 Days

“Ambition is the path to success. Persistence is the vehicle you arrive in.” Bill Bradley

Ambition has always been a driving force in my life. Perhaps my definition of ambition lies in the fact that while I am always somewhat hyper-focused on the work at hand, I’m always thinking, “what’s next?” If Bill Bradley is correct in his analysis of ambition, then I arrived in Chattanooga on the first day of March to the new position of Director of Programs with Chattanooga 2.0 in the vehicle of persistence with my copy of The First 90 Days by Michael Watkins in the glovebox.

The First 90 Days was gifted to me as part of a Principal Preparation Workshop several years ago in my work with the Public Education Foundation as an aspiring principal with the Hamilton County Department of Education. The inside jacket of the book tells the reader, “You’ve just been promoted to a new leadership position. You’re not yet sure of the challenges ahead or how you will meet them. All you know is that you have three months to get on top of the job and move forward – or fail.” The book has become my guide as I have transitioned into each new position along the path of my career.

This Spring, when I stepped into this new position with Chattanooga 2.0, I kept The First 90 Days on the bedside table and began pondering again what my first 90 days would look like. How would I navigate the terrain of a new position to ensure that failure would not be an option? Little did I know that for the first time in a long time, my first 90 days would not be about my success but rather the success of all of the work of those I met during my first 90 days in the trenches.

Hungry to know what was going on in Hamilton County schools, I heard about Forest Kindergarten at Red Bank Elementary and visited one sunny day in April. Haley Brown, the Principal, led me down a path, across a small bridge, and through the woods. Before we rounded the last bend on our way to a creek bed, we could hear children laughing and squealing. We found them there, back in those woods, some in the creek, some along the side of the water, some tugging at their teacher’s skirt, some fishing, and some digging up worms. “Look,” one darling child said as he came over to me with a huge earthworm squirming in his open palm, “I’m real good at finding worms.” We talked to the teacher about her innovative approach to inquiry-based instruction. I couldn’t help but think of the sweet days of my childhood in the hills of South Knoxville, hunting turtles and frogs, catching lightning bugs in jars, and feeling the grass between my toes. Even now when adulthood seems so difficult, I always long for my grandmother’s house on the hill and how much she taught me through nature. That day at Red Bank Elementary was a good day.

Soon I heard about Charles Weems and his work with the IGNITE Program at Hixson High School. Mr. Weems was generous with his time as we sat down in the conference room near the office to talk about what was going on with students with special needs at Hixson High School, but he was modest in his approach. He assured me that the success of IGNITE was due in large part to the teachers who had committed to making the program work and to the general education student mentors who were dedicated to their role in the work. We visited classroom after classroom that afternoon where students with special needs were working alongside their peers in high school classes with the support of student mentors. Students were doing lab work, giving presentations, working on projects, and conducting computer research. Time and time again, stepping into a classroom I was unable to tell which students were the mentors, which were general education students and which were students with special needs. The ever elusive definition of inclusion seemed so evident that day. That day at Hixson High School was a good day.

Learning about Hamilton County Department of Education’s plan to support new teachers who will be teaching in urban settings during the upcoming school year, I was invited to co-facilitate an Urban Teacher Think Tank. With the goal of tapping into the expertise of experienced teachers to help shape summer professional development for the new teachers, we gathered a group of over 30 teachers, administrators, central office leaders, and university administrators together for the Think Tank. A late afternoon meeting ended up being two hours of endless sharing of rich experiences and expertise from some of the top teachers in the district. We asked for a commitment statement from each educator at the end of our session about how they would be involved as we continued our work with the new teachers and without exception, the educators involved in the Think Tank offered up endless ways they wanted to continue to be involved. “I will do whatever you need me to do to help these teachers be successful. I am committed to their success,” said one teacher. Teachers giving tirelessly to help other teachers was so inspiring. That day with the Urban Teacher Think Tank was a good day.

Emma Scripps from IDEO visited in mid-April to help launch Teacherpreneur. Meeting with her at The Camp House, the energy in the room was palpable. Emma helped us reimagine brainstorming – something educators like to think they are very well-versed in doing. “Defer judgment,” she warned, “build on the ideas of others and encourage wild ideas.” Encourage wild ideas we did! The epiphany of the evening came when given the task of brainstorming ways we would enrich curriculum and instruction with either $10 or $1,000,000, we realized we could do so many things with just $10. I remembered the day so long ago with my first class of 5th graders when I brought in strawberries and whipped cream as a treat, and one sweet boy had never even tasted whipped cream! Emma reminded us we can do so much with so little if we just defer judgment, build on the ideas of our friends and encourage wild ideas. That day at The Camp House was a good day.

Candice McQueen, the Commissioner of Education for the State of Tennessee, came to town one afternoon to speak to the Hamilton County School Board about her proposal for the Partnership Zone for some of our schools. She commended the work of the district and of the teachers in those schools so far, acknowledged the complexity of the work and was frank about the challenges we faced. The political climate in the room was tense – so many people in a warm boardroom on a late afternoon all passionate about the same thing – what is best for our children. I listened intently and scanned the faces of those around me wondering what their thoughts were about the plan as I struggled to find my own understanding of the difficult path ahead. As I sat there, I realized that I was surrounded by student art. The work of 2nd graders from the Cue the Artist Program implemented in the district was exhibited on every wall, in every blank space around the room – replicas of Kandinsky’s concentric circles, huge flowers reminiscent of O’Keeffe, pieces modeled with pointillism, scenic landscapes – all so rich and vibrant and alive. The art reminded me that at the end of the day, when all the decisions are made that can be made before sleep comes, and we all lay our heads down for some rest, all that matters is that every little 2nd grader in our district has the chance to learn in a safe, thriving school, to be successful academically, and to make something beautiful to share with the world. That day in the HCDE Board Room was a good day.

My first 90 days are long past. The First 90 Days book with all of its tabs from this specific transition is back on the shelf. My professional goals are set to ensure that I will know I’ve done the best I could to meet the expectations of those who have faith that I will add value to their work. I will strive to accelerate my learning, as Watkins suggests, and I will work on creating alignments, building my team, and keeping my balance. The last chapter in the book is titled “Sink or Swim”, and I will get up every morning, put on my swimming gear, and do my best to keep my head above water. The next 90 days are well underway. No one but me is probably keeping an eye on the calendar, but what I do know is this: Every day is a day that brings challenges and hard work, but I’m so grateful to be a part Chattanooga 2.0 with its vision of building the smartest community in the south. I know that as ambitious as our plan may be, we are persistence personified, and every day is a good day.

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